Notes on a scandal. Towards a theory of the institutional origins of academic and pop-cultural relativism.

Why are non-philosophers so attracted to philosophical relativism? Seriously, please tell us.

Things seem to have gotten a little better over the last five years. Nonetheless there was a period in which being a relativist, about truth, morality and other things besides was de rigueur. The first thing to note is that very few philosophers, even continental philosophers who are usually somewhat more sympathetic to the idea, would be willing to describe themselves as relativists. Thus, from a philosopher’s perspective, relativism’s popularity is, at least from a logical point of view, mind-boggling. This post is little more than a grab-bag of speculations by me on possible institutional causes and a lot of it is way outside my area of expertise. Much of this has been said before, and this simply gathers it together. I certainly don’t claim any confidence to any of the analysis, and if I’ve made any howlers point them out in the comments.

So what’s the mystery here? Simple, the arguments against cultural relativism are so obvious that even a non-academically inclined twelfth grader can generate them without difficulty. I know this, because I remember plenty of the kids in my year twelve English class did exactly that, not that it got them very far in the teacher’s eyes. This stuff is easy, Google “refutations of cultural relativism” if you don’t believe me.

The most obvious theory for the view’s regrettable popularity on the left is that the sections of the left that push relativism felt they had no other options after the left’s historic defeat. Read my post on analytic philosophy, radical politics and rationality for more details about my take on this.

But there are other things which are going on here, and I think part of it has to do with academic norms (I’m confident the original source of the modern relativist craze is in the academy). In philosophy, if someone has an alternate view to you, you try to rip it to shreds, often publicly in a seminar. In other academic disciplines, the norm is far more peaceable. I’ve sometimes taken along students of other humanities subjects to departmental seminars. They’ve been shocked by what they see as the savagery of the question time- scholars trying to blow each other’s theories out of the water.

Now around the seventies I think there was a huge multiplication of theoretical viewpoints in the humanities. If you put yourself the shoes of someone who tries to find something in every contribution, relativism is going to start looking tempting under those conditions- a nice way to say everyone is right in their own way. Why stoop to endless internecine war when everyone can just do their own thing and get together and talk occasionally. This is not to say that scholars in all sorts of disciplines don’t spend a lot of time criticising each other, but in my experience a lot of the criticisms in the modern humanities take the form, you left something out rather than your theory is wrong from top to bottom. The former kind of criticism is perfectly compatible with relativism while the latter is hard to mount if you’re a relativist.

There’s another factor at play here as well. The rich profusion of different theoretical viewpoints meant that if you only employed one, you started to look a little clumsy. Thus there was a drive towards theoretical eclecticism. In the push towards this eclecticism though; small points like making sure your theoretical melange was articulated in such a way as to be consistent were lost. A metaphysics (semantics?) in which different theories were simply different truths makes it really easy to utilise many different theoretical threads without having to worry whether or not they are getting tangled. (I’ve heard this complaint made before, specifically in the context of literary theory but I can’t remember the reference.)

Of course it’s not all in the academy. The crude model of journalistic balance, where one presents both sides, even if one side is plainly factually wrong (witness the regular climate change sceptics debacles) contributes to a popular view of a multiplicity of contradictory but equally correct viewpoints.

Partly it might relate to the rising hegemony of American popular culture in other Anglo-phone countries. Relativism of some sort has always appealed to the American mind, because it fits so neatly with the softer forms of American individualism. Don’t worry, we’re all good. She’s got her truth yes, but you’ve got your own truth and it’s just as wonderful. A distinctly middle class consumer theory of truth.

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About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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4 Responses to Notes on a scandal. Towards a theory of the institutional origins of academic and pop-cultural relativism.

  1. Kieran Latty says:

    This is really good. However, there are also distinct areas where dogmatism is the norm and pluralism is scoffed at- eg. within mainstream economics, and also, arguably, some streams of Marxist analysis. I would say that the more important and powerful the claim you are making, the more likely this is to obviously contradict other views- and hence the inability for some sort of relativism. We might then see a rise of relativism as a signifier that the theories deployed have less (falsifiable) content.
    We might also want to distinguish between pluralism as relativism- the view that many theories are approximately of equal validity; and pluralism as a methodology consistent with non-relativism- the idea that alternative incompatible fields of inquiry should be studied, especially when we cannot yet be sure of the superiority of any one approach, but where we may still have (or could be expected to obtain) clear criteria in which superiority (at least within some domain) could be demonstrated. Furthermore, there is in some instances a possibility of genuine synthesis, where seemingly contradictory views can be shown to be special cases of a more general theory- before such a synthesis is complete there is obviously a strong case for some variant of critical (non relativistic) pluralism.

    • I think a lot of people are shooting to be pluralists, but the fine distinction is lost on them, so they become relativists by accident. It’s so much easier to say “truth is relative” instead of “lots of people are partly right, but more work needs to be done on combining their insights.”

  2. Nobody says:

    “Relativism of some sort has always appealed to the American mind, because it fits so neatly with the softer forms of American individualism. Don’t worry, we’re all good. She’s got her truth yes, but you’ve got your own truth and it’s just as good. A distinctly middle class consumer theory of truth.”

    Only part I disagree with is this. When we refer to ‘American individualism’ it almost always denotes economic rather than cultural individualism. Whilst the American mind has always thought highly of a rugged go-it-your-own outlook on life, it has preferred a larger degree of cultural and religious collectivism than almost any other western nation. And cultural and religious norms are of course the core of what an individual considers truly irrelative truth claims

    Although I guess when you mention “the softer forms” you’re leaning towards American liberalism, but American liberals both tend to place a softened emphasis on ‘American individualism’ *and* tend moreso towards relativism than conservatives, which seems to undermine the correlation you suggest.

    • ^Maybe you’re right, I dunno enough to say. I do know that a major wellspring of relativism in American culture has been it’s native pragmatist tradition (arguably a misreading of that pragmatist tradition.) American pragmatism -at least when popularized- strikes me as both individualist and relativist- but individualist in the soft sense that does not deny or minimise the value of altruism. I’d also argue that, to the extent that contemporary American Liberals have any philosophical foundations whatsoever, the pragmatists are your best bet. While it’s true that American Liberalism has always moderated the individualist rhetoric of the right, it’s always struck me as having it’s own native left individualism.

      For example, there is a sort of American Liberal genius for turning what are clearly collective struggles into bourgeois-democratic struggles. The civil rights movement is a great example of this. It’s been transformed in people’s conciousness into some abstract struggle for dignity.

      Though I guess whether this left-individualist tradition exists, and whether you want to say it tends to promote relativism is pretty open to dispute.

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