Relativism and Obscurantism Vs Knowledge of Reality

March 12, 2020

Newton Duarte

Thursday, March 12, 1:00PM–3:00PM, Room 1510, SFU Harbour Centre

Sponsored by SFU's Institute for the Humanities

Seminar is currently FULL.

Obscurantism has been assuming increasingly-aggressive forms in many countries in which political leaders are elected by spreading discourses that outright attack several social groups, including scientists, teachers, artists, and journalists. In my country, Brazil, right-wing political leaders claim that the regime that ran in the country from 1964 to 1985 was not a dictatorship and there was no censorship, torture, and murder. They claim that the idea of a dictatorship was invented by leftists who, in turn, insist that there are sufficient and indisputable evidences of the crimes committed by the dictatorial government. The evidences exist and are, in fact, indisputable, but the right-wing ideology uses the strategy of discrediting the people, groups, and institutions that present those evidences. The truth is in dispute. It turns out that a considerable part of leftist intellectuals, influenced by postmodern ideas, have spent a long time criticizing the use of the word “truth” by insisting that “truth” is a positivist illusion, that we cannot know reality itself, but only construct narratives about what we conventionally call reality. That is to say, reality would be a subjective construction of each individual or social groups. This epistemological relativism is also defended by neoliberalism, as it is the case with Hayek, who incorporated in his arguments for the freedom of economic agents, Michael Polanyi’s epistemology in which tacit knowledge is assumed to be the most important type of knowledge for social practice. Epistemological relativism is accompanied by cultural relativism that rejects the possibility of comparing knowledge because it is rooted in different cultures that were not comparable to each other. Relativism is not the best answer to obscurantism because both are negatively positioned in relation to knowledge of reality. If we admit that it is not possible to know what reality is, then we are also admitting that we cannot know what reality can become and will not, therefore, know what the different future alternatives would be and what actions would be most favorable for us to achieve more humane forms of reality.


Newton Duarte is a Marxist Brazilian educator with more than three decades of engagement in a national movement named Historical-Critical Pedagogy, which was inspired by the educational ideas of Antonio Gramsci and Lev Vygotsky among others. As a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for the Humanities (September 2019–June 2020), Duarte is developing a study entitled “Beyond the Choice Between Neutrality and Indoctrination: Epistemological and Ethical Foundations of the Democratic School.”