Creaturehood and Contingency Explored: Reflections on James Smith’s “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?”

North American Christianity has a problem. Actually, it has the problem — the sin of Adam that led to his dismal fall. He has heard the temptation “ye shall be like gods” and ate of its fruit in modern form. According to James Smith in his latest work Who’s Afraid of Relativism? the pursuit of objective and absolute truth amounts to a denial of the creaturehood and contingency acknowledged by any who submit to a biblical account of philosophy.

Professor Smith thinks this distinctly modern error characterizes most of contemporary christian apologetics and philosophy. We are so preoccupied with finding objective reasons independent from our communities and social practices that we forget that God created us to function as contingent and finite creatures. As a result, anyone who gives countenance to relativism will be subject to “philosophical McCarthyism” of old school “Is ‘there are no objective truths’ an objective truth?”-style apologetics. How has Christian philosophy come such a long way from its biblical origins? More specifically, why does the desire for absolute truth signify a hubristic denial of creaturehood (the most serious offence one can be accused of in the Judeo-Christian tradition, by the way)? Smith is more concerned with the second question, leaving the first relatively unexplored. His argument uses three major philosophers to support his main ideas. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom each deny absolutist views and offer their own formulations of a way of life without objectivity."Who's Afraid of Relativism" by James Smith

The book is the final installment in Baker Academic’s series titled “The Church and Postmodern Culture.” As a piece of writing, it can be difficult to understand at times. The tantalizing “use” of “unnecessary” quotations and italics often confuse the “meaning” (i.e. clarity) of his argument, and the semi-continental abundance of countered name dropping critically resurrects a quasi-Žižekian penumbra matched only by David Bentley Hart. I tease. It’s not that bad. Even still, many readers will find this frustrating. In what follows, I will try to briefly summarize Smith’s main points.

Underlying absolutist views is an epistemology called “referentialism” (the unforgivable philosophy, according to Smith), which says that language and truth are claims about real things in the world and meaning is the correlation between a word and its corresponding thing. Wittgenstein explains the referentialist account with a metaphor.

I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked “five red apples.” He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers — I assume that he knows them by heart — up to the word “five” and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer. (Philosophical Investigations, 1)

But this theory does not adequately represent how humans use language. Smith explains

There’s a little chink in the armor of the representationalist account here: it is the challenge of number. Is “five” a thing? Just what “thing” is referred to by the word “five?”… So Wittgenstein now has us wondering: Does language always work by referring?” (42)

It turns out on Wittgenstein’s account that language does not operate by reference, but by use. We use language to get things done, so meaning itself is determined by the aims of our social practices. When Barney the brick mason’s boss yells “slab!” he is not merely pointing out the name of a certain substance. He want’s Barney to do something. This use is dependent on practice, which is bound up with social manners and traditions. If meaning is use, and if what something is used for is relative to social practices, then meaning is relative to social practices. By this point, Smith has already rejected any access to community-independent, and therefore absolute, meaning and truth.

This is where Rorty’s “therapeutic pragmatism” comes in. Instead of responding to the concern, Smith uses Rorty to do away with the worry altogether. He argues that the fear of relativism is due to the pseudo-problems of early modern thinkers beginning with Descartes, through Locke, and culminating in Kantian foundationalism. This tradition “atomizes” individuals into isolated minds and forgets that what one observes “is in fact put there by our training in the epistemology language-game: what we ‘find’ is what we’ve been trained to see” (81). All this because Descartes invented the “inside/outside” distinction in order to ask the solipsist question, “how do I know that there is anything outside of my mind?” The modern obsession with justified true belief is a result of illusory problems in early modern philosophy that ought to be ignored more than rejected.

Instead, epistemic justification rests in communal consensus and assent to a given claim. Sure, people can know objectively insofar as “objective” means accordance with societal “norms of justification” (97). The knowledge an individual has cannot be independent of social practices. Such a view is a denial of our dependence on other human beings. Epistemic humility constitutes a recognition of this contingency, but also tries to convince others of our contingent claims.

Brandom helps us with this inter-contingent argumentative discourse. To him, the ability of humans to ask ‘what makes a human?” has a lot to do with what makes a human. How we answer this question will have much influence over who we are. This capacity demands that we “explain ourselves” and make our reasons “explicit.” In other words, our conceptual capacities are precisely what makes us the kind of animal that requires justification. What does this justification amount to? By now, you might guess. A claim is justified by social validation. This is not due to logical deduction, but cultural know-how and language-games.

The kind of justification Smith talks about can be summarized in the following quote.

What you give as a reason I can take as one and take up as a premise in other successful inferences; then your claim is true. When you are unable to give such reasons, or when your reasons don’t accord with the environmental conditions that we share — when your claims don’t seem to be “about” the state of affairs in front of us — then your claim is not going to be justified or authorized. (145-46, emphasis in original)

Let me summarize. A claim is true when it can be used in successful inferences, and successful inferences are those authorized by environmental conditions, which are known by social practices because what you practice in community determines what you will see. Smith argues that pragmatic theories of truth and meaning are more consistent with the Judeo-Christian picture of human knowing than the “pseudosolutions” to “pseudoproblems” he accuses “folk philosophies and apologetics programs” of committing. A religious community of practice is necessary for our own flourishing and apologetic.

Smith should be praised for the attempt to combat the kind of sloppy and sloganeering dismissals to relativists that unfortunately go on in some institutions. He shows that views often quickly labeled as absurd are rooted in fairly sophisticated theories. Fair enough. No one will deny that Wittgenstein’s Investigations is impressive. More importantly, Smith wants to show that the authors of pragmatism just might have something to contribute to Christian thought. If there are commonalities between the philosophies of these thinkers and the spirit of the Scriptures, we ought to employ them in our philosophy, right?

Maybe. There are limits to what we might take from the pagans since baptism isn’t entirely an open practice. First, a nuanced argument does not necessarily constitute a good one. Christians may respond to bad arguments with worse objections, but that doesn’t make the initial claims any more true. It merely makes them misunderstood. Second,  it doesn’t follow that philosophies and Christianity have significant overlap simply because they share some common ground. This leads us to consider how and when we should (or should not) plunder the Egyptians.

One criteria we can settle on is that common conclusions do not always signify common belief. Basic logic assumes that invalid arguments do not indicate the truth value of the conclusion, but that it doesn’t follow from the premises. Bad arguments can still have true claims. When careful readers see the fallacious nature of its reasoning, they may be inclined to doubt its conclusion. Thus, one of the worst ways to represent a position is to be right accidentally. Two schools may have two very different ways of arriving at a conclusion where the difference is more fundamental than the conclusion itself. So our concern shouldn’t just be that the Pragmatists share certain elements with Christianity, but that they are successful in their own right. If they are not, they do a disservice to any belief with which they associate.

Can secular philosophies be used to understand the Christian faith? Of course, but we can’t know until we explore and judge them on their own merits, which is exactly what Smith tries to do. Unfortunately, he seems to admire conclusions over arguments because they hold the Christian view of human knowing (doing? using? all of the above?). He suggests that his strongest argument against referentialism is the similar notion of creaturehood in the pragmatists and the scriptures, as opposed to arguing for one position on its own terms (40). At most, Who’s Afraid? explains pragmatism more than it defends the theory.

But these are merely preliminary thoughts. With respect to the argument, Smith’s account merits consideration. Although most of his objections to the referentialism that undergirds absolutism harken to his emphasis on contingency and creaturehood, there is some philosophical content. The main argument brought against a realist account of knowledge was originally proposed by Wittgenstein, summarized above. Numbers are a problem for the referentialist because they do not refer to “things.” Therefore, words and “things” do not always correlate, which Smith thinks is an essential tenet of realism. However, realists do not have to believe that every word in a sentence refers to a thing in reality. “Red” is not a thing but a property of the “red apple.” Thus, there is no reason to think that every individual word refers to a thing, since what the word is attempting to describe isn’t always a “thing.” “Five” is not a substance like apples are, yet the term “5” in the sentence refers to reality nonetheless. Wittgenstein may have good reasons to criticize his younger logical-positivist self, but this does not amount to a categorical rejection of all realist theories of truth.

Smith’s claim that absolutism is a denial of creaturehood is subject to doubt. Knowledge of things as they are appears to be something God uniquely gave human beings as a tool to carry out his mandates. Furthermore, a vast amount of Christian tradition holds that the relationship between the subject and object is something that God intended to harmoniously cooperate. Consider 6th century Christian philosopher Boethius. As he awaited his execution in prison, he wrote the following.

Ánimate béings in hów many shápes and forms páss acróss the lándscape!

Sóme háve bódiés strétched and elóngated, sweéping oút their dúst-trails;

Dríven by stróng désíre they léngthen out óne un-bróken fúrrow.

Óthers, caprícious, take wíng in their weíghtlessness, beáting wínd and témpest,

Skímming expánses of límitless átmosphere in flúid éxaltátion.

Óthers delíght to set foót on the sólid earth, stríding throúgh the greén fields,

Ínto the greénwood and únder its cánopy, wíth a fírm impréssion.

Thoúgh you may wítness in thése many shápes and forms nóthing bút discórdance,

Theírs is the dówncást coúntenance, cápable of weíghing dówn dull sénses.

Nót so the ráce óf mortál mén, who can líft their úpraised heáds high,

Stánd wíth bódy upríght and impónderous, loók to eárth belów them.

Bé not a creáture of eárth! Be not ígnorant! The pósture thús remínds you:

Yoú whó reách for the heíghts with your úpturned gaze, poínting fáce to heáven,

Yoú must lift spírit as wéll to such altitude—mínd must nót be weíghed down,

Múst nót sínk down belów where the bódy is, raísed to hígher státure.

Man’s ability to know things as they are does not deny his contingency. It does perhaps makes him less creaturely than his fellow earth-dwellers, but it does not diminish the infinite gap between the creature and creator. No rank of being will ever reach a point to where the title of “created thing” does not apply. The old poets and philosophers knew that men weren’t gods and weren’t quite beasts either.

In the Scriptures, acknowledging one’s creaturehood was imperative to draw the distinction between God and his subjects. The point was that God and his creation must not be confounded. Smith often refers to absolute or “objective” knowledge as “god-like,” but he provides little reason for thinking  such knowledge is by nature something only a divine being could have and why affirming it would amount to intellectual idolatry. Any response Smith gives must entirely rest upon his defense of Pragmatism rather than his interpretation of the Old Testament. In other words, the desire for absolute or “objective” knowledge is a denial of creaturehood only if this sort of knowing is not, in fact, a capacity of any creatures.[1] It happens that there is a robust pre-modern Christian tradition that argues the opposite. Professor Smith overlooks this, save for a brief mention of 14th century philosophers William of Ockham, who was known for his controversial views, and John Duns Scotus whom Smith (falsely) calls a nominalist.

For all of my philosophical nitpicking, Smith’s work reopens a conversation about the place of tradition in community. He refers to a Burkean conservatism that values the customs and manners of the past. Tradition, to Burke and the rest of the classical tradition, is a teacher. We honor the past because it has got something right about how to know and live. We carry on traditions because our fathers were wise enough, and along the way solved a few problems. We relearn these problems and resolve them in the hopes that we might rise to the occasion of settling new problems. But even if we don’t, we are content with the hopes that we were made better through such an intellectual, moral, and imaginative education. It is quite another thing to say that traditions are true and good in virtue of being traditions. As certain as it is that community is necessary for our education, we should be certain that it is not sufficient. Individuals have the capacity, indeed the duty, to critically evaluate the social traditions and customs that face them. Saying so is not denying creaturehood. Such an offense is surely anathematized by Scripture, but let us not forget the guilt of the man who wrongly accuses his brother.


Dan Kemp is a senior at the King’s College (NYC) studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He lives in Manhattan New York and will marry his fiance Carol Anne Ausband this summer.

[1] This is not technically true. God could have endowed humans with a capacity he forbids them to use. But Smith explicitly states that we do not possess this ability.

  • Thursday1

    With regard to things like “five” or “red”, a lot of this seems like the problem of universals come again.

    • Dan Kemp


      Thanks for your reply. Indeed, the problem of universals came up several times as I thought about Smith’s argument. However, he never mentions it in his book and I don’t think one must take a stance on that issue for the purposes of this article. Even a nominalist, perhaps, can admit that one might be a realist about truth without adopting the referentialism Wittgenstein argues against.