"Who's to say?" the student asks, deflating your carefully crafted argument... "That's just your opinion," responds another, reducing argument to autobiography and making you wish you had a loaded gun... "If it's right for him, it's right," offers [a third], unlimbering the concept philosophers dread most: right-for-him. . .
"Our relativist students threaten only the peace of mind of their teachers. They were put on earth to torment us and to keep us humble."
"Who's to say?"
"Well, you may not approve of (or believe) it, but its good (or true) for them!"
Radical relativism: we've all heard it -- quite often, my colleagues tell me.
Recently, I had the opportunity to gain more than a mere "impression" of radical relativism among our students. To encourage class discussion and timely reading of the assigned material, I asked my students to hand in an index card at the beginning of each class with questions or comments on their readings. I've recently gone through about a fifth of the two thousand or so collected from my two large classes. From these, I've set aside the following reflections (and believe me, there are a great many more where they came from):
"Perhaps it is only our thinking that makes things real. For example, how do we know that the earth was round before we devised the thought that it was not flat? Do concepts such as gravity exist only because we think them real?"
"Wouldn't reality be what each individual perceives as being real?"
"If I make the statement, "I know," then I know. Why would someone make the statement if they didn't?"
"Isn't reality what is real to us, even if it isn't accurate scientifically?"
"If you have no knowledge of something does it not exist?"
"Don't questions of morality have to be answered by how people actually feel?"
"If a person does something which he or she believes to be morally right, is it so?"
"Even if psychic visions are self delusions, wouldn't that make them real and true for the people experiencing them? And if so, wouldn't this count as knowledge for them?"
"How can you prove or disprove a [psychic] channeler's "knowledge" if s/he believes it? It is true for him/her and it is justified for him or her. Is one's subjective experience enough to know something?"
Being a psychic medium and gaining knowledge this way has a correlation with rationalism and empiricism. (1) Isn't extra-sensory perception a sixth sense? (2) It is an experience. (3) The proof is one's feelings and acceptance."
"I continue to ponder the question of psychic knowledge. How is scientific intuitive insight more credible than a psychic intuition? A scientist has an insight which set events rolling toward an experiment. A psychic makes a prediction, and though it is best to take the prediction literally at face value, one can make decisions about events situated about the prediction. In other words, predictions can be thought of as warnings to give the parties involved greater insight into their lives and help them make more meaningful choices." [Answer: For psychics, intuition is the end of inquiry. For the scientist, it is the beginning.]
The term "proof" disturbs me. Just because some aspect is "proven," doesn't mean that all people are going to believe it. Perhaps the people who believe in the proof are self-delusional. Who's to say what qualifies as proof?" [Answer: People who study what does and doesn't "work" as "proof." Such people are called "philosophers," "logicians," "scientists" and "scholars." The places where one learns "what qualifies as proof" are called "colleges" and "universities."]
Where to these kids get such strange notions? One source (among many, of course) just might be trendy "pop scholarship" -- such as "deconstructive analysis." And if "real scholars" say such things, how can we fault our students?
"Deconstructive analysis" (or, alternatively, "post-modernism") -- a species of radical-subjective skepticism -- had a brief moment of notoriety in philosophy a few years ago. Happily, it is now on its way out (at least among philosophers who write in English), and soon may depart without a trace. The reason for this dismissal is quite straightforward: "deconstruction," and its historical antecedents, is not philosophy, it is anti-philosophy. Its antecedents go all the way back to the Sophists (e.g., "man is the measure of all things," Protagoras). And the current incarnation says virtually nothing that Nietzsche didn't say much better, a century ago: i.e., the meaning of a text is it's interpretation -- nothing more. To the deconstructionist, all so-called knowledge is encapsulated in subjective "points-of-view" no one of which can claim "advantage" over another.
What might be said in rebuttal? Strictly speaking, to those for whom "all knowledge is belief," and for whom there is no "reason," just persuasion -- nothing whatever can be said. They are deaf to argument at the get-go.
However, to those willing to listen to argument there is, first of all, the history of science, technology and scholarship. All this eloquently testifies that there are confirmable facts, and knowledge which are both public and commutative. We really know more about the solar system than the wisest "astronomers" before Copernicus. Calculus was really an advance upon Algebra. Billions of dollars of funded research through the National Science Foundation and the great universities has not been without result. This belief goes beyond "common sense," and is virtually a criterion of sanity.
Yes, Virginia, there is a real world!
Furthermore, radical skepticism and relativism are, practically speaking, impossible, and are refuted during every waking moment of the relativist's life. He firmly believes that the "real" traffic light is turning red, whereupon he replaces his foot from accelerator to the brake, both of which, he is fully assured, are part of an independent reality. He then depresses the brake, fully confident that it will really stop the vehicle. Every day our relativist makes choices among graded options often according to principle -- e.g., to pay, or not pay, his required income tax, to be faithful or not to his "significant other" -- thus exhibiting at least a rudimentary ethic. Given these considerations, all that remain of his skepticism and relativism is fraternity-row sophistry, which most of us encounter and get over in our careless youth.
Finally, any radical relativist who chooses to argue his point is, ipso facto, inconsistent, for he concedes, by implication, that there is more to "knowledge" than mere belief -- namely, that there are canons of valid inference and (who knows) even objective empirical evidence, upon which sound knowledge is grounded, and to which the relativist must appeal if he is to be heard. The uncompromising deconstructionist, by insisting that no belief, or mode of justifying belief, is in any demonstrable sense better than another, quite simply has nothing further to say. Knowledge collapses into equivalence with "my belief" -- and thus "the world is my idea." Solipsism, plain and simple. (In a similar vein, my late friend, Ed Abbey, once wrote, that "if a man says he is a solipsist, throw a rock at his head. If he ducks, he's a liar.")
A willingness to engage in civil and rational discussion may suffice to save the poor deconstructionist from the error of his ways. Once he admits objective, rational and cumulative grounds of warranted belief (as he must, to be admitted to the forum of scholarly discourse), the door is reopened to the body of science and scholarship. The deconstructionist may insist that all personal perspectives are "partial" and that everyone has biases. But this is conceded by any and all responsible scientists and scholars, indeed it is one of their first principles. Science and scholarship do not reject subjectivism -- they admit it, and then proceed to trivialize it, saying, in effect, "yeah sure! -- but so what?" Subjectivism is the beginning problem. Scientific method and criteria of rational inference are the solution, leading to "objectivity" and even to expertise.
Radical relativism can be easily refuted by any moderately competent Philosophy major. It's just like pulling dandelions. However, the history of ideas discloses that, like dandelions, relativism pops right back up again. The Philosopher's work is never done!
Need such radical relativism concern us, as environmental educators? I submit that it should. As a referee for a few educational journals, I frequently encounter radical relativism in its current guise -- as "deconstruction." It appears that more than a few scholarly camp-followers seem to think that relativism is still the "in thing" to do.
Recently I refereed (and rejected, of course), a strange piece (but, alas, not untypical), which contended that "deconstruction" was just the thing for training "environmental leaders and educators." So as to leave no doubt where he or she stood (it was a blind review), the author opened with this remarkable quotation from Paulo Friere: "Education ... denies that the world exists as a reality apart from men." I demurred, of course:
. . . "post modernism" has little to offer environmental educators, seeking to prepare their students to deal with the environmental crisis. Quite the contrary. According to the author of this piece, no warnings about the deteriorating condition of the natural environment -- pollution, extinction, population -- are to be taken seriously, since no such "stories" are to be regarded as "truer" than the reassurances of the cornucopians. Scientific expertise, we are advised, must be dismissed as "oppression." "The Land Ethic" and the ecological conscience, by this account, can claim no moral superiority over the views of the most ruthless exploiter and polluter, since these are all "valuable contributions to be respected," and values are not to be evaluated, much less criticized and rejected, only "clarified." [Quoted words are those used by the anonymous author of the piece under review].
There is a different view which, I submit, the environmental educator should defend: namely, that it is his task to present hard data from an independent real world -- data about conditions that threaten the biotic foundations of our very lives, and the shared and mutually validated values of our culture and tradition -- conditions which demand intelligent, principled and collective (which is to say political) action. The so-called "environmental leaders" emerging from the program sketched in this paper offer our endangered species, and its coming generation, not a shred of scientific, technical, or moral foundation for their putative "leadership."
"Post modernism" promotes the disease of which environmental education should be the cure. Educators should be the curators of all that is precious in our civilization, and worthy of transmission on to the next generation: our sciences, our arts, our literature, and yes, our loyalty to the planet. The approach to "environmental education" presented here deprives us of any grounds whatever upon which to identify and cherish our heritage, or to regard it as of any value to our students.
Once upon a time, I was routinely perturbed by radical relativism among my students. However, after reading a wise article by Robert Fullinwider, my mind has been put at ease. Thus I have come to regard radical relativism as a useful "stage" of the student's intellectual development, which should concern us only if that student somehow "gets stuck" and fails to transcend it (and eventually, perhaps, submits papers to some educational journals).
In closing, consider these words of Prof. Fullinwider, and then take heart:(3)
"As [students] accumulate more moral experience on their own, their powers of moral discrimination will improve. They will come upon useful and clarifying distinctions and find better ways to express their moral feelings than by invoking the protective devices of relativism. Among the most important experiences they will have, of course, is that of becoming authority figures themselves and having to lay down and enforce rules... They will come to have, as a result, more refined and complex view of rules, rule-systems, and authority than they once had. For most of our relativist students, the relativism will go away on its own, like acne, disappearing with age and maturity.
"This is because ... our students never were relativists anyway. Their relativism ... largely ... arises out of their moral experience but doesn't shape their moral responses. It is a way -- inadequate and confused, to be sure -- of trying to give voice to certain of their moral intuitions, and it is those intuitions that actually govern their moral behavior."
Copyright, 1996, by Ernest Partridge
1. I have been notified that this title was used earlier by William P. Alston, in an address published in the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 52 (November 1979): 779–808. Accordingly, for a while I changed the title to "Who's to Say." On reflection, it occurs to me that Prof. Alston does not own a title that I thought of independently. So I have restored it to this essay.