I came across a .pdf of The Social Construction of What? by Ian Hacking online. Hacking’s little book is a masterpiece of philosophical and analytic reasoning. Written in a lively and conversational style, it gets right to the heart of a number of contemporary debates. Those who have followed the speculative realism discussions might be surprised to discover that I am deeply sympathetic to, and in agreement with, large portions of Hacking’s arguments. This should underline just how different object-oriented ontology is from other variants of realism. I am particularly keen on Hacking’s [implicit] treatment of what he calls “ideas” as real entities that act in the world, that are independent of individual persons, and that interact with other objects.
So how, one might ask, can I simultaneously be a realist, holding that being is composed of objects, and acknowledge the truth of certain features of social constructivism? Well, I can hold this position because the terms “real” and “object” are not synonymous with inevitable. At the conferences I’ve attended in the last two years where OOO is discussed, I’ve noticed– and this is always articulated implicitly –that there is a tendency to equate the terms “real” and “object” with the concept of the “inevitable”. That is, the defense of objects and realism is equated with essentialism in the bad sense of the term (more on this another day). If it is said that tax attorneys are real entities– to choose a non-controversy inducing example –some immediately seem to conclude that being-a-tax-attorney is thereby a natural and inevitable attribute of a particular sort of entity. I’ve repeatedly witnessed this same conflation in the blogosphere.
This, in my view, is a very strange conclusion to reach. Why do we assume that the claim that something is real is also the claim that something is natural and therefore inevitable? Are there good grounds for this equation? Not as far as I can tell. In the past I’ve tried to make this point with respect to biology. If Darwin taught us anything, it’s that “natural kinds”, at least in the biological world (but I suspect this is true in other domains as well), are not enduring or eternal, but have to be produced. Indeed, it is individual organisms that precede the production of species or “natural kinds”, not natural kinds that precede species. Likewise, if the developmental systems theorists have taught us anything– Susan Oyama, for example –it’s that genetics aren’t a blueprint pre-delineating a phenotype, but are potentialities that can produce a variety of different phenotypes depending on interactions with other materials and activities in the environment of the developing organism. In other words, in the domain of biology we find neither eternity nor inevitability.
What’s the point? Species are no less real for being “constructed” through natural selection. Organisms are no less real for being “constructed” as a result of developmental processes in interaction with an environment. Why, then, do we sacrifice objects in the social world and abandon the reality of social entities? Because social entities such as milk men once existed, and no longer exist? Okay. Pterodactyls once existed and no longer exist either. Anyway, read the book. It’s great.