Relativism and Postmodernism

The self-identified postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty asserts: “Relativism is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good.The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” (Consequences of Pragmatism [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982], 166.) Elsewhere he describes relativism as “self-refuting.” (“Solidarity or Objectivity,” in The Rorty Reader, ed. Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein [Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010], 229.)

Similarly, literary critic (reader-response) Stanley Fish asserts: “While relativism is a position one can entertain, it is not a position one can occupy. No one can be a relativist because no one can achieve the distance from his own beliefs and assumptions which would result in their being no more authoritative for him than the beliefs and assumptions of others, or, for that matter, the beliefs and assumptions he used to hold.” (“Is There a Text in This Class?” in Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980], 319.)

Alister McGrath states this about postmodernism “Reason is to be seen as a contextual and relative affair, defined in relation to the prevailing narratives and power structures of a society or institution.” Although he says reason is a relative affair, I do not think he is intentionally drawing a parallel between postmodernism and relativism. I think the charge that postmodernists are relative persists, because both points of view challenge the idea of having a black and white, right and wrong view of everything in existence. Postmodernism challenges the idea that human reason is absolute and universal, and challenges the weight of metanarratives. That does not automatically translate to every idea is as good as the next one. Richard Rorty states “Relativism is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” Given that he is a self-identified postmodern philosopher, I think this supports my point. Even though postmodernism challenges the idea that human reason is absolute and universal, it does not make any sense for every belief to be as good as every other. If that were true, there would not be a point in believing anything; and everything would seem pointless. Yes, postmodernism supports the idea that beliefs can be contextualized and relative, but that is not the same thing as every belief being as good as every other. Furthermore, taking the position that “every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other” is an absolute itself. Therefore, Rorty says the view is “self-refuting and is an impossible position to hold.” On top of that, it would still separate relativism from postmodernism because postmodernism is opposed to the idea of any absolutes.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s