Getting Real About Antirealism
In recent years, social ontology witnessed a new trend emerging, according to which many – if not all – social kinds are not the product of our mind. This realist turn is revolutionary insofar as it takes a break from a dominant tradition that considers social kinds as the constructed categories par excellence. What I set out to argue is that, while this view has the merit of showing that social phenomena do not solely depend on our mental states, this type of realism about social kinds relies on a mistaken argument.
Here is how my work is structured.
First, I draw a distinction between two different types of entity realism, one being about the existence of the entity, and the other one being about the direct mind-independence of the entity. I make clear that I endorse the former type of realism, showing how most social ontologists are actually realist in this sense too. What I want to argue against is the latter sort of realism, since I claim that all social kinds are constructed, not only those towards which our intentionality is clearly oriented, such as legal kinds, but also those that are typically taken to be examples of social kinds that are not constructed, but rather discovered, such as economic recession and racism.
I then proceed to show how the argument typically put forward to maintain that these social categories do not directly depend on our intentionality to exist is that certain phenomena would take place even if we had no clue about their existence and nature: recessions would hit economies regardless of what citizens know about them, and racist acts would be committed even if neither the perpetrator nor the victim is aware of them. I agree that economic recessions had happened long before they were studied by economists, and racist discriminations would take place without anyone’s awareness. However, the argument fails insofar it takes the single instances for the kinds themselves: there is a difference between the way in which we draw the contours of social phenomena by categorizing them and the social phenomena themselves as they take place in the world. Economic recessions or racism are not mere figments of our imagination, but we are the ones who devise and over time bring change to social kinds, which are ultimately a tool, working as a compass to help orienting us around the social world.
Finally, I stress how the fact that we come up with social kinds does not entail that anything goes, since there are both empirical and normative constraints on how we represent the social world, and that makes some categories better instruments than others.