Why strong social constructionism does not work I: Arguments from Reference
In this and a series of forthcoming posts, I will attempt to outline an argument showing that most of the time claims to have derived a substantively important conclusion from constructionist premises are incoherent. By a substantively important conclusion I refer to strong arguments for the “social construction of X” where X is some sort of category or natural kind that is usually thought to have general ontological validity in the larger culture (e.g gender, race, mental illness, etc.).
In a nutshell, I will argue that the reason for why these sort of arguments do not really work is that they require us to draw on a theory of meaning, language and reference that is itself inconsistent with constructionism. To put it simply: substantively important conclusions derived from constructionist premises require a theory of reference that implies at least the potential for realism about natural kinds and a strong coupling between linguistic descriptions and the real properties of the entities to which those descriptions apply, but constructionism is premised on the a priori denial of realism about natural kinds and of such a strong coupling between language and the world. Thus, most strong claims about something being “socially constructed” cannot be strong claims at all. This argument applies to all forms of social constructionism, whether of the phenomenological, semiotic, or interactionist varieties.
Here I will first do two things: 1) give a more “technical” definition of what I mean by a “substantively important conclusion” within a constructionist mode of argumentation (noting that my argument does not apply to “softer” versions of constructionism) and 2) nail down the point that constructionism (and any other set of premises designed to draw substantively important conclusions about the natural and social worlds) depends on an “argument from reference” in order to work. Finally, I will lay out the argument that 3) because of this dependence, strong constructionist conclusions are usually not warranted (they follow from an incoherent argument).
The shock value in constructionism.- In a constructionist argument, a substantively important conclusion is one that has “shock value.” By shock value, I mean that the argument results in the conclusion that something that we thought was “real” in an unproblematic sense is shown to be either a) a fictitious entity that has never been or could never be real or b) a historically contingent entity endowed with a weaker form of existence (e.g. a collectively sustained fiction or even delusion). This is “shocking” in the sense that the constructionism thesis upsets the “folk ontology” heretofore taken for granted by lay and professional audiences alike.
A useful analogue (because it makes the technical argumentative steps clear) comes from the Philosophy of Mind. There, the most “shocking” argument ever put forth is know as “eliminativism” in relation to the so-called “propositional attitudes” (Stich 1983; Churchland 1981). Note that this argument is actually espoused by people who consider themselves to be radical materialists almost blindly committed to a traditional scientific epistemology and an anti-dualist ontology. Thus, I am not claiming a substantive commonality between constructionists and eliminativists. All that I want to do here is to point to some formal commonalities in their mode of argumentation in order to set up the subsequent point of common reliance on an argument from reference.
According to the eliminativist thesis, the denizens of the mental zoo that play a role in our ability to account for ours and other’s people’s behavior (such as beliefs, desires, wants, etc.) do not actually exist. The reason for that is that the theoretical system in which they play a role (so called “folk” or “belief-desire psychology”) is actually an empirically false theory, one that relies on the postulation of theoretical entities (mental entities) that have no scientifically defensible ontological status.
According to belief desire psychology, persons engage in action in order to satisfy desires. Beliefs play a causal role in behavior by providing the person with subjective descriptions of how means connect to desirable ends. Using belief-desire psychology, we can explain why person A engages in behavior B, by postulating that “Person A believes that by doing B, she will get C, and she desires/wants C.” A belief is a proposition about the world endowed with a truth value and a desire is a proposition that describes the sorts of states of affair that the person would like to bring about. Both are conceived to be mental entities endowed with “intentional” content (they are about something). Their intentional content dictates how they can relate to other entities in a systematic way (e.g. because some propositions logically imply others). We can then “predict” (or retrodict) the behavior of persons by linking desires to beliefs in a way that preserves the rationality of persons.
Accordingly, if I see somebody rummaging through the contents of a refrigerator, I can surmise that this person is engaging in this sort of behavior because she believes that she will find something to eat in there, and she wants something to eat. Relatedly, when persons are questioned as to why they did something, they usually give a “reason” for why the did what they did. This reason takes the form of a “motive report.” If I question somebody about why they are rummaging through a refrigerator, they are likely to say “because I’m hungry.”
According to eliminativists, the main causal factors in belief desire psychology have no ontological status. Thus, neither propositional beliefs of the sort of “I think that p” where p is a proposition of the sort “there is food in the refrigerator” nor desires of the sort “I want q” have any ontological status. As such, belief-desire psychology stands to be replaced by a mature neuropsychology, one in which “folk solids” such as desires and beliefs (to use Andy Clark‘s terms) will play no role in explanations and accounts of human behavior. These notions, previously thought to be natural kind endowed with unquestionable reality, are eliminated from our ontological storehouse and into the dustbin of fictional entities discarded by modern science (such as Phlogiston, Caloric, The Ether, The Four Humors, etc.).
Constructionism and eliminativism.- I argue that most substantively important conclusions within the constructionist paradigm are actually modeled after “eliminativist” arguments in the Philosophy of Mind.
All of the pieces are there. First, a constructionist argument usually takes some (folk or professional) system of “theory” as their target. This is regardless this is a system of theory currently in existence or from a previous historical era. This is usually a folk (or sometime professional) “theory of X” (e.g the “folk theory of race” or the “folk theory of gender”). Second, within this system the constructionist picks one or more central theoretical categories or concepts (X), which, within the system are endowed with an non-problematic ontological status as real (e.g. gender or racial “essence”). Third, the constructionist shows the folk theory of X to be false from the point of view of a more sophisticated theory (modern population genetics in the case of the old anthropological concept of “race”). Thus X (e.g. race), as conceptualized in the folk theory, does not really exist, even though it forms a key part of certain contemporary folk theories of race. The title of the famous PBS documentary: “Race: The Power of an Illusion” conveys that point well.
The constructionist may also argue for the indirect falsity of the current theory of X, by simply using the historical or anthropological record to show that there are cultures/historical periods in which X either was not presumed to exist in the way that it exists today or was part of a different theoretical system which radically changed its status (the properties that define membership in the concept were radically different). Here the constructionist will agree that X “exists” in the current setting, but it does not have the sort of existence attributed to it in the folk discourse (transhistorical and transcultural) instead it has a weaker form of existence: social; as in “sustained by a historically and culturally contingent social arrangement which could theoretically be subject to radical change.” Foucault’s famous argument for the radically different status of the category of “man” within the so-called “classical episteme” is an example of that sort of claim. The category of man in the modern era has a meaning that is radically incommensurate to the one that it had in the classical episteme. The implication is that therefore the category of “man” does not refer and we can thus conceive of a possible future in which it plays no actual role, follows.
The common element here is that a category that we take for granted (within the descriptions afforded by some lay or professional theoretical system) to be ontologically “real” (race, gender, the category of “man”, etc.) is shown instead to “actually” have a fictitious status because there is nothing in the world that meets that description. More implicitly, insofar as a concept has undergone radical changes in overall meaning (with meaning determined by its place within a network of other concepts in the form of a folk or professional theory), then there cannot be a preservation of reference across the incommensurate meanings.Hence the concept cannot really be picking out an ontologically coherent entity in the world. I refer to this as the “strong constructionist effect.” The basic idea, as I have already implied is that in order for the effect to be successful, we must already be working from within some theory of reference, otherwise the claim that “there is nothing in the world that meets that description” is either vacuous or incoherent.
Constructivism and arguments from reference.- What are “arguments from reference”? Arguments from reference are those that implicitly or explicitly require a theory of reference for their conclusions to follow (or even make sense), as has been recently pointed out by Ron Mallon (2007). When this is the case, it can be said that the substantively important conclusion is dependent on the (logically autonomous) theory of reference. It is striking how little most social scientists spend thinking about reference. They should, because even though it is seldom explicit, we all require some theory about how conceptualizations link up (or fail to!) to events in the world in order to make substantive statements about the nature of that world. I argue that in order to produce the strong constructionist effect, and thus derive substantively important conclusions, the argument from social construction requires a particular theory of reference.
One would think that when it comes to theorizing about how conceptual, theoretical or folk terms “refer” to the world there would be various competing theories. Instead, twentieth century analytic philosophy was long dominated by single dominant account of how concepts refer. This was Frege’s suggestion that “intension” (the meaning of a term) determines “extension” (the object in the world that the term picks out). Lewis (1971, 1972) formalized this formulation for the case of so-called theoretical entities in scientific theories. According to Lewis, terms in scientific theories purport to describe objects in the world bearing certain properties or standing in certain relations with other objects. This is the description of that term. According to Lewis, the terms of Folk Psychology are theoretical entities that gain their meaning from their relations to other entities and observational statements within a system of theory. Eliminativists built their argument on this suggestion, by suggesting that there is nothing in the (scientifically acceptable) world that meets the description for a propositional attitude (a mental entity endowed with “intentional” content); ergo, belief-desire psychology is false, its terms do not refer, and we need a better theory of the mental.
In short, from the viewpoint of a descriptivist theory of reference, a given term or concept defined within a given theoretical system refers if and only if there is an object in the world that bears the properties or stands in the relations specified in the description. According to this theory, terms refer to real world entities when there exists an object satisfies the necessary and sufficient conditions of membership in the category defined by the term (which in the limiting case may be an individual). Descriptions that have no counterpart in the real world are descriptions of fictional entities and thus fail to refer (and the validity of the theoretical systems of which they are a part is therefore impugned). When competent speakers use the terms of any theory (scientific or folk) they have a description in mind, which specifies the set of properties that an object would have to have for that term to be said to successfully refer to it.
The basic argument that I want to propose here is that “shock value” constructionism depends on a descriptivist theory of reference. This should already be obvious. The standard constructionist argument begins by a painstaking reconstruction of a given set of folk or professional descriptions. The analyst then moves on to ask the rhetorical question: is there anything in the world that actually satisfies this description? If the answer is no, then the conclusion that the term fails to refer (and is a fictional and not a real entity) readily follows. The standard criteria for satisfaction of these conditions usually boil down to some sort of semantic analysis. For instance, in Orientalism, Edward Said painstakingly reconstructed a Western “image” (read description) of the Middle East as a kind of place and of the Arab “Other” as a (natural?) kind of person. Said pointed out that this description of Arab peoples (menacing, untrustworthy, exotic, emotional, eroticized, etc.) was not only logically incoherent; it was simply false, there had never been a group of people who met this description; it had been a fabrication espoused by a misleading theoretical system: Orientalism. Thus, Orientalism as a culturally influential theory of the nature of the Arab “Orient” needed to be transcended. The main theoretical entity implied by such theory, the Oriental “other” endowed with a bizarre set of attributes and properties was thereby eliminated from our ontological storehouse.
Houston we have a problem.- It would be easy to show that essentially all arguments that produce the “strong constructionist effect” follow a similar intellectual procedure. There are at least two problems with this (largely unacknowledged) dependence of social constructionism on a descriptivist theory of reference. First, constructionism denies the conditions that make a descriptivist strategy an adequate theory of reference, which is at a minimum the validity of a truth-conditional semantics and the capacity of words to unambiguously (e.g. literally) refer to objects and events in the world. This is not a problem for Gottlob Frege and David Lewis, or most descriptivist theorists in analytic philosophy, most of whom subscribe to some version of propositional realism (propositions have truth values that can be unproblematically redeemed by just checking to see if the “correspond” to the world). However, this is a problem for constructionists because they cannot accept such a strong version of realism.
Thus, if the very theory of the relationship between language and the world that is espoused by social constructionism (skepticism as to the applicability of a truth conditional semantics and unambiguous reference) is true then descriptivism has to be false. This means that social constructionism is an inherently contradictory strategy; to produce substantively meaningful conclusions (the strong constructionist effect) it has to rely on a theory of the relationship between meanings and the world that is denied by that very approach. Second, even if this logical argument could be sidestepped, constructionism would still be in trouble. The reason for this is that there is a competing (and equally appealing on purely argumentative grounds) theory of reference in modern philosophy: this is the causal-historical theory of reference most influentially outlined by Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam. The basic issue is not that this is a competing account of reference; the problem is that this account of reference actually denies a key link in the constructionist argument: that in order to refer, there has to be match between the description of the term and the properties of the object that the term putatively refers to.
Instead, causal-historical theories of reference allow for two possibilities that are seldom taken into account by constructionists: 1) that persons can refer to things in the world even though their mental description of the term that they are using to refer to those things those not at all match the properties of those things, and 2) that the description of a term can undergo radical historical change while the term continues to refer to the same entities or cluster of entities. The first possibility undercuts the capacity of the constructionist to “correct the folk,” because reference is decoupled from the descriptive validity of the terms that are used to refer. The second possibility undercuts the argument for social construction based on historical and cultural variability of descriptions. It opens up the possibility that there is “rigid designation” to the same set of social or natural realities across cultures in spite or radical differences in the cultural frameworks from within which these referential relations are established.
A reasonable objection is simply to point out that we simply do not have sufficiently strong grounds of picking descriptivism over causal-historical theories of reference, as equally respectable arguments have been put forth in defense of both. This is in fact the position taken by most philosophers who instead go on to worry about whether people are cherry-picking one of the two theories of reference to support their preferred argumentative strategy. However, I believe that most constructionists in social science cannot be content with this non-committal solution. Instead, like other areas of Philosophy (e.g. epistemology, ethics, mind), there is a way to “break the tie” between various philosophical theories and that is to look to naturalize these types of inquiry by looking at what theories seem to be consistent with the relevant sciences. Here we have good news and bad neews for constructionists.
Research in cognitive science, cognitive semantics and cognitive linguistics points to the inadequacy of descriptivist theories of reference from a purely naturalistic standpoint. This should be good news for constructionists because the upshot is that truth-conditional semantics roundly fails as an account of how persons generate meaning (Lakoff 1987). The irony is that these theories redeem the original skepticism of constructionism vis a vis any form of truth-conditional semantics and propositional realism, but in so doing also undercut the ability of constructionists to engage in the sort of argument that results in “shocking” or substantively strong claims for the social construction of X, because the rhetorical force of these arguments depends on descriptivism and descriptivism implies propositional realism and “objectivism” (that truth is the literal correspondence of statements and reality). The resulting counter-intuitive conclusion is that it is precisely because linguistic meaning and natural categories meet the constructionist specifications that strong constructionist arguments are actually impossible. In fact, it is precisely because language and semantics work the way that constructionist (implicitly) presuppose that they do that the norm in historical change may not be the radical transformation of reference relations in historical and cultural change (as implied by Foucauldian analysts), but rigid designation of the same (social, or natural) “essences” and relations even in the wake of superficial shifts in the accepted cultural description of those entities.
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