The camera analogy(3) – constructing knowledge

by Neil Rickert

There are some theories of knowledge that are variously known as constructionism or constructivism.  The proponents of these theories claim that knowledge is constructed.  For an introduction to some of these theories, I suggest Sociology of scientific knowledge and The Edinburgh “Strong Programme”.

In this post, I shall use the camera analogy to examine what is at issue.  The main issue that has been raised is the question of whether constructionist ideas are proposing that reality itself is constructed, which might make constructionism look similar to Berkeley’s idealism.  Some of the literature on social constructionism does use expressions such as “the social construction of reality,” which seem to suggest that reality is a construct.  Many people, including many scientists, reject such an idea as obviously wrong.

My own views of knowledge can be said to be constructionist.  However, I do not suggest that reality itself is a social construct, nor do I suggest anything similar to Berkeley’s idealism.

Using the camera analogy, we think of the camera as taking photographs and we think of those photographs as representations of the world, as something analogous to beliefs or propositions.  The camera itself is the apparatus that we use to form those representations.

If we want to consider the idea of knowledge as constructed, then we need to ask “What is it that is constructed?”  In terms of the camera analogy, we could be talking about construction of the camera, or we could be talking about construction of the photographs.  If we are talking of construction of the photographs, we can perhaps think of something like the Walt Disney studios, with artists generating the cartoon photos that we have seen in animated films.  And if that is what constructionism proposes, then it does indeed lead to concern that constructionists are suggesting that reality itself is a social construct.

If, however, we are talking about construction of the camera (or apparatus), there seems to be far less reason for concern.  It is a fact of life that cameras are human inventions.  Yet, nevertheless, those cameras seem to be able to form accurate representations of reality.  So there should be no great concern about a constructionism that is concerned only with construction of the apparatus used to form representations, and not with constructing the actual representations themselves.

The idea of construction of the apparatus is consistent with the view of learning that I discussed in the previous post in this series.  The suggestion there was that an important part of learning amounts to a kind of perceptual learning, an increase in the amount of detail in the world that we are able to express.  A constructionism of this form is a construction of the ability to access that additional detail, and a construction of language, perhaps scientific technical language, such as is required to express this increase in the detail about the world.  In science we see this with the construction of new equipment (telescopes, microscopes, various kinds of sensors), and with the new technical terminology that accompanies these instruments.

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