I’m somewhat surprised to find that issues surrounding the nature of truth and rationality do really seem to have emerged as politically important subjects. With religion reinvigorated and newly assertive, and scepticism of science prevalent, the question of what it is reasonable to believe, and whether some beliefs are more truthful than others, has become central. Philosophy should obviously inform this debate. However, I’m not impressed by most of what I’ve seen so far in the public arena.
It’s easy enough to attack flaky versions of relativism and irrationality (I’ve done it myself), but the positive case for rationality has failed to take its limitations seriously. If we want a ‘second enlightenment’ we need to remember just how sceptical thinkers like Hume were about the power of reason. Likewise, contemporary defenders of rationality need to acknowledge that there is much to be said for the sceptical arguments which lead others to relativism. Indeed, I would suggest that ‘relativism’ has become too much of a bogeyman. Just as there is all the difference in the world between laissez-faire capitalism and the highly regulated markets of Western Europe, so laissez-faire relativism is a different beast to many positions which ultimately deny ultimate truth. Know thine enemy.
Julian Baggini is author of books including The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life (buy this book from Amazon (UK)or Amazon (USA)). See his website.