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!

To the bone

Reading some of the comments on a previous post of this blog, I can’t escape thinking that there still exists, even among the members of our community – by “our” community, I don’t mean historians of economics in general, but more narrowly, postmodern and SSK-inflected historians of economics (whatever that is) -, some misunderstandings related to what postmodern thought is, to its influence on the history of science and on SSK. Words such as “postmodernism” and “relativisn” can be used in a quite loose – and sometimes harmful – way. I will not pretend here that I have more knowledge than anyone on that matter, but I know at least one person who does: Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Professor Smith has been trained in psychology, literary criticism and cultural theory and those who haven’t read my review of Stanley Fish’s Save the World on your Own Time, will surely wonder what literary criticism has to offer to those who study the history of economics. The answer is: a lot, actually.

In her last book, Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human (2005), Smith elucidates, in less than 200 pages, some of the questions we are asking ourselves on this blog, with unequaled accuracy, thoughtfulness and what I would call a jubilatory bent for intellectual jousting. This is hardly Smith’s first endeavour in the field of the History and Philosophy of Science. Her previous book, Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy (1997) dealt with the same kind of material. Though she proudly acknowledges she is no philosopher, nor is she a social scientist, Smith is a fine reader of science. It is no secret that she is herself a radical relativist/constructivist but the power of her analysis comes from her ability not only to criticize, but also to understand the point of view of those who try to beat postmodernism. She can literally strip her opponents’s arguments to the bone, as to reveal how empty and meaningless they are. If you intend to contradict her, then, choose your words carefully! I will not detail the book chapter after chapter as I did for Fish’s essay, but I will try to give you a hint of a material that certainly repays study.

The general objective of the book is to revisit two decades of science wars and to review all the harms that have been made on contemporary cultural theory and behavioral sciences, tracking the last bits of anti-relativism and positivist philosophy in newspapers articles, feminist writings and recent works in evolutionary psychology. The author does not think that all people criticizing postmodernism are idiots. In her opinion, indeed, most of them are doing interesting – if not fascinating – things but they are also misled by unjustified preconceptions on constructivism. To contradict these authors, Smiths appeals to what she calls pre-postmodern relativists such as Ludwig Fleck and Carl Becker.

The meaning of the title is dual: it refers both to the fact it is often said that “knowledge, or the problem of knowledge, is the scandal of philosophy” (1) and to all the scandalized critiques of postmodernism, which assert that the latter is a threat against the highest values of our society: the ability of making moral and aesthetic judgements, the possibility of scientific progress and nothing less that the pillars of Western democracy. Smith’s response to that critique is that in fact, relativism is an attack against one and only one thing, traditional (i.e. positivist and judgemental) philosophy. But, as Smith observes: “[w]hile it is not clear that the scandal matters to anyone but philosophers, philosophers point out that it should matter to everyone … [f]or, they explain, unless we can ground our claims to knowledge as such, which is to say distinguish it from mere opinion, superstition, fantasy, wishful thinking, ideology, illusion or delusion, then the actions we take on the basis of presumed knowledge – boarding an airplane, swallowing a pill, finding someone guilty of a crime – will be irrational and unjustifiable” (ibid.).
This is a rather serious claim. In chapter 2, Smith illustrates some examples of the implications of it in recent controversies, examining Deborah Lindstadt‘s thesis that postmodern theory is responsible for the rise of Holocaust denial (a thesis that has been given credit by other academics and journalists) and Edward Rothstein‘s contention that the same stream of skepticism has been discredited by 9/11. She observes that such sets of linkages are generally based on no actual quotation from postmodern thinkers. “Who among the figures commonly associated, properly or improperly, with ‘postmodern’ theory maintains that all truth is subjective or that one man’s narrative is as good as another’s? Michel Foucault? Jacques Derrida? Jean-François Lyotard? Hayden White? Richard Rorty? Stanley Fish? David Bloor? Bruno Latour? Actually, of course, none of these” (20). The real problem, she suggests, is that those who support such misleading conclusions often do so because they want to sustain values that they consider beyond scrutiny: “A denunciation of relativism amounts to a demand for dogmatism – for predetermined judgement armoured against new thought” (23).

Smith also points out that many disparaging commentaries on relativism are made by people who often happen to be relativist in the sense actual relativists define it (she illustrates this paradox by quoting from feminist theorician Donna Haraway and from … Proust !). She shows that debates similar to those who appeared at the end of the twentieth also occurred in the 1920s and in the 1930s as Albert Einstein, Virginia Woolf or Pablo Picasso were often linked to the more perilous evil of those times: Bolshevism. In fact, she observes, there existed an important stream of pre-postmodern relativism, represented by people like John Dewey or Margaret Mead, during a period “marked by a confident positivism in the natural sciences and a related scientism in much academic philosophy”. Those original thoughts were mostly swept away by decades of “popular beliefs and cultural associations that made-up the Cold War; the global eruption of various radical social movements … ; and throughout the century, dramatic technological developments and widespread demographic shifts” (31). All those events fostered in the same way social conservatism and a “renewed … commitment to the idea and ideals of objectivity” (32).
Related to this historical context is Smith’s account of Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, published in 1935. Fleck’s book was overshadowed by a more popular one, Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, published the same year. Fleck was rediscovered and praised by Kuhn and later by Latour (whose Pasteurization of France, Smith argues, is in some way a reinvention of Genesis and Development). Yet it is no surprise, given the peculiar intellectual environment of the early postwar period that Fleck was ignored and that scientists, in search of legitimacy, preferred the demarcating epistemology offered by Popper. In addition, Fleck was a Polish Jew whose work in chemistry did not draw the attention of Western scientists. He was arrested during the war and sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Nonetheless, he survived the war and emigrated to Israel, where he died in 1961. His conceptions in Genesis and Development were influenced by his practice of chemistry. The book tells the development of the Wassermann reaction, a chemical process that allowed for the detection of the syphilis pathogen. Fleck shows that the Wassermann reaction occured within the development of various beliefs, techniques, theories, methods, political and professional interests (yes, it sounds a lot like SSK !). The following passage, quoted by Smith (57), shows how radical Fleck’s relativism was:

It is true that modern doctrine is supported by much more sophisticated techniques of investigation, much broader experience, and more thorough theory. The naive analogy between the organs of both sexes has disappeared and far more details are at our disposal. But the path from dissection to formulated theory [and pictorial representation] is extremely complicated, indirect and culturally conditioned … In science, just as in art and in life, only that which is true to culture is true to nature.

In addition, Smith shows that Fleck also provided the demonstration that his conceptions of science had nothing to do with the idea that all theories are equally valid because the latter is actually the opposite of the assertion that “the validity of a theory depends on its position in a network of historically specific connections” (64). Smith observes that this justification is similar to Latour’s distinction between relative and absolute relativism.

I will not try to detail the rest of the book. Smith’s wordings are too precise and subtle to withstand summarization. Trying to reconstruct her thought would result in unproductive paraphrase. Nonetheless, I can’t finish this review without saying a few words on Chapter 6, devoted to Evolutionary Psychology. In this chapter, she addresses the claims of contemporary evolutionary psychology, whose most notable advocate is Steven Pinker. She shows that contrary to what evolutionary psychologists assert, the alternative to the claim that all human behavior – “from incest avoidance and female-adolescent anorexia to past-tense formation and a taste for Victorian novels” (130) – can be explained by our genes, is not dogmatic theology or ideologically driven humanities, but a set of more sophisticated models of development, such as those theorized by Susan Oyama in her book The Ontogeny of Information, giving rise to developmental or ecological psychology. Evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker operate within a mechanical conception of the brain, in which the latter is considered as an information processing computer. This conception rejects – or ignore – major works in biology which explain human behavior in terms of  interactions between cells and their environment (involving “complex social and perceptual coordination”, as well as “internal feedback mechanisms”). The relation between those issues and what has been studied earlier in the book is that evolutionary psychologists often strengthen their claims by discrediting alternative theories as dubious – if not dangerous – postmodernism. Frequently, those claims mistake constructivism for social constructivism (or social constructionism): they identify the claims of alternative theories as the idea that everything is socially/culturally constructed, whereas these theories  simply claim that there is no clear separation between nature and nurture. These distinctions are particularly rich and subtle and one is not even obliged to share Smith’s skepticism to examine them carefully. Those interested in the relations between economics and biology might want to give special attention to these debates.

In her course on “Biological Issues in Cultural Theory” at Duke University, Barbara Herrnstein Smith teaches graduate students in philosophy, theology and natural sciences that Bruno Latour has been the most important theorist over the last twenty-five years. If only to hear that once in my life, I think I have been fortunate to sit in on her class. I hope I have conveyed the pleasures one feels reading her writings, that his, the pleasures of being scandalized.