Social facts

Many philosophers make a distinction between natural and social. What is natural is given to us by nature or reality. What is social is somehow created by us, humans, albeit often through massively complicated and impersonal processes. In particular, philosophers speak of natural facts and social facts. Natural facts are facts that “carve nature at its joints.” Or, to paraphrase the more careful language of the most sympathetic treatment of this that I remember from grad school, natural facts are statements made in the vocabulary and in conformity with our current best scientific theories of how things work. So, we talk about electrons, protons, quarks, neutrinos, and (maybe) Higgs bosons, and the existence of electrons is a natural fact. Whereas social facts are all the other stuff: who is the boss of whom, who is which race (since “race” is not a biological category in our best scientific theories, unlike, say, “species), what kinds of things are beautiful or valuable.

Note that, in this scheme, social is not the same as fictional or not-real. Money is a good example. The value of a dollar is a social fact, but it’s constituted in a really complex way, and simply by saying that it’s a social fact you’re not saying that a dollar isn’t worth what it’s worth, that it’s made up or a fever dream or a phantasm. You’re merely pointing out that lots and lots of people are enmeshed in a complex set of practices, one of the results of which is that a dollar has such-and-such value.

Also, note that “natural” facts can change, and “social” facts can seem immutable. Our best scientific theories are constantly changing, sometimes drastically. Apparently, plate tectonics wasn’t widely accepted as a theory in its modern form until after some of our readers were born. Meanwhile, the value of currency has of course fluctuated over the years, but it seems like we’ve been accepting pieces of metal and specially printed pieces of paper in exchange for stuff for a very long time. (If you want to distinguish between “fiat currency” and the gold standard, my happy Paulites, don’t bother: gold-backed paper currency merely replaces one social fact (that this note is worth $1) with a slightly more baroque one (that, in theory, the U.S. government will give you $1 worth of this particular metal we call gold in exchange for this note).

Still, the very notion of social facts makes a lot of people nervous. If much (if not all) of what we believe is socially constituted, what are we trusting when we rely on some fact, other than ourselves? I think that’s a perfectly fine question, and for many reasons I’d say “nothing; just ourselves.” That is, I don’t think the distinction between natural and social really holds up, although it’s useful in some contexts. Furthermore, if at least some (not to say all) facts are social, there’s a very real sense in which those social facts are easier to change than natural facts. If we could all agree that a particular currency isn’t worth what it’s previously been worth, it wouldn’t be — and, in fact, that happens regularly when currency speculators decide that the drachma, or whatever, isn’t worth nearly what they paid for it yesterday. Or, to put it more broadly and more hopefully: We’re all part of the system; that means we can change the system.

This bothers a lot of people. The people it bothers tend to be people who are especially committed to a certain lack of mutation in the social order: either they’re doing well by the current order, or they simply get a psychological bonus from being able to put the possibility of change out of their minds. Both groups of people are, as a matter of social fact, properly called conservatives. And there’s a powerful set of rhetorical moves that conservatives deploy to deny that this or that fact is a social fact, since conservatives tend to prefer not to think of facts as mutable and at the very least prefer that most people not think of facts as mutable (since otherwise people might get uppity). So conservatives try to naturalize social facts by, for example, claiming that there’s a thing called the “free market” that, whaddya know, just makes some people poor and others filthy rich. Or that men are like this and women are like that, and if you say otherwise you’re living in a dream world. Don’t bother trying to change it; it’s just human nature.

All this is just a long-winded prologue to wishing you a Happy Christmas. The de-naturalizing that Yoko Ono manages with this graphic reminds me of a few conservative patriarchs of my youth being especially vitriolic about her and John. And rightly so: Once people catch on that so many unacceptable parts of our world could change if we collectively decided to change them, all sorts of dangerous desires might break loose.

7 responses to “Social facts”

  1. lane says:

    12-8-11… imagine.

  2. lane says:

    International Imagine Day… a true festivus for the rest of us. Another December holiday for people that would rather celebrate “John” the true beloved, rather then jesus.

    “Brothers and Sisters, I am SO grateful that John came to earth and was abandoned by his mother and father and found salvation in Rock and Roll. That he went with his buddies to Hamburg and mastered that act of live performance. That he hunkered down in swinging London, yeah verily even created Swinging London, and mastered the art of studio recording. I am SO GRATEFUL for NBC, John Kennedy and Ed Sullivan for launching his voice over our blessed land. And I pray that one day, John’s vision will hold sway in our democracy. That one day all it’s citizens will come to realize that The Beatles truly are bigger than jesus.”

    In the name of George Harrison I pray. Amen.

    (And you know, my ultra-fashionable hair salon is in the basement Paul McCartney’s mid-town brownstone! True story… I love my hair cut…. it brings me joy.)

  3. ScottyGee says:

    It’s my understanding that there are some lab-coaters who have “discovered” that there is a gene for criminality. When I first heard about this one, I had one of those Moesha-radio-commercial moments when character A says something, and character B responds, then there’s the sound of a stylus being dragged across a record, a pause, then the punchline.

    Seriously, this “natural fact” may have some SERIOUS “social” ramifications..

    Here’s an article:

    Happy Christmas to you too.

  4. Tim says:

    I wonder if anyone has ever received grant money to study whether there’s something genetic that produces corporate criminals. It doesn’t seem likely.

  5. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Regarding a small point in comment 3:

    (the article I found googling this up asks the question: do kids even know what this sound is supposed to represent?)

  6. Dave says:

    Wow, Lane, I honestly had no idea of the date thing until your comment. Weird.

  7. lane says:

    wow, THAT is weird. Duchampian even… the spinning wheel, the croupier, the marble, the red and the black…