by Piet Coetzer

Not everyone’s truth is the same

Labour brokers illustrate the relativity of opinion

Relativity 001.jpg

The widely divergent views in South Africa on the role of labour brokers in a never-ending and the often acrimonious public debate clearly illustrates how one person’s absolutely firm beliefs can be another’s heresy. This phenomenon, known as relativity, or relativism goes way back in history.

The word 'relativism’ made its first written appearance in English in 1859 in the work of the Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton. It probably entered English via the German relativismus, which was used by the followers of the influential German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

The original roots can be traced back to the Latin word for to refer or carry back to, refero, that implies reference to many, not to just one. It wants to say, “there is no universal truth but many different truths".

In South African literature, probably the best known exponent of relativism is the Afrikaans philosopher/writer N.P. Van Wyk Louw. The titles of two of his works tell it all: Loyal resistance and Liberal Nationalism.

But,while the popularity of the word for this reality is relatively new, the phenomenon itself goes way back in antiquity.

Most scholars agree that the first relativist was the Greek philosopher, Prothagoras, who lived in the 5th century BC. This teacher of grammar, literature and philosophy, made a good living from people willing to pay for his advice because of his ability to argue any side of a case with success. It was said that he could make any weak argument sound like the strongest of all. 

Relativism is grounded in the fact that each person’s truth is created by his personal experiences, circumstances and basis of knowledge.
The verity of this is best illustrated by an ancient Indian parable in the Buddhist Scriptures.. It tells how some blind men were once asked to inspect and then describe an elephant.

The first was led to the elephant’s head to explore, and he declared: “An elephant is like a pot.” The second was taken to its ears and, to him, an elephant was “like a winnowing-basket”. A third was led to a leg of the elephant and he insisted an elephant was like a “pillar”. The fourth, having been taken to the tail of the animal, was convinced that he was presented with a “brush”.


Relativity in physics
The winner of the 1921 Nobel prize in physics, the German-born Albert Einstein, established one of the pillars of modern theoretical physics with his Theory of Relativity, which holds that all motion must be defined relative to a frame of reference and that space and time are relative.

When once asked to explain his theory in just a few well-chosen words, Einstein is also said to have reverted to a blind story:

I will tell a story instead. I once was walking with a blind man and remarked that I would like a glass of milk.

What is milk, asked the blind man.

A white liquid, I replied.

Liquid I know but what is white, the blind man responded.

The colour of a swan’s feathers, I told him

Feathers I know but what is a swan, the blind man asked.

A bird with a crooked neck, I told him

Neck I know but what is crooked, the blind man asked.

Thereupon I lost patience and seized his arm and straightened it, telling him ‘That is straight’. Then I bent it at the elbow and said ‘That is crooked.

“’Ah,’ said the blind man, ‘now I know what you mean by milk.’”

Einstein paused and then asked his questioner: “Do you still want to know about relativity?”

At times, listening to the political debate about matters such as labour brokers, one also feels like bending the arms of some participants while they try to emulate the late Pythagoras.

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Issue 410


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