On the Possibility of Objectivity under Relativistic Conditions

A popular theory of truth is that between cultures, truth is ‘relative’. This is often taken to mean that each culture can make its own legitimate claims to truth and can independently generate truth – even if between two cultures, all said truths are mutually exclusive and contradictory. In this essay, I will argue for the claim that even if we accept the conditions put forward by cultural relativists, objective truth is still possible. I will first analyse the relativist claim, with a focus on the theories of Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault. Then I will show that we can accept their theories and still have objective truth through the notion of objectivity Immanuel Kant puts forward.  

Thomas Kuhn described a scientific model as a ‘paradigm’: a structure that dictates which scientific theories are acceptable and which aren’t. One interprets the world through a paradigm, and if one would be situated in a different paradigm, one would see a different world.[1]Kuhn gives us a striking example: that of the stone on a rope. If one would release a stone on a rope from up high, Aristotelians would see a stone of which the fall was restricted by the rope, while Newtonians would see a pendulum-like motion. Both of these theories are, as Kuhn notes, just as accurate a description of what we see.[2] Still, due to the new Newtonian paradigm there came into the world a pendulum, which had been absent for the Aristotelians.[3] A paradigm is therefore a framework through which a particular scientific community perceives the world, creating the facts which they see – where the Aristotelians saw a restricted fall, the Newtonians saw a pendulum. According to the paradigm theory, both the Aristotelian and the Newtonian would be right to say that what they saw was correct. This amounts to saying that it isn’t merely opinions that change throughout the ages in a somewhat linear fashion, a progression which makes sure that wrong opinions get lost and more and more true opinions are gathered, but it instead amounts to saying that when a new paradigm is adopted, what is true itself changes. 

Michel Foucault proposes a similar theory but doesn’t restrict his to scientific paradigms but to something more general; something which, in reference to Kuhn, we could call ‘cultural paradigms.’ Foucault calls this an episteme, which he describes as a ‘historical a priori’: ‘This a priori is what, in a given period, delimits in the totality of experience a field of knowledge, defines the mode of being of the objects that appear in that field, provides man’s everyday perception with theoretical powers, and defines the conditions in which he can sustain a discourse about things that is recognized to be true.’[4]Via this quote we can see the parallels between Foucault’s episteme and the Kuhnian paradigm: they are both a priori frameworks that govern our outlook on the world, and we recognize objects and relations between objects through these frameworks. This means that they also govern the things we view as fact, what we determine to be ethical behaviour, and determine the meaning of individual objects, signs, and define the relation between these. 

However, there are some important differences between paradigms and epistemes. Kuhn’s paradigm can differ from science to science: the ways of doing science in biology is certainly very different from the paradigm used in linguistics. Foucault’s episteme points to something deeper, namely the axiomatic beliefs that all scientists across all paradigms in a specific culture hold. That is why I dubbed it a ‘cultural paradigm’ above – it dictates what is taken to be true, not just in one scientific paradigm, but in an entire culture. 

It is important to note that paradigms and epistemes, in the interpretation of relativists, are arbitrary. There is no particular reason why a paradigm is the way it is: there isn’t a fundamentally ‘correct’ way of seeing the swinging stone, whether as a pendulum or as a restricted fall. The difference between these two ways of looking at the world is one not grounded in some deeper objective epistemological fact, but merely in an arbitrary change of prominent theories – or a shift in the ‘culture’s epistemological network’.[5]

With all these points in mind, the argument for relativity is the following:
if i) Cultural paradigms are the sole generator of facts, values and meaning; and ii) Cultural paradigms are arbitrary and independent from other cultural paradigms; then iii) Truth can be different for every culture,[6]and therefore iv) There is no objective truth. 

In order to show where the relativist goes wrong, one needs to understand what is meant with the terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’. While the relativists hold a certain definition, Kant shows that this definition is fallacious and redefines the term ‘objective’. The relativists take objective to mean that a thing which is objective can exist without there being a subject to experience it. Something objective is of ‘necessary universal validity’, which one can banally paraphrase as ‘it is always true no matter if anyone knows it or not’. They claim that a thing which is subjective cannot exist without there being a subject to experience it. If we were to hold on to these definitions of the terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’, it would indeed seem that truth isn’t objective but subjective: truth is generated by epistemes which without humans, wouldn’t exist. Truth isn’t ‘out there’ in the world, it isn’t of necessary universal validity – since it can change from culture to culture. 

Immanuel Kant takes a closer look at these definitions and criticises them. He rightly points out that we can never perceive an object as it is in itself (an sich), since it is always filtered through our human cognitive faculties, through our ‘understanding’.[7]Kant agrees with the fact that something objective is of ‘necessary universal validity’, but he doesn’t search for this validity in the object, because we can never know the object an sich. Instead, he looks for this necessary universal validity in the subject. Objectivity for Kant is identical with that which is of necessary universal validity for every subject,[8]which means that a thing is objective when every subject experiences that thing in the same way. Seeing as we can’t know anything about the Ding an sich, Kant argues that his notion of objectivity (in relation to every subject) isn’t merely as good as it gets, but that it actually is the objectivity that we have been looking for all along. Kant isn’t making a compromise, it isn’t that this is the ‘best’ objectivity we can get. It is actually objective – Kant has hereby clarified what we talk about when we are discussing objectivity.

In what way does this new notion of objectivity undermine the relativist argument? As Kant’s critique reveals the flaws in the definitions with which the relativists are working, it changes the validity of their argument considerably. Even if all premises are true, this no longer makes the conclusion ‘iv) There is no objective truth’ necessarily follow from these true premises. Although it is possible for cultural paradigms to be the generators of truth and for cultural paradigms to be independent from other cultural paradigms, it could still be the case that there are truths which are common across all cultural paradigms. These hypothetical truths common across all cultural paradigms would point towards the fact that there are universal categories through which subjects (humans) perceive and understand the world, because every human perceives the world the same in this manner. Objectivity is possible through these categories, common across all cultures.

In this essay, I set out to show that while I agree to a large extent with cultural relativists, objective truth is still possible. From the theories of Kuhn and Foucault I reconstructed a formal argument. After the innovation Kant made to the notion of objectivity it became apparent that even if all cultural paradigms generate their own truth, the truths that are common across all cultural paradigms would be objective truths. Truth can be different for every culture; however, it doesn’t follow logically anymore from this that there is necessarily no objective truth. 


[1]Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 111.

[2]Kuhn, Structure, 119.

[3]Ibid.,120.

[4]Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences (New York: Routledge, 2002) 172.

[5]Foucault, The Order of Things, 398.

[6]‘Premise iii)’ can also be more precisely articulated in the following way: iii) ‘Facts, values and meaning are arbitrarily created by cultural paradigms and these facts, values and meanings are independent from other cultures’ facts, values and meanings.’ I believe however that the statement ‘Truth can be different for every culture’ succinctly summarizes this statement in the sense that ‘truth’ covers the meaning of ‘facts, values and meanings’. 

[7]Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Come Forward as Science with Selections from the Critique of Pure Reason, trans., ed. Gary Hatfield (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 50.

[8]Kant, Prolegomena, 51.

Bibliography 

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Come Forward as Science with Selections from the Critique of Pure Reason. Translated and edited by Gary Hatfield. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970. 

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