Furniture is real: an essay against global social constructivism
Social constructivism is everywhere. Here’s a short list by André Kukla, in his 2000 book Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Science, of some of the things that have been called socially constructed: “gender (of course) illness, women refugees, quarks, Zulu nationalism, Indian forests, Japan, Ireland, the past, emotions, reality, serial homicide, authorship, the child viewer of television, the Landsat satellite system, dolomite and the self.” That’s a lot of very different things!
There are pretty good empirical and philosophical arguments for claiming that some things, such as race or gender, are socially constructed — depending on what you take “socially constructed” to mean. But one sort of argument takes aim at the reality of everything. This sort of argument has its root in linguistic and rhetorical theory, and in my opinion is typified in an article called “Death and Furniture,” jointly written in 1995 by Derek Edwards, Malcolm Ashmore and Jonathan Potter.
Edwards, Ashmore and Potter are what I’ll call global social constructivists, that is, socially constructivists about everything. They found their radical skepticism toward reality in arguments from representations: they say there is no objective world “distinct from processes of representation” or “independent of any particular description,” and conclude that “the world is like text. It all has to be represented and interpreted.” They think that the world does not exist outside of human activity, namely language. (They also think that values do not exist outside of our activity, but that is a metaethical claim that I will not address here. I’ll only concern myself with their metaphysical view.)
I think their argument is awful, and views like it are awfully popular in certain corners of academia, and thinking through why their approach fails is fun and illuminating. So let’s consider realism, anti-realism and the social construction of everything. First we should clarify our terms.
Realism and its discontents
If you’re a metaphysical realist, you think there’s a “real world” out there, full of entities and facts, and that it exists independently of humans’ minds or our social activities. There’s a world that constitutes and sustains those things’ existence.
If you’re a metaphysical anti-realist, you think that the world, or its features or its contents — or some combination thereof — exists by virtue of the mental or social activities of humans, taken individually or collectively. If humans were to stop existing, the anti-realist believes, so too would the rest of these things — or at least some of them.
What I mean is, realism and anti-realism can be global or local in scope. It’s perfectly reasonable to be an anti-realist about certain things, say gender, and a realist about others: the furniture in your room, maybe.
Social constructivism is a kind of anti-realism. A social constructivist about some domain believes that the entities and facts in that domain exist by virtue of human beings’ activities. The value of a dollar is undoubtedly determined by humans’ social activities, for example; if there were no human beings, there would be no such thing as the value of a dollar. Now you’re a social constructivist about the dollar’s value; welcome to the club.
That’s a local social constructivist view that is very easy to swallow. Global social constructivism is not so easy to secure, but it is somewhat fashionable, maybe because it’s kind of cool to deny the reality of everything. Global social constructivists hold that all purported facts and entities could have been otherwise, had the activities of humans been different in turn. Consider what Bruno Latuor, the French sociologist and anthropologist, writes in his 1987 textbook on the sociology of science, Science in Action:
Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature’s representation, not its consequence, we can never use this consequence, Nature, to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.
Contrast the aforementioned Kukla’s more conservative view.
I think that it’s rational to adopt the view that nothing can be constructed, in the constitutive sense of the word, except facts about our own society.
Latour the global social constructivist, Kukla the mostly realist.
It’s worth clarifying that realism and social constructivism make claims about the constitution of things, about what sustains their existence, not about their efficient causes. Of course the table exists because a carpenter, a human being, built it. This is no trouble to the realist, nor is it a point in the constructivist’s favor, because it is beside the point of their debate: they’re worried about whether the carpenter’s creation would cease existing if there were no humans at all.
Language against furniture
Back to Edwards, Ashmore and Potter, the rhetoric scholars who take aim at the reality of everything. They respond to what they call “bottom-line” arguments against social constructivism: imagine a realist, frustrated by global social constructivism, who bangs her fist on a table in order to demonstrate its reality. She “invokes the objective world as given, as distinct from processes of representation; as directly apprehended, independent of any particular description.” Her gesture challenges the constructivist to explain “the contingent, could-be-otherwise, socially constructed, really-not-real character” of the table before them.
Edwards, Ashmore and Potter are undeterred by the bang; they think the bang puts the realist in dilemma. “The very act of producing a non-represented, unconstructed external world is inevitably representational, threatening as soon as it is produced, to turn around upon and counter the very position it is meant to demonstrate.” But they accept the challenge nonetheless. Allow me to quote them at length.
It is surprisingly easy and even reasonable to question the table’s given reality. It does not take long, in looking closer, at wood grain and molecule, before you are no longer looking at a ‘table’. Indeed, physicists might wish to point out that, at a certain level of analysis, there is nothing at all ‘solid’ there, down at the (most basic?) levels of particles, strings and the contested organization of sub-atomic space. Its solidity is then, ineluctably, a perceptual category, a matter of what tables seem to be like to us, in the scale of human perception and bodily action. Reality takes on an intrinsically human dimension, and the most that can be claimed for it is an ‘experiential realism’ (Lakoff, 1987).
So let us remain at the human scale. When the table is assaulted it is not the whole of it that gets thumped, but only a bit of it under the fist or hand or fingers, or tips of (some of) the fingers. What exactly is warranted by this — just the bits hit? What makes it a bit of a table? And for whom? How does the rest of the table get included as solid and real? And how does even that part that is hit, get demonstrated as real for anybody but the hitter? And how exactly is this demonstration, here and now, supposed to stand for the table’s continuing existence, then and later, and for all the other tables, walls, rocks, ad infinitum, universally and generally? A lot is being taken on trust here, however ‘reasonably’.
Where a realist might claim “There is a table, and it is solid,” the authors scrutinize the statements, questioning what it takes for something to be a table or to have the property of solidity. Showing solidity and tableness to be anthropocentric concepts, Edwards et al. analyze the gesture itself, doubting whether the realist has really shown that the entire table is solid for anyone and anything that hits it at any time during its existence. They recognize the excruciatingly pedantic nature of their analysis, but stand by it:
Realism … asks us to take the table-hitting as an existence proof for tables-as-such (and much more), while relying on the audience’s cooperation in commonsensically ignoring how it is done: letting bits of tables stand for wholes (metonymy), instances stand for categories (this is a ‘table’), one experience (and one person’s) stand for many (and acknowledged by everybody). What we have, on closer examination, is a demonstration not so much of out-there reality, but rather the workings of consensual common sense.
They think that realists both depend on and disavow the rhetorical tools that global social constructivists such as themselves embrace. If something as basic as a table cannot escape textual interpretation, this is because “the world is like text. It all has to be represented and interpreted.” Reality does not exist independently of human social activity, for our representations of reality to one another and to our ourselves are exactly what constitute reality.
I’d call that conclusion bold — and brash.
More like belongs in the trash
Let’s grant them this: if anything exists independently of social construction, tables do. If their arguments against the human-independent constitution of tables fail, then we are without reason to doubt the reality of at least one thing, so global social constructivism fails too.
They first argue that tables do not exist, as they are really just “wood grain and molecule.” Solidity is not demonstrated by table-thumping because it does not exist “down at the … level of particles, strings and the contested organization of sub-atomic space.”
That is silly because physicists’ descriptions of the “level of particles” are not descriptions of how things really are; they are explanations for why certain things possess certain powers — the power to resist fists, say. Call it solidity.
Sure, solidity is defined in terms of human perceptions. But that doesn’t mean solidity exists only by virtue of humans’ representations. It may be the case that conceptual categories such as solidity are themselves understood in terms of what humans perceive — macro objects’ inability to pass through other macro objects, for instance — but “solidity” describes a property of things, and that property exists by virtue of facts about those things: namely, being composed of tightly bound atoms.
Are those facts, ones about microscopic entities’ relations to one another, of an “intrinsically human” character? That’s doubtful. Our understanding of tables may change depending on whether we consider them from a micro or macro perspective, but the table would still exist independently of how we consider it.
Edwards, Ashmore and Potter have another argument about solidity. When the realist pounds the table, inevitably only parts of it are hit and therefore tested for solidity. They forward a series of skeptical questions: Are only the bits of the table that are hit solid? What makes those hit bits parts of a table? How does anyone other than the hitter know that those parts are even solid? Even if those parts of the table are solid, hwo can anyone know that they will continue to be solid in the future, or that they were solid in the past? How does this demonstration show the solidity of other inanimate objects, or even of other tables?
Are you annoyed yet? I am, and only partly for good philosophical reasons. Here’s one. These are, at best, epistemological concerns. Most of the questions are just specific instances of the problem of induction: how can we ever be certain that some perceived regularity is in fact timelessly regular? The authors are making a point, but not one that provides good reason not to believe in the existence of tables. They might provide reason to be uncertain that we understand tables — and regularities, and the constitution of wholes from parts, and the reliability of others’ experiences and so forth.
Besides this, some of the questions are either asked in bad faith or admit inconsistencies in the authors’ global social constructivism: if we are willing to admit that the realist has shown particular parts of the table are solid, then we must admit that those parts are independently existing things, and the realist has done her job.
Consider Edwards, Ashmore and Potter’s claim that the world “is like text” and that “all has to be represented and interpreted.” That’s an interesting epistemological thesis, that all cognition, perception and understanding is a matter of interpretation and representation. But the world’s contents could exist independently of representation and still require representation for us to understand it. The authors are missing a crucial premise: they have not shown that everything must be represented by humans in order to exist. It’s unclear why that would be the case.
Even less clear is how anything could be available to human interpretation or representation prior to the very interpretive or representative act. They seem to get the process exactly backwards: things must exist before they can be represented, so it can’t be the case that representation is a necessary condition for anything’s existence.
Consider the distinction between using words and mentioning them. Consider this sentence: “The sentence ‘It is raining’ is true only if it is raining.” You can make sense of that sentence because we can distinguish between the mention of the phrase “it is raining” and the use of that phrase to assert a proposition, the assertion that it really is raining.
It’s as if Edwards, Ashmore and Potter have forgotten this distinction. They use arguments about the constructedness of our conceptual categories — solidity, say — as if those arguments’ conclusions were about the constructedness of what those conceptual categories are used to describe. Showing our theories of tables to be socially constructed does not demonstrate the social constructedness of tables themselves. Entities and events are described in language, mentioned, but this is no reason to think there exist no actual, language-independent things that our use of language refers to.
Earlier I called their argument awful. Here’s why: the mistake they make is so simple, yet brings the authors to the absolutely nuts conclusion that nothing is real just because we must represent things via language. The mistake is exemplified in what Latour had said in his textbook: “Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature’s representation, not its consequence, we can never use this consequence, Nature, to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.”
This is a circular argument, and a non sequitur to boot, because regardless whether the resolution of any scientific issue is the cause and not the consequence of Nature’s representation, this would not impact whether we can appeal to Nature itself to explain the resolution of controversies. It’s right there in his own words: he slides from “Nature’s representation” to “this consequence, Nature,” as if those aren’t different things. (The nerve!) To reply that Nature is constituted by its representation, as global social constructivists such as Edwards et al. may want to, is question-begging.
Edwards, Ashmore and Potter do not show that humans construct reality; perhaps they show that we construct our methods for discussing it, the words we use. OK, we might understand the world on anthropocentric terms. But it still exists!