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108 of 109 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2000
The Social Construction of What? marks Ian Hacking's first book-length foray into the pitched battle over the nature and status of the natural, medical and social sciences. It's a truly stunning work: elegant, analytical, insightful. It also represents a useful introduction to the various themes which characterise the collected work of arguably the greatest living philosopher of the Western world.
For the most part I endorse the thoughtful review sent in by the reader from London. I want to make a gentle amendment to her/his careful characterisation of the book. I'm not so sure that Hacking is 'Clearly on the side of the constructionists'. To put it thus is, of course, a useful corrective to the absurd implications of Daniel Johnson's review of this book in the New York Times Book Review. There Johnson tries to portray Hacking as sharing Johnson's own contempt for social constructionists, which Hacking clearly does not. But I see Hacking as doing something more than simply siding with one group against the other.
In this book Hacking carefully disentangles the various arguments being made by both parties in the culture/science 'wars'. Unlike those who indulge in knee-jerk scepticism about constructionism (a.k.a., many believe, 'postmodernism'), he finds much of value in the consciousness-raising motivations of social constructionists. He also applauds their attention to historical detail and their treatment of intellectual/theoretical pursuits like the natural and social sciences as ongoing social activities, with important, often unintended effects on our everyday lives. On the other hand, Hacking suspects that much of the current vogue for the language of social construction is simply a case of bandwagon-jumping, and explicitly states that he has seldom found that language useful in his own work. He does not hesitate to expose certain claims made by both sides as 'tomfoolery', but is careful in so doing to point out that there is an important kernel of insight in the reasoning of thinkers as starkly at odds as Steven Weinberg and Bruno Latour. As Hacking makes clear in his chapter on the natural sciences, there are important intuitions buried in the metaphysical convictions of scientists and constructionists. When it comes down to putting his money where his mouth is, Hacking's self-evaluation puts his own commitments squarely in the middle. He scores himself a 2, 3 and 4 out of 5 on the three 'sticking-points' that are at the heart of the disagreement over social construction in the sciences.
But is Hacking just sitting on the fence? I don't think so; in fact, I think he offers us a third way, so to speak. You get a taste of this third way in his discussions of 'interactive kinds', 'forms of knowledge', 'styles of reasoning', 'self-vindication', 'making up people', 'looping effects', and other unfamiliar concepts. These make up part of Hacking's own attempt to grapple with human knowledge, and they are subsumed by neither social constructionism nor mainstream analytic philosophy -- which isn't to say he hasn't drawn a lot from both.
A word to the prospective reader: be careful when interpreting Ian Hacking. His clear and polished prose can be deceptive. His own views are so sophisticated and fine-grained that it is easy to pigeon-hole him into irrelevant categories. But don't let that stop you from reading him yourself -- with some patience, you will find your efforts well rewarded.
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115 of 121 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2000
One of the things Hacking has taken from Wittgenstein is his aversion to grand theory-making in philosophy. Unlike some philosophers, Hacking has learned from mistakes of the past and is not doomed to repeat them. Those who want grand, clear-cut theories in their philosophy are liable to be frustrated by the present book, and come up short in their interpretations of it (see the reviews in the Economist and the NY Times Book Review, for example). It's not that Hacking does not have a position, it's just that, as the reviewer from New York wrote, his distinctions are finely-spun and less subtle minds may have trouble getting a grip on them. Hacking is too humane and takes the world, people, and people's coping far too seriously to be glib about things (_pace_ the one-star reviewer below). Indeed, his writings, from the earlier books on probability and scientific realism to his paper on "Styles of reasoning" and his later books on psychiatric issues, can all, I think, be illuminated by the rubric "how to take imperfect knowledge seriously".
Those rare science warriors, on either side of the debate, who polemically espouse the perfection of their cause will therefore be disappointed. For the rest of us, Hacking's careful commentary on the issue comes like a gust of fresh air. Hacking really admires science, and he understands it pretty well, too. But remember the rubric: "taking imperfect knowledge seriously". Hacking certainly doesn't think that all that's true and can be said about science is said by science or dogmatic scientists themselves. Some of the social constructionists have exposed important if imperfect historical truths, too.
Those who are interested in broader debates on social constructionism will certainly profit from this book. I will not say more, as I think the reviewers from New York and London have summed things up well. Although this book is topical and has a nice, shiny cover, I will say that if you are mainly interested in getting acquainted with Hacking's style of philosophy, one of his earlier books will serve you better. Representing and Intervening is probably your best bet.
One more thing: while Hacking is serious, as the reviews suggest, he can also be extremely funny, if in a dry way. Hacking's books, unlike some philosophy, are a joy to read.
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75 of 81 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 27, 2001
In the neverending battle to define "what is real" for each other, to persuade each other of what is good, bad, and important, one disturbing trend in academia is to jump on the bandwagon of things considered "socially constructed." The banner of social construction has become a lightning rod of sorts for all sorts of bizarre things that represent what the author refers to in terms of "rage against reason." X was socially constructed, and therefore is unreal, and even bad, and should be modified or replaced by Y.
Emotions, knowledge, the mind, the economy, the deficit, gender, mental illness, even facts and reality, all have been subjected to literary claims that they are "socially constructed."
Hacking provides an interesting perspective on this whole trend by de-emphasizing the social aspect and focusing on the construction aspect. He views this simply as a way of arguing against the inevitability of something. For example, arguing about 'social construction' of our understanding of quarks in physics, part of the standard model, the question becomes whether an alternate equally successful science could have arisen that had no such concept as a quark. Hacking then struggles with what a successful science means, and how we would recognize it. There are many examples that follow this pattern, each discussed in terms of whether X was inevitable, and thus how else it could have been constructed in our minds and in culture.
Hacking goes as far as an offhanded treatment of nominalism and essentialism relevant to this inevitability question (essential qualities are those that are seen as inevitable). He breaks down difficult questions into relatively simple ones using this same kind of straightforward procedure. In analyzing the social construction of X for many examples, he looks for those elements of X that were inevitable, and those that serve "extra-theoretical" purposes and could have been constructed differently.
One particularly unique aspect of hacking's work here, the prototype of social constructionism here is not the sociology of science in general. He uses Pickering, LaTour, and Woolgar as his prime examples, rather than folks like Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, who are often considered in the same category. Hacking considers them distinct for his purposes, and this reveals some interesting distinctions.
What I liked best about this book is that while it is carefully done, there is an offhanded air about the points Hacking makes. He makes some very difficult analyses seem very easy by pulling particularly useful examples from the literature. He navigates a lot of difficult philosophy by asking deceptively simple questions, like "what is the point ?" rather than "what is the meaning ?"
There are some interesting sweeping gestures here like claiming that social construction can simply by thought of as an argument against the inevitability of X, and then analyzed for how committed the author is to claiming X is bad and overturning X. Another interesting example is Hacking's description of essentialism as simply a way of talking about inevitability.
This book is somewhat disappointing if you're looking for simple answers to each of the questions posed, "is X socially constructed or not ?" However, it provides an extremely helpful way of looking at each case and trying to decide whether a 'social construction' critique actually has any value, or whether it just gives the history of the topic. Perhaps most useful is Hacking's "3 sticking points" with which to address the construction of a concept: contingency, nominalism, and stability.
This is a thinking person's book, but not nearly as incomprehensible to the layman as most works of modern philosophy, and much easier to read and more helpful than most of the "social construction" literature itself.
I'd go as far as to say that in many cases, we could replace the "social construction of X" arguments with Hacking's style of analysis about inevitability and the 3 sticking points, and come up with a more enlightening answer about the reality of the X in question.
If there is any flaw that I found here it is that I didn't think there was enough detail provided on any one topic to resolve the questions asked, they are pretty much all examples, and more questions are raised than answered. That can get maddening when you are just getting interested in the topic.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Like many people might, I looked at the title of this one and fell in love. "Social construction of what?" I'm in, I said to myself, for a great 'take em down' kind of book a la Dawkins and Sokal and, honestly, I love those kind of books. Well, I used to; untill Hacking took all the fun out!!
Why do I say that? Because I've been fooled all these years by gross caricaturizations of social constructionism (which, as were told, ALWAYS must be synonymous with relativism). This book, the only neutral one I've seen, is devoted to explaining, I think, to both sides of the debate (if you want to call it that!) that there is much more middle ground than is realized. Like most answers to most questions, the most likely answer to "Are you a social constructivist?" should be "It depends on the circumstance".
Hacking, a philosopher of science, goes through different meanings of social construction: on the less contreversial side, we have laws and I.Q. Not many will say these aren't real in the sense that they work, but besides that they don't really exist. You can't hold them, directly observe them; they are social tools. In the middle, you have mental disorders and averages. Like the others, they don't exist outside of our classification of them. (one might make a case for mental retardiation, but ask five psychiatrists what "schizophrenia" is and you will get five different answers). The most contreversial, of course, are things like gender and physical matter. Both of these things are observable, thus, it is hard t osee how social construction can change anything with them. Hacking calmly explains how some people suggest you can.
Anyhow, Hackings point is that most of us, however small a degree, are social constructionists about something; we just didn't know it. For my part, on Hackings three part quiz (try it, you'll like it!) I scored a 4-5-1. I never would've realized that by reading more of the polarized books about the science wars and the straw-men therein. Makes me woner...Are the science wars social constructs?....
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2000
This book is terrific. Humane, balanced, measured observations of the battle between those who see science as socially constructed and those who hew to a more naive realism (most scientists, like myself), written by a self-professed non-combatant. The views expressed are insightful, sophisticated and very informative for those not familiar with this kind of internecine warfare. Some of the chapters were written at other times and do not fit completely, but there is enough here to satisfy anyone wanting to know what the fuss is all about and how it might be understood. A really wonderful book that deserves a wide readership.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2011
My introduction to postmodernism was at a liberal-artsy conference at the University of California at Davis, where an attractive and stylishly dressed woman, Donna Haraway, gave a talk, her voice seething with disdain and hostility consisting of slides of ads from Nature magazine selling complicated biological equipment using women and animals as models. I was completely flabbergasted. During question and answer period, I asked here, "If you took a picture of a native with a bone in his nose on South Sea tropical island, would you make fun of him? Of course not---that would be the height of impropriety. So why do you mock the culture of Nature magazine? What are you trying to prove?" Her answer was very simple. "I'm not trying to prove anything." That was it!

During coffee break I was told by others that Haraway was a "postmodernist" who was "deconstructing" modern biology, showing that biological theory is "socially constructed." I was still confused, because obviously all of modern science is "socially constructed." What else could it be? The next speaker was the formidable Professor Stanley Fish, now a brilliant commentator for the New York Times, but then the guru of the postmoderns, told us that even arithmetic is socially constructed. His example was the venerable denizen of the lumber yard, the two-by-four, which was in fact one-and-a-half by three-and-a-half. He concluded that "two" means "one-and-a-half" sometimes, so numbers don't mean what they say. During question and answer, I confronted him not with a question but a statement: the "two" in "two by four" refers to the unmilled size of the stock, not the milled size, so "two" does really mean "two." Similarly, the "four" really does mean (unmilled) "four."

I came home from Davis only to find a paper written by an old anthropologist friend asserting that smallpox vaccination in India was an "imperialist social construction" perpetrated to weaken Indian culture. My cozy world of rational intellectual exchange had been turned completely upside-down.

Ian Hacking's goal in this book is to explain and criticize the notion of "social construction" using the traditional tools of the professional philosopher. He begins by explaining the concept in everyday academic discourse, and then seeks its philosophical roots. He notes that when the postmodernist calls X a "social construction," he means that "X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable." (p. 6) Hacking adds that usually the critic adds that "X is quite bad as it is. We would be much better off if X were done away with or at least radically transformed." So, for instance, gender, race, emotions, mental illness, modern science, and many other things are "social constructions" and thus subject to the above critique. "Constructionists," says Hacking, "tend to maintain that classifications are not determined by how the world is, but are convenient ways in which to represent it." (p. 33)

Now of course there are social constructions that perfectly fit this definition. Social ideologies that justify racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious discrimination, or that suppress scientific truth in the name of a religious creed, are clearly social constructions, and in my view social constructions of the worst sort. But the general categories of race, ethnicity, religion, and science are not social constructions, but rather have a substantive reality independent of our wills.

Truth? The postmodernists are fond of denying any absolute notion of truth. Rather, there is truth-for-me and truth-for-you, and there is no secure way to adjudicate between our truths. For this reason, Hacking argues that constructionism is a form of philosophical nominalism, but he does not pursue this issue far, and it seems wrong to me. Nominalism vs. realism is a metaphysical issue dealing with the existence of universals, whereas postmodernism asserts that one can build up more than one total view of the world, and these views are hermetically sealed an incapable of cross-communication. This is a little like Willard van Orman Quine's theory of the indeterminacy of translation, but that also is not what the postmodernists mean. What they mean is that there is no realm of truth with which we poor humans have sufficient contact to overcome our tendency to build world-views that are to our liking, and to defend these world-view however deficient they may be in really explaining the world.

Phrased in this way, postmodern social constructionism harbors some powerful, self-critical insights. Whole books have been written validating that people can build world-views with only the slimmest relationship to reality and without any serious empirical support, and defend these views blindly in the face of the facts. Hacking, however, does not deal with this sociology of knowledge issue, but rather focuses on one critical area, natural science, where he argues forcefully against the social construction position. I will not go over his arguments, because it is clear to any reasonable person that natural science is not a social construction in the above sense, however forcefully the social constructionists have argued the opposite position. Rather, I want to consider two less clear-cut areas: public opinion and social science.

Is public opinion swayed by the facts in such contentious areas as global warming, the safety of nuclear power, and the possession of hand guns? Dan Kahan and is coauthors, in "Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus," Yale Law School Working Paper 205, 2011, for instance, conclude that "scientific opinion fails to quiet societal dispute...not because members of the public are unwilling to defer to experts but because culturally diverse persons tend to form opposing perceptions of what experts believe. Individuals systematically overestimate the degree of scientific support for positions they are culturally predisposed to accept." In other words, on contentious issues, people believe there is less scientific consensus than there really is, and place high regard for those scientists who agree with their position.

The phenomenon isolated by Kahan et al. is of course a very powerful one indeed. Moreover, there have been widely accepted yet incorrect scientific theories, often accepted without serious evidence in favor of them. For instance, social psychologists overwhelmingly supported "repressed memory" theories of child molestation as the cause of adult mental dysfunction for many years, yet the theory never had a factual basis. Similarly, autism was for decades treated as the effect of poor mothering, again without supporting evidence. Thus it is healthy for the public to take a skeptical stance with respect to scientific orthodoxy, although obviously this can be carried too far, as when parents reject vaccinations for the children even after exhaustive and thorough research has assured their overwhelmingly net positive contribution to the health of children.

Social constructionism is thus a useful theory for us to add to our box of tools for interpreting social events relating to science, although it is ultimately a fully self-destructive doctrine: if people entertain the possibility that the "authorities" are building sand-castles in the air, their critical capacities will ensure that in the long run the truth, unsullied by ideology, will win out. We should thus never underestimate the wisdom of the public in a free society where the public has access to all the facts, in addition to the pseudo-facts and non-facts.

The second area worth discussing is the behavioral sciences. Although all the behavioral disciplines pay serious attention to the gathering and analysis of the facts, most support several or even many alternative theoretical frameworks that cannot or do not talk to each other, and which one accept according to personal taste. This is true of sociology, social psychology, and anthropology, and biology, the latter taking the form of alternative models of the evolution of human society. While these disciplines refer to the facts, the facts never seem to convince proponents of one view that this view is wrong and an alternative view is correct. If one is a true scientist, one should not accept a theory as more than a working hypothesis, unless warranted by the facts. This is broadly violated in the above disciplines. Two stars for social construction theory.

Economics used to be in the same position as the other behavioral sciences, but there has been a "shake-out" in recent years that has left neoclassical economics the only game in town. This is not because the evidence supports neoclassical economics, but rather because neoclassical economics supports capitalism and capitalism has become the only game in town. But if you read neoclassical economic theory, it is often bizarre in the extreme, far from the facts, and the major neoclassical theorists are frequently arrogantly dismissive of those who point out its weaknesses. Practitioners and policy analysts care little about Grand Theory, use a small subset of basic neoclassical principles, supplemented by practical knowledge of what has worked in the past and what has not. To the extent that there are "paradigms" of social policy (free markets, limited interventionism, social democracy, etc.), they do fit the social construction theory. Free market enthusiasts, for instance, work on pure ideology, as there has never been a successful modern economy without a strongly interventionist state.

I am not happy to say that the behavioral sciences fit the social constructionist model. Note that I am not asserting that the behavioral sciences are riddled with sexism, racism, greed, self-aggrandizement, or some other fatal ingredient to good science. Rather, the behavioral sciences are rather young, and I expect them to graduate from social construction to science in coming decades. Certainly most behavioral scientists are motivated by the standard values of scientific research, including the belief that the is a single reality out there, that it is our job to discover it, and that we should be as free from personal bias as possible in our research activities. If there is a single major fatal flaw in postmodern social construction theory, it is the assertion that success in this endeavor is prima facie impossible.
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36 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 1999
Ian Hacking is one of the best philosophers, and certainly one of the best writers, alive today. This book is easily the best thing written yet on the fraught topic of social constructionism. Like all of Hacking's work, its a historically grounded work of distinctions, clarifications and examples taken from actual research. After the horrendous mysificatory nonsense spilt by both sides in the so-called 'culture' and 'science wars' Hacking brings much needed levity, honesty and humanity to the debate.
This book puts crude idiots like Richard Dawkins, Paul Gross and Norman Levitt to shame. Clearly on the side of the constructionists, Hacking deals with thinkers like Latour and Pickering with real sympathy. He shows how their's is not an anti-science position at all. Indeed, the sheer decency and clear-mindedness of this book is quietly astonishing.
If I have one criticism, its that this book, great as it is, seems something of a 'filler' in the Hacking oeuvre. Its not a great, analytic and argued work like Representing and Intervening. Its more a collections of essays. That's not a problem, but I'd like to see Hacking return to the subject - and other issues in the philosophy of social science - in slighly more depth. For now though, it's pretty near flawless.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2008
Ian Hacking's "The Social Construction of What?" is aptly titled, as it deals with the question what the ever so popular phrase 'socially constructed' actually means, if it means anything.

In his typical upbeat tone, making use of short, almost staccato sentences, Hacking reviews several possible meanings of the phrase 'social construction', notes the "sticking points" that are the core of the disagreement, and takes some cases from sociology, geology, anthropology and physics to illustrate the problematic. Although Hacking is a fine and accessible writer, and anyone at all can read this book with pleasure, he does tend to be meandering; there is little overall structure to the book, which reads more as a series of musings by an intelligent observer on a difficult question than as a definitive stance on the issue, which Hacking doesn't really have. It's also not always clear what the relation is between the examples of scientific research and debate he cites and the philosophy of science question of social construction.

Nonetheless, his philosophical talk is always entertaining and interesting to read, and some people will definitely find a virtue in the fact Hacking never pushes an opinion on the reader, preferring to 'teach the controversy' instead. If there's a sort of philosophical popular science, this would be it.
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29 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2003
For about forty years now there's been a war between two groups of knuckleheads. One group uses social constructionism (or constructivism) to deflate the necessity and relevance of their pet peeves - science is sometimes one of the peeves. The other group of knuckleheads, usually professional peevers, argue back that social constructionists are a bunch of knuckleheads. The practical result of this feud has been significant shifts in social policies, research grant funding, tenure, education programs and a host of tangible issues that bother a lot of knuckleheads, like me.
Professor Hacking tries to take the middle ground in this debate. In a series of disjointed chapters (some of which were published before in different contexts) he explains social constructionism in a way that both (a) deflates some of the bad armchair constructionist-speak and (b) makes good sense of constructionism to skeptics of the *discipline* - who really can't be blamed after all. I mean, since Berger and Luckmann's outstanding treatise so much poop has been published under that rubric.
Professor Hacking admirably accomplishes this mediation by clarifying, loudly and slowly as it were, exactly what social constructionism IS NOT. This is a handy way to quell mis-directed criticisms, hopefully. Less ink is spent telling us what it IS in any way that wasn't already (mis)understood by its critics. It's not a bad idea to have some basic understanding of the sociology of knowledge going into this - and I don't mean the kind of knowledge one gleans from reading books which APPLY constructionism; they're usually the poop.
The chapter about Child Abuse and the chapter about Weapons Research (and parts of the one on Natural Sciences) are worth the price of the book. For me it didn't get going 'till about half way through. Professor Hacking's style was sometimes strained to be neutral. The book did not flow well from chapter to chapter - and I was surprised that he could write a chapter called "Madness: Biological or Constructed?" with only a glance toward Thomas Szasz. Maybe I'm just old fashioned.
I gained a lot of respect for the author while reading this. The book both educated me on the state and history of the feud AND provided me with a better understanding of where Professor Hacking is coming from. This knucklehead gives it 4 stars.
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on April 29, 2015
The tussle between hard science and cultural theorizing as plagued the social sciences for the past 30 years if not longer. For too long have we been subjected to rounds of pointless debates about whether a phenomenon is natural or an idea developed and nurtured by our culture. In other words, a "social construct." Few things vex hard scientists and common-sense types more than the implication that certain real world "truths" are just figments of our cultural imagination reified and relived over and over again by virtue of our sociail practices. Perhaps an extreme example of this debate is the nature-nurture debate common in biology and exacerbated by debates in evolutionary psychology about whether practices are part of an innate ahistorical human nature or byproducts of human culture nurtured in children. Is this label "social construct" a product of legitimate critique or is it a manifestation of the shallow "postmodernization" of the academy and human knowledge by theory-immersed tenured radicals?
Canadian philosopher of science Ian Hacking finally clears away all the bushes and fog around this concept to make a sound and calm intervention into the science/culture wars. Rather than choose one side or another, Hacking shows forms of "social constructivist" thinking can be found in the claims and observations of many different thinkers and scientists in the field, as well as how both "social constructionism" and hard science may re-enforce each other in many different fields. In doing so, he proves wrong those who view anything remotely "social constructionist" as irrational and fantastic. He demonstrates how such claims are part and parcel of everyday production of knowledge and how rather than debate over a dichotomy, it would be better to approach the sciences as they are and see how both may reinforce each other to make claims whose correspondence with verifiable objective reality may vary depending on the type of claim being made. On this criteria, Hacking's adherence to either SC or HS (Hard science) fluctuates. This is an important intervention into the science/culture debates, seeking to transcend such petty dichotomies, and can also be read as a corrective to books like Pinker's The Blank Slate which seek to argue for a biologically determined nature. It can also be read as a reply to Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense, which ridiculed swathes of cultural theory for seemingly "relativizing hard scientific facts." Hacking dismisses such puerile debates, firmly placing scientific knowledge within its cultural-social context while exhibiting respect for the observations and discoveries scientific knowledge has made regarding our world, the human body and beyond. If there is any book to read on topics such as this, this book would be it.
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