Ernst von Glasersfeld

German philosopher

Ernst von Glasersfeld (March 8, 1917November 12, 2010) was an Austrian-born American philosopher, and Professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia.

Ernst von Glasersfeld, 2008


  • Once knowing is no longer understood as the search for an iconic representation of ontological reality but, instead, as a search for fitting ways of behaving and thinking, the traditional problem disappears. Knowledge can now be seen as something which the organism builds up in the attempt to order the as such amorphous flow of experience by establishing repeatable experiences and relatively reliable relations between them. The possibilities of constructing such an order are determined and perpetually constrained by the preceding steps in the construction. That means that the “real” world manifests itself exclusively there where our constructions break down. But since we can describe and explain these breakdowns only in the very concepts that we have used to build the failing structures, this process can never yield a picture of a world that we could hold responsible for their failure.
    • Glasersfeld (1984) "An Introduction to Radical Constructivism", as cited in: Frederick Burwick, Walter Pape (1990) Aesthetic Illusion: Theoretical and Historical Approaches. pp.26-27
  • From an explorer who is condemned to seek 'structural properties' of an inaccessible reality, the experiencing organism now turns-into a builder of cognitive structures intended to solve such problems as the organism perceives.
    • Von Glasersfeld (1983) cited in: Gary D. Phye (1996) Handbook of Academic Learning: Construction of Knowledge. p. 360
What we call knowledge does not and cannot have the purpose of producing representations of an independent reality, but instead has an adaptive function.
- Glasersfeld, 2001
  • .. in spite of the fact that it often feels as though the meaning of words and sentences were conveyed to us by the sounds of speech or the signs on a printed page, It is easy to show that meanings do not travel through space and must under all circumstances be constructed in the head of the language users.
    • Von Glasersfeld (1989, p. 444) cited in: Wolff-Michael Roth (2011) Passibility: At the Limits of the Constructivist Metaphor. p. 110
  • ...I believe I have come to adopt a cybernetic way of thinking... I became aware of this in the many conversations with students who were worrying about their future and asked for advice. I heard myself telling them that it was far more important to know what one did not want to do, than to have detailed plans of what one did want to do. One day it dawned on me that this was plain cybernetic advice; It is more useful to specify constraints rather than goals. - And then I explained it by adding that in one’s teens or twenties one usually has already discovered a number of things that one cannot stand, whereas it is quite impossible to foresee what, ten or twenty years later, will provide the satisfactions needed to maintain one’s equilibrium.
  • What we call knowledge does not and cannot have the purpose of producing representations of an independent reality, but instead has an adaptive function.
    • Von Glasersfeld cited in: E. John Capaldi, Robert W. Proctor (1999) Contextualism in psychological research?: a critical review. p. 10
  • The history of scientific ideas shows all too blatantly that there has been no overall linear progression.
    • Glasersfeld (2001, p.32) as cited in: Alexander Riegler, "Constructivism." in: Paradigms in theory construction. Springer, New York, NY, 2012. 235-255.

Cybernetics, Experience and the Concept of Self, 1970

  • As a metaphor - and I stress that it is intended as a metaphor - the concept of an invariant that arises out of mutually or cyclically balancing changes may help us to approach the concept of self. In cybernetics this metaphor is implemented in the ‘closed loop’, the circular arrangement of feedback mechanisms that maintain a given value within certain limits. They work toward an invariant, but the invariant is achieved not by a steady resistance, the way a rock stands unmoved in the wind, but by compensation over time. Whenever we happen to look in a feedback loop, we find the present act pitted against the immediate past, but already on the way to being compensated itself by the immediate future. The invariant the system achieves can, therefore, never be found or frozen in a single element because, by its very nature, it consists in one or more relationships - and relationships are not in things but between them.
    If the self, as I suggest, is a relational entity, it cannot have a locus in the world of experiential objects. It does not reside in the heart, as Aristotle thought, nor in the brain, as we tend to think today. It resides in no place at all, but merely manifests itself in the continuity of our acts of differentiating and relating and in the intuitive certainty we have that our experience is truly ours.

Partial Memories: Sketches from an Improbable Life, 2010

  • For me, as I later came to say, cybernetics is the art of creating equilibrium in a world of possibilities and constraints. This is not just a romantic description, it portrays the new way of thinking quite accurately. Cybernetics differs from the traditional scientific procedure, because it does not try to explain phenomena by searching for their causes, but rather by specifying the constraints that determine the direction of their development.
    • p. 136

Quotes about Ernst von Glasersfeld

  • Ernst von Glasersfeld, who founded radical constructivism (RC) in the 1970s, is clearly on Kuhn's side
    • Luciano L'Abate (2011) Paradigms in Theory Construction. p. 236
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