Those of us who identify in various ways as “conservative,” especially in academic settings, have a story that we like to tell. It is a story wherein we are the heroes, and the villain bears the name “relativism.” We all believe in truth, while it seems like a great many scholars nowadays do not, at least not anymore. This seems to be the case especially among those like myself who are willing, recalling W. H. Auden’s phrasing, to commit a social science. Oh, sure, they still use the word ‘truth,’ but they think that truth is relative, and we all know that if truth is relative, it is not really truth at all. The same goes for beauty and goodness, as we like to say. At the risk of using a politically incorrect metaphor, relativism wears the black hat in our story, and rides the black horse. Whenever we mention it, the music switches into a minor key and gets a bit louder, so we know that evil is afoot.
It may seem as though I am recalling the story in a rather cynical tone, but do not mistake my intent. I like to think that I have a white hat hanging in my office too! I share the view that there are many academics nowadays whose views about truth have gone past implausible and gotten downright silly. I do not much like relativism, and I definitely do not wish to become a defender of it. I much prefer being a defender of truth. There are some questions I want to raise, however, about what is involved in being for truth and against relativism.
We can start by noticing that the word ‘relativism’ is not usually defined very clearly. In situations where it is defined clearly, it seems that the definition is not always the same. Sometimes ‘relativism’ is the view that any way of looking at things is just as good as any other, that there is no objective way to evaluate anyone’s truth-claims. Other times it refers to the view that truth is somehow individualized, such that each person somehow “has” a truth, and that they can all be different, perhaps even radically so. Still other times, ‘relativism’ refers to the view that truth is always inextricably tied to culture, so that truth may differ from one culture to the next, but it will presumably be the same for any two persons who share the same culture. The latter view has a number of variations, depending on exactly what is meant by ‘culture,’ a point on which social scientists do not necessarily agree.
There are probably several other usages that are not captured by this quick and dirty typology. The main thing that seems to me to remain constant, however the word ‘relativism’ is defined, is the supposition that relativism is a rejection of truth in the sense that most of us use that word, and the concomitant assumption that the consequences of that rejection are vicious. But does every use of the term ‘relative’ indicate relativISM? It seems to me that in recent years ‘relativism’ is often a handy word that conservatively inclined folks toss around to indicate “the enemy.” While still emphasizing my own fondness for truth, I want to point out that this use of the term ‘relativism’ may bear some similarities to the widespread use of the term ‘communist’ in the United States near the middle of the last century. It now seems clear to many of us, even when we remain clearly opposed to communism politically, that the way the term ‘communist’ was rather carelessly applied during that period was not always beneficial to the ideals that anti-communists supposedly wished to defend. The main thing that I want to suggest here is that our use of the term ‘relativism,’ insofar as it is not careful use, may not always be of benefit to the defense of truth.
To promote greater care, you might expect that I will advocate clarifying exactly what we mean by ‘relativism.’ While that is certainly not a bad idea, I would note that it has already been tried many times, and it does not seem to be enough. More important, I think, is that we examine our attachment to truth more carefully than we usually do.
When we worry about truth, we sometimes attach the modifier “absolute” to it. We believe that there is absolute truth. We may be tempted to think of this belief as being a part of what makes us “conservative.” But the conservative intellectual tradition, as represented by critics of the Enlightenment such as Burke, and their contemporary heirs such as Russell Kirk and Michael Oakeshott, have often gone to great lengths to emphasize the fact that human beings are not in a position to take hold of something like “absolute” truth. In the conservative tradition, the paradigm for folks who believe they can grab hold of absolute truth is found in the builders of the Tower of Babel. As Thomas Sowell and others have pointed out, it is usually contemporary progressives who have considered themselves “the anointed,” who have the true vision of the good for society, and believe themselves able to bring about that good through centralized administration. Conservatives know better. They know that, in the words of St. Paul, we see “through a glass, darkly.”
Now, you may cry “FOUL!” at this point. Believing that there is absolute truth is a whole different animal from believing that one actually has that truth, that one possesses it! This is surely true (whether it is absolutely true or not we will leave aside for now). But I am not sure that this distinction, however logically correct it may be, is one that we actually observe all that often. It really only tends to come up precisely when someone who believes in “absolute” truth is backed into a corner. (“Well, of course I am not claiming to possess it!”) I suspect that we usually fudge the distinction in actual practice. This is a suspicion that I share with Friedrich Nietzsche.
Ok, yes, I admit it. I have been deeply influenced by Nietzsche, and by some more recent thinkers who have taken him very seriously. Now you might begin to doubt whether my hat or my horse are as white as I have let on. Is Nietzsche not the most famous denier of truth? Is he not the guy who paved the way for the Nazis, for Heidegger and atheistic existentialism, for deconstructionism and postmodernism? Bear with me here, please. I am far from the only conservatively inclined person who has taken Nietzsche with great seriousness, and even believed that he was on the right track about some very important things. What I wish to do here, in the spirit of Nietzsche, is to point out some of the problems that have been associated with the passionate desire for truth, with what Nietzsche and Foucault have called the “will to truth,” and to note some of the ways in which we might take these problems with appropriate seriousness, while not tossing out any freshly washed babies.
For the sake of simplicity, I am going to note four general categories of problems that arise in connection with truth. Or to be more precise, these are problems that arise in connection with our beliefs about truth, which in turn seem to raise questions about truth itself (i.e., about what truth is). Please note that, in each case, the word “relative” will play a central role. In each case, I would contend that the contemporary conservative temptation is simply to meet the problems with dogmatic negation, conflating any sort of relativity with black-hat relativism.
The first category is that of perspective. We are finite creatures, and we see the world always from a particular place and time. We would like to be able to adopt a view from everywhere, or a view from nowhere, a view that is not limited, a view that takes in everything from every angle. We would like to see the world as God sees it, but we know that we cannot. Another way of putting this is to say that what we take to be the truth at any particular time is relative to when and from where we apprehend it.
The second category is prejudice, and I do not mean only in the negative sense of, for example, racial prejudice. We “pre-judge” whatever we apprehend. In philosophy of science terms, our observations are “theory-laden.” We must have some sort of conceptual context within which to understand any particular facts. We never simply receive a “pure datum” from the world. As Kant put it, percepts without concepts are blind. Another way of putting this is to say that our understanding of truth at any particular time is relative to the fundamental way in which we approach the world conceptually, to our theoretical framework.
The third category is power. One need not be at all radical or even progressive to believe that Marx was right about some things. The ruling ideas are, quite often, the ideas of the ruling class. (Think about how relativism is the ruling idea in some places now, precisely because it is the idea of a “ruling class.”) What is taken to be true by many people is what is said to be true by the putative experts, by the people who are viewed as legitimate authorities, who have the power to enforce their claims to truth. What is taken to be true generally serves the interests of someone—if not always the interests of the economically powerful, as Marx emphasized, then perhaps those with other sorts of power. Most importantly, it may serve our own interests. Our understanding of truth at any particular time is relative to the interests of those in power, of ourselves, or of both. Nietzsche also believed that we desire truth individually mainly because we desire power. We want to be right in a way that others cannot question. As Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder wrote, “We want people to HAVE to believe what we say.”
The fourth category is that of language. (I suppose that sermonic symmetry would have called for another word beginning with ‘p,’ but I could not think of one.) Most people who study language now have basically given up on seeing the workings of language primarily in terms of how each element of the language “hooks to the world.” Language is viewed as a system, in which the meaning of any one of the elements is a function of its relationship to the other elements. Words mean by referring not first to things in the world, but to other words. It is emphatically not that words cannot or do not refer to the world; it is quite obvious that they do! Even Jacques Derrida, who is usually badly misunderstood in this regard, often emphasized that he was not claiming otherwise. They do this referring, however, based on the meaning that they have in the language system, rather than the meaning being constituted by the referring.
When I teach about language, I usually call this the “systemic” view of meaning, as opposed to the older “referential” view, which assumes that language is essentially a set of names for things. One of the implications of the systemic view seems to be that the way language refers is not by each atomistic element of the language straightforwardly “pointing” to an atomistic element of the world. That is, although language does somehow point to the world, the pointing is not what explains how meaning works. Language arranges (perhaps gathers would be better) the world for us conceptually before we have even begun to use it in everyday settings. The Inuit immediately see distinctions between different kinds of snow that I do not immediately see, because their language distinguishes between them and mine does not. They have words for some differences that I do not. This does not mean that I could not come to perceive the differences they perceive, just as my not speaking their language does not mean that I cannot learn it. But at some level, a lot of people now claim that our understanding of truth at any particular time is relative to the resources that our language provides for talking about it.
I am obviously opening several cans of worms here! The main point of mentioning these problems has been to note that they can all be stated by using the term ‘relative.’ What I wish to suggest now, however, is that the use of this term does not have to be an indication of relativism of the black-hat-and-horse variety. Claims regarding relativity, falling into any of the categories I have noted, have widely been taken to provide support for relativism. But many thinkers, including some that are clearly allied with the conservative intellectual tradition, have also been able to embrace such claims rather than denying them, while remaining strong critics of what I am calling black-hat relativism. Some recent examples would include Michael Oakeshott, Alasdair MacIntyre, and (most influential for me) sociologist Peter L. Berger. MacIntyre and Berger have especially helped us to see that Marxian or Nietzschean suspicions regarding power and interests may be aimed just as effectively at progressive (or other) establishments as conservative ones.
As a point of comparison, consider the use of the term ‘relative’ in contemporary physics. As I understand it (and physicist friends tell me that I am correct about this), according to Einstein, space and time only exist as relationships between things. That is, space and time as Einstein sees them only make sense if there are things that are related to each other. In other words, if there were only one thing in the universe, it would not make any sense to talk about that thing moving. It can only move relative to something else. This is why it is called relativity theory. What the acceptance of relativity theory involved, if I understand correctly, was a denial of Isaac Newton’s understanding of space as a sort of single static frame of reference, within which it would make sense to talk about distance and time even if there were no things in it. It is a denial, in other words, of absolute space. Similar considerations hold for the relativity of time.
Now, it should be clear that relativity in Einstein’s sense is not relativism in any of the “black hat” senses. To deny that there is such a thing as absolute time is by no means to say that there is no such thing as time in any objective sense. To deny that space is “absolute” is not to say that space is whatever we think it is, or whatever “works for you.” It is most certainly not to say that there is “not really such a thing” as space.
I think that in order to get clear on what relativism is in the black-hat sense, we need to get clear on how relativity is not the same thing as relativism. It may be that our understanding of truth, or even what truth “in itself” is (if that makes sense, which the tradition of philosophical idealism holds it does not), will turn out to have some complexities to it that are similar to the often counterintuitive complexities of contemporary physics. It may turn out, that is, that truth only makes sense in terms of some complex relationships, and thus is relative in roughly the same way that space and time are. And please understand: I am not just saying that our perception of truth may be relative. That part is not very controversial. I am saying that truth itself may turn out to involve relativity. Note that I have not even mentioned the whole area of quantum theory, which apparently implies that the observer has some effect on what is actually happening in the world, and not just on how it looks to the observer. It may turn out that the sorts of relativity that I have rehearsed tell us some very important things, not only about our understanding of truth, but about what truth itself is.
I am aware that some thorny issues may arise here especially for a theistic point of view. I have no intention of avoiding such issues, though I do not address them at length at present. Suffice it to say here that the possible relativity of truth is not, so far as I can tell, a greater problem for a believer in God than is the relativity of space and/or time. Again, I am influenced here by Peter L. Berger’s reflections on this issue, among others. But my point is not finally to settle any of the particular issues that I have raised in passing. My point is only to throw out a challenge to all of us who like to tell the conservative story of relativism and truth. It may be that we sometimes paint the enemy with much too broad a brush, labeling any claims that what is true might be in some sense a relative matter as examples of relativism.
Allow me to clarify, in closing, a bit more of how I understand black-hat relativism (as opposed to relativity). That relativism ends with “ism” is no accident. It is, when all is said and done, primarily a normative view. The claim of relativism apparently amounts to a moral claim. It is ultimately a claim that you must not defend the superiority of one view over another. It is somehow wrong to judge someone else’s view incorrect and your view correct. When it is understood in this way, of course, it is obvious that the claim is self-defeating. Inasmuch as it is wrong to claim that my view is better than yours, it is also wrong for me to claim that relativism is better than your “absolutism”. But logical problems like this have never prevented many people from holding a particular view, not even among academics. That a view can be made to look silly does not prevent it from being a dangerous or destructive view, especially if it is widely held. And I do not mean to suggest that black-hat relativism is not actually widely held. I think many of us understand clearly that it is widely influential, especially in some academic settings, and especially when folks there are also using broad brushes in careless ways.
No, I will not say that conservatives should not tell their favored story about relativism and truth, with its good guys and its bad guys. But I hope that you will consider my plea that we should exercise more care than we sometimes do, especially when the music gets louder and shifts to a minor key.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. For one of the most impressive attempts at showing that this affirmation does not have to lead to black-hat relativism, see Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards of Post-Critical Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, 1962).
2. John Howard Yoder, “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,” in Faith and Philosophy, v. 9 (1992) no. 3, p. 287.