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.