The challenge of (post)modernity is two-fold:
- We have recognized that our observation of evidence and the rational thought processes we use to build coherent models of reality are shaped by language, but the language we use is contingent and relative. The language we use is shaped by the communities of which we are a part, which means that our very ability to reason is shaped and formed by our communities.
- The radical individualism that arose from the Enlightenment (which, again, was shaped by the language and culture of Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries) has woven itself into the fabric of the way we all experience reality. This means that we think we are individually autonomous, able to personally, individually shape the way we view reality. We think we are not beholden to the communities of which we are a part.
So — our very ability to reason is shaped by social context, but we operate under the assumption that it isn’t. What could possibly go wrong in a situation like this?
We tend to think that we can only know things if we are able to express them in language. E.g., if I can articulate that the word “square” refers to the shape with four equal sides and each corner of those sides meets at a 90º angle, then I have “knowledge” of that fact. But aren’t there ways of knowing that are inexpressible by or through language? By that I mean, aren’t there things that I know to be true that (even if I cannot empirically verify this fact) I am incapable of saying with words: the feeling I know I’ll feel when I see my hometown again, or the particular melody of a song, or the difference between the way the air feels in summer and winter.
So, then, if language does not comprise our ability to “know” something, what does? Perhaps in some cases it functions that way, but in other ways, language is not only inadequate, but incapable of capturing the various ways in which we know things. And this is probably because language, despite what we have been taught, does not function solely as a representative or referential system — it can do that (poorly, in many cases), but that is not how we use language. Language, instead, is functional, contingent on the context in which we are using it.
Thus, our attempts at objective philosophizing about reality, metaphysics, ethics, and so on, are doomed to failure. We can only do so with language, and language doesn’t do that really well. It cannot name concepts in with pure, one-to-one accuracy. And if that’s the case, then knowledge that we have articulated via language is necessarily contingent — in other words, our knowledge is relative to something (a community, a tradition, a social context).
Modernism and the Enlightenment have been the favorite whipping boys in theology and philosophy for decades now. The notions of objectivity (especially in the sciences, but also in philosophy) and pure reason are rightfully derided as being fairly untenable in the post-modern age, especially after the turn in philosophy toward language.
Of course, the concern when this is granted is always that without a framework where we affirm that our language and thoughts directly link to reality (i.e., realism), “relativism” – especially moral relativism – abounds. This is essentially the fear that, if we cannot say with confidence that our language matches up to reality, the words we use to describe reality cannot be “true” or “real.” This further leads to the question of whether there even is an objective reality outside of the reality that humans make for themselves. And if so, what is to stop us from creating a reality in which pedophilia, racism, and economic exploitation are not only acceptable but good?
I think these fears tend to be overblown. We only latched onto the notion of the possibility of epistemological objectivity in the West because that’s the story that eventually won the day by the 1700s. We miss the fact that this isn’t the story the rest of the world has told about humanity and knowledge and what we can understand about reality. This Western framework might have given us industrialism and technological explosions and the age of information — but did it make us better? In the rush to be purely rational and gain all knowledge possible, we might have made ourselves more like machines, but did we make ourselves better human beings because of it?
Perhaps accepting our contingency and the fact that we are incapable of purely rational thought, perhaps affirming our social contexts and the subjectivity under which we have been placed, and perhaps understanding that our “knowledge” is bent by the lenses through which we evaluate information and rational argument will allow us to embrace humility and help us adopt a posture of openness to realities other than our own. Perhaps, by embracing “relativism,” we can become better humans and better Christians.