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“You are a relativist, you deny all truth!”. _Such is the kind of reaction I occasionally get when applying my investigative approach to any topic that deserves a degree of reflection. In those cases, the underlying assumption usually is that a denial of what _appears to be true is equal to a staunch refusal of what actually is true in the case. The alleged trivialities are regarded as irrelevant to a seemingly obvious proposition, while the “relativist” is painted as either a vainglorious naysayer, a shrewd ignoramus, or an outright charlatan.
The Sophists were among the first in Western philosophy to be associated with relativist tenets of thought and while a ‘sophisticated’ method may be an elaborate mode of operation, a ‘sophism’ or a ‘sophistry’ is considered as an exercise in mendacity. The former adjective’s signification is closer to the original meaning of the ‘sophist’ as someone who is educated, who possesses a modicum of wisdom (sophia = wisdom). The connotations of the latter terms reveal a predisposition against any approach that deviates from the expected standard, or any assertion that contradicts the common belief—what may be derided as “relativist”.
Plausible as it may be to brand allusions to relativity as inherently erroneous or fraudulent, the objectification of “the truth” is no refutation of an opposing argument nor a direct conduit to reality. It generally commits the crude error of elevating a conclusion to its decontextual other, disregarding the particularities and, hence, considering something as exterior to the context that engendered it. Put differently, it is a critical misrecognition with a two-fold manifestation:
- On the one hand, the “details”, “nuances” and “irrelevant factors” that a relativist may make judicious reference to are not appreciated for their presence in the constitution of the case. The facts in the case are examined in oblivion of their actual interoperations with other facts in that state of affairs. They are treated independently. Under such a penumbra one remains neglectful of the properties arising in such interoperations.
- On the other, what commonly is presented as a claim to reality, may be little more than a concatenation of fixed presences; the transfiguration of a complex of preconceptions to a robust ideology of what is purported to be true.
On the first point and as a corrective to such fancies, I would refer to some selected parts of proposition 2.4 from my Notes on the Thinkable:
2.4 A state of affairs comprises facts.
2.4.1 A fact is a thing that manifests in a given way.
2.4.2 Facts in a state of affairs can combine and interoperate.
2.4.3 Interoperability of facts in a state of affairs presents a case.
2.4.4 A case is more than the totality of its facts. It encompasses the facts as such, together with the properties that arise in their interoperation.
188.8.131.52 A case represents a sense that could not be drawn directly from the facts alone.
184.108.40.206 To know the facts is not tantamount to having knowledge of the case. The facts are things that manifest in a certain way prior to their interoperation with other facts.
220.127.116.11 To know the case is to know the specific interoperation of the facts. However, this does not necessarily provide knowledge of all possible combinations of these facts.
2.4.5 The facts and their given interoperation make up the constitution of the case.
The gist of the matter is that general truths can only hold whenever the constitution of the case is constant. A method of analysis that would draw universal conclusions from specific facts may run the risk of conflating a given presence in the case with its respective absolute in the fundamental taxonomy of thought. In other words, I claim that what is true to the case, is true to the case only and that a new constitution of the case requires examination anew, if we are to be excruciatingly precise.
This brings me to the second point on the formulation of the truth as an ideological postulate. Instead of delving in the domain of the abstract, I shall elaborate on a more concrete example. Consider the statement P: “Print these documents”. On the face of it, the truth of P is to be found in its form, where x tells y to act z. Fair enough! However, if one were to conclude thus and elevate that conclusion to the status of the definitive truth that would apply uniformly to all utterances of P, they would be committing a lamentable mistake, for they would be disregarding the context that fosters this state of affairs.
On the interoperability of facts in this case, it could be stated that x is in a higher hierarchical position than y and hence, x proceeds to issue an order to y. Let us consider this scenario as P1. In P1, it may be that the hierarchy is a product of consensual agreement, such as when someone agrees to work for somebody else in exchange for some return, remuneration perhaps. Such a configuration of roles would be profoundly different from, say, P2 where a gunman is ordering someone under the threat of forfeiting their life. In P2, no commonly agreed roles are present and hence the gunman asserts a position of authority by means of coercion.
The consideration of the roles between x and y, of their function in the case, decisively alters our original understanding of the truth of __P, as it forces us to consider the given constitution of the case, either as P1 or P2.
This hypothesizing may be regarded as a means of introducing the element of relativity, but it clearly does not stand for the denial of truth in the case, since if P1 and P2 were to be the only possible scenaria, they would be considered as mutually exclusive, with one representing the truth and the other one the falsity. A genuinely consensual agreement is incompatible with sheer coercion and vice-versa. Consequently, in that case a truth could certainly be discerned, for that case only, with the tacit understanding that another occurrence of P could resemble the alternative scenario.
The bottom line is that what is often presented as a “realistic” approach, of clinging to the one and only “truth”, is nothing but an ideology, for it does not account for the specifics in what would indeed classify as a discernment of the real state of affairs.
Coming back to the accusation against the “relativist”, as to whether such a persona denies the truth or not, I must confess that I have no straightforward answer because I do not know what “relativist” actually stands for. The term outside its context is pretty much meaningless, as it can signify a vast number of beliefs without any clear indication as to who is actually to be blamed for “denying the truth”.
But if, for the sake of the argument, I were to be the context, this much-needed particularization of the “relativist”, I would venture to suggest that the denial of the truth is not valorized as an end in itself and that this “relativist” does not object to the truth in the constitution of the case. What is intended with the inclusion of seemingly trivial parameters to the examination of a state of affairs, is to draw a limit to unfounded remarks about the case, so that what is under consideration may be scrutinized freely without any presumptions; without reaching conclusions before looking into the matter. If an assumption were proved to be valid in a case, it would be due to the conformity of the case with it, not because that assumption would necessarily have a universal validity.
All this might indeed be viewed as a tedious method of analysis, though it might just be appreciated as a ‘down-to-earth’ skeptical approach that seeks the truth in the constitution of the case, not in the form of the case and certainly not in grandiose pronouncements about the “truth”.