Relativism, Logic & Philosophy

29 07 2009



Here’s a brain workout for a change.

I recently came across this thought-provoking paragraph, while browsing a notebook I had scribbled thoughts in some years ago:

If relativism is true, then the thesis of relativism itself must be only relatively true. Because it would be self-contradictory to say that relativism is true in an absolute sense. But while you could affirm that relativism is true in a relative sense, to say that relativism is only relatively true has no general force. In order for the thesis to have general force it should include itself and should be presumed to be absolutely true. But that, again, would be contradictory.

Look at it in another way:

John might say, “There is no absolute truth”.
Mary replies, “Are you absolutely sure about that, John?”
John: “Of course! Absolutely!”
Mary: “But you can’t make a statement like that, because you just said that nothing is absolutely true / you cannot be absolutely certain about anything”
John: “Oh…….. Hmmm… *thinks hard*!”

GK Chesterton, once named by Time magazine as “one of the most influential English writers of the 20th century”, had this to say – you have to concede that he makes an interesting point:  

‘But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it.

Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the dignity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Western girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time.

A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a silly trinket, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that silly trinket. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts.

In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men.

Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything, he has lost his right to rebel against anything.’

 (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1909)

What do you think?





One response

30 07 2009

Relativism is too vague a concept to allow actual analysis, it is not an idea in itself, as much as a generalization of ideas. To really prove your point you need to focus on a specific school of thought. Here’s a comment of mine on post-structuralism I posted on youtube some time ago, which I think sums up the question of whether its relativism is self-contradictory quite well:
“Post-structuralism? rejects the possibility of using principles to extract meaning since each and every one of us is defined by these very principles and is thus not able to be objective. It doesn’t however reject our ability to discern the principles. The structure is there for everyone to see, it is its interpretation that is subjective, so post-structuralism is not self-contradictory, it’s not a void.”

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