Phi Beta Cons

Absolute Relativism Absolutely Impossible

In an interview with William Kristol, Lawrence Summers records a telling moment. He was present at a university commencement at which he was to receive an honorary degree. The president of the university emphasized in his address the importance of listening to what everyone has to say, to be open to all the information available, and to question, analyze, discuss, and process. And out of all that will come? ”A better understanding of each others’ positions,” said the president, an anticlimactic statement that disappointed Summers, who was expecting, instead, something like “a closer approximation to the truth we will never find,” or ”a better understanding of the world.” 

This is what has gone wrong in contemporary higher education, abandonment of the search for truth. But what ensues is not the endless, respectful sharing of views, as in the university president’s vision, a version of Michael Oakeshott’s famous and elegant idea of “conversation,” perhaps. Since human beings cannot really and continuously live in a state of absolute relativism, what happens instead is that some version of “truth” ascends, that held by those who forgo intellectual suasion for emotional aggression, and holds its place not through reason and understanding but through power and intimidation. And the president’s remark, sadly, reveals why so many university administrators are unable to combat the mayhem and bullying that has arisen on their campuses.


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