Tuesday, March 12, 2019

There is relativism ... and there is relativism

At The Faculty Lounge, I made the following reply (corrected here, as there is a rather large number of typos in the original post) to another interlocutor who said, in part, that “the scientific method is a devastating challenge to the relativist ideology that dominates ethnography and many areas of the social sciences.” 

The phrase “relativist ideology” lacks a clear or unambiguous referent or meaning here, if only because what “relativism” means varies widely (the term ideology is also notoriously vague or at least in need of a working or stipulative definition or proper qualification given its many meanings, but we can put that aside for now), thus we might say, “there is relativism and there is relativism.” With regard, say, to value judgments and rationality, absolute relativism is incoherent. In anthropology, “relativism” became a methodological principle when its practitioners were doing field work in “exotic,” non-Western countries quite different from the affluent nations of North America and Western Europe, as an understandable concern arose among those in the field that the fruits of their research and studies would be dismissed as catalogues of the irrational, “primitive,” immoral, what have you. In short, because the seemingly stark “fact” that they are not, so to speak, like us, we find presumptive or sufficient warrant for seeing these societies as not worth our time and attention except insofar as we might want to convert or colonize them. Another way to put this is that there is simply nothing to learn about or from them.

However, as Hilary Putnam explains in one of his several discussions of relativism, it turns out that what is assumed or presumed to be “irrational or repulsive or both” may in fact, the anthropologist discovers, “promote welfare and social cohesion,” in other words, it has a raison d’être suited, or relative, to that time and place. In other words, we cannot presuppose or assume that all of our judgments as to what is right and wrong or rational, reasonable or irrational and unreasonable are infallible, they may be relative to circumstances or occasions, be those natural or social. Putnam rightly points out that some anthropologists drew a rather more crude and mistaken conclusion, namely, that “it’s all relative,” “meaning that there is no fact of the matter as to what is right or wrong at all.” The motivation behind such a conclusion is often innocent enough insofar as the desire may be to see that other and different societies or cultures are not destroyed or colonized or exploited. But Putnam rightly points out, for example, “that there are better grounds for criticizing cultural imperialism than the denial of objective values.” 

Putnam thus proffers for our consideration another species of relativism, John Dewey’s “objective relativism”: “Certain things are right—objectively right—in certain circumstances and wrong—objectively wrong—in others, and the culture and environment constitute relevant circumstances.” This is far different, notes Putnam, from seeing our values (say, freedom, rationality, love, compassion, truthfulness, happiness or eudaimonia, and so forth) as mere matters of taste and opinion, because, as a few of my former students were fond of saying, “It’s all relative.” More strongly if not vividly, “Objective relativism seems the right doctrine for many moral cases; but not for cases where rights and duties are manifest and sharp and the choice seems to us between right and wrong, good and evil.” Different societies, both historically and sociologically, uphold different albeit sometimes overlapping clusters of virtues and vices, for example, but what is not relative is the notion of virtues and vices itself. Different societies have different conceptions of flourishing: there need not be only one kind of well-being and Western societies do not have a monopoly let alone patent on same, thus there are pluralistic conceptions, which is sometimes conflated or confused with a doctrine of relativism.

We can illustrate one kind of relativism that is troubling with a vulgar model on its cultural variation provided by the late social anthropologist Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah with the following propositions:
  1. that cultures or societies may have their own distinctive systems of morality and social practices
  2. that these systems are ‘right’ for those cultures or societies in terms of their own contexts and their own functional interrelations
  3. that, therefore, it is a mistake to pass critical judgments of better or worse on a comparative basis between them, since each is acceptable in its own place
Arguably, the locus of the problem is the final proposition, for it contains, in the words of Tambiah, “a logical contradiction in that it makes a non-relativistic general claim about a relativist assertion: as [Bernard] Williams puts it, there is here an ‘unhappy attachment of a nonrelative morality of toleration or non-interference to a view of morality as relative …. The central confusion of relativism is to try to conjure out of the fact that societies have differing attitudes and values an a priori non-relative principle to determine the attitude of one society to another; this is impossible.’” Tambiah takes what strikes me as a wise, or at least humane stance, declaring that he considers himself “to be neither a relativist nor an anti-relativist in an absolutist or blanket sense.” His reason for this is eminently worth sharing: “It is possible to take a more complex position between these extremes, and strive towards comparisons and toward general judgments wherever they are appropriate and possible, and to leave other matters in an unsettled state until better information or superior frameworks make comparative evaluations possible.” 

Of course far more might be said in the spirit of the above material, but permit me to close with a brief mention of a notion of relativism or relativity from an Indic philosophical tradition, Jainism. The Jain “doctrines of relativity,” which are both metaphysical and epistemological, namely, anekāntavāda (the claim that reality is complex, i.e., ‘not one-sided’ but ‘many-sided,’ and thus can be know from a variety of perspectives), nayavāda (the ‘doctrine of perspectives’ or partial standpoints), and syādvāda (the doctrine of conditioned predication, literally, the ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ doctrine). The gist of these doctrines, which are philosophically sophisticated (as the philosopher B.K. Matilal made clear), is illustrated in the famous story of the “blind men and the elephant,” attributed to the Buddha. Suffice here to say that there is much to be gleaned from these doctrines by way of appreciating the possible truths available to us in relying on, in the first instance, a relativist epistemic (some would say phenomenological) practice. 

Incidentally, this could be seen as compatible with the philosopher Michael P. Lynch’s recent argument on how truth is both “one and many,” in other words, while our concept of truth is univocal (there is a single property named by ‘truth’), the manifestation of truth is plural in form, for it is immanent in distinct properties of beliefs (‘there is more than one way to be true’). “In other words, truth is a single higher level property whose instantiations across kinds of propositions are determined by a class of other, numerically distinct properties.” A cognitive or epistemic or truth-functional pluralism (which may be conceptual, substantive, logical, metaphysical, axiological, practical …) is sometimes framed in relativistic language, but strong or absolute relativism rules out evaluative standards, judgments or rational preferences of one kind or another, while pluralism comports with the possibility of or need to “adjudge some alternatives as superior to others,” albeit for “good and sufficient reasons” (Nicholas Rescher). 

In brief, it simply is not the case that “the scientific method is a devastating challenge to the relativist ideology that dominates ethnography and many areas of the social sciences,” if only because (i) scientific methods (there is no such thing as the scientific method) are perfectly compatible with different forms of (of non-simpleminded) relativism, such as conceptual relativism (Putnam) and the relativism enshrined in the proposition that “some truths may be more dependent on the vagaries of context than others,” (Lynch) and (ii) it is not clear that any such beast christened “the relativist ideology” “dominates ethnography and many areas of the social sciences.” We would need at least another book or two chock full of the relevant evidence to justify such an extravagant claim.

The physicist and science writer John Ziman provides us with a conclusion of sorts: “There are many varieties of ‘relativism,’ but the ‘stronger’ they become the nearer they get to the black hole of total skepticism, from whence no philosophical traveler returns.”

Relevant Bibliography: Philosophy, Psychology, and Methodology for the Social Sciences


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