Searle, John R. 2010. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boghossian, Paul A. 2006. Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Howard S. Becker
San Francisco

The discipline of philosophy has over the centuries seen its domain gradually whittled away by the encroachments of empirical science. Physics and biology, after all, once belonged to philosophers. As late as the end of the 19th century, and even beyond, psychology remained at least partly in the hands of philosophers like William James, but then were lost to new scientific disciplines. In the last generation or so, such once secure monopolies as ethics, aesthetics and even epistemology have increasingly been taken over by empirical social science. Ethics turned into the sociological study of deviance, aesthetics gave way to the sociological and anthropological study of the arts, and epistemology to science studies. Simultaneously, much of academic philosophy, increasingly professionalized, turned inward and ceased to court a larger public, mostly devoting its energies to intramural disputes about increasingly esoteric topics. And, correspondingly, professional philosophy, especially as practiced in American universities, ceased to interest social scientists. An occasional sociologist dabbles in philosophical reasoning—and some have tried to turn sociological theory into a philosophical playground—but for the most part our people ignore philosophy and the favor is returned. (I’m not sure this story is true exactly as I’ve stated it, but it seems a reasonable approximation of what has gone on.)

Come now two well-known philosophers to remedy that situation. John Searle, having had a lot to say about consciousness, now proposes to reclaim lost territory by producing something he thinks the social sciences need badly: a philosophy of society (a “social ontology”), roughly comparable to the existing philosophies of mind and language. This new sub-discipline would concern itself with “the study of the nature of human society itself . . . the mode of existence of social entities such as governments, families, cocktail parties,” etc. Paul Boghossian undertakes a more limited task: saving academia and a number of its constituent disciplines, many in the social sciences, from the evils of constructivism.

Searle describes the nature of human society and the mode of existence of its parts as the consequence of “Status Function Declarations,” that is, statements people make (collectively, one supposes) which change the nature of social reality by declaring that it is changed and then collectively recognizing that change as real. Sociologists won't see a lot of difference, other than a loss of clarity, between that thought and W.I. Thomas’ well-known 1918 remark that “if men define situations as real they are real in their consequences.” It takes Searle 200 pages to lay out the underpinnings of his insight in a welter of definitions, derivations and logical necessities. Most of us, I think, will feel like the American sociologist of labor unions he mentions, “ . . . who told me that his work began where mine ended. And I take it that he meant that it is not necessary for him to know the ontological foundations of trade unionism.” (p. 200) Searle is charmingly and uncharacteristically modest here, saying “He may be right about that,” but adding “my instinct, though, is to think that it is always a good idea to understand the foundational issues . . . [and] to think that an understanding of the basic ontology of any discipline will deepen the understanding of issues within that discipline.” He offers as an example of what we might gain from working our way through his book that it would be “a mistake to treat money and other such instruments as if they were natural phenomena like the phenomena studied in physics, chemistry, and biology.” (201) Few of us would have been tempted to do that even without an ontological inoculation. In fact, I think most of us would go a step further than that anonymous sociologist, and say straightforwardly that Searle’s work is largely irrelevant to us, in the strict sense that we wouldn't do our empirical research any differently whether we accept the ideas in this book or not.

In any event, the book doesn't show any great engagement or familiarity with the work social scientists do. Aside from a few perfunctory references to Bourdieu, Durkheim and Weber, no work of social science is mentioned, and certainly not of the empirical social science he hopes to underwrite. His own attempts at social analysis don’t give us much confidence either, reading more like something you might hear at an academic cocktail party than serious empirically based social science. For example: “ . . . [P]eople recognize or accept institutions and institutional facts . . . [E]ven . . . when they are aware of the arbitrariness or even the injustice of the institutional phenomena, they despair of ever being able to change it. Yes, the distribution of property is unjust, and perhaps there is something unjust about the institution of private property itself, but there isn’t much that an individual can do about it, so the individual tends to feel helpless in the face of the institution.” (107-8) Such remarks will not likely convince many working social scientists that they need a social ontology if that’s what one gets you.

Searle’s occasional very brief forays into something like an empirical analysis only confirm this conclusion. For instance, he describes the “special role of writing” this way: “This stability of written language enables the creation and continued existence of status functions that do not require any physical existence beyond the linguistic representations themselves.” (115) Don’t expect something cognizant of or relevant to, for instance, Jack Goody’s (1977) historically and ethnographically rich analysis of writing and its consequences. You won’t get it.

Searle might well reply that of course he had no intention of providing anything like Goody’s analysis. He'd be right to do that. He doesn’t provide anything that would interest a working social scientist because he isn’t addressing them, he’s talking to other philosophers, defending his analyses against their criticisms and allegations of illogicality, omissions, and general no-goodness. That’s what philosophers do, God bless them, and we wouldn’t have it otherwise. But that does entail what they say not being useful to people in other disciplines who aren’t playing that game with them.

Searle’s main insight being something we already knew and the rest of it ignoring what we already know, the verdict of irrelevant stands, perhaps to be overturned by further developments. I’m not holding my breath.

Boghassian, promising to take on constructivism, is another story. But, though he mentions a few science studies people here and there, he mainly stalks other philosophers—Hilary Putnam, Nelson Goodman, and Richard Rorty—with a big stick designed to beat their followers into accepting as incontrovertible the proposition that there is a reality out there independent of what we might think about it. His chief target is the idea that “knowledge is constructed by  societies in ways that reflect their contingent social needs and interests,” (129) which is his code for political, class, racial and gender based interests.

He attacks this pernicious idea analytically without ever taking account of what social scientists who produce such studies actually write about. In particular, he does not consider the studies of how scientists discover what they discover and convince other scientists that these are real discoveries. He is no more interested than Searle in the human institutions which create science; the nearest either gets to that is the seven pages (pp. 118-25) he devotes to Thomas Kuhn’s sociological explanations of historical shifts in scientific thought, in which, in a typical misreading, he mistakenly describes Kuhn’s explanation of paradigm breakdowns this way: “[E]very so often the difficulties for the dominant theory accumulate to the point where scientists are forced to reconsider some fundamental assumption that had up to then seemed obvious” (119). No. What Kuhn said was that paradigm breakdowns occur when scientists offer competing explanations of persistent anomalies in empirical findings. The resulting conflicts undermine the fundamental consensus on which cooperative work had proceeded, precipitating an organizational crisis, not a philosophical conundrum, and that’s why a new paradigm, allowing scientists to once again work cooperatively, is accepted.

I’m tempted to assign both Searle and Boghossian, as remedial reading, the first two chapters of Latour’s Science in Action (1987), which explain what lies beyond the “brute facts” they both think are just found, as though they were lying about to be uncovered, by science. For extra credit, they might also read Latour’s account of his research in Brazil, which made practical sense out of the immense philosophical conundrum of how we get from the signifier to the signified. Readers of this journal will know this work and wonder how Searle and Boghossian would accommodate their views to the facts therein reported. (If you have the time and stomach for it, a lengthy exchange between Boghossian (2002) and Barbara Herrnstein Smith (2002a, 2002b) exposes the shallowness and unfamiliarity with relevant literature characteristic of his book.)

I don’t think they’re going to win back any territory for philosophy this way.

Boghossian’s animus appears openly at the end of the book, in an explanation worth quoting in full:

The difficulty lies in understanding why such generalized applications of social construction have come to tempt so many.

One source of their appeal is clear: they are hugely empowering. If we can be said to know up front that any item of knowledge only has that status because it gets a nod from our contingent social values, then any claim to knowledge can be dispatched if we happen not to share the values on which it allegedly depends.

But that only postpones the real question. Why this fear of knowledge? Whence this felt need to protect against its deliverances?

In the United States, constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from the charge of holding false or unjustified views.” (p. 130)

In short, universities and the intellectual world have changed in ways he doesn’t like and he blames it all on constructivism. Searle associates himself with these views, not in his own book, but in a review of Boghossian in the New York Review of Books (Searle 2009a), saying that, for people who accept constructivist arguments , “the idea that there are scientific claims that are objective, universal, and established beyond a reasonable doubt seems not only inaccurate but positively oppressive. And for such people the very idea of an objectively existing, independent reality must be discredited.” Neither author offers any real evidence for this assertion.

Searle’s review, and its hostility to some kinds of social science, uninformed by any serious familiarity with the works criticized, deserves attention. One item cries for such attention. Some readers of this review will know a short article by Bruno Latour (Latour 1998a) about the 1976 discovery by French scientists, after examining the mummy of Rameses II, that he had probably died of tuberculosis. Latour wrote a characteristically provocative article: “Ramsès II est-il mort de la tuberculose?” And answered his own question in a way Boghossian found irresistible, as did Searle who quoted the same material in his review: “How could he pass away due to a bacillus discovered by Robert Koch in 1882?” Boghossian went on to mock Latour for saying that that would be as anachronistic as saying Rameses had died from a burst of machine gun fire, and asserting that “Before Koch, the bacillus had no real existence.” (Boghossian, p. 26; Searle 2009a)  Latour’s article does contain that sentence. But, if you actually read the whole short article, you see that it cannot be summarized that way. Read in context, the quoted sentence plainly means that Ramses could not have died that way, in the sense of having a cause of death scientifically established by scientific professionals according to the standards of 1976, at the time of his actual death, when no such professionals with their procedures for establishing causes of death existed. It does not mean what these misleading, out-of-context quotes seem to make him say. Boghossian may find his version a convenient target, but it’s not one that’s actually there. If I can put it this way, his portrayal of Latour’s argument is a social construction, and not a very meticulous one.

This reveals two things, which may seem niggling but I think are really important in assessing this work. First, neither of these authors has any sense of humor or irony. That’s worth noting, because a more serious philosophical work, and one of far more use to working social scientists, Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? (1999, e.g. pp. 19-20 and elsewhere)), explicitly analyzes, at some length, the role of irony in discussions of constructivism. Searle pays no attention to Hacking, and Boghossian makes a few casual references that do not engage the substance of that book. Lacking any sensitivity to irony or elementary wit, they both miss the substance of Latour’s piece.

The second thing, perhaps more serious, is that there’s reason to believe that neither author actually read the article they make such sport with. That’s a serious charge. Here’s why I think it’s true. Searle, by his own admission, had not read another article, by a feminist philosopher named Kathleen Lennon, which he nevertheless criticized in his NYRB review. When she complained, he replied that it was true, he had not read her article when he made the criticism (Searle 1999b). His defense was that now he had and his criticism was correct after all. For me, that’s a serious breach of the trust scholars place in each other; I think most of us would feel the same way. So criticizing something he hadn’t read would be, in this case, a repeat offense; no reason to think he had done any differently with Latour than with Lennon.

Another reason, to which I gave great weight, is circumstantial but, I think, compelling. Although both authors cite the original publication of Latour’s article, which appeared (in French) in La Recherche in 1998, they both then attribute the quote (in English) to a book by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Combining this with the failure to attend to either the rest of the article or to a later comment (Latour 1998b) in which Latour clarifies his meaning, I conclude (as any reasonable person would) that neither of them ever read the article, but rather relied on the so-damning quote, carefully picked out of its context in a longer argument by Sokal and Bricmont. Can we call that an instance of social construction?

Boghossian, Paul A. 2002. "Constructivist and Relativist Conceptions of Knowledge in Contemporary (Anti-)Epistemology: A Reply to Barbara Herrnstein Smith." South Atlantic Quarterly 101:213-27.

—. 2006. Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Goody, Jack. 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hacking, Ian. 1999. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

—. 1995. "The 'Pédofil' of Boa Vista: A Photo-Philosophical Montage." Common Knowledge 4:144-187.

—. 1998a. "Ramsès II est-il mort de la tuberculose?" La Recherche 307.

—. 1998b. "Ramsès II est-il mort de la tuberculose? ." La Recherche 309.

Searle, John R. 2009a, “Why Should You Believe It?,” New York Review of Books, Sept. 24, , LVI, 14, p. 92.

—. 2009b. “John R. Searle replies” (to letters from Kathleen Lennon and Edward Schur), New York Review of Books, LVI, 20, December 17,  p. 99-100)

—. 2010. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. 2002a. "Cutting-Edge Equivocation: Conceptual Moves and Rhetorical Strategies in Contemporary Anti-Epistemology." South Atlantic Quarterly 101:187-212.

—. 2002b. "Reply to an Analytic Philosopher." South Atlantic Quarterly 101:229-42.