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Epistemological Constructivism

The epistemology of (second order) cybernetics and of the Principia Cybernetica Project is constructivist. Ernst von Glasersfeld defines radical constructivism by the following two basic principles:
  1. Knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication, but is actively built up by the cognising subject.
  2. The function of cognition is adaptive and serves the subject's organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of an objective ontological reality.
The importance of constructivism is best understood by comparing it with the opposite, more traditional, approach in epistemology or cognitive science, which sees knowledge as a passive reflection of the external, objective reality. This implies a process of "instruction": in order to get such an image of reality, the subject must somehow receive the information from the environment, i.e. it must be "instructed". The naive view is that our senses work like a camera that just projects an image of how the world "really" is onto our brain, and use that image as a kind of map, an encoding in a slightly different format of the objective structure "out there". Such a view runs quickly into a host of conceptual problems, mainly because it ignores the infinite complexity of the world. Moreover, detailed observation reveals that in all practical cases, cognition does not work like that. It rather turns out that the subject is actively generating plenty of potential models, and that the role of the outside world is merely limited to reinforcing some of these models while eliminating others (selection).

That construction serves in the first place selfish purposes: the subject wants to get control over what it perceives, in order to eliminate any deviations or perturbations from its own preferred goal state. Control requires a model of the thing to be controlled, but that model will only include those aspects relevant to the subject's goals and actions. In a sense, the subject does not care about the "thing" to be controlled, only about compensating the perturbations it senses from its goal, thus being able to adapt to changed circumstances.


Constructivism has its roots in Kant's synthesis of rationalism and empiricism (see Epistemology: introduction), where it is noted that the subject has no direct access to external reality, and can only develop knowledge by using fundamental in-built cognitive principles ("categories") to organize experience. One of the first psychologists to develop constructivism was Jean Piaget, who developed a theory ("genetic epistemology") of the different cognitive stages through which a child passes while building up a model of the world. In cybernetics, constructivism has been elaborated by Heinz Von Foerster, who noted that the nervous system cannot absolutely distinguish between a perception and a hallucination, since both are merely patterns of neural excitation. The implications of this neurophysiological view were further developed by Maturana and Varela, who see knowledge as a necessary component of the processes of autopoiesis ("self-production") characterizing living organisms.

Constructivist mechanisms are not limited to higher level learning or discovery of models, they pervade all evolutionary processes. The difference between Lamarckian and Darwinian evolutionary theory is just that Lamarck assumed that the environment somehow instructs an organism on how to be adapted. Darwin's view emphasized that an organism has to find out for itself, by trial and error. A similar conceptual transition from instruction to construction took place in the theories of immunity: the organism is not instructed in any way how to produce the right antibodies to stop the invaders, as was initially believed, it needs to generate all possible combinations by trial-and-error until it finds a type of antibody that works. Once such an antibody is discovered, the "knowledge" about how to fight that particular infection remains, and the organism becomes immune. The conceptual development from instructionism to selectionism or constructivism is well-described in Gary Cziko's book Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution.

Since constructivism rejects any direct verification of knowledge by comparing the constructed model with the outside world, its most important issue is how the subject can choose between different constructions to select the "right one". Without such a selection criterion, constructivism would lapse into absolute relativism: the assumption that any model is as adequate as any other. The two most often used criteria are coherence, agreement between the different cognitive patterns within an individual's brain, and consensus, agreement between the different cognitive patterns of different individuals. The latter position leads to "social constructivism", which sees knowledge solely as the product of social processes of communication and negotiation (the "social construction of reality"). We reject these positions are unduly restrictive, and take a much more pragmatic stance, where we note that the adequacy of knowledge depends on many different criteria, none of which has an absolute priority over the others. People can very well use incoherent models, over which there is no agreement with others, but which still are valuable for adaptation to a complex world. These criteria will include at least subjective coherence, intersubjective consensus, and (indirect) comparison with "objective" environment.

See also:

Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Nov 12, 1997 (modified)
Aug 3, 1995 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory


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