Mr. Houghtby’s response to my letter asserting the incompatibility of relativism with liberal education contains some weaknesses and inconsistencies.

First, Mr. Houghtby asserts that “college is a place to question fundamental beliefs and acquire the discipline to reject [or confirm] them.” True. What Mr. Houghtby must realize, however, is that there must exist some objective basis or standard by which we may reasonably assess and judge our “fundamental beliefs” as worthy or unworthy. To the confirmed relativist no such standard can exist and thus the whole educational enterprise becomes pointless.

Second, Mr. Houghtby takes me to task for my supposed “ethnocentrism” in that I posit reason as the defining characteristic of human nature. According to Mr. Houghtby, there have been non-Western cultures that have understood the defining consumers of cooked food, animals of raw. Now, simply because there exists a variety of cultures which have given rise to a variety of conflicting notions of what it means to be human or live a good life does not mean that such questions cannot be answered. Truth, though, does not rest upon consensus. Thus, those devoted to liberal education properly understood hold that careful, conscientious, reasoned study of the great minds (both Western and non-Western) who have confronted the greatest questions—such as “what is the best way of life for humans”—may reveal insight and knowledge regarding these questions.

Philosophy (and liberal education) always has supposed that by unaided reason humans are capable of getting beyond the given (be it culture, time, race, sex, etc.) and finding a non-arbitrary standard against which to measure and evaluate human actions and behaviors. This possibility constitutes the essence of human freedom. If the fundamental problems persist in all historical change, human thought is capable of transcending its historical limitation or of grasping something trans-historical.

Mark Halverson-Wente

Graduate Student

Political Science