Reading Notes

R011100: The Social Construction of Social Construction

Hacking, Ian.  The Social Construction of What?  Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA: 1999).  ISBN 0-674-81200-X alk. paper.

Version 0.00 Last updated 2001-11-23-14:25 -0800 (pst)


Against Inevitability:

A precondition (p.12):

0. In the present state of affairs, X is taken for granted; X appears to be inevitable.

(p.6) Social constructionists about X tend to hold that

1. X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is.  X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.

Very often, they go further:

2. X is quite bad as it is.

3. We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed.

p.24: Searle [1995], Universal Constructionism

p.33: Metaphysical questions in science:

"If contingency is the first sticking point [in science], the second one is more metaphysical.  Constructionists tend to maintain that classifications are not determined by how the world is, but are convenient ways in which to represent it.  They maintain that the world does not come quietly wrapped up in facts.  Facts are the consequences of ways in which we represent the world. ... [The constructionist view] is countered by a strong sense that the world has an inherent structure that we discover.

p.42: Bertrand Russell's Logical Constructions [Russell 1918, 155]

"When an inferred entity X is replaced by a logical construction, statements about X may be asserted without implying the existence of Xs, since the logical form or deep structure of those sentences makes no reference to X.  We are allowed to talk about Xs while being agnostic about the existence of Xs. ... Russellian analyses do not debunk inferred entities.  They show that there is no commitment to the existence of so-and-sos.  But they do license statements about so-and-sos, precisely because they show that those statements do not have the existential commitments we expect them to have.

p.44: Nelson Goodman's Constructionalist Orientation [Goodman 1978]

"Goodman contentedly talks of making worlds, and takes for granted that it is we, people, who make them.  Moreover, we do so in concert.  This sounds social, but Goodman got there in a straight line from Russell and Carnap.

"Goodman and his fellow constructionalists say almost nothing about actual societies or social processes. ... Goodman's world-making has to be social: it is people who do it.  ... Yet his work gives no hint of any actual social process involved in world-making."

pp. 44-45

Constructivism in Mathematics

"Intuitionists held that mathematical objects do not exist until they have been built up by proofs of their existence, that is, until they have been constructed by mental operations.  Valid proofs must be constructive; that imples that a mathematical object can be assumed to exist only when, by proof, we have been able to construct it out of intuited entities.  ...

"Brouwer's intuitionism led to various types of what are called constructive mathematics, especially constructive analysis (calculus) [Bishop 1967].  As with other construct-isms, constructivism in mathematics is skeptical, because it allows us to assert the existence of objects only after we have constructed them in a sequence of mental operations.  Hence it forbids us to assert the existence of many mathematical objects that most mathematicians take for granted -- the continuum of real numbers, for example."

pp. 60-61


"Constructionism about the natural sciences is also, in part, a metaphysical position.  It is directed at certain pictures of reality, truth, discovery, and necessity.  It joins hands very naturally with what Nelson Goodman calls irrealism: not realism, not anti-realism, but an indifference to such questions, which in itself is a metaphysical stance.  Since neither scientists nor constructionists dare to use the word metaphysics, it is not surprising that they talk past each other, since each is standing on metaphysical ground in opposition to the other."

p.62: "The science wars, as I seem them, combine irreverent metaphysics and the rage against reason, on one side, and scientific metaphysics, and an Enlightenment faith in reason, on the other.  Hence the next chapter is about metaphysics and rage.

Chapter 3

p.63: Dorothy Nelkin [1996] answers "What are the science wars really about?" with "Current theories about science do seem to call in question the image of selfless scientific objectivity and to undermine scientific authority, at a time when scientists want to claim their lost innocence, to be perceived as pure, unsullied seekers after truth.  That is what the science wars are about."

p.67: "This distinction, between an activity and an assemblage of truths, does not beg any question about social construction.  But it does point to what should be at issue.  Recall the distinction between process and product.  For sociologists the processes of science, the scientific activity, should be the main object of study.  But for scientists the most controversial philosophical issues are about science, the product, the assemblage of truths." 

Sticking point #1 - contingency

That scientific facts are contingent is anathema to scientists.  That is, the emergence of the facts is not inevitable.

p.79: "We don't live in the kind of a world in which the contingency thesis could be true!  That is no empirical exclamation, derived by inference from experience.  It is, if not a built-in sensibility, a sensibility that arises in a great many people in Western civilization who are attracted to scientific styles of reasoning.  If that is what you mean by metaphysics, then metaphysics is appalled at the very thought of contingency."

Sticking point #2 - nominalism

p.81: "Philosophical purists like myself feel uncomfortable about statements 'becoming' facts.  Statements state facts, and scientific facts do not come into being.  If they are facts, expressed by tenseless sentences, then they are facts, timelessly, and do not 'become.'  I doubt that ordinary people are so uptight about the timeless character of facts and truths as philosophers.

p.81: We should not explain why some people believe p by saying that p is true, or corresponds to a fact, or the facts.

p.83: realism or inherent structuralism - "One party hopes that the world may, of its own nature, be structured in ways in which we describe it.  Even if we have not got things right, it is at least possible that the world is so structured.  The whole point of inquiry is to find out about the world. The facts are there, arranged as they are, no matter how we describe them. ...

nominalism - "The other party says it has an even deeper respect for the world.  The world is so autonomous, so much to itself, that it does not even have what we call structure in itself.  We make our puny representations of this world, but all the structure of which we can conceive lies within our representations.  They are subject to severe constraints, of course.  We have expectations of our interactions with the material world, and when they are not fulfilled, we do not lie about it, to ourselves or anyone else.  In the fairly public domain of science, the cunning of apparatus and the genius of theory serve to keep us fairly honest."

Get's into kind-making later, and I have no more steam right now.



0.00 2001-11-23-14:024 Begin Capturing Notes (orcmid)
I have renewed the book once and still not put my notes in a form that works.   So, today, I put down a sketch that lets me return the overdue book to its shelf (Dewey 121, Hacking, at the West Seattle Library) until I can check it out once more and complete my first pass over the material.

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