One of my philosophy seminars is called "Topics in Contemporary Philosophy." This is a vague title. The course deals with social constructivism, relativism, and deliberation, plus the political effects of these issues. The professor is a tall, broad English man who says things like "we English are real toppers" (whatever that means) and "imagine if I came to class naked one day. This would be a transgression of unspoken social rules. Imagine if I came to class wearing a ladies dress. You would probably think I was gender-fucking but I could probably get away with it." I like him, his sardonic jokes and straight delivery, the way he pauses to think about things said. He also makes snide jokes about first year undergrads and most people laugh heartily in a self-righteous and pretentious manner, poking each other in the ribs, sharing the secret of our obvious superiority. Fuuuuck.

Good things have been happening today. I feel pleased with life. I am thinking about social constructivism and Wittgenstein.

Most people associate social/moral constructivism with increased freedom. If nothing is objectively or universally true, then we are free to construct our own realities, engage in whatever language game we choose, play within discourses. Social constructivism is linked to relativism in that it seems to be a justification for relativism. "If this way of seeing the world is contingent on a particular socio-historical context, I am justified in believing that all knowledge is relative." But I disagree. The fact that "reality" is socially constructed limits us. According to Wittgenstein, language games that we unconsciously partake in are a "form of life." Language games are not free discourses, they create limits and structures within which discourse is possible (and only within this structure). Form implies limits, and language creates limits. So the games propagated by language or institutions are manipulated and in flux, yes, but this does not mean we are not constrained within the game as players who have learned rules and have a stake in maintaining them. We are either feeding into already-existing sources of power that are invested in enforcing the already-existing system, or we subvert this system in order to establish or support new sources or forms of power. We create systems in order to delineate 'us' from 'them;' to control what it means to be 'human,' even. And these games, like the multi-faceted, layered city Wittgenstein describes, do not allow us the freedom (and tyranny) of relativism. Why and how did language develop the way it did? Think of the infinite possibilities and alternatives that could have developed and think of the various forms of power that have manipulated the way that we speak, communicate, and thus, live in the world. I'm reminded of that kid in White Noise who is mute but cries all the time. Crying is the closest we have to a universal language, really, in terms of sound. There is a girl crying outside my window, big, weepy sobs. A man is trying to talk to her and she doesn't want to go with him. He sounds intimidating. She sounds desperate, animal.


  1. i thought of that, but I'm thinking in relation to animals as well. laughter is distinctly human, or, if animals laugh, its dissimilar to humans.

  2. I'm assuming you don't mind feedback from people who happen to find themselves here. It's an interesting blog you have. Found you through Last.fm. You can find me there as "MrWeiss", if you like.

    I think you're right to say that it would be misguided to think that social/moral constructivism entails some kind of absolute freedom. You might find some of Charles Taylor's work interesting – he has a project which could rightly be called 'moral phenomenology' that I'll try to describe /very/ briefly. On his view, our way of having values is constitutive of the way we view the world – we can't simply step outside our systems of value, because we are always evaluating what we come across. We evaluate courses of action in terms of whether we think they're “worth” doing, and we tend to orient these judgements based on more important goods – this could be something a bit simple like, “being a good friend”, or something more abstract like “being just”.

    Because you're reading Wittgenstein, I think you'll be able to appreciate this; Wittgenstein discusses how we are always already within language, and we can't very well call into question our ENTIRE language at once. We can only ever question some limited part of our language because we need language in order to question in the first place. Taylor is saying much the same thing about values. In order to question some values, we need to re-evaluate them in terms of other values – but we can't very well step outside our whole moral framework at once to be “free” of it.

    To put things into your language of “limitation”: we not absolutely free or independent of values, culture, or language because we are limited by the structure of these things, namely by being embedded in them and always already participating in them.

    It's quite in line with what you're saying, on my interpretation anyway. Hope you found it interesting.


  3. @ryan: sure. That's what I'm trying to say. Of course there is some differentiation between humans and other animals though and that's what I'm considering here: how that division is constructed, how language contributes to it, ways it can be subverted or ways that its power is 'naturally' subverted.
    @Andrew: I like what you're saying and I agree with it. Feedback is always welcome, thank you.

  4. Glad you enjoyed it, Kristen; you're quite welcome.