Thursday, February 10, 2011

How Do You Like Them Apples?

[This is an updated version of something I posted during a seminar on "constructing reality" last year]

Constructivism v. Realism
The Problem of Unconceptualized Apples

[T]he unanswerable question whether, or to what extent, any picture our senses "convey" might correspond to the "objective" reality is still today the crux of all theory of knowledge. Sextus used, among other things, an apple as an example. To our senses it appears smooth, scented, sweet, and yellow -- but it is far from self-evident that the real apple possesses these properties, just as it is not at all obvious that it does not possess other properties as well, properties that are simply not perceived by our senses. The question is unanswerable, because no matter what we do, we can check our perceptions only by means of other perceptions, but never with the apple as it might be before we perceive it.
----- E. von Glasersfeld, “An Introduction to Radical Constructivism”

Here's my best reconstruction of Ernst's rejection of realism:

1. All concepts are in the mind

2. All concepts are conceptualized

3. All concepts are concepts-of-some-x

4. All concepts-of-some-x are in the mind (from 1)

5. There can be no unconceptualized concepts-of-some-x (from 2)

6. All concepts of apples are concepts-of-some-x (from 3)

7. There can be no unconceptualized concepts of apples (from 5 and 6)

8. There can be no concept of an apple that is not a concept (truism)

9. The referent of the realist’s phrase “unconceptualized apple” is not a concept

10. There can be no concepts of unconceptualized apples (from 8 and 9) (von G.: “…we cannot possibly conceive of an unexperienced world”)

11. Metaphysical realism necessarily involves concepts of unconceptualized apples (Here’s a typical realist claim: “if every concept-user were suddenly to disappear, apples – unconceptualized and unconceptualizable – would still exist and have a determinate nature”)

12. MR is wrong and von Glasersfeld’s constructivism right (from 10 and 11)


  1. The argument would seem to undermine itself by claiming to know something essential (and extra-conceptual) about metaphysical realism, so as to be able to conclude that it is mistaken, thus violating constructivist agnosticism about all knowledge or truth claims.

    Von Glasersfeld would have two responses open to him: one is to prevaricate, and pull back from admitting to any truth claims whatsoever, even a negative one, about anything. I think this response is transparently unhelpful, as it makes the very discussion impossible.

    The other move would be to make a distinction between concepts such as 'metaphysical realism,' which are wholly verbal creations, and concepts of apples, which derive from experience. This seems more promising, except that constructivist principles can't support the distinction -- all concepts must come equally from experience, and physical reality has no more claim to legitimacy than verbal constructions, as it, too, is constructed.

    So I think he's stuck.

  2. So, like Kant before him, he self-inconsistently claims to know enough about the unknowable (the extra-conceptual) to label as such?

  3. Fichte's reading of Kant, at least, is susceptible to that charge. Whether Kant has another move up his Prussian sleeve I don't know, but I've never been able to figure out what it would be.

  4. What part of this argument claims to know something extra-conceptual about MR?

  5. Barbara Von Eckardt in a paper on Intuitionism (Routhledge Encyclopedia of PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 4) has this to say about Schopenhauer on logic and mathematics:

    "Deprecation of logic's influence on mathematics has been characteristic of intuitionism and is reminiscent of the attitudes Schopenhauer expressed in 'Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation). According to Schopenhauer mathematics is not best developed 'more geometrico', since deductions from axioms obscure the true grounds for mathematical results. He argued that each mathematical truth S has its own intuitable ground of being G and that the premier means to intuit the truth of S would be to uncover G and construct it in time without the aid of explicit deduction. Schopenhauer recommended that mathematics be reformulated accordingly."

    Is it not possible that this also holds true for the relationship between logic and philosophy?

  6. Response to Stephen: I think I did have step 9 in mind. Of course, the realist does indeed hope, fallibly, to refer to actual, subject-independent apples (that's the metaphysical realism in her position). Von G. insists that such a thing cannot be done. How does he know this? More to the point, what defense could he give, consistent with his oft-expressed agnosticism about all knowledge, that it is a true and permanent fact about the world that the realist can never succeed in referring to apples, rather than "apples"?

  7. So then are you suggesting there is an inconsistency between the agnosticism Von G claims and the method of his argumentation? That he seems willing to use truth to disprove truth?

  8. Yes. Despite his oft-repeated demurral at any knowledge claim, he claims equally frequently to know something with the utmost certainty -- that the metaphysical realist cannot know anything about the external world. But to say "the external world is unknowable" is in fact to say something quite specific about both the putative knower and the external world. It entails metaphysical propositions.

    Of course he realizes this, which is why when pressed he reverts to agnosticism, wishing to say nothing about anything one way or another. As noted, however, this is hardly a fruitful basis for a conversation.