Friday, 5 June 2015

Constructivism without Foundations?

One of the accusations regarding constructivist thinking in education concerns the reduction of human existence to speculative mechanisms from which human understanding, perception and knowledge is said to emerge. In its radical form nothing is said to exist beyond the action of these constructing mechanisms which are fundamentally based in biology: such constructivism demands merely the real existence of its mechanisms, these often being asserted with a almost religious zeal that blinds its adherents to the dimensions of their own personhood, history and the multidimensional nature of the social world within which they advocate their position. Traces of this position can be found across the constructivist discourse from Piaget's 'genetic epistemology' to the second-order cybernetics of Maturana, Von Foerster and Luhmann. However, whilst mechanisms of construction are asserted to be foundational in each case, there are distinctions to be made between the details of the foundations for different constructivist theories: in particular there are varieties of cybernetic foundationalism. 

Varieties of foundation within constructivist cybernetics are found in various couplings of physical sciences with transcendental mechanistic arguments. Most common is the coupling of biology with the cybernetic principles of Ashby's Law. In this domain, Maturana’s autopoietic theory is the most prominent case: autopoietic mechanisms are cybernetic mechanisms coupled with biology to produce an epistemology that develops mechanistic ideas of ‘structural coupling’ into an account of  human knowing, living and communication. However, these are shaky foundations: Maturana’s theory fails to account for politics, struggle and violence, preferring to advocate his philosophy of 'love' as a quasi-religious solution to the world's problems. However, Maturana’s love contains no real people, heartbreak, institutions, states, dictators, or suicide bombers. Cybernetic-Biological foundationalism has recently been subject to renewed attention in the work of Deacon (Autogenesis), Brier (Cyber-semiotics) and Hoffmeyer (Bio-semiotics). In attempting to address some of the weakness of autopoietic theory, these more recent theories have articulated a causal role for absence or constraint in emergent processes, thus producing through a coupled process of homeostasis and autocatalysis emergent structures which are stratified and irreducible, rather more like epigenetic processes. However,  these more recent theories have not progressed beyond modelling possible emergent patterns.

A second category of cybernetic foundationalism is contained in the coupling of Cybernetics with Communication. The principal representative of this work is Niklas Luhmann. Whilst Luhmann takes as his starting point Maturana’s biological autopoiesis, he effectively co-opts the mechanism identifying autopoiesis in communicative processes (an intellectual move which brought Luhmann into conflict with Maturana and his followers). Luhmann creates his foundations in discourses which, he maintains, behave autopoietically with a "social system" manifesting itself through the reproduction and transformation of communications through the interfaces of reflexive agency. Luhmann's theory provided him with a platform from which to make observations about different aspects of social life, from love relationships to the law. Luhmann's foundations allow him to make distinctions between different forms of agency and different strata of society, and his descriptions of real people withstand deeper critical inspection. However, Luhmann remains foundationalist where his foundations lie in the communications network from where he attempts to 'generate' real people: missing from his account (as Habermas identified) is a critique of power and political struggle. 

A third category of foundationalism is contained in Von Foerster, and later Louis Kauffman’s mathematical ideas of ‘eigenforms’. This is a Platonic foundation based in mathematical idealism, echoing the the transcendental mathematics of Category theory (which Badiou has more recently developed in his philosophy). Von Foerster describes a dynamic interaction model of perception where objects and ideas are stabilities in recursive patterns of perception. Related to this view is the 'interaction of actors' theory of Pask, which rather than mathematics, sees its foundations in physics, but articulates very similar ideas of stable forms as the root of perception and knowledge. 

In common between these three varieties of foundationalism in cybernetics is the fact that none of them have been empirically applied beyond the creation of simulations and models. There are however, some applications of cybernetic thinking which, although they too subscribe to intellectual foundations in their concepts, seek verification and enhancement through their utility in practical application. The foundations of approaches to measurement are distinguished from the foundations of theories themselves, since practical application of measurement techniques can be a springboard for the re-evaluation of foundations and the development of theory. In other words, empirical application of measurement techniques can loosen attachment to specific foundations, thus leaning empirical practice towards a kind of post-foundationalism.

Within the domain of empirical constructivist approaches, three stand out: the statistical ecology of Ulanowicz; the marriage of Shannon information and evolutionary economics in the Triple Helix of Leydesdorff; and the ‘synergetics’ of Haken. Each of these is distinct in its empirical field of application. Ulanowicz's work, for example, has been used to study the vibrancy and resiliance of biological ecologies. Leydesdorff's Triple Helix calculations have been used to identify the conditions for innovation within economies by analysing the communication dynamics in different contexts. Haken's synergetics has been used to study physical systems. In each case, the application of constructivist ideas produces patterns of regularity which then form the basis of new theory-building, testing and critique. Most interesting is the cross-fertilization between different approaches in different domains.

Cybernetics's addiction to intellectual foundations has unfortunately rendered it vulnerable to hijack by those whose wish to grasp on to foundations reflects a neediness within them rather than an authentic academic inquiry. Empirical practices grounded in cybernetic ideas may offer a way in which the attachment to foundations may be loosened. Here, the empirical cybernetician engages in the practices of "ontological theatre" that Andrew Pickering describes in "The Cybernetic Brain" which typified the pioneering spirit of early cybernetics. 

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