The Relativistic Predicament

Carl H. Flygt

November 2007


In “Relativism, Power and Philosophy,” Alasdair MacIntyre describes the “relativistic predicament” of someone caught in a boundary situation between two rival language communities and compelled to choose between their competing claims. This boundary situation might arise, for example, for a Zuni village dweller confronted by the cultural hegemony of the Spanish conquistadores, or by an Irish plantation dweller of 1700 confronted by English customs and manners. The situation is a predicament for these native dwellers because in being forced to choose between competing cultures, the individual is forced to give up the non-relativistic interpretation of “is true,” and “is justified” in favor of “is true or justified for X,” where X is one of the two relevant competitors, and in so doing is forced to separate himself (herself) from any community at all. Truth, it would appear, is necessary for anyone seeking the wholeness of life.


MacIntyre’s target here, I think, is people like us. Ultimately he wants us to recognize ourselves as these boundary dwellers, forced into both relativism and homelessness, by the wisdom of our intellectual tradition and the sophistication of our political institutions. Both of these, after all, have allowed us to recognize and to understand the truth in relativism.  Moreover, he wants us eventually to outgrow relativism, to transcend it, but not without first having learned from it how to reduce “is true” to “seems true to us,” in the manner or Rorty, or how the very idea of a conceptual scheme, and the framework for interpreting it, is incoherent, in the manner of Davidson. He wants us to explore the force of the sociological imagination, and to understand what types of social and institutional circumstance generate philosophical problems, and in the end perhaps to see philosophical and sociological problems together, as aspects of the same puzzlement. With a proper sociology, we may perhaps remedy our ontological homelessness.


Are we not untranslatable, partially, to one another, we who inhabit the same culture and the same social milieu? Are not we who pass one another in the market or the café, who transact business together or who sit with one another in conversation without the power, or the interest, to extrapolate from the uses of certain expressions to the “making and understanding of new and newly illuminating uses?” Are we not forced to accept a relativism even among ourselves when we discuss the politics of a large social entity, or the real and abiding religious propensities of one another, or of ourselves? Are we not profoundly limited and homeless in a spiritual sense, we sophisticated beneficiaries of rationality and liberalism, we practitioners of science and free-thinking? Are there not systematic ontological and sociological causes for this absence of truth in our self-expression and trust in one another?


The necessary first step out of the relativistic predicament is to learn a new and altogether remarkable language, a language unallied with the power to extrapolate myth, to produce exemplary images and idioms, to elaborate concepts in terms of recognized canon. Further, and in addition, the language would necessarily have the resources accurately to represent the conceptual schemes of those forced into relativism. It would substitute for the Fregean names relying essentially on sense, the rigid and absolute designation of the Kripkean name, and instead of Doir Comcille as a name for Derry, for example, a set of global positioning coordinates adequate to identify any area in the township without any possibility of misunderstanding. It would, moreover, eliminate from its lexicon any common, canonical texts to which literary reference might be made, thereby divorcing literature from the language. The new language would represent a sort of wholesale book burning, or at least a book abandonment, a system of thought and self-expression entirely neutral between possible competing systems of belief.


How do we get the new language? I believe the new language can be acquired by looking systematically at conversation, because it is in conversation, and only in conversation, that one sees both ontological impulses and sociological causes together in the same place. To examine conversation systematically will require a new sort of investigator, a new sort of attitude and spirit of inquiry, one perhaps that will need to be cultivated in the young, but that seems a small price to pay for something so momentous. To examine conversation, we will need individuals willing and able themselves to be the subjects of their own inquiries; we will need people willing to experiment both with themselves, with their ontological impulses and with their social conditions. People like this do in fact exist (they are generally called spiritual seekers), and they can be procured, should the political, institutional and philosophical will to do so materialize. Before doing so, of course, a certain groundwork will need to be laid, but with writers like MacIntyre available and on record, and with people turned to the problem of conversation, it seems not impossible that this groundwork could be laid in a few short years.