In a post at Cliopatria, Jonathan Jarrett writes about history and facts:
Whether or not we can in fact know it, people in the past did things, and history's business is trying to recover, describe and understand them ... there is an idea of right and wrong in play that is not itself subjective, though its evaluation must be. And we can say things that there is no point denying are factual: Charlemagne was in Rome on Christmas Day 800, there was a Benedictine monastery at Cluny, the Dorset Inuit met Europeans in Greenland, and so on. (OK, the last one might be contested, but it sounds good.)Much of his post is about the qualifying phrase "though its evaluation must be." Facts are potentially indifferent to human apprehenders; interpretative processes are where right and wrong come into play. The scheme isn't quite as Platonic as it seems, though, with facts lurking like eternal truths while cave-bound interpreters discern them from their shadows. Jarrett allows an inextricability of investigative process and truth determination when he turns to a passage by Carl Becker (1910), about the selection and sorting of data in its relation to knowledge. Jarrett's point is, like Becker's, that facts are not created out ex nihilo, but take determinate form under specific historical conditions that include the interpreter's interests and predilections.
Arguing with such a common sensical position is difficult, because it isn't so easy to see what exactly the alternative might be. That all "facts" are infinitely malleable?
I raise this question because in a frequent misapprehension the philosophy called [social or cultural] constructivism is often taken as "willy-nilly constructivism": full cultural determination with attendant free floating relativity. Constructivism, that is, is taken to argue that facts or reality are wholly discursive and boundlessly flexible rather than historically durable and undeniably material. Judith Butler, for example, never posited that sexual identity has nothing to do with biology, even though she is often criticized as if she had. Although sometimes misconstrued as arguing that we are free to invent and reinvent our bodies without regard to our genetic or cultural inheritance, Butler is a philosopher who leaves little wiggle room for innovation, a philosopher with a strong materialist and deterministic streak.
Reality (such as our bodies) is not infinitely pliable. We can't turn a stone into water because we "socially construct" the lithic as the aqueous. That doesn't mean that stones are so immobile that they will not reveal their fluid tendencies when viewed in a nonhuman historical frame. Over eons tectonic plates travel vast distances and mountains rise; even in short spans volcanoes spurt molten stone. Rock is actually quite a flexible material, but although we can discover some stone that might float like a ship (as Mandeville wrote of pumice), we don't carve ships out of boulders because something in them resists this construction. Another way of putting this: a fact emerges into knowledge only through the alliances it forms with human and nonhuman agents. A diamond becomes a precious gem because its rarity, lucidity, durability have and can sustain strong alliances with certain forces, tools, economic and aesthetic systems, alliances that pumice cannot maintain. An alliance between the shipbuilder and granite will fail because the stone can't support the laborer's marinal desires, but that between the granite and the architect will flourish since the granite will comply with her desire to shape it into a durable and aesthetically pleasing support for kitchen appliances.
The alliances that underlay facts are typically a good deal trickier than what I've so far outlined. Bruno Latour's work, for example, is full of complicated networks posed around tough questions about how facts come to be and might under certain pressures change. How does a scientist know, for example, that he has created a vacuum in a jar, given that a vacuum is invisible? How do you convince others of your discovery, and under what conditions will your experiment become commonly accepted knowledge? It's not that the vacuum is socially constructed: it exists or it doesn't. But what the vacuum means and how that meaning changes, what processes lay behind its discovery and its determination as fact, what networks of human and non-human alliances are required to give the fact force, and how its existence enters or makes reality: this is what the discipline called science studies is all about.
In The Social Construction of What?, Ian Hacking examines the "construction" of dolomite, a rock that has consistently challenged those who seek to map its origin -- possibly because nano-bacteria (organisms so small they cannot be observed, and therefore may or may not exist) are behind its formation. After Hacking details dolomite's scientific history, he states "we see in plain scientific work, such as the study of dolomite, a happy mix of both induction and analogy ... and conjecture and refutation" (201). Through this long process errors accumulate and are shed (i.e., its supposed calcium is revealed to be magnesium; the fact that dolomite ceased to be created as the primal earth aged gives way to the fact that dolomite is coming into being even now, but only in places hostile to earth's contemporary life); certain data cling and are retained; but an aura of uncertainty consistently surrounds what should be as solid as any stone.
Because "questions of method arise in context" (198), what best serves this stone is, according to Hacking, "ecumenical descriptive epistemology with hardly any normative implications" (199), a multiple-perspective and nonrigid approach that traces the alliances and networks that enable facts to emerge and to endure. This process-oriented perspective stresses:
- the contingency of knowledge (we know dolomite in part because we have asked very particular questions of it, mainly centered upon its petrochemical uses; had we asked different initial questions about its nature, we'd think of the rock rather differently, and might not have wondered -- for example -- if it could be the product of nanobacteria and therefore a key to understanding the origins of all earthly life)
- the dependence of knowledge upon a sorting into human naming systems that are value-laden (i.e., it matters to us that the rock is a magnesium carbonate rather than a calcium carbonate because we want oil from it; from a strictly geological point of view, though, a sediment is a sediment and there isn't a good reason to separate your limestone from your dolomite)
- the interrelation of belief with epistemological stability (the history of dolomite has as much to do with giving up on certain myths as it does accruing "stable knowledge"; even now we don't know exactly how the rock came to be, and so "the dolomite problem leaves philosophical questions of stability untouched, precisely because it is still a problem"  -- meaning that in the end we can't say whether the science stabilized dolomite, or dolomite lent a certain stability to a science intent on explicating it).