The Books of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals
William D. Gairdner
McGill-Queen’s University Press
Let’s play spot the flaw. In 1994, professor Mark Glazer said, “Cultural relativism in anthropology is a key methodological concept which is universally accepted within the discipline.” (It’s the very first sentence after the link.)
Don’t have it yet? Then let’s remind ourselves of what cultural relativism means: “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid and that truth itself is relative, depending on the situation, environment, and individual.”
You surely have it by now, so let’s move on to the twelve objections to relativism as outlined by Gairdner in his Book of Absolutes.
Wait…what? You don’t see the flaw? Ah, I guess it’s hard to spot contradictions like this when we’re exposed to them so often that they seem natural.
If it is true that “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid” etc., and that that proposition is “universally accepted”, then we are confronted with something that is true wherever you are. If “relativism” is true, then it is false because anthropologists everywhere believe it, and if they everywhere believe it, it is a universal truth, something that is true without regard to culture.
It gets even more asinine. If “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid” etc., then how valid is the view that “Cultural relativism is false”? I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks.
Cultural relativism is an idea that is immediately seen as not just false but incredibly stupid, so you have to wonder how it originated and why it took such a tight hold on Western academia.
Gairdner relates the history and puts a lot of the blame on German export Franz Boas, an anthropologist who was horrified by World War I, eugenics, and other popular pastimes at the turn of the last century. Boas feared absolutes, such as those preached by the rising Socialist (National) party in Germany, because he felt that they could be used to justify any atrocity. Example: If it is true that Xs are inferior, then it is okay to exterminate them, where X is any group that is on the outs.
Boas was immensely influential, and if the story is right, transformed all of anthropology so that absolutes were seen as verboten. One of his students was Margret Mead, and we know where that story ended.
After going through the book, a good argument can be made for restricting all intellectual output of Germany, re: the romanticism of Nietzsche, its practical implementation under the uber-Nazi Heidegger—and then there’s the deconstructing, post-modernist pair of Foucault and Derrida, who were both French, but who lived so close to the German border that they soaked up too much of what was seeping out. The story of how these men captured the minds of academics is particularly interesting. It has been told before, but Gairdner was an inside witness and his anecdotes are interesting, especially the story of modern Saussarian linguistics and its eventual corruption by the cult of relativism.
There are separate discussions of human biology, language, law, and customs, which all have lists of universals of the constant, conditional and statistical kind. Constant means the trait, such as the taboo against murder, is shared by every culture. Conditional means that if trait A is present then B always is, but that trait A might not be constant. Statistical traits are found in most but not necessarily all cultures (and are thus not universal, but intriguing anyway).
Gairdner attempts a list of physical constants, which is a good enough idea, but times are changing in physics and the “constants” once held dear have become malleable. But never mind. His central idea is still right: there are truths that exist independent of human minds or thought. He also has a go at the stronger Anthropic Principle, but is not convincing. However, I’ve yet to meet with an argument for that Principle that is.
The amazing thing is that universals, or even the possibility of them, were so thoroughly rejected by highly paid, tenure-wielding, peer-reviewed professors. That is, during the twentieth century the intelligentsia gathered as one and said, “There are no universals, there is nothing that is true.”
Now that is a shocking statement. But it came from a consensus of professors, and who are we mere mortals to question a consensus? So it was believed, and from it came things like judicial activism, multiculturalism etc., etc. If there is nothing universally true, academics swooned, then think of the possibilities!
Of course, the flaw in that statement was always obvious, plain, and damning. For we can ask, “Is it true that there is nothing that is universally true?” The post-modernist professor must say yes, but as he does, he makes himself a fool, albeit one with a comfortable “research” budget.
Anyway, here are a few representative examples of relativism culled from Gairdner’s book, all of which share the same self-contradictory logical flaw. You will need some familiarity with the subjects to understand some of the statements (background for each is given in the book). That these blatant flaws were overlooked—usually in the name of “good intentions”—says quite a bit about how the desire for power can so easily blind.
* Dawkins, in his Selfish Genes, says our brains have grown so large that we can rebel “against our own natures.” “We along on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”
* Yet another German, influential legal scholar Hans Kelsen, “rejected and derided outright the claims of ‘philosophical absolutism’, which insist there is a foundational reality that exists independent of human knowledge.”
* The post-modern interpretation of literature: “All texts, and the world itself, are nothing more than ‘a galaxy of signifiers.'”
* Nietzsche “protested that all religions and philosophies are but thinly veiled attempts by their to control others by persuading them of the ‘facts’ produced only by the logic of their pet theories.”
* Derrida: “no discourse has the objective capacity to analyze another discourse.”
* Foucault: “interpretation can never be brought to an end…because there is nothing to interpret.”
* Said’s and others’ anti-foundationalism: which argues there can be no foundation in philosophy.