This morning I read Mark Bauerlein’s article in Theory’s Empire, ‘Social Constructionism: Philosophy for the Academic Workplace’, originally published in Partisan Review. It’s great stuff.
When someone holds a belief philosophically, he or she exposes it to arguments and evidence against it, and tries to mount arguments and evidence for it in return. But in academic contexts, constructionist ideas are not open for debate. They stand as community wisdom, articles of faith. When a critic submitted an essay to PMLA that criticized constructionists for not making arguments in their favor, the reader’s report by Richard Ohmann rejoined that since constructionism is universally accepted by academic inquirers, there is no need to argue for it anymore.
That’s either hilarious or infuriating, or probably both. Constructionism is universally accepted by academic inquirers!! Is it really!
No, it certainly is not, and the fact that someone doing a reader’s report on such a book thinks or claims to think it is, is…shocking, absurd, risible, maddening. Talk about groupthink.
Commentaries on ideological origins and ethical results far exceed conceptual analyses and logical expositions. Evaluating concepts and arguments by their political backgrounds and implications has become a disciplinary wont, a pattern of inquiry. It is the natural method of constructionist epistemology, the outlook that will not distinguish between a truth and its origination, which is to say the outlook that is not really an epistemology at all. It speaks an epistemological language, but it has no epistemological principles.
Just so. Evaluating concepts by their political implications: the very definition of unepistemology.
If constructionists mean by “truth” merely “what passes for truth,” then the contradiction disappears, but now we are no longer talking about truth in epistemological terms, but in historical terms, that which is accepted as truth in this or that time and place. The acceptance of something as true is one thing, the truth of that belief is another. Establishing the latter is a routine epistemological task. Documenting the former is a traditional historical endeavor, carried out by Gibbon as well as by Sedgwick.
‘If constructionists mean by “truth” merely “what passes for truth,”‘ – as they so often do, and as journalists and others writing about them also so often do – witness Morris Dickstein in that article a few weeks ago. I pointed out at the time that he was confusing the two – which people really ought to stop doing.
This polarizing, personalizing rhetoric indicates that social constructionism has an institutional basis, not a philosophical, moral, or political one. It tramples on philosophical distinctions and practices an immoral mode of debate…Instead, what has emerged from social constructionism is not a philosophical school or a political position, but an institutional product, specifically, an outpouring of research publications, conference talks, and classroom presentations by subscribers…In a word, it is the school of thought most congenial to current professional workplace conditions of scholars in the humanities.
And why? Because (in the US at least) academics have to publish a book within 3 1/2 years of being hired, or they won’t be tenured. Social constructivist books are easier to write than those that rely on evidence and time spent in archives. All a bit of a misunderstanding, it seems.