[Before I completed this and posted it on my own blog I was informed that Kevin Drum made a similar point. Haven't seen Drum's post yet, but great...or at least adequate...minds think alike at least much of the time...]
The Blogosphere’s been abuzz about Suskind’s “Without a Doubt.” Many people, including me, have suggested that the Bush aide quoted in the piece was expressing a version of alethic or epistemic relativism or some such view. Even as I wrote my short post on this subject, I already doubted that it was true, but, foolishly, elected to put the post up anyway. But I was wrong. Here’s why:
"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"
What did the aide mean? I’ll bet you large amounts of money that he didn’t mean anything very precise at all. Few people who speak like this have a very clear idea of what they are trying to say. For example, very few people believe in a clear and carefully thought-out way that reality is dependent on our representations of it (our beliefs about it, claims about it, etc.). Most people who say seemingly relativistic things like this hold some vague and/or ambiguous, half-understood thesis. For example, leftists who argue that moral obligations are culturally relative really have little idea what they are saying; they are usually just trying, in a vague and stumbling way, to urge people to respect other cultures. Again: it’s not that such people have a clear thesis in mind but express it unclearly, it’s that they don’t have a clear thesis in mind.