Who’s Afraid of Relativism?

Here’s the longer version of my review of Who’s Afraid of Relativism? by James K. A. Smith. Edited versions were recently published by The Gospel Coalition (here) and Reformation21 (here).

For some time now James K. A. Smith’s agenda has been to enter into critical but charitable conversation with postmodernist writers, looking for points at which their arguments resonate with Christian claims and undermine the common enemy of modernism. I believe this is a worthy and worthwhile project, although I have questions about whether Smith is sufficiently critical, as I will indicate below. Smith’s 2006 book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? purported to “take to church” three leading postmodernists: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. He argued that some of the distinctive claims of these writers have been misunderstood and misrepresented by evangelicals; properly understood they offer epistemological insights that ought to be affirmed by Christians. The hope was to introduce a lay Christian audience to “the real postmodernism” and to foster, if not a close friendship, at least a fruitful mutual acquaintance.

Who's Afraid of Relativism?Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is a follow-up to Smith’s earlier book. On this occasion Smith seeks to play the role of defense attorney for ‘relativism’; more precisely, the philosophy of pragmatism as propounded by the controversial American philosopher Richard Rorty. His central thesis is easily identified, since it is repeated in different forms throughout the book: pragmatism is a philosophy centered on the recognition of our dependence, finitude, and contingency; thus Christians, who acknowledge the dependence, finitude, and contingency of the creation, ought to be sympathetic rather than hostile toward pragmatism. As Smith puts it, “My thesis is that Christians should be ‘relativists,’ of a sort, precisely because of the biblical understanding of creation and creaturehood.” (p. 12)

Just as faith goes hand-in-hand with repentance, so also the turn of the faithful towards pragmatism requires a turn away from an opposing position. Smith believes that Christians need to repent of their sympathies toward representationalist realism: the idea that truth consists in a correspondence or match between the ‘inside’ world of our thoughts and the ‘outside’ world of objects existing independently of our thoughts. On this traditional view, the goal of the human mind is to serve as a “mirror of nature” (to use Rorty’s phrase).

The opening chapter sets up the problem that Smith seeks to solve—or rather to subvert. Christians fear “the specter of relativism” because they think Christianity requires a commitment to “absolute truth,” which relativism repudiates. If we concede even an inch to relativism, it will undermine the very claims that we cherish as Christians—indeed, it will undermine the claims of the gospel. Relativism and its defenders are therefore enemies of the Christian faith. Philosophers such as Rorty (“the whipping boy of middlebrow Christian intellectuals and analytic philosophers everywhere”) who challenge the notion of “absolute truth” must be opposed. As Smith recognizes, however, the term ‘relativism’ is often poorly defined and has been used to label various views, some more vulnerable to refutation than others. Rather than deal with superficial, sophomoric types of relativism (“true for you, not true for me”) he proposes to engage with a serious and sophisticated form of relativism, namely, contemporary pragmatism.

Smith’s positive case for a “Christian relativism” unfolds in the subsequent four chapters. Chapter 2 lays a foundation by expounding Ludwig Wittgenstein’s mature views on language and meaning. Wittgenstein argues against a naïve referentialist view of meaning, according to which the meaning of a word is simply “the object for which the word stands.” This theory breaks down quickly under scrutiny. Wittgenstein’s alternative proposal is that the meaning of a word consists in the way it is used in a particular “form of life”: words are essentially tools for everyday tasks. From this central insight various significant implications are drawn. First, meaning is always relative to a context. Furthermore, such contexts are essentially social, and thus meaning depends crucially on a community of language users who have adopted a set of contingent conventions. Armed with these observations, Smith draws the grand conclusion that if our language has any referential function at all, it must be one that is contingent on human community. (One wonders then how Adam was able to name the animals—surely a referential task—before any other humans appeared on the scene.)

Space constraints forbid further commentary of Smith’s exposition of Wittgenstein, not to mention his enlisting of Augustine as another witness against representationalist realism. But it seems to me that Smith’s arguments in this chapter do not warrant the sort of paradigm-challenging conclusions he thinks they do. Wittgenstein certainly deflates a narrow, reductionistic form of representationalism (such as the logical atomism he propounded early in his career). But as best I can tell, everything Smith claims about the context-relativity and social-dependence of language is entirely consistent with a realist account of truth, such as the one defended by William Alston in A Realist Conception of Truth (1996). Indeed, Smith apparently grants that words can function referentially (pp. 45, 49). So it’s hard to see here a serious challenge to anything but the crudest forms of representationalist realism.

Part of the problem is that here, as elsewhere in the book, Smith appears to lump together different kinds of relativity and contingency in ways that lead to stronger claims than his observations warrant. For example, even if the meanings of words (including their references) are contingent on their use within a particular “language game,” it doesn’t follow that the truths expressed by those words must be contingent or relative. “Ten oranges are twice as many as five oranges” only has meaning within a certain linguistic community in which there is a common understanding of the way the individual words are used. In that respect, the sentence is relative to a “language game” and contingent on a social context. But the truth expressed by that sentence—a truth that could be equivalently expressed in countless other languages—is not relative and contingent. It is an objective, context-independent truth; indeed, it is a necessary truth. (Under what circumstances could it be false? Resist the temptation to say, “Under circumstances in which the words have different meanings or usages,” for that would commit the very fallacy I’m exposing here.)

Chapter 3 turns from Wittgenstein to Richard Rorty: the philosopher “realists love to hate.” Rorty infamously quipped that “truth is what your peers will let you get away with saying,” a claim which has delighted his critics (Alvin Plantinga among them) for its apparently self-defeating implications. Smith, however, invites us to give Rorty a more sympathetic hearing. If only we understand the argument that lies behind Rorty’s aphorism, “we will find that, not only is Rorty’s pragmatism not essentially antithetical to Christian faith, but to the contrary, his account of social justification—extending key insights of Wittgenstein—amounts to a philosophy of creaturehood that ought to be embraced by Christians.” (pp. 73-74) What follows is Smith’s summation of Rorty’s extended argument against seeing the mind as a “mirror of nature,” where truth consists in a relationship of ‘correspondence’ between our thoughts and the external world. Rorty’s argument is subtle and involves a controversial reading of the course of post-Enlightenment philosophy, but the upshot is this: all philosophical claims need to be recognized as historically contingent, the notion that truth consists in ‘correspondence’ or ‘representation’ must give way to a pragmatist conception of truth, and the epistemological categories of truth, justification, and knowledge must be reconceived in terms of social practices. Smith labors to show that Rorty, contrary to the caricatures, doesn’t altogether reject the idea of truth; he just wants us to see that truth is socially conditioned. In the end, Rorty only wants us to come to terms with our finitude and historical contingency. His pragmatism just is a philosophy of contingency and dependence, and thus, Smith suggests, it has a deep affinity with biblical Christianity.

Smith’s discussion of Rorty is engaging and useful so far as it goes. What’s odd, however, is that Smith doesn’t give the reader the slightest hint that Rorty’s views on meaning, truth, and knowledge are deeply embedded in a particular worldview—one antithetical to the biblical worldview. As those familiar with Rorty’s philosophy well know, he understands his pragmatist epistemology to be a consistent outworking of a Darwinian naturalist view of human origins: all truth and knowledge claims are radically contingent because every aspect of human life is historically accidental and ungoverned by any transcendent norms or ends. It is therefore jarring to find Smith suggesting that Rorty offers us a “philosophy of creaturehood” that “recognizes our creational dependence” (pp. 74, 115). On the contrary, Rorty embraces the conclusions he does precisely because he rejects any doctrine of creation (along with other basic tenets of a Christian worldview). Rorty’s is a philosophy of autonomy par excellence. I find it ironic that an author who is otherwise so attuned to the conditioning role of worldviews fails to acknowledge the worldview that informs and undergirds Rorty’s pragmatism. Smith repeatedly describes his project as one of “plundering the Egyptians.” I have no objection to this in principle, but surely we should think twice about trying to appropriate an ornament which appears to be firmly chained to a giant statue of Ra.

Chapter 4 draws from the work of Robert Brandom to address the worry that a pragmatist philosophy would leave no place for rationality and logic, thus preventing us from offering a reasoned justification for our Christian beliefs and practices. Brandom offers us a “conceptual pragmatism” or “rationalist pragmatism” which rejects the representationalist paradigm yet recognizes that we are sapient beings with the capacity for rational judgment. According to Brandom’s account, to be rational is simply to play the “inferential game” by the rules, where those rules are defined by a “community of practice.” As Smith is quick to observe, however, this means rationality must also be relative and dependent—which, we are invited to conclude, is consonant with a Christian view of creaturehood. Once again, I have concerns. It is one thing to say that we are wholly dependent on God; it is quite another to suggest that norms of rationality are grounded in nothing deeper (or higher) than community convention. Smith seems reluctant to accept that there are at least some intellectual norms or logical principles (e.g., the law of non-contradiction) that are universal, necessary, and transcend human societies. But without that assurance, the worries about Smith’s “Christian relativism” have not been assuaged.

Chapter 5 seeks to show that a form of “Christian pragmatism” has already appeared in the form of the postliberal theology of George Lindbeck. Lindbeck’s seminal work The Nature of Doctrine (1984) is “an embodiment of the religious and theological implications of pragmatism” (p. 152). I think this is largely right, although unlike Smith I don’t see this as a motivation to embrace Christian pragmatism. On Lindbeck’s view, doctrines “function as the rules of the Christian language-game” (p. 165). Doctrinal statements are second-order claims about Christian discourse and practice rather than first-order claims about God: “Doctrine is about our claims, not what/Who our claims are about” (p. 167). While it’s true that doctrine plays a crucial regulatory role in the Christian community, it seems obviously wrong—both in terms of historical theology and Christian self-understanding—to say that doctrines are not to be understood in realist, even representationalist terms. Are we to think that the bishops at the Council of Nicea were concerned only (or even primarily) with nailing down “the grammar of the Christian language-game” as opposed to making true statements about the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son? Or do we have a better understanding of what they were engaged in than they themselves did?

In the closing section of the chapter, Smith considers the implications of “Christian pragmatism” for apologetics. He rightly recognizes that a pragmatist view of truth and reason challenges more traditional (Smith would say ‘modernist’) views of Christian mission and evangelism. Pragmatism invites a different apologetic strategy: we must abandon the idea that the Christian faith is can be proven or demonstrated, and instead adopt a “postliberal apologetic strategy” in which we attempt to “outnarrate” competing faiths or ideologies rather than trying to demonstrate the truth of Christian claims. The idea is that we present the Christian “form of life” and “community of practice” as attractively and winsomely as we can, and we invite unbelievers to “try [it] on as a way of life.” Much could be said in response, but I will restrict myself to this: I find it hard to square this model with the evangelistic strategy of the apostle Paul in the book of Acts. (Paul also presents a problem for Smith’s claim, if I read him correctly, that a Christian community is a necessary precondition of evangelism.)

There is much to admire about Smith’s sympathetic engagement with postmodernist thinkers. Such writers have important insights that can expose our unwitting deference to modernist epistemologies and illuminate various aspects of Christian faith and practice. Nevertheless, as my commentary above indicates, I have some substantial concerns about Smith’s arguments and contentions in this book.

As a general observation, I wish Smith had been as charitable and even-handed in his treatment of realism as he is in his treatment of pragmatism. Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is laced with caricatures of realism and its defenders (e.g., realists think that “truth is a mechanism by which concepts in our heads magically hook onto entities outside of our heads,” p. 27), false dichotomies (e.g., between pragmatism and naïve referentialism), and pejorative descriptions (e.g., the correspondence relation is dismissed several times as ‘magical’ or ‘mythical’).

The book also suffers a lack of clarity and precision at the very points where clarity and precision are most needed. For example, while Smith evidently wants us to impress upon us our contingency, he’s unclear about exactly what this contingency consists in. It’s not enough to insist that “X is contingent”; we need to ask “On what exactly is X contingent—and in what respects?” Obviously those who hold to the doctrines of creation and providence want to affirm that every aspect of our lives—including our speaking and knowing—is contingent on God. But that’s not at all equivalent to affirming that every aspect of our lives is contingent on our social contexts, conventions, and histories—in other words, contingent on us.

Because of such ambiguities it’s hard to make out in the end what Smith’s “Christian relativism” actually amounts to. If it’s the comparatively modest claim that the meanings of our truth-claims and the warrants for our beliefs are typically contingent and relative to a social context, that’s a fairly tame kind of ‘relativism’ which is entirely compatible, I suggest, with the Christian realism defended by analytic philosophers such as William Alston and Alvin Plantinga. On the other hand, if Smith wants us to embrace the more radical claim that all truths and intellectual norms are contingent and socially-conditioned then all bets are off, for such a position is vulnerable to precisely the kind of philosophical and theological objections that he wants to avoid.

The epilogue suggests that Smith is really advocating the tame kind, in which case my complaint comes to this: his book is mistitled. Instead of asking “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” it should be asking “Who’s Afraid of Relativity?” But the answer to that question is: hardly anyone. Certainly no realist philosopher who has reflected on the issues Smith explores. Such a title would have been more appropriate, but far less provocative and interesting.

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