Social Constructionism (7): Knowledge and Understanding are Historically and Culturally Relative
Reformed Free Publishing Association
The second characteristic of social constructionism is that human knowledge and understanding are historically and culturally relative. Relative here is best understood by examining the differences between relativism and realism.
Realism asserts that there is a world—a cosmos—that exists independent from our representations of it. For example, we may go to an art dealer and purchase a $1,000 oil painting of Mount Everest, but that painting is only a representation of reality. The reality, of course, is Mount Everest itself.
Relativism, however, asserts that even if the reality of Mount Everest exists, that reality is not accessible to us and all we have is our own individual representation of Mount Everest. Just like each painter will paint Mount Everest slightly different from another, so, too, we all understand Mount Everest differently because we perceive it differently. Since the reality is inaccessible to us, we have nothing to judge our representations against. Hence, the relativist concludes, each person’s representation of reality is equally valid.
Let’s replace Mount Everest, which is a physical reality, with a concept, which is metaphysical. I’ll use the concept murder. The realist will argue that the concept of murder has a definite body of understanding. For realists, concrete and enduring definitions are very important. A realist will likely turn to a reputable dictionary as a first step in their task of knowing and understanding this concept.
Not so for the relativist. The concept of murder, even if there was a definite understanding of it, it wouldn’t be accessible to us. The dictionary is no good, unless you use it alongside a multitude of other sources and experiences. Because what is real about murder is inaccessible to us, each person only has their own distinct understanding of murder. The child who grew up in the Bronx and watched his father savagely killed by gang members will have an understanding of murder that is different from the child growing up in Hudsonville, Michigan who only understands murder through secondary sources. Different, still, will be the child growing up in Syria who is being trained by ISIS members to kill their enemies or has even taken part in the killing itself.
I understand these examples are quite divergent. I chose these examples to make a point. But the social constructivist argues that every person’s understanding will be different from the next because we all have different experiences and perceptions. Even among children growing up in Hudsonville, there will be slightly different understandings of murder among each of them.
According to the social constructivist, however, these minute differences can widen especially when examined in context of history and culture. The knowledge and understanding of fatherhood varies dramatically across the ages and the continents. What Americans collectively understood as father in 1940 is different from what Americans collectively understand it today.
This is what is to be understood when social constructivists claim knowledge and understanding are culturally and historically relative.
I challenge this position. Although we do see changes in societies’ understanding of certain concepts over time and culture, I do not agree with the social constructivist when he claims that this is a legitimate or valid change or that such a change produces an equally valid product. The social constructivist embraces these changes and points to them as proof of relativisms merits as being a legitimate form of understanding the world. I argue that the changes in societies’ knowledge and understanding of physical and metaphysical objects are not necessarily legitimate nor do they support a relativist’s explanation of this phenomenon. The social constructivist and the relativist alike are missing a fundamental piece to their philosophies. They deny this reality: God’s word is truth and it is real. This premise cuts through the heart of postmodernism. This is the antidote to the poison of postmodern imaginations. This is where all philosophy must begin. You see, we can build philosophies of all kinds and the Christian and the unbeliever alike may use the same tools and follow the same research principles, but if the foundation upon which this philosophy is to be built is not the realization that God’s word is truth and it is real, the product will only be a vain imagination of man. The word of God speaks very clearly:
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.—Romans 1:21, 22
Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God.—2 Corinthians 10:5
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the traditions of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.—Colossians 2:8
This is where we must be careful when examining the philosophies of the world. The men and women working on these edifices are not poor thinkers. On the contrary, they are often brilliant. They have minds that can probe this creation and they have built a powerful communication network which allows them to piece their thinking together across all the disciplines. Their theories and philosophies integrate many aspects of God’s creation that are real. Because of this, we can be held captive by their perceived wisdom. But this isn’t our task. We are not to be held captive by their vanity, rather we are to bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). I’m convinced that if I didn’t hold to the truth of God’s word as absolute, I would be a relativist, a social constructivist, a postmodern man. These tabernacles of men make sense if you don’t have the truth of God’s word as an objective standard.
There is an objective truth and because of that we can conclude that there is an objective reality. And it is in that order. We don’t acknowledge the existence of a tree primarily because our senses tell us that tree is real, for then our perception can become our reality. Rather, we know and have certainty that such a tree exists because principally God’s word confirms that he created it, that he spoke and it stood fast, that he continues to uphold the tree by the power of that Word. This would support Bavinck’s teaching that one believes in order that he may know.
If knowledge and understanding of a concept changes over time or from culture to culture (and it does), it doesn’t imply that change is legitimate or valid. It takes discernment to know whether the change is good or grotesque. I see two fundamental reasons for any change in knowledge and understanding.
A: Through the process of exercising dominion over God’s creation, man probes deeper the existence of reality so that a fuller understanding of that reality emerges. Here, we say there is a growth and development of knowledge and understanding. In this case, the change is only a change in development and, therefore, it is good.
B: Due to the wickedness in the heart of man, there is a rejection of truth and then a rejection of what is real. Man attempts to create his own universe through the vain imaginations of men. In this case, the change wars against the truth. It is the lie. It is grotesque.
In summary, knowledge and understanding are not culturally or historically relative. The various forms of understanding as they can be found across the ages and cultures are not equally valid. Even Aristotle asserted “that which exists does not conform to various opinions, but rather the correct opinions conform to that which exists.” If they do not align themselves with truth, they are only a lie. This is what Aristotle was hinting at.
Next time we will look at the significance of language in our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. There is indeed a power in language that is real. It’s an aspect of God’s creation that originates from his very essence; his Son is the language (word) of God and the Holy Spirit is the breath on which it rides. The social constructivist’s position hinges on this principle: language and thought are inseparably integrated. If our thoughts can be created through language, and if language is a product of men, then he who controls the language will be the master of the world. This will then launch us into our fourth and final characteristic of social constructionism: knowledge and social action go together. Social action is the culminating principle, and it is bearing deadly fruit.
 Jaarsma, Cornelius. The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1935.
 Norris, Christopher. Reclaiming truth: contribution to a critique of cultural relativism. Duke University Press, 1996.
This post was written by Rick Mingerink, a member of the Byron Center Protestant Reformed Church in Michigan. Rick is also a principal at a Christian school in West Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Rick, please do so in the comment section.