Nobody really wants the sloppy, childlike relativism that some self-proclaimed ‘post-Modernists’ espouse – even they don’t want it, since it would make their proclamations and espousals nonsensical. But relativism is not all one thing, it’s available in various types and to varying degrees. Dealing with any relativism in a useful manner requires considerable thought, caution, and care.
It is one of the most difficult concepts to get our minds around, that the world we know is only known through the concepts our minds generate (or that are communicated to us by others). Since these concepts are generally constructed via some linguistic or otherwise systematized communication processes, it follows that our ‘knowledge’ of the world is really largely a knowledge of what we say about the world. Even if I kick a rock (ala Sam Johnson), this experience will only make sense through my signifying response to it in a given context. Even expressions like ‘ow!’ or ‘ouch!’ can be seen to be some responsive effort to make sense of the experience; i.e., announcement that a painful event/sensation has occurred.
We’ve all had the experience of feeling some tiny sting on our arms; we slap at it reflexively. What is it? I pull my hand away, and there on the palm is a flattened body with broken wings, and I say, ‘oh, a bug.’ But if I pull my hand away and there is no flattened body on it, there still arises some thought in mind, such as ‘oh, probably a bug.’ And it is probably a bug, but that doesn’t matter – more important is recognizing that whatever it was, I have made sense of it by interpreting it and expressing this interpretation. And if it never happens again, and I never find any further evidence that it was a bug, yet a bug it will be in my memory.
I confess that I am something of a classical (i.e., traditional or Medieval) Nominalist – I’m sometimes unsure that we know anything ‘out there’ at all, except that it exists (but I’m also something of a Pragmatist, so this doesn’t really cause me any loss of sleep). But one doesn’t have to go so far as Nominalism to see that any claim we can make of the world beyond ourselves is thoroughly mediated by the system of the language by which we make the claim, and thoroughly dependent on context – not only the context of the particular world in which we speak, but the the context of the language we speak itself, and all the social reality that requires we admit.
Nominalism is a position taken regarding the problematic relationship between universals and particulars. This relationship can only be worked through in language.
It should be noted that there are certainly signifying practices other than language; but there can be no experience with reality that does not engage – and hence is not mediated by – signifying practices. (An infant reaching for the mother’s breast is signifying something, and reaching for what signifies to it.) Whether infants have ‘concepts’ seems irrelevant, or badly phrased. That an infant responds to the world reliant on persistence of objects hardly means that it has a concept of persistence of objects. This seems to beggar the very concept of a concept.
One of the questions inadvertently raised here is whether knowledge is to be equated with the hoary Positivist standard of Justified True Belief; because an infant certainly has no belief to be justified. – the truth of the breast is the immediate presence of the breast, and the justification of that is satisfaction of hunger. But the infant surely does not ‘believe’ this in any way he or she can articulate, but merely reaches for the breast. Yet infants surely know, in a meaningful way, the breast – and the success or failure to get satisfaction from it – and intimately.
I’m not sure that the notion of knowledge being reducible to Justified True Belief, makes any sense outside of language, since analysis of a ‘justified true belief’ requires formulation into claims in a language system.
I noted parenthetically that my Nominalist position (concerning universals) did not cause me loss of sleep because I am also something of a Pragmatist. In pragmatism, knowledge need not be equitable to JTB. Reliability, as ground for responding to the world, often seems to have a stronger claim.
I earlier used the term “signifying” exactly to avoid getting into a technical distinctions between signifying systems. But I will introduce one technical term which may be of use here, which is that of Charles Sanders Peirce: interpretant. The interpretant to a sign is primarily composed of responses to the sign, which may be conceptualization or may be some form of action or speech-act, or some inner sensation. If we think in terms of signification and how various organisms respond to signs, we can avoid the dangers of ascribing language to an infant, and still have a means of addressing how they interact with their environment and each other in significant ways. And we can also avoid the trap of conceiving of our entire existence as somehow fundamentally linguistic. We are the language speaking animal, but we have other non-linguistic significant interactions with each other and the environment.
Pragmatism is a post-Idealist philosophy (Peirce was taught to recite Kant’s First Critique – in German! – at an early age; Dewey was an avowed Hegelian until WWI). Idealism makes a claim, actually similar to that of Logical Positivism, that knowledge is primarily or wholly the result of theory construction, and thus must be articulated linguistically. * Pragmatism begins with the recognition that this cannot be the case.
So the question may come down to whether what we know needs be communicated in language, or whether some other form of signification can be rich enough to inform our responses to the world.
But that does not mean we can be free of signification all together. The sting on the arm is a sign; what I say of it is an attempt to understand its significance, as response to it. If (assuming the scenario that I cannot see or find the bug or bug-parts) I come down with symptoms (signs) of malaria, that will enrich the signification of my response, and will also point to (sign) the species of bug that stung me. None of this need be predicated on the understanding that there is an inherent ‘bugness’ (some universal bug-hood) in the bug, the theory of which I must be familiar with before I form a proposition concerning it. And that is what I see as the real issue here.
* This falls into the Nominalist trap: if all knowledge is theoretical, and all theories concern universals, and all existent entities are individuals, then the most we can say we know is our own theories, since individuals are not universals, but universals need to be constructed to account for them.. Unless, that is, we allow that knowledge is not all one thing and that there is not only one way of knowing. I’m glad that my doctor has a theory of malaria that can be relied on should I come down with it, so I can get properly treated. But I know I was stung, and what that felt like, without any theory to account for it. The interpretation of it is, however inevitable, as making sense of the matter, and certainly necessary if I become sick and need to articulate to a doctor what I think happened.