There comes a time in a young humanities student’s life when he or she or it stumbles across that easy cure-all for differences: relativism. Ah, the simplicity of letting sleeping dogs lie. Got a tension that arises from incompatible beliefs between cultures, religions or knowledge systems? Just agree to disagree; adopt a modus vivendi approach and postpone any resolution indefinitely. But the young humanities student soon strikes two problems. The first arises when the student asks, ‘What about when the dogs are barking or biting, not sleeping?’ The modus vivendi style of diplomacy is well and good when the difference settled by an agreement to disagree is inconsequential, unimportant or trivial. But how do you settle cultural, political or epistemological differences when the point of difference is one of real intellectual or physical contention? This is exactly the point when the vacuity of relativism is revealed.
The second problem arises when the student tries to reconcile relativism with hopes for an emancipatory politics. Take epistemology (theory of knowledge) as an example. When it comes to deciding what counts as knowledge the relativist is happy to argue that science is but one system of knowledge among others. As such, scientific claims have no privileged position. Parodied, the relativist position runs something like this: ‘If I wish to assert that humankind was created by God all of 6,000 years ago then what gives a biologist the right to tell me otherwise. I’m entitled to my opinion; and I get my opinions from the Bible, not biologists.’ Now, of course, the claims are not always this outlandish. Sometimes they may be as subtle as a defence of faith as a legitimate grounds for belief, even for belief about the world, and especially for belief about the physical world given (here the argument gets more and more outlandish again) that science can be reduced to an act of faith — faith in the senses, or scientific method, or scientific objectivity. The point is clear enough. No matter how subtle, the relativist’s claim is not that science is wrong (that would be too hard to establish and contrary to the relativist ethos); rather, it’s that science is but one approach to knowledge among others. There is no reason why the scientist’s claim to know X should trump the believer’s claim to know X, so relativists argue.
This may be a nice and easy way to keep the peace between scientists and believers. ‘You biologists and palaeontologists can tinker away with your monkeys and fossils; I’m just gonna keep on keeping on with this other system of beliefs. If ever we should disagree on a point, let’s just agree to disagree. I’ll keep believing in creation science in the face of your evidence to the contrary, just as you’ll no doubt keep believing in evolution in the face of my evidence to the contrary (irreducible complexity, faith, or submission to the divine command not to doubt).’ But how the hell is this position meant to emancipate anyone?
For the sake of the argument, let’s grant that it’s always legitimate to defend oppressed peoples. So, when could any claim against oppression become a claim against science? Never; unless we first take the western world as oppressor and then include a couple of premises linking the oppressor’s oppression to the oppressor’s system of knowledge. Such an argument looks like this:
- Western societies oppress M (where M = women, a race, a class, etc);
- Knowledge is a means by which western societies oppress M;
- Science is the dominant western system of knowledge;
- Therefore, science is a means by which western societies oppress M.
Now we can see how the relativist links his or her or its relativism to an emancipatory politics. ‘Western societies oppress other societies. They use knowledge to achieve this end. Furthermore, if we can undermine the western system of knowledge then we can stop the West oppressing people.’ The relativist position is meant to challenge the hegemony of western science by undermining the latter’s claim to have privileged access to knowledge of the world. Insofar as it succeeds, it may undermine science’s privileged position. But the further conclusion that undermining knowledge will solve western oppression is a blatant non-sequitur. If knowledge is just a tool of the oppressor then what’s to say that when we remove the tool they won’t just pick up another. That is, undermining knowledge doesn’t necessarily emancipate the oppressed. Indeed, this non-sequitur partly inspires Old-Lefty scientists to speak out against relativism (Sokal 1996b, 1997; Snow  1964).
One may also challenge this link between oppression and knowledge system, arguing that nothing within the scientific knowledge system leads inevitably to oppression — that the link between oppression and knowledge system is itself contingent. Furthermore, one may add that any knowledge system in the service of oppression is a perverted use of the knowledge system and reflects not an inevitable link but a surreptitious use of the knowledge system to oppress. Thus, Old Leftists can legitimately argue that we could rectify the oppression without abandoning the knowledge system. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The same form of rejoinder was used throughout modern history to challenge political oppression. For example, in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King Jr did not argue that the US legal system should be abandoned because African Americans were being oppressed by white Americans. No. Rather, he argued that the US legal system claimed to treat all men equally and, as such, if white Americans truly believed in their legal system — the hallmark of a civilised nation — then they could not discriminate against a group because of their skin colour or heritage. Likewise, those who are oppressed by any system could argue that systems should not distinguish between peoples because of skin colour, or between men and women. Systems should be impartial. As such, to properly identify the cause of western oppression one must distinguish between oppression that is inherent in the western system of knowledge and oppression that stems from the use of that knowledge system for particular political ends. The oppression may simply result from a perverted use of the knowledge system (see Sokal 1997).
So, the argument that science is one knowledge system among many and, therefore, not intrinsically superior to any other is neither the only nor the strongest argument against oppression. What the oppressed and their defenders should argue instead is that the use of science for political ends — including oppression — is illegitimate by default. This does not mean that science could never be used for political ends; it does mean that if science is to be used for political ends, that use must be justified. (The justification for its political use must always come after the discovery of knowledge. We would put the non-persecutory cart before the knowledge horse, and in that sense preempt what the findings of science must be, if we prevented scientific research because it might be used for illegitimate political ends.)
But the greatest weakness in the relativist attempt to rectify oppression by undermining science comes when the student recognises that the relationship between power and knowledge is asymmetrical. The relativist may be correct when he argues that knowledge determines power; however, power does not determine knowledge to the same extent. The relationship is not bi-conditional. To pervert slightly a point made by Alan Sokal (1996c) and later reiterated by Richard Dawkins in his television series ‘The Enemies of Reason’: I’d like to see the powerful jump out a twenty-first floor window asserting that gravity does not exist. Quite obviously, power does not determine knowledge to the extent that knowledge may determine power.
Steven Weinberg summarises this point well when he writes in his analysis of the Sokal hoax:
Some of the commentators on science quoted by Sokal hope that the participation of women or victims of imperialism will change the character of science, but as far as I can see, women and third-world physicists work in just the same way as Western white male physicists do. It might be argued that this is just a sign of the power of entrenched scientific authority or the pervasive influence of Western society, but these explanations seem unconvincing to me. Although natural science is intellectually hegemonic, in the sense that we have a clear idea of what it means for a theory to be true or false, its internal operation is not hegemonic — authority counts for very little.
Weinberg’s point, in essence, is that the answer to a lack of knowledge and, therefore, a lack of power is not an increase of power; rather, the answer to a lack of power is an increase of knowledge. To assert the contrary is to commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent. (If knowledge, K, entails power, P, increasing power by making all knowledge systems equal will not necessarily lead to knowledge in any particular knowledge system: ‘K → P; P; ∴ K’ is invalid.)
Accordingly, undermining knowledge is not the answer to oppression; rather, the answer is to increase one’s knowledge and thereby increase one’s power. It does not suffice to recognise any approach to knowledge as worthy of the name, hoping that this will give all people equal access to power. Anyone who holds a theory of knowledge that leads him to conclude that gravity does not exist will soon discover that there are good and bad systems of knowledge. And power cannot follow from a bad system of knowledge — at least no longer than the next time you try to exit a building from the twenty-first floor window.
To close, in a recent interview in The Philosophers’ Magazine Alan Sokal describes this debate between science and relativism as ‘old hat’. (Sokal’s insincerity is not lost on his interviewer, Julian Baggini, who notes that two of Sokal’s books since the Social Text affair, including his 2008 Beyond the Hoax, contain reprints of the original article.) But even if the debate is old hat, spare a thought for all those poor undergraduates who are coming in at the end of the conversation. For the sake of undergraduates we should revisit the debate lest we forget that relativism in politics, religion, culture and epistemology fails. Here I’ve given but three reasons for the failure. Firstly, letting sleeping dogs lie only works when the dogs are sleeping, not when they’re barking and biting. Secondly, undermining dominant systems of knowledge does not necessarily lead to emancipation. Finally, sound knowledge determines power more than power determines sound knowledge; as such, to rectify a lack of power one should increase one’s knowledge and thereby increase one’s power, not simply increase one’s power.
Baggini, Julian 2009, ‘My Philosophy: Alan Sokal’, interview with Alan Sokal, The Philosophers’ Magazine, issue 41.
King Jr, Martin Luther 1963, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, reproduced online by the African Studies Centre, University of Pennsylvania.
Snow, CP  1964, The Two Cultures: And a Second Look, Cambridge University Press, London.
Sokal, Alan 1996a, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, Social Text, no. 46/47 (Spring/Summer), pp. 217-252.
———— 1996b, ‘A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies’, Lingua Franca, (May/June), pp. 62-64.
———— 1996c, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword’, Dissent, vol. 43, no. 4 (Fall), pp. 93-99.
———— 1997, ‘A Plea for Reason, Evidence and Logic’, New Politics, vol. 6, no. 2 (Winter), pp. 126-129.
Weinberg, Steven 1996, ‘Sokal’s Hoax’, The New York Review of Books, vol. 43, no. 13 (August 8), pp. 11-15.