Tag Archives: Realism

On ‘social constructs’ and other layers of the onion of Reality.


Hi readers,

ajuinYes, a new blogpost that isn’t advertising my super-obscure music but that actually goes back to my counter-cultural philosophising that goes in territory that escapes both the current left and right. (My music might be addressing similar subjects as certain future or recent blogposts -including this one-though, I didn’t call the new album ‘Beware of Plato’s cavemen’ for no reason…)

So where do I begin? Let’s start with my first experience with the term ‘social construct’. I can more or less remember my surprise the first time when I ran into the term in an internet discussion years ago, I suppose with a young American feminist. When it was asserted by my conversation partner that gender was a social construct, which seemed to mean, nothing but a social construct, I made the mistake of taking that term on face value. My first reaction was that, since I did not at all recognise the definitions of male and female she was pushing unto me, social constructs by definition are contextual and bound to cultures, subcultures or even smaller groups, and thus we had to both give our definitions to proceed the conversation with more understanding. But no, for some reason the contextual specifics of ‘social constructs’ were not to be discussed about, I had to accept her rather scary views of male and female that probably where derived from a certain American conservative milieu, but that were utterly alien to me as normative.

Side note: As a father a 2 little girls, lifelong friend of women and girls, and being married to a woman I know feminism is very important. A lot of sexism exists in this world that should not exist, and it destroys people. And I’m a natural egalitarian too,but even that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything that goes under the label ‘feminism’, and some things under that name make it only worse. Let’s also say here up front that I’m no adherent of ‘critical theory’ and that I consider it an insult to postmodernism (especially when it pushes very contextual US definition of race that even have hardly anything to do with race a univeral, but that’s another story), at least phenomenologically in the versions of it that have trickled down to me through internet discussions. But feminism itself is not my subject here, a philosophical exploration of the nature of Reality is.

So to pick up on my story again, apart from the cross-cultural disconnect there firstly is the observation that I still can’t escape the notion that any social construct will always be contextual, and might thus differ from context to context, and that the internet is full of people from very different context who will have very different versions of certain ‘social constructs’. I will consider that as a given here and won’t even argue for it, because it’s too obvious for me, and I can’t imagine a possible world where this isn’t true. But there’s more…

But to get to the point, there also is the fact that I as an oldfashioned philoophical Realist do not at all agree that there that are many things at all that are purely social constructs. And I’m not even going into the problem that it seems that some ‘social constructs’ become personal constructs in our hyperindividualist postmodernist society, which in the end will make communication completely impossible, which in turn just erodes the purpose of language if driven too far when people refuse to give their own definitions and listen to those of the other side in a discussion. So we will remain on the collective level of constructs today, let’s go just with the idea that the social construct is only the last layer of the onion of the Reality of that certain subject.

What do I mean with that? There are at least 2 other layers that I am able to identify that might play a role. The most important one is the plain material-reality layer, which I will call Aristotelean for now.  And then there’s the even deeper Platonist layer behind it. (see this post for more on these ideas) We’ll stick with the example of gender here to keep it a bit practical, but the principle is more or less applicable to all kinds of realities.

(Yes, this model might be a 3-way dialectic synthesis of 2 ancient and a modern epistemology, but it’s the only way for me to make sense of Reality. I’m not saying it’s the last word on everything, it’s just the basic framework for a view on Reality that still can be refined a lot.)

Note also that we’re firstly talking about descriptions of reality, but that some take it much further, and see their own constructs or translations of deeper layer as not merely descriptive but also prescriptive. This can get very problematic, also because it often is a layer confusion, but more about that later.

So the 3 layers that I will talk about now are:
1.) the Platonist layer, the a priori part, the Deeper Idea behind something, residing somewhere in a Metaphysical dimension or the mind of God or something like that, or the Tao or Buddha nature layer if we speak from other paradigms, the one which includes the teleological dimension too, and is usually completely denied by materialists and physicalists. The God/Goddess archetypes in certain forms of Wicca are also based in this.

The problem with this layer, as with all absolutes, is that we have no direct access to it, and that we only have translations of it in human modes of interpretation. So while I do think that it is important to acknowledge that there is a Deeper Reality behind male and female, I will hesitate to say anything definitive about it. I almost always disagree with people who think they have something to say about it anyway. Which is why I disagree with C.S. Lewis on gender roles for example… His assertions about gender roles are based in his claims about the Platonic layer of the reality of gender, with which I disagree.

It’s not because something exists that we can say definitive things about it, and these layers of Reality are beyond us, even though they are the source of our Reality as much as the observed regularities we do call the ‘laws of nature’.

(Let’ also for completeness notice here that there is a variation of prescriptive notions of reality that is purely based on the Divine Will, which is very important in certain traditions. Which is where philosophical Nominalism becomes dangerous, but that’s yet again another story)

I know some people will dismiss this layer altogether,because it doesn’t fit into their worldview, but even they have to consider that this layer is heavily assumed by a lot of people, and cannot be translated to ‘social constructs’ in their worldview. We can disagree about whether something is just a social construct or not or even how much of it is, but if we don’t realise that for the other things are a much deeper reality than that we will not even be able to communicate. And even dismissing this layer as an illusion doesn’t mean that the 2 other less otherworldly layers that follow are not at least equally important…

2.) The ‘mundane world’ reality, which I’ve called Aristotelean by lack of a better term. The thingness of the thing that is residing in the physical reality of the thing itself, and not in some world of ideas. There is the reality of people being male and female (or non-binary) that is rooted in the material reality of our bodies, in their differences, in hormones, etc… No matter how much we say ‘mind over matter’, in the end this layer is much more accessible and clearer than the a priori first layer, and while partly under influence of the a posteriori third layer it still is the only actual substantial one. An important part of reality resides in our material dimension.

3.) The outer layer of the ‘social constructs’ of a given society or other human context here. These are a posteriori constructions residing in our common thoughtfield. It is a way to make the reality more concrete in societal norms and pictures, sometimes in not so healthy ways if we take our example of gender and the roles associated with it. It is a layer of interpretation and application, and one that can differ very much from context to context. Let’s also note again that the second and third layer are intertwined and do influence each other. This still doesn’t mean that there’s only one layer. It would be very naive to put everything in either the ‘biological reality’ or “social construct’ category while dismissing the validity of the other category altogether, yet it seems very tempting to do so for some people…

If we keep thee different layer in mind we see several problem that can arise.

Like I said the third layer is a translation and application of the second layer into our human cultures. But most translations that we make of the Aristotelean layer (not to mention the Platonic one) into social constructs are incomplete and unbalanced. They might for example stem from a very narrow sample of the described reality that is seen as normative by a chosen group. In certain milieus extraverted men are highly favoured over male introverts for example, even though those personality traits have nothing to do with sex or gender at all. There is nothing unmasculine about an introvert and deep thinking or even deep feeling man at all. There is a variety of personality types among men and a similar spectrum among women. So linking preferred personality types to some kind of gender essentialism is always bad for those who don’t fit in, for reasons that have nothing with non-gender-binary identity at all. This can be hard for people finding their identity when the roles are mere descriptions, and much worse when they are meant to be prescriptive…

Actually whenever we turn from descriptive to prescriptive there always is a danger already… But I suppose that’s too obvious to go deeper into now.

A last big problem that I will address is the confusion of layers, which is a problem especially in combination with being too prescriptive, and it also makes communication impossible when people assume a certain thing to be in a completely different layer. (Which very often happens in discussions about gender between a certain kind of ‘conservatives’ and a certain kind of ‘progressives’ for example)

A lot of people in more ‘conservative’ mindsets have claimed insights into what I called the Platonic layer throughout the ages to justify mere social constructs as absolutes. Some modernist on the other hand have tried to exaggerate dubious cultural differences (also social construct layer) on biological differences (Aritotelean layer) while that was only half of the story. On the other hand, there are certainly actual differences between men and women (and a minority people who fall outside of the duality) that are located in deeper layers of Reality than just social constructs too. And then there’ the whole ‘gender is only a social construct that ha nothing to do with biological sex’, that’s only confusing stuff even more. Especially because there is nothing left at all to turn to if the constructs one grew up with turned out to be more than problematic and have to be discarded because they did both not correspond enough with reality on the one hand while they did  also create a reality that was very destructive on the other hand. If there’s no deeper reality to which interpretations can be adjusted, not much is left than constructing something by oneself.

Another example of this layer confusion within Christianity can be found in how we read the line from Paul in the bible about ‘doesn’t nature tell us it’s a shame for a man to have long hair’. Any post-enlightenment thinker who has read enough blahblah from the people in recent centuries about ‘natural this’ and ‘natural that’ will interpret ‘nature’ as a deeper layer of at least Aristotelean nature, but from the context it’s clear Paul is talking about what we’d call culture rather than nature, and thus just referring to social constructs of his time and culture. As a man with long hair I have met some weird Christians who told me that my long hair was unnatural and against Gods created order though. (Luckily not often)

I think this was enough for a rant about what I think of when I see the word ‘social construct’.

What do you people think?

peace

Bram

 

Concerning the ancient controversy of the universals and the location of Love, Goodness and Justice within the Divine.


PlatoWhenever one takes lessons on the history of either Western philosophy or theology that includes the medieval period, they will encounter the ancient discussion about the universals. Long words with too much syllables that give a lot of possibility to be misunderstood were and are still employed in such debates, so it’s easy to lose sight of relevance in such matters… And yet something seems to tell me that hidden beneath a lot of dust, endless lingo and adventures in overcomplicating the point there is something very important. That’s why I have decided to dedicate a blog-post to some of the discussion and weigh in on some aspects of a very ancient discussion it in my unique Bram-way.

For the uninitiated who haven’t had basic philosophy: the question is whether the universals do exist somehow and what their relation to the particulars. Universals are universal characteristics here, particulars are the individual things that we encounter around us.  So the question could be asked: does the dogness (universal) of a certain dog (particular) have some separate existence or not. This whole way of thinking might seem quite silly, but with some more abstract universals as goodness and Truth it might become more interesting, as we’ll see later if you manage to finish this post.
I will try to only use as much lingo as is strictly needed, although I probably can’t help mixing up jargon from different worlds as I often end up doing..

To oversimplify I will give ahondn overview of the discussion I will go back to the example of dogness of a dog:
The most important players are Platonic Realism which would say that all dogs derive their dogness from the Platonic Idea Dog. For Plato that Idea would exist somewhere in the world of Ideas. All particular dogs are just like imperfect 3D-printouts of that Idea into the inferior matter of this world and nominalists who say that universals do not exist and are just words in our heads, and the dogness of the dog is just something we call it and actually corresponds to no reality beyond our words.
An in-between position of more moderate Aristotelian realism or conceptualism does also exist, which locates the universals in the particulars. (The dogness of the dog is present inside all dogs). Educate and/or confuse yourself here, here and here.

(Note that ‘Realism’ has an almost opposite meaning here than when used in a modern context. Scientific Realism as an epistemology is more like the opposite of Platonic Realism. Well long live language and its abilities….)

So where do I start? I suppose best just with my own view, which can be described as a postmodern mix of basically Aristotelian and Christian Platonist Realism: I’d propose that there are natural and abstract universals that are located in the things themselves or at least in this world in some way, but much more interesting, that there are also Higher Universals too that are located in the character of the Creator. And there I have to add a probably more (post)modern layer where all of these are most likely to be interpreted with our human minds and thus described into human language and brought into a thoughtfield, which is a more manmade ‘worlds of ideas’ that has not much connection with Plato’s world of ideas, even though it might exist in some mental astral plane . I don’t claim to have much knowledge about such matters though..

The ‘world of ideas’ as just a set of thoughtfields
Lets first start with that last one, where I probably differ from classical thought most and make up my own clumsy mishmash: There is a world of ideas in our individual and collective minds, (in thoughfields probably more or less a la Jung) which is like I said not at all a Higher World as Plato envisioned, but something on a mental plane that is derived from our human thoughts. Part of it just consists of constructions of human interpretations of the material world. It’s not even one world, but there are countless one, every culture and time and group has such a world, and it’s derived from our collective and individual minds.
Rosetta_StoneThis is also probably the closest that I get to Nominalism, but even then I don’t say anything is ‘just words’ with no existence. I do still think these things have an existence of sorts on some kind of mental plane.
These thoughtfields are always a needed intermediary between us and Reality: we look at Reality and interpret it and construct pictures of Reality in human languages in a mental world. I do not believe we have unmediated access to Reality, it is always interpreted.

But that’s probably not even half of what’s going on in there. We as humans are highly creative beings, that can create new stuff inside the thoughtfields. There are a lot of things that do originate in there: all of our cultural movements and purtekstballone ‘social constructs’ belong to this same world of thoughtfields, from useless abstract discussion about the nature of the universals, and all of theological systems to dubstep and unjust caste systems. (or even thoughtform entities, but that’s another story) And things don’t stay there. We actualise them and bring them into the material world. All things that we make or remake in natural reality are nothing but a translation of what we make first in the world of thought too btw.

Natural and abstract universals
This might have been a weird beginning, but now I’m going to get more classical  with the natural and the abstract world. for the ‘natural universals’ or properties of natural things like species of animals, plants or minerals for example I’d just follow the Aristotelean line that for example the horseness of the horse is found in all horses together. (My theoretical dog needed some rest so I summoned a theoretical horse for now…)
I can probably add something about the DNA of living beings or the chemical composition of minerals but that might go too far for now, and then I did remove the question of universals from philosophy to the natural sciences, which might be a valid thing here…

A side-note: this is where I would probably disagree with putting stuff like gender Venus of Willendorfcompletely in the ‘social construct’ category, which would be in the terms of my post like saying that it only exists or at least is derived from the thoughtfields. Gender is indeed to a certain degree a thoughtform-concept that varies per culture, but it’s still built a higher construct upon a reality that’s found within material nature, and translated and given form within every human culture. The starting point is the biological world, and not the thoughtfield; so I’d see all cultural expressions of gender not as pure social constructs, but as better or worse translations of the biological Reality of sex that is found in the particulars, or in other worlds in us individual humans.

When we go to the abstract universals (characteristics of logic, mathematics, equations, etc..) I suppose that they are just part of a less obvious ‘dimension’ of reality that is probably more transcendent in nature. I’d still say that they’re just part of Created nature anyway, and do not really reside inside of some Higher Platonic world of ideas (which I do not believe in btw, if that wasn’t clear yet). They just belong to a less tangible dimension of the natural reality we live in, and they will probably be discovered by most sentient species independently from each other, and then probably described in completely different terms and formats. But like earlier, they too cannot be reached directly with the human mind though (except for maybe some very simple ones, like basic geometric forms as a triangle) and will always have to be translated into languages that we humans understand with words and numbers and symbols and so on, and placed into our thoughtfields before we can access them.

Higher Universals: Love, Truth, Beauty, Justice…
Up till now we had something of a moderate postmodern Aristotelean realism (I guess) for what I’ve called the ‘natural universals’. But that’s still only half of the story, and we haven’t had the most important half yet. And here I will turn to a form of  Christian more or less neo-Platonist Realism:

My view on what I will call the Higher Universals (stuff like Love, Goodness, hqdefaultJustice, Truth and Beauty, and even Life and Being itself too) is that they are not primarily a part of this created world,  but that their source is ultimately found in the character/nature/attributes of the Creator Godself. (yes, I conflate some terms that are used very precisely for other things, and that often are used for different things in different traditions.  I just mean that these things are a part of the Being of God, not just of Creation. All more precise terms might have more detail than we humans can be certain about anyway…)
But again, in this form of ‘universals’ they are just Absolutes. And while I do believe that Absolutes do exist (bad bad postmodernist that I am), I do not believe we can ever reach them, by definition.
They cannot be accessed directly by humans because they are in a completely different Realm, and have to be translated to every context and language. Which might look very different depending on the particulars in which they are given form.

icon of the sermon on the mountStill if we look with the right mindset and open eyes we can see glimpses of them everywhere, and we as Christians need to live a life that contextualises and brings them into the concrete world, incarnates them even. Jesus as the Incarnation was the most perfect translation of the Higher Universals into a human being like us.

Realism and not Nominalism
That I end up on the side of Realism and not Nominalism might be more significant than we realise at first sight.  If you read the internet you will find certain people who denounce Nominalism for different and sometimes even opposing reasons, which I will not go into now. (You can read about Luther and Nominalism here -don’t skip the commments- for example, or about Ockham and Nominalism here. (Yes that’s the razor guy)
Foto0067So what is the problem with Nominalism here? From what I’ve read about Nominalism and from some discussions with people who know more than me it seems safe to say that Nominalism expects us to say that there are no real realities behind what I’ve called the Higher Universals. And this is where it gets dangerous: If we do not locate them inside if the Being of God, they have to be located elsewere. This will have them to be located in the will or decrees of God. And then we open up the door for people who say that anything (even ‘hate thy neighbour’) can be good whenever God decides it to be good (Ockham the razorguy seems to have  thought so, but I won’t go into that here now). And here we come into a ridiculous and dangerous domain where nothing makes sense that is to me completely unacceptable.

This is why I find it very important to note that Love, Goodness and the other of the Higher Universals are located in Gods Being somehow, not Gods will or something created. God IS Love (1 John). Love is a part of God, not a creation of God that could have been completely different and utterly unrecognisable in another world. People could be blue and even the value of pi might have been different if God wanted to create things differently, but Love and Justice have an Unshakeable Source, and will always be contextualisations of the same Attributes of the eternal Creator, even in the weirdest world possible.

God has created a world that was good in His eyes as a reflection of His character. Every inch of goodness within creation refers to the Creator. Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Creation. This means that nothing good or true (or even beautiful) in our Reality is ever arbitrary. No law in the bible is arbitrary, but somehow they are contextual ans sometimes for us incomprehensible translations of the Higher Universal of Justice into a historical context that often comes across as strange and counter-intuitive to us moderns.

Since God as the Creator is universal, there is a Trace of Justice in every just law in every society except for probably the most wicked unjust corrupted ones. QxouqThere is a Trace of Goodness in every genuine act of goodness everywhere, no matter how imperfect. There is a Trace of Beauty in every expression of beauty made by humans that truly captures something, as well as a lot of very vapid Traces of Beauty in nature. There is a Trace Truth in every human idea that expresses something true.

All of these, no matter how many layers and worlds of interpretation, in their imperfect way, do point to God somehow. Even then we Christians have to go beyond those Traces, and incarnate the Way of Christ more directly in a lost world in deeds and in explicit words. We are to embody the Higher Universals as much as we can.  “Be perfect for I am perfect.” Says Jesus in the middle of the Sermon of the Mount. The whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is to align our character with the character of God.
Part of salvation is conforming to the likeness of God, and to partake in the Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), not only for our own sake but also to manifest in our particular way the Higher Universals more and more in this fallen and troubled world that is in need of more Love, Truth, Beauty, and so on. We can only fully become ourselves if Christ lives in us and God shines through us.

Let’s close this post with a quote from E. Stanley Jones’ Christ of the Mount that summarises what I’m trying to say here:

Moreover, if we are to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect, then the same moral laws that govern God’s acting must govern ours. In other words, the moral laws are not rooted in the shifting customs of men, but they are rooted in the very nature of the Divine. This gives us a stable moral universe and it means that moral distinctions have ultimate meaning. Moral laws are not based on the divine will, but on the divine nature. They are not whimsical, for God is not whimsical. They are dependable and orderly, for God is dependable and orderly. I can morally respect a God who will act on everything he requires of man. (E Stanley Jones, the Christ of the Mount)

This post was way too long, and my anarchist and unacademic approach to philosophy is probably quite sloppy… But I had to write this somehow…

What do you people think?

Peace

Bram