Looking twice at the history of science

Friday, January 25, 2013

The constructivist straw man

What does “constructivism” mean these days for historians of science? As near as I can tell, it is simply the idea that each scientific claim has a complex causal history that involves people. But there is nothing new about this idea, as we see once we drop straw-mannish views about old-fashioned internalist historians of science. The real novelty is not constructivism but social constructivism, or something like it. Nor is this the only way that old-fashioned historians are short-changed by the way "constructivism" is sometimes portrayed nowadays. Fortunately, there are some simple steps we can take to solve these problems. Let me explain. Expand post.


  1. You sketched the extreme form of a non-contructivist nicely, but the constructivist needs to be pulled to its extreme as well, IMHO, to see the full contrast. If the extreme non-constructivist sits passively and waits for a revelation of the independent and objective truth/reality, then the constructivist believes there is no objective truth or reality independent of the social construct. Hence any truth (even scientific ones) can be de-constructed or pass away otherwise. Stated in these forms, there are probably neither constructivists nor non-constructivists, but the extremes can stake out the range in between.

  2. Hi Joachim, and thanks for your comment. I agree that there's a more extreme form of constructivism that denies that there is an "objective truth or reality independent of the social construct." You are probably right that this extreme form can help to cast light on the debate between self-identified constructivists and self-identified constructivists.

    However I think there is value in focusing, like I have in this post, on a milder form of constructivism that just says (like Golinksi) that scientific results have complex causal histories that involve people.

    One reason to focus on this is that few historians of science, or even sociologists of science, seem to subscribe any longer to the extreme form of social constructivism that you mention. Even arch-constructivists like Harry Collins and Steven Shapin are now saying that their emphasis on the social was only ever a *methodological* preference.

    What I wanted to show in this post is that this "methodological relativism" can easily slide into an even milder form of constructivism that no-one--even William Whewell--would object to.

    I think the point generalises: once we look closely at the fruits of social constructivism, we see that they are not all that different from what historians of science have been doing for some time. The negative way of looking at this situation (and the outlook that I emphasise in this fairly polemical post) is that social constructivists have given us old wine in new bottles. A more positive conclusion is that self-identified constructivists can learn a lot from their putative adversaries, and vice versa.

  3. Okay, but your post provoked such a response, because you titled it "The constructivist straw man", yet the only straw man it features is the non-costructivist one, whereas your constructivist appears to be made of flesh rather than straw. :-)

  4. Ah, the tyranny of the snappy title! Just to be absolutely clear, the above post is about constructivists *creating* straw men, and not about constructivists *being* straw men.

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