Gairdner's wide-ranging book is both important for our time and highly readable. He makes it clear that relativism is a particularly modern disease that has come to infect many aspects of life and thought in the modern world, especially and increasingly over the past hundred years. In contrast to this modern predicament, Gairdner makes a strong and persuasive case for the existence of absolutes or universal truths and constants by examination of ancient and modern evidence in many areas of human life and cultures, nature, physics, mathematics, cosmology, biology, sexuality, morals, natural law, and language. His central thesis is that "all of nature, all human experience, cultures, moral systems, and all sciences, from the softest to the hardest - while they are repositories of sometimes countless differences . . . are characterized by the existence of a very large number of absolutes without which the subjects themselves could not be meaningfully discussed in the first place" [xiv]. His extensive lists and discussions of these universal truths take first place in the book, and should convince anyone not blinded by relativism or prejudice. A second aspect of his approach, as extensively treated as the first, is an incisive, critical case against the currently prevailing orthodoxy of relativism. Perhaps no better critique of the self-contradictions and failures of relativism is available today.
What is the extent and influence of relativism today? Gairdner emphasizes "its current omnipresence." He states, rightly I think, "that relativist orthodoxy in many shapes and forms is more or less pervasive in almost all educational and intellectual departments, disciplines, and spheres of influence." "It is almost everywhere believed, defended and promoted, however unsubtly" . Not only many intellectuals but the man in the street now hold such views: "No absolutes. No universals. No constants, either of nature or of human nature" [xiv]. The "idea that everything is relative, invented, and therefore permeated with a controlling motive led at once to a new form of analytical suspicion directed at every aspect of human activity from poetry to politics. All social phenomena, in particular, would become targeted as explicit or implicit power structures justifying one or another form of moral, social, political, or economic control" .
Various forms of relativism have been developing since the seventeenth century. Hobbes pioneered moral relativism in the seventeenth. By 1859 J. S. Mill's views in On Liberty put forward a new moral standard of "liberty" that has become "the most powerful and popular `moral' guideline cited by ordinary people in the West today," with the slogan "do your own thing, just don't harm me" . "Moral relativism is the most common form of relativism we encounter in daily life ..., clearly a defiantly secular position that assumes there is no transcendent reality or moral viewpoint in the whole universe" . Historical relativism, influentially developed by Hegel and Marx in the nineteenth century, is "the claim that all truth changes over time because it is relative to its moment in history" . Cultural relativism, advanced by Boas, Mead and Benedict in best-selling books since the early twentieth century, takes "the surprising view that one culture is as good as another, that there may be such things as good-better-best within a culture or civilization but not between them." This situation in our time represents a revolutionary shift in history, because "no traditional culture in history except our own has ever had a belief in anything resembling a cultural relativism that denies all foundational truth" . Cultural relativism has led to the corrosive influences of "multiculturalism" and "political correctness." Linguistic relativism has been extensively developed and promoted during the twentieth century by Wittgenstein and more recent postmodernists such as Derrida and Foucault, based on views that "language games" or "texts" have no real ground or connection to an "external world" or to any "transcendent absolute." Gairdner suggests that a general motive for "denying the crucial place of absolutes in life is, at bottom, simply anti-authoritarian and self-serving" [xv].
Gairdner presents brief but perceptive analyses of influential modern thinkers from the seventeenth century onward who have made such prevailing relativism increasingly possible in the twentieth century, following World War I, the decades between the world wars, and especially since the hippie generation of the 1960s. Hobbes developed moral relativism out of his mechanistic materialism in which individuals and societies are seen as machines in motion. Morality is reduced to the "good" of human appetite or desire, and "evil" to the object of hate and aversion. Hobbes flatly declared that good and evil "are ever used with relation to the person that useth them; there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of Good and Evill" . Isaac Newton's seventeenth-century science and philosophy of nature was clearly modern in key respects, but it still emphasized an orderly cosmos controlled by universal laws, the product of intelligent design. Such a universe "could only proceed from the council and domination of an intelligent and powerful Being." "But," as Gairdner writes, "we have utterly rejected his theological reasoning for their existence." While there is significant movement among some scientists in the direction of the "G-word," the "general direction of today's scientific community and, therefore of the public mind - and certainly of public education ... has run strongly against this idea. We increasingly describe ourselves in defiantly materialist, atheistic, and therefore, relativistic terms, and these three concepts form the underpinning of our thoroughly modern orthodoxy." In such views the universe no longer has a point, and "when there is no point to anything, relativism rules" [10-11].
Many European relativists "rejected entirely, or sought to reshape as entirely, the whole Western tradition." Since the early nineteenth century Hegel has been highly influential in these ways. He boosted relativism with his view of history as "an ever-evolving process that cannot be understood or evaluated at all except through the context of particular historical periods." There is "no God's-eye view of anything." By the late nineteenth century Nietzsche went much further: he "surely ranks as the most tormented and explicitly angry relativist. He lambasted Western traditions root and branch, particularly Christianity .... The West, he cried, originally made a huge mistake falling for Plato's theory about absolutes that exist in some world of higher ideals and perfect Forms. This was a terrible, life-denying concept that ruined Western civilization, mostly by producing Christianity, which he deeply disrespected as `a poor man's Platonism' . . ." Nietzsche came to the radically relativist conclusions that "religion is obviously a lie" and "there are no absolutes"; "there is only human `Will'"; "there are no facts, only interpretations" [15-16]. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American philosopher and psychologist William James developed his philosophy of pragmatism, asserting that "Man" is at the center of things, and "ideas and actions of the good must be judged only in terms of their practical worldly consequences, for there is no higher external standard." Another American pragmatist, John Dewey, subsequently influenced American education heavily throughout the twentieth century with his similar views that "man alone with his evolving experience is the measure of the evolving universe. There is no other truth." He sought to convince philosophers to stop searching for ultimate meanings, final truths, and absolutes .
In twentieth-century linguistic philosophy, Austrian-British philosopher Wittgenstein promoted a linguistic relativism in works of the 1920s, 1950s, and later, that have been enormously influential. His views are of the type claiming "truth is something that is created by, is reflected by, and according to some, is even a product of language." He "spoke famously not of reality or truth but of how moral and philosophical statements are factually meaningless." The work of philosophers is a kind of verbal "game" and the games do not "refer to anything real in the external world" [25-26].
Heidegger was "in many ways more radical" than Nietzsche, who influenced him. He was "as deeply opposed to Western philosophy because from the beginning it called for a rationalistic distancing from direct physical experience of this world in order to evaluate and judge it rather than to live it. He insisted that all truth must be subjective because no one can step outside existence in order to judge it: we can live it only from within." In a post-Nietzschean world where "God is dead," Heidegger claimed we have been "thrown" into existence. And like Nietzsche, he found our choice to be between brute nihilism and creating "a new world of higher values" in which the focus would be on "process, becoming, and questioning rather than on the old Greek virtues of reason, harmony, and idealism." For him as for Nietzsche this meant "all claims to absolute truth must be challenged and uncovered as stratagems for moral and political control." New ideals must be imposed on "an otherwise meaningless world." Nazi officials loved this. Heidegger had a deep mistrust of all universal concepts, interpreting them as powerful but meaningless abstractions, a means of tyranny, and the loss of authentic existence as "being-in-the-world," or "life as it is lived." Several of his concepts were adapted and pressed further by postmodern followers, especially his criticism of the Western "metaphysics of presence," the belief "that a permanent and absolute truth more real and more valuable than ordinary experience is `present' in key concepts and ideals." For Heidegger "there can be no transcendent, objective, or universal truth worth speaking about" [244-47].
In powerful chapters on relativism in language theory in recent decades, Gairdner gives an analysis of two major forms of language analysis--structuralism and poststructuralism. He indicates that while structuralism still gave prominence to positive, objective, and universal features of language, subsequent, more revolutionary poststructuralism seized on certain negative features of signs to claim that since all signifiers are arbitrary, so are the things they supposedly signify [221-331]. The early father of structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, held that while a linguistic sign, considered in the separate terms of its signifier and signified has negative implications, a sign considered as a whole has a positive and objective function referring to an objective world . Noam Chomsky, in his 1957 book, Syntactic Structures, emphasized, as Gairdner writes, the existence of "a deep and universal structuring of language" . And in 1969, Levi-Strauss argued, as Gairdner says, "that beneath the surface differences of peoples and tribes of the world there exist certain archetypal, or universal, themes, customs, and social patterns." Poststructuralism came as a "powerful retaliation" against such universal claims, presenting its own "very cynical form of linguistic relativism," spreading far and wide, and morphing into "a diffuse sociopolitical and aesthetic movement called `postmodernism.'" This "`linguistic turn' in Western intellectual life . . . got us all marching, once more, down the road to relativism" . Cultural relativists have long held the notion that "language shapes reality, and because each language is different, then reality must also be different for each language community" . "Poststructuralists took `the linguistic turn' down the road to a relativism more extreme than any previously known" .
Jacques Derrida, an Algerian-French Jew heavily influenced by Heidegger and Nietzsche, became the kingpin of post-structuralism/postmodernism in the late twentieth century. In a famous early conference speech in 1966 he used Heidegger's concept of the "metaphysics of presence" to attack traditional Western beliefs and thought, including the recent one of "structure." In Derrida's view, the notion was as arbitrary and deplorable as other supposed forms of "metaphysical presence - like `Reason,' or `Forms,' or `God.'" In language and thought, for Derrida, both terms of the sign, the signifier and signified, carried a negative sense: "neither term has a fixed reality in itself." Gairdner emphasizes that this was a misunderstanding of Saussure, for whom the whole sign was a positive term. The result of Derrida's view of sign, signifier, and signified was "an endless polyvalence of words." There can never be any fixed, universal, or absolute concepts. Thus, language and "reality" are seen as "an ever-changing river of experience." Gairdner finds it "incredible," "hardly believable," and "irresponsible," that "Derrida and so many others just as eager for philosophical supports for relativism took this radical and quite incorrect notion of endless sign generation as gospel and used it to undermine human confidence in language and the existence of the real world to which it refers." The view helped promote not only "semantic indeterminacy," but "cultural and moral relativism." And it promised "a new ground for a radical critique of Western capitalism, technology, science, philosophy - indeed, of an entire civilization." For Derrida, much like Nietzsche and Heidegger, Western philosophy's quest for "a transcendental signified," an origin or center external to, more true, or superior to immediate experience, simply involved stories or "narratives" invented by intellectuals and power-mongers to persuade and capture followers. All such narratives are only "convenient fictions serving intellectual and political power, and over them all there is visible what he rather cheekily derided as `the ultimate fiction of God.'" Echoing Nietzsche, Derrida believed there is "nothing foundational outside itself; everything is in the flowing river of existence" [249-52].
In contrast to such views, with their pervasive sense of multiplicity, fragmentation, and uncertainty, Gairdner emphasizes that universals constitute a higher, overarching relatedness that makes possible the real identity and meaning of particular things and individuals, and of existence. A seemingly endless number of particular things makes up the ground-level of our experience, but they are only knowable and have relationship and meaning through a higher level of universals, a transcendent realm. What then is the source and origin of all these universals that spread over and enfold the particulars of life and knowledge, giving them and life real identity and meaning? Where did universals come from? If universals exist, as Gairdner's wide-ranging catalogue and description of them seems to prove, they surely must have an absolute, supremely transcendent source and ground. Newton's discovery of the universal law of gravity indicates "traces in matter of an intelligence" and a "transcendent reality" . Einstein's theories of "relativity," which have been widely misinterpreted and popularized as promoting all sorts of relativism, actually reveal "universal constants of nature" that suggest an ultimate mind at work [79-89]. But what is it? Can universals exist without an ultimate source and ground as their origin and support? Gairdner's evocative but indeterminate allusions to any such ultimate ground, sprinkled through the book, are brief and varied, offering no resolution to these questions.
Gairdner's compilations of universal truths and constants are in large part derived from scientific and scholarly directions that show new interest and knowledge of universals despite the prevailing culture of relativism. He also appeals to the traditions of "the world's great religions," perennial philosophy, Taoism, Plato and Aristotle, Christ, Judeo-Christian tradition, Greco-Christian tradition, Hebrew thought, Judaism, and Islam [56, 71-4, 212-216, 269-72, 329-30]. However, there are no doubt more differences among these sources than there are common features. A significant number of common or universal truths can be found among them, which is his point, but considered as a group they do not reveal one common, absolutely transcendent source and ground, such as theology's "First Cause of all things," in contrast to science's "universe without a cause" . In this sense they often stand in opposition in key ways. But neither these differences, nor the topics of modern relativization of religion, especially the relativization of Christianity and the figure of Christ (for example, by John Hick), are not significantly dealt with.
What is the ultimate unity, cause, and ground? Gairdner states "I don't know much about God. Certainly not enough to say what God is and, if He exists, what God can or cannot do" , and he makes no special use of the rich and abundant material on God, God's nature, acts, revelation, truth, and laws in the Bible. While Gairdner states that "[a]ll forms of traditional natural law point to God as their ultimate source," he takes the position that "the natural law as I am going to outline it here is considered to exist in itself and is discoverable by human reason whether or not we want to bother determining its ultimate source." "[A]lthough some kind of faith may be required to explain how it is possible for a universal law of this or any other kind to exist unless it has an author, what the law is may be understood by right reason in its practical manifestations alone" [164, 180-81]. His approach allows relativists, liberals, and undecided readers breathing room to consider the reality of the many universal truths and constants presented, and even to think beyond them, without pinning them down to one religious or philosophical ultimate. On the other hand, since he does not directly and substantially address the key question of the ultimate origin of universals, he leaves the most basic question unanswered: how can any unchanging universal truths exist without an ultimate, unchanging source?
The great value of the book is that it reveals a great number of actual universal truths, constants, and their functions, all of which extreme modern relativism seeks to deny. Equally valuable is the devastating critique of relativism, which shows its inconsistencies, self-contradictions, and ultimate failure as a credible philosophical, religious, and intellectual belief. Throughout the book Gairdner provides ample argument and evidence that relativism "is a seriously flawed worldview" . The book draws a penetrating picture of the distorting and corrupting effects of relativism on modern society, governments, knowledge, universities, and intellectual life, ranging through fields of ethics, biology, physics, philosophy, cultural anthropology, law, natural law, sexuality, and linguistics. This dark picture is countered by the positive discussions of the many universal truths Gairdner has assembled.