In this contribution to the Common Knowledge symposium “Comparative Relativisim,” Smith argues that relativism is a chimera, half straw man, half red herring. Over the past century, she shows, objections to the supposed position so named have typically involved either crucially improper paraphrases of general observations of the variability and contingency of human perceptions, interpretations, and judgments or dismaying inferences gratuitously drawn from such observations. More recently, the label relativism has been elicited by the display, especially by anthropologists or historians, of attitudes of epistemic tolerance or efforts at explanatory or evaluative symmetry. Objections here commonly involve mistaken, unwarranted universalizing of those attitudes or recommendations. Purported refutations of what is identified as relativism commonly have no force for alleged relativists because relativism-refuters commonly deploy and depend on the very concepts (e.g., truth and reason) and relations (e.g., between what are referred to as facts and evidence) that are at issue. The result is circular argumentation, intellectual nonengagement, and perfect deadlock. Although there are signs that this tragicomic episode of intellectual history has run its course, two contemporary sites of antirelativist energy are worth noting. One is the claim that so-called cultural relativism is refuted by the existence of cognitive universals. The other is the fear that evaluative symmetry leads to ethically or politically debilitating neutrality. Consideration of the nature of cognitive universals indicates that their existence does not contradict observations of the significance of cultural variability. Consideration of anxieties about the supposed quietistic implications of commitments to epistemic tolerance or symmetry indicates that such anxieties are misplaced.
Barbara Herrnstein Smith; THE CHIMERA OF RELATIVISM: A Tragicomedy. Common Knowledge 1 January 2011; 17 (1): 13–26. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-2010-030
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