This is something else I've wondered about. There seem to be these fierce online debates and movements that center around various questions of the validity of so called "social justice" issues which are full of lots of emotive stuff from both sides pro and con (e.g. terms like "man/white/cis/whatever 'splaining'" and "SJWs" are thrown against the opposing 'sides' respectively from pro and con sides against con and pro sides). One of the central pieces of this argumentation seems to hinge around this notion of this alleged philosophical idea that "reality is a social construct" against "reality is objective". But the thing is, reading it, I wonder if the various partisans involved really do or do not understand exactly what they are bandying about in these heated arguments.

In particular, the "reality is a social construct" is attributed variously to the "left", "academic left", "Cultural Marxism" but also "postmodernism". The first two terms seem like political charges, the third seems like a weird slur, but the fourth is a legitimate philosophical reference. Also perhaps "social theory" or "critical theory" is indicted with as being "guilty" of this "bad" philosophical "notion".

But the question is, is that a truly fair characterization, and if so, what exactly does it mean? Because to me, if you take it absolutely literally, it cannot be true, for a very simple reason: I cannot sign an agreement with someone that will magically make gold appear by miracle in my room by both of us agreeing that that gold now exists in the room. If reality behaved this way, it would seem a lot of politicking and wars would be easily resolved: we could just "legislate" or "social construct" literally every resource we wanted into existence. Yet I would find it hard to imagine this argument would have escaped notice of everyone who has argued what is construed as "reality is a social construct". So thus I'd like to know, what does that phrase actually mean in regard to what it's actually referring to by any serious thinker and not merely some random joe-blow with an opinion on the internet and an ax to grind (of either partisan persuasion), is it even a fair characterization at all, and if so, how is the above argument answered and dismissed?

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    Two relevant comments: a) Reality is meant to be what we (can) know about Reality (capital R), i. e. all we can know at all, mediated by concepts and language. This reality is all we have. See Kant, Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, MacDowell et al. b) What if everyone agreed we were made of gold? Wouldn't that be our reality, then? Gold would just signify something different (whatever this may be, e.g. things in themselves or modifications of Spinozian substance). Other way round: 'or' and 'gold' signify the same extensions, just in different languages.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 29 '17 at 6:40
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    Maybe useful John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (1995). Jun 29 '17 at 7:43
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    "if taken absolutely literally" is obviously false; to verify it, you can try arguing with your Bank, that the big figure preceeded by a minus sign at the bottom of your bank account is only a "social construct"... Jun 29 '17 at 7:45
  • Social constructionism is indeed an influential philosophical trend under postmodernism, the link is to a Wikipedia article on it. "Social construction of reality" is used by its proponents themselves. "Cultural Marxism" is a derogatory term for the Frankfurt School of social philosophy used mostly by far right conspiracy theorists.
    – Conifold
    Jun 29 '17 at 22:51

I would guess that most people using the term in the contexts you are encountering are (knowingly or not) referring to the work of Berger and Luckmann, who wrote a book in the 60s called The Social Construction of Reality. In it, they suggest that through inherited social contracts, certain roles are created in a society which become an accepted part of the fabric and that seeing the world through the narrow objectives of these roles creates a certain view of reality which is not necessarily objective. They do write about how scientific knowledge is socially disseminated and so even scientific reality can be affected by social constructs, but they certainly do not go as far as to say that all of reality is just what we agree it is.

Ian Hacking in "The Social Construction of What?" makes the distinction between our view of a thing and the thing itself, so to use your example, you're right in that you cannot just make the substance we call gold appear in your room simply because you all agree it's there, but it's not the substance itself that matters, but what it means and that is socially constructed. You chose gold in your example for a reason, you might consider magically making gold a good idea, but that's only true because gold means wealth and wealth is something desirable, both of those are social constructs.

There are obviously limits to this approach, however. Whether from a philosophical point of view (with something like Quine's approach) or from social scientists like Sokal, or from neuroscientist, like Eagleman, the argument comes back to the fact that there is a biological entity doing the construction and that biological entity is built from pretty much the same DNA, it is a reasonable theory, therefore, that it's going to construct some very similar looking realities given the same starting point. Thus many of the so-called social constructed realities (by which those using the term tend to mean realities we can change) are effectively very useful Duhem-Quine theories with a very high consistency and explanatory power, and as such they are as good as any other theory we use (such as if I throw a ball in the air it will come back down).

The interest in the field is not (in my opinion) in whether some of reality is socially constructed, but in which parts of this social construct are constrained by our biology and which are not, but this investigation is really best in the hands of neuroscientists and anthropologists. For this I would look to the works of David Eagleman, Bruce Hood, V.S Ramachandran, Jared Diamond and Clive Finlayson for more in depth analysis, but in summary the arguments centre around either identifying consistent patterns in the brain in response to certain stimuli which may indicate a biologically fixed response, or identifying common patterns of behaviour across ancient and existing cultures which may indicate the same.

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    However, this seems to be arguing for the idea that the maximum space of possible socially constructible views is limited by the capacities of the human mind/brain. However do the theories that are being challenged actually argue that the space of possible constructs is unlimited? As the way I've thought it said, at least regarding the "social justice" contexts it seems to me is more about trying to give more of an even hand to other existing social constructs by groups historically less favored; not about any theoretical claim on the maximum range of possible human social constructs. .. Jun 29 '17 at 8:01
  • .. but maybe that's wrong and they are arguing for some sort of unlimited construction power. Jun 29 '17 at 8:02
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    However regarding those limits specifically, to me it seems this is not so much a question of "that the beings are made with the same DNA", but rather the old "nature and nurture" saw, that is, how much of our brain setup is from nature (DNA) or nurture (environmental/social input)? The heavier the weighting to nature, the smaller the possibility space, the heavier to nurture, the larger. Jun 29 '17 at 8:03
  • Yes, that's supposed to be the gist of my last paragraph, maybe it wasn't clear enough. I'm personally not a fan of the Nature/Nurture dichotomy as it precludes the third option that some of our social constructs are the result of the "nurture" that it is in the "nature" of our parents to provide. Where would that leave those in terms of malleability?
    – Isaacson
    Jun 29 '17 at 8:15
  • Well maybe as you say that's for anthropology -- look at the spectrum of variation across cultures. But also for experiment, how far can we bend our thinking on it? Jun 29 '17 at 8:21

The notion of social construct is the central concept of a sociological school called Social constructivism. The constructivist thinkers used the concept to refer to how cultural perceptions of what is right and wrong are shaped by society and its institutions. These perceptions, then, it is believed, shape our real life in retrospect. The adherents of the movement aimed to discredit the norms of classical liberalism and conservatism that were deemed objective and universally valid by their proponents.

For a critical insight, following the deep intellectual insights of the School of Perennial Philosophy especially as represented by Rene Guenon, and more importantly the philosophical legacy of my own heritage as a Muslim, I view both of these apparently rival camps as being underpinned by an arguably identical failure in their underlying epistemological foundations.

The fact that Classical liberalism and Conservatism may wrongly or poorly argue for some universal norms doesn't imply the radical conclusion that there are NO universal values at all. But indeed, if under the influence of such philosophical perversions as suggested by Kantian subjectivism, you believe that there is now way man can realize immutable metaphysical truths and consequently come to live life according to your own subjective preferences conditioned by your particular cultural circumstances, then constructivists can rightly argue that there are no universal truths and values, and all realities are then just creation of our arbitrary individual and culturally-conditioned whims. On the other hand, if following Classical liberals and conservatives you spouse belief in some pseudo-universal values or universal values without the ability to demonstrate the immutable truths that underlie those values and then be unable to distinguish true universal values from the pseudo-universals, you will be only then be prone to charges of dogma and backwardness by the modern liberals. Worse, then, taken off your poor ideological defense, you and the human society in large will have to bear the quite destructive consequences of social constructivism especially when pushed to its extreme ends from the most radical feminists who argued that not just the female social roles but even the female physical gender attributes is a "natural" construct imposed on them by a supposedly sexist Mother Nature to free Porn advocates who think that sinking in the lowest depths of hedonist lustfulness is great just because of its resulting erotic euphoria and a supposed lack of intelligence by traditionalists to try and realize that!

[Post-script] By these latter rather "juicy" examples I really didn't mean to take a hard stance against the said social groups in particular. Neither did I aim to discredit and conflate endless number of particular liberal causes these day many of which of relative merit. But only meant to show how an unqualified attack on the notion of universal norms can result in horrible consequences. And in the long run I also believe the ills resulting from the mentioned fundamental defect in the Modern philosophical heritage will outweigh many particular reasonable positions that societies can after all realize if only through trial and error.

  • But there's a question though, if there is some universal value , how can you "demonstrate" it? What experiment or science would prove or refute the given value in a definitive manner? ADD: I just see you said "immutable truths that underlie the values" -- but how would you then go to actual universal values ? The same "immutable truths" could nonetheless be interpreted differently by 2 different persons in terms of their import, and thus they could come up different conclusions regarding values. Jun 29 '17 at 8:17
  • I'm curious though -- this post is juicy, what would be your opinion of 'anti porn feminism' eh? Jun 29 '17 at 8:18
  • @mike3 That's true that my premises invite endless questions but these questions themselves imply the dead-end Modern first philosophy and social philosophy have reached, and given the nature of the questions, any answer claiming to offer a real alternative suggests it has to come from an entirely unique philosophical heritage like nothing you could find in the Modern mainstream. But for start, I can recommend you studying works by the traditionalist philosopher Rene Guenon.
    – infatuated
    Jun 29 '17 at 8:32
  • With the examples in the end I didn't aim to conflate and discredit all the endless number of particular causes on the liberal camp which would be beyond vicious really if I did. I was just aiming to demonstrate how destructive the practical implications of an unqualifed argument against any universal norm could be. Given my critique of both sides you can guess there must be particular social ideas on both sides that I find more or less agreeable. But I aimed to mainly address the general modern philosophical shortcomings that I also believe generate more ill than good in the long run.
    – infatuated
    Jun 29 '17 at 8:35
  • But how much more/less "vicious" would it be to equally challenge all the causes on the "conservative" camp? You say you find problems on both sides but are both equally wrong or is one less wrong than the other or is one wrong and the other "not even wrong"? Jun 29 '17 at 9:48

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