Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Do Relativists Exist?

Robert T. Miller criticizes Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi's attack on relativism. He writes:

Just as a sociological matter, this should give us pause. Generally speaking, our society is more concerned with producing and responding to arguments than probably any other in the history of the world. Whether the issue is abortion or gay rights, tax policy or the trade deficit, global warming or third-world debt, everyone seems ready to adduce arguments in support of some position or other. In learned periodicals like the Journal of Philosophy or the Harvard Law Review, on the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, in the rough-and-tumble opinion journalism of National Review and The Nation, in the postings of bloggers and the ramblings of barroom blowhards, we find nothing but arguments about morals and politics. There are very few people—in fact, virtually none—who "a priori reject rational argumentation" in morals or politics.

Professor Miller is fortunate enough to frequent these learned circles where reasoning is habitual, even if imperfect. However, I think he has mistaken the bishop's attack on relativistic culture in general for an attack on academics and the higher-level punditry in particlar. Pop culture and the lower levels of the media are dominated by irrationalism and Pilatesque views of truth.

Miller does a service in Part II of his essay, examining those various schools of thought which can be mistaken for relativism. He claims the logical positivists, who "argued that sentences from domains of discourse such as religion, metaphysics, and morals were neither analytic nor empirically verifiable and so, under the verification theory of meaning, were literally meaningless," have had their views "thoroughly demolished" in the academy. True enough, but are we to believe that the positivists' evisceration at the hands of scholars has led to their impotence in the public arena? Is public reasoning dead to the fact-value distinction dead?

Hardly. Scarcely a newspaper edition leaves the presses without including some confused appeal to the old standbys of positivism.

The greater distance I gain from the common newspapers and the television, not to mention my college days, the more and more relativism seems like a negligible phantom, and attacks on relativism begin to seem like time-wasting debunkings of ghost stories told around the campfire. Yet such escapes are transient.

Though relativism as a systematic doctrine does not, and indeed cannot exist, the sensibility is still rampant. By attacking this cultural theme, Crepaldi proves himself more attuned than Miller to the tiresome background noise of our day.


Deep Furrows said...

I imagine we'll see some spirited response to this by others On the Square!

William Luse said...

Good job, Kevin. I had the same sentiments myself while reading his piece, but didn't have the time or energy to go after it.