One more reflection that has come out of my engagement with the newest Thomas Nagel book as a serious piece of writing has to do with the reason why no one else takes it seriously. The article reviewing Mind and Cosmos that I linked a few posts ago made a point that Nagel seemed not to have read the critiques of orthodox Darwinism that come from inside evolutionary biology itself.
Now I’ve thought of something else that Nagel doesn’t seem to have read. This is more of a nitpick, but it’s a nitpick that’s very important to me, and which illustrates a point that I think is a serious problem for the whole discipline of philosophy. However, it doesn’t get the attention that I think it deserves. We don’t read enough of the right stuff.
The moment that sparked this idea in me was a few remarks of Nagel’s about the idea that scientific knowledge is socially constructed. Social construction, says Nagel, implies that a scientific truth can never be independent of human thought and judgment. Therefore, he says, if you adopt a social constructivist position of any kind, you must believe that scientific knowledge is inherently subjective, integrated so deeply with the human mind that no facts can exist independent of the mind, that there is no objective knowledge. Nagel is against such a philosophy.
And so am I, deservedly. However, calling such an attitude social constructivism is an enormous mistake. Actual sensible social constructivism is the principle that if we want to understand HOW people investigate and discover ACTUAL FACTS about the world, we have to understand the social practices and institutions THROUGH WHICH we carry out those investigations of the actual world. It implies nothing about the ontological status of the facts we discover in these investigations. The facts are part of the world, our investigations into some various facts we want to learn are part of the world, and we humans are part of the world, never separate from it. Humans are some of the bits of the world that build a systematic understanding of the world.
This isn’t a weird thing to say. It’s all over the works of such vilified social constructivists as Bruno Latour and Ian Hacking. It was Hacking’s book, The Social Construction of What? that first, to me at least, laid out in clear terms just what social constructivism actually is. When Nagel discusses social constructivism, he describes a conception of it that is nothing more than a cheap, hostile stereotype that insults a complex intellectual field. This concept is usually wiped away by the end of an introductory class. At least, it is in introductory sociology classes.