If you suppose that you know something towards which your attention is directed—another human being, your cat, a tree, the kitchen table—you also suppose that what you know has a reality independent of your act of knowing. That act (so you think) attains its target: it does not make, produce, or construct something different from the target, some creation that hides the real thing.
If, however, what you take to be knowing is merely "knowing"—if it is a constructing of something other than its target—then what you thought you knew is a mere appearance rather than a reality. The claim that what purports to be knowing is merely a constructing is a terrible one: it strikes at the very self–confidence of our rationality.
The general doctrine that in cludes such a claim is usually called antirealism. There are many versions of antirealism, some more relativistic than others. Kant, for instance, is an antirealist about commonsense and scientific knowledge, but he is not a relativist. For Kant, commonsense and scientific knowledge give us appearance rather than reality, but such appearances are not constructed according to individual or social wishes and whims. Kantian appearances are inevitable appearances, based on a union of sense and understanding that all human beings have in common. Accordingly, he takes the paradoxical step of calling this world of appearance objective: it is an objectivity that emerges, in response to the raw material of sensation, from the general nature of human subjectivity, which he sometimes calls transcendental subjectivity.
Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? consists of a collection of his lectures and essays not all of which are directly related to the influential doctrine that gives the book its title and its central focus—the doctrine that some of the things that purport to be hard, resistant realities are in fact socially constructed. There are many versions of this doctrine, some of them highly relativistic. For such versions, each society or culture creates its own reality, and because societies and cultures change, reality changes with them. Indeed, there are no hard, resistant realities to set in contrast with this Heraclitean flux of "realities." Other versions of social constructionism are less extreme. It is perfectly reasonable, for instance, to claim that some supposed realities are social constructions. The conviction that people of certain races are subhuman and so should be treated as such is obviously the result of a social construction, one that any decent society should reject. But to say so is to contrast such a construction with the reality of our common human nature and the dignity intrinsic to it.
Professor Hacking is a distinguished representative of the school of analytic–empirical philosophy, so it is not surprising that he undertakes not to attack or defend the notion of social constructionism but rather to analyze it. He focuses on two questions: 1) Just what is said to be socially constructed? 2) What motivates someone to claim that this or that item is socially constructed? From Hacking’s analysis at least two sensible and useful conclusions can be drawn. (I say can be drawn, because the machinery of his analysis—machinery designed to produce rigor—makes it difficult to see that these are indeed his conclusions.) First, a conclusion about motivation: the reason for claiming some item to be a social construction is the judgment that the item in question is not a real, resistant thing but rather something that could be (and in most instances should be) changed. Hacking’s second conclusion is about what is constructed: if X is in fact socially constructed, then X is not a hard, resistant, and inevitable reality but rather an idea/concept that merely expresses a certain social attitude toward some reality.
Notice, however, that I have had to use the term "reality" to express these sensible conclusions. Hacking himself is wary of this word and of other related words. Words such as "reality," "truth," "facts," "objectivity," and "relativism" are, for him, "elevator words." They tend to move us up and away from a level of discourse concerned with things that are clearly "in the world"; they are too "free–floating" in their meanings for someone whose intent is just "to analyze the idea of social construction." This linguistic puritanism is unproductive and, if I may be allowed to say so, unrealistic. It is an artificial limitation that makes some of Hacking’s own analytic distinctions unclear and perhaps indefensible, even though the two conclusions mentioned above are both sound and useful.
Hacking begins his book with a list of twenty–four alleged social constructs taken from the titles of books containing the expression "social construction" or its variants. The analytic task is then reduced to the question "What is X?" where X is a placeholder for any of these items. Having forsworn the term "reality," Hacking is compelled to find another name for the status of such items. That is not easy, for the items he considers make up a wildly disparate collection: authorship, brotherhood, the child viewer of television, danger, emotions, facts, gender, homosexual culture, illness, knowledge, literacy, the medicalized immigrant, nature, oral history, postmodernism, quarks, reality, serial homicide, technological systems, urban schooling, vital statistics, women refugees, youth homelessness, Zulu nationalism.
Hacking chooses to say that all the items in this alphabetized list are "in the world in a commonsensical, not fancy meaning of that term," and he goes on to call them "objects, for lack of a better label." It certainly is a poor label for such a heterogeneous list. For one thing, some of the items are clearly more fundamental than others. Without people (also classified later as objects) there would be no authorship, brotherhood, child viewers, emotion, literacy, and so on. For another, some of the items (nature, facts, reality) seem to be not so much objects in the world as alternative ways of expressing the notion "world." Another item, gender, does not seem to be an object at all, but rather a new name for the true object, sex/sexuality, which, having been viewed as a social construction, has now been socially reconstructed, in great part because of the canny use of the politically correct name "gender." Insistence on politically correct words is one fairly simple form of social construction.
In Hacking’s terminology, for each object there is a corresponding idea, in this inclusive sense of that term: "ideas, conceptions, concepts, beliefs, attitudes to, theories"; also "groupings, classifications (ways of classifying), and kinds." All these ideas are formed in a social setting called a matrix. Simply put, it is the ideas, not the objects to which the ideas correspond, that Hacking thinks are socially constructed. Only the ideas are socially constructed directly, but some ideas interact with people, who move in the world of objects; and when this happens there can be an indirect social construction of objects, including people. Hacking calls these "interactive kinds." Thus the interactive kind woman refugee "interacts with things of that kind, namely people, including individual women refugees, who can become aware of how they are classified and modify their behavior accordingly. Quarks in contrast do not form an interactive kind; the idea of the quark does not interact with quarks." Quarks, Hacking tells us, belong to an "indifferent kind"; never does he make clear the important point that since ideas or kinds do not act at all, they cannot interact. It is people who act, although they may be influenced by the ideas they entertain.
The mention of quarks brings me to an important distinction about the role of construction in knowing—not just social construction but construction in general. Our knowledge of the in–the–world status of another person (or some other commonsense thing) is radically different from our knowledge of the in–the–world status of quarks—if quarks are indeed in the world. Our cognitive encounters with persons and other commonsense things are direct. When I encounter a real woman refugee, she is a directly known reality, not an appearance I have constructed out of raw material that originates in sensory stimuli. Indeed, my concern for her depends precisely on her not being such a construction. (I hope Prof. Hacking would agree with this realistic claim about commonsense knowledge, but I am not at all sure that he would.) No one has ever encountered a quark in that direct and cognitive way, and no one ever will. An immense and difficult body of theory must be absorbed before one can lay claim to an adequate notion of what quarks are thought to be, let alone the right to judge whether the readings at crucial points in the enormous apparatus that is a particle accelerator furnish evidence for the fleeting presence of quarks—or at least the fleeting presence of something or other.
Construction of some sort is clearly going on in all this: construction of a body of theory, construction of an immensely complicated apparatus stretching over vast tracts of land—an apparatus that may plausibly be regarded as part of the theory. The idea of a quark is inseparable from all this construction and indeed may well be regarded as coextensive with it. Whether it is also a social construction, or a construction at least in part social, is a serious and important question. (Hacking’s friendly debate in this book with Andrew Pickering, author of Constructing Quarks, is inconclusive.) But in any event, it is not possible to compare the body of theory about quarks with the real thing in the way that one can compare ideas about women refugees with a real woman huddled at some checkpoint.
As I have argued elsewhere, we may generalize the point about construction in science: much of science (though by no means all of it) is directed towards things/entities/events that cannot in principle be known directly. They must be known indirectly, if at all—known by virtue of a body of theory that is in an important sense constructed. This claim in no way impugns our direct knowing of commonsense things.
Edward Pols is Kenan Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities at Bowdoin College. His books include Radical Realism: Direct Knowing in Science and Philosophy(1992) and Main Regained(1998)