The Legacy of Social (De)Construction: Scepticism from the Greeks to Kant, Marx and their Post-…descendants – Phil of Sci # 5-1.2

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

The Enabling move – Scepticism from the Greeks to Kant, Marx and their Post-… descendants

In what follows, I’ll highlight a few different types of scepticism about our ability to know abstract, conceptual, normative, and general truths about the world. In their many differences, the following perspectives are united in their rejection or suspicion of two key points:

  1. That rigorous intellectual knowledge of universals (concepts that are not just particular cases) is possible;
  2. That there are natural kinds of entities in the world, knowable and definable by an essence – something that is common to all the particular things that are of the same common class.

Furthermore, the subsequent philosophical perspectives are alike in that they have a very high standard of knowledge – incoherent, and self-defeating, I claim. They are to varying degrees sceptical of knowledge claims, and I will argue that this is because they implicitly share an unreasonably high standard for what counts as knowledge. From these overly lofty peaks, claims to knowledge look partial, incomplete, and biased, but needlessly so. 

Sextus Empiricus and Ancient Scepticism

The ancient sceptics were motivated by the intellectual problem of founding a legitimate criterion of truth.[6] The problem goes that in establishing any criterion of truth upon some apparently certain claim, or experiential datum, one must have recourse to other more basic criteria to ground its certainty. But this cannot go on, without appealing to something that is self-evident. However, there seems to be no further explanation for those things that appear to be self-evident, and so, little rational warrant for claiming that those things are true. They may simply be self-evident, but not necessarily true.

Because there is this lack of a standard, it is argued that claims to knowledge are dubious. The ethic that flows from this philosophy is the suspension of belief of all types – theoretical, philosophical, moral, scientific, etc. – which is supposed to bring about tranquility (Greek: ataraxia) in the sceptic.

This type of reasoning is fixated upon the process of verifying, or demonstrating the truth of first principles in a manner that goes beyond self-evidence, into the realm of logical demonstration.

Implicitly, it assumes that this standard is required for knowledge, though it is unclear why it is a good standard to look for. It is unclear why intuitions, and brute facts of a certain type would not be a good standard for knowledge, for example. Especially since many such truths are self-evidently true; their truth guaranteed by immediate experience, and the tests of logic.

I like to think of it as a position – even a personality type and lifestyle – arising from a misguided fixation on one way of knowing. A person who, upon tasting something delicious, smelling or seeing something pleasing, understanding the causes that explain some phenomenon, in their search for yet more of that same thing, posits that there must be a type of tasting, smelling, seeing, or understanding that explains all the rest. This kind of reasoning is valid when deployed in moving back from effect to cause, and from better or worse to form an understanding of the best and the worst. However, not in this particular context.

Grounding knowledge on firm foundations does not require the search for an Archimedean point around which all others turn. This tendency to search for unified explanation in one type of knowledge is that of the intellectually inclined sceptical person – someone who ends up making totalizing assumptions about what must be the case.

It is more like a misguided desire for complete and total understanding – of a certain type – than anything necessitated by the logic. In recognizing the powers of reasoning and logic in various domains, the sceptic seeks more of this good – understanding further causes and explanations – but in ways and in contexts in which it does not apply. The result is unwarranted scepticism about knowledge itself. A senseless and rationally incoherent endeavour.

Nominalism – concepts are ‘just names’

Nominalism is a view about the existence of abstract objects – general classes of objects that are neither spatial or temporal. [7] Abstract objects are like classes, and can be instantiated in different particular objects. For example, numbers, or universals, such as electrons, humanity, the colour red, etc.

William of Ockham is the most well-known of the medieval Scholastics to argue for nominalism. He believed that the abstract general names we give to classes of entities or concepts are not ontologically real, only nominally so. In other words, they are just names that refer loosely to things out there, but those particular examples of the concept in question never conform exactly to its definition, so it goes that the general concept does not exist.

This position is linked to the more ancient debate over particulars and universals. On one view, it would seem that no particular member of the general class to which it belongs possesses all the features of the general class, nor do all particulars share the same features as one another. It follows that there are no actually existing general classes, just particular things who share features with others. It would therefore seem that only particulars exist, and there are no general concepts to speak of.

Descartes and the Rationalists – doubting everything for a shallow certainty

Descartes was instrumental in mathematizing the use of reason, making it primarily about quantities and achieving a certain kind of certainty. He sought to find a point of demarcation for inquiry that could not be doubted – finding that all that can be known with certainty is the fact that he is thinking. As a result of this excessive purge, anything that can be doubted is thrown out as a good starting point for knowledge. Intellectually, this ushered in the trend wherein certain types of knowledge are reduced to others that are thought to be more basic. The cultural inheritors of this philosophy include much of the Western world, who are now sceptical of entire classes of knowledge, thinking them to be reducible to others that are more properly basic.

For our purposes, an outcome of Descartes’ revolution of thought is the strong emphasis on the methods and processes of how we come to know things. It sets an austere standard for what counts as knowledge, and eliminates many types of inquiry and sources of knowledge from the equation.

Kant and the glasses of the mind – blinded by the tint of the lenses

David Hume famously posed a problem that piqued Kant’s interest, which he then set out to solve. Namely, if sense knowledge is our only important type of knowledge, then how can we know with certainty? Furthermore, if we only ever have sensations and perceptions of that which we sense, then how could we ever sense something like a cause? We only ever seem to get images of events, but something like a cause? That would seem to be contributed by the mind when one accepts the premise that empirical sensory experience is the only source of knowledge.

If it is contributed by the mind, then for Kant – following in the wake of Descartes who had already restricted the sources of knowledge to just a few indubitable categories of experience – then how can it be known with certainty? His answer was to attempt to show that there are transcendental categories of experience, that as far as we can tell are not derived from experience, but contributed to it by the mind in order to make it intelligible.

For our purposes, the upshot is to view concepts as diverse as dogs, cats, space, time, human nature, essence, and freedom as regulative ideals. They do not really exist, but are projected onto the world of experience by our mind so that we can understand them. The forms of sensory and intellectual experience that we can have do not discover that which is objectively real, but constitute a lens through which we understand the world. For Kant, this is an impediment to knowing things as they are.

Marx, Nietzsche and their descendants – masters of suspicion, and promoters of discord

Marx grew up in the midst of widespread enthusiasm with the idealist philosophy of GWF Hegel. Hegel viewed knowledge as an expression of the spirit of the times (zeitgeist), moved along by a process of influence among ideas. Marx famously turned Hegel’s mechanism of explaining historical change on its head, and argued that all ideas are the product of matter. As a social being, the prevailing ideas in the minds of people at any given time are determined by the material conditions of the society.

Marx’s influence on social constructionism lies in how he argues that knowledge, and systems of ideas reflect the material conditions of society, characterized as they are by the class relations that make them up. Much of what constitutes knowledge and systems of ideas reflect the economic interests of the higher classes maintaining their influence over lower classes, but they are not objective. 

Nietzsche carried the subjective turn further, from the structures of experience outlined by Kant, and the historicism of Hegel and Marx to the psychologizing of all human thought and action. He famously had little time for systematic philosophers, thinking much of the theorizing and systematizing a mere projection of their own desires, both conscious and unconscious.

This is one of Nietzsche’s most lasting influences, that the motivations behind the search for knowledge of all kinds are not what they would seem – an interest in discovering the truth – but a desire to assert one’s self through one’s will. He would develop this emphasis on the will and argue that it extended to a diverse range of phenomena. He argued that it was the underlying metaphysical drive behind the process of development in matter itself – entities growing in complexity by asserting themselves against others, thereby subsuming them and growing in size, strength and force. He called this fundamental metaphysical drive beneath all things, the ‘will to power.’

The Descendants of Marx and Nietzsche – seeing power in everything

The 20th century landscape is filled with intellectuals who took up lines of thought stemming from Marx and Nietzsche. Characteristic of them all is a belief in the subjectivity of knowledge; that social structures are the main or sole determinant of knowledge and values; and a fundamental attitude of suspicion toward themselves, the intellectual life, and society as a whole.

Michel Foucault took inspiration from Nietzsche’s view of everything as willed, and the desire for power, and attributed it to systems. Systems of thought, norms, cultures, institutions – they all reflect the desire for a group to exert power over others. There is, once again, no truth, or even many other causal factors at work, but power working its way through various concepts, ideas, social practices, etc.

However, unlike Nietzsche, he did want to retain some understanding of right and wrong. He located this in oppressed groups. For Foucault, all systems of understanding the world are somewhat arbitrary, and serve the interests of those in the society who profit from them most. He argues that any system of belief, and the practical norms that naturally flow from it result in inequalities. The goal of the intellectual is to point this out in order to destroy the system of thought to save the oppressed groups from the system of thinking that holds them down.[8]

‘Theory,’ or Critical Studies – the projection of one’s own brokenness onto the whole world

Various types of ‘theory’ exist today. They owe their origins to ‘Critical theory’ – a type of social thought that applied and combined the ideas of Marx, and Nietzsche through the then-emergent psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud et al.[9]

Beyond its genesis in the Frankfurt School, what unites forms of Critical Theories today is their aim. Unlike a standard theory, whose aim is to attempt to accurately describe some domain of reality according to objective, rigorous and transparent principles, critical theories are expressly aimed at a practical goal, often explicitly rejecting the use of standards. In every case I know of, they are aimed at some sort of revolutionary political action.

Today, there is postructuralist theory, queer studies, and fat studies to name a few. Though it is Gender Theory, and Critical Race Theory that are perhaps the most prominent.[10]

All of these theories view knowledge and concepts as strongly socially constructed, serving the interests of the powerful or the majority, and not in describing any objective reality. They do not believe that there is anything to describe, only normative political goals to seek. In almost every case, these are radical revolutionary goals, conceived of in absolute terms: egalitarianism along many different lines – between races, sexes, genders (they often assume there are more than two), and between humans, animals and even vegetative life.

Since the implicit assumption behind these views is that there is nothing objective or true to describe anyway, they seek to impart a normative vision of the world onto others, not by reference to facts, or arguments that assume truth or falsity, but by claiming that anything that contradicts the aims of the critical theories are immoral. The usual claims correspond to the type of ‘theory’ in question – racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, ageist, classist, speciesist, etc.

Though this may seem like pseudo-intellectual gibberish – a mere fringe phenomenon with very little coherence (and it has been until recently) – it is now very prominent in education from elementary school onwards, in the ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ industry (consulting, training, etc.), and in the culture writ large in phenomena like cancel culture, and social media mobbing, among others. Furthermore, it is being written into the law as government policy around the Western world, in hiring practices, official company statements, and discrimination laws, to name just a few.

Naturalism – or physical description all the way down

Naturalism is the belief that all entities in the world are natural, that all causes are natural, or can be fully explained by physical properties, and sometimes, the belief that genuine knowledge must be scientific, or is reducible to the scientific[11]. It is closely related to physicalism, “the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical.”[12] This is to say, everything is reducible to the physical; physical entities are the only ones that have causal efficacy; and that other things that appear non-physical in nature – such as energy, mind, consciousness, etc. – are direct consequences of physical causes, but exert no causal feedback influence on reality, they merely ‘supervene’.

Though in their various forms these views are technical philosophical positions, they nonetheless accurately describe the implicit assumptions of many people in the contemporary world.

The naturalist viewpoint draws on key features of the twin philosophies of rationalism and empiricism in different ways. From rationalism, the naturalist disposition emphasizes mathematics and logic as the principal – sometimes the sole – means of describing the phenomena in the world. From empiricism, the naturalist view emphasizes the methods associated with empirical scientific inquiry as the principal methods of obtaining knowledge.

The Technological Worldview practicality whose horizon is confined to the immediate

The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object… Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.

115. Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality, since “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference”. The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised. When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves…

122. A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle…When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence, we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this, whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.”[13]

Pope Francis – Laudato Si. Praise be to you: On Care for Our Common Home

Pope Francis follows many earlier popes, and a long line of thinkers in the 20th century who have seen the hole at the core of the technological worldview, which is not attuned to the nature of things, but seeks practical control for shallow ends.

Heidegger and the all-encompassing lens of the Technological attitude to the world

In his later writing, Martin Heidegger spoke of the way in which contemporary technology has an all-encompassing effect on the way in which we view the world. “The current conception of technology, according to which it is a means and a human activity, can therefore be called the instrumental and anthropological definition of technology.”[14]

This, Heidegger thinks, is distinct from another attitude we can take to technology, and its function in helping us accomplish tasks. It is all in how the end is conceived, and the attitude one takes to the world, one’s way of understanding things, and the goals one seeks.

The way of understanding natures, in their essence – that is to say, those properties that are internal to them, and can be brought out over time – relies on an understanding of causation that is much older and more refined.

The material cause is the matter out of which something is made. The formal cause, the shape into which the material enters; the final cause, the end for which it is made; and the efficient cause the entity that brings about a particular effect.

Today, people see only the efficient cause, and use their skills, knowledge, and power to bring about effects through technically sophisticated, but too often indiscriminate manipulation of parts.

Heidegger points back to craftsmanship and artisanry as genuine examples of mastery and expertise. It involves understanding the natures of things, and using them in accordance with their natures, to bring something out of them in a new creation that is commensurate with that nature, not something over against it.

The craftsman attitude is contemplative, and at home in the world. In understanding the world around, them, they understand the potential latent in things, and bring forth only what is proper to it.

Someone who recognizes the proper nature of those causal agents that they work with in creating is attuned to the world in a fundamentally different way. This way of using skill, and technique to create technology yields very different fruit than one that is ruled by instrumentality, and efficiency. This older way – the way of wisdom, and genuine expertise – reveals that which is proper to the natures of things.

On the other hand, “the revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such… “The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit. The field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order appears differently than it did when to set in order still meant to take care of and maintain.”[15]

The world thus appears to the modern person as ‘standing-reserve’. Everything stands before us, not as distinct entities with their own nature, according to which they should be treated, with care, but as tools with no proper nature – only as things for our use.

This is the interpretive lens that many of us naturally bring to bear on everything in the world around us, including, increasingly, ourselves and one another. Its characteristics are an attitude that challenges everything, dominates, orders, and dissects into pieces. Every entity is treated as a mere thing, with no properties intrinsic to them as composites of form and matter, but as tiny stuff, that can be broken down, and annihilated to serve the instrumental attitude of the modern person.

The ability to uncover this dimension of reality gives rise to the illusion that everything is under man’s control.

Jacques Ellul and the pervasiveness of Technique

Jacques Ellul articulated the properties of the new methodology that characterized the technological attitude to the world, which he called ‘technique’.

“The term technique, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end. In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity. Its characteristics are new; the technique of the present has no common measure with that of the past.”[16]

Technique and its impact on the development of technology makes efficiency a necessary and dominant component of modern life. The factors that make it so include rationality, artificiality, automatism of technical choice, self-augmentation, monism, universalism, and autonomy.[17]

The two most characteristic of modern technique and its application to technology are rationality and artificiality. In the new technique, “a rational process is present which tends to bring mechanics to bear on all that is spontaneous or irrational.” It involves the use of a type of rational “discourse in every operation; this excludes spontaneity and personal creativity. Second, there is the reduction of method to its logical dimension alone.”[18] Furthermore, technique is artificial; it is “opposed to nature. Art, artifice, artificial: technique as art is the creation of an artificial system.”[19]

The interdependent factors that characterize the technological society conspire to create a strong set of mutually reinforcing trajectories that seem to render increasing technological development inevitable. Though a prediction and by no means certain, I’m sure this assessment will strike many as intuitively plausible.

However, we also recognize that there are some things that could derail this trajectory towards ever-increasing artificiality and technologization. Ellul listed them as follows:

“1) If a general war breaks out, and if there are any survivors, the destruction will be so enormous, and the conditions of survival so different, that a technological society will no longer exist.
2) If an increasing number of people become fully aware of the threat the technological world poses to man’s personal and spiritual life, and if they determine to assert their freedom by upsetting the course of this evolution, my forecast will be invalidated.
3) If God decides to intervene, man’s freedom may be saved by change in the direction of history or in the nature of man.”[20]

Conclusion – the relationship between Scepticism, Technocracy and the Social Constructionist view of the World

The passage below describes the features of the web of beliefs that are paradigmatic of the dominant worldview in contemporary western culture:

“(1) First, if we consider the transcendentals, we could say that, for this new ontology, the one is displaced by fragmented parts that do not seem to belong to a prior unity: the good is replaced by the useful, truth by the makeable, and beauty by empty appearance.”

I.e., the real is reduced to the smallest physical parts. Truth, beauty and goodness are all devolved and deformed into the pragmatic and the tangible.

“(2) Second, the technological worldview contends that with regard to the structure of concrete, finite beings: potency, not act, is primordial (and hence possibility precedes and explains actuality); existence grounds essence (and thus experience begets nature); form is the fruit of performative action; quantity is the real quality; the future absorbs the present to become time’s main category; and, finally, history becomes progress.”

I.e., Our worldview is one that views change as the only constant, blind to the deeper structures, and the nature of things. It is fixated on changing for the sake of some indeterminate, ever-approaching, but always unreachable future.

“(3) Third, just as movement is reduced to topographical, measurable locomotion, so too is causality dissolved into violent imposition of force. Thus, interiority (the thing in itself) and transcendence (its relation to other beings) are evacuated from the ontological structure of concrete beings.”

I.e., Reality is reduced to the description of measurable movement. When we think about the regnant definitions in physics, chemistry, or biology, we note properties are described as formulas representing physical relations. The realm of stable, qualitative properties in things is completely ignored.

“(4) Fourth, a technological reversal of anthropology claims that thinking is calculation so that there is no room for questions that regard the ‘what-ness’ or ‘why-ness’ of anything. Thoughtlessness has shut down thinking, while ‘doing’ has reduced the contemplation to meaninglessness. Just as freedom becomes untethered from any intrinsic relation to the truth and exists as sheer self-determination, so too does desire become an undetermined and eternal élan (i.e., self-movement), rather than the response to the good. The body’s physicality and nuptial meaning are absorbed by culture.”

I.e., Thinking does not discover reality, it can only calculate the means to achieve a practical end. Therefore, rationality applies only to doing, not deeper understanding.

(5) Finally, human relations are governed by the libido dominandi, and the basic human bonds (sonship, nuptiality, motherhood, fatherhood) are reduced to legal roles whose meaning is determined by the state.”[21]

I.e., Concepts lose their grounding in nature and the natural ends towards which they are directed. They are replaced with the crude subjectivity of the person, and the empty meaning of state-defined functionality.

In the entries to come, I will explore how these intellectual movements have impacted the philosophical paradigms common to our understanding of the natural world in physics and biology, and of ourselves through the lenses of psychology and anthropology via the concepts of sex, gender and sexuality.


[6] Benjamin Morison, “Sextus Empiricus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, no. Fall 2019 (n.d.), <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/sextus-empiricus/&gt;.

[7] Gonzalo Rodriguez-Perayra, “Nominalism in Metaphysics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Summer 2019 (Summer 2019), <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/nominalism-metaphysics/&gt;.

[8] Foucault was a prolific author, writing critical histories of ideas on discipline and punishment, sexuality, and madness. A tormented soul, he practiced sado-masochism, and died of AIDS in 1984. Michel Foucault and Paul Rabinow, The Foucault Reader, 1st ed (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

[9] For a collection of key essays by the main figures in the movement, this book is a good resource. Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner, eds., Critical Theory and Society: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 1989).

[10] For a summary view of contemporary activist intellectual movements, see this recent work. Though written for a popular audience, and unabashedly polemical, it is a good survey of all the latest terms and “isms”, and their origins in activism, rather than rigorous scholarship. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity-and Why This Harms Everybody, First Edition (Durham, North Carolina: Pitchstone Publishing, 2020).

[11] Daniel Papineau, “Naturalism,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d., https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism/#PriSynInt.

[12] Daniel Stoljar, “Physicalism,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d., https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism/.

[13] Laudato Si. Praise be to you: On Care for Our Common Home, in Pope Francis, Complete Encyclicals. (Ave Maria Press, 2016), 268–75, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

[14] The Question Concerning Technology, in Martin Heidegger and David Farrell Krell, Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), Rev. and expanded ed (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008), 312.

[15] The Question Concerning Technology, in Heidegger and Krell, 320.

[16] Jacques Ellul and John Wilkinson, The Technological Society: A Penetrating Analysis of Our Technical Civilization and of the Effect of an Increasingly Standardized Culture on the Future of Man, [Nachdruck der Ausgabe] New York, Knopf, A Vintage Book (New York, NY: Vintage books, 2011), xxv.

[17] Ellul and Wilkinson, The Technological Society.

[18] Ellul and Wilkinson, 78–79.

[19] Ellul and Wilkinson, 79.

[20] Ellul and Wilkinson, xxx.

[21] Antonio Lopez, “Without Beginning: Human Freedom and Divine Omnipotence,” Communio: International Catholic Review 47, no. Fall 2020 (n.d.): 509–11.


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

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s