The Debunking Project and Feminism in Metaphysics

Haslanger’s conception of a “debunking” project arises from a critique of Hacking’s notions of object construction and idea construction.
Debunking: “[The] project of challenging the purported truth conditions for the application of a concept”.

Hacking’s definition of a social construct:
1. X need not have existed , or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.
2. X is quite bad as it is.
3. We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed. (Hacking 1999 , p. 6)
Condition (O): “(0) In the present state of aff airs, X is taken for granted, X appears to be inevitable” (Hacking 1999 , p. 12

“Especially important to Hacking is the distinction between constructing ideas (which includes concepts, categories, classifi cations, etc.) and constructing objects. (Note that Hacking’s understanding of “objects” is broad and includes: people, states, conditions, practices, actions, behavior, classes, experiences, relations, material objects, substances [i.e., stuff s], unobservables, and fundamental particles (Hacking 1999 , p. 22).)”
Hacking believes that if an “object” or an “idea” is to be considered a social construct it must satisfy condition (O). Hacking also holds that social constructions are formed causally, that there is a historical contingency leading up to the existence of every social construct.

Haslanger goes after Hackings conception of idea constructivism as follows:

Hacking sets up an exchange between two positions: the idea constructionist and the idea determinist. The idea constructionist holds that “with respect to a domain D, (a) the contingency of our understanding of D; (b) nominalism about kinds in D , or more precisely, a denial that the domain D has an inherent structure; and (c) an explanation of the stability of our understanding of D in external rather than internal terms.” The (c) condition refers to the idea-constructionist’s view that an alternative scientific/social theory completely different, yet just as “useful” as our own, is possible.

The idea determinist, on the other hand, holds “that the domain D has an inherent structure, that our understanding of D is in some sense inevitable because the inherent structure of D causally determines how to understand it, and that our understanding of D is stable because the stable structure of the world sustains it” The idea determinist is concerned with what our theories are about while the idea constructionist is concerned with the dynamics of classification. Haslanger finds Hacking incomplete and claims that the discussion about social construction must be about the contextual or constitutive norms that form the basis of justification for our classification scheme(s).

Discursive Construction and the Debunking Project:

Hackings conception of discursive construction and its implications:

“Something is discursively constructed just in case it is (to a significant extent) the way it is because of what is attributed to it or how it is classified. (Haslanger 2012 [1995] , p. 99)”

Haslanger believes Hacking’s conception of discursive construction is too narrow. One of Haslanger’s primary critiques of Hacking is his emphasis on cognitive aspects of social construction. Hacking characterizes object construction as a process that primarily works with and on ideas within a respective social matrix. Haslanger isn’t satisfied with Hackings “social matrix” and mentions the need for “a way of thinking about “object construction” or better, the formation of social kinds, that acknowledges the causal impact of classification, but also gives due weight to the unintended and unconceptualized impact of practices.”

By putting less emphasis on psychological aspects we position ourselves in such a way that allows us to see different and perhaps more fundamental sources of construction outside of a purely conceptual and linguistic discourse.

The result of Haslanger’s critique is the debunking project.

The project involves a two dimensional investigation of a social kinds. “One dimension represents the degree to which explicit classification is a causal factor in bringing about the features that make for membership in the kind (as opposed to the features being an unintended byproduct of social practices); the other dimension represents the degree to which the kind in question is defined by “identification” with the social position.”
Haslangers definition of a thick social position: social positions that entail a broad range of norms, expectations, obligations, entitlements, and so on.

“One might argue that (“thick”) widowhood is a social construct, where the point is that it is wrong to see widows as the social kind consisting of women whose husbands have died, and who for some reason or other come to be poor, childless, and filthy. Rather, the claim would be that the (“thick”) condition of widows as poor, childless, and so on, is something that “we”—our institutions and practices—have created. Thanks to the formation and employment of appropriate categories our concept of widowhood, in this case, is revealed to be more robustly social than previously thought. That’s what the debunking project is all about.

Haslanger proposes the following filter for any category we might think up in hopes of “debunking” it:
Is the classification useful politically and/or theoretically useful, and (2) should we take the theoretical classification C to capture the commitments of ordinary discourse?

Semantic Externalism:
Debunking constructionist rely on a species of semantic externalism. Haslanger believes that scientist and social theorist are epistemically positioned in a way that gives them the authority to define social categories. Haslanger also mentions that, given the nature of the theoretical work at hand, it is ultimately a judgment call whether or not we choose to accept the social theorist’s/scientist’s definition. How about that?

Feminsim in Metaphysics

Haslanger brings up a lot different and interesting feminist literature in this chapter of which I will merely provide examples of. Given the structure and aim of her argument within the chapter, I think this is an effective approach. Ultimately Haslanger decides that feminist metaphysics is in fact possible. She mentions that any sort of feminist theorizing doesn’t necessarily attribute women with a privileged view of reality, it merely recognizes that women are unjustly treated and proceeds in the hopes of diminishing that unjust treatment. Haslanger also concludes, perhaps in stark contrast to Haraway, that one need not be an anti-realist about objective types in order to foster radical feminists doubts about ontological realism.
Some interesting quotes from the chapter:

Must a “gynocentric” perspective capture the experiences of all or most women? And if not all women have access to a “gynocentric” perspective, do efforts to describe such a perspective rely on problematic normative stereotypes about how women should be?

“Theorizing entirely from a gynocentric perspective would not be warranted unless there were grounds for privileging agynocentric perspective on the issue. Perhaps for this reason, this genre of feministcritique has been more effective in revealing the limitations of mainstream views than in defending gynocentric ontologies.”

12 thoughts on “The Debunking Project and Feminism in Metaphysics

  1. Timothy Patricia

    Attacking Hacking’s concept of idea-constructionism, Haslinger argues: “although the claim that our ideas are conditioned by social and historical events is plausible, Hacking has expanded idea-constructionism into something quite implausible” (118). I have to agree with Haslinger in her rebuff of Hacking here. Haslinger continues, “It’s one thing to acknowledge that the causal routes responsible for our way of thinking travel through and are influenced by the contours of our contingent social structures; it’s another thing to entirely replace questions of justification with questions of causation” (118).

    It feels like Hacking’s conception of idea-constructionism totally dismisses humans’ potential for authentic, genuine thought. Although the social context one exists in may always inform his or her thought, by no means does this signal that those thoughts are caused by that social context. Additionally, aren’t humans capable of producing ideas that are radically different from those kinds of ideas being produced within the social matrix in question? To me, it seems that Hacking presents too narrow of a view of the amazing ability of human thought. For example, if I can think of a new color that has never appeared in our universe before and only exists in my mind: has my conception of that color been caused strictly by the historical and social context in which I’ve existed my entire life? Answering yes to that question feels like a stretch to me.

  2. Jeremy Read

    To respond to this line of your discussion:
    “Haslanger also concludes, perhaps in stark contrast to Haraway, that one need not be an anti-realist about objective types in order to foster radical feminists doubts about ontological realism”
    I wanted to clarify Haslanger’s realist position.
    It seems to me that Haslanger would not want to foster doubt about ontological realism. Rather, she suggests that there is an objective world of experience, but that we make meaning out of that world by selecting certain “sets” as fundamental or important. These selections, she suggests, are made on the basis of our political and social values. I’m not sure if you have read any Dennett, but this sounds familiar to the general thesis of “Real Patterns”: it’s not that our concepts give us phenomena, but leave the noumena mysterious (as Kant might suggest), but rather that our values, interests and pragmatics order the noumena into meaningful and political potent narratives about “the way things are”.
    Here is my question:
    I am a little worried about Haslanger’s shift from talking about how “mediation” can further our ability to understand “things as they are” to her talk of how our values determine the sets we consider fundamental. Values are here acting as mediatory, the mediate our interactions with the world, but if some value systems select the “wrong” sets as fundamental, how can they be furthering our objective knowledge? She does say that mediation is not necessarily positive (there can be negative mediation), but how are we to know which mediating values are good or not? This is the normative question she discusses, but I worry that she has just pushed back the problems faced by the feminist anti-realists (if there’s no objective reality, why is my oppression regime any worse than your alternative) to a new question: if my value mediated understanding of objective reality is different than yours because our values are different, on what basis can you assert that your values are better and thus your understanding is better? In short, this seems to push the crucial questions out of metaphysical inquiry and back into the realm of politics/ethics.
    Or am I misreading this horribly. (Always a possibility…)

  3. Kyle Kysela

    On page 144, Haslanger writes, “It is plausible that gender is a factor affecting one’s perspective on the world. But if gender itself is a culturally variable phenomenon, then it may not be possible to capture the mediating force of gender in terms of a shared content to be found in women’s thought.”

    What makes Haslanger so confident that it would be politically effective, in the long run, to find shared content in women’s thought? Haraway makes a strong case in her “Manifesto” that such endeavors are futile and self-defeating. After all, Haslanger admits that attempts at theorizing from a gynocentric perspective have been “more effective in revealing the limitations of mainstream views than in defending gynocentric ontologies.” Considering Haraway’s arguments, is this even an accomplishment? How can we be sure that feminist epistemologies are not simply propping up the existing social fabric of dichotomies—”poles of world-historical domination” in Haraway’s terms—while giving the illusion of subversion?

  4. Jack George

    I would like to think further about steps 2. and 3. of Hacking’s definition of social construction. Whereby fro X to be a social construct then “2. X is quite bad as it is.
    3. We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed. (Hacking 1999 , p. 6)” This then goes on to inform the concepts of “reformist”, “rebellious” and “revolutionary” construction.

    Is attaching a moral label to the idea of social construction useful? To me it appears a necessary step to differentiate concepts like ‘gender’ from harmless ones such as ‘the hoover dam’. But do moral labels have a place in epistemology?

  5. Gioia Pappalardo

    In pgs 122-23 Haslanger explains Hacking’s differentiation between interactive kinds and indifferent kinds. Interactive kinds “happens through the awareness of the thing classified” which allows them to change their behavior based on that clarification (122). ). On the other hand, an indifferent kind, like a quark, cannot become aware that it is labeled as a quark and change its behavior A few pages later, she explains how Hacking ties this to discursive identity construction. Identity is “a psychological notion intended to capture one’s self-understanding and the intentional framework employed in action” (125). She attacks this with several examples: someone who refuses a classification may still have it imposed on themselves, and those in groups without an explicit classification (ie child of a widow) are still classified, so we need to think about social kinds in a way that “acknowledges the causal impact of classification, but also gives due weight to the unintended and conceptualized impact of practices” (128). I agree, and I wonder how far Hacking would be willing to take some of the concepts he uses. For example, how explicitly aware does an interactive kind have to be, and does it have to be mediated through language (even if there’s no single word that contains the concept)? How explicit does a self-identity have to be? It seems like these distinctions might leave out groups that may not be capable of this very explicit self-awareness or classification-awareness (for example people with certain disabilities, young children, and perhaps even very intelligent animals) but who can still modify their behavior (knowingly or unknowingly) based on the behavior and practices of other people. In these situations, the label (even if it’s an implicit one) may still reinforce these classifications. Could Hacking (and would he be willing to) tweak some of these concepts to better withstand Haslanger’s arguments?

  6. Robert LaCroix

    In looking at Haslanger’s constitutive definitions of “woman” and “man,” I was prompted to wonder about the use of the hierarchical conditions (ii and iii, in each case) that she applies to each category. It isn’t terribly hard to think that those two conditions accurately capture the actuality of gender relations in the present-day United States, but they would not be accurate in the Indian village of Mawlynnong, in which land and money are passed down matrilineally ( And yet, “woman” and “man” would seem to be coherent categories there, too, seemingly independent of western influence–it just so happens that the concept of “woman” does not include a subordinated social position, but rather a privileged one.

    Does this, admittedly rare, counterexample change the theoretical usefulness of Haslanger’s definitions? It seems to me that it renders it insufficient, in that the definition excludes the women of Mawlynnong.

    1. Leo DesBois

      I think Haslanger might just say that there are no women (or men) in Mawlynnong. There are people who meet condition (i) and are therefore female, but these females are not women because they do not occupy a subordinate social position, but rather a privileged one. This harkens back to Haslanger’s discussion of gender on pages 8-9 of the Introduction, where she writes:

      “in those societies where being (or presumed to be) female does not result in subordination along any dimension, there are no women. Moreover, justice requires that where there is such subordination, we should change social relations so there will be no more women (or men).”

      So, it looks like Mawlynnong might be a model of a just society. On the other hand, perhaps the males in the village occupy a subordinate position. If this is the case, are the males women and the females men? I think MacKinnon might argue that they are, but I’m not sure what Haslanger would say.

  7. Griffin Jones

    I find myself a bit stuck on Hacking’s distinction between ideas and objects. As Haslanger writes and as Daniel notes in his summary, Hacking’s understanding of objects is very broad and includes such things as actions, behavior, relations and experiences. While I don’t feel inclined to believe that such things could be classified as ideas, I am a little uncomfortable with the classification as “objects”. Why is Hacking’s understanding of objects so broad?

    Shortly after this distinction is mentioned, Haslanger discusses the distinction between ideas and concepts, and writes in the footnotes that in relation to concepts, “ideas are similar but perhaps less conditioned by language and more specific to the individual” (p. 116). Is there any significance in this distinction and how it might relate to the distinction between ideas and objects that is proposed by Hacking? I would love some general clarification on the points of distinction between ideas and objects, and ideas and concepts.

  8. Max Riddle

    I would like a little clarification on Hacking’s precondition (0). Hacking writes that condition (0) is satisfied when in “the present state of affairs” X appears to be inevitable. My question is what constitutes the “present state of affairs?’ This seems like a rather nebulous term. By what method is the present state of affairs understood?

    Given that Haslanger’s debunking constructionist position relies on semantic externalism, its interesting to note that according to a 2009 study by Philpapers, only 51% of philosophers accept externalism. Is externalism more widely accepted today?

    1. Leo DesBois

      I am also skeptical that semantic externalism can do the work Haslanger wants it to do. I agree with her claim on p. 133 that “we often don’t know what we’re talking about – at least not in all senses of ‘what we’re talking about’ – and that references can be successful even under circumstances of semantic ignorance.” However, I don’t see why we should trust social scientists to discover the social kinds underlying our everyday discourse. After all, isn’t it just as likely that social scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, given their disagreements on basic issues of methodology and the interpretation of empirical data?

  9. Mohamed Houtti

    “Historical constructionist: Contrary to what is usually believed, X is the contingent result of historical events and forces, therefore (1): X need not have existed, is not determined by the nature of things, etc.” (115)

    Does it necessarily follow that X need not have existed if X is the contingent result of historical events and forces? Perhaps X is not determined by the nature of things, but rather by the nature of human beings, and therefore must have existed even as a contingent result of historical events and forces. One possible example of this is our concept of quarks–which Hacking mentions on the previous page in his list of “allegedly socially constructed things.” While our understanding of quarks is heavily influenced by historical forces, perhaps our understanding of this concept could not have evolved in any other way—even given different historical forces—because of the limitations of human understanding. Thus, while our concept of quarks is contingent upon historical events and forces, and may not perfectly match the actual nature of things, maybe the concept could not have existed any other way.

  10. Jingyi Wu

    Page 131,
    “It is odd that Hacking should frame his rhetorical question this way, for as we’ve seen, on his view, to say that something is socially constructed is to say that it is, in some way, socially caused. But we should avoid conflating social kinds with things that have social causes. Sociologists claim that some social phenomena have biological causes; some feminists claim that some anatomical phenomena have social causes…”
    Having this in mind, what would “the world’s inherent structure” look like? Or, do we even need one?

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