The principle of relative independence illustrated by the Tetralogue

The principle of relative independence is at the heart of Surimposium, a complete theory of reality. I illustrate this with an excerpt from Timothy Williamson’s Tetralogue, before showing an outlet for the political relationship between rulers and governed.

The principle of relative independence

How does an individuation declare its independence? You have to look for the cause in the context. There is a conflict between the general and the individual. There is something in the context that cannot fit into the rest. This conflict is part of the framework of the level of reality. This is a heterogeneity inherent in its rules. In this context appear one or more individuations which are the consequence of the treatment of the conflict. In each individuation there is the local treatment of the opposition between ‘I am the particular thing’ and ‘I am part of the whole’.

This local processing corresponds to the definition of the identity of the individual. It is to this identity that the principle of relative independence is attached. Identity can be more independent (I am more the particular thing) or more relative (I am more part of the whole). The appearance of identity oscillates around this need to emancipate oneself associated with that of integrating. Identity is an attractor, which strengthens its durability. But it remains metastable; it can move to another attractor.

Sarah, Zac and Roxana

As an example of relative independence, let’s take the characters in Timothy Williamson’s Tetralogue. Roxana is a rigorous logician who has just reminded others of the elementary principle of logic as established by Aristotle: “It is true to treat something as it is and false to treat it as it is not.” We could say that this is the identity heart of logic, which makes its individuation. But Zac, the relativist, disputes this independence:

Zac:—Sarah, why let Roxana pull you into old Aristotle’s way of thinking? Roxana, why keep appealing to his authority? That guy defended slavery. He said some people, not including him, are fitted by nature to be slaves. We don’t accept his authority in morals or politics or biology or physics. Why should we accept it in logic?—especially when he tries to enslave us all to truth.

Roxana:—Modern logicians do not appeal to Aristotle’s authority in logic. They accept some of his logical claims and reject others, on their own merits. They have found Aristotle’s initial characterizations of truth and falsity an appropriate starting point for fruitful investigation. For logical purposes, there is no serious alternative to them.

Zac:—In that case, logicians should lighten up and stop being serious. Look what happened to Aristotle. He was so serious about truth and falsity that he thought people like him can own others and exploit them as much as they want. People with ‘true’ beliefs get to be the slaveholders and people with ‘false’ beliefs get to be the slaves.

Roxana:—Aristotle’s views on slavery depended on his social circumstances, unlike his views on the logic of truth and falsity, with which they had no connection. His views on the logic of truth and falsity have withstood the test of time. His views on slavery have not.

Zac:—Don’t blame me if logicians haven’t yet woken up to Nietzsche’s challenge, Roxana. Anyway, why should students be forced to study Aristotle’s philosophy? It could make those with slaves as ancestors feel uncomfortable. Shouldn’t we be shunning his writings? Unless we shun them, to demonstrate publicly our abhorrence for his views on slavery and our solidarity with those students, aren’t we condoning his attitude to slavery?

When the relative becomes inquisitor

The dialogue opposes relativism and independence. Zac, the relativist, tries to reduce the truth of Aristotle’s logic by diluting it in the falsity of his opinion on slavery. Obviously, Zac plays the manipulator here, because the two subjects are independent. His relativism strives to bring them closer together through their common situation in the unique mind of Aristotle. But can the mind be considered as a single entity? Isn’t this precisely the definition of conceptual pluralism? Zac shoots himself in the foot because he supports diversity of views elsewhere in dialogue. But here he takes a dramatically reductive point of view. If we follow him, anyone who has had an immoral idea would see all his other ideas accused of injustice. Lapidary method against heresy. The threat works well, because we all feel like we can end up at the stake. Who has never had an idea that can be criticized?

This story is a beautiful demonstration of diplomacy that becomes an inquisition when it mixes foreign subjects with each other. Relativism must respect precise rules; the subjects must be directly related. If relativism takes into account any type of relationship, even a distant one, it becomes an absolutism. Indeed, everything in the universe is in relation. To take into account any type of relationship is to denigrate the very existence of individuation. For to individualize a thing is to free it in a certain way from the rest of the universe.

Truth is a stable balance

Absolute relativism as enacted by Zac is the counterpart of absolute solipsism as practiced by some individuals. These are the two poles of the T<>D conflict, the driving force of reality theorized on this blog, a conflict between the soliTary and soliDary part in everything, between the intention to individualize and the constraint to belong to…

Emancipation is the armed arm of pole T. Relativism is that of pole D. Finding the truth is determining the right balance between these two forces. To speak a relative truth is to situate it in the place where relativism has managed to push it, in the face of the intransigence of the individual. It is not to declare it changeable, evanescent, capable of being transformed as it pleases. Balance is itself a strength. It is the strength of the center, of compromise, which exists as such and not only as a weakening of the collective or weakness of the individual. The stability of the center is the solid foundation on which a higher level of complexity is built.

Political consequences

All this may seem very abstract but nevertheless has ubiquitous outlets in everyday life, in social and political life in particular. Wokisms are necessary as individualized social struggles, but they are dangerous when they want to replace collectivism. Collective decisions are necessary, but dangerous when they neglect the basic rights of individuals. In both cases these are absolutist excesses. The novelty here is to show that absolutism does not come exclusively from the rulers. It can perfectly well come from the governed individuals, with such deleterious consequences.


Tetralogue – I’m right, you’re wrong, Timothy Williamson, 2015

6 thoughts on “The principle of relative independence illustrated by the Tetralogue”

  1. Interesting notion. I will examine the tetralogue—fascinating idea, in itself. Proofs are always fraught with advantages and pitfalls. We look for those more useful, of, course. Your choice of the term independence does not coincide with my ongoing assessment of reality. I am more disposed towards Sellars’ quip about philosophy and things hanging together; Nagel’s brief definition concerning ‘ how things probably are’ not ‘ how they might possibly be’. When I noted my questioning of independence, that is because I would use interdependence in it’s stead.
    Reality, as it is viewed in many instances, depends more on interdependence, a totality of circumstances. For example, some beliefs stand as realities for some people. This does not mean they so stand for everyone. On the other hand, 2+2=4 to most people who can count and do simple math. THAT is an independent fact, showing that one set of circumstances does not fit all. Nor can we dismiss all beliefs; opinions and so on as false. Thank you for the insight.

    • The choice of terms is important.

      “Interdependence” is a fusional term, which designates only the relation as a set, without saying anything about what is in relation. Is it about what is “same” between things, or what is “difference”?

      “Relative independence” is a much richer oxymoron. This term emphasizes the conflict inherent in any relationship, between “remaining individuated, unchanged” and “becoming the other, integrating”. This term makes it possible to create a tool for analyzing the relationship, a ruler between the two possible directions, the predominance of the “same” which creates an integrated entity or the predominance of the “separate” which weakens the whole.

      The term ‘relative independence’ belongs to the Whole which regards its Parts. “Relative dependence” means the same thing, from the point of view of the Parts looking at the Whole. Thus appears the vertical dimension of the relationship, which does not exist in the too horizontal ‘interdependence’.

  2. I do not know what is meant by a much richer oxymoron. Therefore, good luck with possible tools. If your quoted phrases are excerpts from Tetralogue, then the book does not merit further attention. Not mine, anyway. As another blogger mentioned, on a different issue: not philosophically deep, but interesting. Thanks.

    • An oxymoron is a figure rich in the contradiction between the words it contains. It indicates that beyond the apparent conflict, the words contain a touch of seduction for each other, if only because they make each other exist. Engine for thought.

      Williamson, the author of Tetralogue, is not Socrates. But he does like him excellent staging in a pleasant epistemological theater.

      What did you find “philosophically deep” about this blog, Paul? Very few people understand its foundation.

  3. I appreciate your candor, though don’t agree with your conclusions. As to the Tetralogue and my earlier comment, “I’m right and you’re wrong” leaves little room for discussion. I graciously how out.


Leave a Comment