Taking Bad Arguments Seriously

Ian Hacking on psychopathology and social contruction

The idea of social construction is wonderfully liberating. It reminds us, for example, that motherhood and its meanings are not the fixed and inevitable consequence of child-bearing and rearing, but the product of historical events, social forces and ideology. Mothers who know but fear standard canons of emotion and behaviour may see that the ways they are supposed to feel and act are not ordained by human nature. And if they don’t obey either the old rules of family, or whatever is the official psycho-paediatric rule of the day, they need not feel quite as guilty as they are supposed to feel.

On the other hand, the words ‘social construction’ work like cancerous cells: once seeded, they replicate out of hand. Consider Alan Sokal’s hoax. In May 1996, Sokal, a physicist at New York University, published a learned pastiche in a special issue of Social Text, a more or less literary journal. Believing that some fashionable intellectuals have abandoned rigour for glory and empty jargon, he brilliantly parodied some of their idiotic remarks about physics, often using recent quotations footnoted with all the veneer of academic rigour. Derrida was perhaps the most famous of his targets. Sokal fooled the editors of Social Text, who printed the piece thinking it was the real McCoy – wow, a physicist understands Derrida et al.

In an almost simultaneous issue of Lingua Franca, a sort of People magazine for professors and their ilk, Sokal owned up to the mischief. His confession used the phrase ‘social construction’ just twice in a five-page essay. Stanley Fish, who teaches at Duke University, which publishes Social Text, and a man widely regarded as the very dean of advanced (literary) ‘theory’, replied on the oped page of the New York Times. There, he used the phrase, or its cognates, 16 times in a few paragraphs. If a cancer cell did that to a human body, death would be immediate. Sokal has since been an immense draw on American campuses, pretty well guaranteed to attract 800 people, many of them angry (for or against him). A few days ago, one of the search engines on the Internet found 84,272 distinct items in which ‘Sokal Affair’ was a key phrase. For comparison, it found 7767 for Ludwig Wittgenstein and 11,334 for Quantum Mechanics, the science whose abuse furnished Sokal’s illustrations. I find the whole event rather embarrassing. Do I want to live in a scholarly community where so many bad arguments are taken seriously?

Many people were unhappy about using the idea of social construction in discussing the natural sciences. Sokal fanned the fire, to the point where people doubted if it even made sense for motherhood. Given the inflamed passions going the rounds, you might think that the first thing we want is a definition of social construction. On the contrary, we need first to confront the point of social constructionist talk. Its primary use is for consciousness-raising. I have an immense list of social construction booktitles, going all the way from Authorship to Zulu Identity. In almost every case the aim is not to refute an idea, but, to use Karl Mannheim’s words, to ‘unmask’ it, and often to show its ‘extra-theoretical function’, with the hope of ‘disintegrating’ the idea. Or at least to undermine its authority, showing that an idea or a present state of affairs need not have been the way it is. The project is to de-inevitabilise something that we take for granted. Nowhere has this been more successful than with feminist work on gender, and now sex. Some constructionists are as rebellious as radical feminists, but many seem to want only to understand the world. They adopt what Richard Rorty calls an ‘ironic’ stance. We thought that such and such was inevitable, in the present state of things. We now see it is the product of a highly contingent social history; but we are stuck with it, or so many constructionists seem to say.

I have never made use of the social construction approach. My topics in the past have tended to be too complex, and to demand too much nuance, as well as conceptual analysis, for the simplistic phrase ‘social construction’ to be serviceable. And I hope that will continue to be the case. I used to believe that the best way to contribute to the debate was to remain silent. To talk about social construction would be to entrench the use of a confusing idea. But philosophers of my stripe should analyse, not exclude. Even in the narrow domains called the history and the philosophy of the sciences, many historians and many philosophers won’t talk to each other, or they talk past each other, because one side is so contentedly constructionist while the other is so dismissive of construction. In larger arenas, public scientists shout at sociologists, who shout back.

There is a felt tension between the notion that something is real and the notion that it is constructed. It results partly from the ways in which the ‘real’ and the ‘constructed’ interact, and comes out most brazenly when the usual (if currently unpopular) distinction between mind and body breaks down. Take schizophrenia. Most research scientists believe that it is a biochemical or neurological or genetic disorder (or perhaps all three). A minority of critics take the illness or its manifestations to be socially constructed. It is not claimed that people diagnosed as schizophrenic are not in a terrible state, but that the way the symptoms are organised, and the way in which they develop and express themselves, are the product of psychiatry and society. I do not want here to take sides on these issues, but to elaborate on the rival attitudes involved.

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