Saturday, October 06, 2012

Allan Bloom, the Irrationality of Cultural Relativism, & the Opportunity of Philosophic Ascent

Weed, in my backyard

To think in terms of cultural relativism is a logical fallacy, an error in reasoning. Logically speaking, cultural relativism (along with its little brother subjective relativism) is irrational.

Using Lewis Vaughn's The Power of Critical Thinking as our text, when we come to that place in Chapter 2 that explains and then dismisses relativistic thinking as illogical and a hindrance to critical thinking, my students struggle. Sometimes a head shakes in disagreement, or a face expresses unbelief and even disdain. I tell them that, even though Vaughn is an atheist and I am a theist, we agree on the nature of logic (I chose Vaughn's critical thinking text for my MCCC Logic classes).

Truth is not subjective or culturally relative, but objective. Consider the statement The lights in this room are on. That statement, if true, is objective; that is, it is true for everyone; that is, the state of affairs the statement refers to obtains. While it may be difficult to ascertain the truth of a statement, that statement's truth or falsity is true for everyone.

But isn't it true that one person's truth can be "for them" but not for me? For example, Linda likes pepsi better than coke. That statement, with 'Linda' referring to my wife Linda, is true. For everybody. That is, it's truth is objective. Even if John likes coke better than pepsi.

Here's an example where cultural relativism doesn't cut it. Hindus believe there are 330,000,000 gods. Let's say, for the sake of example, that this statement is true. (It may not be - see here, for example.) That statement, if true, is true for everyone past, present, and future, independently of whatever culture people come from. If it is true, its truth is objective. Which would mean atheists and theists are wrong. The atheist truth claim is: No gods exist. If that is true than Hindus and theists are wrong. The theist claim is: God exists. So I, as a theist, believe Hindus and atheists are wrong.

Such is the nature of objective truth. If a statement is true it is true for everyone. This is the sort of thing Western scientists are after. The scientist's claim that Drug X cures disease Y, if true, applies to everyone. Scientists are not Postmodernists.

We are now, epistemically, swimming in the irrational waters of subjective and cultural relativism. It is the air people breathe. I see it in my students. These relativistic waters were spotted in 1987 by University of Chicago political philosopher Allan Bloom. Bloom's rock-star selling book The Closing of the American Mind became the book everyone bought, hardly anyone read, except for scholars who were rocked by it. I bought it, read it, and thought: Yes. I'm reminded of it today in an article I just read by U. of Notre Dame's Patrick Deneen -  Who Closed the American Mind? Bloom, says Deneen, was right about relativism, but didn't realize how bad it would get.

Deneen writes:

"Bloom made an altogether different argument: American youth were increasingly raised to believe that nothing was True, that every belief was merely the expression of an opinion or preference. Americans were raised to be “cultural relativists,” with a default attitude of non-judgmentalism. Not only all other traditions but even one’s own (whatever that might be) were simply views that happened to be held by some people and could not be judged inferior or superior to any other. He bemoaned particularly the decline of household and community religious upbringing in which the worldviews of children were shaped by a comprehensive vision of the good and the true. In one arresting passage, he waxed nostalgic for the days when people cared: “It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholic and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another; but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously…”

He lamented the decline of such true belief not because he personally held any religious or cultural tradition to be true—while Bloom was raised as a Jew, he was at least a skeptic, if not a committed atheist—but because he believed that such inherited belief was the source from which a deeper and more profound philosophic longing arose. It wasn’t “cultural literacy” he wanted, but rather the possibility of that liberating excitement among college-age youth that can come from realizing that one’s own inherited tradition might not be true. From that harrowing of belief can come the ultimate philosophic quest—the effort to replace mere prejudice with the quest for knowledge of the True."

I love that! I'm trying to get my students to critically evaluate their belief systems, and introduce them to "the quest for knowledge of the True."

Bloom "was above all concerned that students, in being deprived of the experience of living in their own version of Plato’s cave, would never know or experience the opportunity of philosophic ascent."

Today, writes Deneen, we live in an age of indifference, something Bloom predicted and feared. "Institutions of higher learning have almost completely abandoned even a residual belief that there are some books and authors that an educated person should encounter...  Academia is committed to teaching “critical thinking” and willing to allow nearly any avenue in the training of that amorphous activity, but eschews any belief that the content of what is taught will or ought to influence how a person lives."

"Today, in the name of choice, non-judgmentalism, and toleration, institutions prefer to offer the greatest possible expanse of options, in the implicit belief that every 18- to 22-year-old can responsibly fashion his or her own character unaided."

After 14 years of teaching philosophy at our county community college, I have found that students, overwhelmingly so, are captivated by the idea that there is such a thing as truth that is objective. I've had many express their confusion over this new idea, and their concomitant interest in it. To me, that's a good sign. There's a ember glowing in Plato's cave.