If you’re like me, the past year has been unsettling, to say the least. As someone born in Western Europe in the 1980s, I have always taken certain things for granted: we are, albeit slowly, becoming more tolerant; the wars that scarred the last century will never happen again. Barack Obama’s frequent invocation of Dr. Martin Luther King’s remark that the ‘arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends towards justice’ nicely captures this somewhat complacent attitude.
Perhaps these assumptions could never have withstood much scrutiny. But in any event recent developments have certainly cast them into doubt. The problem isn’t just that far-right populists like Donald Trump have come to power and movements with far-right elements like Brexit are enjoying a moment in the sun. Despite what some may say, there have always been politicians like Trump. Consider Silvio Berlusconi, or the bizarre career of John R. Brinkley, who used a new technology (radio) to speak directly to (and stoke up anger in) his supporters (if you want to hear more about Brinkley see this podcast). The problem is that their successes appear to involve certain common elements—a wilful (even gleeful) disregard for the truth, an ability to capitalise on (and perhaps even generate) widespread ignorance of plain matters of fact, a desire to make outsiders responsible for all manner of ills, a nascent expression of white (American, British) nationalism—that are indicative of fundamental problems, both in public discourse and in society at large. If they are fundamental problems, they require radical solutions, not a new, fresh face in charge of existing centre-left and centre-right political parties.
We have been left grasping around for concepts to describe these problems. One of these concepts is ‘post truth politics’; Trump’s Counsellor, Kellyanne Conway, gifted us with another (‘alternative facts’). If we grant that these concepts describe a problem, then it is the job of ‘intellectuals’, philosophers included, to at least try to offer a diagnosis of this problem. One diagnosis that has occurred to some is that the existence of a discourse that exhibits a blatant disregard for truth and a tendency to invoke bizarre ontological categories is a symptom of a disease supposedly infecting certain parts of the academy: postmodernism, and associated forms of relativism. The problem, we are told, is that we have forgotten a simple truth: not all perspectives are equally valid. Some people are just right; others are just wrong.
A good diagnosis of a problem requires two things: a well-stated problem, and a plausible account of the source of that problem. One could certainly argue that the latter is lacking here. We can (and should) grant that academic trends can and do have an impact (even a direct impact) on public discourse. But the question is whether there is much evidence that postmodernist or relativistic thinking has had such an impact. The point is not that there is no evidence. For instance, some have argued that sceptics about climate change have appealed to postmodernist ideas.* The point is rather that the evidence is, at best, inconclusive. Making the diagnosis really stick would require further investigation: What other evidence is there? How have postmodernist ideas filtered into the public consciousness? When did this happen? It would also require a comparison with alternative diagnoses; I consider some alternatives below.
It is also unclear what view (or cluster of views) is supposed to be responsible. The ‘debate’ about climate change is a case in point. Recent remarks by Trump’s appointee as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, illustrate an increasingly common rhetorical move among climate change sceptics today. They grant the basic premise that the climate is changing, and even admit that this is partly as the result of human activity, but dispute the details, and raise pragmatic concerns about the impact of proposed changes. Maybe we are changing the climate, but who is to say that this particular model or this particular set of predictions is right? Science has been wrong before. Given the potential costs of changing our economic model, we need more evidence.
Insofar as this expresses a philosophical outlook, it seems like an odd combination of scepticism and the idea, popular in some circles in contemporary epistemology, that whether you know can depend on how much is at stake. Sceptics like Tillerson challenge our claims to scientific knowledge by urging the need to weigh up the known costs of combatting climate change against the unknown costs of doing nothing; they don’t relativise anything. One could argue that scepticism is part of the postmodernist/relativist package. But then the problem is not strictly speaking a problem of postmodernism or of relativism, but rather a problem of scepticism. In any event, scepticism is hardly a new philosophical position, so there is work to be done to explain why it is part of the explanation of what is supposed to be a new problem.
More fundamentally, it is unclear what the problem we are diagnosing is supposed to be. Take the idea that we are living in an age of ‘post truth’ politics, and set aside the (at best) questionable assumption that we were, until recently, living in an age of ‘truth’ politics. Talk of ‘post truth politics’ may be used to cover a range of phenomena. One thing one might mean is the tendency of politicians like Trump to make blatantly false claims; consider his first address to congress, which featured false claims about jobs, immigration, health insurance and military spending. Such claims are ‘post truth’ in the sense that they are plainly not true (though only plainly not true to those who know better; see below).
Another thing one might mean is the tendency of certain politicians to make claims that are either trivially true, or largely meaningless. Consider Theresa May’s repeated insistence that “Brexit means Brexit”, or her helpful explanation that she wants a “red, white and blue Brexit”. Such claims are ‘post truth’ in the sense that their literal truth (or lack thereof) is beside the point. May wasn’t trying to communicate the trivial truth that “Brexit” means whatever “Brexit” means, or to ‘colour code’ complex international treaties. Rather, she was trying to communicate her patriotism (the United Kingdom’s flag is red, white and blue) and her intention to enact the result of the Brexit referendum.
Of these two manifestations of ‘post truth’ politics, only the first could plausibly be seen as a ‘problem of relativism’. The second concerns claims that are either trivially true, or claims that don’t obviously have truth-values. But even here alternative diagnoses are possible. One diagnosis is that the first phenomenon is really just an instance of the second. It doesn’t matter that Trump makes claims that are blatantly false because their truth or falsity isn’t the point. This diagnosis makes sense for a number of reasons. It explains why Trump is rarely held to account for the false claims he makes. It fits with one of the standard responses to criticism of Trump, which is to deny that he really meant what he said. It is custom-built for Trump’s preferred medium for communicating (twitter), where it is often easier to capture attention by shocking and provoking than by careful analysis.
While this may be part of a more complete diagnosis, it runs into the problem that Trump’s supporters seem to be really believe at least some of his claims. Whether Trump intends them to be true or not, they end up being believed, at least by some people. This suggests that the problem is not just Trump’s communication style but also large-scale ignorance. How has it happened that large sections of the population are ignorant of what we would regard as plain matters of fact, such as the fact that Hillary Clinton is not involved in paedophile ring based in a pizza restaurant in Washington DC, or the fact that Obama is a Christian, not a Muslim? Trump’s rhetoric works in part because he has an audience that are susceptible to it. We can’t explain their susceptibility in terms of his rhetorical style. So there must be more to the diagnosis. I would recommend that we start by asking who stands to gain from an ignorant populace. Whose interests does that serve? The answer is probably not postmodernists or relativists.
I started with some personal reflections. I will finish with some more. We (I generalise from my own case) have a weakness for grand, unifying narratives. I used to implicitly accept the story that mankind is, slowly, progressing. I used to think, albeit implicitly, that the arc of the moral universe tends towards justice, though it takes its sweet time about it. In rejecting one grand narrative it is important not to yield to the temptation to replace it with another. One can tell a story where the problem today is a lack of faith in reason. One can go further and trace this lack of faith back to a mistaken (postmodernistic, relativistic) way of thinking about rationality itself. This story is attractive because there is some truth to it, not just because it is simple. Who could argue with the recommendation that we teach our students to think better? Who can deny that some postmodern thinkers have said things that might be used to justify the unjustifiable? (Some thinkers from most traditions have said things that are unwise). But this story is problematic for the same reason that most such stories are problematic. It is too simple, too neat, too in-line with our pre-existing sympathies. If we really have reached a crisis-point, the chances are that ‘the solution’ will require a radical rethinking of our existing prejudices, not simply the reiteration of values humans have clung to since ancient Greece.
* Hsu, Shi-Ling. "The Accidental Postmodernists: A New Era of Skepticism in Environmental Policy." Vt. L. Rev. 39 (2014): 27.
Picture credit: Ned Simmons, Huffington Post.
Quote from "Home", by Warsan Shire: http://seekershub.org/blog/2015/09/home-warsan-shire/
One of the most disputed topics in the contemporary public sphere concerns the extent to which nations that we identify as Western (US, Germany, Spain) should accept immigrants from countries that are politically, socially and economically worse-off. Should they impose a limit to the incoming migrants – like Austria did in early 2016? And are refugees and immigrants generally entitled to social welfare benefits – as debated in Germany last year?
Answering these questions requires clarifying a number of general issues. One such issue concerns the attitude of the immigrants towards the host country. Why did they come to the host country in the first place? What are their plans as to the duration of their stay, employment and family arrangements?
One common, fundamental presumption regarding immigration is that it constitutes a voluntary choice. This point is crucial in the work of a number of philosophers, because it seems to impact which rights may be reclaimed by a country's immigrant minorities. In his 1995 book Multicultural Citizenship, Will Kymlicka maintains that immigration qua voluntary choice implies the waiving of the right to live and work within one's own culture:
"People should be able to live and work in their own culture. But like any other right, this right can be waived, and immigration is one of the ways of waiving one's right. In deciding to uproot themselves, immigrants voluntarily relinquish some of the rights that go along with their original national membership."
This voluntary act implies a presumption that the immigrant is willing to integrate (to some degree) into the culture of the host country, so “the expectation of integration is not unjust”. This presumption has a political consequence, for the rights reclaimed by immigrant minorities will be interpreted as ultimately aiming to integration with the dominant culture.
Integration of course does not imply the abandonment of the individual's original background. As Habermas observes in his essay “Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State”, contemporary democracies do not demand, for instance, that the immigrants stop speaking their native languages or that they give up on their religion. These demands seem relegated to a distant past, with Habermas mentioning Prussia imposing the Germanization of Polish immigrants under Bismark in late nineteenth century. At worst, they are hinted at by a certain anti-immigrant rhetoric: Nigel Farage's complaints about foreign languages being spoken on trains and in certain urban areas could be interpreted as a wish for such an abandonment.
Let us accept that voluntary immigration licenses the presumption that the immigrant is willing to integrate. Still, we may ask: in how many cases is migration a genuinely voluntary choice? Two main counterexamples come to mind: refugees and (at least some) economic immigrants. When discussing the motivation refugees have to migrate to another country, it is difficult to describe their situation in a way that leaves room for a full-blown voluntary decision. This is because refugees do not seem to have any sensible alternatives to migration. They are forced to uproot themselves in order to fleet the bombings, the enemy occupations, the relentless persecutions. Similarly, many so-called economic migrants arguably do not decide to leave their countries in conditions ideal for a fully voluntary choice. Suffering irremediable unemployment, exploitation, or poverty seems to again make the decision to migrate more forced than freely chosen. This implies that the assumption of voluntary choice does not fully apply to a vast number of individuals that we would describe as “migrants” or “immigrants”, thus dramatically reducing the significance of the argument reconstructed above.
What are the implications of all this? One possible reaction is to admit that, if leaving one's country of origin was not a fully voluntary choice, then we cannot infer that one has waived the right to be part of one's own culture. Indeed, Kymlicka goes as far as to concede that the subjects for whom migration was not fully voluntary retain the right to live and work within their culture, and that they “should, in principle, be able to recreate their societal culture in some other country, if so they desire” (p. 99). For Kymlicka, this implies that these groups have in principle a right to self-government comparable to that of minorities of non-immigrants in many contemporary democracies, like the Basque minority in Spain or the Quebecois minority in Canada (whose right to autonomy is advocated by theorists like Charles Taylor or Michael Walzer).
Yet, how can this right be honoured, and by whom? The problem, Kymlicka explains, is that the right to be a member of one's culture is being violated by the government of the migrants' very home countries (through forms of political oppression or war) and there is no procedure at the international level for deciding which other government should guarantee this right. Plus, it seems improbable that a foreign country would offer its assistance on this score, since this would imply granting levels of political autonomy which transcend the usual integration measures.
Ultimately, then, refugees and immigrants for whom migration were not a full choice are, and are regrettably likely to remain for a long time, the victims of an injustice: their right to live and work within their culture has been violated by their home countries and it is not possible to fully restore it in any other country.
This month, five members of the ERC team participated in the public lecture series Flucht, Asyl, Menschenrechte. The lecture series was organised by the University of Vienna's Department of Philosophy as a way for staff to show how their work connects with issues raised by the current refugee crises in Europe.
If you want to listen to our group lecture, you can find it (in English) here. You can also listen to Martin Kusch’s lecture from earlier in the series (in German) here. In this post, I’ll summarise what we talked about in our group lecture.
The Relevance of Culture
As Katherina Kinzel explained in her introduction, our talk was atypical as it involved collaboration between several people with very different philosophical backgrounds. The common thread that we chose to connect our individual contributions was the concept of culture. Katherina pointed out that current discussion of the refugee crisis often focuses on the idea of ‘culture clashes’:
“It is a dominant and broadly accepted trope of current political discourse on migration and refugees that the central problem we’re facing right now is the question of ‘culturally integrating’ into ‘our’ host society people who allegedly have different cultural values than we do.”
Because of this, we decided to explore the way that the concept of culture is used in three of the areas of philosophy that we work on, and to consider how what we learned tells us about our current political situation.
Herder’s Concept of Culture
Niels Wildschut kicked things off by discussing the concept of culture in the work of Herder (1744-1803). He told us about the typical understanding of cultures attributed to Herder, according to which they are naturally isolated wholes which are essentially different from one another. On this conception cross-cultural understanding would be impossible, and so migration would seem to be a “threat”.
However, Niels then presented some aspects of Herder's philosophy of history which qualify this interpretation. First, Herder's ideal of humanity is the overarching goal to which all Völker should contribute - and they can, because we share a common human nature. Second, Herder's understanding of enculturation shows that no atemporal essence of a particular culture predetermines its actual practices and expressions. In fact, as Niels explained, Herder attempted to show that intercultural understanding is possible through the exercise of our Einfühlungsvermögen (empathy).
Culture in National Socialist Philosophy
Johannes Steizinger then moved the discussion on to the early 20th century, with a discussion of the concept of culture in the political anthropology of National Socialism. He explained how the economic, social and political developments of the ‘long 19th century’ lead to mass migration, and an important reaction to this - the idea of “endangered identity”, understood in racial terms.
Johannes then discussed the concept of race underlying this idea. He showed that whilst an important element of National Socialist thinking involved the idea that race is a biological concept - for example he discussed Alfred Bauemler who naturalized the concept of race - this was not the whole story. In addition, a number of key ideologists had a metaphysical understanding of race, such as Alfred Rosenberg who argued for the idea of a ‘racial soul’, which was intended to connect nature, spirit, biology, and history. This idea was used to justify a racial and cultural hierarchy, and to justify dehumanisation and racism.
In closing his contribution, Johannes noted the striking, and frightening, parallels between the economic and social conditions, and the political rhetoric, of the early 20th century, and the conditions and rhetoric of today.
Culture in Jose Medina’s Work
My contribution addressed the concept of culture at play in the work of Jose Medina, a contemporary philosopher. I argued that something like a concept of culture plays a role in his work in political epistemology. Like the philosophers discussed by Niels and Johannes, Medina is interested in the collective awareness of different social groups, although his conception of this is fluid, dynamic, and dependent on contingent factors.
I then explored two ways that this concept features in Medina’s work; namely in his account of social change, and in his thinking about ‘epistemic benefits’ - benefits that relate to knowledge and understanding. Medina argues that groups which are socially oppressed can develop such benefits because their oppression gives them a unique cross-cultural perspective. However socially privileged people can also develop these epistemic benefits as long as they seek out, and nurture, relationships with people who are culturally very different from themselves.
I suggested that whilst we might think that migration would increase cross-cultural interaction and put lots of people in a good position to develop epistemic benefits, this would be a mistake. Current policies relating to refugees prevent them, and the members of the countries that they arrive in, from developing meaningful relationships with one another.
Changing Conceptions of Culture
Robin McKenna closed the session by highlighting the similarities and differences between the different conceptions of culture that our lecture covered. First, he pointed out that both Herder and National Socialist philosophers saw cultures as having essences, and as being integrated wholes. However Herder did not see cultures as isolated, and thought that differences between them could be overcome, whilst National Socialists saw the differences between cultures to be unbridgeable. Medina on the other hand resists the temptation to essentialise culture altogether, and refuses to treat contingent differences between cultures as intrinsic to them.
Second, Robin noted that both National Socialist philosophers and Medina attribute epistemic advantages, or benefits, to certain social groups. However, he pointed out that this superficial similarity is underscored by important differences: National Socialists talked about an epistemic advantage with respect to self-knowledge and expression, whilst the advantage Medina talks about is with respect to the ability to shape a shared social reality. Further, the advantage National Socialists attributed to the ‘Nordic race’ was not contingent - it could only be achieved by members of that culture, and because of something intrinsic to that culture. For Medina on the other hand, contingent social conditions are what lead to the advantage.
Finally, Robin focused attention on a difficult question that remains. De-essentialising cultural differences doesn't make them disappear, and so what should we say about them? How should a society decide which practices should be tolerated, and which should not? He conceded that we are yet to find an answer to this question. But:
"the troubled history of philosophical treatments of 'culture' and 'cultural clashes' shows that we should tend towards tolerance rather than intolerance, and that we should try to understand unfamiliar practices before condemning them."
If Medina is right, striving to promote tolerance and understanding will also have positive epistemic effects, both for us and for society at large.
You can listen to the full talk, including the question and answer session that followed, here. If you have your own questions or comments, please leave them below.
Look out for Delia Belleri’s post next month, which will explore a related theme - different approaches that governments could take to tolerance and recognition of cultural differences.
After President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer made a series of false claims in his first official statement to the press, high-ranking White House official Kelly Conway defended him by saying that he presented not falsehoods, but rather “alternative facts”. This phrase has been widely criticised, and, I think, rightly so. But some people might also be tempted to connect what Conway said with relativism, and criticise relativism as a result.
Take this tweet from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which emphasises the connection between "fact" and "objective reality":
It would be easy to conclude from this that those who critically explore the connection between facts and objectivity are guilty of paving the way for people like Conway to say what she said. I think that this would be a mistake.
At their core, relativist theses say that some things (such as values, norms, or facts) are dependent on some other things (like social groups or individuals) in such a way that the first things can only be judged with reference to the second things. So according to one possible kind of relativism it’s not right to say that a particular norm is “correct” (as an absolutist about norms might say), but only that it is “correct according to group x”. It might seem that this kind of view could justify Conway’s point about “alternative facts”. Perhaps she meant that there are facts relative to one group (the Trump administration) and facts relative to another group (the press), and that it’s not proper to judge either of those facts by external standards. So, it’s not right to say that one set of facts obtain and the other don’t; they are both just ‘alternatives’.
I don’t think that this is the right way to interpret Conway, but let’s run with it for now. If this kind of relativism is behind what Conway is saying, then doesn’t this show that relativism is highly problematic? I don’t think so.
We can distinguish different kinds of relativism according to (1) the phenomenon that they relativise, and (2) the variable that they relativise that phenomenon to. The relativism that seems to be implicit in Conway’s thinking relativises facts to the Trump administration.
Let’s take the relativised phenomena first. Versions of relativism which relativise facts are known as metaphysical relativism, and they are less common and more radical than other variants, like epistemic relativism (which relativises the property of justification to some variable) and moral relativism (which relativises moral properties to some variable). So there are plenty of relativist theses that don’t make controversial claims about facts. None of these kinds of relativism are implicated by anything that Conway has said.
What about the variable that the phenomena is relativised to? There are a range of variables that relativists can choose from, but whichever one they pick they must be able to offer an explanation of why it’s legitimate to relativise their chosen phenomena to. In other words, if a metaphysical relativist wanted to justify the kind of assertions that Conway makes, they would need to tell a convincing story about why groups or organisations like the Trump administration are a suitable variable to which to relativise facts. It’s very unclear how such a story would go, and so there’s little reason to think that a metaphysical relativist could, let alone would, defend this kind of view. What this means is that Conway and her “alternative facts” don’t present us with any reason to be suspicious of metaphysical relativism either.
To the extent that Conway is depending a kind of relativism then, she is depending on a very particular and implausible kind of relativism that shouldn’t be thought to have any bearing on the variety of serious relativist views in the literature. But as I said before, I don’t think that it’s right to interpret her as really relying on relativism in the first place. Note that (in the video clip linked above) Conway is happy to criticise some claims as “flat-out false”. Whilst she thinks that it’s a mistake to judge the claims made by Spicer against an independent, objective standard (they aren’t falsehoods but are instead true-relative-to-the-administration) she doesn’t have a problem with judging the claims of the press objectively (she doesn’t think that they are false-relative-to-the-administration and true-relative-to-the-press, but are false simpliciter). Conway dabbles with relativising facts when it suits her purposes, but equally she reveals a commitment to absolutism when that is more convenient. Her behaviour is no more an indictment of relativism than it is of absolutism.
Welcome to our blog.
Who are we?
We are a group of philosophers who are all members of, or are closely associated with, the ERC project “The Emergence of Relativism” at the University of Vienna. You can find out more about (most of) us here, and about the project here.
Beyond our common interest in relativism, we have very diverse philosophical perspectives. We come from different philosophical backgrounds (some of us work primarily historically, some of us primarily systematically), have different specialisms (including, amongst others: history of philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of science, moral philosophy, philosophy of language, and metaphysics), and are at different career stages (some of us are students, some are postdocs, and one is a professor).
Why are we starting this blog?
We wanted a place to start a conversation about relativism. Relativism is the key theme in all of our research, but it is a particularly contentious philosophical thesis. Most philosophers (both historically and today) take attributions of relativism to a view or author to be objections, and so we think that there is a special need for a public forum where it is taken seriously.
Moreover, we think that our work on relativism connects with political and social issues in an important way. Relativism (of various stripes) is often thought to be associated with oppressive or facist politics, to be in opposition to truth, and to undermine the authority of experts. Although our group has diverse views, all of us think that these characterisations are at best over-simplifications, or at worst just false. In fact, we think that certain forms of relativism can offer ways to resist these troubling politics and attitudes. Given recent developments in Europe and the United States, persuading people of this strikes us as an increasingly urgent task, and so a place where we can make the case for the connection between our research and these issues both directly, and quickly, strikes us as important.
What can you expect from us?
Most of the time you can expect short, research-focused pieces, that seek to give you an insight into some of the most cutting-edge work on relativism, and will often (we hope) also help you to think about some of the most pressing and troubling issues that the world faces today. In addition to this, we already have plans to interview some of the key figures in contemporary relativism debates, comment on current events, and report on our other research activities (such as conferences).
We hope to appeal to a broad audience. Whether you are an established philosopher, a student, or an interested non-professional, we think that you will find something thought-provoking here. Most posts will be in English, but we may have some posts in German too. To begin with, we will post a minimum of once per month.
Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions or suggestions then please leave a comment.