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?