On Relativism and Constructivism


Breaking waves
In this episode I’m going to explain the differences between the philosophical concepts of relativism and constructivism.

A student recently wrote me an email and asked me about the similarities and differences between relativism and constructivism. I already started to write an email to answer this question when I reconsidered and decided to take this opportunity to make another podcast episode out of it.

Now before I start off, I just want to say that we have to be a bit careful that we are not getting too theoretical about this. And if a “real” expert on this topic discovers some inaccuracies in my explanation, I kindly request some forgiveness….. I have not studied this particular aspect in much detail myself.

In any case, relativism and constructivism – These are two related philosophical concepts but they are kind of broad, and there are several different aspect to each one of them. I can certainly not cover all of these aspects in a few minutes, we have to stay elementary here.

The concept of Truth Relativism is a view that absolute truths do not exist, and that truth (whatever it may be) depends on something else, on some context. To give you an example – You have probably already heard of the expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Now this statement assumes that an absolute view of beauty does not exists. What is beautiful or ugly depends on the beholder (the person viewing it). Likewise, relativists would say that absolute truths do not exist, but that truth depends on culture, experience, and other external factors – a so called “frame of reference”. Absolute ethical values, in their view, do not exist, or maybe can not exist.

Scientists of course, assume that an objective reality does exist, and they try to discover this objective reality. Scientific knowledge, after all, should be independent of anyone’s culture, experience, background, opinion, beliefs, religion, etc.

Constructivism is a related term and it is also used in a range of different ways. And to make the issue a bit more exciting, it is even possible to subdivide constructivism into “radical constructivism” and “moderate constructivism”. A radical constructivist would say that an objective reality, an objective outside world does not exist. It is a product of one’s mind. So if you are listening to this audio file or reading the text on the screen, then this may all be a fabrication of your brain. The computer screen in front of you does not exist! Your brain makes you think that you are looking at a screen, you are just hallucinating! Essentially it is an extreme form of relativism – the things that you percieve as reality actually depend on your brain.

Moderate constructivism is, in my personal view, a bit more useful. It is commonly used in connection with education and learning theory. Essentially it states that each person has to construct knowledge individually. In their view, a teacher is not able to teach a student anything at all. The teacher is only able to support or help a student to build up his or her own knowledge.

Now where is the link to relativism? Moderate constrctivists assume that each person’s view of reality (of science, of math, of arts, of history etc.) is constructed in the person’s brain, the view of reality depends therefore on the individual person. Moderate constructivism therefore is a form of relativism, but not an extreme one. Moderate constructivists may not deny that an outside reality exists. But they do state that individual people percieve and interpret this reality differenty.
I want to conclude with two examples. I am not only teaching Theory of Knowledge but also Biology. Every year we are doing a little drawing activity using a microscope. I ask my students to draw the onion cells that they see in the microscope. All of the students are seeing the same cells. But when I collect the drawings at the end of the class, I receive all forms of different cell shapes. They are all looking at the same cells! But they are interpreting reality differently. Some students consider the cells to be very small, and they will draw 250 small cells on a sheet of paper, others consider the cells to be very regular and they will give me drawings where the cells look like the bricks in a wall. Still others will place a very strong emphasis on the dirt and the dust that they see in the microscope, but consider the cells less important….. I get all sorts of different drawings, not two of them are the same. Each students has constructed his or her own view of how onion cells look like.

And a final last example. Imagine two young boys fighting on the school yard, rolling over on the ground, yelling at each other, you know how kids are. And then imagine a few bystanders. Some of them will say, “what a horrible fight, we have to separate them, they are going to hurt each other!” and then imagine other bystanders seeing the same fight saying “Are they having a great time! I wish I were young again to be able to do the same thing!” Each bystander has constructed his/her own view of the situation. The severity of the fight is relative and is in the eye of the beholder.

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We can understand almost anything, but we can't understand how we understand.

- Albert Einstein -