Thursday, 14 August 2014

On Constructing Reality

We've all heard it. We've maybe even said it. "But that's a cultural/linguistic/etc. construction!" Typically this is said as if it means a darn thing. The interesting reality is that more often than not it doesn't. See, it goes without saying that if we're dealing with a cultural or linguistic phenomenon that we are dealing with something constructed. The fact of constructiveness is not the issue. The issue is two-fold: how did the construction come about, and does this particular construction apprehend the real.

The first question is of course quite interesting, but not my primary interest here. All I will say on the matter is that too often it is assumed that the first issue necessarily lies allow the path to addressing the second question, that before one can know whether a particular construction apprehends the real one must first know how the construction came about. This is simply to commit the genetic fallacy. In point of fact a proposition is true or false independent of the processes that generated it, and constructions are no different. The interesting thing is that whilst one can discover processes that maximize the likelihood of generating constructions that apprehend the real--and critical realism is calculated precisely to be such a process--it does not follow that a construction generated absent such processes will be invariably false. Again, though, that is simply to state that the genetic fallacy is indeed fallacious.

The second question is my interest here. More specifically, I want to ask a general question: can any construction ever apprehend the real? There are two possible answers to this question: yes and no. Let us begin with "No." Let us suppose that constructions, by their very constructedness, cannot apprehend the real. There are two responses to this supposition. The first is that of the empiricist. She or he rightly realizes that one can apprehend the real, and concludes therefore that since constructions cannot do so then any apprehension of the real must occur absent construction. Thus she or he seeks direct, unmediated, knowledge of, for instance, the historical event under discussion. What follows from this are procedures such as the criteria, which seek to separate the unconstructed in the gospels from the constructed (typically called by such rubrics as "traditional" or "redacted," respectively, or "authentic" or "inauthentic," or "history" and "theology"; this is the hoary yet tired Jesus of history vs. Christ of faith distinction). The difficulty, as scholars such as Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, and Rafael Rodriguez have recently been urging, is that the gospels are already constructions of the early Christian communities, and moreover any effort to understand the gospels is a work of construction. By their very work of constructing arguments that they believe to apprehend the real they operate on the implicit supposition that constructions can apprehend the real.

The second response to the supposition that the constructed cannot apprehend the real is that of the idealist. She or he rightly realizes that the gospels are all constructed, and even more that our own understanding of Jesus is constructed. Therefore, she or he concludes, one cannot know anything about the historical Jesus. Such persons go about showing all the difficulty entailed in making judgments. They are quite impressed by the unreliability of memory. They cavil endlessly about words and their usage, for in the end words are all they have. The whole time they ignore that if all is constructed and if their words apprehend the reality that constructions cannot apprehend the real then in point of fact constructions can apprehend the real, thus obviating the very premise of their idealism. Like the empiricist they operate on the implicit supposition that constructions can apprehend the real.

If the empiricist and the idealist operate on yet deny the supposition that constructions can apprehend the real the critical realist both operates on and affirms said supposition. With greater clarity as to how we go about knowing the world the critical realist is able to better reflect on the processes of knowledge generation. Thus she or he is able to better cultivate the skills that will increase the likelihood of generating constructions that apprehend the real. Unhindered by the absurdities of either the empiricist or the idealist she or he can simply get on with the work of doing history.

What is exciting about current developments in historical Jesus studies is that, whilst in the past we have vacillated between empiricism and idealism, we seem to be moving into a era that operates functionally on the critical realist's affirmation that constructions are both ubiquitous and capable of apprehending the real. Such an affirmation is necessary for the work of history, and perhaps, just perhaps, collectively we are finally at a place where we can begin such work.

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