Relativism and Postmodernism

I recently had to write a post for my Systematic Theology class on the  Relativism and Postmodernism.  The details of the assignment are below in italics and what I wrote follows. Thought there might be someone out there who might enjoy me trying to pretend to know what I am talking about…

The self-identified postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty asserts: “Relativism is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good.The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” (Consequences of Pragmatism [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982], 166.) Elsewhere he describes relativism as “self-refuting.” (“Solidarity or Objectivity,” in The Rorty Reader, ed. Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein [Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010], 229.) 

 

Similarly, literary critic (reader-response) Stanley Fish asserts: “While relativism is a position one can entertain, it is not a position one can occupy. No one can be a relativist because no one can achieve the distance from his own beliefs and assumptions which would result in their being no more authoritative for him than the beliefs and assumptions of others, or, for that matter, the beliefs and assumptions he used to hold.” (“Is There a Text in This Class?” in Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980], 319.) 

Create a post and discuss this question: Why do you think the charge that postmodernists are relativists persists? In your answer, you MUST interact with Rorty’s claim. It is not simply sufficient to dismiss him, to assert that he is wrong; you must support your claim, you must provide evidence that counters the argument Rorty makes. You may use other sources than the lecture notes and reading but use them carefully and critically. Simply citing your opinion or quoting the opinion of someone else will earn zero credit for the assignment. You MUST engage and interact with Rorty. 

Remember, Rorty is a self-identified postmodern philosopher. He claims that postmodernists are not relativists. He says that the view is “self-refuting.” In short, the claim that everything is relative is an absolute claim, and thus refutes itself. Fish, also, claims that relativism is an impossible position to hold.

 

From 2006-2008, I lived on four continents, Asia, Africa, North America and Europe. In that time, I lived in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Texas, California, and Sweden, my current country of residence. From January 2007 until August 2008, not a single one of my political or theological views changed in any meaningful way, yet depending upon where I happened to find myself at any given time, I was perceived and interpreted differently. When I was in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia, my views on women placed me on the left of the political spectrum. When I moved back to Texas those same views were fairly centrist. California placed me on the center right, and when I moved to Sweden, the mere suggestion that men and women might in some way have differences placed me on the radical, knuckle-dragging right, yet not one meaningful view I had changed, merely my zip code. My position relative to others changed because of my physical location. It was precisely because of this experience in engaging with people from each of these places on a whole variety of issues that my own views on certain things I once thought important, self evident and absolutely true have been made more elastic. What I once thought important, I have now had to re-evaluate based on new information and new experience. What is more, I began to see that while each of the positions that the culture around me held was different than my own, I could understand the rational thought behind them once I began to understand certain premises that were made. In some cases, while I would disagree with decisions, policies or even beliefs, I could appreciate their views. Does this make me a relativist?

       Richard Rorty asserts that “”Relativism is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good.The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” Craig and Moreland would agree that no one serious would hold the opinion of absolute relativism today. It’s critiques are many and harsh.  Moreland and Carson both equate Relativism and Postmodernism. It is a common perception that Postmodernism and Relativism are one and the same. How does this persist? Philosopher Emrys Westacott of Alfred University helps us to understand 2 basic ideas of relativism common in its various forms (http://www.iep.utm.edu/relativi/ (Links to an external site.)):

“Although there are many different kinds of relativism, they all have two features in common.

(1) They all assert that one thing (e.g. moral values, beauty, knowledge, taste, or meaning) is relative to some particular framework or standpoint (e.g. the individual subject, a culture, an era, a language, or a conceptual scheme).

(2) They all deny that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.”

It is this second point that is most problematic for Rorty. It is why postmodernist thinking is often regarded as relativistic. The postmodernist holds a profound skepticism toward language, knowledge, history, reason and truth, and at the same time declares that no view they are being skeptical towards has any inherent value other than what it argues in relation to its own context. It is easy to see why a postmodernist would often be equated with relativism. The postmodernists skepticism and mistrust is easily mistaken or even translated into a relativistic framework which does not attach a value to any one standpoint.

Rorty would assert that no one can hold relativism in whole, and largely he is right, but what causes the equating of the two is the “but on the other hand” redefining of truth that takes place when a postmodernist approaches many a subject matter. The postmodernist, like relativism would not necessarily take a position on any given set of subjects, but instead continually declare that there might be another way at looking at things. The relativist says that all positions are equally valid, the postmodernist would often merely introduce doubt, mistrust and skepticism to the modernist approach of having all the answers. For most observers, this looks the same.

The persistence in equating the two persists probably not in academia, but over the kitchen table. I talk with university students at length every week about questions surrounding meaning, purpose, destiny, creation, and the like. I agree with Dr Kreider as he asserts in class that no one is a consistent relativist, that if you were to hit someone in the face, their belief in relativism would go out the window in that very moment. What often happens when I talk to a student about questions of morality and they would question our moral pronouncements against Hitler, they are doing so not because they believe in relativism in its strictest since, but rather because they are skeptical of a world in which there is an absolute moral code in which they themselves have seen the duplicity of man, especially authority figures. It is often easier in these cases to skeptically withhold judgement rather than pronounce it and thus recognize that in some way, a moral law giver exists. These students are not relativists. They are not pragmatists as Rorty is a pragmatist. They have become for themselves the arbiter of all things and therefore are using preference to build a view of the world.

A Swedish friend once told me as we talked about relativism as it takes form in the Swedish culture, that “Swedes are good at finding the third side of the coin.” This is a good summary of where postmodern thought and relativism overlap. The postmodernist would be skeptical of both sides of the traditional coin. This leads to a questioning of truth as it is presented, a redefining of truth and ultimately a personal release from responsibility to make a truth claim at all. The mere “existence” of this third side of the coin releases them from the pressure of deciding. It feels very relativistic yet it is not. Just because the postmodernist does not take a stance or perhaps redefines truth, does not mean that “all standpoints are of equal value.” It merely means that doubt exists and therefore the modernist tendency to remove mystery and doubt are avoided.

While I would not consider myself a relativist or a postmodernist such as Rorty, I would agree with Smith in Who’s Afraid of Relativism? that “I haven’t run into many so-called ‘postmodern’ theorists who actually go around saying ‘there isn’t any such thing as truth.’ That would be a bit too earnest and direct, not befitting their irony.  . . . It would be better to say that they offer us deflationary accounts of truth. They explain truth in terms other than our (realist) habits incline us to”. There is a certain amount of contingency in our existence. We are both dependent upon the divine and at the same time dependent upon each other. We are social beings because we are dependent upon each other. As Dr Kreider has often pointed out in class and points out in his review of Smith’s book (http://www.dts.edu/reviews/whos-afraid-of-relativism-smith) language has a relative aspect to it. As Smith points out, “Language is bound up with our investment in cultural projects; it is part and parcel of our culture making”. Thus for the Christian, it is not that “everything is contingent but rather that everything created is contingent” (Smith p.36). Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict, said that there is a “dictatorship of relativism” that exists (Smith p.16). Yet we often forget that along with claims of Absolute Truth has often gone a certain dictatorship of certain teachings within the church which later we acknowledge were less than Christ like such as the justification for slavery, etc. Is this not in and of itself some recognition that we should acknowledge our own need to learn how to be dependent? Is it not a recognition that we are part of “communities of discursive practice”?

In my first paragraph I ended with the question, “Does this make me a relativist?” I do not believe it does. I do think it introduces into my life is a certain amount of humility when processing truth claims with another no matter what one’s philosophical assumptions. Rather than being an absolutist on most things, while I am convinced of many of my own views which I hold, I do not hold them as tightly as I once did. What is of importance to me today is certain views central to the Christian faith such as the resurrection and the deity of Christ. This is something I am willing to lose my life over. Other things I am willing to lose my house over, things of importance, yet less than those like the resurrection. Yet many things, because I see the fluidity with which views can change over time and history and in community, I am willing to lose my lunch over. Simply put, by seeing some of the relative nature in which I find myself, I am able to live by the saying that “All true-truth is God’s truth.” I am able to journey together with someone to seek understanding so that I may know truth.

 

1. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove: IV Press 2003), 410.

2. J.P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle: Recover The Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) 77.

3. D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 132.

4. James K Smith, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2014), 27.

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