, , , ,

In last week’s post I began responding to my friend Momin Malik, who had defended relativism against ideas of universal truth. Momin had argued for relativism based on the need for internal understanding: we need to understand others in terms that make sense to them. I agreed with this – noting that every universalism needs a theory of error, and one which understands others in those kinds of internal terms is the best one.

Momin responded that this was not possible: “An internalist theory of error would require the universalist to give credence to the internal dynamics of another system, which would violate its universalism.” But I don’t think this follows. One can understand the internal dynamics of another system well enough to see how it turns out to be unsatisfactory on its own terms. It is possible to supersede: to understand how a system makes sense on its own terms, and more – to find the incompletenesses in that system, the ways it needs to be transcended. This is MacIntyre’s point, as I discussed last time.

I consider myself a Hegelian because I believe, with Hegel, that one can go a step further than MacIntyre: one best develops a philosophy by trying as best one can to consider all competing accounts from within, and arrive at a position that supersedes – transcends and includes – them all. Unlike Hegel I would probably add “tentatively” and “one hopes” in here. As finite and non-omniscient human beings we always have the possibility of being wrong, of having missed something. But if we want to have a chance of discovering the truth, we need to try. I came at this position from another angle in discussing blind men and elephants two weeks ago. It is this sort of position, I think – whether Hegel’s more confident view, or my more cautious one – that combines a universalist theory of truth with an internalist theory of error.

Momin refers to such a position jokingly as the “Power Rangers theory of truth”: “that multiple perspectives have something to offer, and only when they combine do we achieve ultimate power (or truth, as the case may be).” (In describing it thus, Momin reveals himself to be younger than I am. Were he my age, he would have called it the Constructicon theory of truth.) He responds to it as follows:

Finding truth by distilling multiple perspectives is, I think, just another one of those multiple perspectives and hence would itself need to be distilled. If that makes sense. Or, put differently, it’s impossible to escape the trap of being perspective-dependent, and hence, impossible to achieve universal truth. After all, universal truth would need to be accepted by every internal perspective in order to truly be universal, and that’s never going to happen.

The problem with this approach is that it sets up a dichotomy between perspective and universal – and one which, again, rests on the assumption that universality implies neutrality. It leaves out the possibility of a universal perspective – a perspective that sees the truth in what all the others see. I grant that in practice we may not be able to reach such a perspective, as non-omniscient beings with finite lifespans. But it seems to me that ultimately such a perspective is the goal of cross-cultural inquiry, even if our reach always exceeds our grasp. It is not internally contradictory.

Recall that Momin’s argument for relativism rested on understanding other cultures, making sense of them internally. It seems to me that this making sense itself requires the ability to argue and judge rationally – and, above all, to do so across traditions and perspectives. If we are really making sense of a radically different perspective, we are not just seeing it in its own terms. We cannot, because we are always still ourselves; its own terms must be filtered through ours. If it remains radically other, we have not understood it. This is why Gadamer famously argues that understanding requires a “fusion of horizons”: to understand what another’s horizon means in its own terms requires that we translate it into ours. And that means that the reasoning in each alternative tradition must be made commensurable: they can no longer stand as separate worlds that will not meet, but are now placed open to argument and even refutation by the other. If we really understand the alternative position, we are allowing the possibility that it is right and we are wrong.

Now this understanding could be one-sided: it is not necessarily the case that anyone who holds the position will understand ours. This is why, as Momin has noted, no position is ever going to be accepted by everyone. But this – to be accepted by everyone – does not seem a legitimate criterion for universality. A universal truth is one that everyone should accept – should accept, that is, given appropriate reasoning from their own premises and assumptions. It is not one that everyone in fact does accept. I know of no universalists who have tried to claim the latter. Universal truth has few defenders more stalwart and classic than Plato; but even in Plato’s own defence of universal truth in the Republic, the relativist Thrasymachus never agrees to Plato’s view. Thrasymachus has lost the argument, but he simply refuses to accept the consequences; he has agreed to all the premises but not to the logically entailed conclusion that Socrates puts forward. And so he now stands outside of reason. With someone who refuses to listen to reason entirely, Plato’s approach is not to offer further argument but simply to show how repugnant such a position is to just about all of his listeners, a position where the strong rule the weak. The argument turns, in other words, to performative dimensions, and is now aimed at those other than Thrasymachus who will still accept some sort of reason. The key point here: Thrasymachus’s lack of assent to the position does not detract from its universality – assuming, as Plato does, that Thrasymachus has in fact lost the argument. Effectively, Thrasymachus knows he’s wrong, he just won’t admit it. But that lack of acceptance does not detract from the claimed universality of the philosophy.

Not everybody gets to the point that Thrasymachus does, of course. Most people go to their graves convinced in varying degrees of the rightness of their own view, different from everyone else’s. But this is also not a point against universality. Any truly universal truth is going to be so nuanced and subtle that getting to it is going to be the result of long and difficult arguments, for which most people do not have the patience. Such a truth will require, in other words, that one understand it, in the Gadamerian sense described above, and such understanding requires more time and effort than most people are willing to put in. But a lack of understanding doesn’t make that truth any less true. The claim of universal truth is that, if people had both the time, energy and patience to follow the arguments where they lead (which most do not) and the intellectual honesty to accept the conclusions of the arguments (which many, like Thrasymachus, do not), then they would accept the truth and its universality. That most people lack either of these qualifications says nothing about universal truth.