Edited by Markus Seidel(Westfälische Wilhelms Universität, Münster)
About this topic
Epistemic relativism is the position that knowledge is valid only
relatively to a specific context, society, culture or individual. The
discussion about epistemic relativism is one of the most fundamental
discussions in epistemology concerning our understanding of notions such
as 'justification' and 'good reason'.
In Barnes & Bloor 1982, two sociologists of knowledge explicitly endorse a relativist position.
Boghossian 2006 attacks several forms of epistemic relativism. Kuhn 1996 gave rise to
epistemic relativist interpretations. Feyerabend 1999 argues for epistemic relativism in the philosophy of
science. Nagel 1997 gives a Last Word on relativism endorsing an absolutist position. Rorty 1991 defends a position taken by many to be relativistic.
Laudan 1990 provides an introduction about the controversy in dialogue-form, For a general introduction, see Swoyer 2008, 2.4 in the Stanford encyclopedia
Knowledge and Postmodernism in Historical Perspective offers answers to the questions, what is postmodernism? and what exactly are the characteristics of the modernism that postmodernism supercedes? This comprehensive reader chronicles the western engagement with the nature of knowledge during the past four centuries while providing the historical context for the postmodernist thought of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty and Hayden White, and the challenges their ideas have posed to our conventional ways of thinking, writing and knowing. From the science (...) of things to the science of human beings to the grand social theorizing associated with Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx and Max Weber, Knowledge and Postmodernism in Historical Perspective presents readings from the succession of thinkers whose writings helped define modern sensibilities by analyzing the human capacity for generating knowledge. The volume follows the knowledge-generating project of the modern age as it blossoms in the Enlightenment and bears fruit in the nineteenth century. The writings included reveal the linkages between science, the history of science, hermeneutics, anthropology, sociology, linguistics and philosophy from Francis Bacon's call for experimental engagement with nature in the seventeenth century to Jurgen Habermas' recent analysis of the civil society spawned by the Enlightenment. (shrink)
Beginning with a historical overview of relativism, from Pythagoras in ancient Greece to Derrida and postmodernism, Maria Baghramian explores the resurgence of relativism throughout the history of philosophy. She then turns to the arguments for and against the many subdivisions of relativism, including Kuhn and Feyerabend's ideas of relativism in science, Rorty's relativism about truth, and the conceptual relativism of Quine and Putnam. Baghramian questions whether moral relativism leads to moral indifference or even nihilism, and whether feminist epistemology's concerns about (...) the very notion of objectivity can be considered a form of relativism. She concludes the relativism debate by assessing the recent criticisms such as Quine's argument from translation and Davidson's claim that even the motivations behind relativism are unintelligible. Finding these criticisms lacking, Baghramian proposes a moderate form of pluralism which addresses the legitimate worries that give rise to relativism without incurring charges of nihilism or anarchy. (shrink)
The paper looks at three big ideas that have been associated with the term “relativism.” The first maintains that some property has a higher-degree than might have been thought. The second that the judgments in a particular domain of discourse are capable only of relative truth and not of absolute truth (an idea that is sometimes associated with the idea of “faultless disagreement.”) And the third, which I dub with the oxymoronic label “absolutist relativism,” seeks to locate relativism in our (...) acceptance of certain sorts of spare absolutist principles. -/- The first idea is well illustrated by the famous cases drawn from physics, but is ill suited for providing a model for the sorts of relativism about normative domains that have most interested philosophers. -/- The second idea – according to which it is the truth of certain judgments that is relative – seems subject to a very difficult dilemma. -/- The final idea provides a coherent model of cases like etiquette but is not plausibly applied to the moral or epistemic domains. (shrink)
Many philosophers, however, have been tempted to be relativists about speciﬁc domains of discourse, especially about those domains that have a normative character. Gilbert Harman, for example, has defended a relativistic view of morality, Richard Rorty a relativistic view of epistemic justiﬁcation, and Crispin Wright a relativistic view of judgments of taste.¹ But what exactly is it to be a relativist about a given domain of discourse?
Unlike the relativistic theses drawn from physics, normative relativisms involve relativization not to frames of reference but to something like our standards, standards that we have to be able to think of ourselves as endorsing or accepting. Th us, moral facts are to be relativized to moral standards and epistemic facts to epistemic standards. But a moral standard in this sense would appear to be just a general moral proposition and an epistemic standard just a general epistemic proposition. Pulling off (...) either relativism, then, requires not just relativizing the facts in the domain in question to the relevant standards; it requires taking a non-absolutist view of the standards themselves. Otherwise a commitment to absolute truths in the domain in question will show up in one’s attitude towards the standards themselves. But it is very hard to see how to take a genuinely non-absolutist attitude towards the standards themselves. That, in essence, is the difficulty for a relativistic view of a normative domain that I tried to develop in Chapter 6 of Fear of Knowledge. In their commentaries, Gideon Rosen and Ram Neta come up with ingenious ways of attempting to circumvent that difficulty. In my reply, I try to explain why I don’t believe they succeed. (shrink)
Relativist and constructivist conceptions of truth and knowledge have become orthodoxy in vast stretches of the academic world in recent times. In his long-awaited first book, Paul Boghossian critically examines such views and exposes their fundamental flaws. Boghossian focuses on three different ways of reading the claim that knowledge is socially constructed--one as a thesis about truth and two about justification. And he rejects all three. The intuitive, common-sense view is that there is a way the world is that is (...) independent of human opinion; and that we are capable of arriving at beliefs about how it is that are objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them. This short, lucid, witty book shows that philosophy provides rock-solid support for common sense against the relativists. It will prove provocative reading throughout the discipline and beyond. (shrink)
My review of Boghossian's book, Fear of Knowledge, is generally sympathetic toward his rejection of epistemic relativism and turns toward an examination of "constructivist" themes in light of an anti-nominalist perspective. In general terms, this is a fine little book, tightly argued, and well worth considerable attention--especially from the friends of relativism and those supporting versions of constructivism. (Constructivism + radical nominalism = relativism.).
Epistemic relativists often appeal to an epistemic incommensurability thesis. One notable example is the position advanced by Wittgenstein in On certainty (1969). However, Ian Hacking’s radical denial of the possibility of objective epistemic reasons for belief poses, we suggest, an even more forceful challenge to mainstream meta-epistemology. Our central objective will be to develop a novel strategy for defusing Hacking’s line of argument. Specifically, we show that the epistemic incommensurability thesis can be resisted even if we grant the very insights (...) that lead Hacking to claim that epistemic reasons are always relative to a style of reasoning. Surprisingly, the key to defusing the argument is to be found in recent mainstream work on the epistemic state of objectual understanding. (shrink)
In The empirical stance, Bas van Fraassen argues for a reconceptualization of empiricism, and a rejection of its traditional rival, speculative metaphysics, as part of a larger and provocative study in epistemology. Central to his account is the notion of voluntarism in epistemology, and a concomitant understanding of the nature of rationality. In this paper I give a critical assessment of these ideas, with the ultimate goal of clarifying the nature of debate between metaphysicians and empiricists, and more speciﬁcally, between (...) scientiﬁc realists and empiricist antirealists. Despite van Fraassen’s assertion to the contrary, voluntarism leads to a form of epistemic relativism. Rather than stiﬂing debate, however, this ‘stance’ relativism places precise constraints on possibilities for constructive engagement between metaphysicians and empiricists, and thus distinguishes, in broad terms, paths along which this debate may usefully proceed from routes which offer no hope of progress. 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. (shrink)
To correct the misconception that incommensurability implies incomparability, Kuhn lately develops a new interpretation of incommensurability. This includes a linguistic theory of scientific revolutions (the theory of kinds), a cognitive exploration of the language learning process (the analogy of bilingualism), and an epistemological discussion on the rationality of scientific development (the evolutionary epistemology). My focus in this paper is to review Kuhn's effort in eliminating relativism, highlighting both the insights and the difficulties of his new version of incommensurability . Finally (...) I suggest that some of Kuhn's difficulties can be overcome by adopting a concept of rationality that filly appreciates the important role of instruments in the development of science. (shrink)
While feminist epistemologists have made important contributions to the deconstruction of the traditional representationalist model, some elements of the Cartesian legacy remain. For example, relativism continues to play a role in the underdetermination thesis used by Longino and Keller. Both argue that because scientific theories are underdetermined by evidence, theory choice must be relative to interpretive frameworks. Utilizing Davidson's philosophy of language, I offer a nonrepresentationalist alternative to suggest how relativism can be more fully avoided.
The paper reviews the grounds for relativist interpretations of Wittgenstein's later thought, especially in On Certainty . It distinguishes between factual and virtual forms of epistemic relativism and argues that, on closer inspection, Wittgenstein's notes don't support any form of relativism – let it be factual or virtual. In passing, it considers also so-called "naturalist" readings of On Certainty , which may lend support to a relativist interpretation of Wittgenstein's ideas, finds them wanting, and recommends to interpret his positive proposal (...) in On Certainty as a form of "internal rationalism.". (shrink)
I argue that post-Kuhnian approaches to rational scientific change fail to appreciate several distinct philosophical requirements and relativist challenges that have been assumed to be, and may in fact be essential to any adequate conception of scientific rationality. These separate requirements and relativist challenges are clearly distinguished and motivated. My argument then focuses on Shapere's view that there are typically good reasons for scientific change. I argue: (1) that contrary to his central aim, his account of good reasons ultimately presupposes (...) the requirement of universal standards of scientific reasoning; (2) that the good reasons established by his account underdetermine the rationality of scientific change and allow that other changes would have been equally or even more rational; (3) that as a result, Shapere's approach fails to meet what I characterize as the challenges of moderate, sociological, and cognitive relativism. (shrink)
Siegel argues that the Kuhnian relativism presented in ?Kuhn's Epistemological Relativism? fails because it neglects the possibility of rational choice in science between rival paradigms? own incommensurable standards on the basis of ?paradigm?neutral external standards?. In reply, it is argued (1) that Siegel has given no reason to believe that there are such external standards in science, (2) that the mere ?possibility? of such standards in scientific debate is not sufficient to vitiate Kuhn's relativism, (3) that the actual existence of (...) rational debate concerning the internal standards of rival paradigms does not entail (as Siegel claims) the existence of ?paradigm?neutral external standards?, and finally (4) that Kuhn's relativism concerning standards in science does not lead (as Siegel claims) to a ?reductio? which undermines the philosophical standards implicit in Kuhn's argument. (shrink)
This article attempts to develop a rational reconstruction of Kuhn's epistemological relativism which effectively defends it against an influential line of criticism in the work of Shapere and Scheffler. Against the latter's reading of Kuhn, it is argued (1) that it is the incommensurability of scientific problems, data, and standards, not that of scientific meanings which primarily grounds the relativism argument; and (2) that Kuhnian incommensurability is compatible with far greater epistemological continuity from one theory to another than is implied (...) by the criticisms in question. The reconstruction of Kuhn is then used to show that while it constitutes a provocative form of relativism, it can also plausibly account for the sense in which scientific development is rational, involves standards external to particular paradigms, and exhibits progress of a sort. Finally, the article attempts to develop an adequate critical perspective on Kuhn's relativism by distinguishing a ?short?run? from a ?long?run? relativism, and a relativism concerning scientific knowledge from one concerning scientific rationality in Kuhn; the challenge each poses to positi?vist philosophy of science is distinguished and separately evaluated. (shrink)
For Nietzsche’s hypothesis of a threat of nihilism to be intelligible, this chapter attributes to him at least three assumptions that underpin his philosophical project: (1) what there is, is becoming (and not being), (2) most (if not all) strongly believe in being, and (3) nihilism is a function of the belief in being. This chapter argues that Nietzsche held two doctrines of becoming: one more radical, which he believes is required to fend off nihilism, and one much more moderate—the (...) ontology of relations he develops under the label ‘will to power’. Based on the latter he attempts (but ultimately fails) to develop an ‘adualistic’—neither monistic nor dualistic—practice of thought, a ‘simultaneity-thinking’ ("Zugleich-Denken") that would no longer be subject to nihilism. (shrink)