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Social constructionism, concept acquisition and the mismatch problem


An explanation of how we acquire concepts of kinds if they are socially constructed (e.g., man or bachelor) is a desideratum both for a successful account of concept acquisition and a successful account of social constructionism. Both face the so-called “mismatch problem” that is based on the observation that that there is often a mismatch between the descriptions proficient speakers associate with a word and the properties that its referents have in common. I argue that externalist theories of reference provide a plausible and attractive account of concept acquisition, including the acquisition of concepts of social constructs, that avoids the mismatch problem. However, externalist theories are ontologically and psychologically highly demanding, which places strong constraints on accounts of the metaphysics of socially constructed kinds. In particular, they require a rather strong form of realism that is incompatible with some but not all theories of social constructionism. Finally, I show that these demands can be met by means of adopting a homeostatic property cluster view of natural kinds.

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  1. 1.

    I use capital letters to denote concepts, single quotation marks to denote lexical expressions, italics to denote properties and double quotation marks to denote sentences and technical terms.

  2. 2.

    It might of course be that even if our lay concepts of social kinds did not refer, the concepts of experts could refer, nonetheless. However, it is not clear which these referring expert concepts are considering the immense disagreement in the respective literatures in the social sciences.

  3. 3.

    I introduce different notions of mind-dependence below.

  4. 4.

    Since we have to internally represent what these symptoms are one might argue that Margolis defends a hybrid view of mental content (as, proposed by Evans 1973; Devitt 1981). However, since these representations are not descriptive, i.e., they do not determine the reference of the respective concept (what Recanati 2012, calls a “non-descriptive mode of presentation”), in my view, a necessary condition for hybridity is not met.

  5. 5.

    Simultaneous construction, too, is not compatible with semantic externalism. Imagine by simply labelling a group of people (e.g., “the leaders“) we invent a social kind. In this case we do not have to do with a covert kind because the application conditions of this kind are known to us (because we invented the category).

  6. 6.

    To be absolutely clear, none of this means that we cannot invent any social kinds (we can arguably simply invent social kinds like president or decide that by “parent” we only mean primary caregiver). However, these are the easy cases for which the mismatch problem does not arise in the same way in which it arises to genuine covert kinds like white man for example. Moreover, overt kinds are not the kind of social kinds that we need causal-historical accounts of reference for. The kinds that lead to the mismatch problem, i.e., the kinds that make social constructionism especially interesting, requires a strong kind of realism. In other words, if woman is the covert kind that social constructionists argue it is, then it cannot be a kind that was invented in the same way that we invented blog or that we decided what we mean by “parent”. Man, cis or heterosexual must be more like racism, mansplaining or recession, i.e., real kinds that were discovered and then named, as opposed to invented by naming it.

  7. 7.

     Racism and recessions exist because there are minds. They are thus mind-dependent in the weak sense that they exist because there are minds. However, we do not need to think about things as racist or as a recession in order for them being racist or a recession. In this stronger sense, both kinds are not mind-dependent.


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I am grateful for helpful comments from Esa Diaz-Leon, Steffen Koch, Dimitri Mollo, Juan Loaiza, Albert Newen, Sarah Sawyer, Beate Krickel, Matej Kohár, Julia Wolf, Elmarie Venter and the participants of the fourth meeting of the European Society for Social Ontology (ENSO) in Lund, Sweden.


This publication is funded by the DFG-Graduiertenkolleg “Situated Cognition”, GRK-2185/1 and the Ruhr University Research School PLUS, funded by Germany’s Excellence Initiative [DFG GSC 98/3].

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Correspondence to Guido Löhr.

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Löhr, G. Social constructionism, concept acquisition and the mismatch problem. Synthese (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02237-2

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  • Concept acquisition
  • Social constructionism
  • Social ontology
  • Mismatch problem
  • Qua problem
  • Semantic externalism
  • Social kinds
  • Natural kinds