Does objectivity even exist? If it does, how can it be defined?

The current debate on objectivity can be categorized under three rubrics/categories (and yet another meaning of the word rubric is used). Two extreme viewpoints can be identified on opposite sides of the debate. The third viewpoint oscillates and mediates between the two extremes. The umbrella terms I use for the different worldviews in this post are not my own. All credit goes to Wentzel van Huyssteen.

Let’s start with the two extreme worldviews:

1)      Objectivity most definitely exists! This viewpoint is traditionally associated first and foremost with Descartes and his maxim: “I think, therefore I am.” The human capacity to think came to be seen as the highest expression of human virtue. The rational subject became the centre of the universe. Reason was now autonomous. Reason reigned supreme and it didn’t have to answer to anyone. There was an overwhelming sense of optimism: Through reason man can shape and change his world. Yes, the whole world, because there are absolute, universal, truths that can be applied to any place or any time. Human reason will lead the way to a messianic era.

This worldview can be called modernism or foundationalism.

2)      During and after the Second World War there was a growing sense of disillusionment in humanity’s intellectual capabilities. It soon became clear that if it may be the case that all people are rational, some are more rational than others. In the aftermath of the Second World War the idea of a messianic era of reason became an absurdity to many. The meta/master/grand-narratives of the Enlightenment, the West, Communism, to name a few, were opposed. Local, micro-narratives were favoured instead.  Optimism warped into pessimism. Objectivism was replaced by subjectivism. Truth could no longer be expressed in global and absolute terms because truth is relative and context-bound. The claim to a truth depends on the certain perspective from where it is made. The only objective truth-claim that can be made is that there is no such thing as objective truth. As long as everyone would just stick to their own truth(s) everything would be fine. Dialogue, if even possible, would be unproductive or unnecessary. No one wants to step on anybody’s toes and cause a Third World War. “To each its own” can be seen as the maxim of this worldview.

This worldview can be called anti-foundationalism.

What we have said thus far can be summarized by the following table showing what the two extreme viewpoints tend to emphasise:

Foundationalism Anti-Foundationalism
Black or White Gray Areas
The Same The Other
Consistency Contingency
Either/Or Also
(Naive) Realism Anti-Realism
Epistemic Hermeneutic
Objectivity Subjectivity
Absolutism Relativism
Monism/Dualism Pluralism
Optimism Pessimism/Skepticism
Meta-Narrative Micro-Narrative
Global Local
Institutional Anti-Institutional
The Central The Marginal
Certainty Ambiguity

The third worldview oscillates and mediates between the two above-mentioned extremes:

3)      Unlike foundationalism this particular worldview acknowledges the fact that truth is interpretive, contextual and confined. It, however, rejects the notion of anti-foundationalism that it is impossible to break through the confines of the local, perspectival and plural nature of truth. Yes, every construction of an objective reality is subjective. But in the end all these subjective constructions remains constructions of the same object. For this reason, inter-subjectivity exists. Through dialogue (“transcommunal conversation”) common ground can be discovered. Although we cannot have absolute certainty this gives us no reason not to eventually escape from a position of radical doubt. Local truths can become more-than-local truths but it will never be absolute truths. This worldview attempts to avoid the exclusivism and reductionism that are the eventual consequences of foundationalism and post-foundationalism through building a bridge between the two.

This worldview can be called postfoundationalism.

I had much difficulty in writing this post. What I have said thus far has left me unsatisfied. One reason for my dissatisfaction is that this post has to have a disclaimer. I can’t stress this enough. I have no intention of pretending that the few words that I have written does justice to the enormity of the debate on truth that has been going on since the birth of philosophy. Therefore this post has to be treated as a summary of an overview. These worldviews can’t be solely equated with historical movements although some of these worldviews are more prevalent at certain times. One particular philosophy does not necessarily have to be associated with only a single worldview. Some are a mixture of at least two of the three worldviews. By no means can the descriptions of the worldviews or the worldviews themselves be absolutes. Not only do we have many differentiations within the worldviews themselves but we also have alternative worldviews between the three mentioned worldviews.

Maybe some of you have asked yourselves when I am going to mention postmodernism (as I have already referred to modernism). Modernism and foundationalism is, to my mind, essentially the same thing. Then postmodernism and anti-foundationalism is the same thing, right? Nope! Then, if postmodernism isn’t anti-foundational it has to be post-foundational. Also no. Many believe that postmodernism is anti-foundational. I disagree. Most postmodern thought tends to be anti-foundational, yes, but I believe that at least one “postmodern” philosopher, Jacques Derrida, is in fact post-foundational. Maybe I will defend this claim at a later stage.

You have the right to ask the following question about foundationalism, anti-foundationalism, post-foundationalism or any other –ism that I have addressed: So what? Seeing that this post is turning into a mini-dissertation I will answer this question in the weeks to come.

6 thoughts on “Is Truth absolutely relative?

  1. hi benjan,
    Have you heard of Kevin Vanhoozer, Francis Watson, Anthony Thistleton, Richrad Briggs, Austin and Searle? Maybe they represent another way of “knowing” that does not necessarily fall into the catagories you postulated (or which van Huysteen).

    Very interesting topic!!


    1. Hey Ferdie. I’ve read a bit about Vanhoozer. His use of triangulation interests me. It looks as if he uses a postfoundational approach himself

      I’ve read about the approaches of Austin (speech-act theory, right?) and Searle (his adaptation of Austin's theory) through the work of Derrida. The rest of the names are unknown to me. Will look them up, thanks.

      1. Hey again Ferdie. Most of these theologians use a postfoundational approach or employ critical realism (in some or other form). Can you take my word for it or do I have to state my facts? To my mind (and if you don’t believe me, you can take van Huyssteen’s word for it) critical realism is the epistemological stance of postfoundationalism. I’ve scanned through some of your publications/papers/dissertations and I see that you are aware of critical realism. Alister McGrath, you and I both concur, employs critical realism and also one of your famous academic supervisors, NT Wright himself.

        So, no I don’t think these fine theologians necessarily represent other ways of “knowing” than that I (or van Huyssteen) postulated.

        Your thoughts on this please?

  2. Hey Benjan,
    Thanx for correcting me on Vanhoozer! I had to work through his book: Is There a Meaning in the Text? for my MTh. You’re right about NT Wright and Critial Realism. I have witnessed him first hand for days on end. It was a great experience. My subjectuve impression of Wright was that in the academic environment, he will try to formlate his interpretations more carefully, in line with the kind of Critical Realism he developed in his first major work: Jesus and the People of God. However, several times in class – and particularly during church meetings, he would push the outer limits of Critical Realism towards a more ‘secure’? and ‘foundational’? position. He can however not be accused of the kind of ‘foundationalism’ which others rightly reject. He is in one sence in a classs of his own.
    About Francis Watson and the others we can talk another time. I could be wrong, but some scholars here in the UK and Europe tend not to work with certain ‘labels’ – even if it comes from respectable scholars. I remember another influential book before Van Huysteen ‘s foundational, anti-foudational, post-foundational – by George Lindbeck in his book: The Nature of Doctrine – in which he developed also three possibilities: propositional, experiential-expressive and cultural-linguistic. These kind of catagories can however be too restrictive. Maybee there are more spaces in-between- and beyond these concepts. Anyway, there are much that we can learn from these scholar – and we must take then seriously.
    Sorry for taking so long to answer. I am quite busy here in the Netherlands….
    Best regards and ENJOY your studies!

    1. Thanks for the reply Ferdie. I really don’t care how many typing errors you make. I’m just too grateful for the conversation.

      About N.T. Wright. Academically speaking, he can be seen as a critical realist. But, as a man of faith he tends to move more towards a “foundational” approach, you say. We all have to make a leap of faith towards certainty at some or other stage.

      Yes, labels cannot have the final say. Labels/categories can be overflowed if not outright contradicted.

      Vriendelike groete

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