KARL JASPERS FORUM
Commentary 3 (to C1, Wallner)
CONSTRUCTIVE REALISM AND ZERO-DERIVATION (0-D) STRUCTURING
by Herbert FJ Müller
6 April 2009, posted 11 April 2009
It is of interest to compare Friedrich Wallner’s ‘Constructive Realism’ with the zero-derivation view. They have several points in common, and there are some differences.
In contrast to logical positivism, which wanted to avoid metaphysics because it was said to be without meaning, Constructive Realism assumes that it is necessary to talk about ‘reality’ (and thus about metaphysics). It distinguishes between two kinds of reality : ‘Wirklichkeit’, which is the environment (Umwelt) in which we live and practice science but is unknowable; and ‘Realität’ (opinions, Meinungen), which is the ‘sum total of microworlds’, which are each ‘constructed by different kinds of language’, according to kind of knowledge and culture (1). ‘Knowledge’ is related to ‘tentative action’ (Probehandeln, (2) p.108). Constructive Realism does not claim to make statements about ‘Wirklichkeit’ (Wallner calls this a ‘renouncement of meta-positions’ or ‘meta-levels’, of normative control, p.109), but instead about the relation between actions and ‘Realität’ ((2) p.109). Together they form an ‘ontology’ (1). In contrast to Kant, the transcendental ego is rejected.
Wallner proposes a method, ‘Verfremdung’, as an alternative to logical meta-reflection. (The term means estrangement, distancing, disassociation, alienation; it has been used in theatre and film by B. Brecht and others, in Russia in particular, as a method to keep the audience from being too passive, more critical; but Wallner himself proposes a more technical English translation, ‘strangification’, which he says should be both interdisciplinary and intercultural). It is the deliberate neglect of an implicit context of thinking (p.110), ‘similar to re-framing in psychotherapy’ (3<11>).
The method is a further development of ideas proposed by Wittgenstein; a change of context may produce nonsensical results, but at the same time new aspects can emerge, for consideration ((2) p.86). This is related to creative contradiction between autonomous partners, e.g., scientists (p.89). The result is situation-dependent and content-dependent. Wallner prefers this method to that of a ‘super-observer’ (Maturana) and of ‘showing-itself’ (Wittgenstein). There are no fixed rules for this technique, only suggestions for strategies (p.111). There is an ‘uncertainty about objects’, and that ‘becomes a virtue’.
However, traditional science implies a unity of human thinking, but that unity cannot be specified and remains unclear, and instead scientists need to use a language that is comprehensible to the different disciplines (p.87). Wallner nevertheless maintains Plato’s opinion that MIR-‘Reality’ (his ‘Wirklichkeit’) exists although it is unknowable.
The question of unity has actually two main aspects : (a) unity of individual experience (see  below), and (b) general inter-cultural unity of experience. The latter means that eventually everything will be understood by everybody in all cultures ((3)<6>). Wallner says that is an impossible European prejudice, and it should be given up ((3)<2>). However, the same is also implied in his own notion of ‘unknowable Wirklichkeit’, which too is a European product, and identical with metaphysics. It seems that he does not make this connection, and since he maintains this MIR-assumption, his view is inconsistent. Both MIR and inter-individual unity of experience can be transformed to feedback about the viability (vonGlasersfeld’s term) of structures.
He does on the other hand discuss the relation of Constructive Realism to metaphysics ((2) pp.114-5), which he states has failed to provide (i) a secure foundation (Letztbegründung), (ii) a secure dialectic, and (iii) a holistic framework. According to Wallner, language philosophy has also failed to deal with these questions in a satisfactory way. He writes that the first two have been impossible because reality was seen as absolute; but in Constructive Realism it can be replaced by construction. The ‘whole’ can also be seen as an operational concept. He proposes that the relation between Holisms and possibilities of action can be understood in terms of cybernetic regulatory circles.
Wallner distinguishes between instrumental knowledge and understanding or interpretation, for instance in particle physics ((3) <7-8,24>). He suggests that for understanding one has to leave a closed conceptual system and cross the boundaries of one’s specialty. This is certainly important for many questions, mainly those with sociological content. But there is also a more basic and probably more important problem which he does not mention : that by understanding we tend to mean (visual-)gestalt-thinking (‘a picture of the world’ (3<18>)). And gestalt-thinking has limits and is in fact irrelevant in some areas; particle physics is one of them. It did not become clear to me in what way strangification improves the understanding of the double-slit experiment.
He also proposes that there will be ‘a dissolution of philosophy in science through strangification’ (‘verfremdende Auflösung der Philosophie in Wissenschaft’; (2) p.113). The expression ‘dissolution of philosophy’ apparently means de-construction of metaphysics; it is not likely that as a philosopher he believes one should cease to reflect on what one thinks and does, which is the main task of philosophy.
He suggests that Constructive Realism ‘provides a service for scientists and those concerned by science’ (p.116).
The second part, Wallner’s ‘construction’ (Realität), complements the first postulated unknowable aspect (Wirklichkeit). Because the latter implies an explicit maintenance of (or return to) belief in unknowable MIR, ‘Constructive Realism’ is a metaphysical view, as is also implied in the word Realism. A true constructivist view has to exclude the possibility of MIR.
The reason for the relapse is that mind-independent reality (MIR-) belief had never been given up, despite many passionate statements by empiricists, positivists, and others, that metaphysics was meaningless and should be abandoned; and furthermore despite the efforts to de-construct metaphysics (by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and others). Even the phenomenologists had maintained ontology-belief in one way or another. And mind-independent reality, ontology, is metaphysics.
We are now witnessing a previously unexpected, and actually rather widespread, return to metaphysics, after centuries of supposedly non-metaphysical epistemology. It is evident, however, that the 2500 year old conceptual problems related to metaphysics have by no means been resolved (see for instance TA 110 C4). It goes back to a dichotomy expressed in the proem ‘on nature’ by Parmenides : (a) ‘thinking and being are the same’ (implying or at least allowing constructivism), and (b) being ‘is and cannot not be’ (mind-independently, implying metaphysics; the latter has shaped occidental epistemology until now).
This MIR-maintenance or -relapse happens here in German-language philosophy, and parallels the more intense MIR-maintenance or -relapse in the Anglo-American one (P.F. Strawson, D. Lewis, C.B. Martin, A. Bird, J. Ladyman and others), which was discussed in connection with TA110. There is also a recent French-language effort of this type (Q. Meillassoux, see TA 114).
But with some relatively minor corrections, Wallner’s view is compatible with 0-D. His proposal demonstrates, as do many others, the conflict between the impossibility (that is the inability to know) of MIR and the need for such a structure (for stability and exploration). The proposal to reduce one’s view to nonsense (Wittgenstein and Wallner) can be re-interpreted as an invitation to return to an unstructured matrix, in order to start structuring afresh. The required corrections are firstly abandoning MIR-Wirklichkeit; secondly the ‘lack of unity’ in the individual sense (it cannot be found ready-made) is taken care of by structuring a self, in the same way as all other structures are structured, by means of subject-inclusive activity. And thirdly, the assumption of inter-individual and inter-cultural unity of the basis of experience is identical with the notion of MIR; both result from the European history of epistemology, and can be abandoned together.
The trial action guided by tentative reality-designs is a feature which Constructive Realism has in common with 0-D. Like 0-D, it also includes subjects explicitly (p.112) rather than trying to exclude them, as Wittgenstein did.
0-D (which was developed with the specific aim of providing an access to the conceptual mind-brain relation) is not compatible with traditional MIR-belief, but it neither accepts nor rejects metaphysics. A tool of this type is needed as a stabilizer for thinking and for completion of experience, in particular to make it suitable for exploration. But 0-D transforms it from an impossible because inaccessible mind-independent ‘given’, to a subject-inclusive activity of ‘reality-design’ (or ‘working-metaphysics’), within ongoing experience, which encompasses its structures (Jaspers).
This change in view makes all of structuring knowable and simultaneously eliminates the need for assumptions of mind-independent reality (MIR). It is replaced by the feedback-information about viability during use of structures; this defines ‘reality’ (if this term is desired) as : what can we do dealing with experience ? 0-D explicitly denies the need for (as well as the possibility of) MIR-Wirklichkeit. A working-reality is designed and tried out, including structuring of objects; its adequacy is determined by feedback obtained during trial-action; doubt is always maintained.
The ‘transcendence’ of metaphysics is maintained in 0-D : it is an aspect of mind-internal reality-design, which ‘goes beyond’ present structured experience. The stability function of MIR-belief is replaced by feedback-during-use, about the viability of the used structures. Since every mental structure is a subject-inclusive product, there is no need for more than one type of reality, and thus the self-contradiction disappears together with the MIR-belief.
Summary of the main differences between Constructive Realism and 0-D Structuring :
The unknowable MIR-Wirklichkeit, and the inter-individual unity, are identical with traditional metaphysics, a European epistemology concept. It is not needed, and causes difficulties in understanding. When it is abandoned, it is replaced by feedback-information about the viability of the used structures. This change is required for qualification as ‘constructivism’.
‘Uncertainty about objects, ‘change of context’, and ’Verfremdung’ (strangification) can be more comprehensively understood and used as ‘return to structuring in the unstructured’.
‘Knowing’ (understanding) does not only require reflection and crossing conceptual boundaries, but is also more severely limited by the limitations of (mainly visual) gestalt-thinking.
(1) Shen, V (1996) Confucianism and Taoism in Response to Constructive Realism. TA113 in Karl Jaspers Forum, 14 March 2009.
(2) Wallner F, (1992) Konstruktion der Realität. Von Wittgenstein zum Konstruktiven Realismus. WUV Universitätsverlag : Wien.
(3) Wallner FG (2004) : Culture and Science. The Methodological Approach. C1 to TA113, in Karl Jaspers Forum, 14 March 2009.
Herbert FJ Müller
e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>