What there is – the legacy of Social (De)Construction and Recovering Realism

(Philosophy of Science series #5-1.1)

This is the first part of the fifth instalment in the Philosophy of science series. In the links below, you can find the previous entries.

Image by Jeon Sang-O from Pixabay


Of what are things made, and what is their nature? It is one of the oldest and most awe-inspiring questions there is. Although you might say it is the least useful, all people operate with an implicit understanding, and assumption of what is fundamentally real, what is composite, what is essential to something and what is not, and so on and so forth. For this reason, the conceptual scheme operating in the background makes a very practical difference in the lives of every person. It sets the framework from which everything else flows.

Contemporary trends indicate the dominance of a view that takes key elements of all systems of classification and understanding of the world around us as socially constructed, whether they be natural entities, or social concepts alike. Taxonomies and systems of classification bear the mark of the social – the norms, habits and customs of those who think them up. Whatever may be that is real is hidden behind a veil of constructs – intellectual, physical, and social that blind us from what may truly be.

In this piece, I look at the different types of scepticism and philosophical perspectives that continue to inform this way of thinking, and assess their merits. I conclude that – though partially correct in identifying the limits of knowledge, and the indelible mark of the personal, the subjective, and the social on all that we know and create – the social constructionist view of the world is fundamentally misguided.

In the following entries in the series, I will look at the influence of various types of scepticism, and assess their impact in our understanding of the natural world through physics, evolutionary biology, and the concepts of sex, sexuality and identity.

Primarily, social constructionist views fail because they implicitly assume an incoherently high standard for what can count as knowledge. On the constructionist account, it is implicitly assumed that for something to be real, it must be known completely, whereas in fact, we can only ever know partially, or perspectivally – even in cases of truths of reason. Rather than conclusive arguments for a particular view of our knowledge of reality, social constructionist claims amount to arguments from defeat at the end of the intellectual project of trying to know from God’s perspective.

Due to an overwrought scepticism and an incoherent standard of knowledge, the most contemporary variants of social constructionism remain confined to the understanding of concepts in a few key ways; as tokens only loosely connected by family resemblance to others, or as atomistic and reducible to very small parts, identifiable empirically through the ways in which they interact with others, described in the language of mathematics.

On the contrary, I argue that reality is best understood as the sum total of the actual and the possible, as constrained and enabled by the constants that God created and maintains. The identity of every object, concept, and the greater classes to which they belong can only be made sense of by appeal to their essential natures, the larger structure to which they belong, and the telos that each part and the greater whole exhibits.

Though it may seem that the presence of normativity in the definition of classes of things is a hindrance to a generalized taxonomical understanding of the entities in the universe and their relations, it is in fact essential to any understanding whatsoever. Whether one moves past appearances to find the necessary dimensions of reality through the path of the transcendent categories of mental activity, or the realist approach of Aristotle and Aquinas, one ends up with an identification of properties of the real. With the latter, the good is that which is proper to a thing, in accordance with the nature of its being.

How can we distinguish between the good and bad forms of things, and behaviours of complex life forms, such as animals and humans? Contra Nietzsche’s understanding of nature – that simmers under the surface of the consciousness of contemporary people – in which all activity is will, striving to assert itself and subsume other entities so as to grow in size, power, and complexity, the Christian understanding of reality sees it as inherently relational, and shot through with love, describing the proper functioning of all Creation; all things reach toward their end, which is their completion and purpose.

The larger metaphysical picture to which all things belong is the story of Creation. God, as the sheer act of to be, a perfectly simple intellect, beyond all space and time, is Being itself, whose essence is love. Love is other regard, as in acting in accordance with that which is proper to others.

This understanding of Creation, the nature of entities, and their purposes – applies to all fields of endeavour. From the environment, to technology, the human person, and politics.

Going forward, the Aristotelian-Thomistic hylomorphist framework needs continuous improvement and refinement in order to appropriately apply to the circumstances of the forthcoming contemporary era – that of transhumanism. I will provide some ideas about how this ongoing improvement can be carried out fruitfully.

Social Construction: from quarks, and atoms, to sex, culture, and truth

The term itself is not as in vogue as it once was, but that is because it is the default assumption for many people about the nature of things as diverse as atoms, and quarks, to sex, gender, culture, and of course, truth.

But what is it? As Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking asks, ‘the social construction of what’?

He offers the following definition:

“Social constructionists about X tend to hold that: X need not have existed or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.”[1]

He adds that the purpose of employing such a line of questioning is often to say that the thing in question is bad or should be changed.

When we try to get to the bottom of what in fact is being claimed to be the constructed entity, it appears that it is not the reality of the concept in question, but the way in which it is defined and classified.

Technically, the association with this latter project or motivation is not necessary, but as we have seen in practice, the use of the practice of labelling something ‘socially constructed’ is often an explicitly political project that proceeds by attempting to delegitimize a concept so that it can be changed into something else.

Degrees of Social Construction

Having established what is being claimed when something is labeled socially constructed, we can turn to a finer-grained understanding of the degrees in which concepts can be so constituted. American philosopher Sally Haslanger has developed a neat and tidy, analytical way of distinguishing between types of social construction, and their extent.[2]

“Generic social construction: something is a social construction in the generic sense just in case it is an intended or unintended product of a social practice.
Causal construction: something is causally constructed iff (iff = if and only if) social factors play a causal role in bringing into existence or, to some substantial extent, in its being the way it is.
Constitutive construction: something is constitutively constructed iff in defining it we must make reference to social factors.
Discursive construction: something is discursively constructed just in case it is the way it is, to some substantial extent, because of what is attributed (and/or self-attributed) to it. (feedback loop plays part in reinforcing it).
Pragmatic construction: a classificatory apparatus is socially constructed just in case its use is determined, at least in part, by social factors.”[3]

These kinds of social construction cover all types of categorization, from the most seemingly objective to the least. Insofar as understanding, and naming is a human social practice, we may rightly call all of it socially constructed. It is being implicitly assumed that – due to the presence of motivations, and causes underlying concept formation that are social in nature – the result is that these concepts are to varying extent unreal, untrue, contingent, and therefore radically alterable.

However, Haslanger and many others would perhaps not want to go so far. In this sense, the presence of social influences need not have any implications concerning truth or falsity, fiction, or reality, as the term itself connotes.

In fact, it is all about degree. Haslanger distinguishes between weak and strong pragmatic constructions. “A distinction is weakly pragmatically constructed if social factors only partly determine our use of it. A distinction is strongly pragmatically constructed if social factors wholly determine our use of it, and it fails to represent accurately any ‘fact of the matter.'”[4]

She concludes that “our knowledge is weakly/strongly socially constructed (in the relevant senses) iff the distinctions and classifications we employ in making knowledge claims are weakly/strongly pragmatically constructed.”[5]

The taxonomy is clear and helpful for differentiating between types of objects, our ways of classifying things, and the reasons for doing so. The principal distinction lies in highlighting the different ways in which concepts come to be known and defined, or in other words, looking at the causal process of concept formation to draw conclusions about the ontological status of the object – along the continuum of ‘real’ to ‘socially constructed.’

However, it assumes a great deal. Along with so many other people today, this view assumes that only mind-independent ‘natural kinds’ – conceived in a very particular way – are real, whereas human ‘artifacts’ and the meanings we attach to things are subjective and lack truth, or goodness in an objective, universally applicable manner. The second, and more important assumption is that on this view, the presence of social traces – be they motivations, overarching belief systems, norms, etc., – invalidates the status of the concepts in question as objectively known, and referring to that which is real.

In the following piece, I will argue that both of these assumptions are unwarranted. But not before a brief tour through some of the thinkers who have articulated what may be termed scepticism about both values, and truths of empirical, and abstract kinds alike. Though different from one another in many ways, they constitute early examples of a similar type of thinking that lies behind the ‘social constructionist’ way of viewing things, and in some cases, have constituted the intellectual influences of this contemporary mode of thought.

[1] Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?, 8. printing (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001), 6.

[2] Sally Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique (Oxford University Press, 2012), https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199892631.001.0001.

[3] Sally Haslanger and University of Arkansas Press, “Ontology and Social Construction:,” Philosophical Topics 23, no. 2 (1995): 95–125, https://doi.org/10.5840/philtopics19952324.

[4] Haslanger and University of Arkansas Press.

[5] Haslanger and University of Arkansas Press.

This is the first part of the fifth instalment in the Philosophy of science series. In the links below, you can find the previous entries.


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