Truth and Relativism

Tuesday, July 5, 2005
First Aired: 
Tuesday, November 16, 2004

What is it

Is there such a thing as absolute truth, independent of who is doing the thinking, and where?  Or is truth relative to backgrounds, cultures, creeds, times, and places?  Can it be true that what is right for me isn't right for you? John and Ken search for truth with Helen Longino, Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Listening Notes

 John begins by distinguishing types of relativity. Ken points out that absolute truth is hard to establish. Ken introduces Helen Longino, professor at the University of Minnesota. John asks Longino if there is a realm of relative truth, say, in art and morality. Longino says that we need to establish what we mean by "true" first, then decide about "relative" and "absolute." Longino describes the correspondence theory of truth which is the theory that statements are true if they correspond to facts in the world. She points out that this creates problems about truth in relation to value. Ken describes some ways to get to relativism with the correspondence theory of truth. Longino makes the distinction between attributing absoluteness to truths and to reasons. 

One of the things that drives people to relativism is insurmountable disagreement. Longino agrees that there are areas that seem reasonable to apply relativism. Longino says that we could distinguish between judgments of value and judgments of fact. Ken says we need to distinguish between intersubjective agreement and objective truth. Courts of law find people guilty of a crime, but are the decisions true if the defendant is actually innocent? John thinks not. Ken asks since dispute is inexhaustible in science, how can we ever arrive at an absolute truth of any kind? How much does our notion or truth depend on our system of concepts and our physical makeup?

How would things change if relativism were true? How do we reconcile religious truth and scientific truth? Why do we need the concept of absolute truth? Longino says we need to distinguish between absolute truth from something weaker, like bedrock beliefs. John thinks that the notion of absolute truth motivates inquiry. Ken doubts that relativism implies complete tolerance. How can disagreement between parties be resolved without an omniscient third-party? Longino explains why appeals to an omniscient being don't help resolve disagreement and how we can resolve disagreements in light of that knowledge. 

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:12): Amy Standen interviews a public defender, a priest, and a philosopher about the nature of truth. 
  • Conundrum (Seek to 49:06): Gordon Earl says that his mother was recently diagnosed with cancer. She lives several thousand miles away. He wants to visit her and she tells him that he doesn't have to come back. Should he go visit her, ignoring what she said?

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Helen Longino, Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies, University of Minnesota

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