17. Against relativism

Repeatedly across the history of philosophy, epistemological categories have been transformed into moral ones; Fichte’s interpretation of Kant is only the most conspicuous instance of this. Something similar came to pass in the history of logical-phenomenological absolutism. Relativism is what the purveyors of fundamental ontology find most obnoxious about thinking-without-ground. Dialectics opposes relativism as curtly as it does absolutism; not by pursuing a middle position between the two, but by passing through the extremes, each of which is to be convicted of its falsehood by the lights of its own idea. It is time that someone took this tack against relativism, since critiques thereof have until now been cast in such formal terms that the fiber of relativist thinking has been left largely undisturbed. The argument that philosophers since Leonard Nelson have been wont to deploy against Spengler—that relativism presupposes at least one absolute term, namely its own validity, and thereby contradicts itself—is a paltry one. It confuses the universal negation of a principle with the raising of that negation to an affirmation, without considering the specific difference in the status of each. It would be more fruitful to recognize relativism as a parochial form of consciousness. It began as the form proper to bourgeois individualism, which regards individual consciousness, itself mediated by universality, as final and which declares every individual’s opinions to be equally correct, as though there existed no criterion by which to gauge their truth. The abstract thesis regarding the conditioned character of all thought should be reminded in a most substantive way of what conditions it, namely a blindness towards the more-than-individual aspects of all thinking, which alone convert individual consciousness into thought. Behind that thesis there stands a contempt for the mind in favor of the supremacy of material relations, as the only things that matter. The father counters his son’s uncomfortable views with the idea that it’s all relative, that, as the Greeks used to say, money makes the man. Relativism is vulgar materialism; thinking disrupts getting. Unambiguously hostile to mind and spirit, this attitude cannot help but remain abstract. The relativity of all knowledge can only be maintained from the outside and only until a person finds himself knowing something conclusively after all. As soon as consciousness enters into some particular matter and takes up its immanent claim to truth or falsehood the supposedly subjective randomness of thought falls away. But relativism comes to naught on the following grounds: because that which it considers on the one hand arbitrary and contingent, and on the other hand irreducible, itself originates in the realm of objectivity, precisely the objectivity of an individualistic society; its contents demand to be deduced as a socially necessary illusion. The reactions that the doctrine of relativism takes to be peculiar to each individual are, in fact, pre-formed, rarely much more than bleating. This is especially true of stereotyped notions of relativity. Shrewder relativists, such as Pareto, have traced the illusion of individualism back to group interests. But the constraints of objectivity, set by the sociology of knowledge and themselves specific to a certain social stratum, can themselves be deduced from the social totality, from the sphere of objectivity. If one late version of sociological relativism—Mannheim’s—imagines that it can, via free-floating intelligence, take the various perspectives of the different social strata and distill from them a scientific objectivity, it manages only to read conditioning terms backwards, as conditioned ones. In truth, the divergent perspectives have their law in a superordinate totality, which is the structure of the social process. An entrepreneur who does not want to fall behind the competition has to calculate such that the uncompensated portion of the product of other people’s labor falls to him as profit, and he has to think that he is in the process exchanging like for like: labor power in return for the costs of its reproduction. But stringency would require that one also explain why this objectively necessary consciousness is objectively false. This dialectical relation suspends its particular moments in itself; it hebs them auf. The putative social relativity of attitudes or “views” obeys the objective law of production for a society where the means of production are privately owned. Bourgeois skepticism, as embodied by the doctrine of relativism, is blinkered. And yet this perennial hostility to mind is more than a trait of subjectively bourgeois anthropology. It is brought forth by the fact that the concept of reason has to worry that, once emancipated, its consequences will burst the existing relations of production, in which it is ensconced. It is for this reason that reason limits itself; for the duration of the bourgeois age, the idea of the mind’s autonomy has been accompanied by the mind’s reactionary self-loathing. There is one lapse that it cannot forgive itself: that the constitution of existence as directed by mind forbids mind from developing in the direction of the freedom that is lodged in its own concept. Relativism is the philosophical expression of this grudge. There is no need to mobilize dogmatic absolutism against such an attitude; proof of its narrowness is enough to shatter it. No matter how progressive its bearing, relativism was always joined to reaction, as far back as sophistry, language in the service of powerful interests. An incisive critique of relativism is the paradigm of determinate negation.