Absolutism, Absolute Relativism, and Relative Relativism: A Comparison
Sandra LaFave West Valley College
In this reading, I compare absolutism, absolute relativism,and various forms of relative relativism with respect to:
These notes contain references to characters in Norman Melchert's book Whos To Say?, an assigned text for my Critical Thinking course.
Because the world as revealed by the senses constantly changes, the world as revealed by the senses is actually not "really real." "Pure" disciplines such as math, philosophy, and theology, which study the "really real" things, are the "privileged discourses"; they are more important than science, which studies only the apparently real.
For absolutism, a paradigm of knowledge would be a math statement such as "2 + 2 = 4". This statement is objectively true: it is true whether or not anyone knows it, for all times, cultures, and situations. When rational beings discover this kind of truth (the only kind, for absolutism), they are bound to agree about it.
None of the characters in Norman Melchert's Whos To Say? is an absolutist in the sense defined here. In fact, absolutism is pretty much dead in philosophy. It has been superseded by various forms of relative relativism, such as scientific rationality and pragmatism.
II. ABSOLUTE (" DOGMATIC") RELATIVISM
The character Fred is a dogmatic relativist.
Dogmatic Relativst Metaphysics
Dogmatic Relativist Epistemology
Dogmatic Relativist Ethics
Absolute relativism is committed to ethical subjectivism. Ethical subjectivism is the view that what's moral is what I feel is moral. "Feeling" here is defined as the "opposite" of thinking or reasoning. See my notes on Subjectivism in the Ethics online study guide. One problem with ethical subjectivism is its opposition of thinking and feeling: it seems obvious that thinking and feeling are highly interconnected.
Ethical relativism (also known as conventionalism or cultural relativism) is the view that what's moral is what my culture feels is moral. "Feeling" here is defined as the "opposite" of thinking or reasoning. See notes on Relativism.
Fred falls into the trap of dogmatic relativism when that view is shown to be self-contradictory. In philosophy, dogmatic relativism is also dead.
Supposedly non-dogmatic relativism ("critical theory"), in the hands of theorists like Derrida, probably belongs in this "absolute relativist" column, because it calls into question the notion of disinterested rationality itself. Critical theorists, in other words, would support the view that there is no objective truth of any sort, since all "texts" are situated in a particular socio-political framework, and that framework determines the resulting views.
III. FOUR FORMS OF RELATIVE RELATIVISM:
RATIONALITY, SCIENTIFIC RATIONALITY + FAITH, PRAGMATISM, NON-
SCIENTIFIC RATIONALITY + FAITH,
NON- DOGMATIC RELATIVISM
1. Scientific Rationality (Mike)
Metaphysics: There is a world. Obviously, people can interpret this world in different ways, but certain aspects of this world are the same for everyone. Science explores those.
Epistemology: p is true / we know p beyond reasonable doubt if and only if
However, even if p meets the three conditions above, p might still turn out to be false later on, as science progresses.
"Truth" or "knowledge" is always qualified as truth or knowledge beyond reasonable doubt.
Scientific discourse is "privileged." The self-correcting nature of science ensures that knowledge of the world will get better and better.
Ethics: science has an essential role to play in making life happier for everyone by improving the material circumstances of life: "good" = "happy-making"
2. Scientific Rationality + Faith (Sam)
According to the character Sam, Mike's view is entirely correct, AND the world studied by science was created by God and manifests the divine will. (Some scientists believe in God.) Religious truth, however, is not provable by the methods of science. It requires faith; and for Sam there are good reasons to have faith. Sam is not dogmatic, however. He acknowledges that the reasons he finds convincing might not be convincing for someone else.
3. Pragmatism (Anita)
Metaphysics: to be real, something must make a real practical difference. For example, a table is real because I have to walk around it. If the table made no difference to my life (if I didn't have to walk around it, for example, or never used it to put stuff on), it would not be real; it would be imaginary. Now, God might be real if the notion of God makes a practical difference in people's lives.
Epistemology: p is true/right iff p "works," i.e., enables more satisfactory relations with the world. "God exists" is true for me if it makes my life better (and I am the one who defines "better").
Beliefs that work for one person or culture or time might not work for another. But pragmatists agree that scientific discourse is privileged as long as science tends to continue to produce beliefs that work very well.
4. Non-Dogmatic Relativism (Peter)
In English departments, non-dogmatic relativism is also known as "critical theory," "literary theory," or just "theory. See separate notes on critical theory. Peter claims that fundamental notions like reality, truth, rationality, contradiction, etc., apply only within linguistic or cultural frameworks ("meta-narratives"), and that science is just one of many possible frameworks, and is thus not privileged.