Reality Conditions

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Social Constructivism: my present take

PTJ has an interesting post at The Duck of Minerva explaining in what sense the flooding there has been, appearently, at Washington D.C. is a "social construction". Way back close to the beginning of this blog, I credited PTJ for explaining in a clearer way than many what this means, and I have to do it again now.

I reproduce below the comment I left there, with a few minor edits:

Very interesting post. I'll sure keep it fresh in mind next time I write about these questions.

The reason I prefer some kind of scientific realism over social constructivism is that it doesn't put strain between what you call the empirical and the metaphysical views. "Empirically", in our ordinary scientific (non-philosophic) discourse, all human and social affairs are superveninent on physics, and the "arrows of explanation" (as Steven Weinberg says) go always in the direction of physics. They reach it only after many intermediate levels, and there is no way to reduce directly sociology to physics or even to biology or individual psychology; granted. But it seems clear to me that there is one sense in which the complete physical state of the universe implies all its higher-level states as well, while the opposite is not true. There is a sense, an "empirical" and not philosophical one, in which the world is fundamentally physical, and all human and social affairs are just a broad, high-level description of very complex physical phenomena that occur in the surface of one tiny planet. This is for me a scientific fact, not a philosophical one.

I find social constructivism difficult to embrace as a philosophy because, putting social practices at the center of the "metaphysical" description, it is at odds with the view of the universe I build up studying it empirically. Perhaps there is no real contradiction, but I do feel a tension. At the very least, I will have to see really convincing philosophical arguments to overcome that tension and embrace social constructivism. I find ideas such as (quoting you) "there is no essence to the current flooding beyond our construction of the event. It could be a different event (not just the same event with a different meaning) if we were different and if we had different cultural resources to deploy" tantalizing but very difficult to pin-point as to exactly what they mean, and how to build up a world-view based on them. Rorty's books are the clearest expression I have found of this kind of idea, and therefore I usually prefer to think in terms of "pragmatism" rather than "social constructivism". But even Rorty leaves too many questions unanswered for my taste, and his brush is often much too broad to be convincing. So for the moment, I continue to call myself a scientific realist.


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