Constructivism’s Unreality

As I reach yet another Walter Truett Anderson chapter on self,1 I find myself looking over at my cat, Admiral Janeway. She’s asleep on my bed.

This cat reifies personal autonomy for me. Before she came into my life, this was a theoretical, abstract concept. While I had long endorsed the concept, issues of birth control (though I’ve had a vasectomy) and abortion simply are not the existential concerns for me, a man, that they are for women. Police have never interfered in my experiences with recreational drugs. And I was born in that narrow slice of time in recent history where I have had to register neither for the military draft nor for Selective Service. My personal complaints about infringements of personal autonomy are mostly about being required to wear a seat belt (though I acknowledge the safety advantages).

But Admiral Janeway wants to be petted in a particular way. She generally does not want to be picked up. She objects so strenuously to being administered medicines that I cannot even give her the monthly anti-flea drops she’s supposed to have or take her to the veterinarian for regular vaccinations.

She has her own way of bestowing and withholding trust that very effectively conveys to me her sense of betrayal when I violate her rules about her self, her body. And to love this cat is to be deeply wounded when she withdraws.

For Admiral Janeway, there is the reality of the moment, of the rumpled covers on my bed, of my travels from room to room (she often follows, though she may keep her distance from whatever I’m engaged in at the moment). There is also the reality of a neighborhood cat, Montgomery, who has become very aggressive, attacking her, and chasing her from our front yard back in through the cat door we’ve installed in my bedroom window.

And it is very clear to me that Admiral Janeway has an unambiguous sense of self.

It is one thing for constructivists to treat human reality as a social construction. Large parts of it certainly are. I recall Isaac Catt in my graduate-level theory of communication class (which I despised) pointing out that (human) infants learn the difference between self and other. In this light, one can see the brightly colored toys and mobiles that often accompany a baby in its crib as part of a process of training the child to interact with the world in a subject-object relationship—another part is in all the inane cooing, tickling, peek-a-boo playing, and other interactions that people typically engage in with babies.

As we move beyond infancy, our relationships with others become less biological and more social. Yes, parents provide food, clothing, and shelter, but they do in the context of a relationship that is far different from that, say, of a fish who lays a huge number of eggs—and abandons them—on the theory that if enough eggs are laid, a few hatchlings may survive predation to continue the species.

And of course, I provide food, shelter, and as I turn on some heat on a cool winter evening, warmth for Admiral Janeway. But it is hard for me to imagine that these are mere social constructions. She happens to be allergic to most cat food; I can only feed her a particular brand (along with an occasional can of tuna). And the lesson of this goes beyond personal autonomy: some things are good for her to eat; some things are not.

As for me, I am vegan. So I am frequently looking at ingredient labels trying to divine what might be an animal product (this is often extremely difficult to tell). But even setting that aside, as for my cat, there are things that are good for me to eat, and there are things that are not; things that I like to eat, and things I do not.

It’s extremely difficult to discuss these things except in terms of a subject-object relationship. And the physical needs are really real, not merely social constructions.

As we move towards adulthood, we become more enmeshed in political, social, and economic arrangements that are all social constructions—they would not exist in the absence of a social system. In The Future of the Self, Anderson seeks to confuse our interactions in these arrangements with the self, suggesting that we don’t have a single self—either we have no self, or we have many.2

But Admiral Janeway reminds me that there is a real reality, parts of which, delightfully, we share. And while our interactions might be social, Anderson writes,

Abraham Maslow’s famous catalog of human needs is top-heavy with cravings that can only be satisfied in the symbolic universe. People, he said, seek safety (social structure, freedom from anxiety and chaos); belongingness (a place in a group or family); esteem (“a stable firmly based, usually high evaluation of themselves”); and ultimately self-actualization, the fullest expression of potentialities.3

Anderson refers to Maslow’s hierarchy not as a hierarchy or as a pyramid (in which it is most often depicted) but as a “catalog.” He glosses over Maslow’s idea that it is important to satisfy lower level needs—physical needs—before one can aspire to higher level needs.

Fig. 1. Maslow’s Hierarchy4

Admiral Janeway is still asleep on my bed. But she reminds me that to call Maslow’s hierarchy “top-heavy with cravings that can only be satisfied in the symbolic universe” is a gross distortion.

  • 1. Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To be (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).
  • 2. Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self: Exploring the Post-Identity Society (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997).
  • 3. Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, p. 132.
  • 4. J. Finkelstein, “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” October 27, 2006. Retrieved from’s_hierarchy_of_needs.png

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