The Certainty of Uncertainty: Dialogues introducing Constructivism


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 1 October 2004



Andrew, A.M. (2004), "The Certainty of Uncertainty: Dialogues introducing Constructivism", Kybernetes, Vol. 33 No. 9/10, pp. 1543-1544.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

English translation by Alison Rosemary Koeck and Wolfram Karl Koeck, from German original: Die Gewissheit der Ungewissheit: Gespräche zum Konstruktivismus, Carl‐Auer‐Systeme, Heidelberg, 2001

This is a valuable extension of the treatment of topics under the general heading of constructivism begun in an earlier work by the same author along with Heinz von Foerster. The earlier work also originated in German with Carl‐Auer‐Systeme and is the transcript of a series of dialogues between the authors. The English translation, Understanding Systems: Conversations on Epistemology and Ethics, was reviewed in Kybernetes Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 394‐7.

The new work has the same dialogue style, now with sections in which Bernard Poerksen interviews a total of eight leading contributors. The first four are Heinz von Foerster, Ernst von Glaserfeld, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, of whom the first and last are unfortunately no longer with us. The other four are less well known in the English‐speaking world and are Gerhard Roth, Siegfried Schmidt, Helm Stierlin and Paul Watzlawick. Short biographies are given for each contributor, and Gerald Roth is currently a professor of behavioural physiology at the University of Bremen as well as founding president of a college devoted to examination of cross‐border questions of cognitive science and exchanges between the natural and social sciences. Siegfried Schmidt is professor of communication theory and media culture at the University of Munster. Helm Stierlin is head of a section in the University of Heidelberg concerned with psychotherapy and particularly family therapy, after becoming disillusioned with Freudian psychoanalysis because of its concentration on the individual. Paul Watzlawick has been influenced by Gregory Bateson and has been a therapist and communication scientist at Stanford University.

The dialogues with all eight participants are profound and thought‐provoking, with a surprising diversity of viewpoints. At the same time, it is easy to feel that the importance of “constructivism” is somewhat overplayed and it is noteworthy that Heinz von Foerster deprecates the use of the term, along with other “‐isms”, and that Varela is sceptical about its usefulness. It is after all a basic tenet of scientific method that a theory is only justified by the extent to which it agrees with observations, implying that there can be no claim to ultimate truth. On the other hand, the tenet is often ignored even in scientific teaching and debate, and certainly in the pronouncements of political and religious figures, and in the internal representations we all form in social and other interactions. Also, in many contexts the criterion of “agreement with observations” allows ample scope for diversity of interpretations.

A significant point is that several of the discussants have had direct experience of tyranny, either at the hands of the Nazis or in Chile, and the maintaining of a point of view under extreme coercion is a different matter from engagement in calm contemplation or debate.

At various points in the dialogues I found myself in some disagreement with a discussant, something entirely healthy in a work intended to be thought‐provoking and trailblazing. For example, I have difficulty with Heinz von Foerster's assertion that people have responsibility for the world they construct, particularly since this implies somebody or something to which responsibility is owed. There would seem to be another unclosed loop here. I also feel dissatisfied with aspects of Maturana's presentation of the idea of autopoiesis, for example where he apparently assumes that altruistic social behaviour, or “love”, is purely a consequence of the evolution of language.

Francisco Varela presents a viewpoint that is consistent with the above remarks on scientific theory, with the extra qualification that theories, or adaptations that could be interpreted as theories, must “work” if their owners are to survive. However, he also makes some contentious remarks that are apparently consistent with Buddhist philosophy, to the effect that what we see as a person is so much the product of influences and interactions with others that it is meaningless to refer to an individual by name, for instance even in reporting that the dialogue was with Francisco Varela.

Gerhard Roth accepts the constructivist view, on the whole, but asserts that the brain should be viewed differently because it is the seat of the thought that generates the construction. I find this unsatisfactory since the acceptance of the brain as having this role has to depend on considerations of physiology that cannot sensibly be divorced from other physiological observations. However, probably enough has been said to show that this book contains much valuable material that will stimulate useful controversy and fresh ideas. The contributions of Bernard Poerksen himself, while designed primarily to draw responses from the other discussants, are often lengthy and informative in themselves. He has done a very fine job in bringing all this together.

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