Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology — edited by Michael Krausz

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says relativism “has been, in its various guises, both one of the most popular and most reviled philosophical doctrines of our time”. I’d say of all time, at least since the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras said “man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not”. Plato strongly disagreed.

The encyclopedia offers this by way of introduction:

Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them. More precisely, “relativism” covers views which maintain that—at a high level of abstraction—at least some class of things have the properties they have (e.g., beautiful, morally good, … justified) not simpliciter [or simply, in themselves], but only relative to a given framework of assessment (e.g., local cultural norms, individual standards), and correspondingly, that the truth of claims attributing these properties holds only once the relevant framework of assessment is specified or supplied. Relativists characteristically insist, furthermore, that if something is only relatively so, then there can be no framework-independent vantage point from which the matter of whether the thing in question is so can be established.

So we might ask whether helium atoms have two protons. Physicists and chemists would say yes, absolutely. A simple-minded relativist might say it depends on our way of thinking or our conception of the world.

Or we might ask if human sacrifice is and has always been morally wrong. Many of us would say yes, absolutely. A relativist, not being simple-minded at all, might say it depends on what culture we’re talking about. It wasn’t morally wrong for the Aztecs 500 years ago. They thought it was necessary to stop the world from ending. It should go without saying that we’re totally against it now.

Trying to understand relativism better, I read this 500-page collection of articles on the subject. More than thirty philosophy professors and a few scholars from other disciplines weigh in. The articles were mostly interesting and not too technical. However, the only conclusions I reached are that there are many kinds of relativism, some more plausible than others, and that I need to take some time and think about which kinds, if any, are plausible to me.

Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian

Boghossian is a professor of philosophy at New York University. This is a short, well-argued book, although its title is misleading. Its subject is doubt about knowledge or the dismissal of knowledge. The idea that anyone is afraid of knowledge is only mentioned once on the next to last page.

Boghossian’s main target is constructivism: the idea that “knowledge is constructed by societies in ways that reflect their contingent social needs and interests”. He points out that constructivism comes in different varieties. The benign version simply notes that we gather knowledge about topics we’re interested in or need to investigate. He is concerned with versions that lead people, often academics, to say that no group’s or culture’s beliefs are more valid or accurate than anyone else’s. From the epilogue:

There look to be severe objections to each and every version of constructivism about knowledge that we have examined. A constructivism about truth is incoherent. A constructivism about justification is scarcely any better. And there seem to be decisive objections to the idea that we cannot explain belief through epistemic reasons alone.

On the positive side, we failed to find any good arguments for constructivist views…. At its best, … social constructivist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices which we had wrongly come to regard as naturally mandated. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become a general theory of truth or knowledge. The difficulty lies in understanding why such generalized applications of social construction have come to tempt so many.

He believes that the appeal of constructivism is mainly political, although misguided:

Constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from charges of holding false or unjustified views. [But] if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful.

Apparently, Boghossian doesn’t recognize the appeal of oppressed groups being on an equal footing with the powerful (“your views are merely a matter of perspective and no more valid than ours”). He concludes:

The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them.

The Metaphysics and Ethics of Relativism by Carol Rovane

I would have to read this book at least one more time in order to feel confident about summarizing the conclusions the author reaches. However, here’s my impression after reading it once. As I understand her aims, Carol Rovane wants to clearly explain what relativism is with respect to science and ethics, and then determine whether we should endorse relativism with respect to either of those domains.

She begins by criticizing what she calls “the prevailing, consensus view” of relativism, which she says relies on the idea of disagreement. This is the idea that relativism arises “with a certain kind of disagreement that is said to be, first of all, ‘irresoluble’ [i.e. unsolvable], but also, second, ‘irresoluble’ for the specific reason that both parties are right” [15-16]. Rovane prefers defining relativism in terms of alternatives, which may or may not involve disagreement, and which are themselves explainable in terms of “normative insularity”.

According to Rovane, relativists believe that some alternative views in science or ethics are cut off from other scientific or ethical views. Logic neither “mandates, licenses or prohibits” inferences between them, so two people can hold alternative views about science or ethics and logic has nothing to say about the alternatives [94]. It’s as if, metaphorically speaking, people can occupy different scientific or ethical worlds. Non-relativists, on the other hand, believe that all truth bearers are logically related, either directly or indirectly. My scientific views aren’t insulated from your scientific views, and your ethical views aren’t insulated from mine. We all occupy the same scientific world and the same ethical world.

Rovane goes so far as to label the non-relativist and relativist positions in terms of how many “worlds” they mandate. What she calls “unimundialism” is the non-relativistic view that there is only one world (in which there is no “normative insularity” between propositions in science or ethics). “Multimundialism” is the relativistic view that there are many worlds (in which there is “normative insularity” between some scientific or ethical propositions). 

I think the conclusion she reaches is that scientific theories apply to a single world, so it’s best not to think of science in unimundial or non-relativistic terms. Reality is one, so alternative scientific theories can’t be equally correct. But unlike scientists, who all study the same world, people grow up and live their daily lives in various social conditions. These social conditions help determine which behavior is morally correct for them. Rovane thinks it’s fair to say, therefore, metaphorically speaking, that people inhabit different ethical worlds depending on their particular social conditions. Hence, multimundialism or relativism is an acceptable view with respect to ethics.

To help justify her relativistic conclusion regarding ethics, Rovane asks us to imagine two women. One woman was brought up in Europe or America and accepts the ethical importance of autonomy, i.e. every individual’s right to make their way in the world according to their own needs and desires while respecting the needs and desires of other people. The other woman was brought up in a village in India and sincerely believes she has an ethical obligation to obey her parents, even if it means giving up her right to pursue her own needs and desires.  Rovane argues that these two women live in very different ethical worlds. Their societies are so different when it comes to ethical issues that each woman is acting ethically, even though they are following very different paths and choosing to obey very different ethical principles.

Philosophical Relativity by Peter Unger

Unger argues that some philosophical problems have no solution because certain key terms can be understood in two different ways. Since neither way of understanding these terms is better than the other, there is no correct solution to the problems in which these terms play a role.  

He offers the word “flat” as a typical, non-philosophical term that has two such senses. In one sense, something is flat if it is relatively flat compared to other things of a similar or different nature, depending on the context. Kansas is flat compared to Vermont, and the tops of coffee tables are flat compared to lots of other objects. Unger calls this the “contextualist” case.  

In another sense, however, Kansas clearly isn’t perfectly or absolutely flat, nor are coffee tables. The only thing that is flat in this sense is probably a plane as defined in geometry. Unger calls this the “invariantist” case, since the meaning of the specified term in this case doesn’t vary from context to context.  

Unger identifies four philosophical problems that he thinks are subject to this kind of ambiguity: the problems of knowledge (the word “know”), free will (words like “can” and “could”), causation (“cause”) and explanation (“explain”).  

For example, we commonly say that we know many things, but, when pressed, we confess that we could be wrong. Which standards must be met for knowledge to exist? Should our everyday standards be applied (“I saw a dog in the car going by”) or much more stringent standards that would rule out any possibility of error (“I  stopped the car and confirmed that a dog was present by sight, touch and hearing; discussed the matter with other observers; and then performed a series of medical tests to verify that the dog was a living organism with canine DNA”)?  

As Unger points out, we could still be wrong relative to the very highest standards, except possibly with knowledge of the “Cogito, ergo sum” variety (“I know that there is something”.) Understanding terms in the invariantist fashion can obviously lead to skepticism, but Unger argues that skepticism may be warranted — there is no right answer when it comes to choosing between contextualist and invariantist positions. He offers extended discussion of semantics vs. pragmatics and semantic intuitions, but his basic point is that some important terms are ambiguous and there are no compelling reasons to choose one meaning over another. 

There are at least three different kinds of relativity involved here. First, there is the idea that the meanings of some terms are relative to the context in which they are used (this is the position called “contextualism”). Second, there is semantic relativity: the idea that the meaning of certain terms is relative to certain assumptions, e.g. the standards that are appropriate for saying that someone knows something. Third, there is philosophical relativity: the idea that some semantically relative terms are philosophically significant, and that this semantic relativity results in certain philosophical problems having no solution. Unger argues in favor of all three kinds of relativity. 

It seems quite correct to say that some terms are contextually and semantically relative, and that some of these terms play a key role in philosophical disputes. I’m not sure that this explains why these disputes are hard to solve, however. For example, it seems clearly true that if we understand “know” in the ordinary sense, we know many things, and if we understand “know” in the ideal sense, we don’t know much at all. Unger doesn’t spend much time explaining why this ambiguity is so crucial. Few philosophers would deny that this kind of ambiguity exists, yet they would continue to argue about the nature of knowledge and justification, and whether or not there are grounds for choosing between the ambiguous meanings Unger describes.  (5/16/12)

Scientific Perspectivism by Ronald N. Giere

Scientific perspectivism, as Professor Giere describes it, is a somewhat weak form of scientific realism: “For a perspectival realist, the strongest claims a scientist can legitimately make are of a qualified, conditional form: ‘According to this highly confirmed theory (or reliable instrument), the world seems to be roughly such and such’. There is no way legitimately to take the further objectivist step and declare unconditionally: ‘This theory (or instrument) provides us with a complete and literally correct picture of the world itself'” (pp. 5-6).

Even the most accurate instrument gives us just one perspective on the world, since it picks out some feature(s) of interest, it’s subject to some margin of error, and its output is subject to interpretation according to some theory. 

Giere begins by discussing color vision and other sense perception, then moves on to the use of various instruments for scientific purposes, and finally discusses the creation of scientific models and theories. He is especially concerned with how scientists actually do their work. His conclusion is that all truth claims are relative to a perspective, even the claim that all truth claims are relative to a perspective (p. 81). “The strongest possible conclusion is that some model provides a good but never perfect fit to aspects of the world” (p. 93). Giere’s own theory of scientific perspectivism “may be regarded as a set of models of various scientific activities … these models exhibit a good fit to actual scientific practices. That … is as much as anyone can do” (p. 95). 

Some models fit the world better than others, however, meaning that they better serve our purposes. Perspectivism might be considered a kind of relativism, but not the kind that says all perspectives are equally valid.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the discussion of “distributed cognitive systems”. Giere argues that much of science involves the operation of such systems, most of which involve instruments and models that are perspectival. A simple example of a distributed cognitive system is a student’s use of pencil and paper to perform long division. The student making the calculation is part of a system that includes the pencil and paper. The system generates a calculation. This doesn’t mean that the pencil and paper are part of the student’s mind, as some philosophers who talk about “extended” or “embedded” cognition have argued. It’s not necessary to go that far in order to describe human cognition.

This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that I want to read again.  (4/24/12)