PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

Full Program »

The Epistemology of Rational Constructivism

Rational constructivism is a leading theory in developmental psychology. While much has been written about the scientific merits of rational constructivism, little attention has been paid to the philosophical implications of the theory. Our poster will call attention to some of the more interesting epistemological implications of rational constructivism.

Rational constructivism is well summarized by the following propositions (Xu & Kushnir, 2012; Xu, in press):

1. Three different cognitive processes support learning: language acquisition, Bayesian induction, and constructive thinking.

2. Constructive thinking drives much learning; it refers to ability of the mind to construct novel explanations, imagine alternative mechanisms, engage in thought experiments, and, generally speaking, enlarge a mind’s conceptual repertoire by constructing completely new ideas (Lombrozo, 2012).

3. To acquire knowledge is to synthesize empirical information with constructed hypotheses by a process of approximately Bayesian belief fixation and revision.

4. Learning is an active, agentive and social process: by at least middle childhood, many of the hypotheses that are subject to rational evaluation by probabilistic hypothesis testing are at least partially by-products of a child’s own process of ‘learning by thinking’, which is the constructive element of rational constructivism.

What can we infer about knowledge and the mind assuming that these four propositions are true? Amongst other claims, the following two epistemological lessons suggest themselves:

5. Let cognitive agency refer to the freedom to exercise one’s capacity to engage in constructive thinking and thus generate novel information for the purpose of learning. Perhaps the most important epistemological implication of rational constructivism is that learning environments must support cognitive agency, and it may even be that learners have a right to cognitive agency, and a parallel responsibility to exercise it.

6. It is a mistake to define a rational person as someone against whom a Dutch book cannot be made (Vineberg 2011). By insisting that rational cognition should always conform to the axioms of formal logic or probability theory, we would adopt for ourselves epistemological norms that would prevent the full exercise of cognitive agency in service of learning. In the short run, it may be that learners have to hold beliefs that violate the axioms of probability, and means that the axioms of probability cannot be a regulative ideal for learners, for that would prevent them from exercising fully their cognitive agency.

We are prepared to discuss in person both objections to the ideas expressed above, as well as introduce anyone who is interested to several further philosophical implications of rational constructivism.


Lombrozo, T. (2012). Explanation and abductive inference. In K.J. Holyoak and R.G. Morrison (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning (pp. 260-276), Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Xu, F. (in press) Some preliminary thoughts on a rational constructivist approach to cognitive development. In D. Barner and A. Baron (eds.), Core knowledge and conceptual change. Oxford University Press.

Xu, F. & Kushnir, T. (2012). Rational constructivism in cognitive development (Vol. 43). Academic Press.

Vineberg, S. (2011). Dutch book arguments. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Author Information:

Mark Fedyk    
Mount Allison University

Fei Xu    
UC Berkeley


Powered by OpenConf®
Copyright©2002-2015 Zakon Group LLC