How and Not What: Social Constructivism, Research Time, 26/07/2013

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. 

Perhaps if as clear a statement of what social construction actually is had been published a few decades earlier than Hacking’s book (copyright 2002), more writers would have a positive attitude to the ideas that have come out of social constructivist theory. As it is, the field of philosophy is filled with negative misconceptions about what social constructivism is and what it can achieve. And these misconceptions prevent many people from learning a lot about the actual world we live in. I still encounter these stereotypes about social construction theories from many philosophers. While I have some suspicions about why the truth about social construction hasn't filtered to many communities within philosophy, I don't quite want to get into those here. I do, however, think it has to do with norms in philosophical communities about what is and isn't acceptable to read and research. If you work in a community of philosophers who believes these old stereotypes about social construction and never encounter a dissenting view, you'll believe that the old stereotype is what social construction actually is.


  1. Isn't Nagel's position a conflating of epistemology and ontology (at least as you portray his understanding of constructivism)? Social constructivism is at the core of my discipline and so I guess I have a very sociological take on it, but it is I think easy enough for philosophers to understand if we consider its origins in Durkheim's work. I have mentioned this here before, but Durkheim's constructivist turn was basically to take Kantian epistemology and relativize the categories of understanding in relation to culture. Time, space, classification, force, causality, totality etc (not sure if there are more off hand?) were shown by Durkheim to vary fundamentally among Aborigine tribes and to be wholly unlike our understanding. As with Kant, these are questions of our understanding, not of existence; and as with Kant, they really refer to our knowledge of understanding, not understanding itself. That is to say, recognizing that our understanding of temporality is shaped by the social as well as the biophysical does not allow us to know what time really is any more than knowing that vast amounts of theory and data agree that there are subatomic principles allow us to know that they exist: they are non-observable things that we simply agree exist and are willing to believe don't exist if other evidence comes along to the contrary. This is a skeptical, constructivist attitude but certainly little to do with a know-nothing position that 'we can never know what's out there'. Of course we can't know it in the way that we know within a set of rules of reasoning that 1 + 1 = 2. That's because we don't control the rules of existence and are rather subject to them. So it seems to me that even a strong constructivist position is only undermining everyday reality in terms of our capacity to know it is true.

    But there's a huge gap between our certain knowledge and our tacit understanding. Very little human behavior unfold entirely at the certain knowledge end of the spectrum. The strongest constructivist position can't make a statement on the independence of facts because it holds that such facts are not independently certifiable one way or the other, and hence our analytical capacities are limited. I don't see what this has to do with claiming that science is subjective -- I think it is precisely the degree of skepticism that Kant advanced.

    I'm sure this is well-trod path for philosophers, but perhaps they are hesitant to acknowledge its real significance. Almost all serious thinkers outside of the discipline of philosophy recognize that very little can be determined to be known to a very high degree of truth, and instead pretty much everyone dismisses the dream of philosophers to know truths as rather beside the point. What non-philosophers do instead is cross-check between various forms of understanding to gain better insights, e.g. testable outcomes, tacit understanding/ intuition, skepticism. The amazing irony you've found, Adam, is that philosophers seems to be isomorphically copying that strategy of cross-checking and have diminished their own findings to second place behind intuition. So it seems to me at this moment.

    1. Tom, you've hit precisely what I think is philosophy's most serious problem today, at least in North America. The discipline retains a self-image of searching for The Truth, wholly objective truths that are beyond partiality. No other way of thinking about knowledge matters. This doesn't apply to everyone in the discipline, of course. But it's still a preponderance, and folks like me who want to pursue philosophical inquiries more in line with the other disciplines in humanities and social sciences (who I see as much more progressive, across the board, in this regard) still meet opposition, or at least argument, from the conservative side.

      For example, I saw a presentation at the CPA this June on a topic called virtue epistemology. Essentially, it was an argument that epistemology shouldn't just be about truth: understanding relevance, being able to separate the trivial from the important, the ethical and moral dimensions of our knowledge, are all of equal importance as simply discovering the truth (knowledge that is stronger than justified true belief, which is no longer an epistemic standard, post-Gettier). One of the most vocal questioners in the session was someone who just outright refused this as a philosophical direction: surely, he said, none of these practical and ethical concerns can be more important to knowledge than the truth!

      A post-doc project I tried getting off the ground in 2011 was using some sociological methods to track the trends in analytic philosophy that led the field to such a conservative place, where social construction was dismissed as an empty relativism using arguments that mediocre teachers make fun of their Phil 1000 students for spouting in lecture: "But if knowledge is always wrapped up in our subjective process of knowing, then we can't know anything objectively, man!" It's juvenile, but some philosophers at the top of the discipline in the USA still dismiss social construction using just this argument.

      My hypothesis I'll either write to you in a private message over facebook, or make another History Boy post about. Probably in a pm.