The following is the first in a series of interviews with people who have written about relativism - whether for or against. While many of our interview subjects will be philosophers, we are also interested in what non-philosophers have to say about these topics.
David Bloor is a sociologist, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh where he was one of the founders of the Science Studies Unit. While David has written about a variety of topics, he is best known for advocating the 'strong programme' in the sociology of scientific knowledge. The strong programme has frequently been associated with a form of relativism and a sceptical attitude towards science and its authority. As David tells us in the interview, while he is happy to be placed in the 'relativist camp', he is no critic of science as such. On the contrary. He sees the strong programme as part of an attempt to understand science - both its successes and its failures - scientifically.
David was interviewed by Robin McKenna, Anne-Kathrin Koch, and Natalie Ashton. You can listen to the audio embedded here, and/or read a transcript of the interview below.
RM: David, you are perhaps best known as a proponent of the strong programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge. Can you tell us what the strong programme is, and what it tried to do?
DB: Let me start with what it was trying to do. My aim was to capture and codify what historians of science were doing already, and doing very successfully. I wasn't trying to tell people what they should do, I was trying to say what they already did.
Now, why was I trying to do that? It was because good historical practice was, as I saw it, actually under attack. Certain philosophers wanted to impose their own recommended method onto the practice of historians, and I thought that they were wanting to impose a bad method on the historians. I'm referring here to Popperians such as Imre Lakatos and others such as Larry Laudan.
What they said is that, first of all, philosophers should decide what counts as truly rational action. So philosophers defined rationality, and then those parts of scientific practice that could be described in a way that shows them exemplifying this idea of rationality, well those parts of science were explained simply by virtue of their alleged rationality. And that left causal explanation with two rather limited tasks to perform. According to the Lakatoses and the Laudans, socio-psychological causes might explain the general circumstances under which rationality would arise, or causes could explain why scientists deviated from rationality. In other words, they limited the role of causality very considerably and they partialled out the history of science into the rational and the non-rational (or the a-rational), and this seemed to me to run directly opposite to good historical practice.
Good historians, as I understood it, were offering, not a dualistic analysis of scientific knowledge, but a more monistic account. In other words, they were exercising causal curiosity and empirical curiosity just in a wholly general way. And this seemed to me to be correct and desirable so that, to me, the taken for granted empiricism and causal sensibility of historians of science, seemed to me itself to be a manifestation of the scientific attitude. So I saw the actual practice, or the best practice of historians of science, as exemplifying science-understanding-itself-scientifically, and I understood the recommendations - the historiographical recommendations and proposed legislation - by the Laudans and the Lakatoses, as itself in fact embodying an unscientific approach, because they were extracting rationality from the real world causal nexus. And that's what I was trying to embody in the strong programme, the sensibility, the codification of what I thought historians of science had already achieved, and that I believed was basically under attack. So that's as far as I can answer the first question, that’s a sketch of an answer to the first question.
RM: Thanks. That was quite high-level; could you perhaps tells us how this particular approach would work with a detailed case study? So what would differentiate a sociological or historical approach to a case study from, say, a philosophical approach to that case study?
DB: Well, take the example of a scientific controversy. It might be Priestley and Lavoisier over oxygen versus phlogiston, or it might be the theory of the electromagnetic ether versus an Einsteinian relativistic approach which discarded the appeal to the ether. You have a fundamental dispute, they can't both be right, and here the asymmetrical methodology of the Lakatoses and the Laudans and their rationalistic approach would tell the historian to make a prior assessment as to who was being rational. And then treat that as in some way unproblematic - simply the unfolding of rationality itself. And hence causal explanation would be, for example, confined to why Priestley did not respond rationality, allegedly, to the evidence, or why the defenders of the ether did not respond, allegedly, in a rational way - why they resisted Einsteinian rationality.
And this really does not make good sense, it doesn't make good historiographical sense, and the instinct of historians was very different: you looked at where this thinking came from, what interests it served, what were the causes of its credibility, or lack of credibility, of some given approach, to some given group. And just instinctively the historians dealt with both sides of the controversy in the same way. They didn’t at all engage themselves with some abstract notion of what was really rational. They assumed, I suppose, roughly speaking, that people on both sides of such scientific controversies were intelligent people, who were not thinking in any particularly corrupted way. They were both thinking, but with different assumptions, presuppositions, purposes, background resources, and so on.
So historians adopted a symmetrical attitude, whereas their philosophical critics trying to tell them how to do their history of science were recommending that they truncate their causal curiosity, and simply let somebody else define rationality, and then they would conveniently run round the edges of this account filling out a few of the details. And this struck me as a travesty, and my intention was really to codify the instincts of the historians here and expose the, well, let's be blunt about it: expose the extraordinary methodological arrogance that lay behind the rationalistic proposals.
AK: Ok, thank you David. Now this strong programme has often been associated with relativism. Could you please say a little about this association?
DB: Yes, but first I need to make clear what I understand by the word ‘relativism’ Philosophers typically use the word ‘relativist’ to describe all manner of irresponsible and rather stupid attitudes. If you look at what is alleged to be relativism, critics will tell you, in effect, that it is a form of irrationalism: that it indicates an indifference to questions of truth, falsity, rationality, accuracy; that the relativist adopts a ‘Who cares? Whatever’ attitude towards important disputes. That, I think, is nonsense. I don’t think that notion of relativism deserves to be taken seriously at all. So the definition of relativism that I use seems to me to be simple and intuitive, and it is that relativism is the rejection of any form of absolutism.
Now, this then raises the question: what is the link between that definition of relativism and the strong programme? And the short answer to that is that once one rejects any form of absolutism, then the only viable perspective on knowledge is to see it as a natural phenomenon. That's to say, to see it as something that is inseparable from the causal processes that take place in nature, and in space and time. It means that, inevitably, one must think of the process of gaining knowledge and constructing knowledge as itself causal and embedded in nature. In other words, relativism points to a form of naturalism, and naturalism is the basic perspective which is articulated by the strong programme.
NA: So you're understanding relativism as the counter to absolutism, so could you just say a couple of words about what you mean by absolutism there?
DB: What is meant by absolutism? Well it's got to be a certain sort of epistemological superlative, hasn't it. If one makes it anything other than something with a very strong, elevated, and superlative character to it, one is simply backsliding away from the connotations of the term, and the sort of contrasts that are implied by it. So, if we ask ourselves what the connotations of the word are, then we immediately have to produce qualities like: it’s something with a certain perfection to it; it is something with a certain eternal character to it; it is something which is not qualified or approximate, or sometimes true/sometimes false, effective here and not effective there. All of those qualifications, I think, have to be removed in order to do justice to something having, or deserving, the label of ‘absolute’.
Now, scientific knowledge itself, if you look at it historically, and just empirically, and ask yourself ‘How does it work? How do scientists behave?’, then, endlessly, there is provisionality, there is qualification, there is approximation. All of those things are just embedded in science, science is saturated with them. Therefore, science stands in fundamental opposition to any knowledge, or any knowledge producing process, that might deserve the word absolute. So I really see the choice between the absolute and the relative as the choice between something that is fundamentally non-scientific and something that is scientific, so it boils down once again to a dichotomy.
AK: So, unlike most people, you do in fact positively embrace the label ‘relativism’, is that right?
DB: Yes, I do positively embrace it. And you're wondering why I positively embrace it, I think? Well, this is a question that I have been asked before, and I ask it myself sometimes, because of course, as I indicated, most people, and that includes philosophers and non-philosophers, simply take the word to have wholly negative connotations, to refer to something really rather silly and objectionable, so why not just say the word has come to mean that, it’s come to have these connotations, why not just be smart and adopt another label?
Now there are two reasons why I don't want to do that. The first is that if I did try to present myself, or present the work that I think is relativist, by using another label, I don’t really think it would really alter the situation. I mean supposing that I started using a word like ‘naturalistic’ - I'm not putting forward a relativist view, I’m putting forward a ‘naturalist’ view of knowledge, or I’m putting forward not a relativist view but a ‘causalist’ view of knowledge - if I engaged in some verbal maneuver of that kind... immediately, if anybody bothered at all to respond to such a maneuver, they would start discovering that really naturalism is relativism or causalism is relativism, and they would slide back to the silly, trivialising definition of relativism, and claim that they’d detected it or could reveal its presence behind the charade that was now being perpetrated. So one would be trying to engage in a game that one couldn’t win, for a start.
The second reason is that I have a streak of stubbornness about this one. I’m not going to let other people dictate to me what words I use, or what words mean in my own mouth, so I refuse to let my language be corrupted by others, as I see it. I think there are very strong and clear intuitions behind the ‘absolute vs. relative, the choice is absolute or relative’ [talk]. I think there are strong intuitions there. I think a lot of philosophers lapse into that sort of talk when they're not on their guard for some reason, especially if they’re talking about moral relativism. You can find dictionaries of philosophical terminology that define moral relativism as the rejection of moral absolutism. As far as I can tell, most philosophers don’t jump up and down with anger on encountering that definition. For many purposes they actually use it. It’s just that they don’t have good control over their own terminology, because as soon as they start talking about epistemology they start denouncing relativism as the equal validity thesis or something like that. So the second thing is a streak of stubbornness; I think this is the correct way to use the language, and I’m jolly well going to stick with it.
RM: A more general question: you’ve set yourself up as someone who wants to, as it were, defend a scientific approach to science, against the anti-scientific, philosophical approach. So I think it’s fair to say that philosophers have not been on board with this more scientific approach towards science, but could you say something about whether scientists have been more receptive to this attempt to understand what they’re doing in a scientific manner?
DB: It's difficult to generalise. In my own experience I've encountered radically different responses. There is of course the whole phenomenon of the Science Wars, as they're called, in which a number of scientists, particularly physicists, have denounced relativism and have denounced work in the strong programme as relativist in the negative, in my terms 'silly', sense of the word. Some scientists do seem to think that any careful empirical account must be read as a criticism. Why they think this, I don't know. I can see no adequate grounds for it, I don't believe any adequate grounds for this complaint have ever been produced, but there is a very strong tendency for critical empirical analysis of the activity to be read as criticism of that activity. In fact, this is possibly the most frequent, or at least the most vocal response - perhaps that’s a better word.
Though on some other occasions I have been extremely surprised and gratified when I have talked to some scientists who’ve read some of this material, and don't react in that way. Who do take it on the matter-of-fact, largely un-evaluative, level on which it’s offered. For example, I had the privilege when I was in Berlin to talk to an expert on hydrodynamics and hydraulics, who was engaged throughout his professional life in ship design, and he was a mathematically sophisticated engineer, and I was very worried, when he, very kindly, offered to read some drafts of my recent book on aerodynamics, as to whether he would very strongly react against the matter of fact relativist analysis that I gave, And I was grateful and gratified to find that he took it as all rather taken for granted and nothing to argue about. We discussed some technical issues as to how it’s best to deal with the relation between some different areas of aerodynamic theory, and I benefited from those discussions, but he did not have any wholesale methodological opposition to offer.
I also recently realised that there was a review of my book on aerodynamics in the American Journal of Physics, which is a journal that doesn't publish cutting edge research - its primary concern is with physics education and textbooks, particularly advanced textbooks, and often the contributions to this journal concern the clarity and accuracy of the presentation of the material of physics and so on. And so, as soon as I realised my book had been reviewed in the American Journal of Physics, I thought ‘uh-oh, what’s going to happen here? Will the person who is writing the review - an emeritus professor of fluid dynamics - will he find mistakes? For example, will he find mis-formulations of the technical content? Will he view the whole exercise as an attack on science?’. I’m glad to be able to report that I survivedthis review intact, and it was a generous and effective presentation of the case that I was trying to make. The reviewer did choose to confine the review to the technical chapters of the book, rather than some of the philosophical reflections at the end, but he didn't say this was because he thought they were wrong. He thought that those fell outside his own sphere of competence, so he was reluctant to talk about it. But to me that was an example of somebody who can read this sort of work and not automatically assume that it was a criticism of the scientific enterprise.
NA: Ok, so I'd like to ask you about public perceptions of relativism and its relationship to science. So relativism and other ‘ism’s like post-modernism are increasingly seen as in conflict with science and the common good, it seems. The recent March for Science, which aimed to celebrate non-partisan science and emphasise evidence-based policy as something in the public interest, saw some protesters carrying slogans such as “science has no agenda”, and it seems like the idea some of these people have is that political and other values would undermine science and make it less accurate and less beneficial. So I’m wondering what you think of this idea?
DB: Yes, this raises a lot of deep, and sometimes very complicated, issues. The first thing I want to say is that I certainly don't think relativism is a threat to science. I think that absolutism is a threat to science. Indeed, I think that relativism, as I understand it, and as I think it can and should be understood, embodies the general approach of science itself to knowledge. Of course, it’s easy to see what's happening here. If you define relativism as some sort of anti-scientific irrationalism, as many people do, then of course, by definition, relativism in that sense is a threat to science. But I think that one can state the whole matter much more clearly and effectively by focusing on exactly what it is one thinks is a threat to science - namely irrationalism - and denouncing irrationalism. And leaving the world relativism out of the discussion.
On this question of whether political values undermine science, or the objectivity of science, perhaps. I think the answer is: no, as such they don't, or they don't necessarily do so. It does of course depend on precisely which political values are in question. There will be those that do and, I’m fairly confident, those that don’t.
In general terms I would want to say that history makes it absolutely clear that the practice of science is saturated with political agendas. Think of the Manhattan Project building the atomic bomb; think of the development of radar as part of the defensive system in British strategic planning and the conduct of the second world war; think, going back a bit further, of electrical telegraphy and the work of Lord Kelvin, who had many commercial commitments; Kelvin’s work on underwater telephone cables. Historically and sociologically science has been inseparable from politics,war and economics. And I think it would be hopelessly unrealistic to draw the rigorous conclusion ‘oh, well, all of that science must be distorted science then’. Kelvin, Einstein, distorted science? No it really won’t work to talk like that. This is not bad science or polluted science, it’s just science. And if we admire science, and I admire science, or a lot of it, then we’ve got to learn to live with the fact that it is a complicated phenomenon - exactly as you'd expect it to be from a historical point of view - rooted in the complexity and contradictions and difficulties of social life and history. It’s a morally complicated thing. It’s a package deal.
AK: You just said that absolutism is a threat to science, or can be a threat to science. Many people might find that rather surprising. Can you maybe help us understand that by giving us an example of something of the practice of science that embodies absolutism?
DB: Yes it’s important to stress, or for me to stress, that I’m saying that absolutism can be a threat to science. I wouldn’t want to commit myself to saying that absolutism is necessarily, always a threat to science, for the very good reason that there are determined absolutists who’ve been excellent scientists.
This is particularly the case if you go back into history. The classical example would obviously be Isaac Newton, who was an absolutist in the general sense that he was a religious person, believed in God, and attributed absolute powers and properties to God in a very orthodox, Christian way. And he developed absolutistic conceptions of space and time. This was one of those most successful technical achievements in science that there has ever been, and he was quite serious about using words like absolute here, and he also connected the technical meaning of the word to his theological thinking. And he said, for example, quite explicitly in his work that absolute space and time were the ‘sensorium of God’. So if Newton can be an absolutist and do the science that he did, clearly absolutism is not in any absolute sense antagonistic to scientific achievement.
When I say now that it’s the absolutists not the relativists who we should be worried about in the present day situation I am talking about absolutist religious thinkers who seek to undermine a naturalistic and biological conception of human beings and of human diseases; who use moral and theological categories for commenting on and seeking to understand, for example certain diseases, particularly sexually transmitted diseases - these things are seen as punishment from God. And the alleged sacredness of life is used as a way of inhibiting research in certain areas in the United States. These people are the enemies of science, these people are the absolutists. That’s why, at least in the present circumstances, and as far as I can see for the foreseeable future, it is absolutism that you should be worried about if you are pro -scientific.
RM: Okay, just to finish, maybe you could recommend for our audience some readings on the topics we’ve discussed that could give them more of a background, some more information, on these topics.
DB: Yes. Two books spring to mind, and shamelessly one of them is my own. But there's a book published not very long ago whose title, if I remember it correctly, is What is a Genome? [Genomes and What to Make of Them] by Barry Barnes and John Dupré - Barnes, of course, was a colleague for many years in Edinburgh - and this is a look at some contemporary science. Science which has been discussed in the public realm rather a lot, and sometimes in an informed way and sometimes not in an informed way, and, for anyone who is interested in biological themes such as what exactly is a genome, this is a very readable and technically well-informed book, as I’m confident that it is.
And if one wants to follow up some of the particular themes that I’ve talked about here then let me shamelessly mention a book i published in 2011 called The Enigma of the Aerofoil - the aerofoil being, essentially, the wing of an aeroplane - and it’s about disputes over how a wing works, and why aeroplanes fly, treated historically, looking at conflicts. But one general feature of the book that might interest people who are not necessarily interested in the details of aerodynamics, is that, in the final chapter of the book, I broaden the discussion and ask where a science like aerodynamics fits into a relativist picture. Can you really be a relativist about aerodynamics?
And one of the vehicles for the discussion that I use is a claim made by Dawkins. Dawkins said - just in case the listener doesn’t know, Dawkins is famous for attacking religion, and he does so in the name of science, he also attacks relativism, allegedly in the name of science - and Dawkins has said, using the aeroplane as an example, he says: ‘show me a relativist at 30 000ft, and I shall show you a hypocrite. In other words he treats the relativist as someone who doesn’t pay attention to reality, doesn’t pay attention to technology, doesn't understand how technology or science works, yet can’t, of course, intelligently sustain such a view. And as soon as they’re confronted by the achievements of technology, such as being in an aircraft at 30 000 ft, then their silly ideas will be left behind and they will become more realistic. I directly address this challenge, and I show that if you're going to understand the science of aerodynamics, you must understand it as an achievement of relative knowledge. Now I could elaborate on that and go into details, but... that’s what you might find in that book, and that might be of some general interest.
NA: That’s great, thank you very much! Thank you for speaking to us.
by Thomas Raleigh
Here are 2 very natural ideas about conscious experiences:
(1) They are in some deep, interesting sense private.
(2) Nevertheless, different subjects can have qualitatively similar experiences.
I think that these 2 ideas are in tension. If we take seriously the idea that it is metaphysically impossible for any other subject to experience my phenomenal experiences, then the notion of phenomenal similarity across different subjects will not be well defined. And the reason for this is that the very idea of a phenomenal or appearance property – how something looks, feels or appears – is an inherently relativistic notion. That is: how something looks/feels/appears is always relative to some kind of subjective viewpoint or sense modality.
What is the relevant sense of ‘private’? Roughly: it is metaphysically impossible for anyone else to ‘directly’ experience my token phenomenal states/property instances. (Slightly less roughly: it is impossible for the token phenomenal features which constitutively form my stream of consciousness, to likewise constitutively figure in anyone else’s stream of consciousness.)
A traditional sort of scepticism raises the worry that we cannot ever know whether our respective private features are qualitatively the same – maybe your experience when looking at a ripe tomato is privately very different from mine; maybe your sensations when you bang your funny bone are quite different to how banging my funny bone feels to me; maybe, despite your fluent talk about experiences of various kinds, you actually have no inner conscious life whatsoever; and so on.
However, even allowing that this sort of sceptic may have a point, the following thought can seem very plausible: ok, perhaps I cannot be sure that your private stuff is the same as mine. But so long as it is in fact the same (and we both suppose or believe this to be so even if we may not be able to know it), then we can at least still successfully communicate and understand each other’s claims about our respective private stuff.
But notice that this line of thought relies on the second idea, above: that there can be facts, even if they may be unknowable, concerning inter-subjective phenomenal similarity. And this has been denied, at one time or other, by quite a few distinguished philosophers – including Frege, Schlick, Shoemaker and Stalnaker.
What is the problem then with the idea that 2 private phenomenal items, from 2 different subjects, could just naturally be similar – irrespective of what either subject can know or judge, or their dispositions to classify them and so on?
The crucial point here is that appearance properties and phenomenal properties are always relative to some specific (type of) subjective viewpoint. Nothing ever looks, feels or appears a certain way simpliciter; any item can only have some specific appearance/feel relative to some particular (type of) subjective viewpoint. The petals of this flower might look one way to humans, a different way to insects, yet another way to pigeons etc. But they don’t look any particular way at all simpliciter, or from no particular point of view. Nor, of course, do they look any way at all to a subject who entirely lacks vision – i.e. to a subjective viewpoint or modality that cannot ‘take in’ this item/feature. Likewise, my painful sensation feels a certain way to me, my after-image looks a certain way to me; but these token phenomenal features do not feel/appear any way at all to you, as your conscious point of view simply does not include them.
Given this essential relativity of appearance/phenomenal properties to a subjective perspective or sense-modality, two items can only be similar in appearance or feel relative to some particular subjective perspective or perspectives. Again: these two flowers may look similar to each other to humans, though they look very different from each other to pigeons. Or: they might both look identical (to me), yet they might each smell very differently (to me). But a claim that two items or features look or feel the same way relative to no particular conscious perspective or modality would be just as ill-defined as a claim that a single item has some specific appearance or feel relative to no particular conscious perspective or modality. And when it comes to two phenomenal items or features from two different private domains, there is, by hypothesis, no possibility that both items could ever ‘show up’ within a single subjective point of view – i.e. within a single subject’s conscious awareness. Thus it seems that any claim that my private item and your private item appear/feel phenomenally similar will not be a well-defined phenomenal comparison, for there is no possible common appearance space that both items could appear in.
In being essentially relative to a conscious perspective or modality, appearance/phenomenal properties are thus analogous to spatial and temporal properties – a point that I understand Wittgenstein to be making in section §350 of the Investigations:
It is as if I were to say, ‘You surely know what “It’s 5 o’clock here” means; so you also know what “It’s 5 o’clock on the sun” means. It means simply that it is just the same time there as it is here when it is 5 o’clock.’ – The explanation by means of sameness does not work here. For I know well enough that one can call 5 o’clock here and 5 o’clock there ‘the same time’, but I do not know in what cases one is to speak of its being the same time here and there. In exactly the same way, it is no explanation to say: the supposition that he has a pain is simply the supposition that he has the same as I.
Jennan Ismael makes a comparison with the notion of simultaneity in relativistic physics: there can be facts about temporal relations between 2 events within a spatial frame of reference. But when the 2 events are specified as belonging to different frames of reference, there is no fact as to one being earlier/later than the other. Likewise, given a model of experience which satisfies (MP), sameness or difference in the phenomenal appearance/feel of two private items/features may be well-defined relative to a particular subject’s private domain. But if the experiential elements in question belong to two different metaphysically private viewpoints, then any comparison of phenomenal appearance will not be well-defined. Just as there is no such thing as simultaneity simpliciter, but only relative to a specific frame of reference, there would be no such thing as phenomenal similarity simpliciter, but only within a specific private viewpoint.
One more comparison: John Divers has recently raised the following problem for Lewisian realism about possible worlds. If the truth of our modal claims is supposed to be explained by the existence of counterparts in distinct possible worlds, and those possible worlds are not spatio-temporally related to each other (i.e. spatio-temporal relations only obtain within individual possible worlds), then we face a problem with counter-factual claims like the following:
‘Usain might have been taller than he actually is.’
For the truth of such a claim is supposed to require the existence of a counterpart of Usain in some other possible world who is ‘taller than’ the actual Usain. But Usain in the actual world and Usain’s counterpart in some other possible world do not stand in any spatial relation; a fortiori they do not stand in the ‘taller than’ relation. In the absence of any possibility of actual-Usain and counterpart-Usain having their heights defined relative to a common spatio-temporal framework, we cannot make sense of claims that their respective heights are ‘the same’. Not only is it impossible for actual-Usain and counterpart-Usain to inhabit each other’s spatio-temporal domains, it is also impossible for any other item to function as a benchmark or ruler by which to meaningfully compare their heights – as it is metaphysically impossible for any item to figure in more than one Lewisian possible world.
Likewise, I am suggesting, assuming the metaphysical impossibility of my experiencing your private phenomenal items, or vice-versa, there is a lack of any common ‘appearance-space’ in which two items from distinct domains could have their subjective feels/appearances meaningfully compared as being phenomenally similar or different. Not only is it impossible for either of the two items in question to appear in the other’s private domain, it is also impossible for any other possible item/feature to serve as a phenomenal benchmark or standard in common to both private domains – as it is impossible for any item/feature to appear in more than one private phenomenal domain.
That is just the briefest sketch of the issue. But so what to do? I suggest that in order to hold onto the idea that we can have naturally similar phenomenal experiences, we should give up on the idea that they are metaphysically private – an idea that is in any case in tension with the physicalist idea that phenomenal experiences are ultimately just physical events/processes in the brain. There is nothing metaphysically private about the physical events and processes in a brain, which can be studied using 3rd-personal scientific methods just like other physical stuff. Indeed it seems plausible that it is precisely this supposedly special and unique conscious access we each have to our own sensations, mental imagery, innermost thoughts, etc. that provides one of the main motivations for dualism. As John Wisdom once remarked: “The peculiarity of the soul is not that it is visible to none but that it is visible to one”.
Taking seriously the idea that phenomenal similarity is always relative to a subjective viewpoint or appearance space – just as simultaneity and shape are relative to an observer’s frame of reference – thus gives us a reason to reject the perennially attractive idea that our conscious experiences are metaphysically private. But of course, others might want to jump the other way and hold onto phenomenal privacy at the expense of inter-subjective phenomenal similarity. The worry then is that this would make our privately defined phenomenal concepts incommunicable – but that will have to be a topic for another occasion.
If you are interested in the issues raised in this post, look out for Thomas' forthcoming article 'Phenomenal Privacy, Similarity and Communicability', which will be published soon in Ergo.
By Victoria Lavorerio
This summer term, Martin Kusch, philosophy professor and principal investigator of the “Emergence of Relativism” research project, held a Master-level research seminar (or "Forschungsseminar") in the University of Vienna devoted to epistemic relativism. The course explored recent proposals and criticisms of epistemic relativism, and it culminated on Monday, 27th of June in an all-day workshop in which the students presented their tentative results. The students’ presentations covered a range of issues and positions studied throughout the course, as well as some independent explorations of recent and not so recent relativistic proposals.
The day started off with presentations dedicated to Sankey’s reconstruction and critique of epistemic relativism. Olga Ring took issue with Sankey’s strategy to refute epistemic relativism; not only is his naturalistic stance (construed as an epistemic norm) also vulnerable to the problem of the criterion, but it is in tension with his brand of particularism. Relatedly, Richard Bärnthaler argued against Sankey’s claim that naturalism, but not relativism, can provide justification in an objective sense. Drawing from Galison’s work, he considered objectivity as a (historically-relative) epistemic norm, and argued that the empirical investigation behind the naturalistic approach uses the very epistemic norm it is supposed to evaluate. In his presentation, Jesse de Pagter turned to Evans-Pritchard’s study of the Azande to discuss the validity of the Equal Validity claim, which Boghossian and Sankey advance as an important feature of epistemic relativism.
Soheil Human’s talk was inter-disciplinary in nature, as he discussed how the predictive processing theory in neuroscience can contribute to MacFarlane’s criticism of Boghossian’s dismissal of “absolute relativism”. Also contra Boghossian, Tom Fery argued that there are ways to motivate relativism via the encounter of a different epistemic system, such as rejecting the claim that such system has to be impressive, or actual, or (which he deems more promising) by exploring the possibility that the two epistemic systems are on a par. Anne-Kathrin Koch’s talk asked the metaphilosophical question of what the disagreement between relativists (represented by Bloor) and absolutists (exemplified by Boghossian) is really about. After exploring the many facets of the contention, she advanced the hypothesis that what really is at stake is two different pictures of what epistemology is and should do.
The following panel explored the relations between relativism and disagreement. Lucas Smalldon discussed the famous disagreement between Bellarmine and Galileo, arguing that one shouldn’t ask who is more justified, but rather who is more rational. By using an error-correcting orientation, he argued that Galileo’s explanation fared better, and thus judging it to be a faultless disagreement is mistaken. In his presentation, Clemens Loidl presented Hazlett’s relativized entitlement to trust a source as a device to deliver mutually recognized reasonable disagreement; he then explored its potential to respond to Boghossian’s critique of faultless disagreement. I, Victoria Lavorerio, argued against Hales’s claim that relativism is a promising resolution strategy in cases of irresolvable disagreements, by analyzing the demands such strategy makes on the disputants, and why they cannot be met. Closing the panel, Christoph Lernpaß focused on the evolutionary debunking argument from disagreement and its connection to moral relativism. He argued that Mogensen’s distinction between “arbitrarily absent” and “merely possible” does not pick up only the epistemically relevant disagreements.
Opening the final panel of the day, Henriikka Hannula aimed to expand Sharon Street’s relativism about normative reasons to include the agent’s cultural and social context, as well as her practical reasons, which underpin normative reasons and are not necessarily about getting true beliefs. In his contribution, Jakob Schott compared Rorty’s and Boghossian’s interpretations of Kuhn, while claiming that the latter was the least comprehensive and charitable. Taking Hartsock’s Marxist standpoint theory as an example of feminist epistemology, Karoline Paier asked which kind of relativism would help the feminist’s advantage thesis the most. After reviewing some possibilities, she concludes that Stanley’s interest-relativism looks the most promising. Finally, Daniel Eduardo Marante Mendoza took Bloor's relativism of content and meaning and placed it against Boghossian’s taxonomy and subsequent critique of different kinds of relativism to see whether (and) they applied to Bloor’s theory.
I hope I have done justice to the enjoyable and busy day we had, exploring and discussing both classical and unexpected issues related to epistemic relativism.
Photo Credit: Zoltán Krizbai (OSA)
The following is the first in a series of interviews exploring the connection between Relativism and Racism. Many philosophers disagree about this connection. Some argue that relativism is a prerequisite for open and multicultural societies as it enables their members to live on equal terms. Others argue that relativism gives rise to a problematic "anything goes" form of tolerance that is responsible for the flourishing of irrational and racist views. Moreover, these critics of relativism often claim that a universal concept of humanity and absolute values are necessary tools to resist racist ideologies. Some even argue that racism is itself a radical form of anthropological relativism, and use this as a basis from which to criticize relativistic views in general. This interview series will discuss the connection between relativism and racism from both a systematic and a historical point of view. We will take a closer look at our concepts of human nature and racist mechanisms such as dehumanization, and discuss why philosophers tend to demonize relativism.
Maria Kronfeldner was interviewed by Johannes Steizinger.
I am very happy to welcome Maria Kronfeldner for the first interview in our interview series on relativism and racism. Maria Kronfeldner is Associate Professor at CEU Budapest. She works in the Philosophy of the Life Sciences and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences and has published widely in this area. She currently works on a book with the working title: What’s Left of Human Nature: A Post-essentialist, Pluralist and Interactive Account of a Contested Concept. She organized an interdisciplinary and international conference on “Dehumanization: New Approaches to the Politics of Human Nature” in April 2016 and a smaller philosophical Workshop on dehumanization in January 2017. Today, we want to talk about the phenomenon of dehumanization, the concept of human nature and the significance of contexts for both.
JS: Dehumanization is studied especially in social psychology. There is a growing number of studies that examine the different forms of dehumanization and its psychological impact. However, dehumanization is not an established philosophical term. Thus, I want to ask you: what is dehumanization and why should philosophers engage with it?
MK: In social psychology, dehumanization means something quite narrow, even though psychologists distinguish – as you mentioned – a couple of forms. The term also has a history in social psychology: it was introduced as a technical term in the study of extreme violence in the 1970s. Scholars claimed that in acts of extreme violence such as mass murder, the killing of other humans presupposes their dehumanization. Otherwise such atrocities would not be possible. Over time, the term acquired a less narrow meaning. Current psychologists assume that quite generally we perceive the Other in social interactions according to a concept of humanness, as part of which individuals are taken to be more or less human. If current social psychologists use the term dehumanization, they study such processes of social cognition as the basis of discrimination and similar social phenomena.
The usage in philosophy is different and quite problematic: in philosophy the word is mostly used for whatever an author regards as negative. The attribute “dehumanizing” then simply stresses the negativity of something. Take, for instance, discussions about rape: we all agree that rape is something negative. Philosophers that want to highlight the negativity of rape, often claim that rape involves the dehumanization of its victim. It is hard to find anything else than this very broad usage in philosophy since dehumanization does not have a precise meaning in philosophy.
JS: Do you think that any definition of humanness implies a certain kind of dehumanization?
MK: I think that dehumanization is something very abstract. It facilitates the creation of distance. If something comes too close to you – in multiple senses –, then you can use dehumanization to create a psychological distance. This is the general and abstract aspect of it. The concrete content of dehumanization, however, varies a lot. I cannot think of a definition of humanness, a concept of the human that does not allow for dehumanization. And I cannot think of a concept of being human that is exclusively or in a special sense dehumanizing. All properties that can be taken to define what is human (such as rationality or morality) can also be used to dehumanize others.
JS: On the one hand we seem to have a very broad and abstract concept of dehumanization. On the other hand, the dehumanization of others mostly takes place in rather concrete forms, such as in images of animal or monster comparisons. People call or depict, for instance, Donald Trump as a monster. Is this a form of dehumanization?
MK: Comparisons with monsters, machines or animals can be used in a very specific metaphorical way that is not necessarily connected with dehumanization (i.e., believing that the depicted is in fact less human or treating the depicted as such). You can mean such comparisons satirically. Take, for instance, the images used in the magazine Charlie Hebdo, or in other satirical magazines. They use animal comparisons as part of an art form and want to communicate a certain message with it, which can but does not have to be dehumanizing. One needs a theory of the art of machine or animal comparisons to explain these usages.
But you also have other contexts in which it is harder to decide whether the case is a case of dehumanization and thus whether the respective image is ethically or politically legitimate. Take, for instance, advertisement, which often portrays women as sex objects. This objectification is a clear case of dehumanization. One cannot say that these sexist images are used in a metaphorical way. It is literally meant to be sexist.
Generally speaking, the use of seemingly dehumanizing images is a continuum and there are border line cases, which are hard to classify. You need a theory that gives you criteria to distinguish between the literal and the metaphorical use of an image.
JS: Where would you place the dehumanization of refugees in this continuum? Last year, there were articles in newspapers that depicted refugees as cockroaches or rats. Is this dehumanization? Is it problematic? And more generally, what distinguishes the metaphorical use of an image from the literal use?
MK: It is the form, function and the context that is crucial. If there is clearly a satirical context and the comparison has an artistic form and function, then the use, for instance, of an animal comparison might well be legitimate, i.e., not morally wrong. Those portrayals of refugees are, however, often used in a form and in a context in which people (hopefully at least) assume that the newspaper is telling them literally about matters of facts, i.e., that the function is literal reporting. You certainly also have sections in normal newspapers in which satirical usage is indicated, but often the dehumanization of refugees is part of the descriptive part of a newspaper. There it has no place and it is problematic. Thus, the context is decisive and it all depends on the concrete case.
JS: Your argument is interesting from the perspective of relativism: you seem to argue for a strict context-dependency of cases of dehumanization.
MK: Yes. It is the same as in the case of hate speech. A sentence in and of itself is not hate speech. It depends on the political context and I would add: the context of the media in which it is used. We have to understand the context of an utterance and then we can start to define whether an individual case is inciting hatred or is dehumanizing.
This all stems from a further complication in the background of understanding dehumanization: it is not clear that all cases of literal dehumanization are negative. Traditionally, dehumanization means, as indicated, something very negative, but one has to be careful with this claim. Moreover, we often assume that dehumanization is only used by the powerful against the oppressed. But dehumanization can also be a way of speaking back, a strategy of the oppressed. If you are dehumanized by someone else, you can use dehumanization in turn – in order to create distance to the offender. Here, dehumanization helps you against discrimination and thus is something positive. Dehumanization can be a strategy to answer dehumanization. There is a good example for this positive use of dehumanization that I use in my work: A black person tells us about her life in a segregated environment; she explains that when black people go to town, they try not to meet white people, in order to prevent hurtful interactions. For them, white people are ‘like the weather’, a mere object in the background of social interaction, an object to be ignored as much as possible. The identification of white people with the weather is a case of dehumanization as the sexist objectification of women in advertisement is a case of dehumanization. The person-as-weather is treated as an object and the black person creates distance with this. I think this is a legitimate psychological strategy. The problem is: how do you distinguish this strategy from the strategy of soldiers who dehumanize their enemy in order to be able to kill them. They seem to use the same strategy: soldiers regard their ‘targets’ as objects rather than as humans and thus create distance to them, in order to be able to harm or kill them. Thus, we have two examples of the same strategy: the dehumanization of white people by their victims and the dehumanization of victims by soldiers. Because of the different context and the different aims of dehumanization, I would evaluate the first case positively and the second case negatively.
JS: What about the concept of humanity? Do you think that there is something like human nature, i.e., universal features of humanity or a common core that connects all humans?
MK: You ask a descriptive question that only an empirical study can answer. But in any case, I would not use the term “universal” because it is often understood in a literal sense. “Universal” in a literal sense signifies properties which are shared by all humans and sometimes even by only humans. Such a claim goes clearly too far. I use the term “typical” instead of “universal”. If you ask for typical properties of humans, my answer is: there are plenty of them and empirically working scientists will tell you which. They can give you a quite long list of descriptive properties that characterize how humans are. However, the problem is most of these properties that are typical for us are not important. This is a paradox of thinking about human nature in such a descriptive sense. It is an important issue in particular if you extend the discussion to ethics and morality. The need for food is a typical property of humans. But if we discuss poverty, global justice or human rights, the need for food is not the point. When refugees come to us, the issue is not whether or not we give them food. It is rather about whether or not we give them food that is not disgusting. And what is disgusting is not typical: for some people certain kinds of meats are disgusting, for others it is other kinds of meat, or even meat in general that is disgusting. So, in reply to the paradox we abstract away from the differences in the need for food and create a new universal property: that people want non-disgusting food. But that abstract property, in order to be applicable to concrete situations, needs to be contextualized in practice since what is disgusting is not universal but relative to certain traditions of cooking etc. Thus, these local traditions are as morally important as the seeming ‘universal’. Thus, from a moral point of view it is not enough to know the typical trait, e.g., that humans need food. You have to upgrade this knowledge so that it becomes important: people want non-disgusting food and what that is depends on the context. The paradox is: if you concretize the typical trait, it is not typical anymore and if you keep it typical it is not what people care about. But, as indicated, there is a practical solution to that theoretical problem. Thus, let us assume that this problem can be practically solved.
Then another problem comes to the fore: there are too many properties that are typical for humans. It is also context-dependent which of these properties we regard as really important. It is a choice. For most typical properties we do not care. We possess, for instance, an opposable thumb. This property might be interesting for an anatomist. However, the opposable thumb was never (to the best of my knowledge) an issue in political or ethical debates. In the ethical or political context, other properties, such as rationality or morality, are regarded as essential for being human. There are then a lot of subsets of properties that can define human nature. Which subset one regards as significant depends on the context in which one uses the concept of human nature. There might be thousands of aspects of the respective context that determine which of the properties one regards as significant, for instance, the aims of ones theory, ones political views or ones social position, etc. I do not think that there is an objective, context-independent way to establish that certain typical properties of human life are more important, more at the core of what it means to be human than others.
JS: But could I not make the same argument on the descriptive level? I could, e.g., argue that there is something typical about humans, but this is only an abstract claim and it leaves plenty of room for concrete realizations of the typical feature.
MK: Yes, but then the first problem returns. The sentence “All people need food” is, as indicated, an abstraction from the concrete needs of individuals. No one wants food simpliciter. Everyone wants non-disgusting food that he or she can digest. Basically, all generalizations about living entities are abstractions from the pattern of similarities and differences that exist in the world.
JS: Do you think that we should always look at the evaluative level? Should we never talk descriptively about human nature?
MK: I think that the term ‘human nature’ should only be used in a descriptive sense. And we need the descriptive level in order to find an anchor in the world, an anchor for the normative reflections. But we should keep the normative questions (i.e., the normative choices about what is important) apart from the descriptive level. This is not completely possible, but we should try.
JS: What should the philosopher work on: abstract truths or the truths we care for?
MK: Both, but philosophers can’t make the normative choices. The descriptive accounts rely on the world that is out there. The normative level is dependent on the society we live in. It is not our right as philosophers to decide what is important or what is good since I do not think that one can objectively decide what is good. I am not a moral realist.
JS: Isn’t that a bad situation for the philosopher: either she speaks about something that is not important, or she does not have a say?
MK: Yes. But we should embrace humility in philosophy. We are servants; we speak for the people. I do not think that this is a loss; it’s an honour.
Image: Screengrab from https://eecphilosophers.wixsite.com/ilmiosito
We have two exciting updates in this post. One is a summary of an event recently held by the project, and the second is the launch of a new initiative (and corresponding website) that resulted from this event.
1) Early Career Workshop
Vienna recently hosted the Early Career Workshop on Relativism, Pluralism and Contextualism (February 24-25, 2017), an event designed to bring together Ph.D students and early career researchers to present their current work and to discuss career planning, job prospects and funding opportunities in today's European academia. This was the second event of its kind, the first being hosted at CEU in Budapest.
This time around, the event was held under the auspices of the ERC-funded project “The Emergence of Relativism”, and featured talks on relativism, pluralism and contextualism in connection with a number of different areas of investigation: epistemology, philosophy of science, ethics and politics. A separate panel was devoted to career planning, comprising an open discussion on writing applications for philosophy positions and a talk by Professor Elisabeth Nemeth about the current state of European academia. Besides early career speakers from the university of Vienna, the workshop was organized so as to gather young researchers from central-eastern Europe, thus achieving a diverse representation of universities and of national backgrounds.
The first panel on February 24, dedicated to relativism, pluralism and contextualism in epistemology, was opened by Anne-Kathrin Koch (Vienna) speaking about the relationship between epistemic relativism and scepticism. She defended a view whereby the relativist is a sceptic after all - contrary to the standard representation of epistemic relativism as a “cure” to scepticism. Dirk Kindermann (Graz) took issue with invariantist theories about “know that” which explain the contextual variability of knowledge ascriptions through pragmatic mechanisms, arguing that they face a dilemma: either they are unable to explain phenomena like embedded implicatures, or they must opt for a pragmatic account that goes against their main invariantist tenet. Tom Fery (Vienna), closed the panel with a talk defending an optimistic view about philosophical knowledge: by adopting a form of contextualism about “know”, he argued against the sceptic that there is philosophical knowledge after all.
Relativism, pluralism and contextualism in the philosophy of science were the topics of the second panel, whose first speaker was Lisa Heller (Bielefeld). Heller's main thesis was that different conceptualizations of the context-notion are affecting the potential to enable relative stability - thus opposing allegations to the effect that relativism necessarily causes arbitrariness and breeds instability. Reflections about relativity in authors like Feyerabend and Fleck provided the inspiration for qualifying the view. Matthew Baxendale and Michele Luchetti (CEU Budapest) turned to the concept of levels of organization, pointing out that these can be recast as constitutive principles for scientific theories, playing a preconditional role in framing scientific inquiry. Finally, Raffael Krismer (Vienna) defended Pragmatism in the philosophy of science, with a special focus on the pragmatist interpretation of quantum mechanics and with a reflection on the pragmatist's stance towards the facts/values distinction.
The meeting started again on February 25 with an open session led by myself - Delia Belleri (Vienna/Hamburg) - whose main aim was to report on recent studies tracking the careers of doctorate holders in the Euro area and to provide practical guidelines for application planning and application writing in the current European job market. Professor Elisabeth Nemeth's (Vienna) talk provided a sociological perspective on the changes undergone by European academia in the last twenty years, ranging from the prominence acquired by third-party funding to the internationalization of research programs and evaluation standards; these changes were interpreted in light of Bourdieu's theory to the effect that academic institutions live a constant tension between their educational role (adverse to change) and their scientific role (aimed at innovation).
The final panel explored relativism, pluralism and contextualism in ethics and politics. Mirela Fuš (Oslo/St. Andrews) focussed on generics associated with hate speech, shedding light on their semantic and ethical complexity and arguing that they suffer from a form of inscrutability which makes them recalcitrant to a systematic treatment. Ladislav Koreň (Hradec Králové) advocated a moderate version of moral relativism whereby differences in moral sensitivities are compatible with universal values, reviewing a number of recent experimental results which provide grist to the mill of the moderate relativist. Finally, Katharina Sodoma (Vienna) closed the event with a talk about relativism and moral progress, challenging traditional criticisms by maintaining that relativism is compatible with the improvement of our moral system.
2) New Early Career Network
The workshop was closed by a general discussion regarding future editions of the event. The idea on which all participants agreed is that there is a need for a network of early career philosophers where it is possible openly to share experiences and information about career opportunities and planning. Those present committed to the following measures to establish such a network:
(a) to organise further events in other European universities, where the presentation of ongoing research by early career scholars is combined with open sessions devoted to how to navigate the job market. This event-format is meant to fill a gap in the current training of European Ph.D students, resulting from the little importance their institutions attach to providing adequate information and advice concerning job prospects and methods of job search and application.
(b) to create a web-site where informative material can be uploaded, where young researchers can share their experiences and give tips about job application and where future events can be announced. The website is now live, so you can find out more about the network here.
If you’re like me, the past year has been unsettling, to say the least. As someone born in Western Europe in the 1980s, I have always taken certain things for granted: we are, albeit slowly, becoming more tolerant; the wars that scarred the last century will never happen again. Barack Obama’s frequent invocation of Dr. Martin Luther King’s remark that the ‘arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends towards justice’ nicely captures this somewhat complacent attitude.
Perhaps these assumptions could never have withstood much scrutiny. But in any event recent developments have certainly cast them into doubt. The problem isn’t just that far-right populists like Donald Trump have come to power and movements with far-right elements like Brexit are enjoying a moment in the sun. Despite what some may say, there have always been politicians like Trump. Consider Silvio Berlusconi, or the bizarre career of John R. Brinkley, who used a new technology (radio) to speak directly to (and stoke up anger in) his supporters (if you want to hear more about Brinkley see this podcast). The problem is that their successes appear to involve certain common elements—a wilful (even gleeful) disregard for the truth, an ability to capitalise on (and perhaps even generate) widespread ignorance of plain matters of fact, a desire to make outsiders responsible for all manner of ills, a nascent expression of white (American, British) nationalism—that are indicative of fundamental problems, both in public discourse and in society at large. If they are fundamental problems, they require radical solutions, not a new, fresh face in charge of existing centre-left and centre-right political parties.
We have been left grasping around for concepts to describe these problems. One of these concepts is ‘post truth politics’; Trump’s Counsellor, Kellyanne Conway, gifted us with another (‘alternative facts’). If we grant that these concepts describe a problem, then it is the job of ‘intellectuals’, philosophers included, to at least try to offer a diagnosis of this problem. One diagnosis that has occurred to some is that the existence of a discourse that exhibits a blatant disregard for truth and a tendency to invoke bizarre ontological categories is a symptom of a disease supposedly infecting certain parts of the academy: postmodernism, and associated forms of relativism. The problem, we are told, is that we have forgotten a simple truth: not all perspectives are equally valid. Some people are just right; others are just wrong.
A good diagnosis of a problem requires two things: a well-stated problem, and a plausible account of the source of that problem. One could certainly argue that the latter is lacking here. We can (and should) grant that academic trends can and do have an impact (even a direct impact) on public discourse. But the question is whether there is much evidence that postmodernist or relativistic thinking has had such an impact. The point is not that there is no evidence. For instance, some have argued that sceptics about climate change have appealed to postmodernist ideas.* The point is rather that the evidence is, at best, inconclusive. Making the diagnosis really stick would require further investigation: What other evidence is there? How have postmodernist ideas filtered into the public consciousness? When did this happen? It would also require a comparison with alternative diagnoses; I consider some alternatives below.
It is also unclear what view (or cluster of views) is supposed to be responsible. The ‘debate’ about climate change is a case in point. Recent remarks by Trump’s appointee as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, illustrate an increasingly common rhetorical move among climate change sceptics today. They grant the basic premise that the climate is changing, and even admit that this is partly as the result of human activity, but dispute the details, and raise pragmatic concerns about the impact of proposed changes. Maybe we are changing the climate, but who is to say that this particular model or this particular set of predictions is right? Science has been wrong before. Given the potential costs of changing our economic model, we need more evidence.
Insofar as this expresses a philosophical outlook, it seems like an odd combination of scepticism and the idea, popular in some circles in contemporary epistemology, that whether you know can depend on how much is at stake. Sceptics like Tillerson challenge our claims to scientific knowledge by urging the need to weigh up the known costs of combatting climate change against the unknown costs of doing nothing; they don’t relativise anything. One could argue that scepticism is part of the postmodernist/relativist package. But then the problem is not strictly speaking a problem of postmodernism or of relativism, but rather a problem of scepticism. In any event, scepticism is hardly a new philosophical position, so there is work to be done to explain why it is part of the explanation of what is supposed to be a new problem.
More fundamentally, it is unclear what the problem we are diagnosing is supposed to be. Take the idea that we are living in an age of ‘post truth’ politics, and set aside the (at best) questionable assumption that we were, until recently, living in an age of ‘truth’ politics. Talk of ‘post truth politics’ may be used to cover a range of phenomena. One thing one might mean is the tendency of politicians like Trump to make blatantly false claims; consider his first address to congress, which featured false claims about jobs, immigration, health insurance and military spending. Such claims are ‘post truth’ in the sense that they are plainly not true (though only plainly not true to those who know better; see below).
Another thing one might mean is the tendency of certain politicians to make claims that are either trivially true, or largely meaningless. Consider Theresa May’s repeated insistence that “Brexit means Brexit”, or her helpful explanation that she wants a “red, white and blue Brexit”. Such claims are ‘post truth’ in the sense that their literal truth (or lack thereof) is beside the point. May wasn’t trying to communicate the trivial truth that “Brexit” means whatever “Brexit” means, or to ‘colour code’ complex international treaties. Rather, she was trying to communicate her patriotism (the United Kingdom’s flag is red, white and blue) and her intention to enact the result of the Brexit referendum.
Of these two manifestations of ‘post truth’ politics, only the first could plausibly be seen as a ‘problem of relativism’. The second concerns claims that are either trivially true, or claims that don’t obviously have truth-values. But even here alternative diagnoses are possible. One diagnosis is that the first phenomenon is really just an instance of the second. It doesn’t matter that Trump makes claims that are blatantly false because their truth or falsity isn’t the point. This diagnosis makes sense for a number of reasons. It explains why Trump is rarely held to account for the false claims he makes. It fits with one of the standard responses to criticism of Trump, which is to deny that he really meant what he said. It is custom-built for Trump’s preferred medium for communicating (twitter), where it is often easier to capture attention by shocking and provoking than by careful analysis.
While this may be part of a more complete diagnosis, it runs into the problem that Trump’s supporters seem to be really believe at least some of his claims. Whether Trump intends them to be true or not, they end up being believed, at least by some people. This suggests that the problem is not just Trump’s communication style but also large-scale ignorance. How has it happened that large sections of the population are ignorant of what we would regard as plain matters of fact, such as the fact that Hillary Clinton is not involved in paedophile ring based in a pizza restaurant in Washington DC, or the fact that Obama is a Christian, not a Muslim? Trump’s rhetoric works in part because he has an audience that are susceptible to it. We can’t explain their susceptibility in terms of his rhetorical style. So there must be more to the diagnosis. I would recommend that we start by asking who stands to gain from an ignorant populace. Whose interests does that serve? The answer is probably not postmodernists or relativists.
I started with some personal reflections. I will finish with some more. We (I generalise from my own case) have a weakness for grand, unifying narratives. I used to implicitly accept the story that mankind is, slowly, progressing. I used to think, albeit implicitly, that the arc of the moral universe tends towards justice, though it takes its sweet time about it. In rejecting one grand narrative it is important not to yield to the temptation to replace it with another. One can tell a story where the problem today is a lack of faith in reason. One can go further and trace this lack of faith back to a mistaken (postmodernistic, relativistic) way of thinking about rationality itself. This story is attractive because there is some truth to it, not just because it is simple. Who could argue with the recommendation that we teach our students to think better? Who can deny that some postmodern thinkers have said things that might be used to justify the unjustifiable? (Some thinkers from most traditions have said things that are unwise). But this story is problematic for the same reason that most such stories are problematic. It is too simple, too neat, too in-line with our pre-existing sympathies. If we really have reached a crisis-point, the chances are that ‘the solution’ will require a radical rethinking of our existing prejudices, not simply the reiteration of values humans have clung to since ancient Greece.
* Hsu, Shi-Ling. "The Accidental Postmodernists: A New Era of Skepticism in Environmental Policy." Vt. L. Rev. 39 (2014): 27.
Picture credit: Ned Simmons, Huffington Post.
Quote from "Home", by Warsan Shire: http://seekershub.org/blog/2015/09/home-warsan-shire/
One of the most disputed topics in the contemporary public sphere concerns the extent to which nations that we identify as Western (US, Germany, Spain) should accept immigrants from countries that are politically, socially and economically worse-off. Should they impose a limit to the incoming migrants – like Austria did in early 2016? And are refugees and immigrants generally entitled to social welfare benefits – as debated in Germany last year?
Answering these questions requires clarifying a number of general issues. One such issue concerns the attitude of the immigrants towards the host country. Why did they come to the host country in the first place? What are their plans as to the duration of their stay, employment and family arrangements?
One common, fundamental presumption regarding immigration is that it constitutes a voluntary choice. This point is crucial in the work of a number of philosophers, because it seems to impact which rights may be reclaimed by a country's immigrant minorities. In his 1995 book Multicultural Citizenship, Will Kymlicka maintains that immigration qua voluntary choice implies the waiving of the right to live and work within one's own culture:
"People should be able to live and work in their own culture. But like any other right, this right can be waived, and immigration is one of the ways of waiving one's right. In deciding to uproot themselves, immigrants voluntarily relinquish some of the rights that go along with their original national membership."
This voluntary act implies a presumption that the immigrant is willing to integrate (to some degree) into the culture of the host country, so “the expectation of integration is not unjust”. This presumption has a political consequence, for the rights reclaimed by immigrant minorities will be interpreted as ultimately aiming to integration with the dominant culture.
Integration of course does not imply the abandonment of the individual's original background. As Habermas observes in his essay “Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State”, contemporary democracies do not demand, for instance, that the immigrants stop speaking their native languages or that they give up on their religion. These demands seem relegated to a distant past, with Habermas mentioning Prussia imposing the Germanization of Polish immigrants under Bismark in late nineteenth century. At worst, they are hinted at by a certain anti-immigrant rhetoric: Nigel Farage's complaints about foreign languages being spoken on trains and in certain urban areas could be interpreted as a wish for such an abandonment.
Let us accept that voluntary immigration licenses the presumption that the immigrant is willing to integrate. Still, we may ask: in how many cases is migration a genuinely voluntary choice? Two main counterexamples come to mind: refugees and (at least some) economic immigrants. When discussing the motivation refugees have to migrate to another country, it is difficult to describe their situation in a way that leaves room for a full-blown voluntary decision. This is because refugees do not seem to have any sensible alternatives to migration. They are forced to uproot themselves in order to fleet the bombings, the enemy occupations, the relentless persecutions. Similarly, many so-called economic migrants arguably do not decide to leave their countries in conditions ideal for a fully voluntary choice. Suffering irremediable unemployment, exploitation, or poverty seems to again make the decision to migrate more forced than freely chosen. This implies that the assumption of voluntary choice does not fully apply to a vast number of individuals that we would describe as “migrants” or “immigrants”, thus dramatically reducing the significance of the argument reconstructed above.
What are the implications of all this? One possible reaction is to admit that, if leaving one's country of origin was not a fully voluntary choice, then we cannot infer that one has waived the right to be part of one's own culture. Indeed, Kymlicka goes as far as to concede that the subjects for whom migration was not fully voluntary retain the right to live and work within their culture, and that they “should, in principle, be able to recreate their societal culture in some other country, if so they desire” (p. 99). For Kymlicka, this implies that these groups have in principle a right to self-government comparable to that of minorities of non-immigrants in many contemporary democracies, like the Basque minority in Spain or the Quebecois minority in Canada (whose right to autonomy is advocated by theorists like Charles Taylor or Michael Walzer).
Yet, how can this right be honoured, and by whom? The problem, Kymlicka explains, is that the right to be a member of one's culture is being violated by the government of the migrants' very home countries (through forms of political oppression or war) and there is no procedure at the international level for deciding which other government should guarantee this right. Plus, it seems improbable that a foreign country would offer its assistance on this score, since this would imply granting levels of political autonomy which transcend the usual integration measures.
Ultimately, then, refugees and immigrants for whom migration were not a full choice are, and are regrettably likely to remain for a long time, the victims of an injustice: their right to live and work within their culture has been violated by their home countries and it is not possible to fully restore it in any other country.
This month, five members of the ERC team participated in the public lecture series Flucht, Asyl, Menschenrechte. The lecture series was organised by the University of Vienna's Department of Philosophy as a way for staff to show how their work connects with issues raised by the current refugee crises in Europe.
If you want to listen to our group lecture, you can find it (in English) here. You can also listen to Martin Kusch’s lecture from earlier in the series (in German) here. In this post, I’ll summarise what we talked about in our group lecture.
The Relevance of Culture
As Katherina Kinzel explained in her introduction, our talk was atypical as it involved collaboration between several people with very different philosophical backgrounds. The common thread that we chose to connect our individual contributions was the concept of culture. Katherina pointed out that current discussion of the refugee crisis often focuses on the idea of ‘culture clashes’:
“It is a dominant and broadly accepted trope of current political discourse on migration and refugees that the central problem we’re facing right now is the question of ‘culturally integrating’ into ‘our’ host society people who allegedly have different cultural values than we do.”
Because of this, we decided to explore the way that the concept of culture is used in three of the areas of philosophy that we work on, and to consider how what we learned tells us about our current political situation.
Herder’s Concept of Culture
Niels Wildschut kicked things off by discussing the concept of culture in the work of Herder (1744-1803). He told us about the typical understanding of cultures attributed to Herder, according to which they are naturally isolated wholes which are essentially different from one another. On this conception cross-cultural understanding would be impossible, and so migration would seem to be a “threat”.
However, Niels then presented some aspects of Herder's philosophy of history which qualify this interpretation. First, Herder's ideal of humanity is the overarching goal to which all Völker should contribute - and they can, because we share a common human nature. Second, Herder's understanding of enculturation shows that no atemporal essence of a particular culture predetermines its actual practices and expressions. In fact, as Niels explained, Herder attempted to show that intercultural understanding is possible through the exercise of our Einfühlungsvermögen (empathy).
Culture in National Socialist Philosophy
Johannes Steizinger then moved the discussion on to the early 20th century, with a discussion of the concept of culture in the political anthropology of National Socialism. He explained how the economic, social and political developments of the ‘long 19th century’ lead to mass migration, and an important reaction to this - the idea of “endangered identity”, understood in racial terms.
Johannes then discussed the concept of race underlying this idea. He showed that whilst an important element of National Socialist thinking involved the idea that race is a biological concept - for example he discussed Alfred Bauemler who naturalized the concept of race - this was not the whole story. In addition, a number of key ideologists had a metaphysical understanding of race, such as Alfred Rosenberg who argued for the idea of a ‘racial soul’, which was intended to connect nature, spirit, biology, and history. This idea was used to justify a racial and cultural hierarchy, and to justify dehumanisation and racism.
In closing his contribution, Johannes noted the striking, and frightening, parallels between the economic and social conditions, and the political rhetoric, of the early 20th century, and the conditions and rhetoric of today.
Culture in Jose Medina’s Work
My contribution addressed the concept of culture at play in the work of Jose Medina, a contemporary philosopher. I argued that something like a concept of culture plays a role in his work in political epistemology. Like the philosophers discussed by Niels and Johannes, Medina is interested in the collective awareness of different social groups, although his conception of this is fluid, dynamic, and dependent on contingent factors.
I then explored two ways that this concept features in Medina’s work; namely in his account of social change, and in his thinking about ‘epistemic benefits’ - benefits that relate to knowledge and understanding. Medina argues that groups which are socially oppressed can develop such benefits because their oppression gives them a unique cross-cultural perspective. However socially privileged people can also develop these epistemic benefits as long as they seek out, and nurture, relationships with people who are culturally very different from themselves.
I suggested that whilst we might think that migration would increase cross-cultural interaction and put lots of people in a good position to develop epistemic benefits, this would be a mistake. Current policies relating to refugees prevent them, and the members of the countries that they arrive in, from developing meaningful relationships with one another.
Changing Conceptions of Culture
Robin McKenna closed the session by highlighting the similarities and differences between the different conceptions of culture that our lecture covered. First, he pointed out that both Herder and National Socialist philosophers saw cultures as having essences, and as being integrated wholes. However Herder did not see cultures as isolated, and thought that differences between them could be overcome, whilst National Socialists saw the differences between cultures to be unbridgeable. Medina on the other hand resists the temptation to essentialise culture altogether, and refuses to treat contingent differences between cultures as intrinsic to them.
Second, Robin noted that both National Socialist philosophers and Medina attribute epistemic advantages, or benefits, to certain social groups. However, he pointed out that this superficial similarity is underscored by important differences: National Socialists talked about an epistemic advantage with respect to self-knowledge and expression, whilst the advantage Medina talks about is with respect to the ability to shape a shared social reality. Further, the advantage National Socialists attributed to the ‘Nordic race’ was not contingent - it could only be achieved by members of that culture, and because of something intrinsic to that culture. For Medina on the other hand, contingent social conditions are what lead to the advantage.
Finally, Robin focused attention on a difficult question that remains. De-essentialising cultural differences doesn't make them disappear, and so what should we say about them? How should a society decide which practices should be tolerated, and which should not? He conceded that we are yet to find an answer to this question. But:
"the troubled history of philosophical treatments of 'culture' and 'cultural clashes' shows that we should tend towards tolerance rather than intolerance, and that we should try to understand unfamiliar practices before condemning them."
If Medina is right, striving to promote tolerance and understanding will also have positive epistemic effects, both for us and for society at large.
You can listen to the full talk, including the question and answer session that followed, here. If you have your own questions or comments, please leave them below.
Look out for Delia Belleri’s post next month, which will explore a related theme - different approaches that governments could take to tolerance and recognition of cultural differences.
After President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer made a series of false claims in his first official statement to the press, high-ranking White House official Kelly Conway defended him by saying that he presented not falsehoods, but rather “alternative facts”. This phrase has been widely criticised, and, I think, rightly so. But some people might also be tempted to connect what Conway said with relativism, and criticise relativism as a result.
Take this tweet from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which emphasises the connection between "fact" and "objective reality":
It would be easy to conclude from this that those who critically explore the connection between facts and objectivity are guilty of paving the way for people like Conway to say what she said. I think that this would be a mistake.
At their core, relativist theses say that some things (such as values, norms, or facts) are dependent on some other things (like social groups or individuals) in such a way that the first things can only be judged with reference to the second things. So according to one possible kind of relativism it’s not right to say that a particular norm is “correct” (as an absolutist about norms might say), but only that it is “correct according to group x”. It might seem that this kind of view could justify Conway’s point about “alternative facts”. Perhaps she meant that there are facts relative to one group (the Trump administration) and facts relative to another group (the press), and that it’s not proper to judge either of those facts by external standards. So, it’s not right to say that one set of facts obtain and the other don’t; they are both just ‘alternatives’.
I don’t think that this is the right way to interpret Conway, but let’s run with it for now. If this kind of relativism is behind what Conway is saying, then doesn’t this show that relativism is highly problematic? I don’t think so.
We can distinguish different kinds of relativism according to (1) the phenomenon that they relativise, and (2) the variable that they relativise that phenomenon to. The relativism that seems to be implicit in Conway’s thinking relativises facts to the Trump administration.
Let’s take the relativised phenomena first. Versions of relativism which relativise facts are known as metaphysical relativism, and they are less common and more radical than other variants, like epistemic relativism (which relativises the property of justification to some variable) and moral relativism (which relativises moral properties to some variable). So there are plenty of relativist theses that don’t make controversial claims about facts. None of these kinds of relativism are implicated by anything that Conway has said.
What about the variable that the phenomena is relativised to? There are a range of variables that relativists can choose from, but whichever one they pick they must be able to offer an explanation of why it’s legitimate to relativise their chosen phenomena to. In other words, if a metaphysical relativist wanted to justify the kind of assertions that Conway makes, they would need to tell a convincing story about why groups or organisations like the Trump administration are a suitable variable to which to relativise facts. It’s very unclear how such a story would go, and so there’s little reason to think that a metaphysical relativist could, let alone would, defend this kind of view. What this means is that Conway and her “alternative facts” don’t present us with any reason to be suspicious of metaphysical relativism either.
To the extent that Conway is depending a kind of relativism then, she is depending on a very particular and implausible kind of relativism that shouldn’t be thought to have any bearing on the variety of serious relativist views in the literature. But as I said before, I don’t think that it’s right to interpret her as really relying on relativism in the first place. Note that (in the video clip linked above) Conway is happy to criticise some claims as “flat-out false”. Whilst she thinks that it’s a mistake to judge the claims made by Spicer against an independent, objective standard (they aren’t falsehoods but are instead true-relative-to-the-administration) she doesn’t have a problem with judging the claims of the press objectively (she doesn’t think that they are false-relative-to-the-administration and true-relative-to-the-press, but are false simpliciter). Conway dabbles with relativising facts when it suits her purposes, but equally she reveals a commitment to absolutism when that is more convenient. Her behaviour is no more an indictment of relativism than it is of absolutism.
Welcome to our blog.
Who are we?
We are a group of philosophers who are all members of, or are closely associated with, the ERC project “The Emergence of Relativism” at the University of Vienna. You can find out more about (most of) us here, and about the project here.
Beyond our common interest in relativism, we have very diverse philosophical perspectives. We come from different philosophical backgrounds (some of us work primarily historically, some of us primarily systematically), have different specialisms (including, amongst others: history of philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of science, moral philosophy, philosophy of language, and metaphysics), and are at different career stages (some of us are students, some are postdocs, and one is a professor).
Why are we starting this blog?
We wanted a place to start a conversation about relativism. Relativism is the key theme in all of our research, but it is a particularly contentious philosophical thesis. Most philosophers (both historically and today) take attributions of relativism to a view or author to be objections, and so we think that there is a special need for a public forum where it is taken seriously.
Moreover, we think that our work on relativism connects with political and social issues in an important way. Relativism (of various stripes) is often thought to be associated with oppressive or facist politics, to be in opposition to truth, and to undermine the authority of experts. Although our group has diverse views, all of us think that these characterisations are at best over-simplifications, or at worst just false. In fact, we think that certain forms of relativism can offer ways to resist these troubling politics and attitudes. Given recent developments in Europe and the United States, persuading people of this strikes us as an increasingly urgent task, and so a place where we can make the case for the connection between our research and these issues both directly, and quickly, strikes us as important.
What can you expect from us?
Most of the time you can expect short, research-focused pieces, that seek to give you an insight into some of the most cutting-edge work on relativism, and will often (we hope) also help you to think about some of the most pressing and troubling issues that the world faces today. In addition to this, we already have plans to interview some of the key figures in contemporary relativism debates, comment on current events, and report on our other research activities (such as conferences).
We hope to appeal to a broad audience. Whether you are an established philosopher, a student, or an interested non-professional, we think that you will find something thought-provoking here. Most posts will be in English, but we may have some posts in German too. To begin with, we will post a minimum of once per month.
Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions or suggestions then please leave a comment.