Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Berger and Luckmann on conceptual relativism

image: The Bargeman, Fernand L├ęger (link)

In their The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge Berger and Luckmann are interested in the ways that human beings cognitively represent the events, structures, and behaviors of "everyday life." They want to shed light on the cognitive frames in terms of which people organize the social world that confronts them. How variable and different are these frames? What do Berger and Luckmann have to say about them?  And what is "everyday life"? Here is their definition:
Everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world. (19)
And they suggest repeatedly that the belief systems we form about everyday life are relative to our own needs and social experiences:
What is 'real' to a Tibetan monk may not be 'real' to an American businessman. The 'knowledge' of the criminal differs from the 'knowledge' of the criminologist. (2)
We can construe these points about the differences that exist between the Tibetan monk and the businessman in very different ways. First, we might take the point to mean simply that the domain of knowledge is different for these distinct socially located "knowers", which is really a point about relativity of knowledge to cognitive interest. Or more radically, we might take it to mean that these differently situated human beings conceptualize the same topics very differently -- which is a more radical point about relativity to incomparable conceptual systems.

The first point is a pragmatist one about the role that "interests" play in the construction of our knowledge about something; the surgeon has a different body of knowledge about the spine than the physical therapist does. The second point is a much deeper kind of relativism. It starts with the Kantian point that we need a conceptual system in order to organize any body of empirical experience; but it then proceeds to a sort of post-Kantian observation that there are alternative conceptual systems that would do the job equally well. (This is a bit similar to the discovery by Poincare of the logical consistency of non-Euclidean geometries.)

B-L explicitly make the point about the "pragmatic" conditions on a given person's body of knowledge about the everyday world:
Since everyday life is dominated by the pragmatic motive, recipe knowledge, that is, knowledge limited to pragmatic competence in routine performances, occupies a prominent place in the social stock of knowledge. (41)
And later:
My knowledge of everyday life is structured in terms of relevances. Some of these are determined by immediate pragmatic interests of mine, others by my general situation in society. (44)
So which interpretation do Berger and Luckmann have in mind? I think there is evidence supporting both views: that different knowledge communities have different systems of factual beliefs and presuppositions; and that different knowledge communities may also sometimes have "grammatical and conceptual" differences that lead them to organize the social world differently.

Start with the "different beliefs" view. The points noted above about the pragmatic focus of our everyday knowledge are certainly an expression of a "different beliefs" view.  But B-L offer more theoretical considerations as well.  For example, they make use of a term that is not familiar in the philosophy of mind or language, the idea of "typification."
I apprehend the other by means of typificatory schemes even in the face-to-face situation, although these schemes are more "vulnerable" to [the other's] interference than in "remoter" forms of interaction…. I apprehend the other as "a man," "a European," "a buyer, "a jovial type," and so on. All these typifications longingly affect my interaction with me, as, say, I decide to show him a good time on the town before trying to sell him my product. Our face-to-face interaction will be patterned by these typifications as long as they do not become problematic through interference on his part. (30)
So what are these "typificatory schemes"? It seems to have to do with singling out a set of traits or behavioral patterns as "typical" of something. Here is what they say about "typification" a few pages later:
Language also typifies experiences, allowing me to subsume them under broad categories in terms of which they have meaning not only to myself but also to my fellowmen. As it typifies, it also anonymizes experiences, for the typified experience can, in principle, be duplicated by anyone falling into the category in question. (38)
It appears that typifications are bundles of beliefs or presuppositions, adding up to stereotyped expectations about the other -- what his/her preferences, style, or behavior are likely to be. In other words, these are stereotypes that can be bundled together to provide a basis for anticipating the behavior and thoughts of the other.

But it seems to me that what they are referring to here are not alternative conceptual frameworks, as represented by Davidson or Whorf, but rather different sets of stereotyped beliefs or rules of thumb. "When dealing with a European be sure to comment on the quality of the wine;" "when dealing with an Englishman don't laugh too loud;" etc. So far I don't see a basis for thinking that there are fundamental differences at the level of the concepts we use to analyze the social world, but rather differences in the presuppositions or stereotypes that we carry that are assembled out of those concepts.

This point about "typification," then, seems to have to do with a stock of common beliefs that one sub-culture shares and that others do not. Canadian stereotypes about "bankers" may include a different set of stereotyped beliefs than English stereotypes do; or in B-L's terms, Canadians typify bankers differently than English people do.

But here is a basis for a "conceptual relativist" possibility as well. B-L provide some specific set of ideas about how we use language to "parse" our everyday social world:
Language builds up semantic fields or zones of meaning that are linguistically circumscribed. Vocabulary, grammar and syntax are geared to the organization of these semantic fields. Thus language builds up classification schemes to differentiate objects by "gender" (a quite different matter from sex, of course) or by number; forms to make statements of action as against statements of being; modes of indicating degrees of social intimacy, and so on. …
Or, to take another example, the sum of linguistic objectifications pertaining to my occupation constitutes another semantic field, which meaningfully orders all the routine events I encounter in my daily work. Within the semantic fields thus built up it is possible for both biographical and historical experience to be objectified, retained, and accumulated. (40)
Here they are talking about grammar and vocabulary, or in other words, the basic structure of language.  And here we can see the possibility of substantial differences across linguistic/cultural communities.

Take the vocabulary point first.  The wine connoisseur has a wide range of terms he/she can use to characterize the taste and consistency of the wine; whereas the weekend consumer has only a few terms ("sweet", "dry", "makes me sneeze").  And this implies that the wine connoisseur experiences the wine differently as well; by making discriminations, we refine experience.  So discrimination through a more specialized vocabulary differs across linguistic communities; and this suggests a very basic kind of conceptual relativism.  We can also see how to apply this point to social perception: the satirist and the mimic have an ability to discern and verbalize the subtle behaviors of ordinary people that most of us lack.

The grammatical point also seems important.  If one grammar permits its users to express "action" or "being" differently from another linguistic community, this suggests as well a difference in the way that the two groups perceive and represent the world.  This point too can be illustrated in our ability to represent and cognize the everyday social world; it may be that the Russian language represents comic or heroic behaviors differently than the Chinese language.

What might count as a major difference in conceptual schemes when it comes to conceptualizing one's own society? Geertz offers one example in his treatment of Bali in Local Knowledge; he asserts that the western concept of the "unified self" does not play a role in Balinese ideas about actors and situations. If this is born out, it serves as a good example of a very basic conceptual difference in the ordinary conceptual frames used by Europeans and Balinese in analyzing ordinary human action.

There is one more aspect of B-L's view here that I find interesting.  It is the idea that knowledge is "socially distributed" (45) -- that one person has only limited knowledge of most subjects and depends on the more expert knowledge of others to guide much of his/her actions and choices.  This idea is very similar to a view of meaning that Hilary Putnam developed several decades later in "The Meaning of 'Meaning'" (link). On this view, our knowledge, and even perhaps our conceptual schemes, are not entirely "in our heads", but are socially distributed across a society of experts and knowers.

On the whole, I think that Berger and Luckmann are generally thinking about the topicality and interest-ladenness of bodies of ordinary knowledge, not the more fundamental point about conceptual relativism.  Theirs is a pragmatist's theory of everyday knowledge, not so much a relativist's theory.  And this may help to explain the comments that Berger makes about Foucault and Derrida in Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore.  He wants to sharply distinguish his views (and those of Luckmann) from what he perceives to be the extreme relativism of postmodernism.
Our concept of the social construction of reality in no way implies that there are no facts. Of course there are physical facts to be determined empirically, from the fact that a particular massacre took place to the fact that someone stole my car. But the very concept of objectivation implies that there are social facts as well, with a robust reality that can be discovered regardless of our wishes.... Reality indeed is always interpreted, and power interests are sometimes involved in some interpretations. But not all interpretations are equal. If they were, any scientific enterprise, not to mention any medical diagnosis or police investigation, would be impossible. As to the most radical formulation of this "post-modernism"--that nothing really exists but the various "narratives"--this corresponds very neatly with a definition of schizophrenia, when one can no longer distinguish between reality and one's fantasies. (94-95)