Who’s Afraid of Relativism?: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood

James K. A. Smith
Published by Baker Academic in 2014

Reviewed by David Vander Laan, Philosophy, Westmont College

Who’s Afraid of Relativism? has two aims. The first is expressed in an epigraph by Augustine: “If those, however, who are called philosophers happen to have said anything that is true, and agreeable to our faith…not only should we not be afraid of them, but we should even claim back for our own use what they have said, as from its unjust possessors.” As in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, his previous book in the series, Smith wants to give a hearing to a stance to which many Christian thinkers are apparently allergic—in this case, relativism. The second, and more ambitious, aim is to argue that Christians should be relativists of a certain sort.

Those looking for a discussion of ethical relativism or the social construction of all reality will find something rather different going by the name “relativism” here. Smith’s topic is a family of ideas that are sometimes accused of relativism, namely, pragmatic theories of meaning and epistemic justification. The central chapters are expositions of Wittgenstein’s pragmatic theory of meaning and of Richard Rorty’s and Robert Brandom’s pragmatic theories of justification. In the final chapter, Smith uses George Lindbeck’s postliberal theology to spell out some of the implications of pragmatism for Christian theology and ministry. Along the way, Smith draws on a number of thought-provoking and moving films that, on a generous reading, illustrate the book’s themes.

Wittgenstein’s characterization of meaning as use sets the stage. His notion of language games and his characterization of language as a “form of life” suggest that meaning depends on, or is, a web of social practices. That the practices are social reminds us that meaning is forged in community, not given by a natural correspondence between words and their referents. That society engages in practices reminds us that the understanding of meaning is more a kind of know-how than a knowing-that. For this reason, to be a language user is to be indebted to others. “And this,” Smith adds, “is a feature of finitude, a characteristic of creaturehood” (53). Smith suggests that this social understanding of meaning resembles Augustine’s mature conclusion about the nature of signs in On Christian Doctrine, namely, that to be a sign is to function as a sign for human listeners and readers.

Rorty aims to extend Wittgenstein’s ideas, moving the discussion from the meaning of language to the justification of beliefs. His main target is representationalism, or what Charles Taylor has called the Inside/Outside picture. The idea is that our minds (the inside) contain representations of what the world (the outside) is like. Truth, then, is a matter of getting our representations to correspond to what exists on the outside. Rorty’s contention is that many philosophers during the modern period adopted this picture and privileged certain representations, proclaiming them suitable to serve as foundations for the rest of what one believes. In so doing, they made justification an individual project. To be justified, I need only get my own beliefs to correspond to the world in the right way.

In contrast, Rorty sees justification as a social project. Conversation is a social activity that generates the standards of justification that our claims to knowledge and truth must meet. In this sense, Smith explains, justification is relative to one’s linguistic community. But to embrace such a relativism is not to reject the metaphysical furniture of the universe. For Rorty, our conversation is an attempt to cope with the “antics” of our shared environment, which, along with our peers, constrains what we are justified in saying. Nor does Rorty reject objectivity or truth (or specifically moral truths). However, he does emphasize that these are always situated in a social context; what we call “true” or “objective” is that which meets the standards of normal discourse.

Brandom refines this picture with an account of inference as a social practice. To draw a conclusion is to authorize it, and authorization is an inevitably social activity. As for Rorty, justification is social, but not because social standards replace reasoning. Rather, reasoning is itself an activity that depends on the norms of a community.

Smith offers Lindbeck’s postliberalism as a Brandomian theology of doctrine and mission. Postliberalism is a “cultural-linguistic” account of religion that conceives of Christianity as a form of life. The function of doctrine is not so much to make truth claims or express emotions as to regulate the practices of the church, including its linguistic practices. Mission, on this account, welcomes people into a way of life and its narrative. It is invitational rather than demonstrational, a feature Smith says it shares with the apologetic tack of Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology.

The thing I appreciate most about the book is Smith’s sympathetic reading of pragmatist authors. Rorty in particular is often given short shrift in Christian circles, and Smith’s appreciative exposition is a salutary corrective to tempting misreadings and knee-jerk versions of the charge of relativism. Though Rorty and Brandom may indeed go too far, as Smith acknowledges, it is helpful to see in more detail what motivates them, and what they do and do not say. The book may be most useful to those who know Rorty only in caricature.

I also appreciate the theme of creaturely dependence of which Smith hopes the pragmatist authors will remind us. It is worthwhile to place our epistemology in its theological context and to recall that we are deeply dependent on God and, as the pragmatists emphasize, others. It is fair to say that mainstream epistemology has focused on the individual knower until recently,1 and that the epistemic roles of the communities to which we belong deserve more attention.

The book falls short, though, in its attempt to show that Christians ought to be pragmatists. Smith’s central argument for a Christian pragmatism seems to be that pragmatism and orthodox Christian belief share an important emphasis, namely, that humans are contingent, limited, and dependent on each other. But having a shared emphasis is not nearly enough. Compare: Christianity and Marxism share an important emphasis on the injustice of economic oppression, but this on its own does not imply that Christians should be Marxists, nor even Marxists of a sort. Such an argument would be weak even if non-Marxists compared poorly to Marxists in their attentiveness to economic injustices.

As regards epistemology, one need not adopt pragmatism to embrace our creaturely and communal dependence. For Smith, representationalism is hubris and heresy. His repeated claim for pragmatism is, “To wish it otherwise is to wish away our finitude” (85). As a diagnosis of the representationalist’s motives, this is entirely too quick. Wishing away one’s finitude is one possible motive. But even for those who are deeply aware of their epistemic limits and contingency, representationalism may have considerable appeal.

In rescuing the pragmatists from dismissive criticisms, Smith dismissively rejects representational epistemologies that are perfectly consistent with a theology of creaturely dependence. One who believes that knowledge consists chiefly in a match between her “inside” beliefs and the “outside” world might well see herself as indebted to God and her formative communities for the cognitive skills used to make the necessary correspondence, and dependent on her social context for the concepts that are constitutive of her knowledge. Smith’s reply is, “Even the fallibilist representationalist ‘knower’ is godlike insofar as she doesn’t seem to depend on anyone” (99, emphasis in original). Does she not? Nothing keeps her from acknowledging her multifaceted dependence on others in forming accurate representations.

It is a distinct question whether Christians should be relativists. Smith gives an idiosyncratic sense to “relative” and its cognates, treating “relative to” as synonymous with “dependent upon.” “Is Rorty a ‘relativist’? Yes, in just this sense: that our knowledge is rooted in, and dependent upon, contingent social practices reflective of the communities of which we are a part” (100).2 Smith suggests that this is a technical sense (105); it is certainly not the ordinary sense. The risk is that Smith’s claim that Christians should be relativists will be trivialized. And indeed Smith implies that his “relativism” is something that everyone already believes. He frequently recalls Rorty’s reply to the charge of being a relativist: “But who isn’t?” (see, for example, 98).

This dynamic of the discussion, or something like it, is familiar. As one commentator notes, “The problem is exacerbated by the fact that relativistic theses often come in two forms: a bold and arresting version, which is proclaimed, and a weaker, less vulnerable version, which is defended—with the first having a tendency to morph into the second when under attack.”3 In the present case, Smith sticks fairly consistently to thinking of relativity as dependence,4 but this leaves him without much reason for thinking that a representational view cannot be a species of relativism. Christians should be “relativists” in his sense, but “relativists” need not be pragmatists.

In my judgment, then, Smith does not succeed in showing that Christians ought to be pragmatists. But he clears the lower bar of making a persuasive case that Christian thinking about meaning can benefit from engagement with some of pragmatism’s themes. Pragmatism recognizes an aspect of human thought—its dependence—on wich Christians have solid theological reasons to insist. To the pure all things are pure, and pragmatist works may well occasion “an exercise in self-examination” (32) in their Christian readers, turning their attention again toward what their faith teaches about the limits of creatures.

Cite this article
David Vander Laan, “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:4 , 401-403

Footnotes

  1. In recent decades, however, social epistemology has drawn increased attention. See, for example, Alvin Goldman and Thomas Blanchard, “Social Epistemology,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/epistemology-social/>.
  2. See also 105, 107, 112-113, 141, 142, and elsewhere.
  3. Chris Swoyer, “Relativism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/relativism/>.
  4. Although he sometimes treats ‘relative to’ as synonymous with ‘related to’ (see 109n and 179).

David Vander Laan

Westmont College
David Vander Laan is Professor of Philosophy at Westmont College.