Just sometimes the big questions turn out not to be all that important.
One such issue to get my goat lately is the battle between absolutists and relativists, each a pejorative from the opposite perspective each accusing the other’s epistemology of ushering in untold injustice, social harm and moral degradation.
It is thinking about this issue that has led me tentatively to doubt the fundamental centrality of ANY of the big questions – perhaps I could call this a qualified relativism about value – where the value in question is the value of some particular and supposedly crucial debate. Mind you I should point out, this relativism is not relativism as such (even about value).
Let me explain a little through sketchy historical digression.
Questions about episteme - knowledge, understanding, the mind’s assured grasp of reality – have had a special status in the Western canon since at least Plato. Push aside the metaphysical and we see this clearly when Socrates asks a young Theaetetus ‘what is knowledge?’, or of Meno the accompanying, ‘how is knowledge better than true belief?’
Telling in both examples is the failure of all involved to provide a satisfying conclusion – and if anything it is this elusiveness that has characterized discussion of the topic ever since. For all of its central importance in the west’s grand intellectual project epistemological discussion has yet to settle the score.
One response type then, is that immediately brought to mind by Socrates’ very questioning – the skeptical: ‘knowledge is not possible (so why try to describe it)?’ On its heels is the relativistic: ‘there is no such thing as knowledge, at least not how you conceive of it…’
(both strategies were indeed espoused in ancient times, the first most influentially by the Pyrrhonists and the later development of Plato’s own Academy [following Socrates own perceived scepticism] – the latter in various pre-Socratic thinkers, notably Socrates sometime rival Protagoras, whose famous credo ‘man is the measure of all things’ is mentioned, and summarily discarded, in the Theaetetus.)
It is this last strategy that has proven popular in recent times, taking aim at epistemological equivocation in the canon to simply deny that there is anything to know – changing the terms of the debate to usher in a swarm of new and vital questions: Is there such a thing as knowledge? Is there ‘truth’? What if knowledge, and truth, are only ever situated, relative to context, perspective, society etc…?
At which point battle ensues, diatribes fly, condemnations flow from either side.
“Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed” (C. S. Lewis, The poison of subjectivism)
“The truly dangerous people abroad in the world today are all absolutists. It is the dictatorship of absolutism, and the war of absolute against absolute, that is to be feared.” (David Bloor, Epistemic Grace: Anti-relativism in disguise)
Both schools have their points and both miss the point.
What is striking is that the new questions of episteme are not supposed big in the abstract, they really matter. Just see the rolecall of veriphobes (to steal a phrase from Alvin Goldman’s ‘Knowledge of a social world’) and their compatriots:
Foucault, Lyotard, Judith Butler, Henry Kissinger (ok this one is pushing it – but the Realpolitick of America’s arch-realist of foreign policy does echo aspects of a more general relativism) Derrida…and so on. Not merely great thinkers, but great social thinkers, the champions of the disenfranchised, soldiers against the alienating, inhumane hegemony of history.
Likewise, the absolutists – the true danger of relativism is not the one it poses to intellectual tradition but its potential to tear the very fabric of society: creationism in the science class, forced tolerance of oppressive regimes, dis-engagement from social issues…and so on.
(Interestingly the loudest most public defenders in the ‘absolutist’ camp are rarely philosophers – see Chomsky, Dawkins, Solzhenitsyn… [Narnia's Lewis is an interesting exception] Whereas the often-European philosophers who espouse relativism are public figures those who argue against the position on purely philosophical grounds languish in an obscurity that sadly seems to fall over smart people from English speaking societies.)
At which point my doubts come in, for worthy as is each and every of the social issues under question, from the perspective of those issues debate about the nature of knowledge or truth is rarely of any value. To qualify an instance of knowledge or a matter of truth as either ‘absolutely so’ or ‘relatively so’ is at best a minor contribution, at worst an unhealthy obfuscation.
Just as it IS important to recognise when some perceived truth is rather a construct of a particular perspective, so it is important to recognise when somebody is merely avoiding real debate by stating so. To dogmatically insist on either perspective – no matter the discourse – on the other hand, is to abstain from real discourse.
For all the conviction that questions of episteme matter beyond abstract, intellectual curiosity, on most occasions they don’t – the value of the question is relative to the matter at hand. If the issue is social then the questions, and their answers, should surely also be social. Or else especially well considered.
And so my doubts about the big questions in general. Even the most fundamental of matters – be they epistemological, metaphysical, meta-ethical, moral, social, whatever – are best bracketed out the vast majority of discourse. When the big ones count they do perhaps have most weight of all, but before we inject a discourse with such potent tropes, lets first be sure they offer truthful cures.
(as a note – these thoughts actually coalesced for me when reading up on meta-ethical discussion of value and so-called fitting attitude accounts, as discussed by (amongst others) Franz Brentano, Thomas Scanlon, Wlodek Rabinowicz, and Toni Rönnow-Rasmussen. The term Scanlon adopts for his approach sums up what affected me quite effectively: ‘buck-passing’ – which is to say that just what it is for a thing to be morally valuable, for instance, is a question that should be passed over to those lower-order properties that provide reasons for favouring a thing. As opposed to the theory, it is the buck-passing metaphor itself that got me thinking – if we can bracket out meta-questions of value when we discuss moral issues, surely when we are engaged in regular discourse of other kinds we can do just the same for a whole host of important high-order questions, properties and concepts ?)