Most of us think some scholars in the humanities are responsible for “everything is a social construction” kind of reasoning, or for “since there are many points of view there can be no absolute truth.” However, the real ones responsible for relativism were the Sophists and Heraclitus in Ancient Greece. Although relativism has changed a lot since then.
You could not step twice into the same rivers; for other waters are ever flowing on to you. — Heraclitus.
However, there are still those who attribute to Einstein the idea that everything is “relative”, which is quite rude, after all, Einstein did not support this way of thinking. For him, time is relative because the speed of light is a universal constant. Moreover, the term “relativity” already existed in Newtonian physics.
What another large number of people do not know is that even the most recent theories in physics and in mathematics still do not seem to be able to overcome relativism. Do you want to know why these theories cannot achieve that result?
Because of Kurt Gödel, Nietzsche, and Spinoza.
Relativism still exists because of these great thinkers. We cannot yet reach the ultimate concepts about the limits of our thoughts, and it is their fault. These three intellectuals posed big problems for deterministic philosophies. And if everyone, somehow, ignored these three, then, we would be living in a very stupid tyranny ruled by collective stupidity (even greater than the one in which we live nowadays).
Spinoza: “to err is human.”
(Spinoza in Political Treatise, chapter 2, paragraph 12, 1677).
Nietzsche: "what does not kill me makes me stronger."
(Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols, part of aphorism number 8 from the “Maxims and Arrows” section, 1888).
These quotes are commonly taken as popular proverbs, but they originally belong to these thinkers who contributed heap-loads to the shape of Western culture.
- For Spinoza, the best social organization possible should not prohibit human errors but take them into account (we should even take more care of them). Therefore, for him, humanity should learn to live in harmony with its own flaws. Unfortunately, for some people his ideas were “forged in hell”, and he was indeed persecuted much in his time. Yet all he did was set out and justify the secular state rules for any liberal constitution, and reconcile the idea of human freedom with the belief in scientific explanation. In short, he was one of the first members of the Enlightenment movement and maybe the last medieval philosopher (in time but certainly far from medieval in thought).
- Nietzsche, on the other hand, was more radical than Spinoza. He subverted all Socratic-Christian ethics. For Nietzsche, there is no “good vs evil”. This division of the world is, for him, very limited, and causes us to fail to understand that everything changes (yes, he was a big fan of Heraclitus).
These two, Spinoza (1) and Nietzsche (2), greatly strengthened relativism in the history of Western thought. However, there was still one last stronghold for universal truths: mathematics.
This is what Nietzsche thought about mathematics:
“History, so far as it serves life, serves an unhistorical power. While so subordinated it will and ought never, therefore, become a pure science like, say, mathematics.” Nietzsche in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, last paragraph of section 1, 1874.
For Nietzsche, the history of mathematics would not be like human history (full of twists and turns). Mathematics, according to him, is a “pure science”. However, in 1931 Gödel proved Nietzsche wrong. With his Incompleteness Theorems, Gödel demonstrated that any system of ideas that works with “fundamental propositions” should take into account that outside that system there may be other propositions that would contradict the former ones. Thus, even mathematics could one day change dramatically. Therefore, mathematics could not yet prove it is a complete, closed and consistent system.
Yes, Gödel, Nietzsche, and Spinoza are still largely responsible for modern-day relativism. Now that you know that, maybe you can think of a better way to approach this topic (either you like relativism or not). So, please, don’t blame Trump or any other moron for it.
If you want to learn more about Gödel I suggest Rebbecca Goldstein’s Incompleteness: the proof and paradox of Kurt Gödel, 2005.
If you want to learn more about Spinoza I suggest Roger Scruton’s Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction, 2002.
And to understand the relation between Nietzsche and French philosophy, or between Nietzsche and post-modernity, I suggest the article Postmodernism, 2015, in Stanford's, open and online, Encyclopedia of Philosophy (by Gary Aylesworth). In this article, the word ‘Nietzsche’ appears 67 times.
You can find a very complete guide to Relativism also on Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Relativism, 2015. By Baghramian, M. and J. A., Carter.
And Ian Hacking may help explain more extensively what “social construction” means in his The Social Construction of what? (1999).