From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 3 ("Bodies").
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Relativism, an ancient doctrine, has become a political battleground of post-cold war ideologies. Opposing political groupings claim ownership of it, attack it, or use it as a prop for their own ends – all with equal fervour and sense of entitlement. But what is the politics of relativism, if any?
Relativism starts with the contention that truth, rationality, or justification vary with and depend on cultural, conceptual or semantic frameworks that underlie them. Additionally, and crucially, the relativist holds that there is a plurality of such frameworks, each providing justification and even truth criteria for mutually incompatible judgements and beliefs. There is no overarching framework or Archimedean point of reference for adjudicating between opposing positions and claims; all judgements have only a local validity, and seemingly contradictory claims could be equally true or justified, each according to its own standard of assessment.
Is there a natural fit between relativism and any political ideology? The reply is not straightforward.
Relativism is frequently identified with liberal democratic politics and is seen as a suitable normative framework for achieving liberal values. To be a relativist, it is argued, is to embrace pluralism, multiculturalism and diversity, some of the main values of liberal politics; a relativist framework facilitates the exercise of these social and political values. This is, in part, because relativism stands in contrast to absolutism, the view that at least some truths and values are unconditional and independent of any framework. When it comes to politics, as we will see, “absolutism” is identified with unconditional obedience, lack of freedom and, indeed, despotism – prime social evils from a liberal perspective.
Methodological relativism, the approach adopted by social anthropologists in their study of distant cultures, with its requirement not to impose the anthropologists’ own cultural perspective on the people they study, has also come to be seen as a political tool for liberal governance. The thought is that relativism can counter the colonial sense of superiority and arrogance, and thus become a tool for achieving multiculturalism. Social and political sentiments echoing relativism were expressed by postmodernist philosophers, such as Jean-Francois Lyotard and Gayatri Spivak, and became highly influential in the 1990s in particular; but long before postmodernism, Leopold Sedar Senghor, the first president of Senegal, as well as a poet and a philosopher, had argued that African epistemology is distinct from “European” epistemology in which the separation of the subject and object is taken for granted and reason has primacy. By contrast, Senghor argued, African reasoning relies on intuition with no pre-given boundary between the subject and its objects of experience. With Senghor, we have the unusual case of a political leader who makes a detailed case for relativising both epistemology and ontology to different racial and ethnic groups.
The connections between relativism and liberal ideologies have also been highlighted by theorists and politicians opposed to liberalism. Relativism, the anti-liberal conservatives have argued, is a corrupting intellectual force in Western democracies and should be shown up for its pernicious effects. Allan Bloom, famous for his influential book The Closing of the American Mind, and much celebrated by the American right, cast relativism as the main culprit for what he saw as the closing of American students’ minds, as well as for making them intellectually lazy. Lesser commentators, on Fox News and right-wing radio programmes, turned his arguments into an all-out attack on universities and academics, and their liberal ethos. Cardinal Ratzinger also warned at length and repeatedly about “the dictatorship of relativism” in Western liberal democracies. In a speech in 2011, Paul Ryan, the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, announced that “the biggest problem in America isn’t debt, it’s moral relativism”. These voices echo the earlier fears of C.S. Lewis, children’s author and influential lay Catholic theologian, who believed that relativism and subjectivism will cause democracy to lose respect for virtue and merit, a position, in his view, incompatible with democracy itself.
Both Bloom and Ryan saw themselves as intellectual heirs to the German born émigré Leo Strauss, referred to as the “guru of American conservatism”, who, starting in the 1950s, had argued for a direct alignment between relativism and liberal politics. Relativism, Strauss claimed, throws American democracy into an intellectual crisis by contradicting some of its core constitutional tenets. The opening statement of the US Declaration of Independence, the proposition that “all men are created equal”, is presented as a self-evident universal truth, one that stands in opposition to the relativist claims of the contextual and contingent character of all truths. The Declaration lies at the heart of American democracy, and the relativist, by denying that there could be self-evident universal truths and universal inalienable rights, undermines the very democracy that the Declaration purports to defend. The source of the crisis, according to Strauss, is the priority given by liberals to the values of diversity and individuality. As he puts it, “Liberal relativism has its roots in the natural right tradition of tolerance or in the notion that everyone has a natural right to the pursuit of happiness as he understands it.”
The questioning of the role of truth in public discourse and the introduction of terms such as “post-truth” and “alternative facts” have led to a renewed examination of the politics of relativism and of its easy identification with liberal politics.
The identification of relativism with liberal politics, both by friends and foes of relativism, is one rendering of the politics of relativism. The championing of relativism by conservative political forces, particularly in recent years, is another. The questioning of the role of truth in public discourse and the introduction of terms such as “post-truth” and “alternative facts” have led to a renewed examination of the politics of relativism and of its easy identification with liberal politics. When Kellyanne Conway, influential counsellor to President Trump, defends outright falsehoods about the size of the audience at Trump’s inauguration by claiming that Sean Spicer, the President’s then-press secretary, was offering “alternative facts”; when Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s lawyer and go-to man, announces that “truth isn’t truth” and further clarifies his statement by saying that in situations where two people make precisely contradictory statements truth is relative; and when Trump assigns parity of standing to the protesters and defenders of the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville: in all these scenarios we see relativism emerging as an intellectual resource for populist right wing politics.
The alignment of reactionary populism with relativism is not new. Benito Mussolini stands both as an icon of extreme right populism as well as a case study in how relativism can be put in the service of both liberal and illiberal political ideologies. For Mussolini, the jump from relativism to fascism was easy. Relativism, he claimed, shows that all ideologies are of equal value and therefore “we fascists” have the right to create our own ideology and to enforce it with all the energy of which we are capable.
This link between relativism and the extreme right is highlighted not just by the enthusiasts for relativism but also by its critics. Philosophical opponents of relativism have seen close connections between the postmodern rejection of the Enlightenment values of universal rationality and objective truth, and the post-truth politics of populism. For example, in an interview with The Guardian in 2017, Daniel Dennett expressed the hope that people will begin to realise that philosophical positions are not always innocuous and can have terrifying consequences: “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil”, he says. “They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts”. Similarly, in her 2017 book Alternative Facts, Åsa Wikforss offers clear and powerful philosophical arguments against the illusion that we are free to decide what is true or factual, the phenomenon she calls “knowledge resistance”, encouraged by the emotion-laden style of populist politics and its rhetoric. The book is available free of charge to Swedish secondary school pupils, courtesy of the generosity of ABBA singer Björn Ulvaeus.
Finally, relativism and its message of anti-universalism have been used in support of “alternative” models of democracy and even outright autocracy. Only culturally-specific moral and political norms, rather than Eurocentric values masquerading as universals, could justify local political practices, argue the governments and their ideologues in China, Iran, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, among others. Asian Democracy, Islamic Democracy, African Democracy are terms used to express the emphasis placed on local cultural values in the relevant political systems. Many non-Western traditions, it is argued, foreground values such as community, harmony, solidarity, equality though difference, rather than the values of individualism and equality through parity valued in European cultures. Relativism allows us to appreciate the plurality and diversity of value systems.
Relativism has been charged with incoherence, inconsistency and self-refutation for millennia, only to survive and see a resurgence of interest.
How are we to make sense of this cacophony of political interpretations of relativism? Why has a philosophical doctrine, primarily concerned with the nature of truth and the status of norms, become embroiled in so many political debates? And how could a single philosophical doctrine inspire such radically different political views? One well-known response is that relativism is inconsistent because, as Plato argued more than two millennia ago, it offers the paradoxical thesis that “it is universally true that all truths are relative and not universal”. Since a contradiction implies any conclusion whatsoever as well as its negation, then it is not surprising that both fascism and its extreme opposite are seen as the political results of relativism. However, despite its appeal to the anti-relativists, this argument is not wholly satisfactory. Relativism has been charged with incoherence, inconsistency and self-refutation for millennia, only to survive and see a resurgence of interest. In this light, its alleged incoherence is probably not the best place to search for an explanation of the Janus-faced nature of its politics. Instead, it may be more productive to look at the doctrine itself and the philosophical impulses behind it.
Philosophy may be unique as a discipline in the extent to which it continuously questions its own nature, aims, methods, and standing. Philosophers frequently engage with what may be called “the philosophy of philosophy”, interrogating how they see the roles and functions of their profession. How we construe philosophy as a subject also has a direct impact on how we approach specific philosophical questions. So, to make sense of the politics of relativism, it is useful to start with the difficult question of what philosophy is and what its main tasks and goals are. One standard conception of philosophy, favoured in particular by professional analytic philosophers, is that philosophy’s job is to discover and diagnose conceptual problems and offer solutions. Most discussions of relativism start with the assumption that it is a philosophical doctrine which attempts to address the problem of intractable disagreements and irreconcilable differences, and that, like any other “-isms” in philosophy, its claims can be shown to be true or false. Assessed through this particular lens, relativism is judged to be no different from other philosophical doctrines, such as behaviourism in debates about the mind or compatibilism in discussions of free will, except perhaps for the curious fact of its persistent appeal despite numerous attempts to prove its incoherence through the famous self-refutation argument.
A second longstanding understanding of philosophy, popular among the general public as well as some professionals, is that philosophy’s job is to act as a guide or set of tools that allow us to deal with the deepest and most profound questions that life throws at us. The aim of philosophy, seen in this light, is not simply to analyse and understand but to bring about change; to have a philosophy is to adopt an overarching framework that is expected to lead to better, or at least less troubled, ways of living and thinking.
The two goals are not necessarily at odds with each other and can be realised by one and the same philosophical position. Going back to the Greeks, highly abstract metaphysical speculation has existed alongside, and even been seen as a resource for, achieving human flourishing. The Stoics, Pyrrhonian sceptics and even Socrates come to mind here. Similarly, in contemporary philosophy, feminist epistemology plays the dual role of analysing and illuminating our understanding of knowledge, scientific method, and objectivity while also highlighting the epistemically disadvantaged position of women and attempting to counter it. I believe that relativism also functions in this dual way, and its politics should thus be analysed in this light.
Placed within the context of this second understanding of philosophy, relativism is not necessarily or simply a doctrine or a set of truth-evaluable beliefs but a philosophical stance, with its attendant epistemic and ethical attitudes. As first discussed by the philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen, philosophical stances do not focus exclusively on understanding and analysing abstract concepts and problems, nor do they aim solely to answer abstract questions; rather they comprise attitudes, commitments, hopes, beliefs and value judgements that have a wider range of applications. In this sense, they are more like an overarching perspective on life and the world. Understood as an epistemic stance rather than a doctrine, relativism allows us to deal with the theoretical and practical difficulty of profound differences and intractable disagreements in the cognitive and evaluative domains in a manner that engages with social and political concerns. How successful it is in this task is an open question, but the stance is often preferred to its rivals, such as absolutism, objectivism and universalism, because of its perceived connections with epistemic and socio-political attitudes valued by its adherents.
The core features of the relativist stance are more easily captured by what relativism denies than what it embraces. Relativism is frequently contrasted with absolutism and the dogmatism it can engender, as well as connected positions including universalism (the denial of the significance of profound differences between peoples, cultures and traditions) and objectivism (the view that truth is independent of human thinking and practices). As will see, these different ways of framing relativism have consequences for how the politics of relativism plays out.
There is a long history of associating, and indeed identifying, relativism with anti-absolutism. Absolutism, much like relativism, is not a well-defined thesis or doctrine, but a blanket term used to cover a host of subsidiary positions and commitments. Among the epistemic and ontological positions associated with “absolutism”, we find certainty, necessity, exactness, universality, timelessness, objectivity, etc. Political absolutism, on the other hand, is commonly identified with the type of ruler whose will is the law, encapsulated in Louis XIV’s notorious pronouncement, “L’etat, c’est moi”. In democratic societies, political absolutism, and its attendant despotism and absence of individual freedoms, is seen as a prime social evil. Open societies condemn religious absolutism for similar reasons. Attempts to argue for a direct link between relativism and the imperative of avoiding absolutism and its authoritarian overtones go back, at least, to the mid-twentieth century. As early as the 1930s, the German jurist and political theorist Hans Kelsen had argued that relativists favour democracy, while those absolutist philosophers who search for great metaphysical certainties, are on the side of political absolutism. So, we can see that the philosophical attitudes emanating from the anti-absolutist features of the relativist stance have a primary application in the political arena.
This association of relativism with political anti-absolutism is centrally connected with a key attitude attributed to relativism, namely tolerance. Going as far back as John Stuart Mill, tolerance is considered a central, if not a defining, feature of liberal politics. Liberalism allows, indeed requires, freedom of choice on all matters so long as the choices do not harm other members of the society or community, and such freedoms are premised on the exercise of toleration. Liberals also accept the right to dissenting views as well as behaviour of which they do not approve. It has been frequently argued that relativism is the best means of securing these core liberal attitudes.
Relativists sympathetic to liberal politics have often identified their stance with social tolerance, implying an acceptance of different modes of life and alternative choices.
This connection has been questioned by Bernard Williams, among others, who saw the association of tolerance with relativism as the most pronounced feature of “vulgar relativism”. Vulgar or not, relativists sympathetic to liberal politics have often identified their stance with social tolerance, implying an acceptance of different modes of life and alternative choices. The most striking example of the linkage between relativism, tolerance, and politics is Paul Feyerabend’s “democratic relativism”. Feyerabend defends the ultimate liberal value that people should have the freedom to live as they wish. He also embraces the pluralist ethos that comes with relativism, both epistemically and culturally. In doing so, he combines the methodological with the political: in science, he claims, the proliferation of theories is beneficial for its practice, while uniformity impairs its critical power. Similarly, in society at large, uniformity endangers the free development of the individual. There is an ethical imperative to be open to relativism and pluralism because a culturally and epistemically pluralistic society is more humane and fosters self-development while the attempt to enforce a universal truth leads to disaster in the social domain and to empty formalism in the natural sciences.
Intellectual tolerance, seen as another by-product of relativism, has also been identified with progressive and liberal politics. For instance, in the article “Must a Feminist Be a Relativist After All?”, the feminist philosopher Lorraine Code argues that the denial of relativism makes us allies of the authoritative discourses, and thus potentially the authoritarian ones, whilst adopting relativism can help us to counter epistemic as well as other forms of oppression.
Tolerance is presented as a sui generis virtuous attitude of the relativist stance but connected to it are other intellectual dispositions essential to a liberal political outlook. For instance, relativism is said to make us more open-minded about other standpoints and modes of thought, particularly about those that we are inclined to reject. Being open-minded, in turn, is crucial to life in a liberal democratic society. What better way to be open-minded about the unfamiliar and potentially unpalatable beliefs and actions of other people than to accept them as true or warranted relative to their differing but equally legitimate cultural or conceptual framework?
Relativism is said to make us more open-minded about other standpoints and modes of thought, particularly about those that we are inclined to reject.
Relativism, especially cultural relativism, is also cast as a counter to rigidity of social attitudes, including “chauvinism” and prejudice against other ethnic and cultural groups. The type of tolerance and openness that relativism is believed to encourage may also safeguard against a sense of privilege because, as Lorraine Code maintains, it is the supremely privileged who think they have access to the one true story, and this sense of privilege sustains the objectivist illusion that they can occupy a view from nowhere.
Given the above, it is not difficult to see how relativism, construed as a philosophical stance, can be seen to support liberal politics as commonly understood. Relativists are committed to the idea of the plurality of values and perspectives. They affirm the diversity of incompatible ways of thinking and living, and show great sympathy for it. They show disdain for the claims of absolutism, finding them rooted in ethnocentric and xenophobic tendencies. Relativism is also an epistemically egalitarian doctrine where all claims to knowledge, once appropriately relativised, will have equal standing. Or so the story goes.
The arguments outlined here about the connections between relativism, anti-absolutism, and the valorisation of tolerance, are well-known and much rehearsed in discussions of the links between relativism and liberal politics. But the connections between relativism and authoritarian politics are more complex and, until recently, had not come under much scrutiny.
It is commonplace to locate the starting point of relativism with the Sophist Protagoras’ dictum that “man is the measure of all things” and to trace its development in modern times through Montaigne’s liberal attitudes and his cosmopolitan tolerance for far-off customs and habits (even towards the cannibals!). But relativism, once we go beyond some core features, relativism falls into different strands, each bearing the marks of its starting point and originary motivations. One such strand can be traced back to what Isaiah Berlin has called the Counter-Enlightenment, the late 18th century reaction by the likes of Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Georg Hamann to the universalist visions of the Enlightenment. A key feature of their views, albeit expressed in distinct ways, is historicism or historical relativism, where history is seen to shape individuals and societies, their beliefs, practices and outlooks, in distinct ways. Here we have a relativism of difference and an unbridgeable distance rather than disagreement. Viewed in this light, the relativist stance has little to do with the rejection of absolutism or a plea for tolerance; rather, it is a clarion call for the uniqueness of cultures and national identities. This is one of the attitudes emanating from the relativist stance that has proven congenial to authoritarian and reactionary politics. To embrace uniqueness and even incommensurability is to reject the cosmopolitan and universalising tendencies inherited from the Enlightenment. Relativism, in this form, is a distancing from “the other” rather than tolerance towards them.
To embrace uniqueness and even incommensurability is to reject the cosmopolitan and universalising tendencies inherited from the Enlightenment.
A second feature of the relativist stance that is utilised by the populist politicians is the freedom that relativism it taken to bestow on its adherents to choose what they wish to believe, to construct not just their own selves (as Existentialist philosophers advocated) but also their own reality in the way favoured by social constructionists. Relativism opposes the objectivist conceptions of truth and rationality; this central feature of relativism, to remind ourselves, starts with the assumption that beliefs and judgements are necessarily circumscribed by the individual’s cultural, historical and epistemic locations, and that there is no method or criterion available to establish the superiority of any single view. A rejection of objective correctness, an Archimedean point of view that transcends different local versions of truth and falsity, right or wrong, is built into the very definition of relativism. This is why relativism is routinely accused of undermining the value of truth, and with it the values of knowledge and even justification as traditionally conceived.
The accusation is frequently dismissed by the relativist because, on their account, it begs the question on behalf of an absolutist conception of truth, the very conception that the relativist is at pains to undermine. The defence is that relativism does indeed give truth, as well as the distinction between right and wrong, their due recognition but offers a more satisfactory account of truth than the absolutist one because it lays bare the dependence of truth, or any criteria of right and wrong, on intersubjectively shared norms and epistemic practices. But this counterattack by the relativist misses the point of the criticism, at least when it comes to the politics of right-wing populism. What the relativist outlook contributes to political discussions is not so much a rejection of truth, but a devaluation of it. If truths are many and vary between different contexts of assessments and frameworks, then they cannot be the single goal of all inquiries. In his 2018 book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam has called this attitude “intellectual insouciance”, or indifference to truth. It is this particular relativist stance as manifested in the writings of the right-wing relativist historian Oswald Spengler that shaped Mussolini’s relativism. When Mussolini identifies relativism with contempt for “fixed categories” and “the bearers of objective immortal truth” he uses the freedom attendant on relativising truth as licence to create his own ideology and version of truth. But it’s worth mentioning that in so doing, Mussolini was equally influenced by the anti-relativist idealist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who, like the relativist, denied the objectivity of truth. As we can see, the devaluation of truth has many philosophical sources!
The anti-objectivist attitude towards truth and knowledge explains why it is so easy for Trump and his entourage to resort to a relativist rhetoric when it suits their political purposes. Freed of the constraints of objectivity, truth becomes just one value among others, no more significant than subjective feelings of certainty. Furthermore, if decisions about truth and falsity, right and wrong, are relative to the intersubjectively shared local criteria, then endorsement by your community can be seen as an adequate justification of your pronouncements. Trump’s frequent references to what “many” (meaning the like-minded people who follow him, i.e. his community) say or believe are manifestations of such a localised view of truth and justification.
Finally, what are we to make of the use of relativism to justify what often comes down to abuses of human rights and a trampling of civil liberties in the name of cultural and historical contexts? At one level the answer seems easy. Relativism is just a cover used to justify old-fashioned political repression. But the interesting question is why, despite all its liberal and indeed progressive credentials, does relativism lend itself to such uses? The response is in line with the the populist uses of relativism.
To accept that there are many, equally valid perspectives on values, justifications and even the world, does not logically necessitate tolerance.
Autocratic governments rely on the relativist’s rejection of an overarching criterion for adjudicating between conflicting values and perspectives as their justification, while ignoring the call for tolerance that is supposed to accompany the pluralism encouraged by relativism. And, indeed, why should they accept the liberal ideal of tolerance? To accept that there are many, equally valid perspectives on values, justifications and even the world, does not logically necessitate tolerance. While some form of parity among conflicting judgements and beliefs is core to defining relativism, tolerance, a feature of the liberal version of the politics of relativism, is not. Tolerance in the face of diversity may be a part of the commitments and value judgements that some relativists incorporate into their stance but is not a necessary feature of it. The populist also accepts the plurality of horizons but then proclaims that his people, his country, his horizon should come first; not because his views are true or more accurate than a rival view, but because giving priority to them would serve his and his community’s interest best.
The politics of relativism comes down, then, to the specific attitudes associated with the relativist stance, but these attitudes are already shaped by the political ideology that the relativist embraces. Relativism can allow us to be a good liberal or a dedicated fascist in equal measure depending on which of the many possible attitudes associated with it we valorise. But such choices are informed by the moral and political values we bring to the table and are not determined by the relativist stance itself.
Maria Baghramian is Full Professor of American Philosophy and Co-director of the Cognitive Science Programme at University College Dublin, Ireland. She is also a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. Her most recent publications include Relativism: The New Problems of Philosophy (with Annalisa Coliva) and From Trust to Trustworthiness, both published in 2019 by Routledge. Her research was made possible through funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870883. Twitter: @mariabaghramian
From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 3 ("Bodies").
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