I’m snowed in and suffering from the worst cold in ages, but nonetheless I wanted to draw attention to this passage in Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?. Hacking writes,

“Idea” is shorthand, and a very unsatisfactory shorthand it is too. The trouble is that we want some general way to make the distinction needed, not just for X = women refugees, but for a host of other items said to be socially constructed. “Idea” may have to serve, although more specific words like “concept” and “kind” are waiting in the wings. I do not mean anything curiously mental by “idea.” [my emphasis] Ideas (as we ordinarily use the word) are usually out there in public. They can be proposed, criticized, entertained, rejected.

Ideas do not exist in a vacuum. They inhabit a social setting. Let us call that the matrix within which an idea, a concept or kind, is formed… The matrix in which the idea of women refugee is formed is a complex of institutions, advocates, newspaper articles, lawyers, court decisions, immigration proceeds. Not to mention the material infrastructure, barriers, passports, uniforms, counters at airports, detention centers, courthouses, holiday camps for refugee children. You may want to call these social because their meanings are what matter to us, but they are material, and in their sheer materiality make substantial differences to people. (10)

In addition to “concept” and “kind”, “idea” can also, in my view, be taken to refer to “sign”, “text”, and “discourse”. Hacking wants to draw a fairly strong distinction between ideas and objects. His thesis is that often, when a theorist refers to “social construction”, s/he is referring not to the construction of the object, but to the construction of the idea. Thus, it is not the person Sophiana, for example, that is constructed, but the idea “women refugees” that is constructed.

However, matters are complicated because kinds or ideas such as “women refugee” are what Hacking refers to as “interactive kinds”. Unlike the relationship between, say, a rock and its idea, interactive kinds like “woman refugee” have effects on the entity that they define. Sophiana can identify with this idea, she can reject the idea, the legal system in which the idea is operative can have all sorts of effects on her life, etc. Hacking contends that a good deal of social constructivist literature is concerned with precisely these interactions.

read on!

In my view, Hacking’s distinction between ideas and objects ultimately cannot be maintained. Insofar as ideas are not merely mental entities, but have a real existence out there in the world, they are a species of objects. Ideas are real things. However, they are real things that have some very interesting properties. Central to these properties is a paradoxical split at the heart of ideas such that ideas simultaneously refer to other entities and are entities in their own right. As I’ve been saying for a number of years on this blog, “texts aren’t merely about something, they are something.”

It is precisely this paradoxical dual nature of ideas that calls for activities such as social constructivist analysis. This paradoxical nature of ideas is the specific way in which ideas withdraw. Insofar as ideas are about something, the object which they are about comes into the foreground, while the idea itself as an object withdraws. It is this that allows idea and the object which ideas are about to appear identical to one another, such that the qualities delineated in the idea appear to be natural and inevitable properties of the object to which the idea refers. Drawing on Heidegger’s example from Being and Time, my glasses become invisible precisely because I look through my glasses. As a consequence, my glasses are phenomenologically further away than the object that I view through my glasses. Something similar takes place with ideas, which, in their functional role, are not unlike glasses.

Social constructivist analysis of ideas discloses the objective status of the idea. This might sound odd given that so much constructivist analysis of ideas purports to reveal that certain ideas aren’t objective at all; yet this thesis rests on a conflation of two different conceptions of the objective. Clearly ideas– generally in the social domain –are seldom representationally objective. That is, they are not identical to the entity that they purport to represent (and here it bears noting that this comes as no surprise to OOO insofar as objects only relate to one another through translations of one another). However, when the “aboutness” function of identities is bracketed and we are brought before the sheer materiality of ideas as really existing entities, we here encounter the objectivity of ideas. That is, we encounter ideas as themselves being objects.

Within the framework of my onticology, this requires us to discuss “social construction” in a slightly different way. Often social constructivist thought presents itself as dealing with an opposition between two different domains– objects and ideas –such that the former is treated as real and the latter is treated as unreal, fictional, or “merely discursive”. However, in my view, what we have here is not a relation between the real (object) and the unreal (idea), but rather a relation between two different objects and their non-relation. In The Democracy of Objects I theorize this in terms of autopoietic systems theory, showing how, among other things, ideas are objects that metabolize other objects with the aim of reproducing themselves in particular ways over time. In other words, social constructivist analyses show not so much how a particular set of ideas are false or motivated by something else than pure description (though the latter is often true), but rather analyze disadequations between two distinct real objects in their translation of one another. The reason so much of this gets obscured in contemporary debates is that the focus tends to be on the “aboutness” function of ideas and not their objective reality or material existence in the world. This happens because of the internal paradoxical structure of identity and the manner in which they withdraw when in action.

A “materialist” or objective treatment of ideas also requires that we think about ideas in a slightly different way with respect to their existence. Throughout The Social Construction of What?, Hacking draws a distinction between processes and products. This distinction is designed to shed light on the so-called “science wars”. In science and technology studies, theorists that evoke the term “social construction” are generally referring to the process of science or the activities by which various things are discovered. By contrast, those scientists that become outraged at theses such as the claim that the genome is “socially constructed” are often referring to the product of scientific inquiry. Yet the former are not speaking of this product or the entity itself disclosed in scientific investigation. Once again, we encounter the bad habit of conflating the aboutness of ideas with the material existence of ideas.

When we focus on the aboutness of ideas, the only thing that is relevant is the truth-conditions of ideas. “Do the ideas in question adequately represent that to which they refer? However, when aboutness is bracketed, we suddenly encounter ideas in a very different way. Now ideas are encountered as entities existing in time and space. All sorts of new questions emerge at this point pertaining to the dissemination, propagation, or iteration of ideas. Insofar as ideas are now encountered as real entities existing in the world, we encounter the question of how and where they are transmitted– How is it that they propagate themselves throughout the world? How do they replicate themselves? How do they transmit themselves? To exist ideas must get themselves copied; they must circulate throughout the world so as to extend the territory of their influence. Moreover, they must maintain themselves so that they don’t pass out of existence.

So long as we focus on the aboutness of ideas, all of this is invisible. We believe that it is sufficient to analyze the truth-functionality of ideas to determine whether they are adequate representations. In a critique of ideology, for example, we might think that it is sufficient to “debunk” an idea. This is disastrous on both the theoretical front and the practical front. Theoretically, if we don’t uncover the population in which ideas exist as in the case of an ecosystem (and there is a whole ecosystem of ideas), then we risk targeting the wrong ideas for our critique. Here we encounter the spectre of mistaken system-references. Many of the ideas critiqued in social and political theory, for example, are ideas that largely inhabit the academy and certainly intellectual communities, not the broader social world. We end up, as a consequence, only talking to each other. At the level of practice, a failure to recognize that ideas are objects leads us to be unconcerned with the propagation of ideas in the world, restricting discussion to our own discursive networks. As a result, everything remains the same. But enough of this for now. I’m going to return to coughing, sniffling, and wheezing.