Relativism and Language

It is hard for me to imagine that so many people are so wrong. Sure, core beliefs go unexamined. Yes, we often unconsciously repeat taglines we have heard from those we respect instead of attempting to translate our true views. But I must admit I think of all people as essentially wanting to figure it out. Life, the universe, their meaning, how to make the world a better place. Some, who see the world as a competitive, dog-eat-dog place, want to figure it out because it will help them survive. Others, like me, who see the modern (Western — that is all I have direct experience with) world as an essentially benign place, just want to figure it out because of a innate curiosity (no doubt a result of past generations with the former motivation).

So when someone says something which strikes me as wrong, when I have the kneejerking impulse to correct them, this belief of mine kicks in and stops me. Oh my, it didn’t used to; I would happily correct the abundant wrongness in the world. After all, if people think the right way, they will do better for themselves and others. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have this belief, however, but it has taken a while to trickle its way into my choice of actions.

All through my youth, I was told that I was smart (a pedagogically questionable practice). I didn’t buy it (I’ve always had a rebellious streak). What makes me so special? I wasn’t just born with smartness, I thought. At first this manifested as an individualistic self-righteousness: I must be smart because of the intelligent ways I chose to spend my youth (what? Trampoline, video games, and Power Rangers?). More recently it has manifested as a skepticism of the views of those who tell me I am smart: you only say that because I am articulating things you agree with, so the compliment is a way of affirming your own worldview. Those both seem naive to me now. I don’t know what I currently think about it, I will probably only be able to articulate that once I move to some other view.

I am still skeptical of any innate superiority (however not enough so to avoid writing this post in a way that comes across as advice). So when I stop myself from correcting a wrongness, what do I do? This is the relativism I’ve been talking about.

Words don’t have meaning; in a conversation, the speaker translates meaning into words, and then the listener translates the words into meaning. We have a soft social agreement about how words are used, and that gives rise to trends in our patterns of thought. But the possibility remains — and I use the word possibility only because of a timidness, I really think of it more as a high probability — that the meanings that I have assigned to the words when I hear them are different from the meanings that were used to form them. Indeed, it is unclear what is even meant by two people having the same thought. My brain is not likely to have the ability to represent the thought that produced the words, especially if I disagree with them.

The exercise, then, is this: try to represent those thoughts anyway. How can I think of these words so that the sentence becomes true? Not just slightly less false, but really true. I might have to temporarily reorient my value system; I might have to imagine I grew up in a religious family; I might have to picture the scary possible worlds that might result if the statement were false (that is, beyond the proportion of the consequences I actually predict, already thinking the statement is false). When I remember to do this, I am brought to a calm, understanding level, with few fiery arguments in sight. My contributions to these conversations are transformed into questions instead of assertions — not Socratic “let me lead you to the right answer” questions, but genuine “I want to understand you” questions.

And that is the essence of relativism to me. What you mean by your words is not what I mean by your words. Sentences are uttered with the concept of their truth in mind, and before blasting forth a correction, I first have to understand how they are true. And more often than not, my planned correction is dismantled and replaced by a connected friendship.

3 thoughts on “Relativism and Language

  1. The way I put it to myself: ideas that are obviously wrong cannot last for any length of time. When considering such ideas, it therefore behoves me to understand what it is like to believe such things before I can dismiss them.

  2. Thanks for the post, Luke.

    The way you describe it, you make me think of the concept of “assumption” that I have carried around in my head for a significant part of my life. The idea is that you say something to me, and I may understand it. Really, I make some assumptions (axioms, perhaps, or de-/inductive guesses) about what you say, and I draw meaning from those assumptions. Assumptions may valid (have the same meaning as you intend) or invalid (have a different meaning). We all learn through life to make assumptions about other people. What I think people (including me) often forget is where to draw the line between reasonable and presumptive assumptions.

    After a number of conversations with you, I may develop a decent collection of assumptions and thus a good understanding of your intended meanings. But with somebody I just met, I should be very conservative with my assumptions. These are two extremes, and the difficulty lies in the middle.

    I have learned (and continuously remind myself) to make very few assumptions about people. Since I don’t know another’s mind or background, I don’t think it is appropriate to assume things. To me, this is the idea of “keeping an open mind.” If I presume to know what you mean, I am closed to the possibility that you are more complex than is apparent. By making assumptions, I put you in a box and label you, without knowing your true self.

    Here is an example. Reg tells me I should convert to his religion or I will suffer (in this life or another). This might cause me to doubt Reg’s sanity. But Reg is also a renown scientist, whose work I have significant respect for. If I allow his religious views to lead me to assumptions, I suddenly lose respect for him as a person. This will affect my respect for his work, too. Therefore, instead of putting Reg in a box, I must my assumptions in a box, compartmentalizing my views, because Reg is actually a complex person. One might wonder how one person can hold contradictory views, but it happens all the time. Either I let my assumptions cloud the different aspects of a person or I accept that person at face-value and try to build a possibly elaborate picture of her or him in order to understand.

    So, for me, there is no absolute. Everybody comes from a different place, and it is my duty to understand that place. Since each person is complex, my image of that person must also be complex. Though it may be difficult, I must allow for unsound arguments and contradictions. (I still try to encourage critical thinking and logical processes.)

    One of the practical results of my understanding of assumptions is that I ask a lot of questions. Sometimes, I’m accused of not seeing the obvious; however, I usually do see it; I just try to avoid assuming the truth is obvious. Too often, it’s not.

  3. I dig your general point. But, just for fun, I want to show you an alternative perspective on communication. You say, “in a conversation, the speaker translates meaning into words, and then the listener translates the words into meaning.”
    This is a linear (or transmission) model of communication. It can be a practical perspective in some situations. For example, it’s easily applicable to lecturing or simple miscommunications (such as different uses of the same word, like the examples on lesswrong <–examplewithinanexamplewithinanexample).
    But that's not the only way of seeing things. Instead, we could understand meaning as created through the act of communication. I think Stan Deetz, the guy who came up with this theory, explains the difference between understanding communication as a dynamic system vs. transmission best: "We take on socially constructed meanings as our own rather than making our private meanings social in expression" ( One of the reasons I think the systems perspective is so cool is because it assumes that meanings are multiple and unclear, and that fits with my own experience.

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