Re: Whither TRUTH????

Jack Adams-Webber (
Wed, 12 Apr 1995 08:26:36 -0500

> With this posting, Jim invokes the notion of "utility" to provide a
>standard by which we evaluate our claims about the world. I assume that he
>means something like "utility for explaining input from our world". I've
>always found this idea attractive. I recently viewed a documentary about a
>community of people in South America (what some might consider to be a
>"primitive" group). Because of contact with Westerners, the community has
>sufferred many diseases to which they lack immunity. Such conditions are
>conceptualized as the results of spirits which inhabit the body. To
>eliminate such conditions, a shaman performs an elaborate ritual to drive
>out the spirits.
> Now, if we use the notion of utility to evaluate our claims about the
>world, we might say that the belief in spirits is a more or less useful way
>for these persons to understand the source of what we call illness or
>disease -- it provides a way of understanding the conditions and a way of
>reacting to them. However, at least from my vantage point, it (and I don't
>have evidence here) probably not particularly useful as a means of
>eliminating those conditions we call diseases. I don't think that the
>concept of spirit is a very useful one for explaining the source of death
>due to what we call illness.
> Therefore, when we speak of utility, we must always specify, useful for
>what (I'm not saying Jim didn't do this, I'm just making the statement).
>An explanation may be useful for one purpose (provide a coherent
>explanation of death) but not for another (explaining why the person died;
>providing a framework to forestall death). And so, some explanations are
>better than others. I believe that the concept of illness is a better, more
>useful explanation than the concept of spirits in explaining the causes of
>death in the Amazon. Even though I acknwledge that data or "facts" are not
>autonomous or independent of theoretical presupositions, I must say that
>the data of Western science provides a set of constraining conditions that
>make the concept of disease preferable to the concept of spirit as a way
>of explaining death in the Amazon.
> Do my statements contradict a constructivist analysis? Am I getting
>too close to empiricism? Thoughts on the subject?
>Mike Mascolo
>Merrimack College

As Agnew and Brown (1988a; p. 21) point out, "if our knowledge relies on
robust feedforward mechanisms, and highly selected abstracted feedback,
then much of such knowledge must be highly fallible." Theodore Mischel
(1964) earlier raised essentially the same issue in relation to Kelly's
model of the person-as-scientist: that is, how can our anticipations ever
be invalidated if we assess all 'feedback' from the environment in terms of
the same system of constructs that originally were used to formulate those

Specifically, Agnew and Brown (1989a, p. 14) suggest that "for Kelly the
foundations of human thought and knowledge, rest on subjectively construed
goodness-of-fit between anticipations and abstracted representations of
experience." The term experience seems somewhat ambiguous in this context.
>From a strictly Kellyan perspective, experience is constituted entirely by
our own representations. Our anticipations are themselves representations
of the same sort, only projected toward future events.

It follows that the 'feedback' in terms of which we evaluate our
anticipatory representations is also constructed by ourselves, and does not
necessarily reveal the 'real' nature of events as they are 'in-themselves',
that is, independently of our construing. As Don Campbell (1989, p. 186)
summarizes this position, "what the scientist cannot ever do is to compare
a belief directly to the "reality" it supposedly refers to". In short, our
constructs cannot be ultimately grounded in an external reality; but
rather, as Abraham Kaplan (1964) suggests, "they grope for their
denotations among events".

In Kellyan terms, insofar as the principle that explains human anticipation
lies in the 'mind' (i.e., psychology) and not external events, it consists
of our own intention to bring about a correspondence between our future
experience and certain of our current anticipations (cf. Mancuso &
Adams-Webber, 1982). Kelly (1955, p. 72) maintains further that,
"the successive revelation of events invites the person to place new
constructions upon them whenever something unexpected happens. Otherwise
one's anticipations would become less and less realistic"

On the other hand, "reality does not directly reveal itself to us".
Consequently, the feedback is not "abstracted" from events-in-themselves,
but rather it is constituted and regulated entirely by our own
constructions. Thus, the problem of how such an anticipatory
representational process might approximate 'objective truth' (as might
eventually Karl Popper's (1959) empirically falsifiable hypotheses)
simply does not arise from the perspective of Kelly's 'constructive

The basic question that does remain, however, is the fundamental
epistemological issue of how we can evaluate the adequacy of our
'knowledge' when we cannot step outside the range of convenience of the
representations that we ourselves have constructed in order to compare them
directly with an external 'reality'?

Constructivists of various stripes insist on the importance of states of
mind that somehow effectively represent states of the world. Kelly (1955)
was reaching toward a possible resolution of this problem when he adopted a
strictly pragmatic approach to assessing the adequacy of our
representations. He claimed that they should be evaluated in terms of
their basic function, which, according to his 'fundamental postulate', is
anticipation, or if you prefer, 'temporal projection' Adams-Webber, 1989).

Kelly's constructive alternativism does not absolutely rule out the future
possibility of some degree of isomorphism between subjective
representations, on the one hand, and domain structure, on the other (Agnew
and Brown, 1989a). He does maintain, however, that the only currently
available criterion for evaluating the adequacy of our constructs is their
predictive utility with respect to our own subjective experience. He
assumed that as we improve our capacity to anticipate events, the overall
pattern of our experience should become more and more coherent, and we
shall consequently suffer less anxiety (i.e., confusion). In short, our
"confidence" in our personal constructs tends to be enhanced by experiences
which we interpret as consistent with our anticipations based on those
constructs, which is what Kelly refers to as "validation".

In sum, although there is no specific provision in Kellyan constructivism
for our 'picking up information' from the external world (cf. Neisser,
1976); there also is no explicit reason for us to assume that our
anticipations will not continue to accommodate gradually to whatever
(unknown) parameters define 'reality'. Consequently, as Agnew and Brown
(1989a) put it "Kelly's theory can provide for an optimism that some
knowledge, through time and through intra and inter-individual winnowing,
achieves increased 'external' validity".

Thus, Kelly's 'constructive alternativism' is not logically incompatible
with at least one of the basic tenets of classical realism: that is, there
is "a real adequation of the intellect and the object informing it...(which
is) a primitive ontological relation between intellect and object (Gilson,
1940; p. 237)." As Don Campbell (1989, p. 184) states the case, "A realist
ontology remains possible, but only at the cost of unproven assumptions".

Nonetheless, it is far from clear that, there is "ample room in Kelly's
formulation for both realists and constructivists", as Agnew & Brown,
1989a, p. 160) claim. Classical 'direct' realism also assumes a 'crucial
independence' of the objects of our knowledge from our own construing
processes; that is, "what we know are things existing independently of
cognition (Martin, 1957; p. 13)". As Francis Parker (1962; p. 382),
explains, "the thesis of cognitive independence means only and exactly that
an object of cognition is independent of and unrelated to the cognition
corresponding to it". Thus, in Husain's (1983, p. 12) words,
"epistemological realism holds that what is given in human experience are
the fully formed and structured external things that owe neither their
existence or characteristics to us."

In contrast, from a constructivist standpoint (whether Kantian or Kellyan),
there can be no such independence of the thing cognized from the cognition
of it. For example, as Theodore Mischel (1969; p. 18) states the case,
"Kant not only held that, since experience is not 'given' but is
constructed by us according to rules that we prescribe for it, what we know
is always things as they appear to us, never things in themselves." That
is, observers themselves construct the phenomena which they observe. When
we take into account this fundamental distinction between realism and
constructivism, it is difficult to see how any case for epistemological
realism can be made within a constructivist frame of reference.

On the other hand, as Mark Bickhard (1994) tells us, constructivism does
not force epistemological idealism, that is, the position that "what is
empirically given in human experience are only subjective atomistic sense
data and that we ourselves form these into objects for our perception
(Husain, 1983, p. 12)". Marta Husain (1983, p. 20) concludes in her
incisive analysis of Kelly's theory of knowledge, that
"something must be heterogeneous with constructs because only thus can they
enjoy ontological support, something to which they can attach themselves.
Hence event is presupposed by constructs as a subject term is presupposed
by the predicate terms, and event as the bearer of all constructs is much
more general than any construct".

After reiterating Husain's basic point that 'event' is the ontological
counterpart of 'construct' within the framework of Kellyan theory, Robert
Hoffman (1994) infers that Kelly's version of constructivism is, in
practice, more closely akin in several important respects to
epistemological realism than it is to either idealism or a free-floating
relativism. I am inclined to agree with him up to a point.

Kelly viewed events as having forms and patterns in their own right, prior
to the application of any constructs. For example, Husain (1983; p. 14)
points out that "the most important of these (forms) is time, which for
Kelly, unlike Kant, is not a priori but belongs to the data themselves
(i.e., 'input')". As the data already possess form, "our fundamental
constructs will be a posteriori and hence continuous with other empirical
hypotheses (Husain, 1983; p. 14)". In Kelly's (1955, p. 72) own words, the
constructions one places on events are working hypotheses which are about
to be put to the test of experience." As Hoffman (1994) notes, none of the
implications of Kelly's model logically precludes the possibility that the
'meaning' of events might someday become fully apparent to us in that we
may eventually agree on an entirely coherent explanation of the cosmos that
also seems to make sense in terms of our own experience.

The position that Don Campbell (1989) has put forward recently under the
banner of "hypothetical realism" also seems to be more compatible with
Kelly's pragmatic constructivism than it is with classical ("direct")
realism. Campbell suggests that reality plays an indirect and approximate
editing role for some of our perceptions and beliefs. Thus, Agnew and
Brown's (1989b) phrase "optimistic constructivism" (p. 26) would seem to be
a more appropriate label for Campbell's position than is his own term
"hypothetical realism". Nonetheless, Campbell's main idea could help to
explain how our anticipatory representations (hypotheses) often prove
functionally useful, despite our being unable to determine their so-called
'objective' truth status.

Even if all our current hypotheses are of indeterminate validity in terms
of their degree of correspondence with an independent reality underlying
events, they may continue to prove highly useful for anticipating new
possibilities as we persevere in our efforts to improve the range of
convenience of our constructs and to explore still unknown potentials of
human experience. According to Kelly (1969), the relevant issue is not
whether our hypotheses are true or false, but rather the pragmatic question
of which of them might serve as useful axes of reference for charting
alternative courses of action in terms of their anticipated consequences,
and then making sense of the perceived outcomes as a basis for further

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Jack Adams-Webber Tel: 905 (688) 5544 [x 3714]
Department of Psychology Fax: 905 (688) 6922
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St. Catharines, Ontario