Reality

I’m currently reading “The Social Construction of Reality” by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. In it, they argue that “reality is socially constructed” (p. vi).

I’ve heard this claim before, and it’s always confused me.  I can understand that beliefs are socially constructed, but reality? Let’s compare two kinds of things. First, there are things I think really exist out there somewhere – like planets and electrons and morality and God. Some of them I may be wrong about and some of them I may be right about. Second, there is whatever it is that is really out there. The latter is what I mean when I say “reality”. The first is just “the things that I personally think are real”. I can see how what I think of as being real can be socially constructed, but how can whatever is really real depend on how I think about them?

Whatever reality is, it can’t itself be merely a social construction.

Sometimes my students say that everyone has their own reality. By my definition of reality, that doesn’t make any sense. Reality is whatever it is that is “out there” – it doesn’t just belong to me, it belongs to everyone, whether they want it to or not. Everyone may well have their own understanding of reality, or their own beliefs about reality, though.

Of course, there is one part of reality that is definitely socially constructed, and that is things that are themselves social constructs. The laws of chess are a real thing, but they only exist as rules made up and agreed upon for the purpose of playing the game of chess. They are real but they are also social constructs. They are real social constructs. Still, because they are real, they are what they are, regardless of what you may think. If you think that en passant is part of the rules of chess, you are right. If someone else doesn’t, that doesn’t make the laws of chess different for him; it makes him wrong about the laws of chess.

Anyway, when I read the introduction to “The Social Construction of Reality”, all was made clear. It turns out that the definition of reality that Berger and Luckmann use is different than the definition I use. They define reality this way: “It will be enough, for our purposes, to define “reality” as a quality appertaining to phenomena that we recognize as having a being independent of our own volition (we cannot ‘wish them away’).” (p. vi.)

This sounds at first like what I was saying because it talks about phenomena that have a being independent of our own volition, that we cannot wish away. But it doesn’t say reality is those things. It says reality is the quality of the things that we recognize as having that independent being. In other words, there are things we think are real, and “reality” means the quality of realness that we think those things have.

I completely accept that that is socially constructed. It doesn’t mean the real stuff is socially constructed; it means the way I think about what I believe to be real is socially constructed.

I don’t think Berger and Luckmann are wrong about their definition – they get to define the term “reality” in a way makes sense within their discipline. It doesn’t make sense within sociology to try and figure out what is real in my sense. That’s beyond its reach.

They also don’t consider the more philosophical definition I use to be wrong. They explain in their introduction that philosophers will be concerned about what is really real, and are within their rights to ask that question. As sociologists, they aren’t addressing it.

So it’s just a matter of understanding that the same term means different things in sociology and in philosophy. The problem is that people claim that “reality is socially constructed” in too broad a sense. They think that sociology has shown that whatever is really out there is socially constructed. Berger and Luckmann understood that sociology hasn’t shown any such thing, nor could it, because that’s not what it investigates.

Here’s the book: Berger, Peter L.. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

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