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Beyond Objectivism and Relativism

Beyond Objectivism
and Relativism
Ingvar Johansson

One very important line of division in todayt s philosophy is
between those who want to go beyond the dualism between
objectivism and relativism and those who still think this dualism
is a live option. On this issue t I side with Richard Rortyts view in
Philosophy and the Mirror ofNature (Oxfordt 1979). ObviouslYt
his version of pragmatism is not intended to solve t but to transcendt the old problem. The title I have chosen for my paper is also
the title of a book by another American philosophert Richard
Bernsteints Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (Oxford t 1983).

And Bernstein t toOt is looking for such a transcendence. But he
does not advocate exactly the same position as Rorty; for instancet
he puts heavy stress on Kanfs analysis of the aesthetic judgement.

I am saying this in order to make it clear at once that there is
already more than one camp in the newly discovered land beyond
objectivism and relativism. That being said tI want to state my own
position in the form of three theses:

conditions or rules of theory choice.

This view has obviously, whatever follows logically from itt
furthered a relativistic point of view. And the way it functions is
of course easy to understand. If all observations are necessarily
impregnated with a certain theoretical point of view, it might seem
as though scientists are in the grip of a theory in the same sense in
which a man wearing coloured glasses is in the grip of the colour
of these glasses. If the glasses are blue then everything will get a
blue nuance. The world’s perceived colour does not depend on the
world but on his glasses. In the same way: What science says about
the world seems to be determined by its theoretical presuppositions t not by the world itself.

(l) Philosophers should move beyond objectivism and

(2) We should retain a concept of truth t meaning correspondence to reality.

(3) Philosophers should even continue to do systematic

In what follows I shall t first t give my account of how the need to
go beyond objectivism and relativism has arisen t then t second t
introduce a special notion of truth and some of its consequences.

I will end UPt third t with some comments on metaphysics.

Epistemological Objectivism
For me epistemological objectivism is no longer a live option.

Absolutism t whether in the form of rationalism t empiricism t
transcendentalism t or scientism t is made theoretically untenable
bYt on the one handt the modern philosophy of science t and on the
other by historicism and the sociology of knowledge. The term
‘historicism t I use in the sense which associates it with Vico and
German ‘Historismus’. The phrase ‘modern philosophy of science t is intended to refer to the kind of philosophy associated with
names like Thomas Kuhn t Paul Feyerabend t Norwood Russel
Hanson, etc. And the central thesis which I am interested in is their
thesis that all observations and all empirical data are theory laden t
and that as a result of this there are no necessary and sufficient

Modern philosophy of science is hermeneutics extended to
natural science. Many philosophers t Bernstein and Rorty among
them t take the hermeneutic insight to be the most effective weapon
against epistemological objectivism. Therefore, before proceeding, I want to fasten attention to the fact that a positivistically
interpreted sociology of knowledge also makes objectivism problematic. Let me first of all, howevert remind you of the structure
of some of the arguments put forward by the ancient sceptics. They
centred their scepticism around facts of perceptual relativity. I am
thinking of such facts as that if you first have your left hand in a
bucket of warm water and your right hand in a bucket of cold watert
and then place both hands in a third bucket you will perceive
different temperatures in the hands. The impact of modern science
has t I thi~ made perceptual relativity look like a mere curiosityt
and not a threat to the concept of knowledge. The sociology of
knowledge, howevert questions scientific knowledge in about the
same way as the bucket experiment questions perceptual knowledge.


The structure of the old sceptical argument is that the history of the
right hand and the left hand, respectively, partly determine what is
now perceived in them when they are put in the same bucket
Today, sociologists of knowledge say that a scientist’s history, his
background, partly determines what he will come to regard as
knowledge. The similarity in structure between this modem
sceptical argument and the ancient one comes out very clearly if
we look at a schematic Marxist example of sociology of knowledge. We can then just substitute a scientist with working class
background for the left hand and a scientist with upper class
background for the right hand. If these two scientists are doing
research with regard to exactly the same problem, their pre-history
will cause their opinions to differ as the different pre-histories of
the hands will cause the perceptions to differ in the bucket
As such an argument stands, it may be taken as referring,
without any hermeneutic sophistication, to brute facts. I want to
stress this because I think that today the sociology of knowledge
is becoming part of common sense. And this process explains to
my mind the fact that today the philosophical discussion of
objectivism and relativism has an impact on the cultural climate
outside of philosophy.

Epistemological Relativism

If objectivism is gone, relativism remains. This is the old dualism.

I will let objectivism go, but I cannot accept relativism. And
mainly for two reasons. First, philosophers ought in my opinion
to take self-referential inconsistencies seriously. It might be seen
as a ‘thin’ defect of relativism that it cannot be applied to itself; I
mean ‘thin’ compared with the wealth of data which support the
view that knowledge is culturally bound. But most philosophical
arguments are in this sense ‘thin’ since philosophy is abstract. So,
either we stop arguing about abstract questions or we regard the
self-referential inconsistency of relativism as a real argument
against it. Second, I also find it a defect of a philosophy if its
proponents have to leave it in their study, when they step out in life.

David Hume is one sceptic who explicitly admitted this to be the
case with his philosophy. Implicitly I think this holds true for all
relati vists, and I think it is the practical counterpart to the theoretical problem of relativism’s self-referential consistency.

The modern problem of objectivism and relativism should, I
think, be formulated in the following way: Is it possible to accept
both the sociology of knowledge and the modern philosophy of
science without becoming a relativist?

Proposals for a Solution
Bernstein, in the book I referred to 1, makes a very good point
about philosophers like Kuhn, Gadamer, Habermas, and Rorty. It
is very tempting to regard all of them as old-fashioned relativists.

But this is not fair. They are not just dropping objectivism and the
concept of rationality. At least some of them are rather, in different
ways, trying to catch a new kind of rationality. And such an
undertaking need not necessarily end up in relativism. This is the
reason behind Bernstein’s claim ‘that we are witnessing and
participating in a movement beyond objectivism and relativism’

(op. cit., p. 49).

I do not intend to discuss Bernstein’s or the aforementioned
philosophers’ ideas in detail. I merely wantto make some broad
comments. Originally, the concept of rationality was joined to that
of truth as correspondence. Rorty tries to get rid of both rationality
and truth. The move common to for instance Bernstein, Habermas
and some others who also try to avoid the predicament of traditional relativism is: (a) to disjoin the concepts of rationality and
truth, (b) to drop the concept of truth as meaning accurate representation, and (c) to modify the concept of rationality. Habermas


gives us ‘undistorted communication’ and Bernstein ‘practical
wisdom’ as substitutes for the old universal rationality. Neither of
them is an old-fashioned relativist or sceptic, but nevertheless all
of them want to get rid of the old truth-concept They want to skip
‘mirror imagery’ , to use one of Rorty’s phrases. In my opinion,
they ought therefore to be called relativists. But I do not want to
quarrel about words. I am opposed to their position, and I will now
state my own very briefly.

I think that:

(a) we should really disjoin the concepts of rationality and
truth, but
(b) we should drop the concept of rationality, not that of
truth, and
(c) we should make a small modification of our old concept
of truth.

This is the way I think we can move beyond both objectivism and
relativism, and I shall try to explain and explore this position a little

The Old Dualism

In order to get a better perspective on the dualism of objectivism
and relativism, we should place it within the following matrix:

Good theories are:

true or

Theories are:

neither true
nor false

not socially caused
socially caused
Epistemological objectivism of all kinds, rationalism, empiricism
and so on, should be placed up to the left, whereas historicism is
diagonally opposed down to the right. The right upper corner
contains positivistic instrumentalism. Down to the left we have an
interesting position, which I will comment upon; I want to call it
‘the privileged position stance’.

Common to all epistemological positions which can be placed
to the left is what might be called a sociological rationalism.

Faced with the facts brought forward to historicists, they still
maintain that there is a kind of Reason, i.e. some kind of cognitive
faculty or cognitive enterprise, which (a) need not be influenced
by anything else in society, and (b) when not influenced automatically yields truth. Reason in this sense (c) may be influenced by
social factors, but only in the negative sense that what is socially
caused is always regarded as a deviation from reason and truth.

You can here only have a sociology of error, a sociology of
deviation from knowledge.

This is the positivist view of science, and it even was the
common sense view of science for a long time. It can also be found
within the Marxist tradition. The French Marxist philosopher
Louis Althusser once argued that there is something called Theoretical Practice which falls outside the scope of the general Marxist
thesis that the economic base in the last instance determines the

Now, the privileged position stance (bottom row first column)
is like sociological rationalism (top row fIrst column), a position
which. wants to save epistemological objectivism. This time,
however, objectivism is saved not by saying that some kind of
knowledge production is not determined at all by social factors,
but by saying that although everything is socially determined there
are cognitively privileged positions in society. Such positions are
not bearers of an ahistorical Reason. It is not a question of Reason
but of a good position. Truth-finding should be compared with
situations where someone can see something that other people
cannot see; not because they have a special kind of eyes but
because they have a position in space which the others do not have.

Such cognitively privileged positions cause those who are in them
to find the truth.

The classic example of this point of view is, of course, to be
found within Marxism, where the proletarian standpoint is appointed the cognitively privileged position. However, it should be
noted that Marxism is not in this respect homogeneous. Althusser,
as just mentioned, had another view, and those Marxists who
sharply distinguish between proletarian and bourgeois science
have still another. The latter should be placed in the lower right
corner in our matrix. The most theoretically explicit account of the
view that the working class has a cognitively privileged position
is Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness (1923).

Another theoretician who has embraced the privileged position stance is Karl Mannheim, the man who wrote the book
Ideology and Utopia (1929). According to Mannheim, the freefloating intellectuals have this privileged position. Because they
are living in a position where conflicting interests meet, they
become socially motivated to find truth.

It is important to see the difference between the privileged
position stance and rationalism in the sociological sense referred
to. The latter relies on the old assumption that Reason is selfexplaining. When reason is operating we need no explanation why
truth is found. Social causes can only, as I said before, disturb the
proper function of Reason. According to the privileged position
view something in society has to cause the truth-finding. There is
no self-explaining Reason, there are only socially determined cognitions.

In order to break out of the dualism between objectivism and
relativism we need an epistemology which falls outside the matrix
above. And some features of such an epistemology I shall now try
to sketch.

First I shall introduce the small modification of the truth
concept I hinted at earlier. This idea is not an idea of mine, and it
cuts through very dissimilar philosophical traditions. Actually, I
would like to call it ‘the Lenin-Popper notion of truth’. The idea
is that we should replace the concept of truth with a concept of
truthlikeness. Lenin calls it relative truth, and Popper calls it verisimilitude (see Materialism and Empirio-criticism and The Open
Society and Its Enemies addenda 1961, respectively).

Ordinarily we speak in a way which presupposes that what we
say is either true or false. The common sense notion of true and

false is a polar conceptual construction. But I think it is philosophically important to begin to think in terms of degrees of truth.

Of course, a lot of philosophers already speak in this way, since it
is part and parcel of evolutionist thinking in general that our
knowledge better and better approximates truth. My point, however, is that they nonetheless fail to appreciate the philosophical
significance of this notion.

Let us see how we can block the following inference (the inference-example is taken from a lecture by Rotty); A means Aristotelian physics and G Galilean physics:

(1) There is no way to translate A into G, though A could
learn G.

(2) There is therefore no way to argue against A in G, nor
vice versa.

(3) So both A and G must be true.

(4) The world makes beliefs true.

(5) So different worlds must make A and G true.

A conclusion may be blocked in several ways. In this case, one of
them is simply to substitute ‘truthlikeness’ for ‘truth’. You can
then without any trouble maintain that it is the same world which
makes both A and G truthlike. Obviously, this shows that the
concepts of truth and truthlikeness are not equivalent; something
which also can be shown in other ways.

If you only have recourse to the polar concept of truth and think
that today’s science is not the last word, you are in the curious
position that you have to say that all theories, not only of yesterday,
but also the theories of today, are false. And in such a case one
could very well let the concepts of true and false go altogether. In
my terminology, one would then become a relativist. With a
concept of truthlikeness at hand relativism cannot enter that easily.

The polar concept may also easily make you believe that if you
are right your opponent must be totally wrong. But if you look
upon a paradigm conflict armed with the notion of truthlikeness,
you may maintain (a) that both your and your opponent’s paradigm
have a non-zero degree of truthlikeness, (b) that one of them has
a greater degree of truthlikeness than the other, (c) that the
paradigm with the lesser degree of truthlikeness captures something in reality which the other paradigm does not, and (d) that
therefore the truer paradigm has something to learn from the less
true one, and, finally (e) that as a consequence of this it is well
worth continuing the discussion.

Amazingly few philosophers, especially the post-positivist
and post-structuralist ones, seem to me to have realized the simple
fact that the concept of truthlikeness is quite compatible with
pluralism and accompanying discussions within both science and
philosophy. The concept of truthlikeness does not in any way
imply a totalitarian scientism or transcendentalism.

The notion of truthlikeness has also, I think, very specific
philosophical repercussions. I have not worked them out, but I
would like to mention them anyhow. In the context I am speaking
of, the notions of truth and truthlikeness are used in their nonepistemic sense, i.e. they do not mean something like ‘warranted
assertability’. Such notions are often accused of being vacuous.

And in a sense I can agree. Truthlikeness is a rather empty notion.

But it is not totally empty. It cannot settle discussions, but it can
explain why even discussions across paradigms are meaningful;

there is something to discuss, truthlikeness. I think we need a rehabilitation of the Kantian notion of regulative ideas, i.e. empty
but not quite empty concepts. And, in order to do this, I think we
need a semantics which turns ‘partial reference’, or ‘referencelikeness’ , into a primitive term.

Contingently Privileged Positions

Let me now use this concept of truthlikeness to amend our matrix.

We then get the following:

Theories are:

true or

net er true
nor false

more or ess









Good theories

To the new column corresponds two rows. In the first I have
written ‘popperianism’. Karl Popper is opposed to the sociology
of knowledge. He is a sociological rationalist. It must be noted,
however, that he is also a fallibilist. He believes in truthlikeness,
but he regards it as a regulative idea, and he has criticized those
who think that we need criteria for it in order to be able to speak
of it. We will here get a fallibilist sociological rationalism.

The bottom row contains my own position. It is also a fallibilist
position, but this time fallibilism is connected with the sociology
of knowledge. So, here we do not need a concept of rationality at
all. I have called the position ‘theoretical realism’. ‘Realism’

because it contains belief in truthlikeness, and ‘theoretical’ because it contains the belief that empirical data are theory laden.

Furthermore, the label is already attached to some English philosophers who have argued for views which are close to those I put
forward. I am in particular of Roy Bhaskar’s A Realist
Theory of Science (Leeds, 1975), The Possibility of Naturalism
(Brighton, 1979), and Russell Keat’s and John Urry’s Social
Theory as Science (London, 1975).

Philosophers who drop the notion of truth but retain that of
rationality usually risk becoming relativists. I retain truth but drop
rationality, i.e. I am doing the opposite. And I will also face the
opposite risk, that of becoming an old-fashioned objectivist. Since
I subscribe both to the sociology of knowledge and truthlikeness,

a problem arises: Does not the sociology of knowledge give me a
criterion of truth? Those who are in the privileged position are
made bearers of truth, and are therefore, also, the criteria of truth.

Am I not then forced into objectivism, although I speak of
truthlikeness? This problem brings us to the next idea I shall put
forward: Substitute the idea of contingently privileged cognitive
positions for that of essentially privileged positions.

What I mean is the following. Lukacs and Mannheim thought
that they could discover a privileged position once and for all, and
consequently also make a sure prediction about what position
would yield knowledge in the future. By the term ‘contingently


privileged position’ I mean a social position which is privileged
only with hindsight. There can be no completely sure prediction
that some social position in the future will yield knowledge.

Neither the working class nor the free-floating intellectuals can
save us from a fallibilist conception of knowledge.

Like the substitution of truthlikeness for truth, this idea has
important consequences. It affects for instance the view that
science is for ever privileged, or has an essence which ensures that
scientists always will obtain the most truthlike theories. Interpreted in this way the idea of cognitively privileged positions and
the notion of truthlikeness as a regulative idea fit each other very
well, and support a non-foundational view of knowledge.

The Concept of Anomaly

Although I am convinced that we can speak of truthlikeness
without having any criteria for it, I do think we need to say
something more in order to defend it. In the discussions connected
with Kuhn’s concept of paradigm, or similar conceptual constructions put forward by other philosophers of science, there has, in my
opinion, not been a proper emphasis on the concept of anomalies.

An anomaly is an observation or empirical data (i.e. a presumed
fact), which, according to the paradigm itself, should not be
possible, but which anyhow exists.

For traditional empiricists anomalies are reality’s way of
saying ‘No’ to a theory. But, as Kuhn and other historians of
science have amply proved, things are not that simple. All
fundamental theories seem to have anomalies all the time. They
are born with anomalies, they live with anomalies, “and die with
anomalies. Furthermore, what is once an anomaly may later turn
out not to be an anomaly at all. Historicists have taken such facts
as proving their point of view. I think, however, that we should
look more carefully at the available options. One may easily think
that the only possible alternatives are the following:

(1a) It is always the case that: Anomalies are reality’S

(1b) It is always the case that: Anomalies are internal
defects of a theory.

In the option between these positions (1 a) represents the empiricist
answer and (lb) the idealist answer. The funny thing now is that
empirical data tell against empiricism. The history of science
invalidates (la),andidealismremains. But let us now compare the
following options (1) and (2):

(1) laor Ib, which means: either (It is always the case that:

Anomalies are reality’s protest) or (It is always the case
that: Anomalies are internal defects of a theory).

(2) It is always the case that: Either an anomaly is the
protest of reality or it is an internal defect of the theory.

The important thing to note is that the disjunctions (1) and (2) are
notequivalent. There is, then, a m eta-option between (1) and (2),
and if we opt for (2) we are not faced with the dilemma between
empiricism and idealism. And I think we shall opt for (2) since
nothing in the history of science blocks this alternative. Our lowlevel option then only goes on each individual case. We get:

(2a) This anomaly is a protest of reality.

(2b) This anomaly is an internal defect of the theory.

The answer to this option should, I think, not be given by
philosophers at all, but by the scientists who are concerned with
the case at hand. From the philosophical point of view then, an
anomaly is something which may be a sign that the theory is not
truthlike. One cannot be sure, but neither is it possible to be sure
of the opposite. The option (2) above might be called a realistfallibilist conception ofanomalies. This in turn means that we can
never know for sure when a theory is more truthlike than another,
but, yet, it affords us a centre around which to discuss which theory
is closest to truth. Such a conception does not give us any proofs,
but this should really not be the case with a non-foundational epistemology. However, it saves us from total relativism since anomalies function as, so to say, poles which connect the argumentation
or conversation with reality.

Ontology-centred Metaphysics
I have now put forward three ideas which I think cohere and point
forward towards a possible non-foundational epistemology. They
are to:

(a) substitute truthlikeness for truth;
(b) substitute contingently privileged cognitive positions
for essentially privileged positions;
(c) substitute a realist-fallibilist conception of anomalies
for empiricist and idealist conceptions.

Now, I can very well imagine a general objection to the effect that
the position I have intimated does not look like an epistemological position at all. Rather, someone might say, it is only a defence
of metaphysical realism. In a sense I think this objection is
perfectly right, but in another it is wrong. Let me explain.

Modem philosophy is, as stressed for instance by Rotty, in the
main epistemology-centred. If we divide the great metaphysical
systems into two parts, an ontology and an epistemology, respectively, in most systems epistemology is regarded as logically prior
to ontology. Hegel’s system is of course the great exception. And
like Hegel I think we have to reverse the priority between epistemology and ontology. But we should do this in a way which does
not seduce us, like Hegel, into another kind of absolutism.

However, I shall quote one of Hegel’s most famous remarks
against Kant: ‘What is demanded is thus the following: we should
know the cognitive faculty before we know. It is like wanting to
swim before going in the water.’ To this remark I would like to add:

knowledge in this case implies existence. If we have got knowledge of a cognitive faculty, this has to be knowledge of an existing
faculty. This means that ‘… in the last analysis the cognitive
relationship is itself an ontological relationship’ [2]. The lesson to
draw is that, independently of the hermeneutic and sociological
criticism, there is a logical flaw in epistemology-centred philosophies. This flaw, however, does not invalidate all kinds of
systematic metaphysics. It disappears if the priority order between
epistemology and ontology are reversed; and we regard ontology
as the prior part in our metaphysical systems. Epistemology then
becomes what might be called a regional ontology. We get
onto10 gy-centred philosophy. This is the reason why the position
put forward does not look like traditional epistemology.

We may speak of fallibilistic but truth-seeking metaphysical
systems. We may for instance construct fallibilistic counterparts
to Cartesian dualistic ontology, to Leibnizian monadology, to
reductive physicalism, and so on. But with regard to the future we
should try to work out new and better metaphysical systems.

According to this conception, philosophy differs from science
only in being more abstract and more general. Both philosophy
and science should be regarded as truth-seeking activities. A
metaphysical system may then come in conflict with a scientific
theory, and vice versa. But it may also conflict with common sense
and other things as well. Since not only common sense, but also
science and philosophy are human fallible constructs, this means
that there can be an interaction between science, philosophy and
common sense. The kind of conception of philosophy I have tried
to sketch may therefore be labelled an interactional conception.

Rejecting foundationalist conceptions of philosophy, Rorty
says that instead of epistemology and knowledge, philosophy
should be hermeneutics and edification. Philosophy is merely an
eternal conversation without truth-finding as its goal. He thinks
that we should have less metaphysics rather than new and better
metaphysics, which is my opinion. The difference is obvious.

What needs stressing, therefore, are the similarities. The view I
have sketched, too, includes the opinion that philosophy cannot
lay foundations and create justifications for the rest of the culture.

Neither does it imply that philosophers know something about
knowing which nobody else may contest Since ontology is
fallible it may be contested by sociologists, psychologists, and
whoever you like. But, on the other hand, the philosopher may
contest common sense and the sciences. And the contest is about
who has the most truthlike opinion. Philosophers should not be the
guardians ofrationality, but they should be truth-seekers and guard
the truth-seeking activity.

Perhaps this conception of fallibilistic metaphysics turns me
into more of a ‘Rortyan’ than Rotty himself. He wants everybody
to participate in a never-ending ‘conversation of mankind , . Excluded from the future conversation, however, are the metaphysicians; as well as all other meta-storytellers. According to the
conception here put forward, even we who regard ourselves as
metaphysicians should be welcome to let our voices be heard.


Richard Bemstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, Oxford,

The quotation is from Nicolai Hartrnann’sNew Wayso!Ontology,
Westport, 1975, p. 137.

Fallibilistlc Metaphysics
Let us now look at the amended matrix above. Instead of ‘theories’

we shall now write ‘ontological systems’. Ontologies in general,
as well as theories in general, may be looked upon as fallible and
socially caused. In this case, in contradistinction to that of
relativism, there will be no self-referential inconsistency. The
theses which I have put forward can also be regarded as fallible and
socially caused, but in spite of this having a certain truthlikeness.


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