Friday, 13 August 2004


Comments on blogs are a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re excellent, as those at Crooked Timber almost always are, and sometimes they’re uniformly awful despite the quality of the blog, like those at Political Animal.

Sometimes you stumble on a real gem buried in blog comments, like this bit by Charlotte Pressler, professor of philosophy and English at South Florida Community College, at Matthew Yglesias’s blog:

I teach an introductory philosophy course in rural South Florida and so might be able to contribute some analysis (quickly, before Hurricane Charley gets here). Almost all my students are evangelical and/or charismatic Christians who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and almost all believe that truth is relative. I found this contradiction interesting, and looked into it further.

It appears to have two sources. First, my students apply the word “truth” to all of the statements they believe, and don’t distinguish between claims of fact and claims of value. They are not encouraged to make such a distinction by the local culture; the local authorities frequently describe obvious value claims as “facts,” adding that “you can’t argue with facts.” “Truth,” in my students’ dialect, thus winds up meaning something like “my basic orientation to the world, the way I see things, my perspective”—which would be correctly described as personal, individual, and “relative.”

I might add that an article in the journal Teaching Philosophy (apologies to the author, whose name I can’t remember) argued that the beginning philosophy students who claim that “truth is relative” are really trying to say something like this: “I don’t agree with Mom & Dad any more about a whole lot of things, and I love them, so I don’t want to say they’re wrong, but I don’t want to give up my own point of view either.”

The second reason my students believe that truth is relative, however, strikes me as much more pernicious. They have grown up in small, tribal, tightly-knit, highly conformist communities that (needless to say) did not encourage free discussion or debate. In college, they meet for the first time people who do not share their presuppositions, and they begin to get an inkling that the wider world contains many more. They have never been asked to defend their own belief systems before, and, in all honesty, some of their beliefs are quite indefensible. When students in this position say that truth is relative, they are trying to exempt their own belief system from the requirement of rationality. They want to be able to go on believing whatever their local community has decided to believe, even though both argument and evidence are against them. Again, they are encouraged in this by the local authorities, who teach them to devalue reason and (especially) “book learning.”

The fact is that my students will be ostracized by their local communities (it’s called “disfellowshipping”) if they disagree in any point with their community’s creed. It is a public, brutal shaming, and any human who could avoid it, would. If this sheds any light on the “relativism” of the American public (or, perhaps, the persistence of “creation science” and other follies), I would be glad.

(Reproduced with permission from the author.)

Prof. Pressler really should be blogging.

Checking out of AA

This will probably be my last post from Ann Arbor; the hovel doesn’t have Internet access (or any other communication facilities), and Sprint gets annoyed when I use my cell phone to connect to the Internet. I think I’ll have Internet access in the motel tomorrow night, so I’ll probably have something to say tomorrow night.


Russell Arben Fox has some thoughts on living and working in the relative boonies of academia that may be a worthwhile corrective to the attitudes articulated here by other friends and colleagues.