On the continuing appeal of relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism

I’m just getting back from a 10-day trip to Scandinavia. The first five I spent in Stockholm and Vaxholm at Future Perfect, a festival focused on the subject of sustainability; the second five in Denmark at Kaos Pilots, a social entrepreneurship school based in Aarhus. At Kaos Pilots, I put on a two-day workshop on the art of inquiry in the context of social enterprise. It was a joy from beginning to end thanks in no small part to the inquisitive students and to Pete Sims, the team leader who invited me to teach there.

As I reflect on my experience, I return to one kind of reply that I heard frequently and found bewildering. One example will illustrate the kind of experience I kept having. On the second day, I asked students to consider what makes a wrong question wrong, and one student asked, at the very outset, whether this question isn’t already assuming that I’m making universal moral judgments concerning right and wrong. I replied, in the spirit of Aristotle, that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are said in a number of ways. “Wouldn’t we say that 2 + 2 = 5 is a wrong answer? Don’t we hear, ‘I put in two teaspoons of nutmeg, right? Can’t we say that someone has done a good job? And didn’t Michael Jackson teach us to ask, ‘Who’s bad?'” Quite possibly, right and wrong answers, as well as good or bad answers, also admit of this variety.

The student was, I believe, satisfied with this reply, but it still left unexamined the ‘public philosophy’ (cf. Walter Lippmann) that many young Europeans have received: some admixture of relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. By ‘public philosophy,’ I mean both the general scaffolding of someone’s or some group’s thought and the reception of a set of lived-out ideas. Mind you, this ‘reception of lived-out ideas’ may bear only a passing resemblance to a robust conception of, say, relativism or pragmatism, but even in its attenuated form it suffices for an individual to make sense of a set of lived experiences.

I do not see it as my task to provide knockdown arguments against the public philosophy whose main ingredients are relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. So, in what follows I do not weigh in on the merits of more robust, more defensible versions of relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. Rather, I find it more prescient to examine their hand-me-down appeal to young persons: what, after all, draws young people to these philosophical ideas, and why might it be crucial to let go of them once one has arrived at greater intellectual maturity?

In a word, the appeal of relativism is that it gives the young person reason to reject traditional forms of authority such as parents, educational institutions, and political organizations. None of these can be the ultimate arbiter over my life, I think, and so I am able to distance myself from these standards by which we determine the value of things. In this space of transition, I also admit the variety and complexity of human life: the values we ascribe to lives, persons, and objects can vary, based on a number of factors; the value that one person affixes to one object may not be the same for another; the things one used to value may not be those that one now values; etc. In the odyssey of self-understanding, relativism turns out to be an important way station whose purpose is to permit me to reject old forms of authority and to think seriously about the nature of values.

Postmodernism provides further buttressing for relativism. In Richard Rorty’s version, the postmodernist perceives that there is no ‘final vocabulary’ (or way of speaking or set of values, etc.) that can trump or outweigh all others. The postmodernist, accordingly, takes seriously the Death of God thesis and manages to live, or so it is said, with a greater sense of play and possibility. Where the relativist has time to put to question old values and think about moral complexity, the postmodernist–one step farther down the road–has a chance to say that no values are ultimate or backstop or, let’s say, worth dying for. The postmodernist is an ironist till the end.

Pragmatism, the last received philosophy, leads the young person to identify what is true with what is useful. ‘What can I do with this?’ or ‘How far can this take me?’ become relevant questions for him to ask. No more need I consider Truth with a capital T or knowledge as justified true belief or whatever. Far better to think about the tools with which I have been equipped, the uses to which they can be put, the practical changes I can effect.

There is considerable appeal in this public philosophy: rejection of the old, relief of metaphysical burdens, and usefulness in connection with one’s plan for life. The appeal seems to be that I can get on in this all too human world and find a place within the existing social fabric. (Alasdair MacIntyre might quip that it is an education for middle managers or consultants and he would be right.) I needn’t challenge others or be challenged in turn (relativism); I needn’t be puzzled about questions concerning what matters most because nothing anymore matters most (postmodernism); and I can be a hired gun whose task is to consider what works for this organization or what is useful in terms of bottom lines or what can be delivered on deadline (pragmatism).

But what if the world were crumbling?

Tomorrow, I want to explore why this public philosophy is out of step with the unsettled age in which we live. We are in need of big thinkers to help us navigate through a space of uncertainty–let’s think again of Kaos Pilots, of pilots navigating through chaos–and this cannot happen unless we are staked (pace relativism) to something of ultimate importance (pace postmodernism) without resorting to what is to be done forthwith (pace pragmatism).

9 thoughts on “On the continuing appeal of relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism

  1. Congratulations on a successful trip. How was your talk at the Future Perfect festival? I hope you’ll share a post about that with us.

    In facing those Kaos Pilots (very inspirational name to use in a short story or novel, by the way), you sound to me like you are coyly defending relativism even as you now protest against it. Rather than pronounce a universal right or wrong, you only replied to the student’s question with things that are relatively right or wrong (“of this variety”). Do you have something in mind at the end of this post when you state the need for big thinkers to help us navigate through this time of uncertainty? I agree with you on that, and am attempting to find some big answers myself, but I would love to hear more from you about this.

    1. Thanks, Ed, for this reply. Let me respond to your quibble about what you’re calling my ‘coy defense’ of relativism.

      In my claim about ‘good’ or ‘right’, e.g., being said in a variety of ways, I’m nodding, rather, to Wittgenstein and Aristotle.

      First: Let’s consider the ‘language game’ of math, and let’s take the use of ‘good’ or ‘right’ there. I don’t think that you or I or any reasonable person would say that 2 + 2 could possibly equal 5. In math, there are right and wrong answers period and the *use* of such words as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is entirely intelligible within the discourse of math. So, anyone doing math would have to assent to the conclusion that the right answer is 4.

      Second: In the context of the workshop, I was trying to illustrate that the student was making a linguistic mistake in thinking that all uses of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were moral uses. (There’s no reason why ‘good job’ can’t be the sort of utterance that could be sufficiently general and accurate as to count or tell against relativism.)

      Third: Once this student sees these truths about 1) and 2) above, she may then be ready to inquire into the objective validity of ethics–but not on this day. In the context of this particular class, which was about asking good and bad questions, it wasn’t appropriate for me to defeat relativism or defend some more robust moral view. It was enough simply to show her that there are good uses of these terms that needn’t *derail* us from using them with ease and facility and with common understanding.

      1. You’re right that it is a quibble, Andrew so I’m glad you are taking it as such. I really liked the general spirit of your post diagnosing the ills of relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. And I apologize if ‘coy’ was the wrong word to use because it’s not an adjective I ascribe to you (lovingly open seems much more accurate) and I certainly wasn’t there in person to see how you acted in this case. I just thought the lesson from Michael Jackson was funny and could easily picture a sly sidestepping of the student’s pointed question behind the laughter you surely elicited with it. But that could just be my imagination running away with me.

        As to the three points you made in your reply, I understand those well, and I thought it was a smart response to the question that avoided the derailment into a discussion of relativism. Playing the role of a skeptical relativist though (someone who I am most definitely not), I would have to say you haven’t convinced me we can talk about “good” or “bad” questions. First, I agree with you on point 1 about the language of math, but that is merely the affirmation of a universally agreed upon set of definitions. We have defined the terms “two” and “plus” and “four” and “equals” such that 2 + 2 *does* equal 4. Saying that is a good or right answer is merely saying you have adhered to our definitions. I don’t think that transfers to other judgment calls, such as your second point. Taken to the extreme, I don’t think you can say “good job” or “bad job” without ultimately relying on some non-relativistic standard. Like math, we can say the job was “good” as compared to our definitions of what a “good job” is, but that sounds very circular…probably because it is. The student may have allowed you to continue, but if it was me and I had only heard what I have read above, then I don’t think I would have been fully satisfied with your response.

        All this is to point out that I too am against relativism, but I try to put a stake in the ground that I am against it because I believe a universal definition of good does arise from nature. I’ll leave that conversation for another place, but I’m anxious to hear your further thoughts against relativism when its appropriate.

  2. Said briefly: my reply to relativism would doubtless follow 2 complementary courses.

    First, ‘the genre.’ Since I’m committed to philosophy being understood as a practice, I’m beginning with a philosophical pupil raising a relativistic claim within a particular context. “Why,” I would ask him, “did it occur to you to say ‘good in your view’ or ‘who’s to say…’?” I want to know why the question came up here, in the first place. What I think is going on is that the pupil is either skeptical about or is rejecting a claim to authority. So, he’s effectively saying: “I can’t follow you, can’t follow along with you.” The idea would be to put him back on course and, in so doing, the relativistic claim would go away.

    Second, ‘the procedure.’ Suppose someone wished to inquire about what is good for human beings. Like you, I also believe that ethics is grounded in nature. I’m an Aristotelian, though, and you’re taking an evolutionary viewpoint. So, I’d like to begin by figuring out what could be *subtracted* from the phenomenological/teleological sense of being human to such a point that we arrive, finally, at what is essential for man. If we subtract anything more, in what sense can we say that P is still recognizably a human being–or has P effectively stopped being recognizably human? My wager is that such a negative procedure would bring us to a certain kind of naturalistic account of what is good for human beings and these essentials would, in turn, be the telos or teloi for a good human life: the ends toward which human beings strive in order to realize themselves in the fullest possible sense.

    1. Beautiful. Thank you for taking the time to reply to me. I’m not necessarily non-Aristotelian, I’m just looking to update his views based on all the science that has come after him. That’s the sort of “evolutionary” perspective I take – how have we and our knowledge evolved and what can we learn from that? From my methods, I’ve arrived at the viewpoint that the essential actions for human beings are those that “enable the long-term survival of life” (my universal definition of good). We are part of an interrelated ecosystem of living things whose only known goal in this blind and (sometimes) cruel universe is to survive. Fortunately, acting for the long-term survival of life requires lots of individual flourishing (radiance, you might say) and lots of cooperation with others (loving philosophical exchanges, you might say). It sounds to me that at least I would say you’ve won your wager. :-) Cheers, Andrew.

  3. Thanks for this, Ed. I’m enjoying your replies very much.

    Of goodness you write, “I’ve arrived at the viewpoint that the essential actions for human beings are those that “enable the long-term survival of life” (my universal definition of good).” I was thinking that if one carroted in ‘all’ before ‘life’ then I’d endorse the claim but… well, then I wasn’t sure.

    Here’s my concern: Even the long-term survival of all life could get us into the Matrix problem or, perhaps, into a dystopia: everything perduring but nothing flourishing. Or, to put it differently: I don’t see how this solves the problem of nihilism. An individual could survive or a species could go on or the earth could perdure but it still raises the question, “Why bother? Does it matter?” (A benevolently designed universe was one especially good answer to this question, one no longer available to us moderns.)

    If this line of thought is right, then it leads me to wonder about ecologists’ and climate scientists’ worry that the earth would end. (Who said it wouldn’t, I wonder.) I think that’s why I want to put flourishing first, first and foremost: “What would make life worth leading and thus why would we want it to perdure?” So, I guess I’d say: the good is not numerically identical with survival but we have reason to want what is good to survive.

    1. I’m so glad to hear you are enjoying this. I was worried I was wearing out my welcome. But I’ll continue.

      I very much do carrot in the ‘”all” into my “survival of life”. Definitionally though, I just found it to be redundant, as in, life, by definition, does mean all life, so why not just say life, when I mean all life. Plus, I just found it to sound shorter and sweeter. But perhaps it does open me up to your question (you’re not the first) of, “what life?” But then again, maybe that’s the sort of thought provoking question I am trying to raise in the first place.

      You’re dystopia is an interesting thought experiment, and one that I’ve come out of with a slightly different take than you. Namely, if we were ever consigned to live through a “hell on earth”, how long would we? If there was a promise of a better day, we would surely persevere. This is when survival may be said to trump flourishing as the very root of behavior. We would survive without flourishing. If, however, conditions were such that they changed faster than we could adapt to them and we were likely to remain permanently miserable, then I believe we would lose hope and die out. This is when it maybe becomes apparent that survival *is* flourishing. I certainly see it that way. And perhaps if we weren’t able to survive and flourish in that new environment, something else would. That is my hope for those life forms anyway.

      As to the nihilism, you’re right that this still doesn’t point to anything meaningful beyond our existence. But as this is the situation us moderns seem to find ourselves in, we do what we can with that. I hold out hope that since evolution describes the process by which life survives or perishes, the ultimate product of evolution then will be an immortal life that continues to survive. And continues to flourish. That still wouldn’t *mean* anything to the universe, but isn’t that a beautiful goal to have for ourselves inside this universe?

      1. I think we’re getting close to convergence, or so I think.

        Come back one last time to the dystopian thought experiment I mentioned. We’re imagining, in this experiment, that human beings can persist but that life would be hell (the worst, that is, or the worst conceivable, at any rate). In the quote below which I’ve taken from your comment above, I’m using this symbol (*) to emphasize words in your argument that strike me as telling and my own comments are contained within brackets [ ]. It seems to me that your use of words such as ‘promise,’ ‘better,’ and ‘hope’ suggests that, like me, you are also trying to point to a conception of the good, i.e., to a lived reality of flourishing that goes beyond the prospect of mere survival. (Even immortal life wouldn’t suffice for the good if it were to be hell.)

        You write, “Your dystopia is an interesting thought experiment, and one that I’ve come out of with a slightly different take than you. Namely, if we were ever consigned to live through a “hell on earth”, how long would we? If there was a *promise* of a *better* day, we would surely persevere. This is when survival may be said to trump flourishing as the very root of behavior. [<–I'm not sure. It seems that the very idea of flourishing is what's making survival possible.] We would survive without flourishing. If, however, conditions were such that they changed faster than we could adapt to them and we were likely to remain permanently miserable, then I believe we would lose *hope* and die out. This is when it maybe becomes apparent that survival is flourishing. [Again, I'm not sure. It seems that these beings have concluded that flourishing is impossible and thus that while they can go on they have no reason to do so.] I certainly see it that way. And perhaps if we weren't able to survive and flourish in that new environment, something else would. That is my *hope* for those life forms anyway."

      2. I think we are close, too. And I value that. I rushed my last response before heading out the door (which was why it was contradicting and filled with “maybe”s – I was thinking out loud and hedging my thoughts against their speed), so I wanted to take a bit more time for reflection before I replied to this.

        It seems your dystopia has us trying to untangle survival from flourishing, but I now believe that is a false dichotomy. I believe they are inextricably linked – you can’t have one without the other, because they define each other. That’s what I was trying to say when I said that maybe survival *is* flourishing. Maybe that’s our convergence. I’ve stated my universal definition of good as that which enables the long-term survival of life. Therefore, if we are flourishing, then we are acting good, and we are enabling the long-term survival of life. We need to survive to be said we are flourishing, and when we flourish we survive. How could true flourishing end in another result?

        (Note that when I define surviving, I would make distinctions between continued survival, merely existing, and slowly dying. You can exist or slowly die without contributing to long-term survival, which requires progress and knowledge and cooperation and imagination and adaptation and the like. Dodos existed. They did not learn to survive. Survivor Man has skills to handle what is thrown at him. A man surviving has a chance to learn those skills, but he may not do so. I see now, from your comment about “mere survival” that this is a point I will have to be better about making.)

        In the worst case dystopia where we could no longer flourish, we would no longer want to survive. But we wouldn’t be flourishing precisely because we couldn’t adapt and survive. I can’t think of a scenario where we *could* survive, but we would all give up. We would always hope for adaptation – for a Neo to arrive, if I may extend the Matrix metaphor.

        I find this discussion triggering thoughts for me about when suicide is permissible. Most suicides are a form of mental illness, which we grieve because the actor couldn’t see that they had hope for a better day, a hope for survival, for flourishing, for helping us all enable the long-term survival of life. Those of us that permit assisted suicide in the case of terminal illness, do so because we see that the patient is no longer able to survive, flourish, or help the long-term survival of life. At least that is my explanation of the feelings we have regarding those two instances of suicide. I’m worried I’m well off the original track now though. But thank you for the discussion. I really enjoy working through this.

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