Fear of Knowledge: The Case Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian
Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism
Have you ever wondered if there is such a thing as objective truth? Or if there are universal standards for rationality and knowledge? Or if science is just one of many ways of knowing the world? If you have, you are not alone. Many philosophers, scholars, and thinkers have debated these questions for centuries. And in recent times, a dominant view has emerged that challenges the common sense answers to these questions. This view is known as relativism or constructivism.
In this article, I will introduce you to a book that critically examines and refutes relativism and constructivism. The book is called Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, and it is written by Paul Boghossian, a professor of philosophy at New York University. Boghossian argues that relativism and constructivism are not only philosophically flawed, but also socially dangerous. He defends the intuitive view that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we can have objective and reasonable knowledge of it.
If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating and important topic, read on. I will explain what relativism and constructivism are, why they are popular, what is wrong with them, and what is the alternative to them. I will also provide some frequently asked questions and answers at the end of the article.
What is Relativism?
Relativism is the view that truth, knowledge, or justification are not absolute or universal, but depend on some factor that varies from case to case. For example, some relativists claim that truth depends on the language or culture of the speaker, or on the perspective or framework of the thinker, or on the interests or values of the community. According to relativism, there is no single or objective way of describing or understanding reality, but rather many different and equally valid ways.
There are different forms of relativism, depending on what factor they take to be relevant for determining truth, knowledge, or justification. Some of the most common forms are:
Cultural relativism: The view that truth or morality depend on the norms or traditions of a particular culture or society.
Linguistic relativism: The view that truth or meaning depend on the conventions or rules of a particular language or system of representation.
Cognitive relativism: The view that truth or knowledge depend on the cognitive abilities or limitations of a particular agent or species.
Ethical relativism: The view that moral judgments depend on the preferences or feelings of a particular individual or group.
Aesthetic relativism: The view that judgments of beauty or taste depend on the personal preferences or standards of a particular individual or group.
Epistemic relativism: The view that justification or rationality depend on the standards or criteria of a particular epistemic system or community.
What is Constructivism?
Constructivism is the view that facts, reality, or nature are not given or fixed, but constructed or shaped by human activity. For example, some constructivists claim that facts are not discovered by observation or experimentation, but invented by theories or hypotheses. Or that reality is not independent of human perception, but dependent on human interpretation. Or that nature is not a stable and uniform domain, but a variable and contingent product of human intervention.
There are different forms of constructivism, depending on what aspect of reality they take to be constructed by human activity. Some of the most common forms are:
Social constructivism: The view that facts, knowledge, or reality are constructed by social processes, such as communication, negotiation, agreement, power, etc.
Historical constructivism: The view that facts, knowledge, or reality are constructed by historical events, such as revolutions, wars, discoveries, inventions, etc.
Cultural constructivism: The view that facts, knowledge, or reality are constructed by cultural factors, such as values, beliefs, norms, traditions, etc.
Linguistic constructivism: The view that facts, knowledge, or reality are constructed by linguistic factors, such as words, concepts, categories, metaphors, etc.
Cognitive constructivism: The view that facts, knowledge, or reality are constructed by cognitive factors, such as perception, reasoning, memory, ```html etc.
Personal constructivism: The view that facts, knowledge, or reality are constructed by personal factors, such as emotions, attitudes, preferences, etc.
Why are Relativism and Constructivism Popular?
Relativism and constructivism have become orthodoxy in vast stretches of the academic world in recent times. But why? What are some of the reasons why these views have gained so much support and influence? Boghossian suggests that there are at least three main reasons:
The appeal to diversity: One reason is that relativism and constructivism seem to respect and celebrate the diversity of human cultures, languages, values, and ways of knowing. They challenge the idea that there is a single or superior perspective that can claim authority or dominance over others. They promote tolerance and pluralism in a world that is increasingly globalized and interconnected.
The appeal to democracy: Another reason is that relativism and constructivism seem to support and enhance the democratic ideals of freedom, equality, and participation. They challenge the idea that there are experts or authorities who can dictate what is true or right for others. They empower individuals and groups to create and shape their own realities according to their own interests and values.
The appeal to history: A third reason is that relativism and constructivism seem to reflect and explain the historical changes and developments that have occurred in science, philosophy, and culture. They challenge the idea that there are fixed or eternal truths or principles that can guide our inquiry and understanding. They acknowledge the contingency and variability of human knowledge and reality in light of new discoveries, inventions, revolutions, etc.
These reasons may seem persuasive and attractive at first glance. But are they sufficient to justify relativism and constructivism? Boghossian thinks not. He argues that these views are not only unsupported by good arguments, but also undermine themselves by their own logic. He shows that relativism and constructivism are not only wrong, but also impossible.
What is Wrong with Relativism and Constructivism?
Boghossian's main goal in his book is to expose and refute the flaws and fallacies of relativism and constructivism. He focuses on three different ways of reading the claim that knowledge is socially constructed: one about facts, and two about justification. He calls them constructivism about facts, constructivism about justification, and relativism about justification. He argues that all three are fundamentally flawed.
The Problem of Facts
The first way of reading the claim that knowledge is socially constructed is to interpret it as saying that facts are socially constructed. This means that facts are not given by reality, but made by human activity. For example, some constructivists claim that facts about nature are not discovered by science, but invented by scientific theories or paradigms. Or that facts about morality are not determined by reason, but created by social norms or conventions.
Boghossian criticizes this view on two grounds. First, he argues that it is based on a confusion between facts and our beliefs about facts. He points out that there is a difference between saying that our beliefs about reality are influenced by social factors, which may be true in some cases, and saying that reality itself is influenced by social factors, which is absurd in most cases. He writes:
"To say of some apparently factual statement S that it is 'socially constructed' is not just to say something about how we came to believe S; it is also to say something about S itself: namely, that S fails to state a fact independent of our acceptance of S." (p. 33)
Second, he argues that it is based on a misunderstanding of the nature and role of scientific theories or paradigms. He points out that scientific theories or paradigms do not create facts out of thin air, but rather attempt to explain or predict facts that are given by observation or experimentation. He writes: