David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Why Social Construction Is True

The term “social construction” and its cousin “cultural construction” get casually tossed around a lot these days. Sometimes it’s used negatively, as a pejorative way of referring to those damn relativistic lefties. Sometimes it’s used approvingly, as a potted rejection of someone else’s position by saying, “Oh, that’s just your truth.” Either way, there’s almost always a sloppiness that tends to equate belief in social construction with relativism–especially the dreaded moral relativism. And that’s simply not the case. What follows are cribnotes on why truth is indeed socially constructed, but why relativism does not follow from it.

The real meaning of social construction is linguistic. What it means, in a nutshell, is that we could all agree tomorrow to call the sky red instead of blue, and that would not cause any problem for us. Now, this wouldn’t change in isolation. Lots of other adjustments would have to be made in order to start calling blue things red and red things blue (or some third color, in which case lather rinse repeat). So while this would be a logistical nightmare, it is still potentially possible. Adjust language in the right way by shifting enough terms, and we can go on as we did before without anyone being the wiser. By consensus, we have now changed the truth from “The sky is blue” to “The sky is red.” That is social construction.

But, you may say, the real truth hasn’t changed at all! What real truth? “The sky is still blue!” you say. No, it’s not. The sky was blue yesterday, and today it isn’t. Truths can only be expressed in mutually intelligible terms, and if you want to be left behind still calling the sky blue, you can, but now it’s you who is wrong. Social construction is not about reality, it’s about words. We don’t choose our reality, but we do choose our words–collectively.

The tricky part comes when people don’t agree on the truth. If some people say the sky is blue and some people say the sky is red, now you have to do the work of figuring out why they disagree. Maybe they just have different words for the same color. Maybe one group of people has different cones in their eyes that actually make the sky look like a different color. All of these things can be experimentally tested, because truths have to fit together with one another. If both groups agree that the wavelength of blue/red light is 475nm, then clearly it’s the same color, and there’s just terminological confusion (unless they don’t agree on numbers either, but you get the idea). If one group says the sky is blue and 475nm, and the other group says the sky is red and 730nm, then science has got some work to do in order to decide which of them is totally wrong. Naturally, the two groups have to agree to the rules of science and agree to abide by the results and agree on what abiding by the results means…but at the end of the day, cultural construction is not some free-for-all. It’s just the contract we make in order to be able to agree on anything.

On the other hand, it also means that there’s very little meaning in being right by yourself. If you think the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm (which it is), and everyone else thinks it’s 730nm (which it isn’t), you have two options. You can try to convince people that you’re right, marshaling the evidence and arguments to do so, or you can sit quietly and wait for vindication beyond the grave when someone else figures out how wrong everyone has been. But what if they never do? I’m afraid you’re stuck. You can’t be said to have been right because no one will be around to say it. Truth is linguistic, which means that unless there later comes to be a consensus that you were right, you weren’t. That’s not relativism, that’s just how the game is played.

Contrariwise, even if the entire world believes that the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm, there’s nothing to say that at some point in the distant future we won’t be proven oh so wrong and people will look back on us and say, “What fools they were!” In exchange for the pain of truth requiring some kind of social consensus, you get the pleasure of being able to doubt anything anyone says due to the possibility, however distant, of it being overturned in the future. And so the lumbering human process of truthseeking rolls along.

I began with the most objective and “scientific” examples because things get far muddier when it comes to morality and valuation in general. If there is no scientific fact to discover, as people generally assume when it comes to ethics, does that mean that morality really is relativistic? You don’t really need to answer that question, because it comes out in the wash. Social practices will inevitably spit out moral systems, which will argue with one another and end up settling on some set of values. We don’t know for sure whether a particular moral system is correct–but how is this different from science? Because, you might say, the methodology is totally different! You don’t conduct experiments to test moral hypotheses! (Unless you’re one of those analytic philosophers, that is.) That’s true. But just because there’s a different adjudication process doesn’t mean that it’s somehow more relativistic. Rather, it means that morality is only as morally relativistic as we say it is. If everyone in the world were to agree that morality is absolute, then it might as well be, because who’s going to disagree?

Admittedly, that’s not a very satisfying answer when it comes to morality, but it gives some hint of how empty absolute relativism is. At the bottom, you have to agree on some purported absolutes just to get along in the world. Most of them won’t be moral laws, but there’s no intrinsic prohibition on them being absolutes–at least, not according to social construction. All social construction dictates, rather, is that the limits of what we term the “absolute” stop at what we collectively agree to be true, because how could we possibly get more absolute than that?


  1. While I agree with a number of your points regarding the social construction of reality, I don’t think your argument quite holds up in total. In response to your example about how being “right” about a natural phenomenon requires the acknowledgement of other people because truth is linguistic, I would proffer this: What if, for sake of argument, there is a natural phenomenon in question which could entail the survival or destruction of the human race. And let’s say only one person on the entire planet realizes that this is the case and attempts to warn others about it to no avail. Let’s say the natural phenomenon comes to pass and when it does so it instantaneously wipes out the human race (you can throw in the entire planet for good measure) so that not a single person on the planet has time to mentally process their colossal error before their demise. Can we still say that the one person who recognized the natural phenomenon for what it was wasn’t right because now there is literally is no one around to say she was right?

    What I’m getting at with the above scenario is that the linguistic notion of “truth” is an attempt to grapple with what we assume to be mind-independent reality. As there is no way to actually observe the world independently of our own minds, we have to settle for reality-as-observed or more accurately reality-as-collectively-observed (in the sense of both “perceived” and “complied with”) since our individual observations of reality are modified in light of the observations of others, indeed they develop in the context of others’ observations, which entails communication, hence language. Nonetheless, though intersubjective consensus inescapably conditions our notion of reality, it would be a mistake to conflate the intersubjective with the ontological.

    • I think we’re broadly in agreement. Following Wittgenstein, I would argue that you are drawing a distinction without a difference. In the case you pose, “truth” ceases to exist because intersubjectivity ceases to exist. Reality continues to exist, but there aren’t *any* competing intersubjective models of it. There’s no scorekeeper left to keep score. It’s sort of like asking what the Latin word for cell phone is. If no one’s speaking the language, there’s no right answer to be had.

      On the other hand, you can hypothesize that *had* people survived, that one person would have been seen to be (mostly) correct and her views would have prevailed. Which seems to be what we are doing here, in which case she is indeed right–to us. So my view works “for all practical purposes.” I’m willing to admit that my model of social construction no longer works if all humans cease to exist…but does yours?

      More broadly, my view of ontology more or less follows Sellars. Science postulates ontologically basic entities, which are then refined or rejected depending on how they are able to reconcile existing and new findings. At any given time, the best we can do is for those ontological postulates to be “provisionally right.” We don’t know for sure that they’re exactly right until the fabled end of inquiry.

  2. The debate among scientists and philosophers over our fundamental theory of matter, quantum mechanics, suggests that the distinction does indeed make a difference. The measurement problem and the ambiguities of the wavefunction have occasioned an almost century-long ontological and epistemological debate over the interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    On one side there are physicists, those who subscribe to hidden-variables or many-worlds interpretations, who insist that the wavefunction is descriptive of ontological, mind-independent reality, and on the other side there are physicists, those who subscribe to some version of the Copenhagen interpretation, who insist that the wavefunction is merely predictive of observations and thus indicative of our epistemological limitations.

    As Bohr, the initiator of the latter camp, put it:
    “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”

    Similarly his collaborator Heisenberg:
    “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

    Thus when you write “science postulates ontologically basic entities” there’s a subtlety missing there. Bernard d’Espagnat, in his book Physics & Philosophy, writes:
    “On the one hand, physics is an empirical science. We think of it as essentially being a synthesis of our communicable experience. But, on the other hand we also are naturally inclined toward physical, or even ontological, realism, with the consequence that, at least at some times in our existence, we feel somehow compelled to interpret said synthesis, to consider it as being a description of a reality that is both independent of us and knowable by us (since, by assumption, we describe it). But alas! Nowadays the very outcomes of physics make such a standpoint almost untenable.”

    Espagnat goes on to argue that though physics doesn’t give us access to ontological reality, by highlighting the limitations of our observed empirical reality it emphasizes the existence and profoundly counterintuitive nature of said ontological reality, a concept which he terms “veiled reality.” Rather than arguing for provisional ontologically basic entities, the provisional status of physical theories can be said to argue for provisional observational predictive rules.

    Regardless of which of this debate one falls on (I think it evident I subscribe to the epistemological viewpoint), the point is that there is a genuine debate to be had.

    • I like d’Espagnat, and I don’t have a disagreement with his idea of veiled reality. I’ve written about the metaphysics of QM here. But I’m not sure how this distinction affects my argument either. If we substitute “fundamental ensemble description” or “fundamental model” for “fundamental entities,” does it make a difference? I used the term “entities” in the broadest possible sense, which is just to say that science reserves the right to undermine any foundation we may think to be true at any given time.

      The argument I’m posing here is meant to be compatible with all interpretations of QM. It’s not that sophisticated. It only says that whether we end up with some basic ontology or not, the agreement on “truth” is arrived at intersubjectively. If ontology “disappears” in the process, so be it. I tend to be conventional in thinking that regardless of how “objective” reality is, there’s still some generally agreed-upon sense of “existence” that we use to qualify ontological entities. I’m sympathetic to the two-truths idea in Buddhism that says that there’s ultimately going to be nothing that meets that meets that criteria of “existing,” but social construction can continue apace regardless, because we still have our current provisional models that postulate all sorts of objective existing entities. We could well be wrong.

  3. Allowing for inevitable differences between Buddhist metaphysics and contemporary physics, the two-truths doctrine seems to me analogous to the distinction I drew, à la d’Espagnat, between the intersubjective and the ontological. Despite our intersubjective consensus, you say, “we could well be wrong.” This would suggest that the context within which we grapple with this isn’t solely linguistic, which is what I attempted to illustrate with my initial scenario.

  4. Love this essay and the resulting comments. Very Foucaultian (or is that Foucault-esque?). “Reality”– where the social “sciences” and humanities are concerned, I would tend to agree–results from consensus (from economics to finance to political policies to history to literature to psychology to, etc.). Such consensus tends to be linguistic (language, the medium of most, if not all, social memes) and reflects _power_ relationships. Sad to admit.
    However, where the physical sciences are concerned, because subject to experimental and mathematical proof of sorts (susceptible to the “scientific method,” our contemporary consensus paradigm, for _predicting_ similar phenomena), these tend to leave less room for disagreement and more room for consensus. Where do you think Galileo (and other scientists) found the “gall” to dispute the authorities of his day? His observations of physical phenomena, subject to corroboration/verification by similarly situated, “objective” observers (“peer review?”). And whose observations could lead to _predictions_ in our physical universe (up till the day Heisenberg made his entrance along with Schrodinger’s dicey cat…He, he, he).
    Perhaps I am in error. Oh, well, I am human. Ergo, flawed. And yet, I choose to retain a sense of empathy, from which I derive some ethics…
    Be well.

Leave a Reply

© 2024 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑