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Constructivism in a Nutshell


Constructivism, like most philosophical ideas, sounds complex and intimidating if you’ve never heard it before, or are unfamiliar with what it means. But it’s actually not that complicated.

I was doing some thinking about it earlier today, and thought of a rather straightforward way to explain it.

Take something that’s a simple physical fact–such as the temperature of water.

Temperature is essentially how energetic the molecules of water are: if they’re more energetic, they move faster and are hotter; if they are less energetic, they move more slowly and are colder.

But a measurement, such as showing the temperature in degrees, is merely a representation. It does not tell you the energy of the water itself. You could try to represent that energy using other numbers and scales, but again, they will only ever be representations. To invoke another aphorism: the map is not the territory.

Temperature is something you can feel with your own senses, even if you can’t measure it precisely that way. Instead, you touch the water with your skin, which produces electrical impulses in your nerves, which signal your brain, which raises up to your conscious mind that you’re touching something that’s wet and of some particular temperature (hot, cold, etc.) All of these are imperfect, imprecise representations of an underlying fact: the energy state of the water. You would then form the results of those sensations into vocalizations or written glyphs which are symbolically meaningful to us, but yet another layer of representation. Ultimately, there is no way to get at the truth of the matter: the energy state of the water. At best, one can produce representations or interpretations of it, but the underlying reality is simply not knowable.

To understand and accept this is to begin to grasp constructivism.

Everything in human experience functions this way, as well. Communication allows us to relate to one another, but it’s hopelessly imperfect and incomplete, not to mention subjective.

I have seen constructivism dismissed as pointless philosophical pondering. After all, one can read a post like this and understand it, so what’s the problem? Clearly, we can communicate! Ideas can pass from one person to another! There must be something concrete to that, right? But the lesson here is that we all bring our own versions of reality to the table–our own bodies, experiences, and existing worldviews. My idea of what’s hot or cold may not match yours. They might differ slightly, or dramatically. Without exploring further and being willing to challenge those kinds of assumptions, we can’t approach better understandings of one another and the world we inhabit.

In essence, constructivism tells us that everything we know about the world is built up as the sum of our experiences, filtered through our own senses and brains. We’re all different, so our perceptions and interpretations are different, too. This is not insurmountable, but it means we can’t take what we think we know for granted–we must always be willing to examine and reconsider it. What is built must sometimes be patched up or remodeled, or even torn down and remade from scratch.