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A Place for Relativism, or: How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?

Richard Mason ponders the relativity of truth.

About 2,500 years ago, Xenophanes, who was a kind of wandering poet-sage in the Aegean world, noted: “The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair.”

This, self-evidently, was a consequence of travel, knowledge and observation, as opposed to provincialism and ignorance. If you stay at home you may never find out what other people believe, what their gods are.

Notice how easy and natural it is to think like this: in one place people believe one thing, in another place they believe something else. Yes: obviously so. So: what you think depends on where you are. Less obviously so. So the rightness of what you think is dependent on where you are? Not so obvious at all, but persuasive.

Xenophanes also noted – and maybe it was this step that makes us think of him as a philosopher rather than a travel-writer: “if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the works that men can do, horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.”1 So people’s notions of gods will depend on who and where they are. The problem – or challenge – is that once you’ve had this idea, it’s hard to get rid of it and hard to know what to do with it. (A still more tricky point is to decide whether we have a question or an answer: that is, a problem to be solved or an interesting solution in itself.)

One reaction – and apparently the route taken by Xenophanes – was to conclude that if there are gods, they must have universal characteristics modelled on no particular society. So you end up with God not gods, and not a God with hair, eyes or a nose of any particular shape or colour. But maybe that sort of God is not so easy to accept, and people do tend to get quite fond of their own gods. The point is that if you stay at home in ignorance you will never find out what anyone else believes. Once you have travelled you may not know what to believe yourself. Descartes, who was a great traveller in his youth, remarked in the Discourse on the Method that if you travel too much you become a stranger in your own country.

In this article I want to point out a link between relativism and images of place or location. I am not thinking about moral relativism – about whether there are ‘absolute standards of right and wrong’. Instead, I want to concentrate on relativism about intellectual or rational standards, not moral or political ones, though there can be links, of course. Intellectual relativism is the view that truth or rationality is related in some important way to social, cultural or linguistic contexts. I want to argue that this view has strong links with language about where you are, within which framework you think, what position you take, what your perspective is.

Relativism about truth or truths looks fundamental. What is true for me, here, now may be different from what is true for you, there, then. So truth depends, importantly, on context. This is a frighteningly radical doctrine if taken universally, because some truths – such as the truths of arithmetic – look as though they should be true everywhere, always, for everyone. If some things are always true then the prospects look bad for any interesting claim that truth must be relative.

Relativism about rationality seems less fundamental and less alarming. What counts as rational (or as crazy) or as a good reason for me, here, now, may not be so for you, there, then.

If that seems abstract, the two particular fields or areas where intellectual relativism has looked plausible have been social anthropology and religion. Around the world, or through history, we can see different systems of belief, different cultures, ideologies and religions. Many have been tempted to conclude that each system of belief or culture is valid only within a specific place or time, or to a specific group of adherents.

This has applied most plainly with religions or with religious-looking ideologies which have become codified or bureaucratised, so that there is a clear check-list of what you are supposed to believe and not believe if you are to be a member of the club. What is correct or defensible for one set of religious believers may have a wholly different rationale – or none at all – for a different set of believers in a different part of the world.

Then isn’t it possible that the outlandish practices of some remote people up the Amazon are intelligible – or are only intelligible – in what we might like to call their own terms? That what is sensible, or true for them, may not be so for us? Isn’t this a decently liberal point of view? (Notice, though, that we usually can understand them, so the talk about ‘their own terms’ is suspect right away.)

Now let’s generalise from what may be correct for religions or for local ways of life to whole ways of seeing and understanding the world: ‘our view’ of space and time, for example. Might it not be that what comes out as true in one scientific theory – and so rational to defend – comes out as not true in another theory?

The basic idea then is that we could have conceptual schemes or frameworks which would somehow support or justify or vindicate or legitimise what was stated in them, and that such support or justification would be relative only to the frameworks within which they were stated. The standard case is pre-Copernican, Ptolemaic astronomy: if you look at things one way the sun goes round the earth; if you look at them in another way then the earth goes round the sun. It depends on your point of view or perspective.

Well – you might think – what a terrible example, because isn’t it obvious that one theory is true and the other is false, so any idea that what is true one way is false the other is just nonsense?

Yes and no. The trouble is that since at least the beginning of this century it has been realised that any set of ‘facts’ can be adequately explained by an infinite number of ‘theories’. This was an extremely important discovery, usually ascribed to Pierre Duhem (1861-1916). Its consequences include the erosion of any division between ‘facts’ and ‘theories’ or ‘interpretations’, and it seriously undermines the notion of a true theory, or indeed truth itself.

Now I don’t want to say much about the case for or against relativism. It is the kind of position held by nobody (or rather, you can rarely get anyone to admit to holding it) but it never seems to go away. There are endless ‘refutations’ which go on for generation after generation, starting with the arguments of Socrates and Plato against the claim of Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things” but the persistence of these refutations – like papal denunciations of married priests in the middle ages – suggests that some problem still remains.

The main argument for relativism will lie in the kind of points I’ve been mentioning (about cultural variations and so on). The main case against is that it is a theory which is remarkably hard to state coherently – as soon as you try to pin it down, it slips away.2 And what is a ‘culture’, to which beliefs or practices may be said to be relative? How big is it? How is it defined? A national group? A local group? Can my family and I be a culture on our own? Or me alone? And so on. (If a ‘culture’ is defined only by the customs or beliefs said to be relative to it, some kind of circularity seems to have crept in.)

But that’s not my point now. I want to argue, not about the case for or against relativism but about how it arises and, most importantly, about some of the language which seems to sustain it.

My case is a very simple one: that relativism gets much of its force, and perhaps most of its plausibility, from images of place, space or location which we tend to use as soon as we start thinking about it, inside or outside philosophy. These images can be a source of relativism, in the sense that when we think them away, it becomes much less attractive.

My case is really not so much an argument as a speculative suggestion: try this one for size!

The suggestion is that place and location slip inexorably into our thinking when we start going on about intellectual points of view – there you are – and that it’s very hard to get away from this – there you are again.

What is your position? Well here I stand and I’m not going to move!

Metaphors of location seem irresistible. We choose where to stand, we choose to locate ourselves within or outside a tradition, or set of traditions; we choose between different positions, or between the validations within different fields of inquiry. Such language is natural enough (it has its place) but it is likely to mislead. In one place are the areas occupied by traditional beliefs, legitimised by language and history. We may choose to step outside these in a search for truth and consistency. But then our freedom of choice, where to stand, looks diminished or shrunk, as though alternative positions have been restricted, or as though we have taken up one position at the expense of others. (You can’t be in two places at the same time.)

My suggestion is speculative in that I can only ask readers to consider how pervasive, and how persuasive, this language is. Try to think through some of the subjects that I’ve mentioned without falling into spatial language. You’ll find that the imagery is hard to avoid. You’ll slide into it quite naturally. I can’t argue, though, that you have to use it, or that relativism can’t be stated without it. That would be implausible. But there are two things I can argue. First, I can point out why and how images of space and location can be not necessarily wrong, but misleading. Then secondly, I can give some examples of how images of space and location seem to have crept into some arguments for relativism.

So, first, what is misleading?

Images of place and space have their uses, but I can think of at least three ways in which they can start trouble:

(i) You must be somewhere or you can’t be nowhere is a truism about space. Every physical object, including us, has to occupy some physical location. But that simple fact is direly misleading when transferred metaphorically from the literally spatial world to the intellectual world. There you don’t have to be somewhere particular, and the suggestion that you do is supported, as far as I can make out, only by the persuasiveness of the spatial analogy. The thought is that there are intellectual terrains, that if you are not within one then you must be within another, because you can’t be nowhere. But why? Or rather, why not? This would only be so if there were separable intellectual terrains occupying the whole intellectual field and excluding all other possibilities. And, as far as I can see, there is absolutely no reason to believe that this is the case.

But it is a persuasive idea, and I can see why. It is possible to suggest a rather simplified intellectual world which contains only two possibilities: agree, or not. He that is not with me is against me (Luke 11, xxiii). If you accept that, then you are indeed either here or nowhere; but I can see no reason to accept it as a premise.

(ii) It is an old joke that if I were going there I would not start from here; but in literal terms finding out where you are does not affect your location. If your plane lands unexpectedly in Timbuktu, that’s where you are, and finding out that you’re in Timbuktu (by asking the stewardess, maybe) doesn’t affect your location. You are where you are, and, as I’ve said, you have to be somewhere. But, again, when it comes to holding opinions, this is not so – not only that, it’s the reverse of the truth. Understanding where you are can alter your intellectual location in the most radical way. Intellectually, understanding how you got to be where you are can affect your present location and can affect your future possible locations. The use of spatial metaphors obscures our ability to pick, mix and criticise intellectually, and it ignores the results of reflective understanding. There is no room in such language to locate the freedom gained from appreciating where I may be. To be freed in that way, by finding where I am, is neither to be placed inside nor outside an intellectual position: the imagery is entirely wrong.

(iii) You can’t be in two places at the same time is a truism applied to space. It looks beguilingly similar to the logical truism that you can’t, or shouldn’t, believe both A and not-A, a proposition and its opposite. That would be inconsistent - the ultimate intellectual crime. But in fact things are not so simple. Inconsistency is not desirable, but neither is it, usually, obvious. There are (or used to be) for example, people who call themselves Christian marxists. Maybe that is strange, or not. But I doubt very much indeed whether it could be ruled out of court as straightforward inconsistency. Intellectual positions are just too complicated for that.

To end, here are a few examples. I have italicised the language of space and place:

(a) A ‘thesis’ about relativism formulated by the Austrian-American philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, who died in 1994, and who was one of the few people to advocate relativism with enthusiasm: “the world, as described by our scientists and anthropologists, consists of (social and physical) regions with specific laws and conceptions of reality. In the social domain we have relatively stable societies which have demonstrated an ability to survive in their own particular surroundings and possess great adaptive powers. In the physical domain we have different points of view, valid in different areas, but inapplicable outside … The attempt to enforce a universal truth (a universal way of finding truth) has led to disasters in the social domain …”3 As Feyerabend said, “With the discussion of relativism, we enter territory full of treacherous paths, traps, footangles, territory where appeals to emotion count as arguments …”4

(b) Here is one of the most frequently-cited relativist texts, an essay by Nietzsche, from 1873, called ‘On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense’: “Just as the Romans and Etruscans cut up the heavens with rigid mathematical lines and confined a god within each of the spaces thereby delimited, as within a templum, so every people has a similarly delimited mathematically divided conceptual heaven above themselves and henceforth thinks that truth demands that each conceptual god be sought only within his own sphere.” And in case we haven’t understood the Latin or the imagery, the translator provides an explanation of templum in a footnote: “A delimited space restricted to a particular purpose, especially a religiously sanctified area.” 5

(c) Another example is rather comical, from a paper by Jacques Derrida arguing that metaphor has a central place in philosophical writing. He does show some awareness of space – “is it not frequently said that every metaphoric enunciation spatializes as soon as it gives us something to imagine, to see, or to touch?” – but shortly afterwards he dives into a pool of spatial metaphor himself: “it is impossible to dominate philosophical metaphorics as such, from the exterior, by using a concept of metaphor which remains a philosophical product.” The instruments of philosophy, he says, “belonging to its field [son champ], philosophy is incapable of dominating its general tropology and metaphorics. It could perceive its metaphorics only around [autour] a blind spot or central deafness [un foyer de surdité]. The concept of metaphor would describe this contour, but it is not even certain that the concept thereby circumscribes an organizing center…”6 Derrida is famous for his mischievous irony, so maybe he does see the catch in writing about the domination of metaphor from the exterior.

Of course these examples don’t prove anything in themselves. It would be interesting, though, to see the statement of a case in favour of intellectual relativism which does not contain images of spaces or place.

A final point: one particularly plausible form of relativism is a doctrine known as perspectivism – that everything has to be seen, not from some absolute, objective viewpoint but from some point of vantage or perspective. This is locational imagery par excellence, elevated into a theory. You must see things from somewhere. There can’t be a view from nowhere, or from everywhere. From what may be true (that what is literally seen, with the eyes, has to be seen from somewhere) we move to what is very uncertain (that what is judged or thought has to be judged or thought from somewhere intellectually). According to the perspectivist, there can be no purely objective intellectual position just as there can be no unlocated visual, perceptual position.

One final, final point: to those who think that some use of imagery must be indispensable, I suggest that images of time are more appropriate to intellectual relativism than images of space. Movement through time is asymmetrical, from the past through the present to the future, not the other way. Here is someone making a similar point in different language: “There is certainly no point in trying to return to the level of naive and derivative belief once it has been left, since a condition of being at such a level is that one should not know one is there; when a man comes to know that, the glass of his naive beliefs is broken. This is a breakage which cannot be mended, a breakage not to be repaired by patching or by assembling of fragments. The glass must be melted once again in the furnace for a new start, and out of it another fresh vessel formed.” You may think that is a typically modern, western thought. It comes from the Eleventh Century, from the great Persian philosopher, Abu Hâmid Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Ghazâlî (1058-1111).7

This provides a good image for what happens when Xenophanes goes travelling and finds out that there are different gods in different countries. As al-Ghazâlî’s imagery suggests, the growth of knowledge is not reversible. You can’t move from knowledge to ignorance like stepping from one area to another – there is no symmetry. The relativist’s idea that we can survey different areas of thought – different schemes or frameworks – from a different, maybe higher, vantage-point is completely misleading. To realise that you have a choice, for example, is an irreversible step, much more like moving from the present into the future than like moving from one place to another.

(1) The Presocratic Philosophers, G.Kirk, J.Raven and M.Schofield, Camb. Univ. Press, 2nd ed. 1983, p.169.
(2) “Conceptual relativism is a heady and exotic doctrine, or would be if we could make good sense of it. The trouble is, as so often in philosophy, it is hard to improve intelligibility while retaining the excitement”: Donald Davidson, ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’ (1974), in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 1984, p.183.
(3) Farewell to Reason, Verso, 1987, p.61.
(4) Science in a Free Society, Verso, 1982, p79.
(5) ‘On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense’, trs. and ed. D. Breazeale, Philosophy and Truth, Harvester, 1979, p.84.
(6) ‘White Mythology’ (1971), Margins of Philosophy, trs. Alan Bass, Harvester, 1982, pp.227 and 228.
(7) The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazâlî trs. W. Montgomery Watt, Allen & Unwin, 1953, p.27.

© R. Mason 1996

Richard Mason is the Staff Tutor in Philosophy for the University of Cambridge Board of Continuing Education at Madingley Hall, Cambridge and a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

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