Constructivist epistemology is a branch in philosophy of science maintaining that scientific knowledge is constructed by the scientific community, who seek to measure and construct models of the natural world. Natural science therefore consists of mental constructs that aim to explain sensory experience and measurements.
According to constructivists, the world is independent of human minds, but knowledge of the world is always a human and social construction. Constructivism opposes the philosophy of objectivism, embracing the belief that a human can come to know the truth about the natural world not mediated by scientific approximations with different degrees of validity and accuracy.
According to constructivists there is no single valid methodology in science, but rather a diversity of useful methods.
The term originates from psychology, education, and social constructivism. The expression "constructivist epistemology" was first used by Jean Piaget, 1967, with plural form in the famous article from the "Encyclopédie de la Pléiade" Logique et connaissance scientifique or "Logic and Scientific knowledge", an important text for epistemology. He refers directly to the mathematician Brouwer and his radical constructivism.
The terms Constructionism and constructivism are often, but should not be, used interchangeably. Constructionism is an approach to learning that was developed by Papert; the approach was greatly influenced by his work with Piaget, but it is very different. Constructionism involves the creation of a product to show learning. It is believed by constructivists that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are socially constructed. Marx was among the first to suggest such an ambitious expansion of the power of ideas to inform the material realities of people's lives.
Constructivism stems from a number of philosophies. For instance, early development can be attributed to the thought of Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus (Everything flows, nothing stands still), Protagoras (Man is the measure of all things). Protagoras is clearly represented by Plato and hence the tradition as a relativist. The Pyrrhonist sceptics have also been so interpreted. (Although this is more contentious.)
Following the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, with the phenomenology and the event, Kant gives a decisive contradiction to Cartesians' epistemology that has grown since Descartes despite Giambattista Vico calling in Scienza nuova ("New Science") in 1725 that "the norm of the truth is to have made it". The Enlightenment's claim of the universality of Reason as the only true source of knowledge generated a Romantic reaction involving an emphasis on the separate natures of races, species, sexes and types of human.
One version of social constructivism contends that categories of knowledge and reality are actively created by social relationships and interactions. These interactions also alter the way in which scientific episteme is organized.
Social activity presupposes human beings inhabiting shared forms of life, and in the case of social construction, utilizing semiotic resources (meaning-making and signifying) with reference to social structures and institutions. Several traditions use the term Social Constructivism: psychology (after Lev Vygotsky), sociology (after Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, themselves influenced by Alfred Schütz), sociology of knowledge (David Bloor), sociology of mathematics (Sal Restivo), philosophy of mathematics (Paul Ernest). Ludwig Wittgenstein's later philosophy can be seen as a foundation for social constructivism, with its key theoretical concepts of language games embedded in forms of life.
Thomas Kuhn argued that changes in scientists' views of reality not only contain subjective elements, but result from group dynamics, "revolutions" in scientific practice and changes in "paradigms". As an example, Kuhn suggested that the Sun-centric Copernican "revolution" replaced the Earth-centric views of Ptolemy not because of empirical failures, but because of a new "paradigm" that exerted control over what scientists felt to be the more fruitful way to pursue their goals.
"But paradigm debates are not really about relative problem-solving ability, though for good reasons they are usually couched in those terms. Instead, the issue is which paradigm should in future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely. A decision between alternate ways of practicing science is called for, and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise. ... A decision of that kind can only be made on faith."— Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp 157-8
The view of reality as accessible only through models was called model-dependent realism by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. While not rejecting an independent reality, model-dependent realism says that we can know only an approximation of it provided by the intermediary of models. These models evolve over time as guided by scientific inspiration and experiment.
In the field of the social sciences, constructivism as an epistemology urges that researchers reflect upon the paradigms that may be underpinning their research, and in the light of this that they become more open to consider other ways of interpreting any results of the research. Furthermore, the focus is on presenting results as negotiable constructs rather than as models that aim to "represent" social realities more or less accurately. Norma Romm in her book Accountability in Social Research (2001) argues that social researchers can earn trust from participants and wider audiences insofar as they adopt this orientation and invite inputs from others regarding their inquiry practices and the results thereof.
In psychology, constructivism refers to many schools of thought that, though extraordinarily different in their techniques (applied in fields such as education and psychotherapy), are all connected by a common critique of previous standard approaches, and by shared assumptions about the active constructive nature of human knowledge. In particular, the critique is aimed at the "associationist" postulate of empiricism, "by which the mind is conceived as a passive system that gathers its contents from its environment and, through the act of knowing, produces a copy of the order of reality.":16
In contrast, "constructivism is an epistemological premise grounded on the assertion that, in the act of knowing, it is the human mind that actively gives meaning and order to that reality to which it is responding".:16 The constructivist psychologies theorize about and investigate how human beings create systems for meaningfully understanding their worlds and experiences.
Joe L. Kincheloe has published numerous social and educational books on critical constructivism (2001, 2005, 2008), a version of constructivist epistemology that places emphasis on the exaggerated influence of political and cultural power in the construction of knowledge, consciousness, and views of reality. In the contemporary mediated electronic era, Kincheloe argues, dominant modes of power have never exerted such influence on human affairs. Coming from a critical pedagogical perspective, Kincheloe argues that understanding a critical constructivist epistemology is central to becoming an educated person and to the institution of just social change.
Kincheloe's characteristics of critical constructivism:
Cultural constructivism asserts that knowledge and reality are a product of their cultural context, meaning that two independent cultures will likely form different observational methodologies.
Ernst von Glasersfeld was a prominent proponent of radical constructivism. This claims that knowledge is not a commodity which is transported from one mind into another. Rather, it is up to the individual to "link up" specific interpretations of experiences and ideas with their own reference of what is possible and viable. That is, the process of constructing knowledge, of understanding, is dependent on the individual's subjective interpretation of their active experience, not what "actually" occurs. Understanding and acting are seen by radical constructivists not as dualistic processes, but "circularly conjoined".
Constructivist Foundations is a free online journal publishing peer reviewed articles on radical constructivism by researchers from multiple domains.
Relational constructivism can be perceived as a relational consequence of the radical constructivism. In contrary to social constructivism, it picks up the epistemological threads and maintains the radical constructivist idea that humans cannot overcome their limited conditions of reception (i.e. self referentially operating cognition). Therefore, humans are not able to come to objective conclusions about the world.
In spite of the subjectivity of human constructions of reality, relational constructivism focusses on the relational conditions applying to human perceptional processes. Björn Kraus puts it in a nutshell:
„It is substantial for relational constructivism that it basically originates from an epistemological point of view, thus from the subject and its construction processes. Coming from this perspective it then focusses on the (not only social, but also material) relations under which these cognitive construction processes are performed. Consequently, it‘s not only about social construction processes, but about cognitive construction processes performed under certain relational conditions.“
A series of articles published in the journal Critical Inquiry (1991) served as a manifesto for the movement of critical constructivism in various disciplines, including the natural sciences. Not only truth and reality, but also "evidence", "document", "experience", "fact", "proof", and other central categories of empirical research (in physics, biology, statistics, history, law, etc.) reveal their contingent character as a social and ideological construction. Thus, a "realist" or "rationalist" interpretation is subjected to criticism. Kincheloe's political and pedagogical notion (above) has emerged as a central articulation of the concept.
Numerous criticisms have been leveled at Constructivist epistemology. The most common one is that it either explicitly advocates or implicitly reduces to relativism. This is because it takes the concept of truth to be a socially "constructed" (and thereby socially relative) one. This leads to the charge of self-refutation: if what is to be regarded as "true" is relative to a particular social formation, then this very conception of truth must itself be only regarded as being "true" in this society. In another social formation, it may well be false. If so, then social constructivism itself would be false in that social formation. Further, one could then say that social constructivism could be both true and false simultaneously.
Another criticism of constructivism is that it holds that the concepts of two different social formations be entirely different and incommensurate. This being the case, it is impossible to make comparative judgements about statements made according to each worldview. This is because the criteria of judgement will themselves have to be based on some worldview or other. If this is the case, then it brings into question how communication between them about the truth or falsity of any given statement could be established.
The Wittgensteinian philosopher Gavin Kitching argues that constructivists usually implicitly presuppose a deterministic view of language which severely constrains the minds and use of words by members of societies: they are not just "constructed" by language on this view, but are literally "determined" by it. Kitching notes the contradiction here: somehow the advocate of constructivism is not similarly constrained. While other individuals are controlled by the dominant concepts of society, the advocate of constructivism can transcend these concepts and see through them.
A paradigm governs, in the first instance, not a subject matter but rather a group of practitioners. Any study ... must begin by locating the responsible group or groups.
We shall adopt an approach that we call model-dependent realism. It is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. But there may be different ways in which one could model the same physical situation, with each employing different fundamental elements and concepts. If two such ...theories or models accurately predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other; rather we are free to use whichever model is the most convenient.
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