Tag Archive: relativism

One truth for the Greeks

Herodotus seems to have been one of those somewhat rare people whose minds are broadened by travel. At first he was no doubt shocked by the many strange customs and institutions which he encountered in the Middle East. But he learned to respect them, and to look on some of them critically, and to regard others as the results of historical accidents: he learned to be tolerant, and he even acquired the ability to see the customs and institutions of his own country through the eyes of his barbarian hosts.

This is a healthy attitude. But it may lead to relativism, that is, to the view that there is no absolute or objective truth, but rather one truth for the Greeks, another for the Egyptians, still another for the Syrians, and so on. [45]

The relativity of proof

Every proof must proceed from premises; the proof as such, that is to say, the derivation from the premises, can there­fore never finally settle the truth of any conclusion, but only show that the conclusion must be true provided the prem­ises are true. [ch. 11, 260]

Just the facts

Earlier I said that Popper believed in absolute and objective truth. This is very easily misunderstood, especially if we equate a definition of ‘truth’ with a criterion of truth. But whether or not truth is absolute has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not we have a criterion for determining what it is. ‘Absolute’ simply means that something is not con­ditional or relative to anything else. Popper thought that truth is absolute in just this sense. Being true is different from being-believed-to-be true. It is not relative to or conditioned by what anyone believes. And it does not depend upon a theory, or evidence, or a historical context, or anything else—except the facts. [51]

Cultural objectivism

Some laws and customs can be very cruel, while others provide for mutual help and the relief of suffering. Some countries and their laws respect freedom while others do less, or not at all. These differences are most important, and they must not be dismissed or shrugged off by a cultural relativism, or by the claim that different laws and customs are due to different standards, or different ways of thinking, or different conceptual frameworks, and that they are therefore incommensurable or incomparable. On the contrary, we should try to understand and to compare. We should try to find out who has the better institutions. And we should try to learn from them. [46]

Dangerous ideas

For first, the conflict is not only between different people, but grumbles within the breast of each individual, as we find voices within ourselves pulling us to one side or the other. And second, the conflict is about our conception of ourselves and our world, about the meaning of our sayings, and indeed the meaning of our activities and of our lives. It is about ideas that make up the ‘spirit of the age’, and that determine the atmosphere we breathe. If the ideas are inadequate or dangerous, then we need an immune system to protect us from them, and the only immunity would have to be con­ferred by better ideas. [xiv]

Truth is oppressive

But the “centrists” who weigh in on policy debates are playing a different game. Their self-image, and to a large extent their professional selling point, depends on posing as high-minded types standing between the partisan extremes, bringing together reasonable people from both parties—even if these reasonable people don’t actually exist. …

So you can see the problem these commentators face. To admit that the president’s critique is right would be to admit that they were snookered by Mr. Ryan, who is the same as he ever was. More than that, it would call into question their whole centrist shtick—for the moral of my story is that Mr. Ryan isn’t the only emperor who turns out, on closer exami­nation, to be naked.

Hence the howls of outrage, and the attacks on the president for being “partisan.” For that is what people in Washington say when they want to shout down someone who is telling the truth.