It is often said that we live in a post-truth world, where objective truths are no longer thought to exist. I wish to argue that the idea of modern relativism is in part a misnomer. Much of what are taken to be examples of relativism in fact still presuppose some awareness of an objective truth.
We often hear people complain about the rampant relativism in our modern world. Indeed, it has been claimed that we live in a post-truth world, where objective truths are no longer thought to exist. This troubling tendency threatens to undermine institutions in all spheres of life: politics, education, science, etc. The loss of the idea of objective truth is troubling since without it we have no common background of beliefs that can be used as a point of reference. In the absence of such common points, it is impossible to engage in a critical discussion with those who have different opinions, since such a discussion presupposes that certain basic things can be agreed upon which serve as the framework for the contentious points where there is disagreement. But if there is only disagreement, then the discussion can never get started, and it is impossible to engage in any rational process of identifying and testing the truth of specific claims. No discussion can emerge if the very first premise of the argument on both sides is rejected out of hand.
How did it come about that people began to dismiss the idea of objective truth? Relativism is, of course, not a new phenomenon; indeed, it has existed since antiquity. Cultural relativism was noted by the historian Herodotus in the 5th century BCE. The Greek Sophists and especially Protagoras have often been taken as the philosophical founders of the idea of relativism. The school of ancient Greek skepticism that traces its origins back to Pyrrho of Elis has also been associated with the idea. This movement was revived in the early modern period by thinkers such as Montaigne under the heading neo-Pyrrhonism. In the nineteenth century thinkers such as Friedrich von Schlegel and Nietzsche have often been taken to be relativists of one form or another. Many recent philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend and Richard Rorty have also been regarded as relativists, and Robert Fogelin has even embraced the label of neo-Pyrrhonism.
However, when people talk about the rise of relativism as a threat today, they are usually not referring to these academic expressions of it, which have had very little effect beyond the circles of the scholarly world. By contrast, modern relativism seems to be a more widespread social phenomenon in our day. It does not require any particular philosophical training. Rather, it seems to be anchored more firmly in some particular features in our times that have a broad and even intuitive appeal to people. What is it about our modern world that facilitates relativism and strengthens it? In this article I will try to sketch what I take to be one of the central causes for the widespread growth of relativism in our modern world. This has to do with a general historical diagnosis of the role of the individual in the modern world. I also wish to argue that the crisis of relativism is somewhat misunderstood and that many modern phenomena that are regarded as symptoms of relativism in fact still maintain a concept of objective truth.
Modern relativism is grounded in a rejection of the truth transmitted in our common cultural heritage of institutions and beliefs. In traditional cultures, people were not regarded primarily as individuals. Instead, their identity was bound up with their relation to the wider group of the family, the clan, the caste, or the tribe. It was these larger institutions that determined almost everything about the life of the individual and left very little free choice for people to decide for themselves what kind of life they wanted to have. Instead, these decisions were already made for them by these institutions. The desires and wishes of the individual were not perceived to be valuable. The story of the modern world has been about the struggle of liberation from what are usually regarded as repressive institutions. Through the centuries, the value of the individual has become more and more recognized and asserted. This has resulted in our modern celebration of the rights and freedom of the individual. Today we take it as wholly uncontroversial that we have the right to decide about the key elements in our individual lives.
This story of the liberation of the individual from the repressive forces of tradition has generally been a positive one. In the modern world we are loath to give up our individual freedom. But there is also a negative side to this liberation since it has resulted in a sense of alienation, anomie and even despair. This comes together with a general rejection of the objective sphere, which comes to be regarded as something inherently oppressive and destructive to the individual. The values and institutions of one’s culture come to be seen as useless since they are relative and have no absolute grounding or foundation. By contrast, the path of liberation and personal fulfillment is thought to lie in the individual. This can be seen in the modern phenomenon of rebellious teenagers who reject the dogmatic world-view of the previous generation and the values of mainstream society in order to assert their own individuality. The idea is that, in contrast to the view of traditional societies, the truth is not to be found without but rather within. Here we arrive at an important cause of modern relativism. If the objective world is only regarded as something arbitrary, negative and oppressive, then it cannot be taken to be the source of truth. Instead, the truth lies on the side of the individuals in their struggle to assert their individuality. One historical forerunner to this is the Romantic cult of the artist as genius in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The idea of free artistic self-creation went hand-in-hand with a rejection of traditional forms of bourgeois morality. The Romantics thus enjoyed shocking the sensibilities of mainstream society with their views. Another historical precedent to this is the Russian nihilists in the second half of the nineteenth century who rejected the oppressive traditions of serfdom and noble privileges of society at the time.
This rejection of the authority of the objective sphere is the downside of the scale with the upside being the celebration of the individual. But it is a heavy burden to have to create one’s own life and individuality wholly by oneself, especially if it means doing so without reference to larger institutions, against which the individual is in rebellion. As an individual, I am limited in my power and influence, which is seemingly dwarfed by the enormity of the external world around me. In order to assert my individuality, I have a need to see it somehow validated by others and thus reflected in the world. But my circle of influence is so small in comparison to the vastness of the world that I risk losing my individuality altogether like a drop in the ocean. I am but one individual among millions of others.
As if to meet this need, the development of computer technology and the internet has in a sense empowered the individual. Here I come to what has sometimes been regarded as an expression of modern relativism: the creation of a virtual reality that takes the place of what is taken to be an oppressive actual reality. Computer technology has made it possible, via social media, for the individual to assert him- or herself in whatever way they wish. The individual’s self-image is then disseminated in the world where it is seen and recognized by many other people. If one suffers failures or humiliations in the real world, it is possible to ignore this by creating an online persona that has only a long string of prestigious successes. Since modern individuals feel that they have the right to make the decisions about their lives and to free themselves from oppressive institutions, they feel that it is also within their right to make up whatever narrative they want about themselves. Whether they really did the things they claim is less relevant than the more important point that they are freely asserting and developing their individuality. This modern picture is very close to the Romantics’ idea of the artistic self-creation of the individual.
Prior to the creation of social media, there were always liars who claimed to have to their credit certain accomplishments that in fact they didn’t have. But these people always lived in fear that they would get some pushback from the world that contradicted their lies, and that they would thus be exposed. But this all changes with the virtual world, where anything can be said, and even the most outrageous claims can be made to look plausible. Now people no longer have to worry as much about the world contradicting their claims. On the contrary, they can bask in the recognition that they receive from others on social media, which enforces the fictitious reality that they have created. While it is of course true that the internet makes it possible to expose liars more readily since there are potentially more fact-checkers, often these whistleblowers are shouted down by the crowd of more credulous people, who, especially in a politically charged environment, are predisposed to accept certain claims and reject others.
The historical development of the value of individuality has thus been enabled and empowered by computer technology, and the two together have led to the many forms of what has been regarded as the relativism that we see in the modern world. However, the term “relativism” does not fit well with these modern phenomena that often go under this heading. The assertion of one’s individuality and the rejection of the objective sphere is not strictly speaking a form of relativism as it is often thought to be. The objection has often been raised against relativism that it is ultimately self-contradictory: when one claims that everything is relative, this statement itself must be taken to be absolute. The critique can be traced back to Socrates’ refutation of the relativism of Protagoras in the Theaetetus (1). This paradox is also found in the modern forms of relativism and subjectivism. While people are keen to dismiss the objective sphere as containing anything true, they assert the truth of their own individuality. A part of this involves the validation of this truth by others in the objective sphere. Individuals who want to assert their individuality and create themselves need some minimal form of recognition from others, even if it comes from only a small, marginalized group. Thus, while they reject the objective truth of tradition, they want to replace it with their own truth which paradoxically also has some objective element. In this sense relativism is not the right word to describe the phenomenon. Instead, something like the assertion of the individual against traditional beliefs and worldviews would be better.
The same thing can be seen in other modern phenomena that are often taken to be signs of relativism. The widespread dissemination of disinformation via the internet in order to further a social or political agenda is often seen as evidence that we live in a post truth world. But this is not the case since those who willfully create and spread disinformation know perfectly well that what they are disseminating is not true. They know the truth about the matter and how their disinformation deviates from it. In benign cases such as inflating one’s achievements on one’s Facebook page or more nefarious ones such as QAnon’s spreading of far-fetched conspiracy theories, there is still an objective truth that even the most cynical person still believes in. Such a person is not a relativist. What is new here is perhaps the massive scale of telling lies in order to realize a specific social-political agenda and the ready means to convey them to large numbers of people. While it is of course true that propaganda has always existed in one form or another, the means to disseminate it were in the past more limited and held by those in power. By contrast, in the modern world with computer technology, anyone is free to disseminate whatever they like with no obligation to veracity.
Likewise, the general lack of consensus today that is often taken for relativism is misunderstood in the same way. It is true that people tend to live in their own isolated bubbles and believe quite different things, and it is very difficult to come to an agreement about anything since the views are often so far apart. Where political issues become convoluted due to vested interests, such as the debate about climate change, people still agree there is an objective truth, but they simply disagree about what it is due presumably in part to disinformation. Here again it would be a mistake to dub this relativism.
These are of course broad topics that would require a more detailed explanation. But from this preliminary analysis, it seems that the real modern crisis is not relativism as such. Instead, most people still have a deep-seated intuitive sense that there is an objective truth, even though it might not be known or there might be great disagreement about it. The fact that people still get so upset about what they perceive to be lies and disinformation is testimony to the strength of this intuition of an objective truth. The problem concerns the ability of the individual to assert and define oneself in contrast to the external world of reality. This is a part of a longer development of the way in which we think about ourselves as individuals, which indeed is a key element in the story of modernity.
- Plato, “Theaetetus”, circa 369 BCE.
Acknowledgments: This work was produced at the Institute of Philosophy, Slovak Academy of Sciences. It was supported by the Agency VEGA under the project Synergy and Conflict as Sources of Cultural Identity, No. 2/0025/20.