We live in a time of great anxiety over the role of truth in public life. Media and popular culture are saturated with concerns over “fake news,” alternative facts and conspiracy theories. There is widespread concern over the breakdown of integrity and trust in public figures and experts, the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between true and false claims, and the increasing willingness of predators to prey upon this difficulty. Passions flare, political sides polarise, and neither side seems capable of talking or listening to the other.
It is therefore a great irony that many of those most worried about these developments also deny the possibility of absolute truth, without recognising any connection between the two. Certain assumptions about the relative nature of truth are represented, for instance, by the increasing public focus on “perspective” or “social privilege,” with the assumption that identity or experience drastically limits or determines understanding. Under this assumption, each group possesses its own, or perhaps the whole, truth about matters relating to their lives: “You cannot truly know this because you have not lived it.” Others can accept or reject this truth but they cannot critically engage with it. Analogous attitudes are found in many arenas of social life, especially in the academy. With such attitudes, disagreements cannot be rationally resolved and compromise becomes unlikely.
In an age of social division and insecurity, a certain relativism of perspective or value seems incontestable and essential for understanding others. However, it is not only contestable but a critical barrier to the understanding we seek. It would be absurd, of course, to reduce all our social problems to the role of abstract ideas but our ideas necessarily impact upon our attitudes and behaviour. And these relativist ideas are particularly pernicious because they undermine our ability to talk to each other, to make informed decisions about justice and the good society, and to our most important intuitions about what it means to be human.
Contemporary relativism often hides in plain sight, protean and variable. Its very ubiquity makes its ubiquity difficult to prove, for it is often so taken for granted that it acts as an underlying assumption rather than being explicitly held. Many essentially relativistic arguments are therefore not recognised as such. Broadly conceived, relativism is the belief that there is no absolute standard of truth—either for all knowledge or for particular matters—that would provide a universally valid criterion for judging between claims. Truths are therefore relative to their context, which is variously conceived as language, cultural or conceptual systems, historical moments, or certain aspects of our identity, such as class, social position, race, sexuality, or gender. In the discipline of history, for instance, relativism takes the form of historicism: the necessarily historically bounded nature of our being and knowing. The historian E. H. Carr influentially argued that “the historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence.” Such claims are common throughout Western society and are especially prominent in regards to values and morality.
Such relativistic claims are based on a scepticism of human reason to determine ultimate truths. This scepticism has deep roots in Western thought and was one of the major drivers behind the scientific revolution of the 17th century. The philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, for instance, invented the experimental method to overcome the “false idols” constructed by our minds. It was intended to constrain over-hasty reason through close, empirical observation. And René Descartes’s famous cogito ergo sum—”I think therefore I am”—was an attempt to find some element of rational certainty in a fundamentally uncertain world. The Enlightenment subsequently popularised a conception of “instrumental rationality”: human reason was a tool for determining the most efficient means for given ends but was not capable of establishing those ends. Thus was established a problematic distinction between objective facts and subjective values that still confuses thought today, informing a popular empiricism which holds that only claims which can be demonstrated empirically have any meaning.
Many modernist intellectual movements of the early 20th century are often considered to have rejected the complacent certainties of previous centuries but, in a deeper sense, they consummated these beliefs in their amplified suspicion of human reason’s capacity to grasp reality. The humanities in various ways adopted a relativism of moral and cultural values, such as in cultural anthropology, Weberian sociology, or the historicism popularised by Leopold von Ranke in the 19th century. Marxism, too, posited that beliefs were just “superstructures” determined by underlying class interests. Sigmund Freud argued that the rational ego was fragmentary, its control over the subconscious id mostly illusory. Even science and mathematics were not immune from the reigning temper. Non-Euclidean geometry denied that our basic mathematical axioms provided the only coherent model of the world. And quantum physics claimed that the sub-atomic realm fundamentally undermined our logical categories of reality.
This rough tendency, sketched in crude outlines, was merely accelerated by so-called postmodernism in the second half of the 20th century. In the humanities, this took the form of the “linguistic” or “cultural turn” from the 1970s onwards. The linguistic turn was a group of movements, inspired by poststructuralism, which resembled each other in asserting that aspects of knowledge and identity generally taken as natural or obviously true were actually “discursively” or “socially constructed.” Scholars deconstructed all human “structures,” including basic logical and methodological ones, and questioned the very existence of truth. If everything were discursive, then “truth” would merely be the product of whichever “discourse” we found ourselves in. Especially in those disciplines more radically sceptical of pretensions to universal truth—such as those aligned to Foucauldian poststructuralism, or post-colonial, feminist or critical race theorists—knowledge became dependent on social or historical position, power, privilege, or the lack of it. The “other” was radically alien and society necessarily based on power and exploitation.
These ideas have become mainstream in recent decades. From fringe positions in their respective disciplines, they have often come to academic prominence and from there have disseminated into popular consciousness and culture. This has been facilitated by mass attendance at universities and the consequent increasing influence of graduates on many areas of cultural life, including journalism, law, politics, and mass entertainment. The plausibility of relativism, however, has also been facilitated by the rapid social changes of the last century, technology’s acceleration of space and time, and large-scale movements of peoples. And relativistic attitudes have been amplified in proportion to the increase of media platforms, especially social media. As pointed out by the philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville almost 200 years ago, the profusion of sources of knowledge does not further social consensus but rather a fragmenting into partisan perspectives.
Relativistic attitudes, often motivated by a laudatory spirit of toleration and a desire for social justice, paradoxically end up being anti-humanist. It is dehumanising to believe that others’ arguments are determined by their social position rather than being worthy of respect and engagement as having come from genuine moral agents making rational claims about reality. If our beliefs are mere products of our circumstances, then there is no possibility of dialogue and conversation with each other. Relativism becomes irrationalist in that it denies the importance of reason in our social relations. The latter instead become relations of domination and resistance: truth is determined by the more powerful party. Knowledge is power. This is the case even if one argues that it is only those lacking power or privilege who can have legitimate knowledge on a topic. As the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski has argued, “The claim that absolute knowledge is stored in the better part of mankind and immune to the scrutiny of universal criteria of rationality—a claim that can justify anything—is obviously a prescription for despotism, no matter how this privileged [or anti-privileged] part is identified—in racial, political, religious or class terms.”
The argumentum ad hominem, or the argument against the person, has long been recognised as a logical fallacy. It is an illegitimate attack on the person’s character or background as opposed to engaging with the merits of their argument. Few believe that this is an appropriate way to argue with their loved ones but many do not see it as problematic when applied to others. Yet, the identity of the speaker is ultimately irrelevant for determining the truth of a claim. Our default position should be exactly the opposite of Carr’s famous claim that “our first concern should be not with the facts … but with the historian who wrote it.” Our contexts provide necessary preconditions for our opinions but do not sufficiently explain them. To converse with someone, or to engage with material from a different place or time, can only be meaningful if we see it as a dialogue between two actually present minds, a reciprocal interchange and testing of two points of view. Otherwise, if everything is relative to our perspective, then any encounter with another is just the arbitrary imposition of our perspective upon theirs. We could not get out of our own heads. There would be nothing more in Shakespeare than in the most banal television commercial for both would be nothing but ourselves. Relativism ultimately destroys the possibility of art and conversation.
Likewise, without some notion of absolute truth, we are unable to take authentic moral actions, to truly imagine and act towards a better world. One cannot consistently abhor injustices—whether slavery, genocide, or social inequality—unless one believes them to be absolutely, and not just relatively, wrong. If we are to believe in certain fundamental human rights, applicable to all people everywhere, we have to believe that they are absolutely true. They would not be human rights otherwise. They would apply only to those individuals who believed in them. In the same way, for all social reform we recognise that some aspects of society are unjust and need to change and that therefore there is some ideal standard of value that transcends actual practices. If we did not, we would have no basis upon which to suggest that our ideals were better than actuality, let alone to try to impose them upon others by realising them. Indeed, as rational beings, we cannot act whole-heartedly on principles that have no support except for our personal preferences. Philosopher Leo Strauss pointed out that “if we cannot have any knowledge regarding the ultimate principles of our choices—that is to say, regarding their soundness or unsoundness—we are in the position of men who are sane and sober when they are engaged in trivialities, and gamble like mad men when confronted with serious issues.”
Apart from the unsavoury moral implications of relativism, it also just cannot be true philosophically. It is perhaps in bad taste to point out that the claim that “all truth is relative” is itself a non-relativist, dogmatic claim. It is self-contradictory and hypocritically exempts itself from its own claim. Indeed, how can one demonstrate that there is no absolute truth? Only through a rational demonstration which presupposes that there are absolute standards of logic and argument that transcend that particular context. Reason would have to destroy itself. To make any claims about anything at all we have to assume that the basic rules of logic are universally consistent. Logic is not a stencil that dead white men have imposed on reality but is a studied reflection of the most basic rules of thought and reality, rules that no people anywhere could consistently deny. Something cannot both be and not be at the same time if any basic understanding at all is to be possible, if one and one are to equal two. Likewise, for any understanding of different individuals, times, and places to be possible, we must acknowledge that there are some basic, universal referents between them and us. We must have a notion of the “human,” a constant human nature underlying all manifest differences, so that when a text refers to anger we can assume that this anger is comparable to our own and not incommensurable, unknowable, meaningless.
Our basic epistemological foundations cannot be entirely bound by our context, by our “mental horizon.” We could not even recognise the boundedness of our horizon without some ability to transcend that horizon. Yet, many relativists, as the philosopher Carl Page argues, seem to see our context as “an ether” or “spiritual soup” which immerses us within its all-encompassing viscosity, determining every thought and action. Not only would this make all genuine understanding impossible, it is impossible to imagine how these supposed limits would work in practice. If we are limited by our historical moment, can we read last week’s newspaper? Last year’s? When do we suddenly hit an incommensurate moment? If limited by the “intersectionality” of social privileges, is social insight proportionate to the level of oppression? But social position is always relative: the same person is privileged in one context and oppressed in another. It is impossible to create an objective comprehensive map of social privilege that would hold for all matters. The same problem occurs regardless of the form of context that one claims is supposedly bounding us. There is no convincing, rational line that we can draw beyond which understanding is precluded, unless we reify society or culture or race as something real in themselves that uniquely determine our identity and fate. Every single individual is different from every other one. We all exist in our own unique contexts and some of those contexts are voluntarily chosen. Why are our manifest, individual differences (the schools we attended, the whims of our parents, the books we read) less determinative than highly abstract, and often confused, concepts of identity or historical moment? People of the same race or gender or historical moment have radically different life experiences from one another. Taken to its ultimate logic, we would all exist within our own, solipsistic, lonely horizons.
Most people who argue that we are bound within our own horizon do not subscribe to the hard-line position that there is absolutely no truth. They tend rather to hold to some form of coherence theory of truth, believing that there is truth, that there are more and less true facts, but that all truth claims, even so-called “facts,” are only given meaning by their placement within a comprehensive vision of the whole and that this vision provides the basis of all reasoning and therefore cannot itself be validated by reason. In these theories, there is truth but no transcendental standard of determining it. Yet, ultimately without a unitary, universal standard of truth to adjudicate competing claims, we are faced with a cacophony of competing and irreconcilable voices. This standard of truth cannot be derived from social or disciplinary standards or consensus, because then the same problems would apply: truth would still be arbitrary and only applicable to that particular milieu. There could be no possibility of rational agreement between sociologists and historians, Chinese and Australians, or people from neighbouring suburbs. There are, anyway, always disagreements within societies and a consensus view of truth gives us no adequate criteria in order to judge between them. Likewise insufficient is a “pragmatic” conception that makes truth what is acceptable or useful: this does not conform to our basic intuitions of what truth is, has no way of grounding its own position, and requires the obvious concession that useful observations must correspond to some “real” regularities in the world. A belief in fairy godmothers could well be useful to those engaged in dangerous occupations but this does not make them true.
Many relativist arguments assume that our ideas are completely disconnected from reality or rather that there is no reality independent of our ideas. Our “language games” or some form of cultural “structure” are supposedly absolutes that completely determine our world. Yet, despite the cavils of certain modern philosophers, our most basic intuitions and everyday interactions with the world suggest rather that the truth somehow corresponds to what is out there and is not just an artefact of our own minds. Most non-philosophers understand that languages and ideas are not free-floating autonomous networks but have real referents in the world or, as the ancient Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu put it, “a name is only the guest of reality.” Language is anchored to the world and the world constantly enables and constrains our understanding of it, testing, refining and challenging our ideas with real objects and experiences.
Not everything is socially constructed. Thus, while no analysis is free of a value-laden “frame of reference” or vision of the whole, individual statements are separable and analysable outside that particular frame. The statement “This cat is brown” is not dependent on my worldview. If this holds for banal facts about cats, it also holds for more complex statements such as “Relativistic philosophies are common in our society,” even if due allowance has to be made for rigorous definition of abstract concepts. “Facts” are not just reducible to value. Of course, the needs of our context often drive our interests and the questions we ask but that does not mean that the answers must necessarily be determined by them. Besides, one should not so readily concede that our values or broader understandings of the world are just givens. They are themselves susceptible of rational discussion and are not incommensurable. They share an ultimate measure in their correspondence to reality.
Relativistic attitudes convey some truth in their healthy distrust of complacent certainties and their recognition of the difficulty of finding truth in a complex world by people who are not just characterised by their reason but are embodied as grasping, desirous, flawed, material, and historical beings, generally dependent on those around them for their basic understandings of the world. Given the vast range of human possibility seen throughout history, given the vast disagreements over what is true and good across cultures, there is indeed a temptation to fall into relativism and to deny any universals or such a thing as human nature. But this would entail rejecting the possibility of any genuine understanding of the world and, consequently, of any human flourishing. One does not have to concede that everything is relative in order to reject a naïve empiricism and positivism or to reject that facts “speak for themselves,” that truth is easy to come by, and that there is only one possible perspective on complex issues.
We must concede that social phenomena are not liable to be easy or “complete” explanations. Relativists are right in suggesting that the sheer complexity of society condemns all accounts to partiality of emphasis, question, or interpretation, and that all accounts will be influenced by the changing needs and interests of society. Yet, the incompleteness of an account does not mean that its truth is relative. As in many things, the ancients understood this better than ourselves. Aristotle argued that we must only expect that level of certainty that the topic allows. He drew a distinction between theoretical wisdom, or knowledge of universals and “the things that are highest by nature,” and “practical wisdom,” or knowledge of contingent, particular things. Theoretical wisdom allows for certain truths in some domains, such as logic, mathematics, and some basic scientific and moral propositions. The realm of history and society, in contrast is ruled by particulars, beset by an infinity of competing conditions, causes, and factors. Society is too complex to disentangle all the relevant relationships, networks, and causes that make up specific phenomena. Social affairs, in modern parlance, are over-determined. They are the ultimate non-linear, complex systems. Different arenas of social life operate at different time scales and there has been an exponential increase in the speed of change and in the scale of society. Nor does it help that, given the self-reflexive nature of human life, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live tend to become the stories that we live.
Society and history are therefore subject to multiplicity, complexity, contradictions, exceptions, contingencies, discontinuities. They are resistant to large claims and possess few, if any, iron laws. History is not a morality play, the liberal story of the gradual release from oppression, cruising into a glorious millennium of full equality. History is a tangled web of humanity and inhumanity, beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice. And it is subject to the level of understanding appropriate to it. Approaching it with the prudence necessary for practical wisdom, we can recognise hierarchies of causal factors, identify recurring patterns and trends, and seek to discern the necessary from the contingent. Ultimately, “what is indispensable for this task,” as the philosopher Simone Weil wrote in a slightly different context, “is a passionate interest in human beings, whoever they may be, and in their minds and souls; the ability to place oneself in their position and to recognise by signs thoughts which go unexpressed; a certain intuitive sense of history in process of being enacted; and the faculty of expressing in writing delicate shades of meaning and complex relationships.”
More difficult, and more vital, is the search for moral and philosophical truths across cultures. The earliest surviving texts of history acknowledge the real differences and variety of surrounding societies and yet still implicitly hold to a faith in absolute truth. Disagreements, after all, do not prove that there is no right answer. Even if no people anywhere have ever determined the truth that would not be proof that it did not exist. And behind the bewildering variety of human custom lie many common beliefs, held by nearly all peoples everywhere. There is a very old idea, found across many cultures, of “multiple revelations”: that the various religious traditions all circle around the same truth. As the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi said: “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and touch the ground.” The more one reads widely in the diverse philosophical and spiritual traditions of the world, the more one is struck by the constant unfolding of the same fundamental questions and even the same range of possible answers, even if the traditions have all combined those possible answers in their own unique way. There is no profound gulf between traditions and cultures, they constantly borrow, adapt, and learn from each other. The African American philosopher W. E. B. Dubois wrote that, seeking truth, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas.” The history of human culture is defined by mutual dialogue as much as oppression and destruction.
Yet, as our manifest differences attest, over our universal human nature is an infinite riot of customs, beliefs, and morals that act as a “second nature.” One of the fundamental challenges of understanding is to determine what is essential to human nature and what accidental. We cannot rashly assume our values and positions are correct or that we are free of blind-spots, biases, and prejudices. We must engage in dialogue and discussion with each other to recognise the potentially provisional and limited character of our understanding. We must use our reason, empathy, and imagination to try to understand and inhabit the experiences of others. If truth and beauty are universal, then all beliefs, all works of art or learning, are relevant to our experience, regardless of their provenance. All beliefs and works are mixes of truth and falsehood, regardless of their apparent biases and prejudices. And it might even be in engagement with these biases and prejudices, in the attempt to sift the necessary from the contingent, that truth is most likely to be found.
* * *
A problematic attitude of relativism has become commonplace in many domains of contemporary life. This attitude has deep roots in Western thought and has been driven by some of the major currents of 20th century thought. Its plausibility has been fostered by the complexity and divisions of modern society, and its desirability by a recognition of injustice and the need for toleration of difference. But while often well-intentioned, it is philosophically unsustainable and destructive of all knowing and acting. Relativism holds that there is no truth outside of our particular contexts but exempts itself from this verdict. Taken seriously, it would make all communication and interaction with the world impossible. Nor can we determine a meaningful boundary between peoples and places that could plausibly limit the horizon of our understanding. Ultimately, our language and culture should not be seen as divine forces constructing the world out of nothing but as tools attempting to reflect it.
Far from furthering tolerance, relativism makes the difficult task of understanding each other even more difficult. By rejecting any universally applicable standards of reason, it destroys the possibility of true conversation, of learning from and compromising with each other. By creating an insuperable barrier to our past, relativism makes it impossible to distinguish between what is necessary and contingent in our own societies and therefore to plausibly imagine a better future. It gives carte blanche to rest content with our assumptions and prejudices, to not make the difficult attempt to ascend beyond our contextual limitations and to truly engage with the issues at hand. And by denying the reality of beauty, truth, and the possibilities of being, it denies our very human nature.
We cannot, however, just replace relativistic beliefs with chauvinistic certainty. We must approach the problems around us as genuine problems with humility and openness. Believing in absolute truth does not mean that truth is easy to acquire or that we can ever halt the search for it. We must be ever aware of our limitations, of our susceptibility to bias and prejudice. There is no “view from nowhere”: we must always approach truth from where we are, ascending from commonplace assumptions towards absolute truths. We might not be able to determine any ultimate solutions to the basic problems of existence but we can rationally recognise those problems and choose meaningfully between the perennial alternatives. If we truly want a saner world and politics, we could begin by acknowledging the existence of sanity, humanity, and, critically, absolute truth.
Alan S. Rome has a PhD in intellectual history from the University of Sydney. He currently teaches history, philosophy, and legal studies at a secondary school.