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.
This is our project blog.