Against Absolute Relativism

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1st Reflection on Plato’s Republic

After examining the dangers of monism (see on Grand Unity) I will now attempt to unpack and examine how its exact opposite – absolute relativism – can harm an individual’s intellectual growth. To achieve this, I will commence by providing some insight into the workings of this absolute relativism, walk through the threats it presents to dialectic, and finish with a suggestion as to the actions which can be taken to deal with this issue.

Before defining absolute relativism, I should delineate it from its more common and easily dismissed cousin – lazy relativism. Lazy relativism is the intellectual apathy which an individual wears as a shield, a defence mechanism employed when facing a contradictory opinion. Rather than denouncing their opponent as a heretic, a lazy relativist will instead voice the refrain “that’s your opinion.” Such a statement suggests that debate has reached a point where further discussion is impossible, and the intractable issue of opposing ‘sacred objects’ (see on Failed Inquiry) blocks further debate. This lazy relativism is a just the tool of those who would rather avoid conflict and retreat into the shell of the self, as opposed to the crusader who would prefer to denounce their partner in discourse – or when taken to its logical extreme, destroy them.

So if lazy relativism is not the target of this reflection, then what am I attempting to debate? Absolute relativism is a position which takes scepticism to its final endpoint, but it is also more than this. If you accept the sceptic premise of the fallibility of human perception of truth, you can stretch it down into a point of radical scepticism, which suggests that humans cannot comprehend reality and truth. The absolute relativist reaches this point but then transcends the nihilistic abyss by instead affirming truth as relative to the observer. In this model, the truth is what an individual makes of it.

With this mechanism of thinking, absolute relativism destroys coherence in thought, as with absolute relativism we cannot anchor our discussion on any point of reference. If there exists no solid ground from which dialectic operates, then any discussion or any search for meaning collapses at the intellectual level. With this in mind, the tenets of absolute relativism see the abandonment of meaning, and the embrace of visceral emotion and self-satisfied basking in one’s own opinions as the only truth worth attaining, the construction of an echo chamber which hardens heart and soul against external voices.

Even worse than this, absolute relativism destroys the instruments of dialectic. By indicating that the only valid point of reference is one’s own opinion and experience, the absolute relativist breaks humanity down into innumerable bubbles of belief. The language used in each of these bubbles in relative to each mind, and as such any discussion between these thought bubbles is merely meaningless babble between two utterly alien points of reference, incomprehensible to both parties and devoid of actual intellectual exchange (see on Names).

At this point, it is fair to ask the question: what is the difference between relativism and heterodoxy of opinion? Heterodoxy is something that I have defended previously as important to intellectual development, but I think that those striving for growth are fundamentally different to those who embrace the absolute relativist’s position. For a person open to heterodox opinions, a student of dialectic, they see truth as a statue, and opinion as the differing points of view from the different observes of the artwork, each capturing a different snapshot of the truth, filtered through their intellectual lens. Even if we accept the moderate sceptic’s position of the unattainable nature of truth, we can agree that by engaging with the heterodox views we gain a more rounded understanding and that our perception will grow closer to that of truth in the abstract (see on Knowledge). As such I exhort you all not to lapse into self-satisfaction and abandon discourse, but instead to continue through the effort and exertion, ever climbing to the highest peak of true understanding.

Original text

Plato’s Republic


George Frederic Watts, Chaos, 1875

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