Relativism: an idea that failed before it started

The Books of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals
William D. Gairdner
McGill-Queen’s University Press
Recommendation: Read

Let’s play spot the flaw. In 1994, professor Mark Glazer said, “Cultural relativism in anthropology is a key methodological concept which is universally accepted within the discipline.” (It’s the very first sentence after the link.)

Don’t have it yet? Then let’s remind ourselves of what cultural relativism means: “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid and that truth itself is relative, depending on the situation, environment, and individual.”

You surely have it by now, so let’s move on to the twelve objections to relativism as outlined by Gairdner in his Book of Absolutes.

Wait…what? You don’t see the flaw? Ah, I guess it’s hard to spot contradictions like this when we’re exposed to them so often that they seem natural.

If it is true that “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid” etc., and that that proposition is “universally accepted”, then we are confronted with something that is true wherever you are. If “relativism” is true, then it is false because anthropologists everywhere believe it, and if they everywhere believe it, it is a universal truth, something that is true without regard to culture.

It gets even more asinine. If “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid” etc., then how valid is the view that “Cultural relativism is false”? I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks.

Cultural relativism is an idea that is immediately seen as not just false but incredibly stupid, so you have to wonder how it originated and why it took such a tight hold on Western academia.

Gairdner relates the history and puts a lot of the blame on German export Franz Boas, an anthropologist who was horrified by World War I, eugenics, and other popular pastimes at the turn of the last century. Boas feared absolutes, such as those preached by the rising Socialist (National) party in Germany, because he felt that they could be used to justify any atrocity. Example: If it is true that Xs are inferior, then it is okay to exterminate them, where X is any group that is on the outs.

Boas was immensely influential, and if the story is right, transformed all of anthropology so that absolutes were seen as verboten. One of his students was Margret Mead, and we know where that story ended.

After going through the book, a good argument can be made for restricting all intellectual output of Germany, re: the romanticism of Nietzsche, its practical implementation under the uber-Nazi Heidegger—and then there’s the deconstructing, post-modernist pair of Foucault and Derrida, who were both French, but who lived so close to the German border that they soaked up too much of what was seeping out. The story of how these men captured the minds of academics is particularly interesting. It has been told before, but Gairdner was an inside witness and his anecdotes are interesting, especially the story of modern Saussarian linguistics and its eventual corruption by the cult of relativism.

There are separate discussions of human biology, language, law, and customs, which all have lists of universals of the constant, conditional and statistical kind. Constant means the trait, such as the taboo against murder, is shared by every culture. Conditional means that if trait A is present then B always is, but that trait A might not be constant. Statistical traits are found in most but not necessarily all cultures (and are thus not universal, but intriguing anyway).

Gairdner attempts a list of physical constants, which is a good enough idea, but times are changing in physics and the “constants” once held dear have become malleable. But never mind. His central idea is still right: there are truths that exist independent of human minds or thought. He also has a go at the stronger Anthropic Principle, but is not convincing. However, I’ve yet to meet with an argument for that Principle that is.

The amazing thing is that universals, or even the possibility of them, were so thoroughly rejected by highly paid, tenure-wielding, peer-reviewed professors. That is, during the twentieth century the intelligentsia gathered as one and said, “There are no universals, there is nothing that is true.”

Now that is a shocking statement. But it came from a consensus of professors, and who are we mere mortals to question a consensus? So it was believed, and from it came things like judicial activism, multiculturalism etc., etc. If there is nothing universally true, academics swooned, then think of the possibilities!

Of course, the flaw in that statement was always obvious, plain, and damning. For we can ask, “Is it true that there is nothing that is universally true?” The post-modernist professor must say yes, but as he does, he makes himself a fool, albeit one with a comfortable “research” budget.

Anyway, here are a few representative examples of relativism culled from Gairdner’s book, all of which share the same self-contradictory logical flaw. You will need some familiarity with the subjects to understand some of the statements (background for each is given in the book). That these blatant flaws were overlooked—usually in the name of “good intentions”—says quite a bit about how the desire for power can so easily blind.

* Dawkins, in his Selfish Genes, says our brains have grown so large that we can rebel “against our own natures.” “We along on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

* Yet another German, influential legal scholar Hans Kelsen, “rejected and derided outright the claims of ‘philosophical absolutism’, which insist there is a foundational reality that exists independent of human knowledge.”

* The post-modern interpretation of literature: “All texts, and the world itself, are nothing more than ‘a galaxy of signifiers.'”

* Nietzsche “protested that all religions and philosophies are but thinly veiled attempts by their to control others by persuading them of the ‘facts’ produced only by the logic of their pet theories.”

* Derrida: “no discourse has the objective capacity to analyze another discourse.”

* Foucault: “interpretation can never be brought to an end…because there is nothing to interpret.”

* Said’s and others’ anti-foundationalism: which argues there can be no foundation in philosophy.


  1. David C.

    Surely you don’t restrict all German intellectual output…

    Courage firm in grievous trial,
    Help, where innocence doth scream,
    Oaths which sworn to are eternal,
    Truth to friend and foe the same,
    Manly pride ’fore kingly power—
    Brothers, cost it life and blood,—
    Honor to whom merits honor,
    Ruin to the lying brood!

    Freidrich Schiller “Ode to Joy”

  2. Luis Dias

    I’ll refrain from attacking the slight racist undertone of your post (hint, the french and german over-generalizations).

    Well, Mr Briggs, if you take those criticisms seriously, then yes you do have a point, but I think that both you and mostly all of those people (I sincerely do not understand why Dawkins is in there, a blatant anti-postmodernism, but I’m sure you’ll try to explain it. May I even dare that he was simply referring to that thing you take so seriously, the so-called “free will”?!?), simply missed the point.

    The postmodernist movement, the total relativist movement, etc., are self-contradictory and, yes, ridiculous, if you see them as attempts to explain the world.

    I posit that we should not look at them as such, but as good caveats and critiques to the idea that we really understand this world so well. That is, we should look at them as challenges to the modern clear, transparent and simple world.

    For they do represent, what I think is a frustration of some part of the 20th century man, who entered it with the confidence that would understand it, change it and revolutionize it, and ended understanding that the cosmos is arbitrary, chaos rules a good part, there are always “unintended consequences”, science theories seem to always change not only their equations, but the very nature of the interpretations, and this nagging feeling that whenever people get confident of what they see as a good idea almost always ends up frustrated as all ideologies were.

    So, yes, I also believe that it is high time for someone interesting to show up and create an optimist philosophy, one where we could inspire ourselves throughout the 21st century.

  3. Briggs

    Now, Luis, you did notice that I implicitly left Portugal on the “Good ones” list, right?

    With David C., I’m inclined to give Schiller a pass, as I am that grand man Beethoven. But Wagner? What was it that Mark Twain said? Any Frenchman that plays petanque also passes.

    You might have seen the post-modernist movement as a “caveat”, but those that promulgated it surely did not. They claimed, and loudly, that theirs was the way to look at the world. They were, as are the few holdovers left, serious.

  4. Ray

    The inescapable logical contradiction for moral or cultural relativity is the inability to answer the simple question “why relativity?” without invoking a superior moral or cultural value thereby invalidating the claim of relativity or equality.

    As the great mathematician, scientist and philosopher Pascal said, “it is not certain that nothing is certain.” That is obviously true. The postmodernists claim “it is certain that nothing is certain.” That is logically self contradictory.

  5. Kevin B

    On one level you, and Gairdner are right.

    “All cultures are equally valid.”
    “Oh no they’re not!”
    “Oh yes they are!”

    And the whole thing descends into a bad Monty Python sketch.

    But when someone says “All cultures are equally valid”, what they really mean is “Your’s isn’t”.

    Your culture is invalid because it claims to be the best culture. The fact that their culture, along with almost every other culture, claims the same thing is neither here nor there. The fact that you are claiming that post-Enlightenment Western culture is closer to the ideal than any other culture automatically invalidates anything you have to say.

    Cultural relatavism is the number one weapon in the armory of those who seek to bring about the destruction of Western culture.

    They’re suceeding.

  6. Luis Dias

    They claimed, and loudly, that theirs was the way to look at the world. They were, as are the few holdovers left, serious.

    I agree with you. But lets face it, so did the surrealists, the dadaists, the nihilists, the abstractionists… etc., etc.

    Every one of those people that entered such movements did believe that theirs was the one that would forever change the world. Hubris mixed with the passion of revolution. What really did destroyed post-modernism as a respectful movement, was the accumulation of marxists post the cold war and the gulag revelations. It was such a psychological blow for so many thinkers that they simply claimed “relativism” as a sort of an excuse for their beliefs.

    Sometimes it comes around, but the trend is clear, and the Chomskys and Derridas of this world are dying.

  7. Great post and a fitting companion to “Induction and Falsifiability in Statistics.” Long ago when young strapling, the Ol’ Perfessor asked me if I believed there was such a thing as universal truth. Child of the times that I was, I said I doubted it. The old grey lion shook his mane sadly at me.

    But I was wrong. Now I know better. I can’t prove it logically. Proving the truth is more difficult than disproving a lie. All I can say is that idealism is pragmatic, sometimes. When the abstract structures and foundational truths collapse, what can you do but seek newer, better, abstract structures and foundational truths?

  8. Mike D “Proving the truth is more difficult than disproving a lie.”

    How true – I say. Is that why AGW consensus is the predominant lie nowadays?

  9. Bernie

    Mike D.
    The young are seldom confronted by Death and Taxes which accounts for their ignorance with respect to universal truths!

  10. DaveK

    Perhaps the idea of “Cultural Relativism” failed because, as an idea, it just wasn’t any better than all those other, equally good ideas?

  11. harold

    I admit I am not a very logical person but I do not see a flaw or
    contradiction in the Glazer quote. In fact it was one of the few sentences in the essay that made sense to me. Say you were investigating the field of anthropology from an empirical viewpoint and your conclusion was that cultural relativism is a key methodological concept used nowadays by everyone within the discipline. Then the opening sentence would seem fine to me. (I did have the uneasy feeling that our esteemed host was writing with his tongue in his cheek)

    The most horrible thing about cultural relativism is that it has entered everyday language, and is used (amongst other things) to flatten
    discussion. I often hear phrases like “that is your perspective” which is a modern way of saying “bugger off, you are wrong and I do not want to talk about it”.

  12. Eric Anderson

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    Luis, Dawkins is in there, I suspect, because his concept is self-contradictory. Rebel against one’s own nature? Uh, what’s causing your rebellion — must be your nature? Dawkins loses two ways: logically, because in his deterministic description of nature there is no room for his claimed antidote, and practically, because most people (including him) don’t lead their lives as though they are simply the product of selfish genes, but rather as though they, and people generally, have free will.

    I’m glad to see Gairdner take Dawkins’ ever-popular, but oh so shallow, selfish gene theory to task.

  13. Bernie

    If I understand correctly, the way cultural relativism is proposed is a cultural absolute. It has the same logical flaw as the statement “everyone lies”.

  14. harold

    Thank you Bernie, I think I am getting it now. Reading your post made me take the decision to buy “Breaking the Law of Averages” on Amazon, the hefty pricing delayed this (UK = 38 Pounds, Fr = 97 Euros). Now if it had been an E-book …

    In “The God Delusion” Richard Dawkins writes “In any society there exists a somewhat mysterious consensus, which changes over the decades” and uses the German ‘Zeitgeist’ as a name for this phenomenon. He also says that “the shift has no connection with religion” and “is in a recognizably consistent direction”. All this is rather vague, but I do agree with these observations(I speak only of the world around me). But then he goes on saying that it is in a direction “which most of us would judge as an improvement” and he seems to suggest that the moral ‘Zeitgeist’ is evolving (= becoming better) through mysterious forces, he even suggests “memes”. And he utterly fails to see that these forces might be the cultural relativistic/PC/New Age ideologues which are aggressively forcing their views on society.

  15. Willi

    Simple tests for the truthfulness of tne theory of “cultural relativism” is found in the Halls of Academia. Can one who opposes the theory gain tenure in the Anthropology department of major universities? Secondly, do the denizens of those departments practice the theory? Do they accept as their equals persons who belong to a different culture, such as religious conservatives?

    Failure to adhere to the theory goes a long way to expose its shortcomings.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *