May 24, 2014, by Stephen Mumford

If Just One Thing is Not Socially Constructed

What is Objective Truth anyway? What is Reality? Anyone who has defended a remotely realist philosophy will no doubt have faced a familiar challenge: it’s all a social construction. Take money. That couldn’t exist without a society giving it meaning, imbuing it with value. And God is surely socially constructed rather than a real being living in a heavenly realm. We created God; he didn’t create us. Gender is also shaped by our social practices and power relations. There could be biological differences but they alone couldn’t determine the different gender roles and traits imposed by society.

Philosophers, as seekers after eternal truth, face particular ridicule. How can we make claims about the way the world really is? I once had an argument with a social constructionist who told me that electrons didn’t exist until 1896: the date they were supposedly discovered. But from that point, they existed and had always existed. I pointed out that these claims seemed logically contradictory but this was immediately dismissed because logic too was an obvious social construction, the modern form invented in 1879.

We have all dabbled a little with the thought of the late-Wittgenstein. We know that the limits of our language are the limits of our world. And if there is one thing that it is indisputably a social construct, it is language. Wittgenstein showed that language could work only if it was a social construction but also that our whole way of understanding was determined by it. The way in which we conceptualise the world is fixed by our social practices. It is then easy to heap scorn on the philosophers’ notion of a true reality and a real world that exists independently of our collective thought. We know from the work of Foucault (pictured) that what counts as knowledge is merely a product of the power relations that exist within society.

It might seem as if philosophy – and any realist metaphysics in particular – is doomed.

But I don’t think so. Not everything can be socially constructed and thus there is still room for a metaphysics that considers the nature of reality beyond our social practices.

There is at least one thing that cannot be socially constructed: namely causation. The reason for this is that without causation, nothing could be socially constructed. To be constructed means that something has been produced or made, which is a causal claim. If causation is itself not real, and merely socially constructed, then there could not be any real construction at all but only one in which we have chosen to believe: and then the social constructivist claim lapses into incoherence.

Even worse than that, without causation there is not even a society that could do the constructing. For there to be a society, there has to be interaction between its individual members. We do not have a society if we have a collection of discrete, self-contained particulars that cannot interact with each other. As Wittgenstein showed, language could not emerge unless those individual language-users were able to affect each other’s linguistic usage, enforcing the norms of meaning. A society is a complex system of causal interactions, where the members mutually change and influence each other. Without real causal connections, the very idea of a society doesn’t get off the ground, let alone society constructing anything.

It may be that something profound follows from this. One might say that it shows causation to be a fundamental element of reality. It’s really hard to see how anything makes sense without it. There is thus at least one important feature of a mind-independent reality on which metaphysics can work. Those who try to defend the universality of social construction, on the other hand, need to reflect on what it really is they are asking us to believe.

Posted in Culture and Area StudiesLiteratureMetaphysicsPhilosophy