More than forty years ago, Maurice Merleau-Ponty identified a philosophical fault line that continues to rumble through diverse contemporary debates. "Today," he proclaimed, "a humanism does not oppose religion with an explanation of the world. It begins by becoming aware of contingency. In the current period of deconstruction and other postmodernisms, Merleau-Ponty's rejection and reconception of the Enlightenment idea of humanism has greater resonance than ever. For many, it has become a postmodern truism that "the human condition" cannot be represented, described, or explained as just so many facts about the world. According to the now standard (if somewhat overstated) axiom of postmodernism, everything about humanity is socially contingent.

Reactions vary dramatically. For some, the recognition of contingency appears to open up conceptual space for transformative politics and radical social change. For others, however, the specter of contingency is radically destabilizing. Because they equate social contingency with the loss of foundations, they believe that social contingency leads inevitably from moral relativism to nihilism. For them, the logic of this trajectory is ineluctable. If everything is socially contingent, no social or moral system can claim greater validity than any other. And if all such systems are equally valid, then we are left with no reliable values, no moral standards, and no criteria of choice. The absence of sure foundations, they are convinced, means that we are left with an alarming and intolerable nihilism.