Who’s afraid of relativism?

In recent years, relativism has had a particularly bad press. Often chided along with what some call postmodernism, relativism is held responsible for certain politicians’ complacent ignorance or bullshitting. While I’m not alone in thinking that this scapegoating is due to a severe misunderstanding of relativism, even those who should know better join the choir of condemnation:

“The advance of relativism – the notion that truth is relative to each individual’s standpoint – reached what might be seen as a new low with the recent claim by Donald Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway that there are such things as “alternative facts”. (She went so far as to cite a non-existent “Bowling Green massacre” to justify Trump’s refugee travel ban, something she later described as a “misspeak”.)” Joe Humphrey’s paraphrasing Timothy Williamson in the Irish Times, 5.7. 2017

If this is what Williamson thinks, he confuses relativism with extreme subjectivism. But I don’t want to dismiss this view too easily. The worry behind this accusation is real. If people do think that truth is relative to each individual’s standpoint, then “anything goes”. You can claim anything and there are no grounds for me to correct you. If this is truth, there is no truth. The word is a meaningless appeal. However, I don’t think that the politicians in question believe in anything as sophisticated as relativism. Following up on some intriguing discussions about the notion of “alternative facts”, I believe that the strategy is (1) to lie by (2) appealing to an (invented) set of states of affairs that supposedly has been ignored. Conway did not assume that she was in the possession of her own subjective truth; quite the contrary. Everyone would have seen what she claimed to be the truth, had they cared to look at the right time in the right way. If I am right, her strategy depends on a shared notion of truth. In other words, I guess that Williamson and Conway roughly start out from the same understanding of truth. To bring in relativism or postmodernism is not helpful when trying to understand the strategy of politicians.

By introducing the term “alternative facts” Conway reminds us of the fact (!) that we pick out truths relative to our interests. I think we are right to be afraid of certain politicians. But why are we afraid of relativism? We have to accept that truth, knowledge or morality are relative to a standard. Relativism is the view that there is more than one such standard.* This makes perfect sense. That 2 plus 2 equals 4 is not true absolutely. Arguably, this truth requires the agreement on a certain arithmetic system. I think that arithmetic and other standards evolve relative to certain interests. Of course, we might disagree about the details of how to spell out such an understanding of relativism. But it is hard to see what makes us so afraid of it.

Perhaps an answer can be given by looking at how relativism evolved historically. If you look at early modern or medieval discussions of truth, knowledge and morality, there is often a distinction between divine and human concepts. Divine knowledge is perfect; human knowledge is partial and fallible. Divine knowledge sets an absolute standard against which human failure is measured. If you look at discussions in and around Locke, for instance, especially his agnosticism about real essences and divine natural law, divine knowledge is still assumed but it loses the status of a standard for us. What we’re left with is human knowledge, in all its mediocrity and fallibility. Hume goes further and no longer even appeals to the divine as a remote standard. Our claims to knowledge are seen as rooted in custom. Now if the divine does no longer serve as an absolute measure, human claims to knowledge, truth and morality are merely one possible standard. There is no absolute standard available. Nominal essences or customs are relative to the human condition: our biological make-up and our interests. The focus on human capacities, irrespective of the divine, is a growing issue, going hand in hand with an idea of relativism.  The “loss” of the absolute is thus owing to a different understanding of theological claims about divine standards. Human knowledge is relative in that it is no longer measured against divine knowledge. If this is correct, relativism emerged (also) as a result of a dissociation of divine and human standards. Why would we be afraid of that?

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* I’m following Martin Kusch’s definition in his proposal for the ERC project on the Emergence of Relativism“It is not easy to give a neutral definition of “relativism”: defenders and critics disagree over the question of what the relativist is committed to. Roughly put, the relativist regarding a given domain (e.g. epistemology) insists that judgments or beliefs in this domain are true or false, justified or unjustified, only relative to  systems of standards. For the relativist there is more than one such system, and there is no neutral way of adjudicating between them. Some relativists go further and claim that all such systems are equally valid.”

All interpretations of ideas in Locke are mistaken – really? A response to Kenny Pearce

I’m exaggerating, but only a bit. Earlier this year, Kenny Pearce* wrote a fine post on “Locke’s Experimental Philosophy of Ideas”, highlighting what is often forgotten: that Locke’s Essay ties in with Baconian natural history. He then goes on to argue that we should also see Locke’s account of ideas as part of that project and concludes:

“This line of interpretation has consequences for how we must understand Locke’s account of ideas. If Locke is following this kind of Baconian methodology then, although he does at various points seek to explain various phenomena, his ‘ideas’ cannot be understood as theoretical posits aiming to explain how we perceive external objects.”

If this is correct, almost all interpretations of Locke’s theory of ideas are mistaken. Locke’s account amounts to nothing more than an unsystematic catalogue of the “ideas of which we are aware”. Indeed, the whole Essay is to be seen as an “intentionally unsystematic work”. Or so Kenny Pearce claims.

I think this is a challenging approach and certainly deserves more attention. At this point, however, I would like to address just one issue, i.e. the claim that ideas are to be seen in a “natural historical” sense. Given the evidence, I think this is correct and has been overlooked too often in attempts at making sense of book II of the Essay. But I would like to add two observations that might put a wholly different spin on Locke’s account.

(1) Natural history is not simply an account of what we “are aware” of. Locke sees his natural history of ideas as one that proceeds from simple ideas to the more complex. Starting from the simple ingredients, however, is not meant to imply that we are aware of simple ideas as givens. Locke doesn’t think that our awareness starts with simple ideas. Rather, Locke starts with simple ideas for two reasons: firstly, he wants to account for the origin of ideas; secondly, he starts with simple ideas for what one might call didactical reasons: “Because observing the faculties of the Mind, how they operate about simple Ideas …, we may the better examine them and learn how the Mind abstracts, denominates, compares, and exercises its other Operations, about those which are complex …” (II, xi, 14)

(2) Perhaps more importantly, Locke explicitly finishes this natural historical account early on and begins an entirely new discussion of ideas: here, he is interested in relations between different kinds of ideas and in what I’d call their epistemic content: “Though in the foregoing part, I have often mentioned simple Ideas, which are truly the Materials of all our knowledge; yet having treated them there, rather in the way that they come into the Mind, than as distinguished from others more compounded, it will not be, perhaps amiss to take a view of some of them again under this Consideration …” (II, xiii, 1) Thus, a great part of book II is not owing to the natural historical perspective.

The upshot is that Locke introduces two different perspectives on ideas: the natural historical one, accounting for the origin, and the epistemic one, accounting for representational content. As I elaborate in a paper of mine, I think that the former perspective focuses on the causal history of ideas, while the latter is intended as a consideration of the different kinds of representational content in our episodes of thought. In other words, the former explains how ideas originate in experience, while the latter explains how we end up taking things as something, e.g. as substances, modes or relations.

If this is correct, we should indeed acknowledge Locke’s reliance on Baconian natural history. But we should also carefully consider where Locke introduces different ways of treating ideas. After all, in conjunction with the considerations on language, Locke took his account of ideas as something that would “afford us another sort of Logick and Critick, than what we have been hitherto acquainted with.” (IV, xxi, 4)

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* Kenny Pearce regularly blogs on early modern philosophy.