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Methods in Motion Blog 13: Manuel Dries on Becoming relativist

2 December 2016
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Dr Manuel Dries, Lecturer in Philosophy, explores how a quest for absolute knowledge has led us into relativism (which is an opportunity)

Since Copernicus humanity has been rolling from the centre toward X’, the 19th-century philosopher Nietzsche once wrote. He points to humanity’s loss of its own sense of importance and special status within the universe, and the uncertainty and unknowability regarding its nature and purpose. There is plenty of evidence that these changes have played an increasingly important role in the conceptual apparatus and analytic methods of European philosophers. This is relevant today, and reflecting on the question of knowledge may be pertinent to the Methods In Motion (MiM) perspective.

Nietzsche is perhaps one of the first modern thinkers to argue that the traditional ideal of stable and absolute (i.e. non-perspectival) knowledge in philosophy and ethics,  but also in the sciences, was rife with anomalies. He felt that addressing this would need new ways of thinking and knowing. In one notebook entry the late Nietzsche writes rather cryptically:

The logical negation of the world and the annihilation [of its value] results from our need to oppose Being to Non-being [the Nothing], and that the concept of ‘Becoming’ is denied. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Unpublished Notebooks, 1887–88)

It requires a lot of analysis and contextual knowledge to make explicit the argument that Nietzsche makes in this aphorism. However, in short, he draws our attention to the exclusive disjunction that is built into our fundamental metaphysical concepts ‘Being’, ‘Nothing’ and ‘Becoming’. For example, imagine someone who believes that absolute Knowledge (with a capital) is a real possibility, and then, in striving to attain it, came to believe that there is only perspectival, contextually-valid knowledge. This causes an ‘exclusive disjunction’ to take effect: the now merely relative knowledge would fall short against the standard of absolute Knowledge from no perspective, and so appear to be worth exactly Nothing. This looks like a paradox – the quest for absolute knowledge has produced the result that absolute knowledge is impossible or, at least, unavailable. The shorthand name that Nietzsche gave to a reality of which we only ever have perspectival knowledge, and in which knowledge is relative to our method and context, is ‘becoming’.

Becoming is worth nothing to those who adhere to the traditional, ideal standard of absolute knowledge. And yet, for Nietzsche, it would be nihilistic to ‘deny’ Becoming. Denying Becoming would mean remaining trapped within a previous paradigm that still conceives of the world as static, as a something that can be known once and for all, in its ultimate composition, from some privileged position.

This brings us back to where we started, the rolling ‘towards X’ I quoted at the beginning. One possible response to this existential situation—the loss of humanity’s privileged position—could be to be in denial about it. Another response may be disorientation or even despair. A third response, of course, may be neither denial nor despair, but to take humanity’s new existential situation seriously and conceive of it as an opportunity.

Nietzsche at times wrote as if he wanted to use Becoming as the most general metaphysical concept with which to refer to reality. This he thought would be the first conceptual step in an attempt to develop better methods and theories that are useful for working in a world where knowledge is always relative to a perspective or method but no less valuable. In fact, such relative knowledge actually becomes more valuable.

Much of 20th century European philosophy has grappled with what they saw as our brave new existential situation, and variations of relativism are increasingly recognized also in the natural and social sciences (see Stenner’s Methods in Motion Blog 3). Relativism does not mean that “anything goes”. It requires us to take other perspectives and methods seriously, since none can claim absolute authority. Therefore, if relativism (or perhaps better- perspectivism,) is increasingly acknowledged as underpinning our conception(s) of reality, it is only through the establishment of new methods for thinking relatively and relationally that the real work can begin.

Dr Manuel Dries is a central academic Lecturer in Philosophy at FASS at The Open University. His research is primarily in Post-Kantian European Philosophy, with a special focus on 19th-century German Philosophy. He tweets from @manueldries.

For additional information on his research, please go to www.manueldries.eu 

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