We know that it raged a long time ago, when Socrates confronted the sophists in the Athens of the fth century BC. It was probably old by then, but that encounter will form one point of entry. What, then, is the conict about? When we are absolutists we stand on truth. We like plain, unvarnished objective fact, and we like it open, transparent, and unltered.
We may not like it everywhere, so we may feel like conning truth to some area: scientic truth, or perhaps common sense and scientic truth, but not aesthetic truth or moral truth, for example. But somewhere the absolute truth can be found. And as well as truth, absolutists cherish its handmaidens: reason, which enables us to nd it or certify it, and objectivity, which is the cardinal virtue of reasoning.
Relativists mock these ideals. They see nothing anywhere that is plain, unvarnished, objective, open, transparent or unltered. They debunk and deny. They see everywhere what the philosopher William James called the trail of the human serpent. They insist upon the universal presence of happenstance, brute contingencies of nature or culture or language or experience, that shape the way we see things. Nietzsche said There are no facts, only interpretations. That will do as a relativist slogan, and in many peoples eyes Nietzsche is a high priest of relativism we explore whether this is right in chapter 4.
The talkative royal butler Paul Burrell claimed that the Queen said to him, speaking of the death of Princess Diana, there are dark forces xv. I do not have much condence that the Queen said any such thing, but if she did, she was unconsciously following the way the relativists see things. The dark forces of language, culture, power, gender, class, economic status, ideology and desire are always assailing us, but their works remain dangerously hidden in our blindspots, waiting only to be revealed by future generations, who will have other blindspots of their own.
Of course, if correctly reported, the Queen was skating on thin ice, since if we know nothing of these dark forces we cannot even know that they are at work. The relativist must concede that we know enough to be sure in general terms that they are present, but not much more.
For if we do know much more, we can take steps to make ourselves safe. We can guard against bias once we can recognize it. The issue is not centrally about the virtues of truth-telling: sincerity and accuracy, as Bernard Williams has them.
When people worry about a crisis of truth, for instance in the humanities, they are not primarily worrying about the sincerity and anxious care for accuracy of those in the eld. They are worrying that however sincere and careful we are, we are trapped in partial or perspectival or outright illusory and ctional views, with little or no chance of realizing our plight. But ideals of sincerity and accuracy do become collateral damage of the wars about the nature of truth. The idea that our stories about the world and ourselves are just transient constructions, that our perspective is just one among many, or that illusion and ction are pervasive, undermines the seriousness with which we can regard defects of sincerity and accuracy.
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If truth is thought of as a goal that can never be attained, those who rather conspicuously do not care much about it will seem that much less villainous than they are. We may be apt to associate relativism with a soggy, tolerant, happy-clappy attitude to things. The two relativist mantras are: Who is to say? This attitude sounds spineless, and this spinelessness is one of xvi. Hilaire Belloc put it memorably in Lines to a Don. Placing the conict within the ancient universities, he condemned the modern university teacher, the ineffectual don: Don different from those regal dons With hearts of gold and lungs of bronze Who shout and bang and roar and bawl The absolute across the hall.
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Here it is the absolutists who shout and bang, and that sounds tough: the kind of toughness that would appeal to those conservative commentators. However, William James famously called the relativist tough-minded, and he had an important point. The absolutist is tender to himself, happy in his own convictions, probably not caring to sympathize with those of others. Absolutism gives us security and self-assurance; the relativist sees dangerous unthinking innocence and complacency.
James describes the absolutist as having a religious temperament, whether the object of his religion is some traditional text or deity, or a new one, such as the Market, or Democracy, or Science. This may also seem surprising, since religious lives can be full of doubt and worry and dark nights of the soul, and as we have already seen, in the modern world it is the relativists as much as the absolutists who belong to the cults. But James may be right to see the absolutist as suffering from something very like a religious ambition.
He seeks something haughty, refined, remote, august, exalted. Victorians described whatever was needed to make absolutism true as The Absolute, a term which, for better or worse, has largely been lost. And William James rightly describes the Absolute of Victorian philosophers as the giver of moral holidays the aspect of reality that reassures us that just exactly what we are doing is absolutely right.
The relativist revolts from this conviction, and with the relativist frame of mind can come a generally good thing, toleration. But it is important to distinguish them. In the intellectual world, toleration is the disposition to ght opinion only with opinion; in other words, to protect freedom of speech, and to confront divergence of opinion with open critical reection rather than suppression or force.
Toleration therefore gives us only the dictum attributed to Voltaire, that I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Relativism, by contrast, chips away at our right to disapprove of what anybody says. Its central message is that there are no asymmetries of reason and knowledge, objectivity and truth.
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Relativism thus goes beyond counselling that we must try to understand those whose opinions are different. It is not only that we must try to understand them, but also that we must accept a complete symmetry of standing. Their opinions deserve the same respect as our own. So, at the limit, we may have Western values, but they have others; we have a Western view of the universe, they have theirs; we have Western science, they have traditional science; and so on.
And then, once the symmetry of standing takes possession of the relativist, other things may come to ll his head, and they need not involve toleration at all. The dogmatic faith in homeopathy quickly leads to intolerant rejection of double-blind tests for the efficacy of treatments, or intolerant campaigns for diversion of funds from medicine that works to medicine that does not.
The dogmatic faith in the market requires destroying any faith in the kind of mixed economy that actually created and still sustains western Europe and the United States. The faith that wisdom and the recipe for living are written in one text or another rapidly brings cries of death to the indel. Although relativism can have a soggy appearance, at least in his own view the relativist is tough-minded, because faith and zeal strike him as untroubled and innocent, but for that very reason incapable of standing up to the tough knocks and blows of what we understand about the real world.
The absolutist may talk his talk, celebrating his cosy relationship with truth, reason and objectivity, but perhaps he is just whistling to keep his spirits up, deliberately but self-deceivingly xviii. The relativist has confronted the uncomfortable truth that it is just whistling, and that there is a blindspot. This tough relativist is apt to associate with those other toughminded philosophers: cynics, sceptics and nihilists. There are differences, however, and sometimes they matter. For instance, a sceptic properly believes that there is truth, somewhere, only it is not to be had by us.
Perhaps truth would be precious, could we get it, but our tragedy is that we cannot. This scepticism about possession of truth actually conforms well with absolutism about the nature of truth. For to the sceptical mind, one implication of the absolute and demanding nature of truth may well be that we are always at risk when we claim it.
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A relativist by contrast can be more cavalier about his convictions, since he holds that truth is too cheap to care about: his truth, your truth, my truth. Both the relativist and the absolutist temperaments have an illustrious intellectual ancestry. The absolutist descends from Plato through almost all religious philosophers, through Descartes to G. Moore, and in modern times to writers such as Iris Murdoch or Thomas Nagel. The relativist temperament descends from the Greek sophists such as Gorgias and Protagoras, through Hobbes to Darwin whom we shall discover as an honorary or co-opted member , to Nietzsche and William James, and in our own generation to writers such as Michel Foucault or Richard Rorty.
Wittgenstein, we shall nd, can be claimed by both sides, or he may, as I shall argue, stand somewhere else again. One moral I bring out in this book is that there are ways in which the two sides tend to talk past each other as classical philosophers liked to say, you can give something with the right hand but it may be taken by the left. The absolutist trumpets his plain vision; the relativist sees only someone who is unaware of his own spectacles.
The absolutist parades his good solid grounding in observation, reason, objectivity, truth and fact; the relativist sees only fetishes.
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The absolutist takes himself to speak to the ages, with the tongue of angels, but the relativist hears only one version among others, the subjectivity of the here and now. The absolutist takes himself to read xix. The absolutist lays down the law, but the relativist hears only roaring and bawling. Or, when the relativist voice, as it is heard from philosophers such as Nietzsche or James, itself starts to grate and sounds shrill, as it often does, and when the relativist then offers concessions, the absolutist hears only insincerity.
The war of words can often turn into a dialogue of the deaf, and this too is part of its power to arouse outrage and fury. In this book I want to uncover some of the thinking necessary to do justice to each tendency. For the ground is complicated, strewn with abandoned fortresses and trenches, fought over by shifting alliances.
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The plot will be that rst we talk a little more of the reign of reason. We then confront some of the characteristic theses of relativism, and attempts to unseat them. These attempts are not futile, although they turn out to be less impressive than many philosophers have supposed. We then consider the gale unleashed by the arch debunker, Friedrich Nietzsche.