"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
"Wouldn't reality be what each individual perceives as being
"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
"If you have no knowledge of something does it not exist?"
"Don't questions of morality have to be answered by how people
"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
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
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
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
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
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 post modernism 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
. . . "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
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
word -- 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."
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
In closing, consider these words of
Prof. Fullinwider, and then take heart:(3)
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