Barbara Herrnstein Smith Disappoints on Social “Constructivisms”

I’ve been reading an excellent book whose Chapter 5 deals entirely with the Science wars of the 1990s (as in the Sokal hoax affair) by an American theorist whose work I have always admired, Barbara Herrnstein Smith. And while the book manifests her characteristic lucidity and precision — and is therefore quite helpful — I find myself disappointed at where she comes out on all of this.

And surprised.

Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth, and the Human (2005) sets out to clarify and defend an American movement of thought that Herrnstein Smith calls “constructivism,” which she distinguishes from another American movement she calls “social constructionism” (or, confusingly, social constructivism).

Smith’s is a voice worth listening to, for she is not only very well grounded in literary theoretical developments over the past 40 years, but she’s also street smart and knows her way around American and British academia. (She taught for years at the University of Pennsylvania and, when writing this book, she was concurrently Braxton Craven Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Duke and Distinguished Professor of English at Brown.)

The two constructivisms are “often conflated,” she notes, and “the views and enterprises they name have complex intellectual-historical connections. Nevertheless, their simple identification obscures significant differences of origin, emphasis, and intellectual or ideological operation”(4).

To summarize, Herrnstein Smith describes her own affiliation, constructivism, as being focused on human cognition and as being philosophical and epistemological, with some input from psychology and sociology. American constructivists have been interested in “the processes and dynamics of cognition: either micro-cognition, that is, individual learning, knowledge, and perception, and/or macrocognition, that is, intellectual history and the cultural-institutional-technological operations of science.” Their work, she says, is aimed primarily at “other scholars and theorists of cognition and science, especially though not exclusively philosophers.” Its roots go back to Heidegger and Niezsche and it draws on mid-twentieth-century figures including Peter Berger, Jean Piaget, and Nelson Goodman.

In contrast, social constructionism is “more culturally focused and politically engaged” (5), and is carried on “by cultural critics, feminists, gender theorists and other scholars and critics in connection with such problematic practices as racial classifications, gender bias or normative heterosexuality.” This movement “operates primarily as an effort to challenge relevant beliefs – including those offered by scientists or in the name of science – by revealing their dependence on historically or culturally particular discursive practices and/or exposing their implication in the preservation of prevailing social and political arrangements.”

[Derridean aside from jlb: Note the word “revealing” in the last sentence above: “revealing their dependence on….” I’d like to use that word to offer a Derridean gloss on what she’s talking about, but from the perspective of my own movement in theory, not hers.

Heidegger and Derrida meditated deeply on “forgetting” and on this ancient Greek notion of truth as “bringing into the communally human space of appearance from out of the unknownness of forgetfulness.” Remember how we’ve seen that the Greek word a-letheia means “truth,” and that it is constructed from the root-word for “forgetting,” as seen in “washing in the river Lethe,” along with the alpha-privative prefixed to it. “Truth” then is an “un-veiling” of something that was there all along, but it had been “veiled” or “erased” or “whited out.”

In this philosophical context, the words “re-vealing” and “re-velation” become especially interesting to Derrida because of their etymological structure, since the “un-veiling” they signify is figured as a “re-veiling,” or “covering over again.” For Derrida, every human act of revealing is always also inescapably a “veiling” or covering over. But don’t stop with this, don’t stop with one or the other: this is a dialectic. Yes, bringing into the light as truth is precisely truth, if it is truly in contact with something there, in that it brings into the light of our attention a part of what was always there. But by so doing, it casts other parts of what was always there back into shadow. And this principle of human perception can be seen operating quite clearly, in my judgment, in the case of the social constructionist mission stated above.

What I mean is that the social constructionist act of “revealing the dependence” of scientific concepts “on historical and cultural particularities” can be a genuine enough revelation, as far as it goes, but it is not by itself the whole state of affairs. And promoting it covers over or hides from view or makes us “forget” the methodological determinations peculiar to science that give science its own legitimacy and validity, even though these determinations and formalizations are always evolving. No, I should go further and say that their validity and legitimacy are guaranteed by the very fact that they are always evolving, through the experimental interactions of scientists with the natural world.

So do you see why “dialectic” is such an important concept to Continental philosophers and theorists? Even though it is messy and rancorous, the dialectic going on right now between “science” and “social constructionism” could conceivable bring to light some precise and rigorous insights and clarifications (a Hegelian synthesis, if you will). But at the same time we must realize that there will be a left-over, an aufgeheben, a “supplement” – in that other elements of reality will be veiled in the process of clarification, and future readjustments, no doubt also messy and rancorous, will need to be made, in their own time, by those who identify with what has been forgotten.

At this moment in our own Anglo-American intellectual tradition, this dialectic, and a belief in conducting it as a faithful process, is perhaps the re-cognition we need the most, because for the past 100 years we have been so deeply invested in this notion of absolulutely certain and indubitable “truth.” (The very notion of a “truth” that is partial, and of which our understanding evolves, seems to us a contradiction in terms, even though historically this has always been the Christian notion of truth, and was that of the Greco-European tradition in general.)

Our recent investment in this overreaching ideal of certainty in “knowledge” has become a foe to thought. It ran its course. Yet, true, too much dialectical “light” runs the danger of obscuring the even the more qualified notion of truth, and creating a climate for runaway irrationalisms. This is the dialectic once again. However, I’ll take a humble “irrationalism” over a “rationalist” absolutism, or over any absolutism, any day.]

Herrnstein Smith points to Kuhn’s “paradigms” and Foucault’s “epistemes” as key reference points for both “constructing” movements – although I would note that neither gentleman denied the reality of the external world (as she knows too). She considers Kuhn and Foucault, along with the fascinating work of a little known Polish scientist named Ludwik Fleck (whom she rightly introduces and quotes extensively) as beacons pointing these movements toward “the existence of conceptual-discursive systems that both enable and constrain the processes of cognition” for a given “social collective.” (This notion of, in my terms, meaning-generating systems that both empower and limit at the same time is important also in postructuralist theory. Think of my speech-communities, disciplinary communities, and cultural worldviews or “thought-worlds,” for instance.)

In the matter of “systems that both enable and constrain” cognition, I am on the same page with Herrnstein Smith and the “constructivists.” But I am surprised and disappointed at where she goes with this, especially when she responds to the frequent charge against both movements that they deny that “Nature is structured in certain ways, inherently” and that “those ways are largely in accord with our perceptions, conceptions, and descriptions of them.” She states merely that constructivists, as distinguished from social constructionists, “typically decline … to presume either any particular way the world inherently is or such an accord” (6). (Some members of SC do presume against these propositions, but not all of them.)

Now we need to pause here. I’m surprised and disappointed, but at the same time, this is a very delicate issue, enormously complex theoretically. Smith writes that it is “in their historical, sociological or psychological accounts of science and cognition” that constructivists “decline to presume,” and therefore they adopt this stance of what she calls “professional ontological agnosticism.” This suggests to me that in doing their cultural analyses, they decline to adopt a position of “knowing for sure” the precise reality of the physical systems or phenomena with which the science they may be treating is dealing.

This would actually be quite wise, as far as it goes. It represents an advance in critical awareness over previous days when all scholars and researchers and textbooks assumed the old (“scientistic”) stance that “we today” have all the answers, and the benighted thinkers of the past were merely unable to discover what we now know absolutely to be the case. In contrast to that complacent “historicism,” we ourselves are always aware that our current state of knowledge is liable to change and may develop radically in the future. It is best to treat the past as fairly and sympathetically as we can, in its own terms, and to recognize its own comparative accomplishments, strengths, and weakness, without seeming to hold them up to a universal standard of absolute correctness (which we ourselves then must embody)

So it is now quite possible to write confidently and accurately in science (and about science), as visiters on this blog have done, without adopting such a patronizing and universalist Archimedean stance (of being outside the historical process and able to assess it from a finalized and totalized vantage point). This advance in critical self-awareness and intellectual modesty was hard-fought and very hard-won, and let us not despise it.

However, there is still a big problem here, with a position of “ontological agnosticism.” It does seem to me to lead to metaphyscial relativism and “anything goes,” because humans are thus trapped in their solipsistic little social worlds and where is our recourse for saying that any account is scientifically or morally or politically any better than any other? Why should we even try? (Derrida is frequently interpreted as though this is what he is suggesting, and quite unjustly. There was too much truth in his remark that he was being reading “increasingly widely and increasisngly less well.”) 

But let’s still remember that there was a time in the Modern West when we rather naively took the natural world in its concrete material “here and nowness” as the gold standard of what is real. (You know, of course, what “time” I mean. How could you not, by now? The Newtonian Enlightenment, of course. By and large, the worldview of the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, and hanging on by its toenails in the 20th century.)

But on this weblog, at least, I think we have granted full status as reality to emergent phenomena of all kinds that can no longer be studied on the fundamental levels of physics, chemistry, and biology, and yet are quite real. (Ink and paper vis-à-vis Hamlet.)

The reason, it seems to me, that “ontological agnosticism” arises now in the Anglo-American intellectual setting is largely as a reaction against the great “foundationalist” project of our own early 20th century philosophy, the attempt to “ground” scientific knowledge as being “certain knowledge” (Frege, Russell, Husserl).

The shocking failure of this project seems to have left us “burned” and in something of an intellectual vacuum. Anglo-American analytical philosophers have struggled to regain their bearings. Richard Rorty, for a well-known and influential example, turned to what he called pragmatism — and he and pragmatist philosophy are mentioned as influences on constructivism. There is a strong anti-foundational climate in American thought that did not develop in France, because they never invested in foundationalism in quite this way or to this extent, to begin with. The dialectical mode was very strong on the Continental, even while it was “whited out” altogether over here.

Those older turn-of-the-century thinkers such as Bertrand Russell had taken geometry, mathematics, and modern logic as the fundamental guarantees that humans could claim to “know for sure.” Once again, we are looking at “absolutely certain knowledge”: the obsession of Descartes and of British scientific rationalism, to the extreme extent that epistemology ceased to be the study of how humans come to know and became instead “theory of knowledge”: how we can prove that what we know is known for sure. (The truly strange thing about this is that Russell and Frege knew it was impossible from the beginning. Quite apart from the threat of Russell’s paradox, Russell says so right out in 1925 and continues his project anyway. I need to write about this.)

It turned out that neither logic nor mathematics could be grounded in the manner they had wanted to be possible, and had assumed to be required. Not only could not be, but did not need to be. Geometry, mathematics, science, and philosophy can all get along quite well without an indubitably secure foundation. (All we need is brilliant formalization!)

So we can simply start where we’ve been reminded again that human beings have always started – in medias res. We are always “thrown” into life, waking up “in the middest of things,” muddling along as local communities with historical crises to face, and keeping things going – especially our humble desire to know – with whatever resources came to hand. And being very rigorous and brilliant about finding and developing those resources (such as geometry, math, logic), to boot.

The reason I lay so much emphasis in my own work on the way the Greeks began with the presence of formal elegance manifesting itself in their world is that our Anglo-American world needs to get reacquainted with this originary Western insight once again. Plato and Aristotle simply take the actuality of the world for granted. It is there, insofar as it impinges into their human worlds. Then they go after its formal elegance with their formalisms. (Closeness to that Greek tradition must be one reason that Continental philosophy did not get so bogged down as we have done in endless ratiocinations along the lines of an absolutely axiom-baseded, atomistic and mechanized symbolical-logical machine, such as Principia Mathematica represented.)

And we are still hung up over here on axiom-based systems working algorithmically as our preferential models of what is real, which, however brilliant computer research may be, does not provide the most fruitful model right now for figuring out how language and the mind work. (I agree very strongly with Herrnstein Smith, by the way, that Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, as heirs of that linear-logical tradition, are coming at human cognition in a self-confirming but dead-end kind of way. Yes, it was brilliant, but it’s time we “backed out of” those systems of assumptions and turned to other possibilities. Back to Saussure, I’d say.)

At any rate, I am surprised and disappointed that for all of Herrnstein Smith’s immensely lucid distinctions and her sophisticated and articulate commentaries on cultural theory, I see no sign of any critical mediator between “naturalism” and “humanism,” as she terms the two warring camps in our academia today. She seems in practice to be willing to let Nature and the external world go, in order to pursue the closer and more triumphant analysis of social constructions.

It seems to me that “ontological agnosticism” – or the much more extreme position that denies humans any genuine contact with an external world at all (“ontological atheism”?) – fails to deal with what Sausurean linguistics and semiotics focuses on: the formalized ways in which we humans do precisely interact with the external world. Therefore she fails to point toward any mediation by theory between the two camps.

I do not say that we interact with the world directly, im-mediately, nakedly. That would be very naive, at this stage in history. No, we do so by selection and combination. Selections and combinations of ontologically real features of the physical world, for instance. And first, our attention is directed to selections and combinations of features as they come to us in the elegant codes (language and other intersubjective semiotic systems) that precede us into the world and that will go on after we have left it.

The social codes enable us (and limit us), but paradoxically, they do not fully determine us. As Daniel Dennett says, “freedom evolves.” We become the historically constituted “centres of thought and responsibility” that we are (Michael Polanyi), through these codes which condition our perceptions of everything and make us the perceivers we are, and yet all of these codes are constantly checked and tested and revised in interactions with the external world, whose features deny the exclusive emphasis we would like to put on some of them. I cannot put poststructuralism more succinctly than that.

The features we select, communally and within the disciplines, and also individually, with our freedom, are there in the empirical world, unless we are deluded, and the combinings we do (to arrive at our elegant formalities) are constantly tested against that empirical world. True, our selection “forgets” a great deal of what is there, but we are driven to be selective by the exigencies of our needs and those of the community we were acculturated into — from way, way back, before we were ever “we.”

[Theoretical aside from jlb: This is why the technical term “always already,” now a cliche, is so exact. Again, it’s from Heidegger via Derrida. “We” – as speaking subjects – have “always already” been acculturated by our community. Why? Because at every point as the speaking subject is emerging, the cultural systems are already there, and by interacting with them and internalizing them, we were enabled to become the specific speaking subjects that “we” are.

Descartes’s grand experiment was of course one of ruling out language, culture, and the natural world (too potentially illusory, uncertain, or unreal), and finding that even then, he would still know “cogito ergo sum” – “I know that I am thinking these thoughts, and doubting these doubts, with reference to everything else, and therefore I now know for sure that “I” exists.” Ultimately, though, this is a pipe dream. The “I” would not exist as an “I” and be able to think and communicate these doubts even within itself except for the pre-existing reality of a given language, a given culture, and a natural world at every point in my emergence. Or Descartes’. These were “always already” there, if we are dealing with a typical human subject, and particularly with a philosopher!

The “I” is, in its very constitution as itself, an emergent result of interactions with all these other realities. Still, these realities were always for us coded or formalized realities: the natural world entered our awareness from the beginning as mediated to us and as given its complex identities by the given codes.

Our new awareness of our social encoding (by the later 20th century) must not make us therefore lose sight of the fact that the codes are constantly tested against the natural world and against every other personal and social reality they mediate to us. And within the scientific community, a particularly sharply evidence-based way of knowing checks its own advanced formalizations against the physical reality it explores in highly focused ways.

How can we leave out of consideration the ontological manifestations of a resisting reality in every case of a human meaning-system for interacting with that reality? Again, Saussure gives us some paradigms, based in the final analysis upon human cognition of language, that have scarcely been tapped yet for mapping out the complex territories at the boundaries or ambiguous zones between our mapping systems and that external reality.

Maybe I’ll make another presentation of what Herrnstein Smith has to say at a later point. But reading her convinces me all the more that my own poststructuralist theory is a fruitful methodology for attempting to do justice both to science as an evidence-based way of knowing that is in constant interaction with a natural world, on the one hand, and to the pervasive (and often subterranean or hidden) influence of human meaning-systems, on the other.

I don’t see the same promise in these strictly American philosophical and theoretical movements so far. And I see that science does have a legitimate problem with these American movements. Dialectically, though, Herrnstein Smith is very good at showing the Rush Limbaugh-like nature of attacks by defenders of science on “SC,” which preach to the (very shocked) choir with scare tactics and vague generalizations. (I still don’t see why Sokal went after the French poststructuralists, who are not SC members and do not share its ontological agnosticism.)

I’ll close with a neat little set of contrasting terms that Herrnstein Smith offers us, to characterize the two camps in English-speaking academia today. I’ll just list a few – you’ll have to buy the book!

She identifies the first set of “concepts” with the “classical realist, rationalist, logical positivist” camp (Hume, Russell, Popper). The other set she identifies as the distinctively “constructivist, pragmatist, interactional” concepts. They are “interactional,” let me note,  not in the sense of interactions between human beings and an external world, but in the other important sense of being concerned with the “interactional” (I call it “mutually and reciprocally self-constituting”) nature of the semiotic relationships between speaking subjects and their communal codes, and between all the other semiotic elements that enter into this play of identity and difference that (always already) confers meaning and identity for human perception.

So consider a few of these contrasting terms: “individual” vs. “communal, social, institutional.” “Autonomy” vs. “connection, interdependence.” “Transhistorical, universal” vs. “historical, situated.” “Interior, intellectual, mental” vs. “exhibited, embodied, enacted.”

You’ll notice how the Cartesian paradigm is dominating the first terms and the notion of a multi-layered psyche that is socially constituted and significantly unknown to itself dominates the second set of terms. These are very different views of human nature. Don’t you suspect that each view is whiting out parts of a complex state of affairs? Don’t you suspect that when the pendulum swings to one side, it will provoke a historical counter-movement (from those who feel they have been injured in their personal formation by that too-much-dominant orthodoxy)?

One last set of contrasting terms might well remind us of Socrates and Ion. “Reason, logic, experiment” vs. “rhetoric, performance, negotiation” [that is, interested or self-aggrandizing negotiation].

On an ostensible reading, Plato’s Ion certainly suggests this kind of antinomy and antipathy, especially to Anglo-American readers today. It’s how Ion is generally read, as Plato’s rationalism rejecting the threat of the irrational and illogical and emotional, represented by art. (See Nietzsche’s brilliant youthful essay, “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.” What a fascinating piece, and included in almost all anthologies of literary theory.)

Still, I think Plato’s after something deeper, and we’ll only get to it if we can recognize that for Plato and Aristotle, rationality is not something based primarily on ratiocination or Bertrand Russell’s notions of “logic,” but on ratio, considered as the Roman translation of logos. These words ratio and logos refer to proportion, harmony, fittingness, and to the “cosmos” as the elegantly ordered manifestation of formal reality.

For Greek thought, never forget the beloved and mystical Pythagorean “ratios,” as manifested in geometry and in the Western harmonic scale, or in the Golden Rectangle upon whose elegant proportionalities the Parthenon is built. Or the circular rotations of the heavenly bodies, so presumed because the circle or sphere for the Greek mind are self-evidently the most perfect geometric forms. Why? Because of the proportionate symmetries of the circle and of the motionless motion of a sphere rotating about its center. (The devotion to formal elegance is the common element in science, math, art, literature, theory. No wonder it was the original foundation of the liberal arts! Not a “foundation” as a guarantee of certainty. No, a dynamic foundation as an ever-unfolding reality we are destined and compelled to desire to know.)

To be “rational” in the Greco-European tradition is always to be “musical” – to seek the elegant formality in things according to their kinds. And the most rational mind is also the most musical or “harmonious,” the most balanced and integrated, the most “ethical.” But when it comes to language, we had best arm ourselves dialectically and critically — by becoming highly aware of the precise nature of the elegant rhetorical and poetical uses to which language can be put. They are their own kinds of truth, yes, and their arts can be employed for truth, yes, but they can also be employed strictly for exploitation and greed. Forewarned is fore-armed.

(Stay tuned for Wily Socrates # 6.)

One thought on “Barbara Herrnstein Smith Disappoints on Social “Constructivisms”

  1. This is such a terrific, insightful and thought-provoking piece that I think gets to the heart of chronic misunderstanding between science and the humanities epitomized by the Sokol affair. Thanks for posting it. I’m actualy clipping it to re-read later as time permits, because it’s a lot to digest in a single sitting. :)

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