PHIL 242 - “Ontology and Social Construction”
PERSPECTIVES AND ‘INDEPENDENT REALITY’
- We’ve been looking at authors who think that our understanding of the world is shaped by our
standpoint (and our goals and interests)...
- If this is true, what does that mean for the possibility of objective knowledge? (Should we try to
eliminate bias, escape from any particular perspective?) (Should we try to combine all
- ...And what does that mean for the existence of independent reality?
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONAND INDEPENDENT REALITY
- If the world is only available from one of various perspectives... ...does that mean that
knowledge is socially constructed?... ...and does it mean that reality itself is socially
KINDS OF SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION (AND RELATED CONCEPTSAND
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF THINGS (OR PEOPLE)AND THEIR PROPERTIES
- Artifacts: Things made human beings, like hammers, cars, the Supreme Court, and the rules of
- (Contrast with ‘natural objects’like kangaroos and daffodils, which can be studied by natural
- One natural way to think about social construction: seeing femininity as an artifact.
- Generic Social Construction: “Something is a social construction in the generic sense just in
case it is an intended or unintended product of a social practice.”
- Most interesting subspecies:
- Discursive Social Construction: “ Something is discursively constructed just in case it is the
way it is, to some substantial extent, because of what is attributed (and/or self- attributed) to it.”
- Key idea is that “descriptions, distinctions, and classifications” have major causal effect on
what people are like.
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF CONCEPTS AND DISTINCTIONS
- Constitutive Social Construction: Something is constitutively constructed if in defining it we
must make reference to social factors.
- Pragmatic Social Construction:Aclassificatory apparatus (be it a full-blown classificatory
scheme or just a conceptual distinction or descriptive term) is socially constructed just in case
its use is determined, at least in part, by social factors.
- Weak Pragmatic Social Construction: Social Factors only partly determine our use of it.
- Strong Pragmatic Social Construction: Social factors entirely determine our use of it, and it
fails to accurately represent any “fact of the matter.”
MORE ON STRONG PRAGMATIC CONSTRUCTION
- Notice that concepts can be completely empty and misleading (i.e. strongly pragmatically
socially constructed), even though they have some connection to facts in the world. - Manifest concepts are the concepts as they normally seem to the people who use them...
Operative concepts determine how we actually use them.
- Coolness as operative: “the concept that actually determines how we apply the term to cases,
i.e. (roughly) being such as to conform to the standards of the in-group.
- Coolness as manifest: a certain hard-to-describe combination of good taste, charisma, and
- WHICH PARTS CORRESPOND TO WHICH CONCEPTS?
- The in-group describes people it likes as “cool.”
- People imagine that there is an independent property of “coolness.”
- Outsiders try to act cool, insiders declare that makes them even more uncool, etc.
- Men describe people they find desirable as “feminine.”
- People (men and women) imagine that there is an independent property of “femininity.”
- Women try to act feminine or suffer consequences for failing to do so, etc.
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONAND INDEPENDENT REALITY
GENERIC SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONAND INDEPENDENT REALITY
- If we’re interested in generic social construction (including discursive social construction),
Haslanger thinks we may presuppose that there is an independent reality:
- The existence of domestic chickens and their circumstances are effects of politics and human
beliefs (i.e. what’s categorized as food)...
- ...but they really exist, independently of what anyone might think.
- So generic social construction (i.e. of things and their qualities) is no threat to independent
reality. But what about pragmatic social construction (of concepts)?
TWO ARGUMENTS (BOTH REJECTED BY HASLANGER) THAT REALITY IS
- Argument 1: Consider some attempt to describe the world... notice that it just projects our
interests, rather than capturing independent reality... now try again with another attempt...
surely all our attempts are like this. So reality must be socially constructed.
- Argument 2: Consider the distinction the concept of “reality”... this turns out to be just a tool to
project power on the world (like the concept “coolness”)... So reality is socially constructed.
EXAMPLE OFASTEP IN THE FIRSTARGUMENT: CATHARINE MACKINNON ON
- Catharine MacKinnon discusses laws against that rape presuppose that: (i) sex is identical with
penetration (ii) there is a “normal amount of force” to be expected in sex and
- (iii) the man “had reason to think that the woman did not consented.”
- She argues that this presupposes a male point of view where sex is about the control and
possession of women... and that feminists should fight to have these laws changed to reflect
what sex and rape mean to women.
HASLANGER:ALLTHOUGHT IS WEAKLY PRAGMATICALLY CONSTRUCTED - All knowledge and inquiry is shaped by what we care about, what our interests are, etc....
...does this mean that there is no independent reality?
- Haslanger thinks that simply doesn’t follow. In fact, she thinks our interests and positions can
sometimes help us understand the independent
- world better. Does it mean that we can never achieve objective knowledge? Haslanger: No.
Sometimes, interests and preconceptions can actually help us see more clearly.
- So some knowledge (including che