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Making Up People

In his article on Making Up People H is tackling a question that he summarizes at the end of the previous essay, on page 98. There he writes, anent Foucault, that the question of whether there are "natural kinds" of things for science to know and study has produced two "straw", that is, exaggeratedly simplified positions on what there is and how we relate to it.
First, "straw realism" is said to argue that there are natural kinds in the world, and that these terms, or language, we use to refer to these "pick out essential properties", that is, things about the kinds that make them be what they are and without which they could not be what they are. For example, moose would a natural kind, as would wombats and perhaps glaciers (personal computers?), and for straw realists the terms we properly use to designate moose instances (‘That is definitely a moose.’) would name things that every single moose has to have in order to be called one. The point is that these hypothetical realists are guided or ‘required’ by the kinds of things that moose are to name, say, heavy shoulders and a certain kind of antlers and even, as a high bid, a certain distinctive DNA pattern when they think about and name the moose.

On the other hand we have the people H calls “straw idealists-cum-nominalists”. “Cum” in this context is the Latin word meaning “with” and is used in this construction to designate Xs—as-well-as Ys”, suggesting that the phils who oppose the hypothetical realists are always both nominalists – people who believe that all that kinds have in common, really, is the fact that we call them all by the same name – and idealists, namely, people who believe that we assign terms or names to things in the world because of an idea or concept we have about that thing.


To call either group ‘straw’ means that these are caricatures, that no real philosopher has such a simple position.


H tells us that he is an “empirical realist”, namely somebody who believes that there really are things in the world and that they are “really existing anterior to any thought.”

And even more, not only are there real things that exist before (and presumably after) we think of them, but in many cases (but importantly by no means for all) we seem to have to sort things as we do; not only must we do so but there seems little compulsion about this. We sort things as we do because that is just how we are made.


But note something terribly important and muy easy to miss: H writes in the middle of this empirical realist paragraph something that completely alters the game: “But something else happens when we engage in reflective discourse.”


OK, we are back, intermittently watching UNC dismember Michigan St. in one of the dreariest championship games on record.

The next thing H writes is that Foucault was interested in how “objects constitute themselves in discourse.” Paired with the previous sentence about “reflective” discourse we begin to get the idea: while many things seem to aggregate themselves without our intervention, and/or in many cases we just seem to put things together in certain ways that agree with the way other people and in a larger context other cultures put things together, this is not always the case and is rarely the case when we name objects as elements in ‘reflective discourse’, that is as items in a self-consciously constructed, end-seeking kind of discourse such as natural science or alchemy or rabbinic commentary on Torah.  Within such constrained discourses, or what H calls “styles of reasoning”, terms “constitute themselves in discourse”, that is acquire meaning and use within the frame of and in terms of a carefully constructive conceptual scheme within which, and nowhere else, they find a place.

So, H is saying that there are two sorts of sentences and two sorts of language – the everyday garden variety of sentences and language that name real things in an uncomplicated way, indicating how such sentences are to be tested and how such terms are to be applied. In this world the straw realist will do fine. But in a parallel world in which objects are in a serious sense created by a certain convention of discourse this realism just won’t do and a form of nominalism-idealism rules, namely, a set of conventions within which objects and their meanings are essentially created by the rules of the talk about them.

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