At the risk of sounding far too postmodern for my comfort, there is an argument that knowledge is socially mediated. By this is meant that what we know is a product of the various communities of which we are a part. We are raised in such communities, obtain access to them at various times of our lives, lose contact with them, and so on. But, the argument goes, what we know is mediated by these communities.
So, for example, I am a member of the wargaming community. This community, as I have tried to suggest here, has some boundaries in both what is acceptable to the community and what counts as membership of that community. Putting a unit of World War Two SS on the table is acceptable, dressing up as and role playing SS is not.
By its very nature, by the fact that this community is one which has a defined interest, it must have boundaries. We can, of course, as a community of wargamers argue as to what is acceptable or not acceptable behaviour of our members. We can also discuss where the ethical edge of our chosen interest it, or whether something (say the ‘Princess Diana Demolition Car Chase’) counts as a wargame or not.
The point here is that the community actually, if we in any way associate with it, starts to determine the sorts of things we think and talk about. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. By defining what counts and does not count as an object of interest to us, we can build up our community into something which does have knowledge about the subject in question. To use MS Foy’s recent comment, a community of Napoleonic wargamers may well know, or at least have some idea, what time Wellington gave up on having lunch at Salamanca.
This idea, inevitably, can be taken to extremes. Some postmodernists argue that all knowledge is socially constructed. That is, the argument is something like all knowledge, everything we think we know, is in fact created by the communities we belong to. The knowledge of Wellington’s lunch, on this view, simply becomes a construct of the community of Napoleonic wargamers, part of the story they tell to validate their community and its knowledge.
Now, far be it from me to denigrate anyone’s hard fought for theory, but this, even though I have been accused of postmodernism myself, looks suspiciously like specious twaddle. I am, after all, at heart a physical scientist. I cannot see an electron, but I can point to a sizeable body of evidence that they exist, or, if they do not exist, that something very much like them must. After all, if electrons do not exist, the Internet and computers probably would not work. The existence of electrons is not wholly socially mediated knowledge. We do have reasonable grounds for the justified belief that they do actually exist.
This does not mean, of course, that such knowledge is not, in some part, socially mediated. I was, at some point in the past, a member of a community that thought long and hard about the phenomena that, today, we call electrons. I could access the evidence, and even (in theory, anyway, if not in practice that often) reproduce it myself. Despite the best efforts of philosophers like Paul Feyerabend to show otherwise, science is not wholly a social construct.
We could, I suppose, imagine a physics that is different from our own, which calls electrons something else, which has classified objects in the real world (oops, lots to argue about in those five words) in a different way. The bottom line here, however, is that the results of such a physics would be in agreement with those of our physics. Even though the social and philosophical milieu from which it had sprung would be different, the answers it gave would be similar, sufficiently so to be able to identify the objects within it.
When we move on to other areas of human intellectual endeavour, however, we can see how social constructed ideas become more important. Consider, for example, ideas we have of nationhood. We know what a nation is, with particular citizenship, borders, laws and so on. But unless we are extreme nationalists, we would mostly have to accept that our nation could be otherwise and, more to the point, that it is a human construct. Similarly we could argue that, for example, our governments are human constructs, or even such aspects of life as race are.
For the wargaming community this is something I think we should note. Our wargames and the community are human constructions. The question is, therefore, what are they founded upon. I suspect, when we look into the details, the foundations in reality are a bit slender.
I think, in the final analysis, the question of reality in wargames come down to the normal two aspects of any theory of truth. Firstly, the wargame has to be internally coherent. As I have tried to indicate before, the models of, say, a set of wargame rules have to work together. An incoherent set of rules, one where, for example, the outcomes of ranged combat do not affect the losers of that combat in any way, is likely to be, quite rightly, rejected.
The other aspect of truth bearing is the correspondence of the knowledge to the external reality. We know, for example, that dispersed infantry caught by a cavalry charge are likely to come off worst. How do we know that? We have examples from history. Our rules have, therefore to correspond to that knowledge from history.
Of course, this can involve us in yet more complexity, because our knowledge of historical events is itself mediated by both our circumstances, that is the historical communities of which we are members, and also those communities in the past by and for which the historical record has been made.
At some point, however, we have to stop this potentially infinite regression into communities, never touching bottom, never finding reality. Events in the past did happen, even if the record of those events is heavily mediated by social constructs.