Widgets Magazine

On Rosenberg, rationality and real life

I think a lot about social constructs.

Aspects of modern human life such as gender performance, race and economic markets can be and frequently are considered to be social constructs — that is, they are intangible products created by human beings in order to make sense of the world and create a system in which they can live. As “Understanding Society” blogger Daniel Little puts it, “The crux of the issue [of social constructs] is whether social reality is the creation of the men and women who make it up or whether the reality is shaped and created by the conceptual lenses through which the observer frames the social phenomena.” Even though a construction like the division of race has no basis in nature, the construction of race and the collective reinforcement of that construction still prove to have palpable power over an individual’s world. In a 2014 interview with Stephen Colbert, writer Toni Morrison explains that “there is no such thing as race. None. There is just a human race — scientifically, anthropologically. Racism is a construct, a social construct … [but] it has a social function — racism.”

As someone who was neither raised particularly religiously nor particularly stringently, I often struggle with finding purpose and a sense of self at Stanford, particularly as I become more aware of the subjectivity and social construction of “success” (and, to some degree, the very idea of the self). Spoiled as we are by opportunity here on campus, it becomes overwhelming when my academic advisor just recommends “doing whatever works for me,” especially when that’s exactly the question with which I’m grappling.

This kind of frantic aimlessness only exacerbates the FOMO — “fear of missing out” — that permeates student life here, perhaps inevitably produced by being part of such a driven and individualized student body. In my search for meaning, I often turn to literature — to poetry, to novels and to philosophy — in the hope that someone else’s words might explain to me how — when I don’t believe in a divine plan or have an I-knew-what-I-wanted-to-do-with-my-life-since-I-was-four story — I can reconcile decisions like what I should major in and what career I should pursue with a distinct lack of cosmic reassurance that I’m doing anything right.

In reading the naturalist Alex Rosenberg’s paper “Disenchanted Naturalism,” I was quite disappointed with the cynicism I encountered, as if a belief in science and an atheistic perspective must inevitably lead to a directionless, hopeless existence. If we take philosophers like Rosenberg at their word, the ideas of purpose and of the self are, too, in actuality nothing but social constructs. Despite their position as such, however, questions of identity and productivity remain both current and unanswered in the experience of the Everyday Man — or, I suppose, in our cases here at Stanford, the Everyday Student. In particular, those questions about and of the nebulous entity of the Everyday Student’s life cannot be answered by a mere dismissal of them, and that is exactly what Rosenberg’s brand of naturalism does. Rather than offer a solution to the Everyday Student’s search for clarity and meaning, Rosenberg posits that because the Everyday Student will never find that solution, they should stop attempting to do so altogether.

I don’t particularly like that proposal.

For one thing, human beings are not rational creatures, and we don’t always stop (or start) doing something just because we should. For another, the combination of existential and deeply personal questions with which the Everyday Student grapples is unique to them and often the foundation on which we form our identities; we cannot, therefore, just let them float away like a balloon from the hand of a five-year-old. Those questions — just like the construction of race — are no less real just because they have no empirical basis proving their cosmic importance; just because the human brain “doesn’t store or utilize information in anything like the way conscious introspection reports,” as Rosenberg reports, does not mean that the Everyday Student does not still have to manage the reality that those problems create.

Rosenberg argues that once we as human beings realize that we are fundamentally unable to direct our own lives in the manner in which we believe, “we have to recognize that most of our conceptions about ourselves are also illusions.” Like the aforementioned problems a person — in this case, the Everyday Student — creates for themselves, the solutions are also self-invented. In the same vein, though, the solutions we come up with also have value in the real world, both because of and despite being social constructs in and of themselves. Despite my earlier dislike of Rosenberg’s work, I found this bizarrely hopeful. If my problems don’t matter in the grand scheme of the universe, but instead only in the grand scheme of the human society in which I live, then they seem less daunting and more easily managed by my human fallibility.

Our own philosophy — whether that emerges as an everyday mantra, religion or a four-year plan — is the lens through which we understand the subjectivity of our internal reality. Philosopher Barry Stroud, in “The Pursuit of Philosophy,” argues that “not just any thought — even any self-reflective thought about very general aspects of the word that involve or impinge on the lives of human beings — is philosophy,” but I disagree, for what is the processing of our potential and our place in the world but philosophical? Philosophy, I have come to the conclusion, provides neither certainty nor uncertainty, but direction.

The question — for me, at least — is now how we as individuals reconcile a complete lack of naturally occurring direction with the reality of a linear life that does not care about the person living it. I find a kind of freedom in that — a freedom to self-determine, rather than a pressure to self-aggrandize. If that doesn’t quite make sense, a quote from the philosopher Alain Badiou offers a kind of gentle instruction and tentative optimism in a clearer sound bite: “The most profound philosophical concepts tell us something like this: ‘If you want your life to have some meaning, you must accept the event, you must remain at a distance from power, and you must be firm in your decision.’”


Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.