Are Facts Socially Constructed?

I enjoy watching YouTube videos. The sorts of videos I usually enjoy discuss academic topics I’m interested in, like philosophy. I’m especially fond of videos that put forward ideas that are commonly regarded as radical, or even indefensible. I like the debates that those videos engender among the video-makers who discuss those topics. In the vein of being a fan of YouTube debates, I want to add my two cents to a topic that has been gaining traction within certain communities. The topic is social construction. In particular, I want to discuss a thesis put forward by Dr. Kristi Winters in several videos. Her thesis is that facts qua facts are socially constructed entities. I will put the links to the videos I reference below this post, and I will add links to the end notes that direct to the times I reference.

What are facts? There is a lot of debate in analytic philosophy about facts, such as their internal structure, their nature, and how we should represent them formally. Typical, contemporary views take facts to be true truth-bearers, obtaining states of affairs, or some kind of entity in which individual objects exemplify properties and stand in relations.[1] While there is a lot of debate going on in the literature, one thing that isn’t hotly debated is whether all facts are socially constructed. Save for various kinds of idealism,[2] most mainstream views don’t take all facts to be dependent on minds.[3] So, facts can be either mind-dependent or mind-independent.

I’ll throw out a particular view about the ontology of facts to get things rolling. What this view is meant to do is show that there are quite intuitive points of view on the nature of facts which don’t take them to be essentially socially constructed, despite Dr. Winters’ implication to the contrary.[4] I will take facts to be obtaining states of affairs. To obtain is just to be the case, or to be actual.[5] A state of affairs is a distribution of properties over individuals that (can) stand in relations to other individuals. There can be states of affairs with just one individual that exemplifies some properties, and there can be states of affairs where several individuals exemplify properties and stand in certain kinds of relations to each other.

Dr. Winters likes the example of Pluto being reclassified as a dwarf planet. She believes that this demonstrates that facts about planets are socially constructed, because whether or not something is a planet is partly dependent on the classificatory conventions adopted by astronomers, and those conventions are products of social interactions among astronomers. If they changed the classificatory conventions, facts about the number of planets would change. So, facts about the number of planets are socially constructed. I hope I am not misrepresenting Dr. Winters with this reconstruction of her argument. I will now respond to this reconstruction.

If we are going to be scientific realists, then we should think that astronomers produce theories about things that exist independently of mental activity of any sort.[6] In other words, as realists, we should think of astronomy as developing an ontology of a certain aspect of the world we inhabit, namely the realm of celestial bodies and events. What their theorizing aims to do is reveal astronomical facts, which are constituted by properties distributed over individuals.

That astronomers changed the classification convention for planets such that it now excludes Pluto is one thing. That Pluto has the properties that qualify it as a dwarf planet rather than a planet within the classification convention is not socially constructed, but rather it is a mind-independent fact. The fact that Pluto has properties (p1…pn) is not dependent on the theories that astronomers believe, or any theories at all.

Furthermore, the fact that astronomers have such classification conventions is itself not socially constructed. That fact is just the distribution of properties over individual astronomers, wherein that distribution determines or grounds those naming conventions. That astronomers accept a classification convention is a fact about astronomers, and not the content of the classification convention. So, that fact is not constructed by the social processes that determined the contents of the classification convention.

If Dr. Winters objects at this point, I must ask, if the fact that astronomers accept some classification convention is mind-dependent, then what about the fact that that fact is mind-dependent? Is that fact also mind-dependent? If so, we end up with an ascending order of mind-dependency that either terminates in some super-mind, or keeps going to infinity. Think about it, if the second-order fact about the distribution of properties over astronomers is itself mind-dependent, on whose mind does it depend? The individual astronomers taken as a collective? What about the third-order fact that the second-order fact is mind-dependent? This process can repeat to infinity, and the minds of astronomers are not capable of housing this many facts. Unless we want to formulate this as some weird argument for the existence of God based on the social construction of facts, something’s gotta give. As far as I’m concerned, what’s gotta give is the implausible idea that all facts are socially constructed.

Now, I could just be misinterpreting Dr. Winters by imputing onto her ontological commitments about facts when she’s just making claims about epistemology.[7] However, she also claims that knowledge is constructed via social processes. Knowledge decomposes on analysis into various conditions, and any mainstream analysis includes truth as a necessary condition.[8] If knowledge is constructed, then presumably what that knowledge is about must also be constructed, otherwise there isn’t much to the claim that (some) knowledge is socially constructed.

Dr. Winters also talks about Kant’s noumenal/phenomenal distinction. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help make sense of the social construction of facts. Perhaps she is adopting transcendental idealism, and she thinks that humans have a conceptual manifold along with pure intuitions of space and time, and these shape our experience of the world. Our experience of the world expresses itself within the conceptual boundaries allowed for by our constitution. The phenomenal realm is just what we experience as it is shaped by our mental constitution, and the noumenal realm is beyond our conceptual grasp. My worry here is that this is probably false. Even if it isn’t false, there are interpretations of the phenomenal/noumenal distinction that aren’t purely epistemic. Dual aspect views and two worlds views allow for metaphysical understandings of the phenomenal realm.[9] So, it isn’t obvious that Dr. Winters, if she is embracing transcendental idealism, is skirting by any ontological commitments when she says that facts are socially constructed.

Another worry is we would need an argument for why intersubjectivity determined by shared conceptual manifolds and pure intuitions of space/time entails that we ought to embrace a social constructionist ontology of facts. Up to now, we haven’t been provided with one.

So, if some truths are constructed, we’re back into the territory of metaphysics rather than epistemology. Whether or not truth-bearers are true or false must be sensitive to how the truth-bearer-independent world is at a given time.[10] Whatever aspect of the world that true truth-bearers must be sensitive to will be socially constructed, if knowledge of those truths is itself constructed. So, this isn’t just about epistemology if we take knowledge to be socially constructed. Dr. Winters could have stayed in the realm of epistemology by constraining talk of social construction to issues of justification and warrant in various social spheres. Perhaps standards of testimony are based on social norms, and those norms bias those standards in ways that are conducive to testimonial injustices against marginalized groups. However, she did not restrict herself to the realm of justification and warrant, so she does take on ontological commitments.

What Dr. Winters ought to do is check out the literature on the ontology of facts. She can then adopt a position that allows for some facts being socially constructed, such as facts about gender and race, perhaps. I actually recommend thinking about social construction in terms of grounding and dropping talk of facts entirely. So, to be socially constructed is to be grounded in distinctive social patterns.[11] The trick, then, is uncovering which social patterns are salient when considering particular social constructs such as gender or borders.

Endnotes

[1] Mulligan and Correia 2013.

[2] Some forms of idealism may allow for facts that are mind-independent, such as transcendental idealism. Transcendental idealism will come up again in this post.

[3] Mind-dependence is a necessary (albeit probably not sufficient) condition for something being socially constructed.

[4] Cf. 16:43-17:06. The way she states it implies that it’s quite obvious, given a certain amount of reflection on the nature of science, that facts are constructed by the social processes embedded within the institution of science.

[5] I’m leaving questions of modality aside. Assume that I’m talking facts as things that obtain in the actual world.

[6] Dr. Winters may not accept realism, especially if she has sympathies for transcendental idealism.

[7] Cf. 21:06-23:16 for her clarification about ontology and epistemology.

[8] Setting aside the knowledge-first theorists, who presumably also take knowledge to be factive, just not subject to analysis into other concepts.

[9] Cf. Stang 2016.

[10] Besides claims about truth-bearers, but let’s set that complication aside.

[11] Schaffer 2016.

Works Cited

Mulligan, Kevin and Correia, Fabrice, “Facts”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/facts/>.

Schaffer, Jonathan. “Social Construction as Grounding; Or: Fundamentality for Feminists, a Reply to Barnes and Mikkola.” Philosophical Studies (2016). Web.

Stang, Nicholas F., “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/>.

Dr. Winters’ Videos I Address

What Sargon of Akkad Doesn’t Know About Social Constructs
A Chat With Prof. Philip Moriarty on YouTube Atheism

  • DJEB

    Somehow I am not surprised that a person as disingenuous as Winters has created a hypothesis around which being disingenuous is OK.

  • weknow

    Just because our understanding of something changes means that the thing is a social construct?

    Is that winter’s argument?

    Suppose we exexamined how gravity’s definition has changed since the time of Newton. Since gravity was understood differently as time passed, would winters argue that gravity (and time) was a social construct?

    • That seems to be her argument. She assumes facts are parts of theories rather than parts of theory-independent reality, and then argues that since theories change over time and are replaced by (hopefully) better theories, facts change. It’s a weird argument.

  • weknow

    Take the claim “X is a social construct.”

    Does this mean that x= social construct or does this mean that our beliefs about x are socially constructed?

    It could be that our beliefs about what differs in polar bears and grizzly bears are socially constructed while polar bears and grizzly bears- and what makes them differ- are themselves not social constructs.

    • Usually social construction is taken to be construction of concepts or categories which we use to navigate the world rather than objects/individuals in the mind-independent world. In contrast, a concept like “H2O” isn’t socially constructed, but rather is developed by scientists aiming to explain watery phenomena in the world. Sometimes social construction seems to be about properties, like race and gender, when certain theorists discuss those sorts of things. Typically socially constructed properties are just properties of our shared social reality (social institutions, customs, conventions like language, etc.). But that seems like a trivial thesis to me.