The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals by
William D. Gairdner (Montreal, QC & Kingston, ON:
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008)>
R.V. YOUNG is a professor of Renaissance literature and literary criticism at North Carolina State University and editor of Modern Age
"There is one thing a professor can beabsolutely certain of," writes AllanBloom in the "Introduction" to The Closingof the American Mind: "almost everystudent entering the university believes,or says he believes, that truth is relative."In the more than twenty years since thesewords were published, things have hardlychanged for the better. Most of today'suniversity students could not even articulatetheir relativism as a "belief"; it israther an aggregate of assumptions derivedby a process of unconscious mental osmosisfrom the post-modern cultural ambience.There is nothing surprising in thepervasiveness of relativism in contemporaryculture: a people deprived of defi-nite moral standards and a clear religiousvision of the human condition will heedlesslyadopt the viewpoint that favors theimmediate interests and desires of particularindividuals and groups. The belief thattruth is relative is seductively persuasive,since my "truth" always will pre-emptyours. Relativism provides fallen men andwomen a virtuous-sounding pretext forindulging their selfishness by being "true"to "who they are," by seeking "empowerment,"and by generally exploiting theself-aggrandizing clichés that are sucha feature of a society driven by the massmedia.
Conservatism has, therefore, no morepressing task than the discrediting of therelativistic presumption that has increasinglydominated modern culture for atleast a century. This is, to be sure, a taskthat will never be done. The Sophists ofSocrates' day were as beguiled by relativismas our contemporaries, doubtless foressentially the same reason. It must berefuted again and again from age to agewith revised arguments designed to confrontthe new ploys adduced by each newgeneration of intellectual schemers—variationsof more or less sophistication on theSerpent's original deception of Eve in theGarden of Eden. In The Book of Absolutes,William D. Gairdner provides a potentweapon for the struggle against today'ssophistical reductionism that threatensintellectual clarity and moral certainty.His work is a careful and comprehensiverestatement of the position propoundedin The Abolition of Man, which takes intoaccount cultural and intellectual developmentsduring the six decades since C. S.Lewis first defined the "Tao" in his briefclassic. Gairdner adds a wealth of detailedevidence to Lewis's laconic exposition andoffers an updated and expanded accountof the fundamental absolutes of humannature and the realities of our creaturelyexistence.
The Book of Absolutes begins by definingits foe and placing it in context. The firstthree chapters are "A Brief History of Relativism,""The Main Types of Relativism,"and "Objections to Relativism." Gairdneris aware that relativism is ancient, and hecites Protagoras's famous remark from theTheaetetus that "man is the measure of allthings" (although he could as well havementioned Callicles from the Gorgias orThrasymachus from the Republic); but he isright to move quickly to the rise of relativism,as we know it now, in the early modernperiod. Like Richard Weaver in IdeasHave Consequences, Gairdner calls attentionto the nominalism of William of Occam asthe first crucial step in the gradual decayof the intellectual and moral vision of theWestern world. Descartes' radical skepticismand Hobbes's reductive materialismmark further stages on the way. Thisvery compact summary of how relativismhas developed is followed by a taxonomyof the various kinds of relativism that haveemerged in the modern world—relativismof "things," of "the mind and senses," "cognitiverelativism," "ethical and/or moralrelativism," and "cultural relativism." Andthis is followed by another summary chapterlisting an even dozen "objections,"beginning with "relativism is self-refuting"and concluding with "cultural relativism isitself a form of morality."
Having thus provided an overview ofthe problem, Gairdner devotes the remainderof the book to a comprehensive surveyof relativism in all its many guises, drawingattention to its internal contradictionsand manifest absurdities, which woulddrive off any adherents not bound by massiveideological investment. For indeedrelativism is the master ideology of ourtime, understanding the term to denominatea set of propositions, perspectives,and attitudes that function not to organizereality or make it comprehensible, but toreshape it according to the aspirations anddesires of the ideologue. As one example,Gairdner points out in his fourth chapter,"The Universals of Human Life and Culture,"that for the better part of a century,it was anthropological dogma that thereis no "single universally valid truth concerningeither human culture or human society." Thisassertion is simple nonsense: "One of thepurposes of this chapter," he continues, "isto ask: Why, by the end of the twentiethcentury, did a young academic disciplinedevoted to 'the study of Man' have nothingvery much it wanted to say about 'Man'?"The answer turns out to be the alarm ofFranz Boas, a principal architect of the newscience of anthropology, over the growthof racialism in America and Europe earlyin the twentieThcentury. Anthropologicalrelativism was promoted as a refutation ofthe noxious notion that any racial, ethnic,or cultural group is inherently superior toanother. In one of history's droller ironies,Margaret Sanger, "the 'Godmother' ofPlanned Parenthood and one of the moststrident racialists and eugenicists of Boas'sday, remains in our time a heroine to theleftwing relativists who are the intellectualheirs of Franz Boas."
The unique value of The Book of Absolutesemerges in the author's painstakingaccount of figures such as Boas. C. S. Lewis'sdiatribe against relativism in The Abolitionof Man is matchless for its crisp clarityand finesse. Gairdner, however, fills inthe gaps. Lewis rarely takes up a particularindividual—the "elementary text-book"that provides the occasion for the Abolitionis identified as "The Green Book" by "Gaius"and "Titius"—and moves randomly amonginstances of relativism in various fields.Gairdner carefully rebuts numerous errorsby particular writers across a logicallyordered spectrum of human study andendeavor. After demonstrating how seriousanthropological study has moved awayfrom the relativism of Boas and his school,The Book of Absolutes proceeds to lay outthe scientific and scholarly evidence for theexistence of universal principles and constantsin the realms of physics, chemistry,and biology—including innate differencesbetween the sexes—and in morality, law,and language. An especially telling passageexplains how Einstein's theory of relativity,which Einstein himself wished to callthe theory of "invariant postulates," wasillogically thought to imply relativism inthe moral, social, and political phases ofhuman life.
Gairdner is careful to trace the developmentand motivations of relativisticthinking and to spell out its implications,devoting particular attention to the mostcontroversial areas of recent decades:human biological nature, culture, and language.He manifests an awareness of thedangers accompanying any effort simplyto reject relativism in a reactionary fashionand applies solid common sense tohis consideration of the "nature/nurture"conflict that is prominent today in argumentsabout human behavior. "It turns outthat both these views," he writes, "whentaken as the whole truth, have led to thedarkest atrocities." The idea that nature isperpetually fixed has provided a pretext forthe racialism that led to eugenics, Nazism,and other assorted horrors of the twentiethcentury. But Hitler himself was not devoidof the idea of "human plasticity" such thatthe state could manufacture a populace ofany kind it wished, and a confidence insocial construction is essential to revolutionaryideologies and "the conflagrationsand massacres engineered by the 'nurturing'totalitarian systems of the twentiethcentury."
Gairdner is adroit at making use ofthe valid insights and discoveries of variousfields of study as well as individualresearchers without yielding to their dubioustheorizing about the significance oftheir own work. Darwin's account ofnatural selection, for example, is a problematicbasis for the notion that humanproblems can all be ameliorated by adjustmentsto social institutions and practices.The evolutionary biologists and sociologistswhose polemic over the existence ofinnate or "hardwired" human propensitiesand capacities continues to roil theacademic waters are all Darwinian materialists,but both sides—the biologists noless than the social scientists—write as ifhuman beings were capable of free, rational choice and individual self-determination.It is easy for Gairdner to demonstratethat their ideological disdain for any kindof spiritual reality or religious truth is atodds with their commitment to what theyconceive as social justice; hence, both sidescan be marshaled for the sake of Gairdner'sown traditional view of human nature.Similarly, he makes good use of StephenPinker in the explication of evolutionarybiology and of Noam Chomsky's conceptof the inherent human capacity for language.It doesn't matter that neither Pinkernor Chomsky (nor evolutionary biologistEdward O. Wilson) qualifies as a conservativeor a traditionalist.
I introduced The Book of Absolutes witha comparison to C. S. Lewis's The Abolitionof Man, and the comparison obtains in theway both books conclude. Lewis includesan appendix, "Illustrations of the Tao,"which he then calls "illustrations of theNatural Law." Gairdner's volume likewiseends with an appendix, "Some Universalsand Constants of Nature and HumanNature." The difference between the titlessuggests what Gairdner adds to Lewis'sargument. The more recent book treatsnot only the natural morality pervasivein humanity—St. Paul's "law written intheir hearts"—but also provides a broaderaccount of the constants undergirding thestructure of natural universe that harmonizewith rational human nature. TheAbolition of Man will remain an indispensableprophetic work of the conservativevision of reality. The contribution of TheBook of Absolutes is to bring Lewis's argumentsup-to-date and to demonstrate thateven natural science, which relativists persistin treating as an ally in their campaignagainst moral and intellectual certainty,provides yet further evidence for traditionalwisdom.