Beyond Objectivism and Relativism

The history of epistemology and society’s current views of knowledge have been and are plagued by a perennial and pervasive false dichotomy: tension between objectivism and relativism.  That is to say, people in every sphere of social life divide themselves artificially into two camps: one which believes that knowledge is foundational, unchanging, and absolute; and the other which believes that knowledge is socially constructed, changing, and contextual.

Those who align themselves with objectivism often come across as dogmatic, rigid, and formulaic.  They believe that truth exists in reality, that human knowledge directly corresponds to this truth, that the world can be comprehensively known; they believe in the system, and they want to make sure others do things the way they do.

Those who align themselves with relativism often come across as evasive, flighty, and scattered.  They believe that human knowledge is socially constructed and has no connection with any underlying truth in reality (if there is any), that this knowledge is a function of self-interested power struggles, that the world cannot be thoroughly known; they oppose or want to dismantle the system, and they want everyone to do things their own way.

Both of these descriptions evoke images of Republicans or Democrats, western doctors or eastern herbalists, religiosity or secularism, but the fact is that people don’t come packaged as either/or’s.  We have the capacity to think about the world in both it’s objectivity and its relativity.  Some aspects of reality are more or less objective, and others are more or less relative.  In order to see the world as it is, we can adjust our mode of thinking to match the type of knowledge we seek to gain.  For instance, many aspects of the natural world are objective.  Many aspects of human psychology are relative.  What is important is to employ the mode of thinking which harmonizes closest with what we’re observing and what we’re trying to accomplish – mathematical analysis may call for a more objectivist perspective and the creation of art may call for a more relativist perspective, though they each have aspects of both.  By employing both perspectives appropriately, we can transcend the polarity in thinking that leads to intractable conflict and seek a middle path which is not a political compromise, but rather attuned with the nature of reality.

Do you find it useful to think of some things more objectively and other things more relatively?  How can we protect against merely shifting our analysis when it’s convenient?  How should we hold each other to account on the one hand, and create space for unique expression, on the other?

2 replies on “Beyond Objectivism and Relativism”

While this dichotomy seems to exist in the extremes of philosophical thought, I don’t think that “people in every sphere of social life divide themselves into two camps.” Discussing this dichotomy in an Ethics course I took while a High School Senior, the general consensus of our group was that a moderate and considered incorporation of both extremes would present the proper solution to a given moral discussion. Put another way, it was safe to make a general moral assertion, but to absolutely apply this assertion into each and every context would be false.

I also find it challenging to find anyone who vehemently adheres to the opposing ideologies used as examples in the fourth paragraph. Individuals who may vote along the lines of a particular political party rarely agree with each and every position that that party takes – even politicians rarely represent the “party lines.” Many doctors who are friends or relations enthusiastically recommend herbal or dietary treatment for diseases, and many people who claim religious belief often do so on their own terms, or outside of a rigid religious sphere.

The point isn’t that “people have divided themselves,” but rather our media/society/culture offers these extreme and opposing ideas. I find no truth in the notion that people subscribe to these two extremes described above, but instead these extremes are presented by our culture as our only options. Most people already are in the center, they’re just never given a catalyst to inspire the realization that that’s where they are.

The culture of our media subsists on categorization and market segmentation, so for this reason broad boundaries are artificially created in order to more effectively “sell” to the largest and most profitable segments. But this is something inflicted upon us, not something we naturally do (or have done) ourselves.

In the end, getting beyond dichotomies inflicted upon us is simply coming to the realization that unity defies boundary and categorization, and requires that all things exist on a continuum or spectrum, not a series of poorly designated options.

Thanks, this is a thoughtful and helpful contribution, Michael! I agree, media and society tends to present these extremes as the norm, and twist our concenption of natural. Like you mentioned, both can be applied. I like your comment of “unity defies boundary and categorization, and requires that all things exist on a continuum or spectrum” – there is a lot of wisdom in that, and without a doubt, unity is one key step in transcending the many dichotomies of thought that pervade our culture.

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