Tarso Bonilha Mazzotti
Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro
Constructivism, refers to the notion according to which knowledge results from a process based on mental operations, or judgements, or the capacity of judgement. Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed that the theoretic or pure capacity of judgement be based on a priori synthetic judgements of space and time. Since then there is a controversy about the reality of those judgements and about its explicative power. In this controversy two antagonistic positions are found: the one that supports the innatism of those judgements and the one that denies it. Between these two positions there is a third one, due to Jean Piaget, that considers that space and time are not a priori, and that the innate aspect are the instinctive acts, from which reasoning is constituted.
The constructivism proposed by Jean Piaget (1896-1980) considers that " the formal obligation of transcending endlessly the systems already constructed in order to assure non-contradiction is convergent with the genetic tendency of surpassing, endlessly, the constructions already finished in order to fulfill lacunas" (Études d’epistemologie génétique, vol.14, p. 324). Genetic, here, has the proper sense of geneses of cognitive forms, but not of heredity. Thus, the schemes and cognitive structures proper of the subject-of-knowledge [community of scientists and/or community of layman] are permanently questioned in the process of knowing. This process, essentially constructive, is similar to the kantian position, but diverges from it in a central aspect: the cognitive construction does not refer exclusively to logical-mathematical beings; it also refers to the process of assimilation of the obstacles, or objects, faced by the subjects of knowledge.
The constructivism proposed by Piaget is, then, a genetic constructivism, that is, for him the cognitive function is the same in any human being and is characterized by the cognitive activities of assimilation and accommodation which make the cognitive adaptation of the objects [cognitive obstacles]. This adaptation is made through schemes and/or structures constructed by the subject of knowledge when confronted by social and historical needs. In this sense, there is no functional difference between common sense and scientific sense, but only a structural differentiation, since the latter requires the rigor historically developed in a given science. This rigor, by its turn, expresses itself in the methodology of scientific investigation, which is characterized as an applied logic and epistemology (Piaget, 1967, p.3 and followings).
The genetic constructivist point of view has many defenders, among them, Raymond Boudon. This author criticizes several trends found in the sciences of man (French nomenclature), especially in sociology and proposes a genetic construtivist theory of the knowledge. For Boudon there is no essential difference —functional or of mechanisms— between common sense and scientific sense, but only a diversity regarding the rigor of the argumentation. For him, "the mechanisms responsible for the formation of collective normative beliefs are not different, in principle, from the mechanisms that generate collective ‘positive’ beliefs" [those of science] (Boudon, 1998, p.31). As in the theory proposed by Piaget, the "’positive’ beliefs", those that reach some level of validation, differ from the others by their argumentative consistency. Beliefs are justified by arguments either more socio-centered, in the case of the common sense, or less socio-centered, in the case of the sciences. It is important to point out that the fallacies and other argumentative mistakes occur in both conditions (cf., Boudon, 1990; 1998).
To constructivism, in the perspective presented, the fact that knowledge is constructed does not imply neither solipsism, nor radical relativism, since the problem of its truth is open to the public, that is, to the community of knowers —be them laymen or scientists. Thus, the argumentative correction developed along the history of philosophy and the history of science, through the exposition and criticism of fallacies and sophisms, is relevant to the construction of the scientific knowledge, as well as to police and judicial investigation and, in a way, to the disputes of the daily life. This fact allows us to say that there is a certain progress or improvements in common sense argumentation. In any case, the rigor required is specific to the social situation in which the argumentation is developed, as noted by Aristotle (Ethica Nicomachea, 1098a)
The trend known as social constructivism —which has many followers amongst educational researchers— takes phenomenology as a bases to state that research should consider the meanings and intentions held by the social actors and, in order to accomplish this goal, the researcher should approach the social groups putting "in parenthesis" his/her beliefs and values. This procedure is necessary because reality is multiple and the researcher, Lincoln and Guba say, "wants to begin his transactions with the respondents in a most neutral way" (apud Alves-Mazzotti and Gewandsznajder, 1999, p.133). For the social constructivists, the multiplicity of possible interpretations about an "object", all socially justifiable, prevents objectivity, because "realities exist in the form of multiple mental constructions, socially and experientially based, local and specific, dependent, for their form and content, on the persons who hold them" (idem, ibidem). The social constructivism adopts, therefore, the radical relativism, or skepticism, or yet pyrrhonism, of long tradition in philosophy.
Genetic construtivism is incompatible with social constructivism, since it considers objective knowledge of the world feasible. This knowledge, however, is not a specular representation of the real, but the best approximation in a given moment. For genetic constructivism, one of the main evidences of the quality of a theory is its effectiveness, that is, the fact that it is able to orient the actions of the knowers in order to establish some transformation, or change, in the real. Besides, we have to consider that theories, as formalizations, are passible of argumentative and logic analysis, which show or demonstrate the quality of its statements, which are forms of inference (anticipations). Thus, evaluations that demonstrate errors or mistakes in the arguments should eliminate false or non-valid arguments. For example, if a petition of principle or sophism occurs in the theoretical argumentation, it should be put under suspicion, since those errors imply improper or false relations. As mentioned, for social constructivism, arguments and statements about reality are not liable of evaluation neither by criteria proper of the theory of argumentation, nor by the various logics, because they are the expression of a perception of the actors involved in the research. In fact, for social constructivism, reality can only expressed through a personal interpretation, with which the others can agree or not, but this is irrelevant, since there is no foundational criteria that allow us to say which interpretation is the correct. Thus, although explicitly opposing empiricism (in general called ‘positivism’), social constructivism assumes, implicitly, the empiricist thesis of the identity between statements and reality as the only criterion for the establishment of valid theories. As, in fact, the empiricist thesis is improper, then there is no possibility of valid knowledge, say the social constructivists, disregarding any other constructive alternative (cf., among others, Boudon, 1990, 1998).
For genetic constructivism the relation between theory, or models, and reality is one of approximation. Its validity can be demonstrated in several ways among which those of argumentative strength and efficacy (efficiency and effectiveness). Nevertheless, for that theory there is no reason for claims neither of absolute truth nor of impossibility of significant knowledge. It rejects, therefore, both pyrrhonism and idealism (kantian and hegelian)
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Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Education 18/081999