Poster: “Constructivist epistemology”

Constructivist epistemology: an analysis of the constitutive role of viability constraints

Tom Froese
MIND2006: Graduate Conference in the Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science
15-16 June 2006, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

The enactive paradigm in the cognitive sciences rejects the objectivist correspondence theory of truth on epistemological grounds. It maintains that we can have no knowledge of an observer-independent reality because all our knowledge is ultimately derived from our experience. This experience is inherently from the point of view of a living being which is constrained by both biological and cognitive structures (Von Glasersfeld 2001). In addition, the objectivist claim that our knowledge can represent external, independent states of affairs is undermined by neuroscientific evidence that shows the nervous system to be an autonomous, structure-determined dynamical system with an operationally closed organization (Von Foerster 1984). For such a system, inside and outside exist only for the observer who beholds it and not for the system as such (Maturana 1978).

However, while it follows from these considerations that the adequacy of our knowledge cannot be verified by reference to an observer-independent, objective truth, it is evidently not entirely arbitrary, either. It can easily be observed that our experiential world is rather tightly constrained independently of our will, and that this typically manifests itself through our experience of a break-down of expectations. Indeed, in the constructivist tradition such break-downs play an important constitutive role in the structuring of our experiential world (Varela 1995). In addition, the viability constraints which limit our behavior are sometimes attributed to an underlying reality principle (Stewart 1992).

It can be tempting to deduce from these claims that the experience of such constraints can provide us with knowledge of the ontological structures of reality. However, in this talk it will be argued that break-downs of expectations are always experienced from within a particular point of view, and as such they do not provide us with access to an observer-independent reality. By combining phenomenological observations with insights from the biology of cognition (Maturana & Varela 1980) it will be shown that, at most, an experiential encounter with a viability constraint enables us to know what is not the case. Furthermore, this knowledge will be relative with respect to the given internal and external context of the observer which led to the unexpected situation. However, all this does not mean that viability constraints cannot provide us with some certainty, as “to have proved a hypothesis false is indeed the peak of knowledge” (McCulloch 1970, p. 154).


Maturana, H.R. (1978), ‘Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality’, Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought: Essays in Honor of Eric Lenneberg, Miller, G., & Lenneberg, E. (eds.), New York: NY: Academic Press, pp. 27-63

Maturana, H.R., & Varela, F.J. (1980), Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Publishers

McCulloch, W.S. (1970), Embodiments of Mind, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

Stewart, J. (1992), ‘Life = Cognition: The epistemological and ontological significance of Artificial Life’, Towards a Practice of Autonomous Systems, Varela, F.J., & Bourgine, P. (eds.), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

Varela, F.J. (1995), ‘The Re-Enchantment of the Concrete. Some biological ingredients for a nouvelle cognitive science’, The artificial life route to artificial intelligence, Steels, L., & Brooks, R. (eds.), Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 11-22

Von Foerster, H. (1984), ‘On Constructing a Reality’, The Invented Reality: How do we know what we believe we know?, Watzlawick, P. (ed.), New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 41-61

Von Glasersfeld, E. (2001), ‘The radical constructivist view of science’, Foundations of Science, 6, pp. 31-43


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