The End of Relativism?

The beginning of a new year is always the occasion to reflect on the recent past, as the posts of my fellows Benjamin, Clément and Béatrice [to whom the opposite Calvin & Hobbes comic strip is dedicated] have shown. Though their interrogations mainly concern the purposes and practices of historians, I would like to add another one, which may be a bit more ‘philosophical’ – pardon the grand word! What has struck me during the year is the slow decline of what some thinkers call relativism.

Relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), as I have argued here and there, is not the idea that everything is equal or that there is nothing demarcating the good and the bad, the true and the false. Instead, it is the observation that what we call truth or scientific facts or fair decisions is affected by the context in which we are located and that they can be appraised differently in different communities or cultures. It is not surprising that relativism – a term sometimes used pejoratively by its detractors – has been associated with literary theorists such as Stanley Fish, because rhetoric is where it is used more conspicuously. My literary style will greatly change depending on the people I am addressing to and, as a result, the meaning of what I am saying too. For instance, while writing a scientific paper, I can call some previous contribution ‘misleading’ or ‘unfortunate’ while in front of friends researchers, I will call it a ‘piece of crap’, and back at home, in a sign of deep fatigue and irritation,  I will paraphrase Lennon and call it ‘the shittiest pile of shit ever’. Talking about Samuelson in a private correspondence, Stigler wrote Friedman: “It may merely be prejudice, but I’m inclined to write him off as an economist” [in Hammond, Making Chicago Price Theory: Friedman-Stigler Correspondence, 1945-1957, p. 97]. This is certainly not something he would have used – in spite of his renowned acerbic wit – in publication, and though Samuelson may have been conscious of such animosity he certainly did not take it into account when he called Friedman “an able scholar” and “an old friend” [Samuelson, Economics From the Heart, p. xi). There is nothing abnormal in this. Whatever our opinions are, we have different ways of communicating them to our interlocutors – from our closest friends to the scientific community and the public at large.

This, however, has seriously been threatened in 2010 and I will only mention two events that struck me in this respect: the first one is the fact that a few people have been legally fired from their jobs after talking badly about their supervisors on Facebook, the other one is the whole Wikileaks affair. In the former, it is quite striking that people who have written on their wall a few negative words about their work environment – like calling their boss an idiot, or their job crappy – have been recognized as guilty of serious professional mistakes while we know that everyday people spend most of their time at the workplace, near the coffee machine for instance, unfearfully disparaging other colleagues and immediate superiors. Why is something that is considered normal in the workplace is suddenly demonized when it is done outside of it? The wikileaks affair is quite similar, as it simply shows that when diplomats talk between then, they do not adopt the same discourse that they will use publicly. Is there anything shocking about that? I don’t believe so. You may have to deal in a friendly manner with that head of state you believe is an arrogant and disagreeable human being, especially if world peace is threatened. Similarly, you can perfectly envision with some allied country the use of the military force  toward a country you are simultaneously conducting amiable negotiations with – just in case this does not work, as Clausewitz believed . The fact that these seemingly inconsistent behaviors are suddenly judged negatively by law courts and the public opinion at large will make people adopt the same discourse whoever they talk to. Whether we are blogging, writing academic papers or chatting on our Facebook walls, should we adopt the same writing style? Some people obviously believe we should and the huge informational database that is constituted on the internet seems to put some pressure upon us to do so as well.

How much our practices as historians [of economics] are to be affected by that? I believe History as we construct it is built upon the idea that things – ideas, objects, etc. – evolve and differ in different periods of time and among different communities. If they do not, there is simply no story to be told. The denial of relativism is then the denial of historicity. Happy new year!

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2 thoughts on “The End of Relativism?

  1. I think it is important to understand the basis of relativism, because it shows the relevance to doing history.

    Groups see things differently, that is, through a different conceptual framework (ideology), determined by rules which are called norms, or values.

    Humans disagree over the rules of the game. Facts are marshaled to justify rules, but facts are selected iaw rules.
    There are no objective “facts.” The world is homogenous, not broken into “facts.”

    Facts are logical constructs, and they are constructed within conceptual frameworks for various purposes not necessarily “objective.” Science is essentially a method for achieving maximal objectivity, but this maximal objectivity is always within a scientific paradigm in Kuhn’s sense.

    For example, this is evident from an examination of contemporary politics. Those who accept the US Constitution agree on the basis of liberal democracy as liberty as personal freedom and attendant responsibility, equality as absence of privilege, rule of law, justice, etc., and fraternity as coordination in defense, security aka “domestic tranquility,” and “the general welfare.”

    But people disagree over the priorities and even the meaning of these key concepts, which results in different political ideologies. Ideologies are neither true nor false. They are ways of seeing the world, organizing data, and conducting affairs iaw rules as norms. They are known by their fruits, and no ideology has yet resulted in what everyone would agree is an ideal society.

    There are not overarching criteria to compare ideologies,because criteria are decision and evaluation rules within ideologies and there is neither an absolute ideology nor a commonly held one. People organize into political parties around various ideologies. In parliamentary systems there may be many parties. The US is traditionally a two-party system, so there are divisions within the parties that vie for control of the party.

    Basically, the political debate is over which rules to follow and which criteria to use. In a liberal democracy, leaders appeal to reason and persuasion wrt the issues of the day in the attempt to carry the majority. The way forward in the case of divided rule is through compromise, that is, identifying areas of closest agreement and putting together a deal. This is the sausage-making of politics.

    The idea of the Founding Fathers was that politics would be advanced through congressional debate. Washington warned against party factionalism, for example. But he was unsuccessful even then. The lines got drawn pretty quickly. People have been talking past each other since.

    The problem is that the sides do not understand each other because they cannot. They inhabit different world constructed by different worldviews, each side presuming that its view is representative of reality, right thinking, and moral correctness, as well as being the most pragmatic.

    If this happens in a single society, what to say of diverse societies across time?

    Historians should do their best to stand above their own worldview, knowing that this is impossible, in order to achieve maximal objectivity in presenting ideological difference. But, to paraphrase Churchill, it is the victors that write history. It is difficult to escape that.

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