Social Construction and Achieving Reference

Social Construction and Achieving Reference

Volume 51, Issue 1 (March 2017)
pages 113-131
DOI: 10.1111/nous.12107

Ron Mallon, Professor of Philosophy
Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

One influential view is that at least some putatively natural human kinds are actually social constructions, understood as some real kind of thing that is produced or sustained by our social and conceptual practices. Category constructionists share two commitments: they hold that human category terms like “race” (and racial terms) and “sex” (and sexual terms) and “homosexuality” and “perversion” actually refer to constructed categories, and they hold that these categories are widely but mistakenly taken to be natural kinds. But it is far from clear that these two commitments are consistent. The sort of mismatch between belief and underlying nature constructionists’ suppose is often taken to indicate a failure of reference. Reliance on a causal-historical account of reference allows the preservation of reference, but unfortunately, constructionists’ appropriation of causal historical accounts of reference is beset by difficulties that do not attend natural kind theorists’ appeals to such accounts. Here, I set out these difficulties, but argue that they can be answered, allowing terms for apparently natural human kinds refer to some sort of social construction about which there is massive error.

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