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.