U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Politics of Epistemology

Commenting on Ben Alpers’s recent post—“On the Origins of the Anti-Elitist Critique of Higher Ed”—our colleague Tim Lacy off-handedly mentioned the intertwining relationship between “liberalism and relativism.” When I read that, I chuckled, thinking to myself, “Wow! That’s a pretty innocent reference to such a complex intellectual history, one fraught with centuries worth of polemics!” This is not to say that Tim is innocent of this intellectual history. As the foremost expert on Mortimer Adler, the quintessential modern liberal metaphysician, Tim knows very well that plenty of intellectuals have attached their liberalism to anti-relativistic modes of thought. (Both Tim’s expertise on Adler and Adler’s liberal metaphysics are evident in Tim’s fantastic post: “Great Books Liberalism.”) Rather, Tim’s comment speaks to the pros and cons of the writing genre otherwise known as blog commentary. On the one hand, such commentary is necessarily impressionistic, sometimes even reductionist. On the other, it often incites deep thinking. Speaking to the merits of the latter, I’ve been obsessing about “liberalism and relativism,” about the politics of epistemology and, vice versa, the epistemology of politics, for over 24 hours, since reading Tim’s comment. (Yes, I know this makes me strange, but what the hell! This is, after all, an intellectual history blog.)

So, let’s begin by, as the modish say, “unpacking” the degree to which liberalism and relativism are intertwined. Certainly, relativism became the norm in twentieth-century liberal circles as represented by progressive education. For example, by the 1970s, in social studies, students were increasingly challenged to clarify their own values, independent of those instilled by their parents and churches. A popular anthropology curriculum created for elementary students by psychologist Jerome Bruner in the early 1970s—MACOS, or, “Man: A Course of Study”—exemplified liberal cultural relativism. During a MACOS unit students examined the Netsilik Eskimo culture, including their practice of killing the elderly, in order to understand, yet not judge, cultural differences. Such curriculum reform might be thought of as the liberal institutionalization of what historian Christopher Shannon refers to as “the anthropological consensus.”

Certainly conservative critics conceptualized the liberal ethos as relativistic. In fact, such a conflation was a culture wars pastime. Allan Bloom’s (or Saul Bellow’s) classic The Closing of the American Mind, at its most explicit, was an angry denunciation of relativism in all its forms: philosophic, moral, cultural, and educational. In Illiberal Education, a culture wars text almost as famous as Closing, Dinesh D’Souza applied an anti-relativist framework to a critique of the liberal, multicultural curriculum, which taught students, in D’Souza’s words, “justice is simply the will of the stronger party; that standards and values are arbitrary, and the ideal of the educated person is largely a figment of bourgeois white male ideology.” In her non-ironically titled book, Telling the Truth, Lynne Cheney followed this well-worn path by critiquing postmodernists, whom doubled as liberals in Cheney’s genealogy, for going “far beyond the ideas that have shaped modern scholarship—that we should think of the truth we hold today as tentative and partial, recognizing that it may require rethinking tomorrow in light of new information and insight—to the view that there is no truth.”

Both New Leftists (as what I would consider radical or postmodern liberals) and their mirror opposites, neoconservatives, certainly understood there to be a close relationship between cultural liberalism and relativism. In 1968, Theodore Roszak wrote the following: “The counter culture is the embryonic cultural base of New left politics, the effort to discover new types of community, new family patterns, new sexual mores, new kinds of livelihood, new aesthetic forms, new personal identities on the far side of power politics, the bourgeois home, and the Protestant work ethic.” Even though she was diametrically opposed to his prescriptions, neoconservative Gertrude Himmelfarb could not have agreed more with Roszak’s description of the relationship between values and politics. Her favorable interpretations of the Victorians were premised on similar theoretical grounds: “This is the final lesson we may learn from the Victorians: that the ethos of a society, its moral and spiritual character, cannot be reduced to economic, material, political, or other factors, that values—or, better yet, virtues—are a determining factor in their own right; so far from being a ‘reflection,’ as the Marxist says, of the economic realities, they are themselves, as often as not, the crucial agent in shaping those realities.” Neoconservatives like Himmelfarb were the best critics of the antinomian spirit of the 1960s, of postmodernism and its attendant cultural turn, of modern liberalism insofar as it attached itself to relativism.

In thus thinking about neoconservatism as the flip side of the New Left, the persuasion should also be historically situated in relation to Corey Robin’s representatives of “the reactionary mind.” Robin considers conservatism “a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Neoconservatives best articulated this post-1960s conservative reaction, especially insofar as they were able to intuit the connections between political movements like feminism and antinomian countercultural currents. For Himmelfarb, postmodern culture was brutish and coarse, a pale reflection of Victorian culture, which evinced, as Robin puts it, “the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse.” In a recent blog post by Robin, where he responds to the latest among his legion of interlocutors, he builds on the close connection between politics and epistemology for Burke:

The real threat lurking beneath the revolutionary assault on history, to Burke’s mind, is not anarchy or disorder; it’s weightlessness, the—to be sure, avant la lettre—proverbial emptiness and existential nausea of modernity that later theorists like Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Schmitt will lament. And while that sense of weightlessness is by no means exclusive to the right, the connections that Burke draws between it and the antinomian forces of egalitarian revolution is. (“This is one among the revolutions which have given splendour to obscurity,” Burke writes in the Reflections, “and distinction to undiscerned merit.” Revolution flattens the world by pressing its extremities of high and low together; inequality keeps them apart, endowing the world with texture and depth.)

So what can we take from this? That plenty of people, on both left and right, conceptualize epistemology and political ideology as correlatives. And that many such people think relativistic epistemologies trend politically liberal. But not everyone agrees. This is a very old debate, of course, that goes as far back, well, as philosophy. In terms of twentieth-century U.S. intellectual history, the epistemology-political ideology debate was important in relation to ferment about fascism and communism, as I show in my first book, Education and the Cold War. Here’s a passage from my introduction (where I borrow heavily from Edward Purcell’s brilliant and underrated book, The Crisis of Democratic Theory):


The intellectual crisis [of the Cold War] took on heightened perplexity when theorists increasingly debated one another across analytical terrains, blurring the unstable boundaries that had traditionally guarded seemingly separate intellectual spheres. Because American thinkers wondered if democracy could survive the tumult of their times, they attempted to reformulate democratic theory by framing political ideology and epistemology as correlatives. In other words, intellectuals conflated their theories on the ways in which people organized their thinking on political matters (ideology) with their conceptions about the foundation, scope, and validity of knowledge (epistemology).

As historian Edward A. Purcell, Jr. has shown, before World War II, American social thinkers fell into two deeply divided camps: scientific naturalists, including John Dewey and other pragmatists, who emphasized experimentation and empirical study, and philosophic rationalists such as University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins [and his friend Mortimer Adler], who prioritized models of absolute truth. According to Purcell, a “neo-Aristotelian revival” produced an invigorated movement of rationalist philosophers who believed “human reason could discover certain immutable metaphysical principles that explained the true nature of reality.” In opposition to such an epistemological position, the scientific naturalists, in rejecting the existence of a priori truths, argued that “metaphysics was merely a cover for human ignorance and superstition.”

In this anxious climate, both sides of the prewar theoretical bifurcation—what Purcell calls a “crisis in democratic theory”—framed their epistemological positions as the appropriate concomitants of political democracy. Furthermore, they argued their opponents were in cahoots with totalitarianism. In other words, naturalists like Dewey argued that the rigid rationalist framework was consistent with political absolutism in its hostility to intellectual change, flexibility, and relativity. In contrast, rationalists like Hutchins contended that the naturalist refusal to prioritize certain principles as universally true or intrinsically superior helped breed a cultural relativism that paved the way for political forms of nihilism, including fascism.

By the beginning of the Cold War, this crisis was seemingly resolved in what Purcell terms the “relativist theory of democracy,” a stripped-down version of Dewey’s pragmatism in which democracy was made normative to America. This relativist theory of democracy blended what its practitioners believed were the best elements of naturalism, especially a faith in the empirical social sciences, with a co-opted version of rationalism, particularly a Platonic belief that American democracy was an end in itself. Although the relativist theorists of democracy considered themselves pragmatists in their attention to means, pragmatism as an identifiable philosophical radicalism, personified by Dewey in its aggressive and reform-oriented form, faded from view. Rather than critique democracy as it existed, relativist theorists assumed that American society was the democratic ideal. The status quo became an end in itself as intellectuals focused their labors on political stability.

But despite the fact that the relativist theory of democracy seemingly represented a consensus in the realm of political ideology, it never resolved deep-seated epistemological rifts. If epistemology and political ideology were indeed intertwined, an implicit assumption made by most postwar intellectuals, the relativist theory of democracy won broad acceptance in U.S. political culture because of its adherence to a naturalist or pragmatic epistemology. It was seen as an ethical alternative to “totalitarianism,” a concept that encompassed monolithic enemies old and new—Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia—because it was epistemologically opposed to totalitarianism. As the Nazis and Soviets represented epistemological and political absolutism, the United States came to signify epistemological and political democracy, defined by the traits of flexibility, pluralism, and diversity. Thus, democratic relativists committed their intellectual energies to preserving the American status quo. Brought to its logical conclusion, the relativist theory of democracy became a philosophical rationale for Cold War liberalism.

Even if there was a political resolution in the form of the relativist theory of democracy, the epistemological differences that divided the American mind before the war were never resolved. The arguments made by partisans of the 1930s battles with regards to their opponents’ epistemological relation to Nazism were also made in the Cold War context. For example, rationalists and traditionalist conservatives maintained that epistemological relativism left the back door open to Soviet totalitarianism. They argued that, because people inherently believed in truth, they would, in a state of confusion, seek out the communist grand narrative as an alternative to their own intellectual society’s failures to offer them a non-relativist worldview. However, due to the fact that the Cold War captured naturalism and made it acceptable to the American elites who funded social scientific research, rationalists sought new venues to voice their displeasure with naturalist relativism. The Cold War rationalists, and other counter-progressives, especially conservatives, formed their arguments in the context of the educational shouting matches of the early Cold War.


The supposed relationship between theoretical forms of relativism and political nihilism, fascism, even Nazism, returned to the forefront of academic discourse in the 1980s thanks to the political backgrounds of Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger. The scandal over the late Yale University Professor Paul de Man, the most famous deconstructionist this side of Derrida, served for conservatives as prima facie evidence of the ties between relativism and nihilism. For his critics, de Man’s philosophy seemed, in retrospect, an excuse for anti-Semitic articles he wrote for a Belgian newspaper during World War II. Heidegger’s Nazism, a fact that had always more or less darkened American Heidegger discourse, became even more paramount during the culture wars largely due to the de Man affair, and due to the growing degree to which American cultural theorists cited Heidegger as an influence. Martin Woessner explains the larger implications of the affair in his book Heidegger in America: “If the scandals showed that de Man and Heidegger had politicized, respectively, literary criticism and philosophy, then their intellectual heirs, including most notably Derrida, who had ties to both figures, but also all those who pledged allegiance to theory or postmodernism more generally, were compelled to explain—or explain away—such Faustian dealings.” In short, the scandals got to the heart of American fears about modernity: could people be good without foundations? For those who said no, Heidegger’s Nazism and de Man’s anti-Semitism were the smoking guns.

Of course, only specious logic allowed these smoking guns to serve as conclusive evidence that relativism, liberal or not, was a gateway drug to fascism. Which is why so many American thinkers agreed with Richard Rorty, that famous anti-epistemologist who erected conceptual brackets between politics and philosophy. Rorty might have had abiding interests in both Trotsky and orchids, to use his memorable metaphors for politics and philosophy, but that doesn’t mean the two had anything to do with one another.

The fact that plenty of non-relativists align themselves to the political left, and are highly critical of relativism, an intramural debate on the left goes back at least to Randolph Bourne’s “Twilight of Idols,” (1917) where Bourne argued Dewey’s support for American entry into WWI was a consequence of his standard-less philosophical presuppositions, says something about Rorty’s claims. The political anarchist Noam Chomsky is anything but a philosophical anarchist. Chomsky is as rationalist as they come, in his linguistics and in his political thinking. His famous debate with Michel Foucault about human nature (notice the lack of ironic quotation marks) is a famous example of this. There are also the Marxist perspectivalists deeply critical of postmodernists: Terry Eagleton, David Harvey, and Fredric Jameson. This divide is given life by the gender debates between poststructuralists like Judith Butler, who famously argued that gender, even sex, is performative all the way down, and feminist thinkers like Nancy Fraser and Seyla Benhabib, who argued that standards based on sex were necessary to achieve justice.

Timothy Brennan’s book Wars of Position, an intriguing defense of leftist Hegelianism, is highly critical of the philosophical anarchism that has gone by the name of “theory” since 1975. Brennan argues against most of those who pass as cultural theorists, “whose views, long taken to be part of the cultural Left, are in some variants at least openly and not just ludically identical to those expressed within American and European neoliberalism.” In other words, like the other Marxist perspectivalists, he argues that the extreme relativism or antifoundationalism of postmodern thinkers works perfectly alongside the “all that is solid melts into air” culture of capitalism.

Do these leftist anti-relativists prove Rorty right? Are orchids and Trotsky completely unrelated? Or rather do they prove wrong those who think political liberalism and epistemological relativism are correlatives? Is anti-relativism a better mode of thinking if one wishes to resist capitalism? How do you relate epistemology to political ideology? Are they relatable? A lot of questions need to be answered.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Love the post, Andrew—and not because I’m mentioned in it. Far from it. I admire your post because you ended it with Big Questions.

    I think that your examples, given toward the end, as well as my work on Adler, show that “political liberalism and epistemological relativism” are NOT correlatives. At the very least they don’t have to be—it’s not a necessary relationship. Rather, they are merely sufficiently related.

    And this is precisely what is difficult for today’s “conservatives,” reactionaries, and neocons to understand: They can’t conceive of their opposition as principled. That perception creates a lack of respect, and the lack of respect devolves into the kill ’em all rhetoric of some radical conservatives.

    Speaking of today and myself, not having read Brennan, I think I’m with him—insofar as you’ve described Wars of Position.

    The solution to this old problem (i.e. moral objectivity/foundations v. moral subjectivity/relativism) sometimes goes by the name “intersubjectivity,” philosophically conceived. – TL

  2. There is indeed much to talk about here. I think the idea of moral relativism is absolutely wrong (and moral objectivism and/or moral realism, correct) if not incoherent (in such forms as anti-cognitivism, expressvism, etc.). A defensible form of relativism in epistemology is better termed “perspectivalism” or even pluralism and is, I think, perfectly compatible or consistent with “universalism” in ethics. As I wrote elsewhere, It might help to recall, with Onora O’Neill, that abstract, “universal principles need not mandate uniform treatment; indeed, they mandate differentiated treatment. [….] Even principles that do not specifically mandate differentiated treatment will be indeterminate, so leave room for differentiated application.” Uniformity is, in other words and in the first place, a matter of content: “For example, principles such as ‘Each should be taxed in proportion to ability to pay,’ or ‘Good teachers should set work that is adjusted to each child’s level of ability’ respectively prescribe and recommend universally, but both will require varied rather than uniform implementation in a world of varying cases.” In addition, “even when universal principles specifically prescribe some degree or aspect of uniformity of action or treatment, they underdetermine action, so must permit varied implementation.” Finally, universal principles of action “hold universally only relative to some domain of agents.” In sum, it follows that, as Kant himself appreciated and many of his critics have not (among those critics O’Neill includes contemporary ‘particularists’ like ‘communitarians, virtue ethicists, and some “radical” feminist writers’), “the application of principles to cases involves judgement and deliberation.” Thus principles serve as “side-constraints (not algorithms) and can only guide (not make) decisions.”

    On relativist nonsense, please see Nicholas Rescher’s Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason (1997). David Wiggins’ Ethics: Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality (2006) is, I think, convincing with regard to the “outlook” of moral objectivism.

  3. Very interesting post Andrew. It seems to me that it would be helpful to separate the philosophical issues (does epistemology x necessitate political ideology y) from the historical issues (how have thinkers in the modern era connected these two realms and to what ends), rather than move from the historical to the philosophical as you do here. Epistemologies, metaphysical commitments, and political and social philosophies can be, and have been, combined in all kinds of ways. The question of whether or not “relativism” (which would appear to come in a lot of varieties; a rejection of the absolute authority of a sacred text in favor of the contingent authority of scientific methods relativizes truth in a different sense than, say, Rorty’s leveling of science as just one way of telling stories among many.) is somehow inherently “liberal” abstracts philosophy from history. But, as you indicate, historically, modern liberalism in the stream that flowed from James and Dewey did insist that the epistemic openness to the possibility of new ways of knowing led to the foregrounding of democratic values such as tolerance, pluralism and a commitment to a future that could not be predicted by pre-existing absolute principles. Dewey claimed that philosophies rooted in hierarchical and dualistic conceptions of the real were vestiges of aristocratic societies and unsuited to democracy. James Kloppenberg’s argument in _Uncertain Victory_ is precisely that in crafting a new anti-dualistic epistemology, the philosophers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries developed a set of ideas that allowed for a new vision of social democracy, but certainly not that their social vision was already inherent in their epistemology. People believed what they believed, and reasoned in ways that did connect anti-absolutist epistemologies with anti-absolutist politics. As a historian, I can’t see how it’s fruitful to ask whether they reasoned correctly or not. This does remind me of another recent thread in which Ray, I believe, was analyzing the divergence and convergence between theological liberalism and conservatism, on the one hand, and political liberalism and conservatism on the other. There is some historical relationship there, but the variations indicate it’s not a matter of logical necessity.

  4. Moral relativism is a very slippery concept if you actually try to pin it down, and the list of significant figures who describe themselves as moral relativists is pretty short. Isn’t the term mostly a polemical instrument? What conservatives object to, at least in my hearing, is not so much the suggestion that reasoning about matters of value is futile and anything goes as the denial that the conservative version of morality is right. Conservatives also often insist that morality has to be conceived of as loyalty to an authority figure so that even somebody who maintains an extremely rigid set of principles can be accused of relativism if they don’t believe in God. Folks who suspect there are absolute or at least better moral principles but that we haven’t figured out them out yet are also anathema. You can also get tarred with the relativism label if you suggest that interpreting principles in new specific circumstances is an on-going necessity.

    I don’t doubt that lots of people are moral relativists and would even self identify as such. Indeed, I take it as a rule of intellectual history that any sharp and difficult body of thought, especially if it is European, will eventually decay into a vague sort of relativism in America much as uranium inevitably decays into lead. Thing is, can you name a relativist who mattered? I think it is highly significant that the original post doesn’t identify any of the individuals in the vast army of liberal relativists.

  5. Thanks for the comments. I think Patrick is right to point to the ways moral relativism is wrong. But perhaps more to the point, Jim is right to point to the ways relativism is slippery and, that hardly anyone claims the relativist label. Most of those thinkers conservatives call relativists are perspectivalists of one sort or another, as I would consider pragmatists. I do think some of the curriculum that serves as my evidence comes from a cultural relativist vantage, anthropological, which I realize is not the same thing, conceptually, as moral relativism.

    The sagest advice comes from Dan–to not mix up the historical and the philosophical. You’re right, of course. Or, as my advisor Leo Ribuffo would say, work harder at being a good historian and less at being a Thinker with a capital T.

  6. From what I can gather, being a good historian and being a Thinker with a capital T are not mutually exclusive. My guess is that my advisor would say something along the lines of, Think Historically, and Historicize Thought — though maybe without the capital letters.

  7. In the spirit of Dan’s cautionary remarks and Andrew’s conclusion that “a lot of questions need to be answered,” I like to raise some questions about the questions.

    For starters, some distinctions could be made about the kinds of inquiries that might be undertaken. There’s the “politics of epistemology” and the “epistemology of politics” — respectively, the rhetorical uses of epistemological terms and concepts by political actors, and discussions in social and political theory about the epistemological entailments of political arrangements and/or ideologies; epistemology as a field in philosophy; and all these as historical sub-fields — the “historical politics of epistemology,” the “historical epistemology of politics,” and the “history of epistemology.”

    I’m not saying these are utterly distinct, much less unrelated, but their involvements and interactions need to be thought out. It seems that a case would have to be made, say, that the “historical epistemology of politics,” which is mostly what’s going on here, can do something toward settling questions about the “epistemology of politics,” to say nothing of philosophical issues in “epistemology.” Up front, I can’t see any obvious reason for assuming that tracing historically the politically charged discourses in which people accuse one another of being “relativists” has much of anything to contribute to general theoretical questions or philosophical discussions in epistemology or ethics.

    Maybe that’s not the intention, but it appears to be, since after the history loving is over, Andrew raises general theoretical and philosophical questions, asking for example, “How do you relate epistemology to political ideology?” Both Tim and Patrick take him at his abstract word, responding to the general questions raised, not directly to matters of historical interpretation. I think this is what Dan means by a “move from the historical to the philosophical.”

    One of the problems is that terms are not defined, and it’s sometimes not clear whether a word has the meaning some historical actors gave it, or the meaning it has for the historian. Not only does “relativism” come in many varieties today, as Dan points out, but there’s a good chance that the meanings of the term have only partial stability over time in diverse of historical settings. Can we take it for granted that “relativism” — and it’s a good example, after all ! — has some sort of fixed essence of meaning, especially being aware that such terms were and are weapons in political contests.

    I’m not saying I think all history is really, and merely, a history of the present, but it does seem that historians’ claims for standing in contemporary political, theoretical and philosophical discussions are entirely based on others’ acceptance that their knowledge of the past has some bite or relevance, which for intellectual historians would seem to require the assumption of some continuity of terms and meanings that then can be dramatized in some narrative. To adopt a phrase from David Potter, it seems like a virtual “compulsion of the medium.”

    If there’s anything to this, maybe the slip, the sneak, from “relativism” back when, to “relativism” now, perhaps to an implied perennial “relativism,” is something like what in the old days was called a real functional imperative. In other words, as problematical as sometimes it seems, the move from history to philosophy, from historian to would-be “public intellectual,” is essential if anyone’s going to pay attention. It’s ironic, no? – to get standing as a historian you almost have to stop being one.

  8. Very well said, Bill. Ironies abound.

    To ask a strictly historical question, if that’s possible: I’m curious how the term and concept of relativism has shifted across the twentieth century. Perhaps if Dewey and the pragmatists used the term to describe pragmatism their intentions were to distance themselves from the perennialism and absolutism of their metaphysical foes? But really what they meant is what we would later come to think of as perspectivalism?

  9. Andrew – This thread and your questions inspired me to do a little searching, and here’s a few items that might be helpful on “relativism.”

    In the journal Common Knowledge, there’s a fascinating symposium – “Comparative Relativism: Symposium on an Impossibility,” which includes articles that give some historical perspective, such as by Barbara Hernstein Smith. Also her book, Scandalous Knowledge, and an earlier article in the same journal, 12, 2-3, Spring-Fall 2007.

    There’s also a series of four articles in Anthropological Quarterly 80, 3, Summer 2007.

    Nothing I can help you on regarding “perspectivalism.” I never thought of Dewey and the others as “relativists” except in some very specific sense, as they drew upon but also criticized philosophical idealists.

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