In the nineteenth century, the project of relativising knowledge was designed to shield tradition against the claims of universalism. Cultural relativism sought to protect religion and traditional morality and values against what was perceived as the threat posed by science, objective truth and universal values. According to opponents of the Enlightenment, different communities had a particular way of making sense of the world, and their values were the product of their own specific circumstances. It was claimed that each of these particular perspectives was of equal validity and provided far more insight into the ways of the world than the so-called abstract universalism of the Enlightenment.web2.0 extension: My individual rights are important, I will insert my voice into conversations whenever I can - rather than study history or actually understand anything deeper than my immediate knowledge. If anyone asks me to think too hard I will just move onto the next conversation.
Since the 1960s, cultural relativism has succeeded in becoming a powerful intellectual force. Disenchantment with the Enlightenment tradition has encouraged many thinkers and sections of the public to make sense of their lives through particularistic perspectives. The caricatured version of universalism upheld by the institutions of Western society proved to be no match to the powerful spirit of disenchantment that prevailed in the second half of the twentieth century. One consequence of this process was to put the authority of objective truth on the defensive - and thereby putting to question all truth claims.
Whereas in the past the most systematic critique of universalism was mounted by the right, today, by contrast, the cultural left is its most aggressive opponent. Since the late eighteenth century, concepts such as reason, progress and universalism have generally been associated with the left. But since the 1960s, the New Left has begun a systematic demolition of those values, by questioning the claims of reason, progress and universalism. The new philosophical posture was reflected in the political approach that acclaimed diversity and opposed universalistic values. Unlike the nineteenth-century critics of the Enlightenment, the New Left was not, in its origin, motivated by a conservative impulse to defend tradition. But because Western capitalism presented its values as universal, the New Left unthinkingly became opposed to it. The New Left not only rejected universalism in general, it adopted a particularistic world view linked to the politics of identity. Unconsciously, the New Left reaction to postwar Western capitalism internalised the methods and arguments of the conservative reaction to the Enlightenment.
During the 1960s, the left's love affair with relativism was hesitant and semi-conscious, but by the late 1970s, radical intellectuals and, more often, ex-radicals were speaking the language of Nietzsche. In a process aptly described by Alan Bloom as the 'Nietzscheanisation of the Left', the left, repelled by modernism, took a cultural turn towards particularism, heterogeneity and difference. It is worth recalling that the original methodological orientation towards difference began as the defence of aristocratic and ruling class privilege. Differences in moral and mental capacities were advanced to account for and legitimise the social hierarchy. By the mid-nineteenth century, this perspective attached itself to racial differences and helped to legitimise the notion that there was a global hierarchy of people. The cultural left did not set out, as the Social Darwinist did, to provide intellectual sustenance to racial superiority. But the conservative potential of the particularistic doctrine has crystallised into the cultural left's suspicion of cosmopolitan and global trends. As the rebellion against the rhetoric of universalism turned into a celebration of difference, the process of intellectual de-radicalisation became inescapable. The outcome has been the ascendancy of what is called postmodernism and its systematic repudiation of objective knowledge.
- Where have all the intellectuals gone? (pp. 60-62)
I like the way in which Furedi does identify and take a stand for truth and the Enlightenment, that progress can be identified and how he explains that the spoilers baton passed from the Right to the (pseudo) Left and this latest attack on truth is done in the name of the freedom of the individual and the evils of capitalism.