Thursday, September 20, 2012

(CR) Footprints in the Sand

[In the following essay I comment on the "problem of the subject" in RC]

"Footprints in the Sand"
8 May, 2006, Karl Jaspers Forum

At the close of C11 TA 86-87, Sid Barnett quotes E. von Glasersfeld: "I call 'subject' what I experience as the agent of perceiving and thinking, remembering and desiring. I can also call it 'me' or 'the locus of experience in general.'" Barnett adds: "That's fine, as far as it goes…"

Von Glasersfeld responds in C15 TA 86-87: “It's not intended to go any further. What I developed as radical constructivism (as I have often said) is to be understood as a model of knowing. It does not invade the domain of being. About the subject I therefore say no more than how I construct it. If you ask what the subject might be apart from your construction you have to invent your own metaphysical tale.”

The problem with this view (as I have often said) is that, despite – or, more accurately, in virtue of -- von Glasersfeld’s publicly accessible intentions, radical constructivism (RC), in concert with everything we say or do, must of necessity involve the domain of being. In truth, we can neither invade nor evade this domain, for we do not choose to be or, perhaps, not to be, from some abstract position of non-being; rather, the domain of being, whatever its fine structure, however great or small our understanding of it, is nothing other than the world (of people, things, ideas, relations, etc.) that we all share. The domain of being contains and constrains our many constructions.

It follows that every model of knowing, qua generalized (i.e., social) epistemology, assumes both an ontology and psychology, identifying the least features of its domain of application and of minds capable of knowing, respectively. In short, von Glasersfeld’s model inevitably shares with all such models a robustly realist ontology of knowers and known.

There is, of course, this one possible exception: the hermetic idealism of the solipsist, where I alone exist, the world beyond my experiential interface but an illusory projection of my own subjective construction. I join von Glasersfeld in rejecting solipsism as a senseless, perhaps ineffable, doctrine. It is hardly surprising, though, that the specter of solipsism has been von Glasersfeld’s constant companion, since his words do on occasion encourage that interpretation. Admittedly, “About the subject I therefore say no more than how I construct it” does sound a bit solipsistic and in keeping with his Spartan (“radical”) subjectivism.

But von Glasersfeld wants to avoid solipsism, not by invoking, invading, or inferring to anything extra-von Glasersfeldian (the most obvious route), but by remaining “neutral” with respect to the existence and nature of anything beyond his experience. Yet this metaphysically “innocent” path would have us forget that, as he says elsewhere, solipsism receives daily refutation from the fact that we never construct the world “just as we please;” that we forever encounter constraints from who-knows-what and who-knows-where. We would have to ignore or deny as well all those “independent ontological obstacles,” the inherently relational notion of “fitness,” the countless denizens of “the consensual domain,” along with all the other accoutrements of RC’s richly linguistic and social world.

It is not enough, therefore, simply to say “about the subject I say no more,” when everything else I say, says so much more. Consider, in this light, von Glasersfeld’s concluding statement: “If you ask what the subject might be apart from your construction you have to invent your own metaphysical tale.” RC is a tall tale indeed:

Von Glasersfeld: My model of knowing floats free from the “domain of being.” I have no metaphysical ambitions at all.

Johnson: What exactly do you mean by that?

Von Glasersfeld: I cannot, on pain of absurdity, make reference to that which exists apart from my constructions; that is, all “metaphysical tales” are extra-rational.

Johnson: Is that not a meta-metaphysical tale about the irrationality of metaphysical tales?

Von Glasersfeld: I can only know what I have constructed – my “tale.”

Johnson: Who, then, is the “you” in “you make your own metaphysical tales”?

Von Glasersfeld: I have, admittedly, constructed “others” to whom I present my model and from whom I hear of competing models or “tales.”

Johnson: Are these others, contra RC, real, flesh-and-blood, others?

Von Glasersfeld: I cannot say that without contravening my ontological neutrality; neither can I deny them some minimally extra-subjective reality without sliding into the solipsistic abyss. Maybe they are, maybe they are not – I choose simply to ensnare these “others” in scare quotes.

Johnson: But, wait: If they are in any sense independently real beings, then your realist critics are right (and RC incoherent). If they are not, then these constructions are no protection against the absurdities of solipsism.

As I explained in TA 75 R6:

Just as no one’s hunger was ever satisfied by thinking about food or taking a bite of a working hypothesis, no concept of an “other” ever saved a theory from absurdity. “Other” is a linguistic or conceptual item, a name for some object, a sign, or notion. Others are not. Unlike flesh-and-blood others, a concept of others, even a “working” one, will not save the constructivist from his self-imposed subjectivist isolation or the threat of solipsism. Like Robinson Crusoe surveying footprints in the sand, we have a choice: risk the sort of error that naturally attends speculative inquiry and join the realists (and the greater part of humanity) in inferring abductively to the subject-independent existence of others and the world generally; or risk absurdity or contradiction and join the skeptics (of whom the constructivists are simply a contemporary version) in fashioning fantastic stories to account for these impressions without assuming anything about the world that mind itself cannot immediately confirm as its own product.

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