Friday, July 01, 2005

But is it true for you?

Posted in: Philosophy

Abstract: In this paper, I take a look at epistemological relativism, and conclude that it isn't true for me.


Relativism is the belief that the truth of any given proposition can only be evaluated according to considerations that vary between individuals or groups of individuals.  Among these considerations are time, place, culture, conceptual framework, or personal conviction. Epistemological relativism (the focus of this paper, henceforth ER) is to be distinguished from moral relativism, in that the former deals with the truth of propositions, and the latter with the value or ethical force of prescriptions.  Some consider its conclusions to be an alternative to absolutism.  Absolutism is the belief that the truth of any given proposition can be evaluated according to some neutral criteria, criteria that do not beg the question in favor of any considerations above.

So what?  Do we really need to talk about this?  Harvey Siegel, way back in 1987, traced relativism's development from Protagoras to contemporary reformulations.1 He concluded that the initial refutation by Plato applies in some modified form to those later attempts to reintroduce it.  Before examining the arguments, let's say that relativism has been refuted successfully in the philosophical literature, and that there is little if anything new to say on the subject.

On the other hand, outside of philosophical circles, relativism is more than just an open question. Indeed, as a catchphrase--"its all relative, anyways"--a whole lot of people believe it.  So in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom muses:

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.  If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students' reaction: they will be uncomprehending.  That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 plus 2 = 4.  These are things you don't think about.2

The truth in this oft-quoted passage gives significant motivation for our project. The trend Bloom observed eighteen years ago has certainly not dissipated.  Look at the internet.  When we are inundated with such a myriad of conflicting beliefs and opinion, on all conceivable issues, and imparted with all conceivable levels of certainty, it may become more difficult for some to understand how non-question begging criteria can be invoked to judge between those beliefs.

Thus, the aims of this paper are three. First, we will briefly look at versions of relativism that have shown up in the history of philosophy.  Second, we will offer critiques, primarily through the work already done by its best critics.  Third, we will develop a valid absolutism that takes into account the insights offered by previous attempts at a coherent relativist philosophy.

Epistemological Relativism: From Protagoras Outward

In Plato's Theaetetus we receive the classic formulation of ER in its extreme. Plato presents a fictional Socrates, who is drawing out a theory of knowledge from the young student Theaetetus, through the dialectical method. Socrates compares his student's theory to the position of the great Protagoras. "He says, you remember, that 'man is the measure of all things'-alike of the being of things that are and of the not-being of things that are not."3  This may serve as a thesis statement for ER.  He goes on to clarify the position: "any given thing is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you, you and I being men."4  In this basic relativism, then, the individual determines what is true and what is false.  In the words of Theaetetus, "Knowledge is nothing but perception."5  Indeed, Socrates notes, it can be seen as a rather popular opinion; he quotes a number of pre-Socratic philosophers, and even Homer, to support the view.

After discussing it in depth, Socrates offers several criticisms of the view.  The first is summed up here:

I am charmed with his doctrine, that what appears is to each one, but I wonder that he did not begin his book on Truth with a declaration that a pig or a dog-faced baboon, or some other yet stranger monster which has sensation, is the measure of all things; then he might have shown a magnificent contempt for our opinion of him by informing us at the outset that while we were reverencing him like a God for his wisdom he was no better than a tadpole, not to speak of his fellow-men-would not this have produced an over-powering effect? For if truth is only sensation, and no man can discern another's feelings better than he, or has any superior right to determine whether his opinion is true or false, but each, as we have several times repeated, is to himself the sole judge, and everything that he judges is true and right, why, my friend, should Protagoras be preferred to the place of wisdom and instruction, and deserve to be well paid, and we poor ignoramuses have to go to him, if each one is the measure of his own wisdom? Must he not be talking ad captandum in all this? I say nothing of the ridiculous predicament in which my own midwifery and the whole art of dialectic is placed; for the attempt to supervise or refute the notions or opinions of others would be a tedious and enormous piece of folly, if to each man his own are right; and this must be the case if the Truth of Protagoras is the real truth, and the philosopher is not merely amusing  himself by giving oracles out of the shrine of his book.6

 Let us consider the content of this criticism.  Socrates notes that it is arbitrary to call "man" the measure of all things, and not a "dog-faced baboon" or some other creature.  Why is it arbitrary?  He explains: if the individual is the measure of all things, then there is no reason to accept the view coming forth from the supposedly wise Protagoras as superior.  In fact, there is no reason to accept the view at all, because, if "each one is the measure of his own wisdom," then one's own perception, and not that of Protagoras, would be solely determinative of his knowledge.  Socrates then extends it to his own project of teaching through 'midwifery,' or the dialectical tutelage of younger students like Theaetetus.  In ER's account, there is no reason or justification for Socrates to be weighing or "supervising" the opinions of others, if it is, by definition, true for the one who perceives it to be.  We could extend insight to question the need for teaching at all, if relativism were true.

Siegel recommends that we call this the "'undermines the very notion of rightness' (henceforth UVNR) argument."7 Following his recommendation, we will adopt this styling as one of the main charges against relativism.  The point is that ER, in at least its "Protagorean" form, undermines the notion of rightness, sound judgment, and thus the value of knowledge itself.  As Siegel summarizes it, "relativism is incoherent because, if it is right, the very notion of rightness is undermined, in which case relativism cannot be right."8

Another Socratic criticism is here:

In that case, Protagoras, what are we to make of your doctrine?  Are we to say that what men think is always true, or that it is sometimes true and sometimes false?  From either supposition it results that their thoughts are not always true, but both true and false.  For consider...are you, or is any Protagorean, prepared to maintain that no one regards anyone else as ignorant or as making false judgments?
 ...That, however, is the inevitable consequence of the doctrines which makes man the measure of all things.

So not only is it impossible, claims UVNR, to call something right, but it is also impossible to call any judgment false.  One might wonder whether this is such a condemning criticism.  After all, if no judgment can be called false, then it may seem like everyone is a winner.  Everyone gets their own pat on the back, for everyone has already fulfilled the difficult task of determining their reality, just by perceiving it.  Is this necessarily a problem?  Socrates explains:

Protagoras, for his part, admitting as he does that everybody's opinion is true, must acknowledge the truth of his opponents' belief about his own belief, where they think he is wrong...Then, since it is disputed by everyone, the Truth of Protagoras is true to nobody-to himself no more than to anyone else.10

And so Socrates turns the tables on his elder, Protagoras.  The problem is that if we are to assume that no beliefs are false, then Protagoras would have to admit to the truth (the truth for them) of those beliefs which negate his.  But it does not follow that the beliefs of his opponents are likewise falsified-to wit, if they dispute ER, then they are not falsified by it at all.  It is true-to-them that relativism is false.  So relativism is false-to-them.  It cannot therefore falsify their view in the same way that their determination falsified relativism.  Thus, if relativism is true, it is false.

Siegel has another name for this wing of Socrates' criticism: "'necessarily some beliefs are false' (henceforth NSBF)."11 That is precisely the point: some beliefs are necessarily going to be false, and if relativism is assumed, then it is that false belief.  Another way of saying this is that the opposite of true is false (which is the law of non-contradiction), and that, by affirming the truth of its contrary, relativism allows for itself to be falsified in its own system.

Let us put it more systematically, in a way that incorporates a broader view than that of Protagoras, who radicalized relativism to an individual level. 12  ER states that for any claim c, c can be judged or assessed according to the standards of s1,, in order to determine truth or falsity; but given another set of standards s`1,...s`n, there is no neutral set of standards which can arbitrate between the two.13 The truth or falsity of claim c is thus always relative to the set of standards used to judge it as true or false.  The upshot of ER is that there is no way to evaluate conflicting evaluations of the truth or falsity of claim c.14

The first criticism (UVNR) is as follows. Assume validity (or rational justification, or superiority to its alternative, or rightness) for ER.  This requires a neutral set of standards by which the validity of UVNR can be evaluated.  Yet this neutral set of standards is precisely what ER disallows.  Thus, ER cannot be valid (or rationally justifiable, or superior to its alternative, or right), because it undermines the very notion of validity (or rational justification, or superiority to alternatives, or rightness).15

 The second criticism (NSBF) is as follows. Assume validity of ER.  If it is valid, then it allows for non-ER but equally valid sets of standards by which truth claims may be judged.  There is no neutral standard by which we judge between non-ER standards and ER standards; moreover, non-ER standards determine ER to be false by some neutral standard (i.e. neutral by their standard); therefore, ER is false.

Relative and Absolute Truth: Who's Begging the Question?

 How can ER, in response, rejoin against these charges?  It will not do merely to allow ER to be invalidated and falsified through these ancient Socratic criticisms, will it?  What is missing?  ER can go in two ways in response, of which the absurdity of one way will become immediately apparent.  The absurd direction is to argue that, no, ER is in fact absolutely true, for some set of reasons.  This wording indicates the absurdity immediately, as relativism cannot be true in any absolute sense, without undermining relativism.

But the other route is to claim that the criticisms themselves beg the question, in that they judge ER by a standard it does not require of itself (or any other standards): that of absolute truth.  In other words, the criticisms of ER presume absolute truth, in order to show that an epistemology, which denies absolute truth, is absolutely false.  But if the criticisms fault ER for denying absolute truth, whereas relativism has some other theory of truth, then the criticisms beg the question.  It is not so apparent that this way of rejoinder is absurd, and there may be good reasons to think it is true.  So we must consider whether UVNR or NSBF beg the question by assuming absolute truth in the first place.

Indeed, regarding the UVNR and NSBF criticisms as such, they either beg the question, or are not yet necessarily a disproof of ER.  If they assume uncritically that ER must rely upon some notion of absolute truth, then they beg the question.  If they do not assume that relativism must rely upon some notion of absolute truth, then the arguments serve to demonstrate something important, but also unsurprising.  Namely, they demonstrate that any version of ER is wholly incoherent, but only to the extent that it must rely upon a concept of absolute truth.  That much is certain and should be obvious to anyone reading.  But what is not certain (from the preceding discussion) is that relativism could not be based on some other conception of truth, one that is untouched by the classic Socratic criticisms.  Thus we must attempt to treat ER in terms of some concept of "relative truth," by which we can then determine whether ER can be salvaged.

The difficulty, however, is establishing a concept of relative truth that does not itself rest on some concept of absolute truth.  Absolute truth is defined as that which corresponds to reality for all persons, places, and times.16 It is universal. So is relative truth that which is which corresponds to reality only for an individual (or place or time), or some group of individuals (or places, or times)?  Surely it means at least this. 

 But it is hard to see how even this sine qua non of relative truth evades UVNR and NSBF, or how it evades relying upon an absolute notion of truth.  Actually, the definition appears to be only delaying the inevitable.  For if some statement is true for either some people, some places, or some times, must we not also admit that it is true for all people, all places, and all times, that the statement is true for some people, some places, or some times?  In other words, even if I say claim x is only true-for-me (relative truth), is it not true-for-me for everyone (absolute relative truth)?  Certainly it is incoherent to say that claim x is true-for-me for me.  What then shall we say?

Perhaps the concept of relative truth will allow no further qualifications.  That is, if claim x is true-for-me, then that is all; the matter of its correspondence to my reality cannot be considered true or false for anyone else.  It is true-for-me, and that claim means nothing with respect to another's perspective.  The problem here becomes immediately apparent, however.  If it cannot mean anything with regards to truth or falsity for anyone else, then whether or not its true-for-me is literally meaningless, because it is already admitted to mean nothing (as regards any notion of truth) to anyone but the person recommending it.  For example, if someone else says, "Nadler thinks that claim x is true; so in ER, x is true-for-Nadler," we must suppose he means to make a true statement, in that it is a statement which corresponds to reality (i.e. the statement maker's reality, if ER).  However, if relativism is true in this sense, then that statement's correspondence cannot be so (or not so) for anyone but the individual for whom it's true.  So why read another person's paper on the subject of ER?  It is clear that UVNR applies to this concept of relative truth, rendering ER as incoherent as when the suggestion was not brought up.  The possibility of finding an intelligible concept of relative truth is not yet actualized. UVNR and NSBF were either right to assume a concept of absolute truth underlies ER, or we must look further for a valid concept of relative truth.

Jack Meiland thinks he has found such a notion which escapes the clutches of absolute truth.  He makes the following distinction:

(1)  The concept of absolute truth seems to be a concept of a two-term relation between statements (or perhaps propositions) on the one hand and facts (or states of affairs) on the other.  But the concept of relative truth, as used by some relativists, seems to be a concept of a three-term relation between statements, the world, and a third term which is either persons, world views, or historical and cultural situations.

(2)  The relation denoted by the expression 'absolute truth' is often said to be that of correspondence. The relativist can make use of this type of notion and say that 'P is true relative to W' means something like 'P corresponds to the facts from the point of view of W' (Where W is a person, a set of leading principles, a world view, or a situation).17

Granting that this three-term relation is merely meant by Meiland to be a step forward in understanding the meaning of relative truth, we must evaluate it on those grounds.  Does it make a step forward toward a viable notion of relative truth?  Let us consider Meiland's conclusions:

When we use expressions of the form 'P is true for W', it seems legitimate to ask the question "What does 'true' mean in this expression?"...The correct relativist answer to this question is: "It means that P is true-for-W." The hyphens in this answer are extremely important.  For they show that the relativist is not talking about truth but instead about truth-for-W.  Thus, one can no more reasonably ask what 'true' means in the expression 'true-for-W' than one can ask what 'cat' means in the word 'cattle'.  'True-for-W' denotes a special three-term relation which does not include the two-term relation as a distinct part.18

Since "the hyphens in this answer are extremely important," we will start there to try to understand whether the three-term relation is not in fact reducible to the two-term relation.  Meiland says that "truth" (the absolute notion) cannot be drawn from "truth-for-W" (the relative notion), noting that "one can no more reasonably ask what 'true' means in the expression 'true-for-W' than one can ask what 'cat' means in the word 'cattle'."  Siegel notes that 1) the analogy here is incorrect, and 2) if correct, it renders the notion of relative truth all the more hopeless.19 He expands the points well, but I would like to make additional comments on each point.

First, it is far more reasonable to ask what 'true' in 'true-for-W' means than to ask what 'cat' means in 'cattle'.  For 'cat' in the word 'cattle' means something in English only incidentally--but etymologically, 'cat' comes from the Latin root cattus, whereas 'cattle' comes from the root capitalus, through the old French chatel.20  The meaning of 'cat' has nothing to do with 'cattle'.  This is why it would be unreasonable to ask what 'cat' means in the word 'cattle', just as it would be unreasonable to ask what 'tle' means in 'cattle'. But is that a fair analogy to 'true-for-W'?  It is clear that it is not.  Indeed, the hyphens in the phrase may be extremely important, but they are not important because they erase the independent meaning of any of the three words in the phrase, but rather because they preserve the meaning of each of the independent terms.  Otherwise, the phrase is a highly absurd choice for terminology.  If the point of the hyphens was to erase the distinction between the three individual words, then there is no reason to keep the individual words, which of course each have their own meanings.  It would be just as effective to say, "'claim x is true for me,' means that claim x is ?," and then proceed without ever defining what ? is.

The problem is that we want to know what relative truth is, and we will not merely be content to hear that it is nothing like absolute truth.  This is begging the question, which we do not want for the relativist any more than for the absolutist.  So this is the second problem with his argument summary: if 'true-for-W' is nothing like 'true,' what is it like?  What does it mean? 

We recall that Meiland asserts "the concept of relative truth...seems to be a concept of a three-term relation between statements, the world, and a third term which is either persons, world views, or historical and cultural situations."  In order for this to be a three-term relation, not reducible to the two-term relation, we need a clearly understood notion for each term as separable yet relatable to the other.  This, as both Siegel and Meiland agree, obtains for a two-term correspondence of absolute truth.21  The statement about reality is clearly different than the reality to which it corresponds, if true, yet it relates to the world through that correspondence.  Yet how does a person (or W) relate to his statement, or the world?  Siegel notes that this cannot be true for ER, where the whole point is inseparability between the world and W.  In ER, the world is the world-as-it-is-to-us, or the world-in-worldview, if you will.  Otherwise, if the world could be understood separately from the person and his W, what is it but an absolute conception of truth, yet again?  Indeed, it is absolute truth. In that two term relation, no absolutist would argue that the person making statements about the world is not making them through some worldview or perceptions of some kind.  So, Siegel notes, it not a three-term relation at all, but a two-term relation of statements about the world-in-W and world-in-W (or world-to-the-individual).  This is the meaning of claim x being true-for-W: claim x corresponds to the world-in-W.

But, in this case, what we have is the classic problem of perception, and nothing more.  Although it seemed for a moment that Meiland furthered the case for relative truth, his insights really brought us full circle.  We still ask: Is it possible to arbitrate between worlds, or is each person bound to knowing a world-to-himself, which is true-to-himself?  We already answered this.  The claim of our ancient Theaetetus that "knowledge is perception"-which is all this is-falls to the same criticisms of UVNR and NSBF, and so we have not come up with a successful definition of relative truth as such.  For if knowledge is perception, then we must ask: is the claim that knowledge is perception such that it can be perceived as true, and if another perceives the claim to be false, does not their claim about ER's failure itself obtain to truth?  If a claim is true because it is perceived as such through some world view, then what of those world views which hold to the falsity of the thesis that a claim is true because it is perceived as such through some world view?  Those claims to knowledge that falsify relativism would be at least as valid as relativism itself.  Moreover, absolute truth is able to deal with the problem of perception, but without identifying knowledge with it.  So, there is no reason to accept ER based on relative truth (UNVR).  Furthermore, according to a view it holds to be correct for the perceiver, it is false (NSBF). 22

It is important to note that ER cannot be sustained on a version of relative truth, and thus succumbs to the classical criticisms.23 But now is no time to take a break. We are still in need of recovering an absolutist epistemology that takes into account the values that sustained support for the chimera of ER.

Relativism or Falliblism: Choose Wisely

 Some contemporary relativists have a tendency to confuse absolutism with what we shall call infallible foundationalism.  So Harold Brown defines the following as an absolutist assumption, which he rejects: "we are justified in making a knowledge claim only if it is based on an unquestionable foundation."24 Michael Krausz summarizes Clifford Geertz-a self-described "anti anti-relativist"-as being against "the de-centering of any one perspective as the absolutely true one."25  This implies that the "anti-relativist"-what we have called the absolutist-must believe that one "perspective" is an absolute perspective by which we judge other perspectives.  It assumes that, for the absolutist, all perspectives are judged according to a particular privileged perspective-a perspective which obtains to absolute truth.

One could think of some good reasons to be against this thesis, taken by some to be absolutism.  The problem is that it is not at all necessary to a view of absolute truth that there be one absolute perspective by which all other perspectives are evaluated.  Likewise, it is unnecessary for absolute truth that there be an "unquestionable foundation" upon which all knowledge claims must be based.  But as these issues require some finesse, we will consider them more deeply.

We recall that we defined absolutism as the belief that the truth of any given proposition can be evaluated according to some neutral criteria.  What is meant by neutral?  By neutral, we mean that the criteria will not favor any particular framework or individual perspective.  The term that best captures the meaning of we are considering is public, or even objective.  The point is that the criteria does not belong to you or me or any other individual-it is to be shared by all, and may be discovered by anyone.

As such, this criteria is necessarily not limited to a particular perspective.  Thus, the goal of "de-centering of any perspective as the any particular true one" is a perfectly acceptable project-if it were the case that absolutists were proclaiming their particular perspective as central.  They need not be.  Of course, if one merely means that absolutists believe they are correct in what they assert, then one can hardly fault them for that.  That's a mark of integrity, after all-to mean and believe in what one is asserting.  Representatives of all sorts of differing viewpoints likewise consider their view to be correct, and this is not at all relevant to the whether relativism or absolutism is true.  The issue is whether it is necessary to the thesis of neutral criteria that there be an absolutely true perspective. We assert that there need not be for there to be neutral criteria.  This is not to say that there is no absolutely true perspective.  That there exists a "God's eye view" is a reasonable conclusion of theism-the belief in a God who views.  Conversely, it might also be an unreasonable assumption of fascism-the belief in the forced manifestation of a "God's eye view" through the state. But neither are logically prior to absolutism.

For the (modest) absolutist, one thing is needed for objective, neutral criteria-an object of knowledge.  All perspectives through which that object is viewed can be considered subjective, by definition.  It is the recognition of existence of the object, and thus the objective criteria that flow from the object, which must lead to some form of absolutism.  Mortimer J. Adler gives it as the distinction between our "consciousness"-which is subjective-and the objects of our consciousness-which are objective.26

But does absolutism require an "unquestionable foundation"?  Again, this would be taking absolutism too far.  That something (or some object of consciousness) exists, is indeed absolutely and infallibly true (as are other self-evident propositions).  There is no "perspective" which could hold to the contradictory ("nothing exists") and be correct in its assertion. But then, that something exists is also a vague assertion, so very absolutely true because it is so very vague.  We could not, by any meaningful accounts, call it an "unquestionable" foundation, whereas it is precisely the questioning of this foundation that offers some content to the absolutely true claim.  To explain this point, we will ask the foundation some questions.  What is this 'something'?  Is it 'Absolute Spirit'?  'Flux'?  'The One'?  'Being'?  'Matter'?  What is 'existence'?  Is it 'thinking'?  'Subjectivity'?  'Actuality'?  'Materiality'?  In this sense, the foundation (here, the law of identity, as applied to some essence) is not incorrigible, but rather revisable.  Moreover, because perspectives on the foundational object can possibly answer the questions wrongly, the very content of the foundation is understood not to be infallible, but rather fallible.  The foundation is objective existence and that which is self-evident about it, but the rest is up for public discussion-including what in fact is self-evident about it.

 Not only is it possible to be a falliblist-to believe that knowledge-claims are not necessarily certain-and remain an absolutist, but we would hold that it is normative to be a falliblist, and be an absolutist.  To hold to the necessity of the infallibility of knowledge is as extreme and untrue a view as the view that all truth is relative.  "We must believe that what we know is known infallibly" is perhaps the fault of laziness and uncritical thinking, but not the fault of an objective real world.

Yet some contemporary relativists seem to align their view with falliblism as quickly as they mark off the opposing view as unquestioned foundationalism. Brown writes:

 "The main thesis of relativist epistemology is that knowledge can be constructed on a fallible foundation.  Relativism affirms my right to hold my own presuppositions in spite of their fallibility, to proceed on the basis of these presuppositions, and to reject competing sets of presuppositions as false."27

Let us lay to rest the myth that this is an anti-absolutist thesis.  Moreover, if it is to be taken as "the main thesis of relativist epistemology," then we will have to revise our definition of relativism, in the first place, to something rather trivial.  It is more likely that the author is confusing relativism with falliblism, an opinion corroborated by Siegel.28 Indeed, absolutism can uphold Brown's "relativist" thesis, with but a cautious caveat that our rights come with the responsibility to maintain a reasonable justification grounding those beliefs, which are admittedly fallible. This reasonable justification appeals to public, neutral criteria.  To believe and assert the falsity of competing views, without any justification for doing so, is more than fallible-it is irrational.

Then again, if Brown is proclaiming the right to believe and dogmatically assert whatever one wants to believe and dogmatically assert, then we are not obliged to agree with him.  It is our right to use common sense and reject such a thesis, as we can all think of beliefs with absurd and immoral implications, that no one ought to believe or assert. We perhaps should not restrain fools from doing so either.  But we will not say it is a "right" for them.  But we will remain charitable and assume that Brown is really going after the right to proceed from a fallible foundation, and not mere intellectual anarchy. He ought to become an absolutist, in that case.

Towards an Absolutist Epistemology

Absolutism affirms my right to believe, even though the foundation for belief may be revised, questioned, and fallible. But absolutism does not end there.  For since absolutism requires the possibility of neutral criteria by which competing claims can be evaluated, it also affirms my right to investigate the world around me in the pursuit of knowledge, and to make rational judgments regarding the justification for particular beliefs.  For without the possibility of neutral criteria, this kind of judgment is impossible.  Any judgment made under ER would be arbitrary at best, and thus better kept to one's self. 

 And so certain unclear notions must further be dispelled.  Absolutism is not restrictive as to what one must believe, but rather the assertion that there is something to believe.  Radical ER-that which reduces to solipsism of some kind-annihilates the possibility for there being something objective in which to believe, and so that can be described as the most restrictive, and most dogmatic, of our options here.  Yet other relativisms which reduce to solidarity within a particular framework, or world view, likewise either disallow for rational arbitration between the two or more competing frameworks, and are thus likewise restrictive in what they deny.  Absolutism (even in its most dogmatic state) does allow for arbitration between competing frameworks, theories, and the like.

If "openness" is a value that is driving the acceptance of relativism, perhaps it ought to be reconsidered.  ER is ill-equipped for openness, because it does not encourage the investigation into various theories, for the purpose of understanding them in a meaningful way (as true or false).  It can, at best, appeal to a superficial attitude of openness.  But the attitude alone, if underwritten by ER, will not pay off, for the epistemology is self-defeating and thus ineffective at making epistemological progress.  It is like a man who wants to travel so badly that he goes to work at a local airline ticketing agency, without ever taking a flight.  He is open to travel, but not employing the means of doing so.  Likewise, the relativist may be open to knowledge, but without the means of attaining or evaluating it.  He sets the limits at precisely where he would have needed to transcend them to fulfill the value of openness-whether at his individual perspective, or cultural framework, or worldview.  The very things which ought to be critically evaluated by an open-minded person cannot be transcended but by an absolutist epistemology.  For these things are the limits of his world.

The basis for an absolute epistemology is rationality itself, and so the difficulty for demonstrating absolutism (and not merely refuting its contrary) is to justify rationality.  But we will only make a modest case for rationality here.  Rationality is grounded in being, and as has already been noted, something exists. If something did not exist, it would be impossible to comment on whether it did or did not exist. Therefore, if something exists, and if that can be known (if we have already asserted it, then it is clear that it is known), then the justifiability of certain beliefs have been shown through a transcendent method.  Therefore, a modest case for rationality starts with the existence of something.

Absolutism and Metaphysics

Absolutism is an epistemological issue (it is epistemology's justification, as relativism is its destruction), but we may also consider its metaphysical implications.  As briefly addressed earlier, it would seem that there is a particular metaphysical commitment which is required for an absolutist-namely, realism.  Realism is defined in manifestly different ways, but the basic concept is that truth corresponds to a real world of objects. However, even if that truth were not defined according to correspondence-something we have been assuming for this paper (because it is the correct view, of course)-an absolutist epistemology is still possible and proper.  So it does not seem that even realism, of whatever variety, is strictly a requirement for an absolutist.

Again, absolutism does not force any absolutes (metaphysical or physical) upon the adherent.29  Whatever force of persuasion or compulsion there is comes from the evidence itself.  Absolutism allows for the possibility of objective evidence.  For example, 'being exists' is a metaphysical statement.  But an absolutist epistemology did not require that knowledge (nor does it begin to clarify what 'being exists' might really imply for further developing ontology), but rather provided a posteriori rational justification for why the existence of some being is true universally and absolutely.  Relativism is simply the self-defeating denial of that justification or universality.


 We have shown how epistemological relativism, from its incipient form outward, has two major criticisms against it.  The first is that because relativism undermines the very notion of rightness (UVNR), it cannot be considered correct or cognitively superior to its alternatives, which do not undermine the notion of rightness.  The second is that necessarily some beliefs are false (NSBF), and relativism guarantees its own falsity by allowing other views to be (even relatively) true, and those views consider it to be (absolutely) false.  Further, we considered how relative truth as a concept is reducible to absolute truth, which indicates the truth of absolutism. 'Relative truth' as such only points to the real philosophical problem of the nature of perspective, which must be addressed, but can be addressed without doing damage to absolutism.  We considered how those values which relativism was supposed to be shouldering, are best handled by an absolutism which embraces the possibility of epistemological error and revision, even to the foundational level.  Finally, we addressed what an absolutist epistemology would look like, taking into considerations that are raised by relativism.  Although a fuller treatment of the many more important versions of ER remains, this basic sketch of its principles and alternative may offer suggestions for how to intelligibly approach those other versions.


          1 Harvey Siegel, Relativism Refuted: A Critique of Contemporary Epistemological Relativism, (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1987)  Much of this paper will be a review of Siegel's book.  He concludes, contrary to those who consider the issue dead, that the issue is the most vibrant and essential in philosophy today.
          2 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 25.
          3 Francis M. Cornford, Plato's Theory of Knowledge (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1957), 31
          4 ibid., 32
          5 ibid., 29
          6 ibid., 60-61. 
          7 Siegel, 4.
          8 ibid.
          9 Cornford, 78.
          10 ibid., 79. 
          11 Siegel, 6.
          12 ibid, 7.  Siegel considers the definition broad enough to cover modern versions of ER, which usually extends the category to which a truth claim is considered relative--be it a conceptual framework, world view, cultural disposition, linguistic bubble, etc. So this encompasses the ER of Quine, Kuhn, Rorty, later Goodman, and, by some estimations, Wittgenstein, depending on whether his "forms of life" are truly irreconcilable between themselves, i.e. whether they are a bona fide relativist category.  Unfortunately, space limits our ability to deal with each of these versions separately. 
          13 ibid.
          14 ibid., 7. 
          15 ibid., 8.
          16 Norman Geisler, "Truth, Nature of," Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 743. 
          17 Jack Meiland, "Concepts of Relative Truth" The Monist, vol. 60 (1977), 571; quoted in Siegel, 11.
          18 ibid.,12. 
          19 ibid.,13.
          20 Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, "cat" and "cattle."
          21 Siegel, 13.
          22 "Note that it is possible to develop a coherent doctrine of relative truth that is not independent of the concept of absolute truth-much as it is possible to define relative space in terms of absolute space.  The point here is not that the concept of relative truth is necessarily incoherent if it relies on the concept of absolute; it is rather that such a concept could not be used in an effort to establish relativism, which denies the legitimacy of the concept of absolute truth." ibid., 172, n. 25.
          23 See also Richard Rorty, "Objectivity or Solidarity?" in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, ed. by Michael Krause (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 21-34; in philosophy of science, see Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), though he later denied holding to a fully relativist view. 
          24 Harold I. Brown, "For a Modest Historicism," The Monist, vol. 60, 549, quoted in Siegel, 9. 
          25 Krausz, 3.
          26 Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985), 5.
          27 ibid., 10.
          28 ibid.
          29 ibid. 166

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Blogger Ariel said...

So John Searle also beat me to it. He covers far more ground in a briefer and clearer style (getting past the formatting). Check it out.

8:51 AM  

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