Social Construction: Myth and Reality

In this chapter, Haslanger argues that feminists and race theorists ought to employ a form of social construction “that is compatible with important forms of realism, an objectivism about kinds, and naturalism” (183). According to Haslanger, this form of social construction best serves the goal of locating “the (often obscure) mechanisms of injustice and the levers for social change” (184). In defending these claims, she covers much of the same ground we have already covered in the course: the distinctions between sex/gender and color/race, social kinds, natural kinds, etc. I think it is most interesting to analyze this chapter in light of our recent discussions of cyborgs and feminist metaphysics.

On page 198, Haslanger defends her “critical realist” stance by arguing in favor of a version of realism. She presents an anti-realist error theory of race, according to which statements involving race are all false, because no races exist. She writes that “on the face of it, this is not a happy result, for if we are going to understand the effects of slavery and long-standing racism in this country we need to have the resources to describe its systematic effects on racial groups.”

This seems like a good example of a feminist philosopher introducing contextual values into metaphysical debate and theory choice. In light of Monday’s discussion, what do we think of this move? Are Haslanger’s political views interfering with what should be a value-free analysis, or is this a healthy case of contextual values supplementing constitutive values, rather than replacing them?

Haslanger’s overall project in this chapter is to establish metaphysical theory that is conducive to the promotion of justice – to changing the world. However, the theory she defends seems rather conservative in light of Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. Can a metaphysics committed to realism, objectivism, and naturalism succeed in undermining oppressive social structures? Or must we radically re-envision the boundaries of reality in order to effect social change? Does Haslanger or Haraway better serve the feminist cause?

Finally, I still don’t think that we adequately addressed Tim’s concerns about how a metaphysical theory might lead to concrete change in the real world. Hypothetically, Haslanger’s ideas might have an impact if most academic philosophers adopted them. Thinkers from other disciplines might then take notice and incorporate these ideas into their own work. Perhaps these thinkers and their followers might then engage in a “long march through the institutions” in order to effect political, economic, and social change. Is this a plausible scenario? To me, it seems highly unlikely. Is Haslanger kidding herself when she claims to have an interest in social change? Should she stop philosophizing and start protesting, or perhaps run for office?

1 thought on “Social Construction: Myth and Reality

  1. Robert LaCroix

    “[N]either Russell’s, Quine’s, nor Bird and Tobin’s quotes suggest that natural kinds entail essences at all. Moreover, there is no reason to think that kinds, whether natural or not, must be definable in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions; some kinds may be primitive or unanalyzable, and others may be unified along some degree of similarity; ‘The notion of a kind and the notion of similarity or resemblance seem to be variants adaptations of a single notion’ (Quine 1969, 117)” (Haslanger 201).

    This seems like an odd conclusion to draw from the quotes, as well as in general. It’s hard to see how we could have a natural kind without an essence. Maybe I am misunderstanding what an essence is; to my mind, it’s a characteristic sine qua non an object can’t be the member of a particular set. For example, it’s hard, impossible really, to talk about a swan that is not also a bird. And so it would seem like being a bird is a necessary condition for being a swan, and is in some way part of the swan’s essence. Have I gone wrong somewhere? Or am I just being a bad Quinean in not accepting that we might someday encounter a swan that is not a bird, in the same way that we found black swans in Australia?

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