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Varela, Francisco. (1996) Neurophenomenology : A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem in Journal of Consciousness Studies, "Special Issues on the Hard Problems", J.Shear (Ed.) June 1996


Practically since its inception cognitive science has been committed to a very explicit set of key ideas and metaphors which can be called representationalism, for which the inside-outside distinction is the centerpiece: an outside (a features-full world) represented inside through the action of complex perceptual devices. In recent years there has been a slow but sure change towards an alternative orientation, one that I have contributed and defended for many years (see Varela, 1979; Varela et al., 1991). This orientation deviates from representationalism to study mind and world as mutually imbricated, hence the qualifiers of embodied, situated or enactive cognitive science.

I cannot elaborate further concerning the current state of embodied cognitive science, but my present proposal concerning the study of consciousness aligns itself with those larger concerns. It seems inescapable to take the trend towards embodiment one step further in the direction of a principled consideration of embodiment as lived experience. In our book we first highlighted the intrinsic circularity in cognitive science wherein the study of mental phenomena is always that of an experiencing person. We claimed that cognitive science cannot escape this circulation, and must cultivate it instead (Varela et al., 1991). We explicitly draw from Asian traditions, Buddhism in particular, as living manifestation of an active, disciplined phenomenology. It was not the intention of that book to dwell on Asian traditions per se but to use them as a distant mirror of what we needed to cultivate in our science and the western tradition.

The present proposal takes what was started in that book one step further by concentrating on the key issue of methodology. I hope I have seduced the reader to consider that we have in front of us the possibility of an open-ended quest for resonant passages between human experience and cognitive science. The price however is to take first-person accounts seriously as valid domain of phenomena. And beyond that, to build a sustained tradition of phenomenological examination that is almost entirely nonexistent today in our western science and culture at large.

One must take seriously the double challenge my proposal represents. First, it demands a re-learning and a mastery of the skill of phenomenological description. There is no reason why this should be any different from the acquisition of any know-how, like learning to play an instrument or to speak a new language. Anyone who engages in learning, be it in music, language or thinking, will be bringing forth a change in everyday life. This is what is listed as the fourth item in PhR: sustained, disciplined learning does entail transformation, and so does anything else we do in a sustained mode. This is fine if we reject the assumption (as I do) that there is some kind of well-defined standard for what should count as real or normal experience: experience appears to be inherently open-ended and pliable, and hence there is no contradiction in saying that sustained training in a method can make available aspects of experience that were not available before. The point of PhR is to overcome the habit of automatic introspection (among others); we need not a mourn for what may be lost, but turn our interest to what can be learned. The second challenge that my proposal represents is that of a call for transforming the style and values of the research community itself. Unless we accept that at this point in intellectual and scientific history that some radical re-learning is necessary, we cannot hope to move forward in the compulsive history of the ambivalent rejection-fascination with consciousness in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. My proposal implies that every good student of cognitive science who is also interested in issues at the level of mental experience, must inescapably attain a level of mastery in phenomenological examination in order to work seriously with first-person accounts. But this can only happen when the entire community adjusts itself to the corresponding acceptance of arguments, refereeing standards and editorial policies in major scientific journals, that can make this added competence an important dimension of a young researcher. To the long-standing tradition of objectivist science this sounds like anathema, and it is. But this is not a betrayal of science: it is a necessary extension and complement. Science and experience constrain and modify each other as in a dance. This is where the potential for transformation lies. It is also the key for the difficulties this position has found within the scientific community. It requires us to leave behind a certain image of how science is done, and to question a style of training in science which is part of the very fabric of our cultural identity.


From: "C DeLancy"
Subject: Role of teaching in radical constructivism
I would like to ask what the role of teaching is in radical constructivism. If we say that the student constructs his own knowledge, and that any objective reality is unknowable, then what gives the teacher any authority to teach the student? Perhaps the student's construct is as valid as the teacher's.
Thank you,
Carla DeLancy

Dear Ms DeLancy,
I have written well over a dozen articles on the didactic aspects of RC and edited a nice book about its practice in the classroom (Radical Constructivism in Mathematics Education, Kluwer, 1991). I won't repeat any details here. But the main constructivist attitude is easy to explain: I do not believe that a teacher's authority springs from the "knowledge" he or she has - much of it will be obsolete when the students reach middle age. Authority has to come from the ability to solve problems and from guiding students to learn to learn. They must, indeed, construct their knowledge themselves, and if it cannot be measured by a comparison with some objective "truth", it will be good knowledge only if it works in the experiential world as well as the teacher's or better. In my view, teachers can only SHOW how knowledge could be constructed, they can never transfer what they happen to know. But this, of course, presents a challenge that many are afraid of.
Ernst von Glasersfeld


Dear Professor Glasersfeld,
we are studying political sciences and got to know ‘radical constructivism’ in a relatively early stage of our studies. Despite having read a fairly large amount of ‘radical constructivist’ literature we are still grappling with some problems which are of great importance for us. The following questions contain some of the problems on which we would like to hear your opinion. We want to apologize beforehand because of the length of our e-mail, but since we have no access to scholars familiar with radical constructivism we address our questions to you. We embed our questions in short outline in order to enable you to detect whether we grasped the arguments correctly.

1. The fundamental problem refers to the notion of ‘science’. You accept Maturana’s notion of ‘science’ defined as the four steps constituting the process of validating an explanation (Glasersfeld 1995: 117). This is an empirical definition as opposed to Popper’s normative one, who decrees criteria for science. Maturana gained his definition by observing the natural scientist’s actions. However, he then extends these criteria, claiming that the four steps constitute the scientific method in general and you agree with him (Glasersfeld 1987: 423). This is the point where our problems crop up. ‘Social scientists’ often adopt a different understanding of science. E.g. they either assert the necessity of the inclusion of norms in the process of ‘research’; or they make certain epistemological assumptions (marxists or feminists for instance ). Accordingly, these approaches are not covered by Maturana’s definition. If we include them into our observation what scientist are actually doing we will not be able to define science in the way Maturana does it. If on the other hand, we exclude them from the community of scientific observers, we ourselves can do this only due to a certain normative criterion (which we do not want to do). Do you see any solution for this dilemma. Or is there any flaw in our outline of the problem?

2. Maturana’s four steps of validation do not have any content before they are applied to explain a certain phenomenon. Maturana says, that ‘when two scientists do not coincide in their statements or explanations, it means that they belong to different consensual communities’ (Maturana 1988: 35). Does this not give rise to the problem that the decision whether an explanation can be considered ‘scientific’ is rather due to the plausibility of the mechanism proposed to generate this phenomenon under consideration and not to the application of the four criteria of validation per se? Otherwise it could be possible to propose a mechanism containing metaphysical elements to explain a phenomenon. This also relates to the question to which extent an explanatory mechanism is allowed to contain the possibility or necessity of interpretation; i.e. how deterministic must the mechanism be? In other words: We think that the acceptance of Maturana’s formal criterion of validation is only the necessary but not the sufficient condition of classifying an explanation as scientific.

3. Maturana declines the term ‘falsification’ and claims that it presupposes the assumption of an external reality (Maturana 1988: 35; 1998: 340) . You, on the other hand, accept the possibility of falsification in the sense of a negative feedback loop. You seem to equate a successful falsification with the case if one cannot generate an observed phenomenon by a proposed mechanism. Do you have an explanation why Maturana rejects the term?

4. Do you consider mechanisms as scientific which generate an observed phenomenon only with a certain probability (‘statistical laws’)?

5. In the moment we are working on a concept of ‘democracy’ allowing an strictly empirical definition in contrast to the predominantly normative notion employed in the so-called ‘scientific’ discussion in political sciences. The mechanism we propose appears to meet Maturana’s criteria of science. Nonetheless we are not sure, whether our procedure really is a mechanism of validation in the sense of Maturana, because we cannot observe the phenomenon and propose a generative mechanism to observe it again. Rather our notion of democracy is brougth forth by the mechanism and cannot be observed without it. Do you think there is a difference between Maturana’s concept of explanation of phenomenons and our concept of defining a term empirically? (Similar problems emerge when attempting to find a definition for example of 'society’).

6. In Glasersfeld (1995: 117) you offer a reformulation of Maturana’s criterion of validation of scientific explanations. We, however, have the impression that there are important differences both between the different versions offered by Maturana and your summary. In the version proposed in Maturana (1978) the phenomenon to be explained has actually to be brought forth by the researcher. In contrast to this version, the one proposed in Maturana (1988), wants the researcher only to suggest an explanatory mechanism and not to bring forth the phenomenon in question. And he asserts that in principle even ‘psychic and spiritual phenomena’ (Maturana 1988, 38) can be explained scientifically. Besides, he substitutes the term ‘experience’ for the notion of ‘observation’. Would you agree that the version of 1978 might expose itself to the reproach of empiricism, since it restricts the phenomena which can be tackled scientifically to those which can be observed and brought forth by the researcher. It would exclude the explanation for instance of a phenomenon like the eclipse of the sun, because the phenomenon cannot be reproduced by the researcher; let alone social phenomena like ‘society’ (cf. question 5).

Furthermore, we have some problems with your usage of the term ‘prediction’ (step 3) in your own reformulation. Does it mean the researcher actually has to generate the phenomenon to be explained as in Maturana (1978); or, do you refer to the later version (1988), i.e. to the deduction of related phenomena?

7. We are often facing the problem of norms (for example in the context of decision- making). Norms can obviously not be deduced from observations. Yet, our question is: Does radical constructivism offer any explanation how we generate and modify norms, which lead our judgements and justifications?

8. Even though you demonstrate how our concept of numbers can be derived from certain patterns of perception, mathematics is not subject to empirical tests. Our question therefore is, whether you consider mathematics or logic to be sciences. To put it more broadly: Up to which degree of abstraction do you consider phenomena or concepts as empirical and therefore belonging to empirical sciences?

Glasersfeld, Ernst von 1987: Siegener Gespraeche ueber Radikalen Konstruktivismus, in: Schmidt,
Siegfried J. (ed.): Der Diskurs des Radikalen Konstruktivismus, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 401-440.

Glasersfeld, Ernst von 1995: Radical Constructivism. A Way of Knowing and Learning, London: The Falmer Press.

Maturana 1978: Biology of Language: the Epistemology of Reality, in: Miller, G. A../Lenneberg,

Elizabeth (eds.): Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought. Essays in honour of Eric H. Lenneberg, New York, N.Y.: Academic Press, 27-63.

Maturana, Humberto R. 1988: Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument, in: The Irish Journal of Psychology 9: 1, 25-82.

With all respect

Rolf Nichelmann (
Alexander Paqueé (
TU Darmstadt, Institut fuer Politkwissenschaft

Dear Messrs. Paqueé and Nichelmann,
Thank you for your questions. They are many, but as you have read a good bit of constructivism, I hope that brief answers will be sufficient. If they are not, don’t hesitate to ask again.

1. Maturana mentions conditions to govern observation in his first point and in the fourth. These are "norms" scientists have agreed on. There is no reason why they should be the same in all branches of science; they concern observation and, presumably, methods of categorizing, representing, and processing observational "data". Whether YOU consider the constraints and the models built on the resulting observations to be "science", depends on how you evaluate the viability of these models. What "epistemological assumptions" a scientist makes, is his/her affair (or funeral).

2. Maturana’s four points are a description of method, not a validation of results. If you are able to repeat someone’s observations and get compatible "data", you can say, he/she "is doing science". The models he/she constructs on the basis of these "data" will have to function not only as "explanation" but also for prediction. This, I think, is where astrologers fall short. As such, the assumption that the stars influence a person’s ontogeny is no more metaphysical than gravity, but the predictions based on it are, in my view, ambiguous at best.

3. I cannot speak for Maturana. I don’t like the term "falsification" either. I prefer "viability" or "non-viability" because this requires tests in the experiential world and is always relative to the goals chosen.

4. All induction is probabilistic - and induction is all we have to establish regularities in our experience.

5. As I understand Maturana, the "hypothetical mechanism" in his point 2 is always an invented "model". Charles Peirce’s notion of "abduction" throws some light on the process of invention or "intuition". I cannot say anything about your "generative mechanism" because I don’t know what you are proposing. (re "society": I think I have answered this question earlier on the web?)

6. As I don’t always understand Maturana, I am in no position to evaluate what he says. At the moment I am not aware of his explanation of "psychic or spiritual phenomena). I disagree with what you say about eclipses. The phenomenon CAN be reproduced by researchers, because the stated conditions of observation contain temporal indications which are calculated on the basis of an accepted model. Prediction has to be understood as the indication of conditions under which the phenomenon can be constructed again.

7. I’m sure there are many kinds of "norms". In the context of "science" they cannot be deduced from first observations but from whether or not what was developed on the basis of these observations turns out to be viable or not.

8. I would say that my definition of empirical is much the same as Locke’s, Berkeley’s, and Hume’s, namely anything based on experience - and experience includes thinking as much as perceiving. I therefore would ask what is a science that is not empirical? I think I have always avoided the term "empirical sciences". The operations that generate the concept of number are MENTAL operations triggered originally by perceptual material and then made autonomous by reflection. Of course you can call mathematics a "science", but this hides the fact that mathematics does not require observation, it takes place in the abstract realm of reflection, thinking about thinking. I think this goes for classical logic, too; but Spencer Brown’s calculus of distinctions may include more.

That’s enough for today. Thank you for your interest and best wishes,
Ernst von Glasersfeld

Subject: Radical Constructivism

S i r :
I am a graduate student in mathematics education and I have come across your radical constructivist perspective. Unlike the social constructivist view, I cannot visualize radical constructivist approach to teaching mathematics. I do not have access to your books here in the Philippines, so would you please provide me some short answers, tips or pointers?

Mate Aggabao
There is no essential discrepancy between social and radical constructivism with regard to math education. The work of Heinrich Bauersfeld and Paul Cobb shows this very clearly [lots of references in the literature . See also the book I edited: Radical Constructivism in Math. Education, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991]. The disagreement concerns the locus of knowledge. Some social constructivists get angry when I say that knowledge exists nowhere but in the heads of individuals. This does not deny the role of social interaction - it merely stresses the obvious fact that 'others', society, language, etc. become known to the individual only by way of his or her interpretation of the relevant interactions. This is important not only for mathematics but for all education: understanding cannot be conveyed, neither by society nor by teachers, it has to be constructed be each individual - which is not to say that others cannot help!


Question 3: Why is Piaget’s constructivism not seen as ‘naive’ rather than ‘radical’ [given that commentators criticise his discussion of the relationships between ‘cognition’ and ‘language’ as falling short of being a comprehensive account of the genesis of a languaging observer’s self-awareness]?

The criticism of the anonymous ‘commentators’ seems to spring from an interpretation of Maturana’s theory, and Maturana has made it clear that he does not like the term ‘constructivism’ with or without the qualification ‘radical’. Indeed, both Piaget and myself do not quite agree with Maturana’s view of language, its genesis, and the contention that it precedes cognition.
I follow Piaget’s idea that language begins to develop when the cognitive organism begins deliberately to re-present to itself experiences that are remembered but not available at the moment. According to this view, conceptual construction, which is part of cognition, has to begin before language.
Part of this difference has no doubt to do with how one defines ‘language’. Piaget sees language as a specialization of a preceding symbolic activity that is purely subjective. Maturana, I believe, includes this in his use of the term ‘language’.
As for ‘consciousness’ or ‘self-awareness’, I consider it mysterious or, as Hans Vaihinger would say, as an heuristic fiction.
There is no question in my mind that Piaget’s theory is ‘radical’, because he has stated innumerable times that knowledge does not have the purpose of ‘representing’ an external world, but serves the organism’s adaptation. Consequently, it is not assessed on the basis of its ‘truth’, but on its experiential viability.

Préciser viability en regard de la matière dense et des demie-vies

Question 4 If we construct our own unique reality and act upon that reality then social settings must be the product of many constructed realities rather than one socially constructed reality. What would a Radical Constructivist rather than social constructionist social science look like? From:

Answer -
Social constructionists [Ken Gergen & Co.] agree with the radicals that reality cannot be known, but they speak of social reality as though it were something outside the heads of people, and they could nevertheless know it [for my view, see answer to question 1]. - Social science, to me, is constructed like other sciences: I contemplate experiences of interactions [with others], abstract regularities from them, formulate these as best I can in words and sentences which I then present to others. If they agree, I conclude that they have interpreted my words in a way that to them seemed compatible with their own abstractions. Where there is no agreement, we can discuss, explain, negotiate, and run experiments, in the hope of finding mutually compatible abstractions and formulations. After a while, we may call the body of statements we have managed to agree on, ‘social science’.

========== [page consultée le 2000-09-06]

Q: What's left to be done and what can be concluded about what in our brains allows us to have consciousness? I'm under the impression that we still don't know if we have some sort of a soul or if our brains are purely chemical. How would one find out either way? How could you prove that we don't have souls? Are there any papers on this topic already? Who else can I ask about this? Thanks a lot for any information you can give me.

The following question was submitted by Darrin, a high school student from Toronto, Canada.
What's left to be done and what can be concluded about what in our brains allows us to have consciousness? I'm under the impression that we still don't know if we have some sort of a soul or if our brains are purely chemical. How would one find out either way? How could you prove that we don't have souls? Are there any papers on this topic already? Who else can I ask about this? Thanks a lot for any information you can give me.
The following answer was provided by scientist Crista Barberini.
The question concerns a topic of enormous interest to many people, both in the field of neuroscience and in general. The question is best divided into two parts: the issue of "consciousness" and the issue of "souls."
The issue of "consciousness"—what it is, how to define it, how to quantify and measure it in humans and other animals, and ultimately, how to find the activity in the brain that corresponds to it—has received more attention in recent years. The topic is highly controversial, and currently, there's no consensus among neuroscientists even on such basic things as what the definition should be (for example, does consciousness involve self-awareness, the ability to imagine the future, both, or neither?), let alone whether the few studies that exist have successfully shown a neural correlate of consciousness. It's also important to note that many neuroscientists don't think the topic is a valid one for neuroscience, that is, that "consciousness" is not a quantifiable, clearly defined entity that scientists can measure, but instead is a poorly defined concept used in other fields and areas, such that "consciousness" doesn't necessarily correspond to a particular neural function.
At the forefront of researchers who have spent some time thinking about this issue is Francis Crick (who won the Nobel Prize many years ago for his work with DNA). References to some of his articles are included below. In addition, the University of Arizona has hosted a conference on consciousness every year for the past couple years; the proceedings of that conference would serve as a nice summary of the current viewpoints on this topic. (You'll find the proceedings at, and you can find out more about consciousness studies at
Regarding the issue of "souls," no neuroscience research is being done on this topic, and the questioner will not find an answer to the question of whether humans have "souls" within this field. While each neuroscientist is a different human being with a different set of beliefs, religious or otherwise, such that I can't speak for all neuroscientists, it is safe to say that most if not all neuroscientists would agree that the question of whether we have "souls" is not a scientific one. This is easy to see if one notes that a scientific question is one that involves a hypothesis that one can test by doing an experiment; if this is not the case, the question is not scientific (instead, it could be, for example, philosophical or religious). What experiment could one do to prove or disprove the existence of a "soul"? While each individual will have things they may take as evidence for or against the idea that we have "souls," one will find that there is no objective criterion that people will agree on, and that the things people take as evidence do not (and cannot) qualify as scientific experiments.
The proper subjects of scientific enquiry are those things which exist entirely within this physical world, and which are clearly definable and quantifiable. For anything that doesn't unquestionably fall into this category, science has (or at least should have) no comment.
Crick, F., and C. Koch. "Consciousness and neuroscience." Cerebral Cortex 8(2):97-107, 1998.
Crick, F. "Visual perception: rivalry and consciousness." Nature 379(6565):485-6, 1996.
Crick, F., and C. Koch. "Are we aware of neural activity in primary visual cortex?" Nature 375(6527):121-3, 1995.