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Why Should You Believe It?


Relativism has a long history in our intellectual culture, and takes several different forms, such as relativism about knowledge and truth, ethical values, aesthetic quality, and cultural norms, to mention a few. Paul Boghossian’s book concentrates on the first of these. The basic idea he opposes is that claims to objective truth and knowledge, for example the claim that hydrogen atoms have one electron, are in fact only valid relative to a set of cultural attitudes, or to some other subjective way of perceiving the world. Furthermore, according to relativism, inconsistent claims may have what he calls “equal validity.” There can be no universally valid knowledge claims.

There is a traditional refutation of relativism, as follows: The claim that all truth is relative is itself either relative or not. If it is relative then we need not accept it because it is only valid relative to somebody’s attitudes, which we may not share. If it is not relative, but absolute, then it refutes the view that all truth is relative. Either way relativism is refuted. Boghossian considers this traditional refutation and though he thinks it is serious, he does not regard it as decisive. For one thing, most relativists regard it as a kind of logical trick. They think that they are possessed of a deep insight, that all of our knowledge claims are made relative to a certain set of attitudes, cultural norms, and prejudices. This insight is not refuted by logical arguments, or so they suppose.

The currently most influential form of relativism is social constructivism, which Boghossian defines as follows: “A fact is socially constructed if and only if it is necessarily true that it could only have obtained through the contingent actions of a social group.” The social constructivist is anxious to expose construction where none had been suspected, where something that is in fact essentially social had come to masquerade as part of the natural world. Many social constructivists find it liberating because it frees us from the apparent oppression of supposing that we are forced to accept claims about the world as matters of mind-independent fact when in reality they are all socially constructed. If we do not like a fact that others have constructed, we can construct another fact that we prefer.

What do relativism and social constructivism look like in practice? Boghossian gives a number of striking examples. According to our best evidence, the Native Americans arrived on this continent from the Eurasian landmass by crossing over the Bering Strait; but according to some Native American accounts they are the descendants of the Buffalo people, and they came from inside the earth after supernatural spirits prepared this world for habitation by humans. So here are two alternative and inconsistent accounts. Some anthropologists say that one account is as good as the other. As one put it, “Science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. [The Zunis’ worldview is] just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about.” Our science constructs one reality; the Native Americans construct another. As Boghossian sees it, this is not acceptable. These two theories are logically inconsistent with each other; they cannot both be true. Is there any way to eliminate the inconsistency?

The answer, say the relativists, is to see that each claim is relative. We should say not that the early Americans came by way of the Bering Strait, but rather: “according to our theory,” they came by the Bering Strait. And “according to some Native American theories,” they came out of the earth. Once relativized, the inconsistency disappears. Indeed all claims are relativized in this way (including presumably the claim that the original claims were inconsistent and the claim that they have been relativized). Will relativism rescue social constructivism? Boghossian sees correctly that relativism fails to solve the problem, and much of his book is about this failure. I do not agree with all of his arguments but I support his overall project.

A problem faced by social constructivism concerns facts about the past. Are we now constructing facts about the past when we make claims about history? One extreme social constructivist cited by Boghossian, Bruno Latour, accepts this conclusion with somewhat comical results. Recent research shows that the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II probably died of tuberculosis. But according to Latour, this is impossible because the tuberculosis bacillus was only discovered by Robert Koch in 1882.1 “Before Koch, the bacillus had no real existence.” To say that Ramses II died of tuberculosis is as absurd as saying that he died of machine-gun fire.

What is one to make of Latour’s claim? The machine gun was invented in the late nineteenth century, and prior to that invention it did not exist in any form. But the tuberculosis bacillus was not invented. It was discovered. Part of the meaning of “discovery” is that to be discovered something has to exist prior to the discovery, and indeed could not have been discovered if it had not existed prior to the discovery.

The claim that knowledge is a social construction is not meant to state the commonplace truth that many facts in the social world are indeed socially constructed. For example, something is money, private property, a government, or a marriage only because people believe that’s what it is, and in that sense such things are socially constructed. Social constructivism makes the much more radical claim that physical reality itself, the very facts we might think we have discovered in physics, chemistry, and the other natural sciences are socially constructed.

This view has been influential in a number of disciplines: feminism, sociology, anthropology, philosophy of science, and literary theory among others. The titles of some typical works express various degrees of support for the doctrine: Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality; Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts; Andrew Pickering’s Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics; Donald MacKenzie’s Statistics in Britain, 1865–1930: The Social Construction of ScientificKnowledge.2 Boghossian quotes a feminist view as follows:

Feminist epistemologists, in common with many other strands of contemporary epistemology, no longer regard knowledge as a neutral transparent reflection of an independently existing reality, with truth and falsity established by transcendent procedures of rational assessment. Rather, most accept that all knowledge is situated knowledge, reflecting the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context.3

This passage is worth a close reading. On the face of it, the two views being contrasted, that knowledge is a “reflection of an independently existing reality” and that “all knowledge is situated knowledge,” are perfectly consistent. Historically situated investigators can discover the truth about “an independently existing reality.” But the point of the passage is to claim that most feminists reject the idea that knowledge reflects an independently existing reality; and the rhetorical flourishes in the passage, such as “transcendent procedures of rational assessment” and “neutral transparent reflection,” are designed to reinforce that point.


Boghossian distinguishes three features of constructivism and considers each separately: constructivism about the facts (the facts themselves are social constructions), constructivism about justification (what we count as a justification of a belief is a matter of social construction), and constructivism about rational explanation (we never believe what we believe solely on the basis of evidence).

About the first and most important of these theses, Boghossian considers arguments from three philosophers: Hilary Putnam, Nelson Goodman, and Richard Rorty. Putnam imagines a hypothetical universe consisting of three circles: A, B, and C. Then he asks: How many objects are there in this universe? Three? No, says Putnam, because according to certain Polish logicians (he cites S. Lezniewski), we can construe one object as A, one as B, one as C, one as consisting of A+B, another as B+C, yet another as A+C, and finally, one of A+B+C. So on this basis, there are really seven objects in the universe. Because we can correctly say that there are three objects or seven objects, Putnam concludes that there is no objective fact of the matter about how many objects there are.4

As Boghossian sees, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Once you have selected your conditions for something being an object, there is a straightforward fact of the matter about how many objects there are. For Putnam to say that there is no fact of the matter would be like saying that there is no answer to the question “How many guests came to the dinner party?” because you could say eight people or four couples.

Goodman’s argument is also weak. Goodman says we construct the constellations of the night sky by drawing certain lines and not others. We draw one set of lines that creates the Big Dipper, for example. All other constellations are similarly created, and what goes for constellations goes for everything, according to Goodman. All of reality consists of human creations.Once again, a bad argument. Constellations are patterns we have selected in the sky because we can discern through our perceptual apparatus certain geometrical forms such as the Big Dipper. Constellations are, in this sense, observer-relative: the actual stars exist independently of any observer, though the patterns we use to name constellations exist only relative to our point of view.

But the stars, as well as mountains, molecules, and tectonic plates, are not in that way relative to an observer. True, we have to select a vocabulary of “stars,” “mountains,” etc., but once the vocabulary has been selected, it is a completely objective fact that Mount Everest is a mountain, for example, and not a giraffe. The general pattern of error is to confuse, on the one hand, the social relativity of the vocabulary and the making of descriptions within that vocabulary with, on the other, the social relativity of the facts described using that vocabulary. This comes out strikingly in Rorty’s argument.

Rorty says that we accept the descriptions we do, not because they correspond to the way things are, but because it serves our practical interests to do so. Boghossian agrees that the fact that we give the descriptions we do is a fact that reflects something about us and our society. But, he points out, the fact that descriptions are socially relative does not imply that the facts described by those descriptions are socially relative. Boghossian cites an argument by Rorty attacking an article of mine5 in which I said that mountains, for example, exist completely independently of us and our descriptions. Rorty answered as follows:

Given that it pays to talk about mountains, as it certainly does, one of the obvious truths about mountains is that they were here before we talked about them. If you do not believe that, you probably do not know how to play the usual language-games which employ the word “mountain.” But the utility of those language-games has nothing to do with the question of whether Reality as It Is In Itself, apart from the way it is handy for human beings to describe it, has mountains in it.6

  1. 1

    Bruno Latour, “Ramses II est-il mort de la tuberculose?,” La Recherche, March 1998.

  2. 2

    Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Doubleday, 1966); Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (Sage, 1979); Andrew Pickering, Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (University of Chicago Press, 1984); Andrew Pickering, “Science as a Cultural Construct,” letter to the editor, Nature, June 5, 1997; and Donald A. MacKenzie, Statistics in Britain, 1865–1930: The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981).

  3. 3

    Kathleen Lennon, “Feminist Epistemology as Local Epistemology,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary, Volume 71 (1997), p. 37.

  4. 4

    Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism: The Paul Carus Lectures (Open Court, 1987), p. 18.

  5. 5

    John R. Searle, “Rationality and Realism: What Is at Stake?” Daedalus, Fall 1993.

  6. 6

    Richard Rorty, “Does Academic Freedom Have Philosophical Presuppositions?,” Academe, Vol. 80, No. 6 (November–December 1994), p. 56.

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