A Relational Model of Truth

I was reading Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach recently.  In it, he presents what he calls a relational model of truth, which he contrasts with an “objectivist” and a relativist view of truth.  I thought it worth repeating here, because I think it is a good example of how modernity, postmodernity, and what-comes-next view truth.

According to Palmer, in the objectivist (or, I might say, modernist) view of truth, there are objects out there that can be fully known as they actually are by experts.  Here, truth is a proposition.  In the process of discovering truth, experts study the objects, a process in which the experts do various things, but the objects are inert.  These objects really exist, and it is possible for the understanding the experts have in their heads of these objects to match up perfectly with those objects as they actually are.  These experts can then relay their knowledge of the truth about these objects to others.

Palmer doesn’t spend as much time talking about relativism, but it’s worth relating that model here.  In the relativist (or, I might say, post-modern) view of truth, truth doesn’t depend upon objects that are really out there.  Instead, truth relies solely upon what goes on inside the head or heads of the person or groups who knows something.  Here, truth is an experience or a belief.  Truth isn’t discovered, it’s constructed.  A person might study things or might talk about others about something, but what’s important is not what a thing is actually like or what other people say it’s like, but what each individual thinks a thing is like.  Because truth is inherently subjective, one can never really convey one’s understanding of truth to another.

The model of truth for which Parker advocates, he names the relational model of truth, or knowing in community.  In this model, the individual knower, the community, and the thing known all contribute to the formation of a set of relationships that defines truth.  This model does not say that truth is whatever a community defines it to be.  That’s just a less individualistic version of the relativist model.  Instead, truth is not an individual or group belief; it’s a relationship between the individual, the community, and the thing known.  The thing that’s known is an important and active part of the process that shapes and guides the path to truth.  Yet, there’s no assumption that we can know all there is to know about the thing “as it is” in a way which can be boiled down to a set of propositions.

I believe this relational view of truth represents the emerging view among what-comes-next.  It rejects the relativism of postmodernity without going back to the absolutism of modernity.  It acknowledges the reality of the things known while still recognizing the limitations of our knowledge and the ways in which personal and communal factors influence our understandings.  It focuses on community and relationships, which I think will be important parts of the ethos of what-comes-next.  Because of its focus on community and relationships, I think it also fits well with a dynamic understanding of truth.  I think what-comes-next needs to have some dynamic, creative force to it which isn’t just critical, as postmodernity has mainly been.  Yet a focus on community and relationship, while accounting for growth and change, is less oriented toward a particular understanding of the end goal of that change than modernity usually is.  I think what-comes-next needs to be more open to many possibilities for the future so that many people with diverse beliefs and values can buy into the system and all have a creative part to play.

Right now, I think Palmer’s view of truth is a minority.  But I don’t think Palmer is alone in putting forth such ideas.  Instead, I think he’s a sign of what’s to come in terms of how we may increasingly come to think about truth.


David Shane posted on February 1, 2012 at 10:32 am

I don’t know, I think I’d need an example. It’s pretty clear to me what it means to call the Theory of Relativity true from a modernist perspective (set of propositions) – what changes in a relational perspective?

That said, if only because from a practical perspective many truths are harder-to-see than “the apple is red”, I appreciate that postmodernists and, perhaps, Palmer as well, recognize the importance of worldview. This especially matters, maybe Palmer would agree, in education. I think many people would say, “the public schools shouldn’t teach from a Christian perspective, they should teach objectively.” Yeah right. Every teacher is seeing the world through some lens, even if unacknowledged, and they’re probably passing some of that on to their students.

David W. Scott posted on February 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Palmer would talk about letting the object of study speak to you instead of trying to dictate to it what you want to know. I don’t know if Palmer’s that into worldview, but he is into values, love, and spirituality as important parts of the learning process.

emily posted on February 16, 2012 at 10:58 pm

Nice piece, David! I find great hope and optimism in Palmer’s relational view because it implies that through discourse communities can form shared senses of truths — sensibilities that are not frozen as truths for all time but rather truths that can shift as the community matures, changes, evolves, etc. It embraces collective inquiry (at times through healthy conflict…nodding to your recent post), synergy, and a non-static vibrancy that makes it safe for communities to declare and to embody truths as they know them — truths, however, that do not become reified — truths that, in a community’s self-reflexive way, are historically- and materially-specific and will necessarily change through the meaning-making of relationship.

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