Tuesday 18 October 2016

Crotty's account of constructionism #2

In a previous post, I suggested that Michael Crotty makes two daft claims about constructionism and its opposite objectivism (I am ignoring subjectivism). Despite protesting against idealism, he is drawn on behalf of constructionism to say that the contingent history of concepts infects the ‘meaningful reality’ they enable us to articulate itself. Second, in characterising constructionism’s objectivist opposition, he assumes that it too must take meanings and concepts to be central but then locates them in the world. This reminds me of a premodern view of the world, the episteme in which, for example, the cure for impotence is a root that looks like testicles and hence naturally means potency etc. The more obvious way to think about objectivism is as holding that the natural world itself is devoid of meaning rather than containing meanings that have nothing to do with human minds and practices.

Despite the fact that these both seem unhappy – daft even – things to say about constructionism and objectivism, there are motives for them both.

Consider objectivism. Crotty takes it to ascribe to worldly objects meanings that are wholly independent of human subjectivity. I suggested that a more obvious version would have it take the world to be free of meanings. But the former view has a rationale. One motive would be sympathy with McDowell’s objection to a view of nature as disenchanted [McDowell 1994: **]. He argues that this view – a view which looks like the account of objectivism I have suggested – is the result of a misunderstanding of the methodological success of construing the physical world in meaning-free terms. It does not follow that the world in general is meaning-free. One reason to wish to deny this is to think that the world is a world of values too. (This is McDowell’s ‘partial re-enchantment’ of nature.)

There is another – related – line of thinking in favour of Crotty’s version of objectivism. It has to do with the coherence of the idea that meanings might be tied closely to human decisions. Consider the connection between rules of logical inference and the meaning of logical connectives. On a broadly constructionist view, the meaning of such connectives is fixed by convention and hence the forms of inference they permit. But now imagine that a system of logic has been adopted by such conventions. What of the particular inferences it permits? Is accord of a particular inference with a general rule (itself adopted by the convention that fixes the meanings of connectives) itself adopted by convention? Or is it fixed by the meanings so adopted, autonomously? The former looks unhappy because it replaces the sense of constraint in reasoning in accord with logical principles with freely adopted decisions: a kind of logical jazz. The latter requires thinking that logical inferences are fixed by a kind of action at a distance which seems to require the kind of objectivism about meaning that Crotty describes. Meanings are not wholly up to us. So there is a rationale for holding Crotty’s objectivism even if it is already a kind of intermediate position and hence not the best way to chart the logical geography.

There is also a rationale for Crotty’s constructionism even though his description of it isn’t happy: ‘It is the view that all knowledge, and therefore all meaningful reality as such, is contingent upon human practices, being constructed in and out of interaction between human beings and their world…’
No one should rush to say that reality is contingent on human practices. But it is hard to avoid saying this. Consider McDowell’s sympathy with the idea that the world is everything that is the case, the world of facts not of things. McDowell also connects this conception of the world with the set of true thoughts though stressing a contrast between thinkable contents and acts of thinking. The world isn’t the set of acts of thinking; it is what can be truly thought. But there is some difficulty – it seems to me – in stopping an awareness of the contingency of human concepts escalating via the apparently innocent idea that the world is the set of true thoughts, themselves conceptually articulated, into the idea that the world itself is contingent on human concepts and their history. It would be easy if one could help oneself to a distinction between conceptual scheme and extra-conceptual content. The former could be the locus of contingency. But with the death of that dualism, it becomes much harder to apportion the contingency safely.

So I don’t think that Crotty’s descriptions of the options are unmotivated. They are just a bit rash, not the sort of thing that sober researchers should assert without an ironic smile, at least. Copying them into a PhD makes the PhD worse rather than better, etc.