I’ve always thought of myself as a closet realist, maybe of a hard core metaphysical kind. But after reading Searle on Boghossian in the latest New York Review of Books, I’m not so sure. (I don’t know if the link will work without a subscription to the electronic edition.)
Just to clarify: Many of us are social constructivists about gender; we think it is put in place by society, with its conventions, beliefs and systems of approval and disapproval, to put it roughly. We might want to contrast gender with sex, and say that sex is more independent of social attitudes. That’s a bit tricky, since there are supposed to be two sexes, while in fact there is much more continuity between the XY male and the YY female. Still, we might well want to say that at least genes are really existing in the world. If so, then we end up realists about genes. We’ll count as social constructivists about some concepts, but we’re still believers in some objective reality.
John Searle reviews Paul Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge, and it looks as though both are so convinced of the insanity of the thorough-going social constructivist views that they don’t think they have to explain what the other view says.
Amazon.com has a ‘search inside’ function for the book; there seem to be no entries for ‘metaphysical realism’ and very few for ‘realism’. It appears the book is contrasting social constructivism with what is called “naive realism,” which doesn’t seem to be in need of explanation or defense.
This sort of attitude makes it all the more surprising that the spread of constructivism puzzles Searle and Boghossian.
So where does feminist philosophy come in? They seem to think we’re social constructivists all the way down; we’d be inclined to say things like, “Genes didn’t exist before Watson and Crick.” And that is because of remarks by feminists like this, a passage from Kathleen Lennon’s PAS, sv, 1997, p. 37:
Feminist epistemologists, in common with many other strands of contemporary epistemology, no longer regard knowledge as a neutral transparent reflection of an independently existing reality, with truth and falsity established by transcendent procedures of rational assessment. Rather, most accept that all knowledge is situated knowledge, reflecting the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context.
About this passage, Searle remarks:
But the point of the passage is to claim that most feminists reject the idea that knowledge reflects an independently existing reality; and the rhetorical flourishes in the passage, such as “transcendent procedures of rational assessment” and “neutral transparent reflection,” are designed to reinforce that point….It is a vision according to which all of our knowledge claims are radically contingent because of their historical and social circumstances. According to this vision, all of us think within particular sets of assumptions, and we always represent the world from a point of view, and this makes objective truth impossible. For someone who accepts this argument, the idea that there are scientific claims that are objective, universal, and established beyond a reasonable doubt seems not only inaccurate but positively oppressive. And for such people the very idea of an objectively existing, independent reality must be discredited.
It is, to say the least, interesting that Searle thinks certain phrases are used to discredit the realist, but at the same time we are given no account of what the realist is saying instead. Well, except that there is a knowable objective reality, which actually looked pretty difficult to explain, last time I looked.**
In the meantime, anyone who knows what most feminist philosophers believe is VERY welcome to comments. As are others, of course.
**This abstract from the Philosophers Index might give you an idea of the problems, if you haven’t looked at the literature:
The realism debate concerns the relationship of our beliefs, thoughts and language to the world or universe and, hence, involves a number of fundamental questions ranging from metaphysics through epistemology to semantics and philosophy of language. While a few philosophers take it as an inevitable feature of the debate and try to advance it by coping simultaneously with all those questions, a number of others insist that the approach of this kind leads merely to confusions and misunderstandings. They usually suggest that the metaphysical or ontological aspects of it should be kept separate from such epistemological and semantic issues as the possibility of absolute knowledge, the correspondence theory of truth, or the truth-conditional theory of meaning. In other words, there is such a thing as pure or simple metaphysical realism that may be endorsed and defended, or undermined and rejected. The aim of the paper is to raise some doubts about that metaphilosophical strategy, and to argue that the comprehensive approach to the realism debate, in which the metaphysical issues are combined with — at least — some epistemological matters, is not so much caused by confusions and misunderstandings, but forced, as it were, by its subject matter and the philosophical nature of the debate.
From: Szubka, Tadeusz, in Malinowski, Jacek.(2006). Essays in Logic and Ontology (Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Volume 91). (pp. 301-316). New York: Rodopi NY.