Monday, 27 June 2016

The Misconstruction of Construction

Posted by Christian Sötemann
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:


  1. I suggest, Christian, that perhaps quantum physics (QP) offers another curious twist to your fascinating discussion of constructivism. As we’re told, QP deals with ambiguity in the physical world. It points to a world of probability and partial unpredictability, where alternative realities—at the subatomic, micro-level at least—are held in a state of 'superposition'. In this model, human observation (or measurement) influences which reality we end up with. That is, observation collapses so-called ‘mathematical wave functions’, resulting in one version of reality rather than another from among multiple possibilities—an observer-centric model of reality. To this (limited?) extent, anyway, QP seems to describe a subjectively existing reality, where human consciousness and observation do indeed play a key part. (Though beyond the “occasional mental flickering” creatively referred to in the essay.) Whether this brand of reality, and the mechanism by which it’s brought about, holds up in any fashion at larger scales—the macro-level—remains unclear, though there are camps that say that may be the case.

    If I may, I’d like to touch on one other phenomenon that’s relevant to this issue of reality and constructivism. I’m referring to what’s known as quantum fluctuations—that is, virtual particles that rapidly come into existence and equally rapidly are annihilated, with (critically) no net loss or gain of energy. Thought of as subatomic space-time churning. In accordance with this model, we’re told, there is no such thing, then, as empty space—and never has been. Accordingly, the notion of a true vacuum (absolutely empty space), though undeniably a handy mental construct in everyday parlance, is actually misleading. Nothingness defaults to something—and by extension, a seemingly eternal universe, not subject to human construction. If this model indeed holds up under further scrutiny, it suggests an external, non-contingent reality, even if only at the most fundamental level, underpinning all else.

    Another aspect of reality, which I suggest might bear on constructivism, is the degree to which mathematics does, or does not, have a fundamental association with reality. As discussed by various people, a central question in this regard is whether mathematics is invented or discovered. If it’s invented, then it seems scientists use mathematics as yet another (though powerful, precise, and unmatched) language—in many ways going beyond the capacity of natural languages—to describe the universe. But if mathematics is discovered, arguably mathematics is then fundamental to the universe’s very existence—that is, to core reality, including the reality people experience everyday. Prompting Galileo, as we know, to refer to the universe as being “written in the language of mathematics.” All of this being compatible with what you describe as the “assailable view” that “human beings construct the experienced world from scratch.” Perhaps this core, mathematical reality relates in some way to the external, objective, even ‘transcendental’ reality that some people point to.

    Thank you, Christian, for your thought-provoking essay.

  2. Thank you very much for your comment, Keith. It easily transcends my essay in complexity and highlights fascinating issues I have not discussed at all.

    One single thought regarding your final point: If one construed the "mathematical reality" as the basis of the universe, it would (in this case) represent the aforementioned "material that is used for the construction process“ – whether an essence, an idea, a token or matter – all of this is something, at the most basic level, and hence could be considered "material for construction“.

    Of course, I am aware that I have only scratched the surface in my posting, and I have deliberately shunned the cosmological level, since it is such an extensive topic.

    So, thank you for providing further food for thought!

  3. Thanks, Christian. Thoughtful (thought provoking) post. Your 'nothingess' quote reminded me a little of King Lear. I'm not convinced though that there is a limit on the number of possibilities (for tables, for example). If all the numbers with a '9' in them ceased to exist today, for example, there'd still be an infinite sequence of numbers...?

    1. Your reference to "an infinite sequence of numbers" brought back to me, Martin, the case of the head-scratching Hilbert Hotel: with its infinite number of rooms, all of which are full, but the staff at the front desk, anticipating an infinite number of tips, still being able to accommodate an infinite number of additional guests, arriving in an infinite number of tour buses, with each bus carrying an infinite number of passengers. Yikes; pass me the aspirin! No wonder mathematicians and philosophers roll their eyes at ‘infinity’.

  4. Thank you Christian. This is a crucial subject.

    There is, I think, a major assumption in your post. You are coming from the Humean point of view that all knowledge may be subdivided into relations of ideas on the one hand, and matters of fact on the other. Or the simialr Kantian view, that relations are the work of the mind, and that things in themselves have no relations. Such a view seems to reveal itself through the various examples of things and facts which you describe.

    But I think that our thought processes are not like that. What we discover on closer examination is that our words, and therefore our thoughts, reach into an infinity of relations. All definitions have definitions. All features of words have features. Words, I have myself proposed, represent 'relations within relations'. Therefore there are no self-contained things. Our words and our thoughts never come to rest on anything. They hover over the surface of reality. When we use words to refer to things as though they were self-contained things, we merely use a crude form of short-hand, a blunt tool to get on with life.

    I think, the difference that this makes is this. You look at a table, and you see a table. And you see others looking at a table in strange ways. I see a forest. I see a river. I see the rain. I see the grain of the wood. I see a carpenter's joints, I feel a texture, I smell an aroma. As I observe the table, I see ecology, geology, denrochronology. I see the world. To put it too simply, the table is not a mere object, it is relations within relations. And here is the construction: it is the relations which I trace.

    The question then is, which of these mental constructions, outlooks, imaginations is real, as I look at the table? Which of them is valid? I look at my neighbour in the street. He is an organism, I think. No, he is a city treasurer. No, a White man. No, a hero. No, meat for the pot. All of these constructions are possible, and do not stray beyond the bounds of the possible. But the possible itself is surely infinite. Now the real challenge is which possible constructions are, so to speak, viable?

  5. Dear Christian,

    Thank you for your essay.
    Vergote remarked in Freud that he did not naturalise man but Freud humanised nature in man. In a u-turn way of thinking I wondered if this is somewhere hidden in the reason of your essay?

  6. Dear all,

    thank you very much for your feedback. It is very interesting to read and illustrates that many more questions can be raised than points clarified.

    I attempted to highlight two misunderstandings I have come across a number of times in discussions of this topic, although I would not really consider myself a constructivist: the first misunderstanding being some sort of causa sui scenario, construction constructing itself out of a purported nothingness, and the latter being that constructivism leads to total relativism.

    If one were to agree that there is something – if you like, even the Kantian 'anything whatsoever' – that provides some sort of material for the mental construction process and induces it, and that a constructivist stance does not automatically result in the complete loss of a criterion to distinguish between possible and impossible alternatives, then that would already be enough for me.

    So, I would say, from this perspective, that there might be infinite possibilities, but not everything is possible all of the time. Maybe the phenomenological idea of the world as an open horizon of all that can present itself to us provides another interesting point. The ways of intending are unlimited, but not every act of intending allows for the same results. The viability has to do with what has been intended. I will fail if I put my glass on an imagined table. If I reimagined my sideboard as a table, however, I might be more successful...

    Indeed, Tessa, it might have to do with humanising that which some (a number of naturalists, for example) considers to be completely devoid of human influence.

    1. Thank you, Christian. It is a thought-provoking and substantive essay, and personally I am pleased to see some hard core concepts of philosophy being addressed.