Social Reality

29 July 2010

Our  topic this week is social realities.  I must admit that when I first brought the nature of social reality up as a topic for an episode of Philosophy Talk, the non-philosophers on our team all went  “huh?”   That phrase obviously doesn’t mean much to the person on the street.  But  social realities are all around us.  Think of cocktail parties, football games, bar mitzvahs, political rallies, and even nations.  These are all social realities.  

 And in connection with this sort of thing both parts of that phrase “social reality” are worth focusing on. All the things I just mentioned are things that really and truly exist.  They aren’t figments of anyone’s imagination; they’re real.  Really real.  Objectively real.   But at the same time, they're all made up entities, at least in a sense.   Cocktail parties exist only because a group of people get together and say “we're having a party now.”  People just sort of decide that these things are going to exist.  And so they do exist.  Seems kind of like magic.

It isn’t really magic,  but it is puzzling.  At bottom, social realities are just creations of the human mind.  Not individual human minds, but collections of human minds.   You can’t all by your little lonesome create a social reality.  Try it and you really will end up with something that’s just a figment of your own imagination.  But put a bunch of people together, let them exercise their imaginations together;  let them agree; and presto,  you’ve got a new social reality. 

What could, I suppose, make that sound a little like magic still is the fact that it takes at least two minds to make a social reality. If one mind can’t do it, why are two or more minds any better, you might ask.  Well the answer is that social realities are, by their very natures,  founded on agreement.   If a bunch of humans agree to create a club, then there is a club.  If a bunch of humans agree to form a nation, then there exists a nation.  And although clubs and nations are nothing but products of human agreement, they're not figments of our imagination.  To be sure they are products of our imaginations, but they’re real products, not mere figments.  Once we agree that they exist, they are  as objectively real as rocks and mountains.

Not only are things like clubs and nations real, they are  really important.  They have a huge impact on our lives.   We’re immersed in a universe of ever changing social realities.  And they play an immense role both in determining how we live and how well we live.   Our earliest forbears foraged on the savannah and huddled in caves. Civilizations have risen and fallen and with them, ways of life have come and gone.  Throughout these massive changes in the social world, the biological and physical worlds have changed too -- but not as radically, and mostly in ways that are more or less direct consequences of changes in the human social world. 

So the social world affects not only the way humans relate to one another, but also how we interact with the rest of the biological and physical world.   Science, for example, is really a complex social undertaking by which humans collectively seek to understand the physical, biological, and even the social world itself.

Now scientific understanding of the social world sounds like a good thing.  But it also sounds a bit like sociology or anthropology or maybe social psychology.  We’re philosophers.  Why should we philosophers worry about the social world?

Well for one thing, we want to understand just how the social world arises out the natural world.  

But wait a minute, you’re about to interject. You started out by saying that social realities are a creation of the human mind.  Doesn’t that suggest that the social world doesn’t arise out of the natural world at all?  In one sense yes; in one sense no.   The sense in which the social world is not part of  unaided nature is obvious.  The social world depends entirely on us humans and not on the blind and impersonal forces of nature.  But ultimately human beings are just parts of the natural world.  So the power of the human mind to create social realities must have its roots in human psychology, which must ultimately have its roots in human biology, which must ultimately have its roots in physics.

 This may sound a little reductionist.  Afterall, I  started out talking about the power of the human mind to create, almost out of nothing, all varieties of new social realities.  And now I seem to be suggesting that it all comes down to the chemical processes of the brain.   It’s definitely got to come from somewhere.   It’s not just magic.  And besides, even animals have some limited power to create social realities.  It would certainly be good to understand just what equips the human mind to build social realities of such a wide variety and just how those human capacities evolv ed from lower level capacities of social animals,

There’s obviously a lot to think about here.  Fortunately for us we had an excellent guest for this episode -- Berkeley’s own John Searle, author of Making the Social World. 

I should say that this program was recorded in front of live audience at the Marsh Theater – this time in Berkeley, California.  As a consequence, you won’t be able to join the conversation on air.   But you can join it here.   

Comments (6)

Guest's picture


Sunday, August 1, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I certainly agree that it takes groups of people t

I certainly agree that it takes groups of people to generate and promote social realities, but I wonder if this doesn't skip too quickly over what forces or influences bring specific social realities to dominance and others that evaporate. It's a massive question, I know that, but I'm curious as to what you think are the primary factors that enable new social realities to rise in spite of the historical situations/forces.

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Monday, August 9, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

The fact that social realities are the result of h

The fact that social realities are the result of human actions does not detract from their reality. Also a gunshot (or the coordinated set of gunshots fired by a firing squad) arise from people's actions, and its consequences are as real as any other event capacle of causing mortal wounds, be it "social" or "natural". Man is part of Nature, and its actions are as 'natural' (and with natural consequences) as the actions of tigers, squirrels or inanimate objects.
Besides, some social realities are the result of deliberate actions such as a cocktail party, while others evolve as the anonymous outcome of countless human beings over many generations (e.g. capitalism). The influence of individuals over such realities varies accordingly.
Human-created realities, either consisting of material things (like the Mona Lisa), ideas (like the theory of relativity), or social arrangements (like as cocktail party), take on a life of themselves once created by humans, and behave like 'things'. A bullet kills as certainly as an earthquake. Separation of Man and Nature is just as artificial (and lacking grounds in science) as separation of Body and Soul.
The existence of a cocktail party would certainly depend on the actions of the participants, but not on the views and actions of other people: if I learn of a recent cocktail party having taken place the other week in Singapore, my possible actions or opinions in New York or Buenos Aires are irrelevant to that event, just as my actions or opinions on the recent Pakistan floods are unable to change it (though I may still act on its consequences). Human actions, once performed, become objective things, something already noted by Hegel (his dinglichkeit concept) and further developed by Marx. Even the (otherwise silly) Da-sein concept of existentialists comes to mind: existence (=reality) is something that "is there", whatever its origin, human or otherwise.
All in all, the article has no point altogether, in my humble opinion.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I define social reality as one's "Extended Face Gr

I define social reality as one's "Extended Face Group." That is people one interacts with on a personal basis or that one might reasonable expect, under the right circumstances, to interact with personally. They are the people we meet at the cocktail party, at the alumni meeting, at church, political rallies, sporting events, etc. We may know only a few people, but we can be assured that anyone we meet will be a potential actual face group member. They all will have similar values, mores, right down to details of manners. The importance of this extended face group is that it constrains almost all of ones actions and determines the moral standards that one lives by. One may be a member of several extended face groups, but generally they will be quite similar. The alumni association will probably strongly influence which political rallies one goes to, where one works and which cocktail parties one is invited to or who one invites to one's party.
Each extended face group starts with family, friends, professional associates, and social associates, but people that are possible attendees at that cocktail party, alumni association meeting, church social, or convention, no matter how far removed: presidents, department heads, archbishops, etc. are affected by and affect the mores of the group.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

This is quite an interesting topic. Though I don't

This is quite an interesting topic. Though I don't really follow you on how it takes multiple people to come up with a social reality. Though I don't have any proof, I feel that one person is able to come up with a social reality.

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Friday, October 1, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I suppose that we may call all of these things soc

I suppose that we may call all of these things social realities, as Mr. Norton has done. They certainly are evidence of our social nature and desire to fit in, prosper and propagate our genes. I consider them as falling under an older heading: ritual. But, of course, even standing rituals change into extended forms. Our views regarding social activities are evidence of that.
The modern phenomenon of cybernetic social networking illustrates this aptly, I think. Once upon a time we were admonished not to talk to strangers. Now, if we do not choose to participate in global friendships, we are viewed as archaic---secretive---anti-social. What a difference popular culture makes? And ad men; marketeers; commerce and the like?

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Sunday, October 3, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Apology: I am sorry I got the name wrong---only no

Apology: I am sorry I got the name wrong---only noticed it today, Mr. Taylor.