The Book of Absolutes

The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals

WILLIAM D. GAIRDNER
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 416
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt808dc
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  • Book Info
    The Book of Absolutes
    Book Description:

    Gairdner refutes the popular belief in cultural relativism by showing that there are hundreds of well-established cross-cultural "human universals." He then discusses the many universals found in physics - as well as Einstein's personal regret at how his work was misinterpreted by the public's eagerness to promote relativism. Gairdner also gives a lively account of the many universals of human biology, including the controversial topic of universal gender differences or "brain sex." He then looks at universal concepts of both natural and international law, and ends by discussing language theory. He shows how philosophers from Nietzsche to Derrida have misused linguistic concepts to justify their relativism, even though a sustained and successful effort by serious scientists and philosophers of language has revealed myriad universals of human language, ranging from language acquisition, to word-order, to "Universal Grammar."

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7469-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-2)

    There is a lovely French short story in which a distraught elderly philosopher laments to his young student that in modern times the word “truth” has lost all meaning. She is amazed by this insight, and in response declares, “How true that is!”

    It is easy for us to nod our heads and miss the irony altogether because for more than a century, the citizens of the Western world have been uncritically subjected in the media, the public square, and the classroom to the disturbing idea that there is no permanent truth in human life or in the material world...

  5. 1 A Brief History of Relativism
    (pp. 3-21)

    When asked where relativism comes from, most people are likely to shrug and say: “It’s just the way things are.” Some might add that Einstein started it all, or that anthropology shows how every culture has its own customs and truths, or that psychology has proven all values are “personal,” and so on. And everyone has seen movies or read books that play with the idea that reality is not an objective thing but a composite of different “perspectives.” Most of this is trotted out as commonly held truth and often dressed up as morally tolerant intellectual sophistication. But in...

  6. 2 The Main Types of Relativism
    (pp. 22-30)

    Relationism, as we have seen, merely says that things are often seen and judged from different perspectives, or in the philosophical sense, it describes a formal relationship between two or more entities. It does not say that there is no truth but says that any truth statement is often a composite of relations and for this reason may be difficult, but not impossible, to figure out. This is the most commonly understood sense in which people mistakenly say things are “relative.”

    Relativism, in contrast, argues that there is no God’s-eye view, or truth, or foundation for anything, that no claim,...

  7. 3 Objections to Relativism
    (pp. 31-43)

    Not so long ago an educated person was someone of deep learning prepared to do ferocious intellectual and moral battle to defend deeply held beliefs. But the equivalent today, while perhaps more broadly learned, is more likely to think of him or herself as proudly distinguished by theabsenceof “rigid” opinions and moral values, to be someone “tolerant” and “open.” Such a person will generally profess some variation of relativism, or “you do your thing and I’ll do mine,” as a personal philosophy. Many in this frame of mind privately consider themselves exemplars of an enlightened modern attitude that...

  8. 4 The Universals of Human Life and Culture
    (pp. 44-68)

    Universally valid truths about human beings, about their bodies and beliefs, loves and laws, politics and principles – many of them deep and startling insights from poets, scientists, philosophers, and sages – have been piling up since the dawn of history. Despite this well-known fact, in 1982 Sir Edmund Leach, one of Britain’s most distinguished anthropologists, saw fit to write that “during the hundred years of their existence, academic anthropologists have not discovered a single universally valid truth concerning either human culture or human society.”¹

    How was such a statement possible?

    For one reason only: by the time he wrote those words...

  9. 5 The Constants of Nature
    (pp. 69-104)

    Curious people have always wanted to know how the world works. What is the nature of the universe? How did we get here? Why does nature work this way instead of some other way? Whether we look deeply into science, politics, art, or philosophy, we find an amazing range of answers. And although when it comes to the ultimate questions a scientist is no smarter than a poet or a carpenter, it is generally true that throughout history the public view concerning the meaning of existence and the universe tends to follow what philosophers and scientists have told us about...

  10. 6 The War Over Biology: Setting the Stage
    (pp. 105-119)

    Ours is a biological planet.

    Just ask yourself: How much life-giving blood is pumped by almost 7 billion human hearts pounding at seventy-five beats a minute all over the globe;¹ how much sleeping, birthing, eating, thinking, talking, dying?

    Now imagine that every one of the nearly 7 billion people lights up with a different bright colour according to whatever biological function is underway at the moment. Then picture the whole planet from outer space, with everyone flashing intermittent blue for breathing, green for sleeping, yellow for eating, red for lovemaking, orange for thinking, magenta for birthing, and so on. Add...

  11. 7 Hardwired: The Universals of Human Biology, Sex, and Brain Sex
    (pp. 120-162)

    The war over biology has been waged – is still being waged – between mostly atheistic natural scientists who deeply believe all things have solely a material cause and (as often) atheistic social scientists who believe the same thing. Despite the affection of both camps for a materialism that if followed strictly would eliminate all intellectual and moral freedom, the latter have a career interest in “social progress.” Accordingly, they are acutely worried that to admit human behaviour is hardwired in any way is to surrender to fatalism, to admit that nothing whatever can be done to change the course of society....

  12. 8 Universals of Law: The Natural Law and the Moral Law
    (pp. 163-193)

    This was the end.

    There had been weeks of flight and terror. And so a strange peace came over him when he glimpsed the first of many centurions through the window of his windswept villa at Formiae. Bobbing heads and worn armour weaving between old rocks. They crept like scruffy animals, surrounding him. There would be no escape. His heart was filling with fear and love, his mind with triumphant sound. Everything he cherished gripped him at once. His children’s sweet smiles. Graceful gulls carving the air hundreds of feet above a rolling sea. His gardens, wild with dewy roses....

  13. 9 The Natural Law and the Moral Law at Work in the World
    (pp. 194-216)

    A beautiful theory is a fine spectacle. But is it true? And what can such a question mean in the real world? How do we tell the difference between two elegant theories about reality, both of which cannot possibly be true? The only way to know is to see whether the older theory can be falsified by the new and whether the new theory allows more accurate predictions or explains what previously could not be understood. That is what happened with Galileo’s so-called heliocentric (sun-centred) theory, proving that the earth travels around the sun, not vice versa, as previously believed,...

  14. 10 How Language Theory Changed the (Post) Modern World
    (pp. 217-235)

    Human habit conceals human mystery, and this is especially and deeply true for habits of language. For we do not know by what miracle of history or necessity we are able so effortlessly – should I say unconsciously – and with such unseemly instruments as lips, tongue, and teeth to whisper soft words in a lover’s ear that move to tears or bark commands that fill the hearts of fighting men with pride.

    There are presently some 5,000 language on the planet, not counting dialects, creoles, and idioms, unknown hundreds that have become extinct, and some that may now be forming. Despite...

  15. 11 German Philosophy and the Relativist Revolt against Western Civilization
    (pp. 236-248)

    While this chapter might seem at first to be a departure from our central theme, it in fact sets the stage for the discussion of radical relativism in the chapters that follow by explaining first how it was rooted in German culture and then how it infected – I think that is the best word – almost all the softer branches of European and Anglo-American academic work in the wake of World War II. Close inspection reveals that at the very deepest level of German history, there can be found an ancient and bitter antipathy to any universalizing forms of foreign thought...

  16. 12 The Sacred Text: The French Nietzsche and the French Heidegger
    (pp. 249-265)

    The first shot across the bow announcing “poststructuralism” was fired in 1966 at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore by a French philosopher of language named Jacques Derrida during an international conference on language and literature.¹ He was unknown to most Americans at the time, so the speech he came to deliver was more than a surprise – it was a bombshell. At the time, the enterprise of literary criticism occupied a kind of free-fire zone in intellectual circles and was in search of a serious method to rescue it from the bog of ever more precious personal opinion and “interpretation”...

  17. 13 Po-Mo and the Return to Absolutes
    (pp. 266-277)

    At the end of his days, an intellectually embattled and sometimes embarrassed Derrida, a man so often accused of trashing everything and believing in nothing, made an infamous “Turn,” or as some former supporters indignantly described it: a betrayal. Before his Turn, everything was deconstructible, and anyone with a little literary and philosophical dexterity who had caught on to the Po-Mo game could easily show how the deep-structure meaning of just about any text undermines its own surface arguments and therefore its foundations. But Derrida’s own work was soon subjected to this same procedure. He was accused repeatedly of publicly...

  18. 14 The Universals of Language
    (pp. 278-299)

    Almost daily he could be seen – a dark figure apparently talking to himself as he walked slowly from library to office under the shadows of palm trees on the beautiful sun-drenched campus of California’s Stanford University. Professor Joseph Greenberg was a man obsessed in a happy way with words; more specifically, he was intrigued by the many ways human beings all over the world use words in the same fashion. Absolutely and universally.

    Prior to the 1960s, however, interest in language universals was still in its infancy and distinctly out of step with the times. Indeed, American anthropology, so formed...

  19. 15 A Postscript, with a Word about the Universals of Literature, Myth, and Symbol
    (pp. 300-308)

    The ongoing discovery of the universals we share in common through activities such as the production of literary and of mythic, symbolic, and other aesthetic works is interesting for its own sake, of course, but mostly because universals of all kinds point to a common humanity. From anthropology, we have learned that all human societies have “literature” in the most general sense of some kind of continuous tradition of storytelling, either in an oral form as stories said or sung or in sophisticated written forms, as seen in all the more technologically advanced societies. This is a human universal.

    What...

  20. APPENDIX: Some Universals and Constants of Nature and Human Nature
    (pp. 309-334)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 335-380)
  22. Index
    (pp. 381-398)