Major Criticisms of Humanities Programs: Relativism

The question of relativism and the humanities is a recent one, and is aimed at a particular version of the humanities, cultural theory, or what we at UCF have called our "Critical Humanities" concentration in the program. Basically, the issue is as follows: For a long time, people have thought that the humanities have been about what is universal about being human. It was supposed to ignore things such as our pasts, our gender and race, our current preoccupations, the groups we belonged to and the relations between those groups and others, our politics, and so forth. It was supposed to deal with "big" concepts like love, death, democracy, law, justice, good, beauty, truth, and so forth.

But in the last few decades, many people have pointed out that those universals are harder to come by then they ever seemed. For one thing, who gets to say what beauty is, or what truth is? Socrates thought that we would come together in conversation, and through that dialogue (later called dialectic) we would collectively arrive at truth. But it seems all too clear in human past, though, that the people who got to say what was true, beautiful, and so forth, were those who had social, political, or economic power. They were the priests, the rulers, the ones who spoke on behalf of gods, the ones who owned presses.

So, one answer was that maybe there is no such thing as a universal truth, or universal anything else anymore. Taking that attitude seriously had certain consequences. For one, we might think that all opinions are equal, and significant inasmuch as someone holds them. For another, we might want to re-evaluate what's known as "the canon", or the sources and thinkers that we take for granted as being important. Important to whom? Whose history is being overlooked?

Of course, there's a huge backlash to this way of thinking. This ranges from the relatively knee-jerk reactionary response, which is little more than the assertion that "my history is the best", and that everyone who disagrees is just politically correct. That response, although usually expressed loudly and even belligerantly, needn't be taken seriously, because it doesn't address the argument that has been made. It's usually an
ad hominem argument, or an attack on the person who holds a position rather than on the position itself. Others, though, do address the argument. Others have argued that in fact we do want to extend certain ideas such as democracy or freedom to the whole world, and that suggests that there might be universals after all. As well, some might want to argue that in fact the rich texts, such as Shakespeare, admit of many interpretations, and that means that we should have a canon of rich works, rather than one of works from a particular culture. Furthermore, others have argued that cultural studies has a kind of oppressive value system which demands compliance rather than fostering freedom of inquiry.

Now, these responses may or may not work, but the point is that there are very different, and sometimes conflicting approaches in the humanities. Some versions may well advocate a kind of relativism, although in some cases what seems like relativism is really an appeal for careful, nuanced thought, rather than broad and hasty generalizations and special pleading. But in the humanities, these conflicts are the life-blood. It is a good thing that some scholars are relativists, and others are not. Those tensions give rise to new understandings of the human condition and its representations.