Conservatives get confused by the name. “I conserve things,” they say, which is true but not complete: conservatives conserve the good life, a complex ecosystem comprised of nature, culture, genetics, and leadership that avoids big problems and preserves a normal life with lots of free time.
Instead of admitting that their goal is to preserve their civilization and the “best life,” or those goals which are eternally true, beautiful, and good, conservatives pick up a few methods from conservative attempts to win power in the recent past. They are looking for symbols that appeal to an audience.
This naturally means that everything gets dumbed down to an absurd level because the only symbols that appeal to a large audience use simple categories and inflammatory emotions to reach the lowest common denominator audience, which is both not paying attention and not that bright.
The worst case of this might have been the Scopes trial, which in echoes of Galileo denied the assumed human role at the center of the universe. Instead we saw ourselves as a species that got lucky, but this offended those who believed in a single narrative with “objective” tendencies.
In the same way, right now the “objectivists” battle “postmodernists.” The latter are “relativists” who have bent or broken the theory of relativity to become the usual human argument for anarchy with subsidies. The former however are confused about the nature of reality.
Part of conserving history however requires realizing, as the ancients did, that not only is our universe relative, but its parts are relative to the whole, and perception cannot be separated from the perceiver, which means that there are no universal truths, values, and communications.
As Fred Nietzsche said in his The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Random House, 1967, § 481 (p. 267):
Against positivism, which halts at phenomena — “There are only facts” — I would say: No, fact is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact “in itself”; perhaps it is folly to want to do so a thing.
“Everything is subjective,” you say; but even this is interpretation. The “subject is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is. — Finally, is it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation?
In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings. — “Perpectivism.”
It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.
His statement here is generally summarized as “there are no facts, only interpretations,” following one translation of this section, which owing to differences between English and German grammar can be written either as “fact is precisely what there is not, only interpretations” or the summary above.
Humans tend to think in terms of facts and truths that are shared between all of us in some collective consensual hallucination that as an “objective” space, floats between us. But what one person reads, they will interpret in a different way to another.
Like the Dunning-Kruger Effect, knowledge of relativity tells us that a perceiver cannot be separated from what is perceived. As Arthur Schopenhauer says in The Fourfold Root, subject and object are related in the moment of perception:
There can therefore be no knowledge of knowing, because this would imply separation of the Subject from knowing, while it nevertheless knew that knowing — which is impossible.
My answer to the objection, “I not only know, but know also that I know,” would be, “Your knowing that you know only differs in words from your knowing. ‘I know that I know’ means nothing more than ‘I know,’ and this again, unless it is further determined, means nothing more than ‘ego.’ If your knowing and your knowing that you know are two different things, just try to separate them, and first to know without knowing that you know, then to know that you know without this knowledge being at the same time knowing.”
Schopenhauer raises one of the bedeviling questions of philosophy since the dawn of time: how do we know what we know, since we only know what we recognize, and what we recognize we look for as we filter what we perceive, therefore we are always cherry-picking?
Humans are famous for seeing one detail in a complex fact pattern and amplifying that into the major event, when often it is merely the first part we encountered. Our brains are optimized for finding berries among the leaves, but sometimes we miss seeing the tiger hiding behind the bush.
Imagine a technological object from a smarter civilization. It may not use gears, motors, batteries, or blades; for this reason, we might see it as a lump of metal or stone, not a gadget. It could hide in plain sight and no one would recognize its significance.
In the same way, humans looking at natural ecosystems tend to see plants and animals, but not the interrelation between them. How many of us recognize the link between soil quality and predators? Or recognize the layers of forest canopy? Or even think about the amount of animal feces and dropped leaves necessary to maintain soil moisture?
Nietzsche and Schopenhauer honed in on an even older argument from Plato, later given life in Goethe, which outlines the relativity of perceiver and object without descending into relativism:
When the eye and the appropriate object meet together and give birth to whiteness and the sensation connatural with it, which could not have been given by either of them going elsewhere, then, while the sight is flowing from the eye, whiteness proceeds from the object which combines in producing the colour; and so the eye is fulfilled with sight, and really sees, and becomes, not sight, but a seeing eye; and the object which combined to form the colour is fulfilled with whiteness, and becomes not whiteness but a white thing, whether wood or stone or whatever the object may be which happens to be coloured white.
And this is true of all sensible objects, hard, warm, and the like, which are similarly to be regarded, as I was saying before, not as having any absolute existence, but as being all of them of whatever kind generated by motion in their intercourse with one another; for of the agent and patient, as existing in separation, no trustworthy conception, as they say, can be formed, for the agent has no existence until united with the patient, and the patient has no existence until united with the agent; and that which by uniting with something becomes an agent, by meeting with some other thing is converted into a patient.
And from all these considerations, as I said at first, there arises a general reflection, that there is no one self-existent thing, but everything is becoming and in relation; and being must be altogether abolished, although from habit and ignorance we are compelled even in this discussion to retain the use of the term.
In doing so, Socrates throws out the idea of objectivism, or objects existing as things-in-themselves, but also tosses out the idea of relativism, or objects being merely as they are interpreted. Instead he points out that because of differing perceptions, the most sensitive see more than others:
For I declare that the truth is as I have written, and that each of us is a measure of existence and of non-existence. Yet one man may be a thousand times better than another in proportion as different things are and appear to him. And I am far from saying that wisdom and the wise man have no existence; but I say that the wise man is he who makes the evils which appear and are to a man, into goods which are and appear to him. And I would beg you not to press my words in the letter, but to take the meaning of them as I will explain them. Remember what has been already said,—that to the sick man his food appears to be and is bitter, and to the man in health the opposite of bitter.
This affirms a shared reality, but not “objective” truths and facts, since those are unknown to most. Instead he points out that those who seek the sane and good will find it, where those who have no idea what they are looking at will find chaos and darkness.
In other words, the relativity of objects also produces a relativity to the whole, and only by knowing the patterns in it do we know reality. This creates the basis for Socrates’ “theory of forms” which states that pattern pre-exists material shape, even if only through some general rules that by interaction set up the patterns that emerge.
Contrast this to relativism:
Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them. More precisely, “relativism” covers views which maintain that — at a high level of abstraction — at least some class of things have the properties they have (e.g., beautiful, morally good, epistemically justified) not simpliciter, but only relative to a given framework of assessment (e.g., local cultural norms, individual standards), and correspondingly, that the truth of claims attributing these properties holds only once the relevant framework of assessment is specified or supplied. Relativists characteristically insist, furthermore, that if something is only relatively so, then there can be no framework-independent vantage point from which the matter of whether the thing in question is so can be established.
Relativism, like dualism, throws the baby out with the bathwater. It says that since things are perceived individually, they are as they appear to those individuals, instead of noting that perception varies and only by tracing the patterns do we find the structure underneath appearance.
Dualism similarly rejects nature in order to create a human construct of God, saying that because humans perceive some things as necessary, they must be real, even if patterns can be discerned which go against the human notion. We either accept the human view or throw out the idea of nature being consistent with the gods entirely.
Conservatism too often embraces this “humans-versus-nature” view and rejects nature — natural selection, genetic determinism, heliocentricism, the Bell Curve — in order to hold up its ideal of a shared, universal, absolute, and divinely-ordained truth or collection of facts.
It would be saner for us simply to say that some see more than others, and therefore, we do best by having the most perceptive leading us instead of the most sociable.
On the wider scale, we can see proof of the relativity-to-all holism in the Bell Curve itself. Our IQs are relative to one another, such that to an idiot a smarter person is a lunatic, but also to the whole, such that we each have a place on a standard distribution where our intelligence measures up to the range of all intelligences.
This pattern recurs in nature where just about every measurable trait or variation fits on a Bell Curve. Without this type of relativity, objects would be repetitions of one another, which breaks cause-effect where each effect (object) has one cause. Instead, all would have the same cause, leading to centralization and fragility.
When we as modern conservatives try to think outside the muddle of both public conservatism and underground conservatism, we get lost, instead of accepting that we are simply naturalists who see the beauty of the natural order despite its inconvenience, and in doing so, have no need for “objectivity,” but through relativity, affirm a larger reality.
Tags: arthur schopenhauer, dualism, f.w. nietzsche, monism, objectivism, plato, protagoras, relativism, relativity