Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Consequences of Postmodernist Truth Relativism

One of the core beliefs of Postmodernism is this:
Proposition (1): there is no such thing as objective truth; all “truths” are culturally relative.
If one believes that there are no objective truths, then it follows that nothing you can say is objectively true, not even the statement that “there are no objective truths.” What sort of statement, then, is Proposition (1) if it is not objectively true? Is it rhetorical hot air? Is it akin to fictitious statements in poetry or novels? If not, what?

Moreover, why should anyone believe you? What justification do you offer to people to believe this proposition, if you do not even assert it as an objectively true statement?

Even worse, if Proposition (1) were true, then it would follow that all the propositions of Postmodernism are not objectively true, but merely “subjectively” true within the Postmodernism subculture. There is no reason why hostile people from other cultures or subcultures need believe them.

But why, then, when people criticise Postmodernist doctrines do the Postmodernists react with hysterical outrage and act like their core beliefs are objectively true and their critics are wrong?

If they took their beliefs seriously and they were consistent, they would say this in response to critics:
“Of course, it is true that all Postmodernist beliefs are not objectively true and are only relatively true within the Postmodernist subculture. Therefore within your own subculture your epistemological beliefs are true.”
The trouble with this, however, is that it cannot evade the following questions:
(1) why, then, should anyone who is not a Postmodernist believe the Postmodernist beliefs and what justifications can Postmodernists offer to their critics? What, for example, can the Postmodernists say to genuine Nazis to dissuade them from their beliefs?

(2) it cannot evade the issue that we live in a mind-independent world with a high degree of regularity and consistency, and that language can refer to and represent that reality. If language can represent reality, then it is but a short step to the correspondence theory of truth and objective empirical truths.
Let us start with (1).

If Postmodernist truth relativism and cultural relativism were taken seriously, then it follows that all the “truths” of official Nazi culture – racism, authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and German racial supremacism – were valid within Nazi culture and Nazi culture was equal to all other cultures (for that is the clear consequence of believing that all cultures are equal).

On what grounds, then, do Postmodernists object to the ideas of Nazi culture? How would they argue against it? They cannot, for example, argue that the Nazi belief that certain races are genetically inferior to other races is objectively false, for the unhinged Postmodernist core belief is that there are no objective truths (and that includes no objective empirical truths in science).

Even worse, the Postmodernist associated belief is that all cultures are equal and of equal value. So, once one beleives that, it is not possible to object to Nazi culture on moral and aesthetic grounds (especially when moral relativism is also a tenet of Postmodernism!).

Now let’s move to point (2). The analytic philosopher John Searle gives a powerful argument for this:
“The problem that all these guys [namely, postmodernists and poststructuralists] have is that once you give me that first premise—that there is a reality that exists totally independently of us—then the other steps follow naturally. Step 1, external realism: You’ve got a real world that exists independently of human beings. And step 2: Words in the language can be used to refer to objects and states of affairs in that external reality. And then step 3: If 1 and 2 are right, then some organization of those words can state objective truth about that reality. Step 4 is we can have knowledge, objective knowledge, of that truth. At some point they have to resist that derivation, because then you’ve got this objectivity of knowledge and truth on which the Enlightenment vision rests, and that’s what they want to reject.”
Postrel, Steven R. and Edward Feser. 2000. “Reality Principles: An Interview with John R. Searle,” Reason (February)
As Searle points out, once we admit that there is an ordered reality independent of our thoughts about it, and that we can use language consistently to refer to objects and processes in that reality, then the other steps follow.

Many of our words, and the concepts they represent, can and do refer to objective things in reality, and clearly many concepts we have (signified by words or sounds) are constrained, limited and defined by reality. For example, the modern English word “zebra,” as understood by competent speakers of English, cannot simply refer to hedgehogs: the concept signified by the word “zebra” really is constrained by mind-independent things we see in reality.

Or, as some analytic philosophers would say, language can be isomorphic to thought (including concepts and ideas), and in turn language can indirectly correspond and refer to reality (Schwartz 2012: 182), as is also argued by modern linguists and in the discipline of evolutionary epistemology. Objective truth follows from the way language can describe or picture reality. This leads us directly to the most convincing theory of truth: the correspondence theory.

And once we recognise the reality of objective empirical truths, we have a basis by which rational human beings can resolve their differences, settle disputes, correct errors and, above all, rationally deal with political, social, cultural and economic disagreements.

By contrast, Postmodernists have no such strategy – all they have is truth relativism and cultural relativism, utterly intellectually bankrupt concepts.

Schwartz, Stephen P. 2012. A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to Rawls. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK.


  1. Most of the postmodernists I talk to even deny the first step in your argumentation that there exists a reality independent of our thoughts.
    This rejection always reminds me of of some geocentric world view. Postmodernists don't want to give up the believe that humans are the center of the universe and humans themselves create what they perceive as "the reality". It is a rational response that can be explained easily. As the church they defended their beleives in the 16th century the Postemodernists do today.

  2. Searle's arguments are wrong for several obvious reasons. His step 2: "Words in the language can be used to refer to objects and states of affairs in that external reality" overlooks the fact that language usage is culturally (and even individually) relative. And even if language was NOT culturally relative, the usage begs the question of accuracy, which can hardly ever be quantified except in a few types of measurement. For example, you may say there is one zebra here and your number may be correct, but your judgement that something is a zebra relies on a cultural classification which may or may not include horses with painted stripes, statues, ancestral zebras without stripes, albino zebras without stripes, zebra gametes, etc.

    For a statement in a language to convey meaning (let alone truth) there must be overlap between speaker and listener subjective ideas of the meanings. The greater the overlap, the more accurate the conveyance: but what accuracy makes "truth"? Thus, intersubjectivity.

    1. "that language usage is culturally (and even individually) relative"

      You mean people use different sounds to represent the same concept or refer to a particular object? (e.g., "moon" in English and "lune" in French?).

      That is true, but doesn't remotely refute anything I said, for nowhere did I say humans have to use the same sounds to refer to particular objects.

    2. You misunderstand me. Using the same word with the same sound, two people can have very different ideas of the meaning. If you consider each person's idea of the meaning a set (of real things such as zebras), you could draw a Venn diagram of how they do and don't overlap.

    3. Yet again that some people MIGHT have a different understanding of the same word does not refute what I said: that words can and do refer to objects in reality.

      That "two people can have very different ideas of the meaning" of a word doesn't change the fact that millions more do have the same ideas. If they did not, human communication would constantly fail and be impossible.

      Unless you think words can never under any circumstances refer to objects we see, then my argument is sound. If you were to line up a cat, a dog, a cow, camel and a monkey, and asked 1 million or 10 million competent speakers of English to pick out the cat, how many do you think would be incapable of doing so? All of them? Most of them?

      But it is obvious that most would be able to. If words cannot even in principle refer to objects, this would never happen.

    4. You seem to think that by creating an example based on a uniform culture of competent English speakers that you are providing a counterexample to the claim that the meaning is culturally determined?

      Evidently you are unaware of anthropological studies of color classification where different cultures group colors differently.

      That within a culture, people can agree very closely about meanings is hardly in dispute: but that doesn't make usage of their culturally relative meanings "true" because true implies 100% accuracy. In case you've forgotten, the scientific "truth" of a measure includes a statement of its accuracy: more like honesty than truth. The same principle applies to language use. Just because you can make an example with high accuracy doesn't make it "true": you are simply ignoring the infrequent cases where it is not true. So, to modify your example slightly, if I substituted a hairless Sphinx cat, many English speakers might not recognize it as a cat. Their internal ideas of what cat means may require a furry appearance, or they may be based on some different knowledge which doesn't come from having learned from the same Dick and Jane primer about the cat Puff.

    5. (1) the original issue was (apparently) that you dispute that words can refer to objects. Do you think that words can never refer to, or pick out, objects we experience?

      (2) That the meaning of words is "culturally determined" or shaped by the centuries of usage and linguistic custom within a specific culture/language community does not refute my assertion that words can refer to objects.

      "but that doesn't make usage of their culturally relative meanings "true" because true implies 100% accuracy.

      On the contrary, analytic truth is necessary truth in virtue of the meaning of words consistently used by competent community of language speakers. E.g., "all bachelors are unmarried". This is elementary philosophy.

      The truth of empirical (synthetic a posteriori) propositions is indeed probabilistic, but yet again this does not refute my assertion that words can refer to objects we experience.

    6. "On the contrary, analytic truth is necessary truth in virtue of the meaning of words consistently used by competent community of language speakers. E.g., "all bachelors are unmarried". This is elementary philosophy."

      Not if you assume "bachelor" to refer to someone who has been awarded a bachelor's degree. So even this 'analytic' proposition is not completely independent of its context.


    7. Mike Huben: "Evidently you are unaware of anthropological studies of color classification where different cultures group colors differently."

      Or perhaps you are unaware that colors are not objects. LK was talking about objects. As were you when you used the words "you" and "studies"in the sentence I quoted.

    8. LK: You seem to think that real-world objects are discrete and indivisible. Whereas I view objects as having fuzzy (to our senses) boundaries and many aspects.

      Take cats, for example. They literally have fuzzy boundaries, and we need to ask at what point of shedding a hair is no longer part of the cat. And let's not ask what parts of the microbiome are cat and which not. Not to mention that cats are many different things to many people. And is it still a cat when it is dead and stuffed?

      Words have meaning ONLY in a context of internal models, which vary between cultures and people. Two people can refer to the same object, a cat, meaning entirely different things: a pet or lunch. So we really can't say we are referring to the same thing meaningfully when there are two different ideas.

      Ken B: Colors can be considered "states of affairs". Words don't have to refer to objects.

    9. What a comment Michael. You deny words refer to objects. I catch you using a wotd to refer to an object. You reply that words can refer to non objects too, like that is a rebuttal!

  3. You sound more like me all the time LK. Watch out though, they might not like you over at Murphy's!

    You reject the main pillars of the modern Left: Pomo, Marxism, identity politics. You admit that only a capitalist economy works, you just aren't laissez faire, and just don't buy the markets-are-perfect theory. Again, just like me. Isn't it time to consider you might not be a Leftist at all? Maybe you belong with me, on the militant center-right.

    1. I'm with you there, more or less...

      However, you forgot the fourth pillar Ken B: political correctness.

    2. Well, Ken B, I don't see any evidence that centre rightists endorse Post Keynesian economics. At best, they seem to be advocates of "austerity with a human face". This is unacceptable to me.

      Regarding the worst elements of the left, I think they are, fortunately, dying a slow death. Postmodernism, I think, had has its day. Marxism is a fringe movement. I'd rather see a reformed left.

    3. Maybe this is the reformed Left, the best you can hope for. Its been this way for a generation.

    4. Possibly, it is. Or possibly not.

      Of course there is a long history of disillusioned left wing people turning to the right and founding their own brand of conservatism, e.g., the American Neoconservatives, the French "New Philosophers", possibly Christopher Hitchens, etc.

      If it really were the case that the left was totally bankrupt beyond repair, then I would prefer to do that with other like-minded left-wing people than join current conservative movements. They are all too neoliberal or laissez faire for me. Also, I don't like the religious conservatism that has its natural home on the right.

    5. Well I don't like the religious tinge of the existing right either. But we disagree about their natural home. It's mostly on the right now, but not ineluctably so. And it's not as uniform as you suggest. The accommodate sharia crowd is almost entirely left wing. I doubt you have much truck with them.

      I'm a lot more laissez than you are are certainly, but I think the Murphy-Caplan folks are nuts. I do think Landsburg has the right general approach: if you want a welfare state (and I do), then give people money and let them benefit from markets. I think we need *more* markets not fewer (I'd like a legal market in almost all drugs for example) but I don't swallow the "anything a market does is good" ideology. There is need for anti-trust, welfare state, safety regs, dealing with externalities (pollution) etc. What I object to is a dirigiste nanny state.

    6. PS You need a trigger warning on this post.

  4. LK,

    Off topic:

    Do you have any posts comparing economic growth rates in the 19th and 20th centuries?


  5. I very much suggest to your attention a polemic between Searle and Derrida (that didn't last very long) found here

    Just for the record, I think the way Searle thinks about truth is misconcieved (and there have been many philosophers working in the analytic tradition who have thought that concept of truth to be problematic, including its founding father, Ludwig Wittgenstein (see his paragraph on "what is meant by 'Moses' " in Philosophical Investigations or the notorious paragraph on Gödel in the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, for instance) Quine (indeterminacy of translation) or Sellars (the myth of the given).


  6. Hi Lk.

    "There is no such thing as objective truth; all 'truths" are culturally "relative".

    Some "truths" don't appear to be culturally relative. E.g. Newton's laws of motion (when objects are traveling at speeds much lower than the speed of light) can be verified by undertaking experiments, no matter where on earth you live, or what a culture one lives in.

    John Arthur