Relativism has a long history in our intellectual culture, and takes several different forms, such as relativism about knowledge and truth, ethical values, aesthetic quality, and cultural norms, to mention a few. Paul Boghossian’s book concentrates on the first of these. The basic idea he opposes is that claims to objective truth and knowledge, for example the claim that hydrogen atoms have one electron, are in fact only valid relative to a set of cultural attitudes, or to some other subjective way of perceiving the world. Furthermore, according to relativism, inconsistent claims may have what he calls “equal validity.” There can be no universally valid knowledge claims.
There is a traditional refutation of relativism, as follows: The claim that all truth is relative is itself either relative or not. If it is relative then we need not accept it because it is only valid relative to somebody’s attitudes, which we may not share. If it is not relative, but absolute, then it refutes the view that all truth is relative. Either way relativism is refuted. Boghossian considers this traditional refutation and though he thinks it is serious, he does not regard it as decisive. For one thing, most relativists regard it as a kind of logical trick. They think that they are possessed of a deep insight, that all of our knowledge claims are made relative to a certain set of attitudes, cultural norms, and prejudices. This insight is not refuted by logical arguments, or so they suppose.
The currently most influential form of relativism is social constructivism, which Boghossian defines as follows: “A fact is socially constructed if and only if it is necessarily true that it could only have obtained through the contingent actions of a social group.” The social constructivist is anxious to expose construction where none had been suspected, where something that is in fact essentially social had come to masquerade as part of the natural world. Many social constructivists find it liberating because it frees us from the apparent oppression of supposing that we are forced to accept claims about the world as matters of mind-independent fact when in reality they are all socially constructed. If we do not like a fact that others have constructed, we can construct another fact that we prefer.
What do relativism and social constructivism look like in practice? Boghossian gives a number of striking examples. According to our best evidence, the Native Americans arrived on this continent from the Eurasian landmass by crossing over the Bering Strait; but according to some Native American accounts they are the descendants of the Buffalo people, and they came from inside the earth after supernatural spirits prepared this world for habitation by humans. So here are two alternative and inconsistent accounts. Some anthropologists say that one account is as good as the other. As one put it, “Science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. [The Zunis’ worldview is] just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about.” Our science constructs one reality; the Native Americans construct another. As Boghossian sees it, this is not acceptable. These two theories are logically inconsistent with each other; they cannot both be true. Is there any way to eliminate the inconsistency?
The answer, say the relativists, is to see that each claim is relative. We should say not that the early Americans came by way of the Bering Strait, but rather: “according to our theory,” they came by the Bering Strait. And “according to some Native American theories,” they came out of the earth. Once relativized, the inconsistency disappears. Indeed all claims are relativized in this way (including presumably the claim that the original claims were inconsistent and the claim that they have been relativized). Will relativism rescue social constructivism? Boghossian sees correctly that relativism fails to solve the problem, and much of his book is about this failure. I do not agree with all of his arguments but I support his overall project.
A problem faced by social constructivism concerns facts about the past. Are we now constructing facts about the past when we make claims about history? One extreme social constructivist cited by Boghossian, Bruno Latour, accepts this conclusion with somewhat comical results. Recent research shows that the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II probably died of tuberculosis. But according to Latour, this is impossible because the tuberculosis bacillus was only discovered by Robert Koch in 1882.1 “Before Koch, the bacillus had no real existence.” To say that Ramses II died of tuberculosis is as absurd as saying that he died of machine-gun fire.
What is one to make of Latour’s claim? The machine gun was invented in the late nineteenth century, and prior to that invention it did not exist in any form. But the tuberculosis bacillus was not invented. It was discovered. Part of the meaning of “discovery” is that to be discovered something has to exist prior to the discovery, and indeed could not have been discovered if it had not existed prior to the discovery.
The claim that knowledge is a social construction is not meant to state the commonplace truth that many facts in the social world are indeed socially constructed. For example, something is money, private property, a government, or a marriage only because people believe that’s what it is, and in that sense such things are socially constructed. Social constructivism makes the much more radical claim that physical reality itself, the very facts we might think we have discovered in physics, chemistry, and the other natural sciences are socially constructed.
This view has been influential in a number of disciplines: feminism, sociology, anthropology, philosophy of science, and literary theory among others. The titles of some typical works express various degrees of support for the doctrine: Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality; Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts; Andrew Pickering’s Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics; Donald MacKenzie’s Statistics in Britain, 1865–1930: The Social Construction of ScientificKnowledge.2 Boghossian quotes a feminist view as follows:
Feminist epistemologists, in common with many other strands of contemporary epistemology, no longer regard knowledge as a neutral transparent reflection of an independently existing reality, with truth and falsity established by transcendent procedures of rational assessment. Rather, most accept that all knowledge is situated knowledge, reflecting the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context.3
This passage is worth a close reading. On the face of it, the two views being contrasted, that knowledge is a “reflection of an independently existing reality” and that “all knowledge is situated knowledge,” are perfectly consistent. Historically situated investigators can discover the truth about “an independently existing reality.” But the point of the passage is to claim that most feminists reject the idea that knowledge reflects an independently existing reality; and the rhetorical flourishes in the passage, such as “transcendent procedures of rational assessment” and “neutral transparent reflection,” are designed to reinforce that point.
Boghossian distinguishes three features of constructivism and considers each separately: constructivism about the facts (the facts themselves are social constructions), constructivism about justification (what we count as a justification of a belief is a matter of social construction), and constructivism about rational explanation (we never believe what we believe solely on the basis of evidence).
About the first and most important of these theses, Boghossian considers arguments from three philosophers: Hilary Putnam, Nelson Goodman, and Richard Rorty. Putnam imagines a hypothetical universe consisting of three circles: A, B, and C. Then he asks: How many objects are there in this universe? Three? No, says Putnam, because according to certain Polish logicians (he cites S. Lezniewski), we can construe one object as A, one as B, one as C, one as consisting of A+B, another as B+C, yet another as A+C, and finally, one of A+B+C. So on this basis, there are really seven objects in the universe. Because we can correctly say that there are three objects or seven objects, Putnam concludes that there is no objective fact of the matter about how many objects there are.4
As Boghossian sees, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Once you have selected your conditions for something being an object, there is a straightforward fact of the matter about how many objects there are. For Putnam to say that there is no fact of the matter would be like saying that there is no answer to the question “How many guests came to the dinner party?” because you could say eight people or four couples.
Goodman’s argument is also weak. Goodman says we construct the constellations of the night sky by drawing certain lines and not others. We draw one set of lines that creates the Big Dipper, for example. All other constellations are similarly created, and what goes for constellations goes for everything, according to Goodman. All of reality consists of human creations.Once again, a bad argument. Constellations are patterns we have selected in the sky because we can discern through our perceptual apparatus certain geometrical forms such as the Big Dipper. Constellations are, in this sense, observer-relative: the actual stars exist independently of any observer, though the patterns we use to name constellations exist only relative to our point of view.
But the stars, as well as mountains, molecules, and tectonic plates, are not in that way relative to an observer. True, we have to select a vocabulary of “stars,” “mountains,” etc., but once the vocabulary has been selected, it is a completely objective fact that Mount Everest is a mountain, for example, and not a giraffe. The general pattern of error is to confuse, on the one hand, the social relativity of the vocabulary and the making of descriptions within that vocabulary with, on the other, the social relativity of the facts described using that vocabulary. This comes out strikingly in Rorty’s argument.
Rorty says that we accept the descriptions we do, not because they correspond to the way things are, but because it serves our practical interests to do so. Boghossian agrees that the fact that we give the descriptions we do is a fact that reflects something about us and our society. But, he points out, the fact that descriptions are socially relative does not imply that the facts described by those descriptions are socially relative. Boghossian cites an argument by Rorty attacking an article of mine5 in which I said that mountains, for example, exist completely independently of us and our descriptions. Rorty answered as follows:
Given that it pays to talk about mountains, as it certainly does, one of the obvious truths about mountains is that they were here before we talked about them. If you do not believe that, you probably do not know how to play the usual language-games which employ the word “mountain.” But the utility of those language-games has nothing to do with the question of whether Reality as It Is In Itself, apart from the way it is handy for human beings to describe it, has mountains in it.6
This is a strange passage. Rorty is saying correctly that we adopt the vocabulary that we do because it serves various interests to have that vocabulary. But what he neglects is that the facts in this sort of case exist quite independently of the vocabulary. He begins, “Given that it pays to talk about mountains…,” implying that somehow the existence of mountains depends on the usefulness of the vocabulary. But it does not. The facts are the same, whether or not “it pays to talk about mountains.”
Let us agree that we have the word “mountain” because it pays to have such a word. Why does it pay? Because there really are such things, and they existed before we had the word and they will continue to exist long after we have all died. To state the facts you have to have a vocabulary. But the facts you state with that vocabulary are not dependent on the existence or usefulness of the vocabulary. The existence of mountains has nothing whatever to do with whether or not it “pays to talk about mountains.” And it does not help Rorty’s case to sneer at the existence of mountains as “Reality as It Is In Itself,” because insofar as that expression is meaningful at all, it is obvious that Reality as It Is In Itself contains mountains.
I think Boghossian does a public service by pointing out the weaknesses of all of these arguments. But I fear that the real target of his book is not addressed by refuting bad arguments of the sort I have just cited. People who are convinced by social constructivism typically have a deep metaphysical vision and detailed refutations do not address that vision.
In a sense Boghossian makes it easier for himself by taking on more or less rational authors, specifically Putnam, Goodman, and to a lesser extent Rorty. Their views are reasonably easy to refute because they are, at least in the case of Putnam and Goodman, fairly clearly stated. It is much easier to refute a bad argument than to refute a truly dreadful argument. A bad argument has enough structure that you can point out its badness. But with a truly dreadful argument, you have to try to reconstruct it so that it is clear enough that you can state a refutation.
Boghossian takes bad arguments by Putnam, Goodman, and Rorty and refutes them. But what about the truly dreadful arguments in such authors as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and other postmodernists that have been more influential during the last half-century? What about, for example, Derrida’s attempts to “prove” that meanings are inherently unstable and indeterminate, and that it is impossible to have any clear, determinate representations of reality? (He argues, for example, that there is no tenable distinction between writing and speech.) The atmosphere of Boghossian’s refutation is that of a Princeton seminar. And in fact Boghossian was a student of Rorty at Princeton. But he does not go into the swamp and wrestle with Derrida & Co.7
Boghossian observes that we could say, with logical consistency, “according to our view” the Native Americans came by the Bering Strait, and “according to their view” they came from the center of the earth, but that this nonetheless does not solve the problem of relativism. However, it seems to me that Boghossian gives the wrong account of why it does not solve the problem. He says that it does not solve the problem for three reasons:
(A) If we relativize the claims by saying “according to our view,” we still have some nonrelative facts left over; there will still be nonrelative facts about what different communities accept or do not accept, for example, physical evidence of people crossing the Bering Strait.
(B) It is often much harder to figure out what people believe than it is to figure out what actually happened. The mental is more puzzling than the physical (this is one of his weaker arguments).
(C) if we get out of objection (A) by saying that there are no nonrelative facts, we get an infinite regress. Here is the regress. We start with:
(1) According to a theory we accept, they came over the Bering Strait.
But if everything has to be relativized then (1) has to be relativized, which produces:
(2) According to a theory we accept, there is a theory that we accept and according to that theory…
And so on ad infinitum.
I agree with objections (A) and (C) but I think they are symptoms of a deeper objection, which Boghossian does not make. The deep objection to relativizing is that the original claims have been abandoned and the subject has been changed. The original claims—that the ancestors of the Native Americans came via the Bering Strait, and that they came out of the center of the earth—were not about us and our theories but about what actually happened in human history regardless of anybody’s theories. Our claim is not that we hold a certain theory. Our claim is that the actual ancestors of the early Americans came via the Bering Strait, that there were actual physical movements of physical bodies through physical space. Relativizing of the sort that Boghossian considers does not solve the difficulty; it changes the subject to something irrelevant. It changes the subject from historical facts to our psychological attitudes.
This is the most important criticism of constructivism. It is of the very essence of the speech act of stating or asserting propositions of the sort we have been considering that the speech act commits you to the truth of what you say and therefore to the existence of a fact in the world corresponding to that truth. Such speech acts are made from a point of view and typically within certain sorts of ways of thinking, but the statements and assertions do not thereby become about the points of view or the ways of thinking. If you treat them as being about the point of view and way of thinking you get a different statement altogether, one that is not about the physical movements of Native Americans but about the psychology of the speakers. Boghossian is right to see that the relativization still leaves you with nonrelative facts about speakers and their attitudes and that if you keep going you get an infinite regress, but these are just symptoms of the deeper incoherence. The constructivists do not have a coherent conception of the speech act of asserting or stating.
The second version of relativism Boghossian considers is about epistemic systems, that is, systems used to acquire knowledge and justify claims to knowledge. We justify our beliefs using one epistemic system but somebody might have a different epistemic system that would give different results from ours. It may look like any effort to justify ours would be circular because we would have to presuppose the validity of our system in order to try to justify it. Richard Rorty gives the example of the dispute between Cardinal Bellarmine and Galileo.8 Galileo claimed to have discovered, by astronomical observation through a telescope, that Copernicus was right that the earth revolved around the sun. Bellarmine claimed that he could not be right because his view ran counter to the Bible. Rorty says, astoundingly, that Bellarmine’s argument was just as good as Galileo’s. It is just that the rhetoric of “science” had not at that time been formed as part of the culture of Europe. We have now accepted the rhetoric of “science,” he writes, but it is not more objective or rational than Cardinal Bellarmine’s explicitly dogmatic Catholic views. According to Rorty, there is no fact of the matter about who was right because there are no absolute facts about what justifies what. Bellarmine and Galileo, in his view, just had different epistemic systems.
The point I believe Boghossian should have made immediately, though in the end he does get around to saying something like it, is that there are not and cannot be alternative epistemic rationalities. Bellarmine and Galileo reached different conclusions but they worked, like everybody else, within exactly the same system of rationality. Bellarmine held the false view that the Bible was a reliable astronomical authority. But that is a case of a false presupposition, not an alternative epistemic rationality.
Why can’t there be alternative and inconsistent epistemic rationalities? Consider the example of the statement that the Native Americans came by the Bering Strait. I have pointed out that anyone who makes such a statement is thereby committed to the existence of a fact. But that commitment in turn carries a commitment to being able to answer such questions as, How do you know? What is the evidence? Furthermore, only certain sorts of things can count as evidence for and against the claim. These requirements of rationality are not accretions to the original statement, but they are built into it. The requirement that claims admit of evidence and counterevidence and that only certain sorts of things count as evidence is not something added on to thought and language. It is built into the fundamental structure of thought and language.
Consider another example. I now believe my dog Gilbert is in this room. What is the evidence? I can see him. It is in the nature of the claim in question that what I see counts as evidence. Notice that, if in response to a demand for evidence, I said “1 + 1 = 2,” that would not answer the demand for evidence.
Boghossian is worried by the possibility that we might encounter an “alternative to our epistemic system…whose track record was impressive enough to make us doubt the correctness of our own system.” In such a case, he fears, we would not be able to justify our own. But what is meant by “track record”? The fact that he uses this metaphor without adequate explanation ought to worry him and us. The only “track record” that would be relevant would be a body of established knowledge. But in order to ascertain the presence of a “track record” in this sense, to ascertain the presence of a body of knowledge, we would have to use the only epistemic rationality we have, the one already built into thought and language. The hypothesis of alternative epistemic rationalities has no clear meaning. Eventually, after three difficult chapters (5, 6, and 7), Boghossian seems to come to something like this conclusion.
In the great debates of the 1960s and after, I was once asked by a student, “What is your argument for rationality?” That is an absurd question. There cannot be an argument for rationality because the whole notion of an argument presupposes rationality. Constraints of rationality are constitutive of argument itself, as they are of thought and language generally. This is not to say that there cannot be irrational thoughts and claims. There are plenty of irrationalities around. (For example, given the available evidence, it is irrational to deny that the present plant and animal species evolved from earlier forms of life. Why? Because, to put it as an understatement, the evidence is overwhelming.)
The last form of relativism that Boghossian considers is the explanation of belief. Here the claim is that the explanation of why we believe what we do is never a matter of evidence or solely a matter of evidence, but involves some irrational factors, some social condition in which we find ourselves. I am puzzled why Boghossian takes this claim very seriously, not because it is obviously false, but because it does not really matter to the issue of the truth or falsity or the justification of the claims under discussion. If we have justifications for our beliefs, and if the justifications meet rational criteria, then the fact that there are all sorts of elements in our social situation that incline us to believe one thing rather than another may be of historical or psychological interest but it is really quite beside the point of the justifications and of the truth or falsity of the original claim. It is a factual question to what extent people reach their beliefs by rational appraisal of the evidence, not a question adequately settled by philosophical argument.
I think the reason that Boghossian is so concerned about this is that some who have written about the sociology of scientific knowledge think that they can explain all of our beliefs, both the true and the false, the well-supported and the unsupported, by a common pattern of sociological explanation. He cites David Bloor’s Knowledge and Social Imagery9 as an example, along with the works by Latour, Woolgar, and Pickering that I mentioned earlier. The writers in question adopt what Bloor calls “symmetrical” modes of explanation: they argue that true and false beliefs, as well as rational and irrational beliefs, must be explained by the same causes. One example, cited by Bloor, concerns a study involving physicists in Weimar Germany who attempted to “dispense with causality in physics.” A “symmetrical” understanding of this scientific project would argue that, while considering how the physicists thought about observed evidence, one should consider as well how they attempted “to adapt the content of their science to the values of their intellectual environment.”
Boghossian points out correctly that symmetry about truth and falsehood is quite different from symmetry about rationality and irrationality. Symmetry about truth is a possible research program in the sociology of knowledge because people typically arrive at their scientific views, both true and false, through the study of evidence; thus, in most cases at least, both true and false beliefs can be seen as arising from the same cause, evidence. Some evidence may be more revealing of truth than other evidence; nevertheless, if we put aside the use of fraud, both true and false theories have the same underlying cause: observed evidence.
But that is not the same as treating rationality and irrationality symmetrically. First, as we’ve just seen, for both true views and false views to be symmetrical, they must originate in the same cause: argument based on evidence. But all argument based on evidence assumes a common rationality. Thus, as Boghossian argues, the case for the symmetry of truth is wrong because it rests on “the falsity ” of the “symmetry about rationality”; both cannot simultaneously be correct. True views and false views may be arrived at by symmetrical methods, but when those methods involve evidence, they are themselves manifestations of a common rationality and thus make impossible the symmetry, or equality, of rationality and irrationality. This is one of the best arguments in Boghossian’s book.
What motivates social constructionism? After all, we pay an enormous intellectual price if we deny the objective validity of the past three and a half centuries of scientific investigation. Boghossian thinks constructionism is motivated partly by intellectual argument and partly by political correctness. In the postcolonial era, some have felt that we should not impose our conception of reality on other cultures. Why shouldn’t we, in a multicultural democracy, grant that each culture, or indeed each person, can have his or her own reality? I think in fact the antirational, antiscientific bias of current versions of relativism and constructivism are motivated by a much deeper metaphysical vision than one based on postcolonial political correctness.
What exactly is that vision? Hints of it occur in the passage on feminist epistemology that I quoted from Kathleen Lennon. It is a vision according to which all of our knowledge claims are radically contingent because of their historical and social circumstances. According to this vision, all of us think within particular sets of assumptions, and we always represent the world from a point of view, and this makes objective truth impossible. For someone who accepts this argument, the idea that there are scientific claims that are objective, universal, and established beyond a reasonable doubt seems not only inaccurate but positively oppressive. And for such people the very idea of an objectively existing, independent reality must be discredited.
On this view, if we are to be truly free, free to create a multicultural democracy, we must above all liberate ourselves from “objectivity,” “rationality,” and “science.” The motivation, in short, is more profound than Boghossian allows for, and it bears interesting affinities with earlier forms of Counter-Enlightenment Romanticism of the sort described by Isaiah Berlin in his The Roots of Romanticism.10
Boghossian has written an excellent book. It is very compressed, and it is not always easy reading, but it contains relentless exposures of confusion, falsehood, and incoherence.
September 24, 2009
Bruno Latour, “Ramses II est-il mort de la tuberculose?,” La Recherche, March 1998. ↩
Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Doubleday, 1966); Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (Sage, 1979); Andrew Pickering, Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (University of Chicago Press, 1984); Andrew Pickering, “Science as a Cultural Construct,” letter to the editor, Nature, June 5, 1997; and Donald A. MacKenzie, Statistics in Britain, 1865–1930: The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981). ↩
Kathleen Lennon, “Feminist Epistemology as Local Epistemology,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary, Volume 71 (1997), p. 37. ↩
Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism: The Paul Carus Lectures (Open Court, 1987), p. 18. ↩
John R. Searle, “Rationality and Realism: What Is at Stake?” Daedalus, Fall 1993. ↩
Richard Rorty, “Does Academic Freedom Have Philosophical Presuppositions?,” Academe, Vol. 80, No. 6 (November–December 1994), p. 56. ↩
Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 328–331. Quoted in Boghossian, p. 61. ↩
University of Chicago Press, second edition, 1991. ↩
Princeton University Press, 2001. ↩