In my most recent post on Situating the Conversation about Absolute/Objective Truth, I referred variously to foundationalism, non- or anti- foundationalism, objectivism, relativism, subjectivism, and intersubjectivity. I didn’t spend much time explaining any of those terms for lack of space. So, in this post, I offer some citations of various sources for further clarification on those concepts.

Objectivism

By “objectivism” I mean the basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent, ahistorical [meaning non-historical, or outside the bounds of history/creation] matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, goodness, or rightness. An objectivist claims that there is (or must be) such a matrix and that the primary task of the philosopher is to discover what it is and to support his or her claims to have discovered such a matrix with the strongest possible reasons. Objectivism is closely related to foundationalism and the search for an Archimedean point [a kind of God’s-eye-view perspective, a definitive point for judging everything else, THE foundation, if you will]. The objectivist maintains that unless we can ground philosophy, knowledge, or language in a rigorous manner we cannot avoid radical skepticism…”Objectivism” has frequently been used to designate metaphysical realism–the claim that there is a world of objective reality that exists independently of us and that has a determinate nature or essence that we can know. In modern times objectivism has been closely linked with an acceptance of a basic metaphysical or epistemological distinction between the subject and the object. What is “out there” (objective) is presumed to be independent of us (subjects), and knowledge is achieved when a subject correctly mirrors or represents objective reality. This dominant form of objectivism is only one variety of the species. ~~Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 8-9.

Christians tend to equate the “permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, goodness, or rightness”–in other words, the “objective”, the “out there” as GOD, the object. However, they don’t tend to provide any good theological justification for doing so. And there is a plethora of good theological reasons NOT to do so. There is for example, in Reformation theology (Luther) and in 2oth century theology (Barth) and even up-to-the-minute postmodern theology (various Continental thinkers), a tendency to speak of God as subject (or an event)–as an agent Who does stuff and is actually not done doing stuff. Thus to define Him as an object (like something to be studied) is to limit His identity. Limiting His identity is bad–it’s called idolatry.

Relativism

As I mentioned in the most recent post, relativism is the flip-side, or an opposition of objectivism. In other words, it is the denial of objectivism. Hence, relativism is defined in light of objectivism. The two go hand-in-hand as a pair. Thus, to critique something as relativist, you must by necessity be working within an objectivist system. Otherwise, to speak of relativism makes no sense.

Some days I like the term relativism. If all it means is that each person has a view of the world, simply because to be a person means you see there world in a particular way, then I like the term relativism. There is a view of the world relative to every person. Other days, I don’t like it – those are the days when it’s misused. Those are the days when relativism is thought to refer to any “anything goes” philosophy, that it doesn’t matter what one believes, any take is as valid as any other, etc. I haven’t met a single person yet who really thinks that way. They may talk that way, because it’s politically correct in modern discourse, but they don’t really believe it. Spend enough time and you realize that every person has certain views about life, morals, politics, etc, all of which they think you should agree with.

So the problem with relativism is this: to say there is a view for every person on the planet is NOT to conclude the particular consequence that every view is just as valid as any other. The first premise has no particular consequences–it’s merely descriptive of the way things are. It’s only to say that people can and often do believe and think whatever they want. The challenge really comes in defending why one thinks or believes as they do and then, if possible, persuading them to think or believe differently. Such a transition or conversion has to do with argumentation, persuasion, and conversion, which we’ll deal with in a later post.

Subjectivism

Here we can speak mostly of the mundane sense of subjectivism (there is no need to get into Husserlian Transcendental Subjectivity, for example). Subjectivism is, in plain, the view that every person has their own tastes, opinions, beliefs. It is just a description. Subjectivists need not be considered relativists because subjectivism is a description of how beliefs are held–they are held by subjects. Relativism is a claim (if it can actually be made, and I’m arguing that it really cannot) that all beliefs are valid and there is no final way of judging between them.

Foundationalism

As in my last post, I referenced that foundationalism began with Descartes. Here is more from Bernstein on Descartes’ efforts.

Reading the Meditations as a journey of the soul helps us to appreciate that Descartes’ search for a foundation or Archimedean point is more than a device to solve metaphysical and epistemological problems. It is the quest for some fixed point, some stable rock upon which we can secure our lives against the vicissitudes that constantly threaten us. The specter that hovers in the background of this journey is not just radical epistemological skepticism but the dread of madness and chaos where nothing is fixed, where we can neither touch bottom nor support ourselves on the surface. With a chilling clarity Descartes leads us with an apparent and ineluctable necessity to a grand and seductive Either/Or. Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos. ~~Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, 18.

What is this journey that we see taking place in Descartes’? Grenz and Franke elaborate.

Descartes lived in troubled times. In the aftermath of the Reformation, which had divided “Christ’s seamless garment” [the unified Church–however it wasn’t actually unified, as the Great Schism between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox was almost a millennium old] and resulted in the Thirty Years War, questions about religion and morality could no longer be settled by appeal to a commonly held tradition. Further, through his travels Descartes discovered how culturally based and culturally dependent beliefs actually are. Descartes’s response to this situation was to seek certitude within the mind of the knowing subject. To accomplish this task, Descartes brought all his beliefs and assumptions under scrutiny. He doubted everything until he arrived at a belief he could not doubt, namely, that he was doubting. This led to his appropriation of the dictum, “I think; therefore, I am.”

In this manner, Descartes claimed to have established the foundations of knowledge by appeal to the mind’s own experience of certainty. On this basis, he began to construct anew the human knowledge edifice. Descartes was convinced that this epistemological program yields knowledge that is certain, culture- and tradition-free, universal, and reflective of a reality that exists outside the mind (this latter being a central feature of a position known as “metaphysical realism” or simply “realism”).~~Stanley Grenz & John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001), 31.

Here’s more on foundationalism from Grenz and Franke.

In the modern era, the pursuit of knowledge was deeply influenced by the thought forms of the Enlightenment, with foundationalism lying at its heart. The goal of the foundationalist agenda is the discovery of an approach to knowledge that will provide rational human beings with absolute, incontestable certainty regarding the truthfulness of their beliefs. According to foundationists, the acquisition of knowledge ought to proceed in a manner somewhat similar to the construction of a building. Knowledge must be built on a secure foundation. The Enlightenment epistemological foundation consists of a set of incontestable beliefs of unassailable first principles on the basis of which the pursuit of knowledge can proceed. These basic beliefs or first principles must be universal, objective, and discernible to any rational person.~~Stanley Grenz & John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism, 23.

Soft or Modest Foundationalism

I really don’t want to go too far in making all kinds of distinctions–while they are important in textbooks and academic discussions, doing so becomes rather tedious at times. Nevertheless, this particular distinction among foundationalists is particularly important to this conversation and the arguments I’m making. I’ll quote Grenz and Franke again, then comment as to the importance of this view.

Modest foundationalism was first advocated by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (sometimes his thought is called “common sense realism”).

Reid pointed out that our psychological constitution draws us irresistibly to accept certain first principles as self-evident. Because we have no reason to suspect that these psychological processes are misleading, he added, we are epistemically entitled to accept and employ these first principles. Reid’s proposal (which was to play a crucial role in nineteenth-century conservative theology) led to a variant sometimes known as “soft” or “modest foundationalism.” According to Jay Wood, “Modest foundationalists make no claims about the invincible certainty of one’s basic beliefs or about a need to be reflectively aware of which beliefs have the status of basic. Instead of claiming that one’s basic beliefs enjoy infallible certainty, modest foundationalists ascribe only prima facie [literally, ‘first face’ or ‘on the face of things’] certainty” (that is, such beliefs can be overridden but are acceptable unless one has good reasons for thinking that they have been undermined).~~Stanley Grenz & John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism,  32.

Why is this view important? Because of the fallibilistic aspect of it. Fallibilism is the sense that humans can indeed be wrong, or in other words, that human beings are not infallible. Often in my conversations with people about whether or not we should continue using the grammar of absolute/objective truth or play the game of defending the Christian faith by the rules determined within that game, I’ll offer the idea that there is no possible way we can know that Christianity is the truth with certainty–we cannot offer any proof. We’re fallible and we could be wrong. Most of my interlocutors admit this fact–and they should. Even Paul notes that we see through a glass darkly…now we see only in part (1 Corinthians 13.12).

However, my interlocutors tend to come back at me quoting other Bible verses, like John 14.6, or they make references to “Revelation” as certain and definitive knowledge (as opposed to “natural” knowledge, that is, what humans can achieve through various means, either rationalistic or empiricistic). The question there is, “Why make this distinction?” Any theological justification for that distinction plays unwittingly into the rules of the game I’m trying to call into question. Or they appeal to the idea that, whether we can know it with certainty, we must admit to some kind of objective reality “out there.” My argument is, “No we don’t. In fact, we’re not actually required to talk that way at all, and it would be better if we didn’t.” Further posts will elaborate this.

Non- or anti- (or post-) foundationalism

Essentially, as noted in the previous post, non- (anti- or post-) foundationalism is a rejection of the project and assumptions of foundationalism.

Intersubjectivity

I prefer the use of the term intersubjectivity (as opposed to speaking of strictly subjectivity or perspectivalism) because it gets at the reality of our situatedness as individuals within communities. Wherever we grew up, got educated; whatever our family history, ethnicity, religion; whatever our social status, various memberships, skills, experiences–all those we mediated by and understood through our life within a particular community which gave us the language by which to express and reflect upon our experiences.

We are definitely individuals, but our identity comes only from our place within a community. We figure it out so to speak, in conversation with others. Our living together in community thus constitutes whatever knowledge we have as intersubjective–shared and worked through in community with a multitude of subjects.

Communitarianism

This is the view which underlies the brief description of intersubjectivity above. It puts community–rather than the solipsistic individual, the autonomous rational agent–at the center of life and knowing.

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This short list of concepts with clarifying citations should help give a deeper understanding to the last post wherein I used these concepts but did not elaborate a definition of them.

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