3

If my understanding is correct, Plato's theory of forms was developed to counter the relativism of Sophists such as Protagoras. His theory does not seem to have modern followers, as far as I know, yet how do modern philosophers justify the existence of "The Good" for example? Or more generally, how do they oppose relativism?

2

Most contemporary philosophers accept that relativism is self-refuting.

By "relativism," in this sense, I mean what I take Plato to being arguing against in the dialogues Theaetetus and Sophist. It is committed to two views:

  1. There are no objective truths. By "objective truth" I mean a truth which one must believe, or else be rightly considered irrational. Similarly, we could understand a truth to be objective if a being — even an alien from another planet — would agree to it, were the alien to have knowledge and understanding of the same things. The mass of a pebble is an example. You can express it in English, Spanish, Korean, or hexadecimal notation, or (maybe?) Klingon, but it all translates to the same fact, or else isn't true. Relativism denies that there are any truths like that.
  2. There are, however, local truths, says the relativist, whose truth is merely relative to the culture or other group believing them. Relativists say about these latter kinds of truths that they are "true FOR X" where X is a culture or community, or even an individual. Relativists do not therefore deny the existence of truths, but understand all truths to be relative truths with currency only among a community that believes them.

This form of relativism, which we might call "general relativism" to separate it from "moral relativism," is generally considered self-refuting, and therefore untenable. It suggests that there are no truths that hold objectively, but it insists that the claims above are objective truths.

Consider, that is, what a relativist would have to say about relativism: "Relativism is true for me but maybe not for you," in which case we have no reason to accept it. Indeed, if the relativist is right, relativism can have no sway over us, because a thing can be made true simply by being believed, and made false simply by not being believed. Or the relativist could say "Relativism is objectively true," in which case Relativism simply contradicts itself.

  • 1
    Are there serious modern formulations of relativism on the antique lines that you describe here? I'd imagine a modern strain of relativism to be more nuanced: not claiming that A believes XX is true for A, but that the truth-value depends on a network of beliefs and interpretations of personal experience, none of which can be objectively justified but which in different people may give rise to diverging opinions. For instance, they might describe your rejection of relativism itself as being due to having social consensus as a priority, which may lead you to devalue other's experiences. – Niel de Beaudrap Nov 7 '13 at 10:21
  • 1
    Isn't there are third possiblity - There are objective truths but they are not obtainable by finite creatures like humans, who are thus limited to perspectival or relative truths. One might suppose that there is a (hypothetical) infinite being who can obtain objective truths, but this being a (hypothetical) objective truth is also not obtainable by finite creatures like humans too. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 7 '13 at 16:23
  • @Mozibur Ullah. Of course! I didn't say anything about other positions. Embracing limited perspective does not mean embracing relativism, because you can believe that despite their limited perspectives, and despite their having to understand the universe through the filters of their concepts and languages and senses, people sometimes get things right, at least a a degree. See Ron Giere's Perspectival Realism for one of many, many examples of such non-relativist views. – ChristopherE Nov 7 '13 at 19:35
  • @Niel de Beaudrap, Well, among professional philosophers, generally no, as an implication of my suggestion that they almost universally reject relativism. Yes, there are various postmodernist positions similar to what you describe. I think they generally embrace a false dichotomy: (a) we can be objective and/or know objective facts, OR (b) there are no objective truths and truths we express are merely the result of cultural processes and not the world. They tend to argue for (b) by rejecting (a). But I think BOTH (a) and (b) are false. We are ignorant, but approach the world by degrees. – ChristopherE Nov 7 '13 at 19:53
  • @ChristopherE: Would anyone who seriously entertained relativism follow that line of logic, though? You simply assert the existence of objective truth: someone who didn't presume the notion of objective truth could acknowledge it as something which would seem convincing, and could be approximated through certain social practises, but which was problematic and elusive upon examination. They could even acknowledge that there are good heuristics for understanding the world, which however could not be established beyond all doubt; of which "there is no objective truth" would be one example. – Niel de Beaudrap Nov 7 '13 at 21:50
1

Badiou, a French philosopher counters the modern form of sophistry (Postmodernism and other ills) by what might be seen as a modern form of Platos forms by steering philosophy towards a philosophy rooted in mathematics - he takes his starting point the axiomatisation of it within set theory - that is ZFC.

One might say he's resurrecting a grand narrative.

Philosophy for him is a point from which three 'truth procedures' are suspended from: Love, Science & Art. (Being an avowed communist of the Maoist kind - he is rigourously atheistic, but for the religously inclined philosopher one may suppose that Religion comes under Love).

Nina Powers, a British Philosopher (a follower of Badiou) takes a more modest view of philosophy and considers it empty of content (or taking a 'Buddhistic' view - lacking its own essence), and thus by only embracing one of those three conditions can it be said to have content or substance.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.