Is relativism and postmodernism the same?

The self-identified postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty asserts: “Relativism is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good.” (Consequences of Pragmatism [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982], 166.) Why do you think the charge that postmodernists are relativists persists?

The primary connection between the postmodernist and the relativist can be narrowed down to the principle of truth. Both have a very similar description of truth and what it means, at least how the term “truth” can be defined. To understand how the charge persists, we must look at the most basic similarities between the two.

Relativism is the concept that differing points of view have no absolute truth or validity. In addition these points of view only have relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. The very essence of relativism is that there is no one standard that is valid for everyone. Relativists may infer that there is no such thing as truth since there are no external objective standards that are valid for everyone. In addition, relativist may use the word truth but it may be filtered through their own subjective preferences, i.e. “what is true for you is not true for me.” Additionally, relativism chooses its path and direction according to the ruling preferences of the individual and acts not in a humble way. Since relativism doesn’t submit to an objective external truth or authority it is self-serving and prideful, reflecting that the individual’s decision are best.

The concepts of right and wrong, true and false also fall under the category of expressing personal opinion or agreed upon community values, but these are not based on a universally accepted valid system or standard. Because of this rationale, the relativist can do what he pleases since he is not submissive to a universal truth. The final by-product of relativism is its effect that it has on language. It seeks to obtain the preferences of the writer and turns language into giving the people what they want to hear.

Similarly, postmodernism was developed on profound skepticism toward language, knowledge, history, reason and truth. Because it doesn’t have a single definition that can be agreed upon, it can almost mean anything, everything and nothing. It is objective to different communities. Jean Lyotard, the French champion of many postmodern themes, said that “postmodernism requires a suspicion of the overarching stories (often called “metanarratives”) that support our claims of truth. Any claim to know truth or any attempt to commend truth to others is likely to be just a power play, they argue, an attempt to impose one’s own metanarrative in the guise of an absolute truth.

At the heart of postmodernism is a redefining of truth. While the truth of the Modern Age could be discovered or reasoned in an individual way, truth in the postmodern age is found in community. If truth is found in community, then the tradition and culture are the means of growing truth. The concept of truth can be different because what one community defines as truth may be different from what another defines as truth. There is no longer a single authoritative truth.

Where postmodernism and relativism are connected is how they both deny an external source of authority. Postmodernist attempt to redefine the concept of truth in a number of different ways. First, it depends on the definition of truth. For example, what is true to one person may not be true for another. Second, truth is not a transcendent, timeless, universal absolute that is present everywhere and applicable everywhere. Truth is also located in and relative to the community in which the individual belongs.

Language and literary theory is another similarity between the two. Postmodernists’ view that language must be deconstructed from its oppressive cultural overtones to a non-standard flow of amoral values. The postmodernist believes that there is no one meaning of the world and that a transcendent center to reality as a whole does not exist. One of the main ideas of postmodern philosophy is that it doesn’t search for a unified, objective reality; it accepts that everything is different.

Based on the evidence provided, the persistent claim that postmodernists are relativists can be summarized by understanding the similarities with truth and how no absolute truth or external authority exist. Postmodernism is identified with relativism because both reject the claims of absolute knowledge and objectivity. In addition, both reject the role of reason and rationality in science. Finally, each have similar views on language since there is no truth, it is easy for the writer or speaker to flatter the audience with what they want to hear because they both create their own realities.


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