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Similarly social structures, particularly their schemas, may be more or less accessible from other structures (this corresponds to the dimension of understanding), and may be more or less in harmony (this corresponds to the dimension of critique). For example, the structure of seventh grade East Coast urban social life is relatively accessible to me because I have lived within or near that milieu and its schemas are encoded in the material world around me: on billboards and shop windows, in pop music and film; in daily inter-generational interaction. It is also the case, however, that the meaning of crop-tops in my milieu is utterly at odds with the meaning of crop-tops for seventh grade girls. Correlatively, many of the cultural schemas of the immigrants on my street are relatively inaccessible to me, but our milieus are not at odds.

How should we understand the case in which Parents—let’s call these the Radical Parents—are not just rejecting the Daughter’s evaluation of crop-tops as cute, but are entirely rejecting the cute/dorky framework? Can a relativist model help with this sort of case? Schemas for ‘cute’ and ‘dorky’ are not part of Radical Parents’ social milieu (or there is insufficient overlap with Daughter’s schemas) and they have no intention to import meaning or enter a social milieu in which they have meaning. Daughter’s milieu is sufficiently accessible to them that they have some comprehension of the dichotomy, but the disharmony between Radical Parents’ schemas and Daughter’s is so great that they refuse to invoke the schemas lest they be reinforced; they are refusing to collaborate in the collective definition of cuteness. Although Radical Parents don’t disagree with Daughter by denying what she asserts, they do reject her claim (relative to their milieu); in their denial they use the terms ‘cute’ and ‘dorky’ with shudder quotes. This suggests that he degree of genuine disagreement over the truth-value of the claims in question will be, to a substantial extent, a function of the accessibility and harmony of the milieus.

VI. Critique Social milieu relativism provides a model of how Daughter and Parents might both be saying something true and important, and yet seem to contradict each other. However, a crucial problem remains: in what sense, 86 Sally Haslanger if any, should the daughter believe that crop-tops are not cute? How can we make sense of the suggestion that Parents are right and that Daughter’s social reality is in some sense illusory? The problem is that if social truth is relative to milieu, then it would seem that we have no basis for adjudicating social truths across milieus. If crop-tops are cute in Daughter’s milieu and they aren’t in Parents’ milieu, what can Parents do or say beyond exposing Daughter to their milieu and hoping she will be moved (as MacFarlane suggested) to coordinate with them? What we were looking for, initially, is a basis for genuine critique. And we don’t have that yet.

The easy and inadequate answer draws on the epigraphs we started with.

Both Taylor and MacKinnon emphasize that a key element in recognizing the illusion in one’s social context is to see that how things are is not how

they must be:

A study of the science of man is inseparable from an examination of the options between which men must choose. (Taylor) Women’s situation cannot be truly known for what it is, in the feminist sense, without knowing that it can be other than it is. (MacKinnon) A simplistic hypothesis might be that once one is exposed to a different social reality by engaging with assessors from another milieu, one will come to see the weaknesses of one’s own milieu. On this view, the very exposure to another milieu, even to a milieu that is not objectively better, can destabilize an investment in one’s current (inadequate) milieu and provide opportunities for improvement. Critique, strictly speaking, is not necessary; one need only broaden the horizons of those in the grip of an unjust structure and they will gain “consciousness” and gravitate to liberation.

It is true that such destabilization can happen, but it is far from guaranteed; and there is a danger that not all such gravitation is toward liberation. Admittedly, both Taylor and MacKinnon only suggest that such exposure to alternatives is a necessary, not sufficient, condition for seeing through the illusion. There are two other options to consider for grounding critique.

First, it is compatible with relativism about social truth that one be an objectivist about moral and/or epistemic value. So there might be an objective basis for privileging some social milieus so that truth relative to those milieus is more valuable or more “sound” than truth relative to others. For example, compared to others, some milieus base their schemas on more epistemically sound practices, e.g., allow greater freedom of speech and thought that promotes open inquiry, and welcome the evolution of structures in response to internal critique. The idea is that if some milieus are epistemically privileged relative to others, those in less (epistemically) privileged milieus ought to accept the critique of a practice from a more “But Mom, Crop-Tops Are Cute!” 87 (epistemically) privileged milieu.13 One might make a similar move for privileging morally or politically sound milieus.

This is in many ways appealing. One challenge for such a view, would be to provide a basis for evaluating epistemic and moral practices that was not itself relative to milieus. Is it possible to evaluate the epistemic practices of a milieu by standards that are not themselves milieu-relative? If not, then it is possible that by the epistemic standards of Daughter’s milieu, her milieu is more sound and by the epistemic standards of Parents’ milieu, theirs is more sound, and we still lack an objective basis for critique. This is less of a problem in domains where there is an independence of fact against which we can evaluate different epistemic standards: is this practice truth-conducive or not? But in the social domain our epistemic practices, like other practices, can generate facts to be known, and even if a practice is truth-conducive, it may be problematic. For example, suppose in the seventh grade milieu there is a norm that everyone should agree with Hannah (e.g., about what’s cute, dorky, fun, boring...). If this norm is followed, there will be a coordination of beliefs and responses that constitute social facts which can be effectively known by following the Hannah-agreement norm. However, the hope, on this quasi-objectivist approach, would be to establish conditions on epistemic (or moral) norms, e.g., of universality, that downgrade milieus governed by norms like Hannah-agreement. But we must ask: what makes such conditions objective?

A second strategy would be to develop a notion of critique that requires more than just truth relative to the milieu of the assessor. For example, suppose the assessor’s claim is a genuine critique of a speaker’s only if there is some common ground (factual, epistemic, or social) between the speaker’s milieu and assessor’s milieus, and the assessor’s claim is true relative to the common ground. To say that a critique is genuine, in this sense, is not to say that it is the final word; rather, it is to say that a response is called for.14 This further condition could explain why the dialogue between Daughter and Parents seems at best incomplete and at worst pointless. For Parents to have a critique of Daughter’s choices, they should offer more than a flat denial of her claim relative to their milieu; it is their responsibility to seek common ground from which Daughter can assess their critique. If Parents can find common ground with Daughter and their claim that crop-tops are not cute is true relative to that common ground, then because Daughter shares that ground, she must address Parents’ concern; hopefully, the two sides will continue to engage until they reach a mutually acceptable common ground.

An advantage of this notion of critique is that it would help make sense of the idea that ideology critique is transformative. If critique isn’t just a matter of reasoned disagreement, but is a matter of forming or finding a common milieu, then because a milieu is partly constituted by dispositions to experience and respond in keeping with the milieu, then possibilities for agency other than those scripted by the old milieu become socially 88 Sally Haslanger available. In keeping with this, we might want to distinguish critique (in the transformative sense) from mere criticism (in the ordinary sense).

However, the notion of a “common ground” is symmetrical between parties to the debate, but we’re looking for a basis for privileging some milieus over others. So more will need to be said to set conditions on a legitimate common ground. In the example we’ve been considering, I’ve assumed it is clear that Parents are right and Daughter is wrong about the appropriateness of crop-tops for seventh grade girls. But consider a case in which (one might argue) Daughter is right and Parents wrong, e.g., Daughter wants to participate in a demonstration for a worthy cause that she and her friends believe in, and Parents object, or Daughter wants to take a girl to the school dance, and Parents object. (Such examples show that the soundness of a milieu is not, or not simply, a matter of the extent to which it is endorsed or its sensitivity to consequences.) To begin, one might set conditions on an adequate common ground to exclude those formed through coercive measures; conditions should also be sensitive to information available to each side (it may be useful to consider Longino’s (1990) discussion of scientific objectivity and collective knowledge). This strategy is promising, but it is a huge task to figure out what conditions will give the right results. And there is a danger of idealizing the conditions by which something counts as common ground to the point that genuine ideology critique is impossible to achieve.

VII. Conclusion

I’ve argued that there are puzzles in understanding how social critique, or ideology critique, can work. If ideology partly constitutes the social world, then a description of the ideological formations will be true, and it is unclear what is, epistemically speaking, wrong with them. We may be in a position to provide a moral critique of social structures, and this remains invaluable; but moral critique can be too


or controversial to have an effect. The material world reinforces our tutored dispositions—qwerty keyboards reinforce our qwerty dispositions which reinforce the use of qwerty keyboards; racial classification reinforces racial segregation, which reinforces racial identity, which reinforces racial classification. Social structures, good or bad, constitute our lived reality and are common sense for us. Ideology critique requires not only a normative shift, but a critique of our schemas for interpreting and interacting with the world and a critique of the reality these schemas form.

Although I have not argued for a particular account of ideology critique, I have offered a relativist model that helps make sense of how two sides of a social issue may disagree and yet both be saying something true, and I have suggested strategies for developing an account of critique; on one such “But Mom, Crop-Tops Are Cute!” 89 strategy, critique is not merely a matter of changing beliefs, but of creating social spaces that disrupt dominant schemas. This, I believe, is consistent with the value and the power of consciousness raising. The challenge remains, however, to explicate and justify when a change of consciousness is genuinely emancipatory, and when it is just more ideology, in the pejorative sense.


1. Thanks to Lauren Ashwell, Nancy Bauer, Alex Byrne, Gabriella Coleman, Philip Corkum, Nina Emery, Caspar Hare, Cressida Heyes, Richard Holton, Bruce Hunter, David Kahane, Victor Kumar, Rae Langton, Bernard Linsky, Victoria McGeer, Amy Schmitter, Paolo Santorio, Robert Stalnaker, William Taschek, Catherine Wearing, Robert Wilson, Charlotte Witt, and especially Stephen Yablo for helpful discussions and feedback.

2. Roughly, consciousness raising considers the way in which social thought and social reality are interdependent, offers a critical perspective on the meanings implicit in this thought-imbued reality, and proposes alternative meanings gained from a perspective within the social context in question. I will not dwell on what consciousness raising is or what its epistemic credentials are.

3. Following Lewis (1969, 56), the state of affairs of certain (popular) girls wearing crop-tops is the basis for the common knowledge that seventh grade girls are wearing crop-tops this spring.

4. In fact, there are a number of different ways one might construe the speech act Parents perform other than a straightforward denial of Daughter’s assertion. A rejection of the cute/dork dichotomy is a plausible one, but there are others worth considering. I am not claiming that there is only one way to interpret Parents’ contribution to the conversation.

5. Especially useful discussions of the notion of ideology include: Geuss 1981; Fields 1982; McCarthy 1990; Purvis and Hunt 1993; Shelby 2003.

6. Although there is much controversy over the question whether ‘ideology’ or the Foucauldian notion of ‘discourse’ is better suited to the role described here, the controversies are not directly relevant to my purposes. Moreover, there seems to be a core notion shared by both. See Purvis and Hunt 1993.

7. Sometimes ideologies are taken to be sets of beliefs, sometimes forms of “practical consciousness,” that reside in the minds of individual agents; sometimes they are cultural phenomena presupposed somehow in collective social life; sometimes they are explicit theories articulated by politicians, philosophers and religious figures, among others. The causal or explanatory role of ideology within a broader social theory is also unclear. (Geuss 1981; Elster 1985, 468-9, Marx 1970/1846, 36-7).

8. It is a controversial what counts as a “social fact.” In my discussion I begin with the idea that social facts are “interpersonal” facts or facts that supervene on such facts. So, simplifying considerably, I am Deb’s friend is a social fact because it supervenes on a certain base set of interpersonal actions and attitudes.

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