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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.