constructivism

Linked Glossary of Terms
(references to De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee, unless indicated. See concordance for correlation with pages in the New Critique. The concordance is in pdf format.)

constructive II, 486

NC I, 505: The inter-modal coherence of meaning is not a construction of philosophical thought. NC II, 555

construction of thought NC II, 537: The Kantian conception of consciousness wrongly considers whatever does not belong to a functionalistically viewed “empirical” reality as being a construction of thought.
constructivism
‘Erfinden’
invention
creation of thought I, 17, 28

Modern constructivist theories are still within a Kantian framework. They are therefore still subject to the transcendental critique of Baader and Dooyeweerd.

Constructivism is the dominant model of religious experience used today in Religious Studies, at least in North America. The model is represented by the article by Katz, “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism,” Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (London: Sheldon, 1978).

According to Katz, all our experience (including our religious experience) is “shaped”, “formed”, and “mediated” by the beliefs, concepts and language that we bring to the experience. He says,

…the experience itself as well as the form in which it is reported is shaped by concepts which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience. (…) the forms of consciousness which the mystic brings to an experience set structured and limiting parameters on what the experience will be, i.e. on what will be experienced, and rule out in advance what is ‘inexperienceable’ in the particular, given, concrete context.(p. 26).

These limiting parameters are our concepts.

Criticism of Katz has been given in a collection of essays edited by K.C. Forman: The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy (Oxford, 1990). The following comments are taken from that book. In particular, I rely on an article in that book by Anthony N. Perovich, Jr.: “Does the Philosophy of Mysticism rest on a Mistake?” I also rely on Forman’s own article, “Mysticism, Constructivism and Forgetting.”

Katz does not give any detail of the exact way that our experience is ‘shaped’ by our concepts. Katz’s basic notion of the ‘mediation’ of our experience by our thought is not proved, but rather assumed a priori at the outset of the article. He does not define or show how the mediating takes place. Apart from the metaphor of ‘shaping’ he does not give any detailed epistemology. Katz acknowledges that he relies on a “Kantian idiom.” He states that the idea of a non-mediated experience is, “if not self-contradictory, at best empty” He also says that there is no “veridical truth” unless there is data. These views are very similar to Kant’s statement that thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind. Our concepts are ‘empty’ without something objective, sensible. And our concepts give form to the data from the manifold of sense impressions.

But Katz goes beyond even a Kantian epistemology in his emphasis on the power of concepts. Kant said that our conceptual categories give form to the manifold of sense impressions that are given by our intuition. But for Kant, these conceptual categories were universal. For Kant, there were also forms on the intuition side. These are the sensory forms of space and time.

Kant’s universal categories include the concepts of substance and of causation. In Kant’s philosophy, these universal categories do not add any content to the synthetic concept. Katz, in saying that different concepts ‘constitute’ different experiences, is not using concepts in this universal sense. He says that different concepts (or belief sets) give different content to the experiences. There is no “given” that we experience: “All ‘givens’ are also the product of the processes of ‘choosing’, ‘shaping’, and ‘receiving’.”

In this way, Katz goes well beyond anything that Kant suggested or which can be justified using a Kantian epistemology. If there is no “given” that is not mediated by our concepts, then the Kantian theory of knowledge is no longer appropriate, and it does not make sense to even speak of the “mediating” character of experience. Perovich concludes that this is a hyper-Kantian view that must be proved and not just assumed.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1970) is often pointed to as another example of showing that non-universal concepts can constitute our experience. It is often said that this work shows that ‘paradigms’ are culturally constructed and not discovered, and that these paradigms are incommensurable. Wilber maintains that Kuhn never intended his use of ‘paradigm’ to be used in this way, and that Kuhn has strenuously objected to its use in this way. Because of these misunderstandings, Kuhn himself later abandoned the term ‘paradigm’. See Ken Wilber: The Marriage of Sense and Soul, (New York: Random House, 1998), pp. 26-30.

Forman also criticizes constructivism. He says that Katz does not explain whether every change in our belief sets will result in a changed experience. If not every change in belief means a change in experience, then it is open to the perennialist to argue that Hindu samadhi and Buddhist shunyata [emptiness] are close enough conceptually, and that the underlying experience is the same. This is something that Katz does not want to admit. On the other hand, if as Katz says, every change in beliefs results in a change in experience, what does this mean? Is the entire experience of that person different? If I learn a new concept, does that make my everyday experience different? How different? If my experience is changed by every concept I have, how can Katz avoid a totally idealist position, or even a solipsistic position? Do we not have to say, in response to Constructivism, that in our experience we come up against a reality that we do not construct?

Constructivism also cannot account for novelty in one’s experience. If my experience is constituted and constructed by my pre-existing beliefs, then how can I ever have a new, surprising, unexpected experience? And yet such surprise is precisely what many mystics report. They report what may be called ‘mystical heresy’. This is when a subject experiences something totally contrary to his or her previous beliefs. How can this be if the experience is formed by the belief? Katz’s answer is that the new experience must be due to concepts that the subject has heard before. But this is an a priori denial of the possibility of a new experience.

Constructivism also does not account for spontaneous visions, or for unconscious psychic activity that becomes manifested. If beliefs are primary, why do people have experiences arising from their unconscious which cannot be traced to their conceptual beliefs? Constructivism cannot account for such new experiences arising from the unconscious.

If the Constructivist Model is true, then we cannot ever share the same experience, because we all have our own beliefs and concepts. Experiences are ‘incommensurable’. If experience is incommensurable, then there is no common experience to appeal to, and no way to choose among various sets of beliefs that structure the experience. There is an emphasis only on difference. There is no way to advocate one theory over another. Whether or not a given theory is accepted will depend on sociological grounds–such as ideology, class, prejudice, gender, race, power, or whatever interests that are in fashion at the time. The loudest voice, or the most powerful voice, will win, and that is really all that can be said. Indeed, based on incommensurability, we cannot even say that any two experiences are of the same kind. In this way, the Constructivist Model takes away the possibility of any comparison among religions.

Ken Wilber has also pointed out that constructivism cannot privilege its own position (The Marriage of Sense and Soul, p. 27). Flax makes this point with regard to the feminist use of Constructivism: “We cannot simultaneously claim (1) that the mind, the self, and knowledge are socially constituted and that what we can know depends upon our social practices and contexts and (2) that feminist theory can uncover the truth of the whole once and for all.” (Cited by Grace Jantzen: Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge, 1995), p. 348. Jantzen’s book is an example of a constructivist view of religious experience. Although she expresses reservations about the fact that it will result in relativism and power relations, she nevertheless privileges her position on the grounds that one must choose something. That is hardly the basis for any such choice.

Both Baader and Dooyeweerd reject a constructivist view, although they wrote long before Katz’s article. Baader says that knowledge [erkennen] is not a matter of inventing new principles, but of discovering them. It is a finden (finding), and not an erfinden (discovery). The knowledge that we find derives from a source that ‘dominates’ and founds this knowledge (Susini I, 432; Weltalter 261). The ‘mediation of the unmediated’ does not refer to our mediated knowledge, but rather to our mediation of temporal beings in order to lift them up to the unmediated.

Dooyeweerd also rejects the notion that all our knowledge is mediated by concepts. Like Baader, Dooyeweerd says that, although we are bound to time, we are not limited to our temporal functions (NC II, 561). ‘All human experience, both in the pre-theoretical and in the theoretical attitudes, is rooted in the structure of the transcendent unity of self-consciousness’ (NC II, 560). We have access to a transcendental self-reflection (NC, I, 7, 51; II, 491, 554). We can transcend theory in religious self-knowledge of God and self, which is rooted in the heart (NC I, 55). It is only by standing in the transcendent fullness of truth that we can direct our subjective insight into the temporal horizon (NC II, 572).

Dooyeweerd object to a constructivism that would subjectively attempt to set the structure for its own individuality:

The subject of the full human experience, i.e. human selfhood, remains individual and this individuality remains inherent in the experiencing subjectivity within the temporal horizon. But the transcendent and transcendental structure of this subjectivity cannot be subjectively individual itself. But for its super-individual law-conformity, individual subjectivity would be an apeiron, a meaningless indeterminateness. (NC II, 593)

The synthetic a priori, too, is not to be understood as a constructive creation of the human mind (NC II, 555).

Dooyeweerd opposes the Humanistic science-ideal, which ascribed a creative logical function to human consciousness. (NC II, 555).

Today’s movements of postmodernism, hermeneutics and constructivism have their own metaphysical assumptions. To reject the possibility of an immediate experience of the supratemporal is itself a metaphysical assumption.

Revised Sept 27/07

Advertisements