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A Devitt-Proof Constructivism.


Michael Devitt's (1984) argues vehemently in favor of Realism and against Constructivism. Many contemporary philosophers share Devitt's sentiments. I'll argue that a distinction needs to be drawn between the 20th century global Constructivism favored by Goodman and Putman and the 21st century local Constructivism favored by Einheuser, Goswick, and Sidelle. In particular, I'll argue that although the objections Devitt (and Realists, in general) raise against Constructivism apply to global Constructivism, they do not apply to local Constructivism. (1)

The central differences between global Constructivism and local Constructivism concern motivation and scope. Global Constructivists are motivated by global epistemic and semantic worries to endorse a Constructivism which applies to all of reality we have access to. Local Constructivists are motivated by local metaphysical worries concerning modality to endorse a Constructivism which applies only to the part of reality affected by the particular metaphysical worry, e.g. to objects having "deep" modal properties. Global Constructivism and local Constructivism differ, also, with regard to scope. Since global Constructivists think all of reality we have access to is constructed, the only non-constructed entity they can endorse is something akin to Kant's noumena. No such restriction applies to local Constructivists. Local constructivists can, and, in fact, do, endorse non-constructed entities which humans have access to and which they can use as known "ingredients" in their constructing. As we'll see below, this difference in Realist base between global Constructivism (noumena only) and local Constructivism (a richer physical base which is independent of subjects and which we have some knowledge of) is crucial to the local Constructivists' avoidance of Devitt's criticisms.

A Devitt-Proof Constructivism

Devitt defines Constructivism thusly:
[Global] Constructivism: [1--noumenal clause] The only independent
reality is beyond the reach of our knowledge and language.
[2--conceptual clause] A known world is partly constructed by the
imposition of concepts. [3--relativism clause] These concepts differ
from (linguistic, social, scientific, etc.) group to group, and hence
the worlds of groups differ. Each such world exists only relative to
an imposition of concepts (1984: 235).

Local Constructivists define Constructivism slightly differently:
Local Constructivism: [1*--access clause] Some of independent
reality is within the reach of our knowledge and language.
[2*--response-dependence clause] Ordinary objects are
response-dependent. They depend, for their existence, on responses
subjects have to parts of the (subject-independent) world. (2)

Local Constructivism is close enough to original constructivism to still raise Devitt's ire. After all, it's clause 2 he takes to be definitive of Constructivism and clause 2* retains the constructivist flavor of clause 2.

Devitt gives seven main criticisms of (global) Constructivism:

1. Constructivism violates the "metaphysics first" principle.

2. Constructivists endorse the wrong kind of dependence of world on subject/theory.

3. Constructivism places no genuine constraints on subjects' constructing.

4. Constructivism is untenable.

5. Constructivism falls prey to the naturalistic objection.

6. Constructivism is crazy.

7. Constructivists blurs the distinction between theory and world.

I'll explain why Devitt takes these criticisms to apply to (global) Constructivism and argue that they don't apply to local Constructivism.

Criticism 1: Constructivists don't put metaphysics first. A central tenet of Realism and Truth is that Realists have gone about defending Realism the wrong way. In particular, Realists should sharply distinguish between metaphysics, epistemology, and semantics, and should insist the metaphysical issues be settled prior to epistemic or semantic issues (1984: 4). Devitt argues that the central motivation for endorsing Constructivism is epistemic or semantic worries about Realism and, thus, that Constructivists are guilty of not putting metaphysics first (1984: 236). This criticism doesn't apply to local Constructivism. Local Constructivists agree that metaphysics should come first. Their motivation for endorsing Constructivism is metaphysical--namely, they think it provides the best solution to the modal grounding problem.

Criticism 2: Constructivists advocate the wrong kind of dependence. Devitt isn't opposed to dependence per se. After all, he argues that "any amount of causal interference" is permitted (1984: 247) and he doesn't take the way tools or colored things depends on us to be incompatible with Realism (1984: 248 & 254). His concern, rather, is that Constructivists advocate the wrong kind of dependence: "According to the Constructivist, an entity gets its nature from the way we think about it. No amount of thinking about something as, say, a hammer is enough to make it a hammer.... The way we make tools is not the way Constructivists make worlds" (1984: 248).

The way we make ordinary objects (given local Constructivism) has more in common with the way we make tools (on Devitt's view) than it does with the way global Constructivists make worlds. Local Constructivists agree that no amount of (mere) thinking about something as a hammer can make it a hammer. A prerequisite to there being a hammer is that a bit of the world be hammer-apt and we have nothing to do with whether a bit of the world is hammer-apt.

A further complaint Devitt raises against the way Constructivists' objects depend on subjects is that, "[A]ccording to Constructivism, if there had been no people, there would have been no stars or dinosaurs" (1984: 252). Local Constructivists agree with global Constructivists that "if there had been no people, there would have been no stars or dinosaurs," so--at first blush--this worry appears to apply to local Constructivism. Devitt, however, goes on to say, "According to the Lockean [about secondary properties], if there had been no people, there would still have been red things; there would still have been things that would cause people to sense redly" (252). Devitt's complaint seems to be that the Constructivist doesn't attribute enough structure to the world--whether there's a bit of the world which is e.g. dinosaur-shaped, stands in evolutionary line, and roars loudly--surely doesn't depend on us, reasons Devitt. Whereas the Lockean dependence Devitt finds acceptable recognizes--unlike the Constructivist--that, even if there were no people, "there would still have been things that would cause people to sense redly" or to use the dinosaur example, "there would still have been things that would cause people to respond dinosaurly." Local Constructivism captures this. For the response-dependent theorist, whether there's a bit of the world which is dinosaur-apt has nothing to do with whether there are any people. Devitt assumes that if there are things which are apt to cause people to sense redly, there are red things. Or, to use the dinosaur example, if there is stuff which is apt to cause people to respond dinosaurly, there are dinosaurs. Local Constructivists deny this assumption. Devitt never argues for this assumption. He assumes that, by claiming dinosaurs depend on people, the Constructivist is committed to the claim that whether or not a bit of the world is dinosaurapt depends on people, and he takes this later claim to be ridiculous. I agree. But local Constructivism isn't committed to this later claim.

Criticism 3: Constructivists fail to place genuine and explicable constraints on their construction. Constructivists are committed only to Realism about the noumenal world. Since we have no access to the noumenal world, it cannot place genuine and explicable constraints on our construction: "To say that our construction is constrained by something beyond reach of knowledge or reference is whistling in the dark" (1984: 230). The local Constructivist agrees. A viable Constructivism must place genuine and explicable constraints on construction and a mere commitment to Realism about the noumenal world cannot do this. The Constructivist must be committed to more. She should be committed to stuff. Stuff differs from Kant's noumena in that we have empirical access to it. We can touch stuff, toss stuff, and place stuff under a microscope to examine it in more detail. Of tools and redness, Devitt notes: "The independent world has a real role in making red things, not its pseudo-role in making Constructivist entities" (1984: 253), and "[Tools depend on the world in that] neither designing something to hammer nor using it to hammer is sufficient to make it a hammer.... [O]nly things of certain physical types can be hammers" (1984: 248-249). Local constructivists' ordinary objects meet both these constraints. The independent world has a real role in e.g. making tables. There can only be a table if a bit of the independent world is table-apt. Likewise ordinary objects, such as tables, depend on the world in that neither designing something to be a table nor using it as a table is sufficient to make it a table; only bits of stuff which are of the right physical type (i.e. which are table-apt) can, when subjects have the table-response to them, come to form a table. Given that (i) the constraints local Constructivism places on constructed objects are akin to the constraints Devitt places on tool-making and Locke places on redness, and (ii) Devitt takes the existence of tools and red things to be genuinely and explicably constrained by an independent world, he should take local Constructivism's constructed objects to be genuinely and explicably constrained by an independent world.

Criticism 4: Constructivists endorse global Constructivism, which--unlike local response-dependence--is untenable:
I have demonstrated that red things, though partly dependent for their
redness on us, are not [global] Constructivist. Why then does this not
carry over when we generalize? Because that demonstration [of the
nature of redness] was against a Realist backdrop, a world of stones,
trees, cats, and so on that was quite independent of our judgements.
The background supplied the crucial contrast between the way red
things and Constructivist entities depended on an independent world.
The way red things depended on that world for their redness was a
causal relation open to any amount of scientific investigation. So
talk of this dependence yielded a genuine explanation of constraints
on our thinking and hence on our world-making.... A little bit of
worldmaking is alright against a backdrop of a world that we did not
make and that influences our little effort (1984: 254-255).

I agree that global Constructivism is untenable. What I hope to show here is that not all Constructivism is global. Local Constructivism takes place against a Realist backdrop of stuff. Given local Constructivism, the way in which ordinary objects depend on the world for their existence is a causal relation open to any amount of scientific investigation. Just as it's the surface-reluctant properties of stuff combined with our visual system that causes us to see redly, it's the nonmodal properties of stuff combined with our practices of individuation that causes us to respond dinosaurly. Our practices of individuation are as amenable to scientific investigation as are our visual systems.

Criticism 5: Constructivism falls prey to Devitt's Naturalistic argument (2010: 122), viz. if we naturalize metaphysics:
philosophy becomes continuous with science. And the troubling
[skeptical] speculations [against Realism] have no special status: they
are simply some among many empirical hypotheses about the world we
live in. As such, they do not compare in evidential support with
Realism. Experience has taught us a great deal about the world of
stones, cats, and muons but rather little about how we know about and
refer to this world. So epistemology and semantics are just the wrong
places to start the argument (2010: 110).

The local Constructivist agrees with Devitt that we should put metaphysics first and that experience "has taught us a great deal about the world of stones, cats, and muons." The local Constructivist, however, thinks that experience has taught us slightly less about stones, cats, and muons than Devitt thinks it has. They think empirical experience of the subject-independent world teaches us all about the nonmodal properties of stones, cats, and muons. They don't think it teaches us anything about the modal properties of stones, cats, and muons, because they don't think the subject-independent world contains any modality. They think this precisely on the naturalistic grounds Devitt advocates. If it's not part of science, it shouldn't be part of metaphysics. Nothing in our best science requires modality, so neither should our metaphysics. There is no argument from Naturalism against local Constructivism. The debate between the Realist and the local Constructivist is a debate between two Naturalists over how much structure the subject-independent world contains and, in particular, over whether it contains modal structure.

Criticism 6: Constructivism is crazy. Devitt writes,
Worse still, if that is possible, is the idea that we make the known
world of stones, trees, cats, and the like with our concepts.... How
could cookie cutters in the head literally carve out cookies in dough
that is outside the head? How could dinosaurs and stars be dependent
on the activities of our minds? It would be crazy to claim that there
were no dinosaurs or stars before there were people to think about
them" (1984: 238).

Dinosaurs and stars depend on our minds (or, more accurately, on our responses, both cognitive and behavioral) because dinosaurs and stars are more complex that just some physical stuff. Dinosaurs and stars are modal objects: Dinosaurs are necessarily animals; stars are necessarily massive enough to sustain nuclear fusion at their core. It's not crazy to claim there were no dinosaurs or stars before there were subjects to respond to dinosaur-apt bits of the world or star-apt bits of the world because it's not crazy to claim the (subject-independent) world lacks (non-trivial) modal structure. It would be crazy (or, at least, crazier) to claim that, before there were people, no bits of the world were dinosaur-apt or star-apt. But the local Constructivist does not claim this.

Criticism 7: Constructivists "blur the crucial distinction between theories of the world and the world itself. This is no accident: such plausibility as Constructivism has depends on the blurring" (1984: 241). Local constructivism need not, and should not, blur the distinction between theories and world. What the world is like is one thing. What our theories say the world is like is another thing. If our theories are good, they will more or less reflect what the world is like. But a theory's saying so-and-so is the case certainly doesn't make so-and-so the case. The plausibility of local Constructivism doesn't depend on blurring the distinction between theory and world. It depends on (i) the nature of ordinary objects--in particular, on whether ordinary objects are modal objects, and (ii) on whether (non-trivial) modality is primitive and, if it isn't, on whether there's a satisfactory non-Constructivist account of modal grounding.

At the beginning of Realism and Truth, Devitt gives several maxims which Realists ought to follow. We can, in similar spirit, give several maxims which the Constructivist ought to follow:

Maxims for a Sane Constructivism

1. Put Metaphysics First

2. Have the Right Kind of Dependence

3. Have Genuine and Explicable Constraints on Construction

4. Endorse Local, Rather than Global, Constructivism

5. Be Immune to Devitt's Naturalistic Argument Against Constructivism

6. Avoid Crazy Views

7. Respect the Difference between Theory and World.

The Constructivist who follows these maxims will endorse a Constructivism which is immune to Devitt's criticisms.


I'm sympathetic to the following criticism: You've been a bit unfair to Devitt. He's criticizing one view (global Constructivism) and you're defending another view (local Constructivism). Arguing that Devitt's criticisms don't apply to local Constructivism does nothing to support the global Constructivism that's their target and, hence, does nothing to undermine Devitt's original criticisms. I agree with (most of) Devitt's criticisms when they're taken as criticisms of global Constructivism. My complaint is that Realists have too often presented the playing field as if the choice is between global Constructivism and Realism. (3) There's a middle view--local Constructivism--which has too frequently been overlooked. It's been overlooked, in part, because people lump it together with global Constructivism and think the same criticisms apply. My central aim in this paper has been to show that they do not.

Does local Constructivism have enough in common with global Constructivism to deserve the name "Constructivism"? Points of similarity are: (a) Local Constructivism's clause 2*, which says that ordinary objects depend for their existence on responses subjects have to parts of the (subject-independent) world, is relevantly similar to global Constructivism's clause 2, which says that the known world is partly constructed by the imposition of concepts. (b) A shared stance that making things isn't limited to physically manipulating the world with one's hands. (c) A shared rejection of the Realist view that ordinary objects objectively exist independently of the mental. Points of difference are: (a') Local constructivists reject the noumenal (clause 1 of global Constructivism). (b') Local constructivists reject relativism (clause 3 of global Constructivism). (c') Local Constructivists talk of making parts of worlds (i.e. of making objects), not of making (entire) worlds, i.e. their view if local rather than global. (d') The paradigm Constructivist talks about making via linguistic conventions. The local Constructivists focus is more behavioral and less conscious. Local constructivists talk about making via responses to independent stuff.

Whether local Constructivism is close-enough to global Constructivism to deserve the name "Constructivism" is, ultimately, not that important. What matters is not what we call the view, but what the view advocates. And, in particular, that it traces a middle ground between (global) Constructivism and Realism.

Author Contributions

The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and approved it for publication.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


(1.) Since the distinction between global and local Constructivism has not yet been made in the literature, Realists have not yet commented specifically on whether their arguments against Constructivism apply to local Constructivism. In what follows, I do not mean to imply that Realists have drawn the distinction between global and local Constructivism and claimed their arguments apply to both. My aim, rather, is to show that, once this distinction is drawn, it's clear that many of the arguments Realists give only apply to global Constructivism.

(2.) Although the details of their views differ, local Constructivists all share a commitment to Realism about "stuff' (roughly entities lacking problematic modality) and a commitment to the idea that subjects play an important role in constructing ordinary objects (which have rich modal profiles) from stuff. Einhesuer (2009) describes her view thusly: "[According to] ontological conceptualism. concepts like statue and piece of alloy impose persistence criteria on portions of material stuff and thereby 'configure' objects.... Our concept statue is associated with one set of persistence criteria. Applied to a suitable portion of stuff, the concept statue configures an object governed by these criteria" (302). Goswick (2017) writes, "The world contains bits of rock-apt stuff. If a subject has the rock-response to a bit of rock-apt stuff, then an ordinary object--a rock--comes into existence" (18). Sidelle (1989) argues, "There is no chair to which we are pointing when we introduce 'Ralph'--there is, as I like to say, 'stuff.' And approaching this [chair-like] stuff with a chair term, we can then determine an origin for [the chair] Ralph by seeing, roughly, when this stuff started to be 'chairish'" (54-55).

(3.) See, e.g. Bennett (2004), Devitt (2006), Searle (1995), Sider (2011).


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Goswick, D. (2018). "Are Modal Facts Brute Facts?" in E. Vintiadis and C. Mekios (eds.), Brutal Facts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 97-112.

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Sidelle, A. (1989). Necessity, Essence, and Individuation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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Dana Goswick

The University of Melbourne, Australia

Received 26 January 2018 * Received in revised form 20 February 2018

Accepted 20 February 2018 * Available online 10 March 2018

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Title Annotation:Michael Devitt
Author:Goswick, Dana
Publication:Analysis and Metaphysics
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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