Haslanger on conceptual analysis and social construction

Last Friday we were lucky enough to have Sally Haslanger visit. She gave a lecture that was open to (and aimed at) the general public, called "But mom, crop-tops are cute! The Social Critique of Social Knowledge". We also basically had a seminar on some of her recent work on social constructionism and the metaphysics, epistemology, and semantics of social kinds, where we peppered her with questions and she enlightened us. We also talked a fair amount about the current deplorable level of sexism in academic philosophy. (Her recent paper on this topic has generated a good deal of discussion, and I, like much of the rest of the philosophical blogosphere, can unequivocally recommend it.)

One thing that I especially like about her work is that she takes the basic ideas of social constructionism and (re-?)formulates them in a way that is much more palatable to analytic philosophers. I always felt some basic affinity for the social constructionist project, yet oftentimes the way it is couched by sociologists, anthropologists, social historians, etc. either confuses me or seems just a bit too crazy. She translates good bits into the idiom of current Anglophone philosophy in a very helpful way.

An example: Social constructionists might say that our conceptual scheme forces us into ways of thinking and acting that is often opaque to ourselves; that our concepts somehow create an illusory false consciousness that 'masks' their true nature. Haslanger has a nice way of thinking about such an idea that (I think) makes sense to an analytic philosopher. How can we misunderstand our own concepts? She says we should distinguish between the manifest concept, which is (roughly) captured by the dictionary definition an ordinary language-user would give, and the operative concept, which is (roughly) captured by the way the community in question actually draws distinctions/ applies the concept in practice. As an example of where these two things pull apart, she suggests race: the 'ordinary' person's definition of race will include some sort of biological (or at least broadly physical/ natural) component; yet the way we actually classify people as white, black, etc. actually does not track some single shared genetic -- or even biological -- trait. So now we have (to my mind) a clean account of where the 'illusion' or 'opacity' comes in: the operative concept will be used in the vast majority of everyday life, but when we consciously reflect on what we're doing (specifically, what distinction we are drawing), then the manifest concept takes the leading role.

What should we do when the manifest and operative concepts split apart like this? Haslanger does not want to say that we should always opt for one over the other as somehow the real meaning. Rather, she says, when we have this mismatch, that creates an opportunity to re-think the question 'What, exactly, do we want this concept for? -- What function (if any) do we want this concept to serve in our thinking?' And here we have a third concept, which she calls the 'target concept.' And here is where the normative aspects of ideology critique can appear: what should this concept be? (Note: we do not need a mismatch between operative and manifest concepts in order to ask about the target concept -- but the presence of a conflict generates a desire for a resolution, and the target concept holds out the promise of resolving the conflict between the operative and manifest concepts.)

I'm pretty sure I haven't captured Sally's ideas in exactly the way she would put them, but I hope I'm not horribly far off. If this is in the ballpark, I'm wondering about a couple of things concerning this tripartite picture:

(1) Are there really ethical ways to sort entities and unethical ones? Just creating a set with a certain group of members does not seem to me like the kind of thing that can be moral or immoral. Of course, classifications can be used to commit horrible injustices – insert any oppressed group here for an example. But, I want to say, just as the atomic theory of matter is not really ethically good or bad in itself, though it can be used to build an atomic bomb which can be used to commit ethical atrocities, the act of classification is not good or bad in itself (even though it may be a necessary precondition for injustice – or reparation). [I should note that after her talk, Sally did mention that she had thought a lot about whether the normative dimension of ideology critique should be separated from the conceptual analysis part; so this remark would be no news to her.]

(2) This is my being thick, I think. I’m having trouble seeing how exactly the idea of ideology (as studied by people in the social sciences) maps onto Haslanger’s tripartite conceptual scheme. Why? Because ideology (when it’s working ‘well’) is “implicit” knowledge, i.e., it is taken for granted and deployed without even noticing that we are using it, only semiconsciously or unconsciously. When it is articulated explicitly, it ceases to be as effective. So that sounds like it maps onto the ‘operative concept.’ But e.g. in the case of race, a social constructionist or an eliminativist about race wants to say the idea of race being biologically grounded is a key part of racial ideology – but that is the ‘manifest concept.’ So maybe ideology doesn’t map neatly onto Haslanger’s conceptual classifications, but I got the sense that she wanted it to.

It was great having Sally here. She is as rigorous and uncompromising an analytical philosopher as you could hope to meet, but she actually works on things that matter to people’s lives. So she really should be a model to the philosophical community.


Kenny said...

A couple years ago when I was in Australia, she gave a talk about the "manifest", "operative", and "target" concepts, though she might have used somewhat different terminology then. Because at the time I was hanging out with the ANU people and thinking a bit about conceptual analysis, I wasn't really thinking of the normativity in the target concept as necessarily an ethical thing. Rather, I was thinking of it more as an instrumental sort of normativity - if the role this concept plays is to underlie scientific theories, then that will constrain the development of the concept (we'll want a biological one in that case); if the role is to identify people that have been unfairly discriminated against, then the biological concept won't be any good.

When we discovered that Newtonian mass wasn't a real notion, we realized that two different notions were useful for different purposes. Something similar might be said about social concepts too.

Of course, ethical concerns come in when we start to wonder what uses for concepts are good ones.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Hey Kenny --

Very good point. Certainly not all target concepts incorporate an ethical dimension; your example of 'mass' is a clear case. But I'm pretty sure Sally wanted to say that in the case of 'cute' (which was what her public talk was about) or 'race' the "should" in "what the concept should be" is not merely instrumental. Again, I'm pretty sure she wanted the parents to have the higher ethical ground in saying 'Crop-tops are not cute on 7th grade girls,' on the grounds that the parents' concept of 'cute' more closely approximated how we should use 'cute.' Why? Because she wants this conceptual analysis -- like her conceptual analyses of race and gender -- to have ethical bite.