“Constructivism” has several unrelated meanings, all based on the idea that something is being “constructed.”
In sociology and anthropology, constructivism is the view that social reality is constructed by human beings — structures such as race, class, and nationality are all social constructions rather than objective realities.
Sometimes, philosophers use the word “constructivism” to refer to this idea, but nearly every form of constructivism is highly controversial, as we’ll see throughout the article.
Constructivism is a complicated term for two reasons: first, it can refer to more than one idea. Second, these ideas can be applied in several fields, where they have different implications. So it makes more sense to think of constructivism as a family of concepts and approaches, not a single concept.
II. Types of Constructivism
It’s a little misleading to think of these as “types” of constructivism, because that would imply that they’re different variations of a single idea. But these two forms of constructivism are really different ideas altogether, though they happen to share the same name.
- Social Constructivism: concepts are constructed by society. For example, in philosophy of science, the idea is that scientific truth is socially constructed; in moral philosophy, the idea is that moral truth is socially constructed; and so on. Social constructivism appears in many fields, but these are the most common.
- Philosophical Constructivism: the job of philosophers is to do some kind of idea construction. This is most often applied to ethics (moral philosophy) and social/political philosophy, where the idea is that philosophers should have the job of building new ideas rather than just observing and analyzing the ideas that already exist in society.
This table lists a few of the possible meanings of “constructivism,” but it’s not a complete list! As you explore philosophy, you may find other uses of the word that are not found in this table. But these are the more common uses:
|Social Construction||Philosophical Construction|
|Epistemology (Philosophy of Knowledge) and Philosophy of Science||Scientific knowledge is not absolute. All truth/knowledge is mediated through society and is an expression of social hierarchies, power, etc.||—|
|Ethics/Moral Philosophy||Moral truth is not absolute or eternal. It is a social construction, often created to preserve the power of social/political/economic elites.||Moral truth cannot simply be found “out there” the way scientific truths are. We cannot discover morality. We must build it by reasoning and practicing philosophy together. This involves a group effort, but in the end we can hope to achieve broad agreement on moral questions.|
|Social/Political Philosophy||Political structures are not “natural” or eternal. They are constructed by societies, and often designed to preserve the power of social/political/economic elites.||Human beings have the power to design better social systems, and philosophy has a major role to play in this. Philosophers can debate the various visions for society and point out their flaws, all in an effort to construct a society that will be perfect, or at least noticeably better than the one we have now. If this collective conversation does not take place, societies cannot make social/political progress.|
III. Constructivism vs. Realism
In most versions of constructivism, its opposite is realism. Whatever constructivism views as constructed, realism views it as “real.” According to Realism:
- Epistemology/Philosophy of Science: knowledge is based on what’s out there in the world. Truths are absolute and do not change based on culture or history. The world we see around us is real, not constructed.
- Ethics/Moral Philosophy: Moral truth is based on a single, objective standard, and is always the same regardless of what culture we may live in. Moral truth is revealed or discovered, not constructed
- Social/Political Philosophy: Social and political structures are based on natural realities, not constructions.
There was a time in Europe when people believed that the royal families were biologically different from the rest of humanity, and this was why they had the right to rule over everyone else! Needless to say, this position is not very popular today.
Although realism is the opposite of constructivism, many people have combined them into a single view.
You might say that scientific knowledge is a combination of social constructs and “real” knowledge. Of course, the problem then is to figure out how you can tell the realities from the social constructions! Another possibility is to point out that social constructs are also realities of a different sort, and so reality and social construction depend on each other to exist.
IV. Quotes About Constructivism
“Knowing reality means constructing systems of transformations that correspond, more or less adequately, to reality.” (Jean Piaget)
Jean Piaget was a philosopher and highly influential educational reformer. His ideas have been adopted by the “constructivist” movement in education, which basically takes philosophical constructivism as a basis for educating children. Like constructivist philosophers, children in this model are taught to build new systems of understanding for themselves and their classmates, rather than just having knowledge handed to them fully-formed.
“It’s the invention of clothes, not nature, that made ‘private parts’ private.” (Mokokoma Mokhonoana)
Mokokoma Mokhonoana, the South African philosopher and social critic, is a strong proponent of social constructivism. He argues that nature does not dictate our social forms, and thus nature cannot explain them either. He criticizes attempts to “naturalize” things like privacy, sexuality, nations, and money, arguing that all of them are social constructs that didn’t have to be this way.
V. The History and Importance of Constructivism
Because constructivism is a family of concepts, not a concept, it’s hard to trace its history — you would have to tell two or three different stories at once! So rather than follow the story from beginning to end, it might make more sense to talk about a few philosophical “moments” that have inspired constructivist thinkers over the years. These different moments are not necessarily related in any particular way, but they’ve all played a role in shaping some version of constructivism.
Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave” can be taken as an early form of social constructivism. Some scholars argue that this is not how Plato intended it, but nonetheless constructivist philosophers have often taken inspiration from the idea. Plato’s allegory goes like this:
Imagine a group of people sitting in a cave, facing the wall with their backs to the cave entrance. When people walk around outside the cave, they cast shadows which fall on the cave wall. The people in the cave don’t realize there’s anything behind them; they think the shadows are reality! The job of the philosopher is to set these people free, to turn them around so that they can see the reality, and understand that what they saw before was simply shadows.
On a constructivist interpretation, this allegory corresponds to the ways that society only shows us “shadows” of the truth. Some constructivists, however, argue that this doesn’t make sense because there is no “reality” beneath the social constructions: to them, it’s impossible to free the people in the cave because there is no way to escape from social constructions. Or, at the very least, it doesn’t make sense to imagine the philosophers being the ones who free them — after all, philosophy is just another social construction! Social constructivists disagree about whether there is any reality beyond the social constructions. They run the gamut from extreme constructivists, who believe that the constructions are the only reality, to more moderate constructivists who believe that the constructions are powerful, but that there is still a reality behind them that human beings can somehow access or understand even if only dimly.
Kant is a major thinker for many constructivists, especially those who want to hold on to some amount of realism. Kant argued that all human thought is constrained by certain “categories,” and even though we never completely escape these categories, we can still gain accurate, real knowledge through them.
It’s a little like a pair of tinted goggles: when you look through them, they’ll distort your vision of the world, maybe making everything appear red. But just because they distort the world doesn’t mean you can’t see through them at all! You can still gain accurate knowledge of reality, for example noticing when there is a tree or a dog in front of you. It’s just that your knowledge is never completely accurate because the colors are distorted.
The job of philosophy, Kantians argue, is basically to try and understand what color the goggles are, so that we can correct our vision of the world accordingly. Kantian philosophers believe that we can understand the categories through a process of philosophical debate, and that once we understand what they are we will understand how our vision of the world is distorted.
This is an example of philosophical constructivism. If you imagine that the goggles are socially constructed, however, it would also be an example of social constructivism. (This was not Kant’s view — he thought the goggles were placed on the mind before birth.)
Gramsci was an Italian revolutionary who did his philosophical work while rotting in a jail cell in Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Drawing on the insights of Karl Marx, Gramsci argued that social reality was constructed by and for the owning classes. The way we understand the world, Gramsci argued, is determined by media and education; and media and education are controlled by people with social and political power. Therefore, the powerful did not simply control wealth or the government — they controlled knowledge and understanding. In a philosophical sense, they controlled the minds of the working classes. In order to escape these social constructions, Gramsci believed, it was necessary for the working classes to band together and rise up against their oppressors. But this would never be possible until the working classes were able to see what the oppressors had been hiding.
It’s easy to imagine how Gramsci, as a victim of fascism, could take this kind of view toward authority. His insights, however, have inspired revolutionaries throughout the world to overthrow various kinds of social oppression.
VI. Constructivism in Popular Culture
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village is a horror movie similar to the social-constructionist version of Plato’s cave. The movie is set in a small village in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. No one is allowed to leave the village because the surrounding woods are full of man-eating monsters. But when a man in the village falls sick, the elders decide to send a young blind girl through the woods to get medicine for him. Despite being blind, the girl discovers that her entire village is a lie — it’s not the 1800s at all, it’s the present day, and the village was founded in the 1970s by a group of traumatized adults who wanted to escape from the horrors and pressures of modernity. Children raised in the village have no idea that their reality is a social construct, just like the people in Plato’s cave.
“Who controls the past, now, controls the future
Who controls the present, now, controls the past.” (Rage Against the Machine — “Testify”)
These lyrics are actually a quote from George Orwell’s 1984. The line is inspired by a constructivist view of history: whoever controls our understanding of history can control what direction we take in the future, and whoever has the most power in the present can control our understanding of history. This implies a constructivist view of history in which what we know about our past is a social construct dictated by the people in power. It’s similar in many ways to Gramsci’s philosophy.