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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q017-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 03, 2020, from

Article Summary

Originally proposed by sociologists of science, constructivism or social constructivism is a view about the nature of scientific knowledge held by many philosophers of science. Constructivists maintain that scientific knowledge is made by scientists and not determined by the world. This makes constructivists antirealists. Constructivism here should not be confused with constructivism in mathematics or logic, although there are some similarities. Constructivism is more aptly compared with Berkeley’s idealism.

Most constructivist research involves empirical study of a historical or a contemporary episode in science, with the aim of learning how scientists experiment and theorize. Constructivists try not to bias their case studies with presuppositions about how scientific research is directed. Thus their approach contrasts with approaches in philosophy of science that assume scientists are guided by a particular method. From their case studies, constructivists have concluded that scientific practice is not guided by any one set of methods. Thus constructivism is relativist or antirationalist.

There are two familiar (and related) criticisms of constructivism. First, since constructivists are self-avowed relativists, some philosophers argue that constructivism fails for the same reasons that relativism fails. But many philosophers of science note that relativism can be characterized in various ways and that versions of relativism can be useful in the interpretation of science. Therefore, constructivism’s relativism does not by itself render it unacceptable. Second, constructivists are accused of believing that scientists literally ‘make the world’, in the way some make houses or cars. This is probably not the best way to understand constructivism. Rather, constructivism requires only the weaker thesis that scientific knowledge is ‘produced’ primarily by scientists and only to a lesser extent determined by fixed structures in the world. This interprets constructivism as a thesis about our access to the world via scientific representations. For example, constructivists claim that the way we represent the structure of DNA is a result of many interrelated scientific practices and is not dictated by some ultimate underlying structure of reality. Constructivist research provides important tools for epistemologists specializing in the study of scientific knowledge.

Citing this article:
Downes, Stephen M.. Constructivism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q017-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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