Publication 4007

Poerksen B. (2004) “We can never know what goes on in somebody else’s head”: Ernst von Glasersfeld on truth and viability, language and knowledge, and the premises of constructivist education. Cybernetics and Systems 35: 379–398. Fulltext at
Ernst von Glasersfeld, *1917, studied mathematics in Zurich and Vienna, was a farmer in County Dublin during the War, and worked as a journalist in Italy from 1947. There he met the philosopher and cybernetician Silvio Ceccato who, in the beginning stages of the computer age, had gathered a team of researchers in order to carry out projects of computational linguistic analysis and automatic language translation. Ernst von Glasersfeld became a close collaborator of Ceccato’s, translated for him, and developed projects of his own. In 1966, he moved to the USA where he was made a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Georgia in 1970. Three principal research interests have made him one of the well-known founders of constructivism. He systematically scoured the history of European philosophy for varieties of epistemological skepticism and set up an ancestral gallery reaching back to the insights of the ancient skeptics of the 4th century B. C. He replaced the classical realist concept of truth by the idea of viability: theories need not and do not correspond with what is real, he says, but they must be practicable and useful, they must be viable. Finally, he introduced the work of the Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, into the constructivist debate. Jean Piaget, in his book La construction du reel chez l’enfant, constructs a model of how knowledge is created and developed through the confirmation or disappointment of expectations (or, more precisely, of particular patterns of action, so-called schemes). A model of this kind has profound consequences for the conception of learning and teaching: it eliminates the reification of information and knowledge, the conception of knowledge as a substance that can be transferred from the teacher’s head to the empty heads of students. The mechanical idea of teaching evaporates. We must face the ineluctable subjectivity of meanings and given cognitive patterns. From this perspective, the acquisition of knowledge no longer appears to be a passive reception of information but a creative activity. The upshot is that teaching someone something will only be successful if it is oriented toward the reality of that someone. Ernst von Glasersfeld is, at present, with the Scientific Reasoning Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts. There he works on models of teaching and learning that apply the theory of constructivism to school practice.

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