Book review: The Certainty of Uncertainty - Bernhard Pörksen

Oct 26

This is an excellent, very readable collection of conversations with leading “constructivist” thinkers. A plus of this book is that it goes beyond the usual suspects such as Varela, Maturana and Von Foerster and introduces less familiar scholars and practitioners - such as Siegried Schmidt and Helm Stierlin - to English-reading audiences.

The intellectual horizon covered by this book is actually wider than constructivism, adding an interesting blend of systems thinking (with a waft of complexity science), philosophical pragmatism and phenomenology to the mix.

The philosophical thrust of most of these conversations is epistemological and ethical (i.e. the focus is on answering the questions “what is true?” and “what is good?”). However, the constructivist-pragmatist ethos that is represented in various hues by these thinkers shies away from any ontology, any reliance on an objective, external reality. The resulting worldview is very dynamic, acknowledging a mutual dependence between world and observer. Self and world are then conceptualised as emergent properties, recursively created through incessant interactions embedded in language. There is no Truth, but only many truths that perish and make way for other truths along this co-evolutionary path.

The acknowledgment of mutual dependence leads naturally to an ethos of communality and unescapable responsibility for each and every of one’s actions. This modesty is very characteristic for (almost all of) the thinkers represented in this book. For example, Varela tells us that an intellectual stance defined by pragmatism (“truth is what works”) and a mitigated constructivism (“the world is a (contingent) set of stable patterns emerging from interactions between subjects and objects”) spontaneously leads to “a panorama of coexistence, a dialogical space”. Maturana talks about “a space of common reflection, a sphere of co-operation.”

Poerksen - a still young German academic researcher - conducts the interviews with great gusto and expertise. It seems he is not at all intimidated by the reputations and intellectual stature of his interlocutors. Poerksen prods, tickles, plays the devil’s advocate and on occasion squarely and stridently disagrees with his counterparts. But his positions are always well researched and articulated. All this makes for engaging reading and leads the conversation into many fascinating themes.

This book is definitely recommended to anyone seeking an entertaining but serious introduction the fascinating, honest and humane intellectual space that emerges from the interaction between constructivism, pragmatism and systems science.

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