Relativity + Relativism vs. Social Order

I quite often doubt myself. People who know me well may be surprised to hear this – unless they know me very well.

Here’s the reason why: I also quite often make bold statements – unabashedly so, even. Unless you realize that I have the typical skepticism so common among scientists, and unless you also realize that whenever I say anything it is intended not as truth but rather as hypothesis (even if I say it boldly), then you might be misled to believe (and in my opinion this would be down to your own faith / religion) that I am fully convinced that what I say is undoubtedly true – in fact, nothing could be further from the truth! (LOL)

Things are different when we move away from my personal opinion / „point of view“ to questions related to social order. Let me give you an example: „Two plus two equals four“. Society defines what each of these words means (in a way, the words are in fact defined by uttering such sentences – a point pointed out by the great thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein). It is impossible to say „two“, „four“, „plus“, „equals“, etc. and refer to anything other than what these words are defined as in the society you are in when you utter these words (or write them out, as I am doing here). You are not yourself individually free to say that “two” actually means something else (than what other people in society interpret it to mean)… say: “barking up the wrong tree”. Whatever I write here only means whatever you interpret it to mean – at least to you (and the same holds for society – i.e. whatever there is social agreement on is whatever the social meaning will be… e.g. if there is social agreement that “peace-keeping forces” refers to a military engagement, then that is the meaning society will attribute to that phrase).

Human society is a system that is larger than individual humans. It may not be as large as the so-called “ecosystem” we refer to as “the Earth” or “Nature”, yet nonetheless human society is a system that is powerful enough to have this controlling influence on the language we speak. When someone says (or writes) “Thou shalt not kill”, then that is not a matter which is open to individual interpretation – it is a law which is enforced by society and/or the social order. It is in that sense equivalent in clarity with a statement like “two plus two equals four”.

As individuals, we cannot question the language we speak. It is “above us” in a similar manner in which we might say that the laws of nature are above us. In this manner, there is no relativism in interpreting language. We can no more interpret “car” to mean “aardvark” than we can interpret the sun to be the moon. Neither are a matter of personal or individual interpretation. They are forces of nature (on the one had) and of the social order (on the other). We cannot live outside of the social order any more than we could live outside of nature.

Of course it is we, our society, our social order, who refers to “nature”. I think it is quite plausible to entertain the hypothesis that our society might sometimes be “off the mark” when we refer to things – whether “nature” or “unicorns”, “rainbows”, “black holes”, “antimatter”, “cars”, “aardvarks”, “ants” or whatever.

I strongly doubt I am the first person to recognize this. Yet perhaps I am nonetheless one of a rare breed of persons who seem to have no problem with making bold statements more as hypotheses than as plain “facts”.

Why is any of this important in the context of social business? It is important because there is widespread confusion with respect to interpretation. A quite famous example brought by William James (in his book “On Pragmatism”) considered how expressions are often open to interpretation. While that may be, I find it equally true that expressions on which there is widespread agreement within society (e.g. the meaning of “two plus two equals four” or “car”, etc.) are not open to interpretation. A traffic sign at the side of a road cannot simply be interpreted as any single individual wishes to interpret it. Likewise, when people search for information online, they rely on the validity of the search terms used. Indeed: In the United States of America, there is even a law to that effect.

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