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  • The Certainty of Uncertainty: Dialogues Introducing Constructivism
  • Aparna Sharma
The Certainty of Uncertainty: Dialogues Introducing Constructivism by Bernhard Poerksen. Imprint Academic, Exeter, U.K., 2004. 200 pp. Paper. IBSN: 0-907845-819.

The Certainty of Uncertainty: Dialogues Introducing Constructivism comprises eight interviews with scientists and philosophers who have been key figures in thinking and articulating the constructivist discourse. Bernhard Poerksen, Hamburg professor of journalism and communication science, conducted the interviews. Sharing the key tenet, as it were, of the constructivist school of thought—the implication of the observer in the act of observation such that the claim for an observer-independent reality is thoroughly challenged—this text approaches the contradictions and paradoxes that are likely to arise from that position.

The book is fertile with philosophical discussion. In its preface, Poerksen alerts us that any attempt to define or approach the constructivist discourse as bearing a coherence or consonance of thought defeats the basis of constructivist understanding. As the text proceeds, we are introduced to a near "multiverse" of competing and contending interpretations of the constructivist position from different disciplines employing varied methodologies. The text very clearly posits the constructivist discourse as itself a construction, open to contention. However, instead of the cul-de-sac a constructivist position might lead to in terms of the uncertainty of understanding given the relativism arising from the implication of the observer, the text attempts to discuss engagements, from both the cognitive and neurobiological and the social and anthropological constructivist positions. While the applications that are discussed render uncertain the extent of the constructivist position, we are introduced to a wide range of philosophical

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concerns that inject necessary confrontation with issues of responsibility, ethics and morality, which is of value across disciplines, including the arts.

Most interviewees stress the context of practice rather than holding a rigidly ontological or fully socially determined approach. If we are to abide with the understanding that all observation is observer-implicated, then the twin questions of practice and form arise as central. In the text we encounter varied possibilities for practice: Ernst von Glasersfeld's assessment of "viability" that he shares in relation to his research into the dissemination of education; Francisco J. Varela's "co-construction," through which the separation between "knower" and "known," "internal" and "external" world can be overcome; and Siegfried J. Schmidt's "integrative constructivism," which unites cognitive autonomy and social fashioning with relation to the subject. These are some of the provocative instances from the text. Estimating and emphasizing the positionality of the observer, these provocations facilitate investment of that understanding in practice involving variegated subjects and conditions. The value of constructivist understanding and its relation to practice is particularly significant within post-colonial, Third World discourses that grapple with complexly constituted subjectivities on the one hand, and their articulation within "national" and "development" discourses, on the other. If Third World practitioners are to engage with constructivist discourse more closely, instead of having rather cursory and scattered encounters, practice would benefit from a less romanticized and more critical understanding that resists reductionism, allowing for a more democratic, grassroots-based interface wherein subjectivities are not overestimated or undermined but are confronted on dialogical terms—an imperative that one finds clearly lacking within much public discourse.

At its most advanced, the constructivist discourse coincides with mysticism and spiritualism. Its stress on the construction of observation and the observer proximates spiritual indications about processes and the experience of transcendence. This strain surfaces through the text, with Varela's discussion of Buddhist practice being the most explicit and articulate exposition. However, not all interviewees agree, and their contentions problematize the mystical and spiritual positions. In this, von Glasersfeld's assertion that the mystics' separation of the mystical and rational knowledge renders the two incompatible, is useful in advancing the scope of intellectual engagement with spiritual discourses, both of which are distinguished, nearly oppositionally, with respect to their methods of inquiry and assumptions. Von Glasersfeld is not alone in identifying spiritual practice as founded upon certain assumptions that evade rational argument or proof. Formulating this concern will benefit more critical engagement with spiritual positionalities. Biologist Humberto...


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