Two bogeymen to scare the children—'relativism' and its cousin 'nihilsim'

A ghost train on Midsummer Common, Cambridge taken this afternoon
Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that over the years I have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to understand and address the phenomena of ‘relativism’ and ‘nihilism’ (at least as they effect the kinds of issues and questions that pertain to religion). Well, this morning I read an essay by the Cambridge-based philosopher Raymond Geuss (whose work admire greatly) in which he suggests that they are both artificially constructed bogeymen of whom one shouldn't be more afraid than the spectres one might run across, say, on a Ghost Train.

His words have certainly given me some unexpected and comforting food for thought. And how funny to run across a Ghost Train just this afternoon on Midsummer Common which gave me a suitable picture to head up this post. Spooky . . .

From an interview for IIIIXIII called A World Without Why—in conversation with Raymond Geuss

‘Relativism’ (and its cousin ‘nihilism’) are both bogeymen constructed artificially by philosophers to scare the children. No one actually believes that all beliefs are equally good (relative in the noxious sense) or that nothing is any more desirable than anything else (nihilism). These two constructs, ‘relativism’ and ‘nihilism’, are part of a complex scheme of blackmail by philosophers of a Platonic persuasion. Platonists have argued that unless you have a single, final and absolute framework for knowledge, you have nothing, no way for orienting yourself in the world at all. Historically, this form of blackmail has been highly successful, there is no reason to accept the alternative: either you have an absolute framework or anything goes. Suppose I tell you that there is a cup of tea just to your left. If that is true, does it allow you to orient yourself? Clearly you can: reach to the left and you will get the cup of tea, to the right and you will not. It does not follow from this that either I or you will have a final framework within which to organise all knowledge. Even if the knowledge in question is 'only' relative to my or your situation, that is enough, provided that is the situation I (or you) actually is in. The denigration of merely local, contextual, or relative knowledge (or for that matter value) as not really knowledge (or ‘really valuable) depends on a huge mass of Platonic assumptions which the whole history of recent philosophy has been devoted to demolishing. So I am not worried by the spectre of ‘relativism’ of that of nihilism.