More than one philosophical theory has been suggested as a way to construe the world primarily as a construction accomplished by human mental faculties – rather than as mere passive depiction of the objective state of the world.Such approaches (most overtly in what is called ‘constructivism’) suggest that what we seem to perceive as characteristics of the external world are essentially the results of a hidden process of internal construction. It seems to me that there are at least two possible misunderstandings of this particular mindset: firstly, that the mental construction process occurred out of thin air, and secondly, that in a constructed world, there are no criteria to distinguish fact from fiction.
To maintain that there can be only mental construction and nothing else would seem to imply human beings construct the experienced world from scratch. However, this quickly turns out to be a far from unassailable view. For a start, it appears to be impossible to construct a world of experience out of nothing at all. A putative building block devoid of any characteristics, of any potential or impact whatsoever is an empty conception and cannot lead to the emergence of something that exhibits certain qualities.
Elements of construction that are nothing are no elements of construction. If you combine nothing with nothing you will still end up with nothing.
There has to be something that can be processed and modified, some material that is used for the construction process; though this is not sufficient evidence for the existence of matter itself, which cannot automatically be extrapolated from the necessity of the existence of some sort of material for the process of mental construction.
What is more is that the process of construction is something in itself. An event has to occur in some way so that construction can take place. The something that provides the material for construction and the something that induces the construction process cannot emerge out of that very process they are supposed to enable in the first place. Therefore it is – by way of a placeholder – ‘a something’ that must be considered beyond construction.
Similarly, it always seems to be necessary to add ‘a somebody’ - some sort of person or centre of mental activity - to accomplish the construction, since without such a carrier, there could not be any cohesive mental process. If single acts of mental construction occurred incoherently here and there, it would merely mean occasional mental flickering and not have the connectedness that an experienced world evidently has, with its continuity in space and time. This does, on the other hand, not necessarily suggest the notion of a corporeal human being as carrier of mental construction: even our perceived body might dogmatically be regarded as a construct of experience and cognition itself.
Moving over to the second possible misunderstanding, just because the experienced world can be conceived as largely a result of construction processes of the mind, it does not mean that there were no difference between mere opinion and well-researched facts and were I to claim that I was able to construct the world in any way I want it to be would be to run the risk of self-delusion.
So what do constructivist authors (such as the American professor Ernst von Glasersfeld) suggest as means of differentiation instead? Put bluntly: some things work, others do not. I experience obstacles that point out to me that certain attempts to construct and construe a reality do not work. Consider these simple examples from the world of concrete objects, like that evergreen case of the table, beloved for philosophers from Plato to Bertrand Russell:
Imagine a person from a culture that does not utilise tables at all. Exposed to a table standing in a garden, this person might conclude that this unknown object is a device to provide shelter from the rain. Is this viable? It surely is: I can sit down under the table in case of rain and hence be kept from getting wet. This may not be the original intention of our table-utilising culture, but it can be done that way. What cannot be done, for instance, is that I regard the table standing in the garden as some projected image that I can simply walk through if so inclined. I experience that this does not work. I will find that the table standing there hinders me from just walking through it.
Similarly, a plate could be used as a paperweight, a shield, or a percussive instrument, but not a beverage or a pen: I cannot make it a liquid for me to drink or have it emit ink. So, from a mindset that emphasises the aspect of mental construction, several alternatives are found to be viable – even if possibly inconvenient and not the best of alternatives – but others are not viable at all. There is a limit to the alternative usages and interpretations available. I may not be able to know the outside world beyond my experience, but in that very experience I can find out what this outside world allows me not to do. This acknowledgement of obstacles necessarily means that I have to relinquish the idea of living in a world I can equip in any way I want to.
There are plenty of utterly legitimate criticisms concerning philosophical stances emphasising construction (and not only constructivism itself), but the more useful step is to undertake a clarification of some of the typical misunderstandings. This can transform disagreement resting on disbelief and gut feelings into informed criticism.
Christian H. Sötemann has degrees in psychology and philosophy, and works in psychological counselling and as a lecturer in Berlin, Germany. He can be contacted via: email@example.com