On the Impossibility for a Relativist to be a Pragmatist

A couple of weeks ago, I got into a discussion with a friend about the idea of relativism and pragmatism. More specifically, the impossibility for a relativist to be a pragmatist. I believed it to be impossible for a relativist to be a pragmatist. But our conversation ended, and I kept thinking about it, so this is a small reasoning on why I believe this to be the case.

            Let us start by asking what a relativist is. To be completely reductive (but I hope you’ll follow me in this), a relativist believes in an infinite way of interpreting the world, values, etc. A pragmatist would agree with this statement. But a relativist also believes that no interpretation is better than another. There is no hierarchy we can construe where one interpretation is better than the other. They are all of equal value (you might see the contradiction here that by saying that everything is of equal value, they are making a value statement which implies a more valuable interpretation; but hey, we’ll give them this). We should tolerate all interpretations equally, because in the end: what do we know?

            Now it is with this second point that the pragmatist will disagree. According to the pragmatist, not every interpretation is equal to the other. In fact, there are some interpretations which are better than others. Being a pragmatist implies that you use in a certain sense that which works. There are some things that work better than other things for certain types of actions. Cutting things will be far easier (and thus preferable) with a knife than with a spoon (unless you use a knoon or a spife). If someone says that they believe that you can cut better with a spoon, the pragmatist will laugh and continue to cut is meal with a knife, using their spoon for soup.

            The pragmatist can do this because he creates a hierarchy of values. Some things are more valuable than others. What this is based on is still unknown and might be food for another time. But at the very least we can say that he does it. The pragmatist has values that he considers as valuable and he will then construe the many interpretations of the world to fit his values. Those interpretations that can help him achieve his values easier are allowed to stay, those that would limit him, will be sent to the bin. A true relativist cannot do this.

The relativist is not allowed to make a hierarchy of values if he wants to remain a relativist. In a sense the relativist has to act arbitrary. When someone asks why the relativist has done a thing, he has to simply put his hands in the air and say: no apparent reason. Because to give a reason would be to give a value judgement and that would imply making a value hierarchy, which is the poison of the relativist.

Now we could argue that the relativist makes a value hierarchy but that he just believes that that value hierarchy isn’t necessarily better than any other value hierarchy. He could say ‘what I do isn’t better than what others do.’ But then the relativist would contradict himself. The relativist acts as if his value hierarchy is better than the other value hierarchy because he acts out that value hierarchy. The relativist has to give a reason for why he has that specific value hierarchy and not another one. If his answer is just: ‘because’, can we then say that he isn’t being arbitrary? Isn’t he being irrational? At one point he has to give in that there are some valid interpretations and others aren’t, just because of the values that he has.

I see the relativist as a contradiction in terminis, which means that the relativist by exclaiming that he is a relativist instantly stops being a relativist. Thus, the relativist doesn’t in practice exist, just in theory. But reality is a mixture of the practical with the theoretical, things and ideas. So, the relativist has to find a solution on how to live in a practical world before it can exist.

The pragmatist, on the other hand, believes that there aren’t unlimited valid interpretations and will set his life in a way that he can function in this world. Being a pragmatist makes it thus impossible to be a relativist and vice versa. I have even said that the relativist doesn’t really exist in our world. But sometimes people find comfort in believing in things that don’t exist. It makes life easier. Being a relativist is easy, because one lives in an illusion. Being a pragmatist is hard, because one lives in reality.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

2 replies on “On the Impossibility for a Relativist to be a Pragmatist”

Very interesting, I have been thinking about this issue for a while. I think even those who claim that no hierarchies exist are making a value judgement, which is to say they are saying that my position is greater than yours.

Most recently came across the term ‘metamodernism’, which advocates for a sort of pluralism beyond both modernity and post-modernity. That is, ‘truth’ exists but there are multiple ways to get there – not just one

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Metamodernism seems interesting, I’ll have to look into it! I think relativism in itself is self-defeating and is kind of a lazy answer to difficult questions. I’m dabbling with pragmatism and virtue ethics for a while now. Thank you for the idea!

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