Relativism: The Denial of Common Sense
By Jake Magee
This article is an analysis of a typical argument for relativism
offered by relativist Paul Feyerabend. My thesis is that if relativism is
adopted for the reason usually given (as represented in a sophisticated form
by Feyerabend), then one must abandon a belief we all know to be true.
In the book entitled "Science in a Free Society,"
Paul Feyerabend argues that value statements are relative to the particular
tradition in which they are uttered (23). This position has a striking analogue
in relativity theory, which states that there is no objective standard by which
to judge the length of an object. Invariably, our measurements of length are
confined to the frame of reference in which we operate, there being many frames
of reference. In a similar way, we can never step outside of our tradition so
as to make an authoritative evaluation of other traditions. All our evaluations
are bound to the position from which we are operating.
It is my contention that the problems raised by Feyerabend about traditions
are of the same kind as those raised in the history of philosophy about perception.
As to the latter, some have argued that there is a veil of perception that we
cannot transcend. As to the former, Feyerabend argues that there is a veil of
tradition which we equally cannot transcend. I want to suggest that if Feyerabend
wants to take a radical position with the veil of tradition, then in principle
there is nothing preventing him from taking a radical view of the latter. However,
since something is amiss with taking a radical view with perception, so likewise
there is something amiss with adopting Feyerabend's view of tradition.
Feyerabend's relativism springs forth from these two theses: (1) "Traditions
are neither good nor bad, they simply are" (27). (2) "A tradition
assumes desirable or undesirable properties only when compared with some tradition"
(27). By "tradition," I think that he means the set of implicit and
explicit beliefs, which being inextricably woven into one's cultural context,
makes one's world view definitive and distinctive from others. With this definition
in mind, Feyerabend believes that (1) is true because two conditions for its
falsehood have not been met: For any tradition to be good or bad, then (a) it
must be the case that we are able to distinguish between traditions and a domain
that serves as the standard. Furthermore, (b) we must be able to view that domain
so as to make the comparison between this domain and the various existing traditions
(20). But since we can do neither, traditions are neither good nor bad. If Feyerabend's
assessment is correct, (2) seems to follow.
Because I take thesis (2) to follow from (1), I will restrict my analysis to
(1). As we have seen, (1) states that traditions are neither good nor bad. This
is the case because two conditions have not been met. What is Feyerabend's argument
that these conditions have not been met? From what I can see, there is one main
argument that he seeks to support from considerations of history and psychology.
The argument is this:
There are statements which are labeled "objective," but only make
sense within a tradition (23). For example, as an American I view currency in
a way that is different and irreconcilable with residents of other countries.
How I view currency seems "objective" to me, but this is due to the
fact that I'm operating within a particular tradition. There is nothing outside
of all nations by which to arbitrate matters of currency. Likewise, all value
judgments are like those made about currency. There are as many different and
irreconcilable ways of viewing 'objective values' as there are ways of viewing
the value of money. I might label the tradition of some Islamic countries as
being "bad," given their treatment of women. Feyerabend contends that
such a statement is made from another tradition (i.e. the American tradition).
Further, he contends that I cannot step aside from the American tradition to
compare both traditions to some tradition-independent standard. To insist that
there is some objective view point from which to view values is as absurd as
insisting that there be some standard of currency that exists independently
from any particular country. As such, the most that I can be justified in saying
is that "I don't prefer the Islamic tradition."
As the argument stands in page 23, the structure is analogical: he argues from
one kind of statements to statements about traditions. If this analogy is to
be persuasive, then Feyerabend must hold with regards to thesis (1) that there
is no ultimate structure to reality. It's not that we are unable to step outside
of our tradition to view some tradition-independent structure, but there is
nothing outside. If there is something outside, then the declaration that "there
are many statements that are uttered as being 'objective,' but are meant to
be understood with the tradition," would imply that there are some statements
that could be understood outside of a tradition, and thus fulfill the conditions
he laid out for objectivity. If this is his position, then his argument from
analogy is good insofar as value statements are more like tradition-dependent
statements than tradition-independent statements. But even if all of our statements
are shown to be bound to a tradition, someone might argue that traditions are
good or bad, just that we can't know whether they are. To avoid the charge of
committing the genetic fallacy, Feyerabend will have to say that there is no
But, if Feyerabend doesn't permit an ultimate structure to reality, then his
argument isn't really analogical. In this case, he isn't arguing that since
tradition-dependent statements have properties A, B, C, and D, and statement
S has properties A, B, and C, therefore S has property D (where D refers to
tradition dependency). Rather, he would be arguing deductively that since all
statements are tradition-dependent, and S is a statement, therefore S is tradition-dependent.
As I will show later, it looks as if this tactic lands him in question begging.
To support the contention that value statements are tradition-dependent, Feyerabend
appeals to psychological and historical considerations. As to the first, Feyerabend
maintains that we are psychologically disposed to elevate our particular tradition
to an "objective" status. This is partly due to the shocking alternative
that our tradition "is just one of many ways of arranging life" (80).
Since exclusivity and existential import is often built into people's traditions,
most are unable to see that their traditions are temporary makeshifts (19).
Moreover, people fail to see that their evaluations involve the projection of
their traditions upon others. These projections seem objective because the subject
and tradition isn't obvious. However, these projections are subjective because
the oversight is due to their unwillingness to step outside of role of participant
As to the historical support, Feyerabend argues that the historical context
of a doctrine is more important than the rationality that lies behind it. Our
beliefs in certain tenets may be rooted in a particular standard, however standards
change given certain socio-historical circumstances (18). Feyerabend seems to
go further by saying that the idea that there is some ultimate structure of
reality beyond our traditions is itself a tradition arising out of a particular
milieu. In reference to realism, he invites us to do the following: "let
us examine what circumstances, assumptions, procedures-what features of the
historical process are responsible for it! (20). After detailing the history
of realism, he concludes that the distinction between reason and tradition is
not one of kind (22). This conclusion is buttressed by the psychological considerations
To sum up, Feyerabend argues that traditions are neither good nor bad because
(a) we are unable to distinguish our tradition from an objective domain that
provides the standards, and (b) we are unable to step outside of our tradition
to view trans-traditional standards. Both (a) and (b) are supported by psychology
It is my contention that even while granting premise (b), Feyerabend's conclusion
could be false. To make this point it is necessary to state the principle underlying
Feyerabend's conception of (b). The principle seems to be this: If all our knowledge
of x comes only by a particular medium, so that we cannot conceive of x apart
from that medium, then x must be or at least share something essential with
the medium by which it is known. I assert that there is area in which this underlying
principle seems false and yet (b) is true. Put differently, there is a case
in which it seems correct to label something good or bad (where the terms 'good'
and 'bad' designate referential success), even though one is unable to step
outside of the very thing through which one makes the evaluation of things outside.
If true, this would implicate the principle fueling Feyerabend's relativism.
Taking perception as an example, I offer two similarities that it bears with
Feyerabend's idea of traditions:
1. Perception is similar to traditions in that it filters
and processes phenomena or data. For example, sight and the objects in the
external world are mediated by a rich and astonishingly complex process.
2. Perception is similar to traditions in that one is unable to step outside
of perception to experience the world "outside." No matter how
hard I try to imagine what such an experience would be like, I find that
all my imaginations are constructed out of past perceptions. Note, that
even though (1) and (2) are obvious, there is something equally obvious
3. Perception can be good or bad. It seems like one can make an evaluation
about perception without having to transcend perception. To illustrate (3),
let's say that Billy sees an oar in the water that looks bent. He might
conclude that the oar is really bent. Or, after running his hand from the
top of the oar to the bottom, he might conclude that it is really straight.
Now, he doesn't conclude from his inability to transcend the medium of perception
that he cannot legitimately make an evaluation that has implications for
the perception-independent world. If Billy adopts Feyerabend's method, he
might insist that there is an incommensurability of perceptions (i.e. sight
versus touch). But this seems extreme. Nor does he jettison the notion that
there is some "fact" of the external world to which his perceptions
are approximations. But if Billy adopts Feyerabend's method, he might abandon
the notion of there being an external world beyond his senses. Since this
would be extreme, so Feyerabend's position about traditions looks equally
extreme. If my evaluation is correct, then the conclusion that "traditions
are neither good or bad" clearly doesn't follow from Feyerabend's premises.
Feyerabend might reply that though there are striking parallels
between the veil of tradition and perception, there is a fundamental disanalogy.
In the case of perception, the medium through which something like sight is
translated is inherently impersonal. That is, there is no subjective element
involved in the various physiological processes undergirding the translation
of photonic stimulation to visual experience. In the case of a person's cognitive
capacities, however, they involve by their very nature certain psychological
dispositions that confine a subject to their stance as a participant in one's
tradition. Thus, by the nature of the process, the subject can never be tradition-independent.
First of all, this objection would depend on the unnecessary interpretation
of the psychological and historical considerations mentioned heretofore. All
that Feyerabend has shown by these considerations is that there is a subjective
element involved in a person's evaluation, not that a person's evaluation is
thoroughly dominated by the subjective. To support the strong interpretation,
Feyerabend needs to provide an explanation of our psychology that cannot be
explained by the realist. As it stands now, his evidence isn't detrimental to
the realist's position.
Secondly, this objection depends upon the premise that there is no ultimate
structure to reality. Yet, in this he would have begged the question. If there
is no ultimate structure, then Feyerabend hasn't provided sufficient argumentation
for this position. The only evidence that he has given so far for the position
is that this very idea has a history and is attractive because of our psychological
status. Yet, the realist could simply say that Feyerabend has committed the
genetic fallacy. It still may be the case that a particular traditions is good
even though we are not justified in our assertion that it is. To avoid the genetic
fallacy, he must have already presupposed that there is no standard that is
Lastly, the alleged disanalogy actually supports my position. The fact that
the psychological mechanisms (by which I come to believe any proposition) are
inherently subjective doesn't guarantee the conclusion that my evaluations are
purely subjective. In the case of perception, the medium through which something
like sight is translated is inherently perceptual. This doesn't justify the
position that "to be is to be perceived."
To conclude, I have argued that Feyerabend's relativism is similar to the skeptical
positions people have taken about sense-perception. To the extent that we find
skepticism about sense perception extreme and in error, so we should regard
Feyerabend, Paul. Science in a Free Society. London: Verso,