I (probably) will not do this often, but I spent way too much time on a school assignment today that also happened to align with views relevant to this blog. I am in grad school for psychotherapy in a program that is so heavy-handedly pro-postmodernism and pro-Woke, and I was assigned to respond to an essay and a TedTalk on the subject of social constructionism. I predictably ranted and went way beyond the word count minimum and brought in extra sources. Here is what I wrote, citations and all.
In paraphrasing Rory O’Carroll’s (2016) principles, we arrive at the following description of Social Constructionism (SC):
- Taking a critical stance toward commonly-held knowledge
- Positing that all ways of understanding are contextually relative
- Positing that everyday reality is constructed by language, rather than merely described by language
- Holding that whatever is the dominant discourse becomes the reigning ideology (basically Marx’s definition of ‘ideology’)
O’Carroll’s first principle is almost synonymous with Gergen’s (2009, p. 12) fifth principle of “Reflection on our taken-for-granted worlds […]”, O’Carroll’s second principle is highly similar to Gergen’s first principle in that both deny the possibility of objectivity, and O’Carroll’s third principle is essentially a combination of Gergen’s second, third, and fourth principles in that they point toward the idea of a linguistically-constructed, relativized view of reality. And, finally, O’Carroll’s fourth point about dominant ideologies is discussed at length in Gergen’s concerns of cultural and epistemic imperialism.
Both presenters, therefore, are good representatives of a relativist/constructionist tendency in the contemporary Neo-Marxist and Postmodern intellectual Left-wing whose modern origins are in Kant and Hume’s empiricist skepticism, which developed later into the 19th-century ‘Hermeneutics of Suspicion’ (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud), but which did not really find its stride until the French Postmodernist turn in post-war era, when a group of frustrated post-communists (Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, etc.) were so discouraged by the abject worldwide failure of their utopian political project and the horror of the world wars that they began to doubt that any modern tenets of knowledge or value could be taken for granted. The perspectives of the latter group had a massive influence in the social sciences and literary theory in the West, as is seen in the laudatory tone with which they are addressed in Gehart (2018, p. 57-58), among many others.
Although often motivated by humane concerns, social constructionism (SC) is a regressive, authoritarian tendency masquerading as avant-garde liberation. The simple premise that each of us filters our perceptions through a value schema, so that what we see is not ‘what there is’ simpliciter but instead a field of meaning is of course true, but social constructionism makes an unwarranted leap from this premise to deny any sort of objectivity altogether. Rather than saying there is one Truth that is experienced relatively (as, say, in the Indian Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant), the SCist unjustifiably jumps to saying that there is simply no truth whatsoever (“The way in which we understand the world is not required by “what there is”.” (Gergen, 2009, p. 5), but instead only convention, consensus, and collectively-produced symbolic constructs.
To begin with, SC is internally incoherent. It claims on the one hand that one cannot truly rise above convention, indoctrination, and relativity in order to attempt (however partially) a sober, universal, trans-historical and cross-cultural perspective. Yet it at the same time makes a sweeping and universal claim about what kind of knowledge is ever possible, and it bolsters its case through cross-cultural comparisons. It assumes the very privileged epistemic position that it claims does not exist!
Second, Gergen’s retreat to pragmatism, in which “Constructions gain their significance from their social utility,” (2009, p. 9) is a tacit admittance of the inadequacy of this worldview. Constructions are said to gain traction through “Successful functioning within the relational ritual”, meaning they allow subjects to accomplish pragmatic goals. Clearly, this only moves the question of objectivity one step back through linguistic obfuscation – one can simply ask, “Okay, but why are some methods, ideas, or values more socially useful than others?” Is the outcome simply random, or does it, in fact, relate to correspondence to a shared reality? If Gergen perhaps does not even believe his own philosophy, but instead has to sneak a hidden form of objectivity back into his own philosophy in order to rehabilitate it, one has to wonder what motivates dispensing with objectivity in the first place.
Of course, many people are attracted to relativist/constructivist views because of intuitively-felt sentiments that doing so means adhering to tolerance, mutual respect, and peacefulness – indeed, Rory O’Carroll mentions social oppression as being among his concerns and champions SC as a way out of it. Superficially it seems this way, but the implications of really taking SC seriously are endless, irresolvable conflict.
Resolving conflict means being able to appeal to shared facts and moral principles of some kind, even if there is not complete agreement on either of these. Even appealing to principles of 1.) tolerance, 2.) respect for different ways of life, and 3.) giving everyone’s opinion some consideration are themselves appeals to moral qualities that are usually felt to be more than mere subjective opinion. But, if, as Foucault (1980) claimed, all knowledge paradigms, be they moral or factual, are really just projections of power (as relative group consensuses motivated politically and scholastically), there is no real basis for solving disputes. Every descriptive or prescriptive claim by an opponent is just their arbitrary projection of power, no better or worse than any other – and, moreover, actually understanding your opponent’s point of view is difficult if not impossible, since every relative point of view is incommensurable with every other, such that linguistic terms may not even refer to the same referent (and individual subjects may not even experience similar referents). We therefore may never understand one another, have no way of knowing whether we do understand one another at any given time, and have no general principles for describing or prescribing anything – all we have is projections of naked power.
Why, then, is there any reason to do anything other than try to make one’s own beliefs the “dominant discourse” described by O’Carroll, by whatever means necessary? If one does not do it oneself, someone else will, and each overturning of a knowledge paradigm is just another projection of power, no better or worse than another. What I am describing was in fact Foucault’s (1980) pessimistic conclusion about how reality works. Gergen (2009, p. 5) sounds not so far from this when he writes “For the constructionist, our actions are not constrained by anything traditionally accepted as true, rational, or right”; another way of saying this is “I will act however I wish irrespective of morality, reason, or truth” – is this really in any way liberatory? Gergen (2009, p. 27) wants to use social constructionism to end “cultural imperialism”, but there does not under SC appear to be any way to resolve conflict between cultures, or even within them.
If morals are relative and culturally contingent, why should we care about quashing political dissent within a society, since there is no clear framework for critiquing a culture internally? As for cross-cultural communication, is it Western “cultural imperialism” to suggest that clitorectomy is abusive mutilation of women? Is it Islamic “cultural imperialism” to suggest the West is a decadent consumerist society? Can we really not appeal to any universal principles to say that both of these criticisms are obviously true, and then work together to resolve these issues?
Gergen (2009, p. 11) writes “In the name of universal truth, the world has witnessed oppression, torture, murder, and genocide,” and here he commits an obvious Slippery Slope Fallacy: there is no logical connection to believing in objective truth and believing that it ought to be forced on others violently. Moreover, there is no reason to believe promoting relativism will not lead to oppression, torture, murder, and genocide, since it historically has led to those in some cases.
In spite of Marx’s insistence that his methodology was scientific, the general Marxist view has been that objective truth is a ‘bourgeois concept’ and only a reflection of ruling class ideology, thus Foucault famously argued against Chomsky that there was really no such thing as human nature, justice, and so forth outside of a particular ruling paradigm (withDefiance, 2013). Stalin and Mao took this sentiment to heart and went to war against human nature and economic law in the greatest disasters of the 20th century – these people really believed they could reconstruct human nature and reality essentially through force of will and top-down political power, and their results were abject failures morally, socially, and politically. Even Foucault admitted near the end of his life that his obsession with relativism and deconstructionism was motivated by wanting to realize his socially anomalous sexual desires. My point here is that, in practice, social constructionism is almost invariably more a rhetorical/political strategy than a deeply-held philosophical commitment, and its practitioners use relativistic and skeptical arguments to undermine their opponents’ views while promoting their preferred values (“the New Soviet Man”) as somehow implicitly superior, even though this is a contradiction within their own framework.
The alternative to postmodernist social constructionism is not only and simply modernist materialism, as it is often framed. Reflecting on the astounding implications of the quantum physics revolution – which has revealed that ‘matter’ as we typically think of it does not exist ‘out there’ before we go to look for it – the great physicist Werner Heisenberg (1981, p. 34) declared in 1967, “I think that modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato. In fact the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language. [emphasis mine]”
He and many of his colleagues became intrigued by the ancient metaphysical idealist/nondualist spiritual traditions of Neoplatonism, Vedanta, Sufism, Taoism, and others, which hold that the world is (speaking very loosely) fundamentally mental/spiritual, but not in an incoherent, ‘standpoint epistemology’-based, undecidable way in which each of us is hermetically sealed off in our little bubble of relativity. Instead, reality is seen as more akin to a shared dream in an objective, universal mind. And therefore there is no danger of “cultural imperialism,” because, as the Traditionalist/Perennialist School of religious studies (itself usually hated by SCists) has demonstrated, the esoteric, nondual tendencies of various religious/spiritual traditions the world over have come to largely agree on the final, real nature of reality (in spite of considerable geographical and cultural separation), and the ultimate outcome of the natural sciences has led to essentially the same conclusion! This amazing result that reconciles modernist science with traditional spirituality, and which reconciles the extremely objective (science) sources of knowledge with the extremely subjective (mystical experience) sources of knowledge should be being shouted from the rooftops, but currently the SCs are hegemonic in academia and high-profile philosophical lightweights like Richard Dawkins enjoy the public spotlight in terms of describing ‘science’ – thus, only people with niche interests are able to learn that there actually is a well-developed philosophical framework capable of reconciling science and spirituality, subjectivity and objectivity, and cultural particularism with epistemic universalism.
Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Penguin/Random House.
Gehart, D. (2018). Mastering competencies in family therapy: A practical approach to theories and clinical case documentation (3rd ed.). Cengage Learning.
Gergen, K. (2009). Social construction: Revolution in the making. In Gergen, K. An invitation to social construction (pp. 1-30). Sage.
Heisenberg, Werner. (1981) Natural Law and the Structure of Matter. Warm Wind Books.
TedXTalks [screen name]. (2016, January 28). We construct our reality | Rory O’Carroll | TedxYouth@TheSpire. [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTB-TG62BNM
withDefiance [screen name]. (2013, March 13). Debate Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault – On human nature [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wfNl2L0Gf8