Fear of relativism? [Book Review]

Philosophical Studies 141 (3):379 - 390 (2008)
§1 To many in or on the edges of the Academy, ”Relativism” is a word with overtones of sinister iconoclasm, representing a kind of intellectual and ethical free-for-all in which the traditional investigative virtues of clarity, rigour, objectivity, consistency and the unbiased pursuit of truth are dismissed as illusory and the great scientific constructions of the last two hundred years, together with our deepest moral convictions, rated merely as ‘our way of seeing’ the world, more elaborate and organised but otherwise on all fours with the cosmology and customs of primitive tribes. In his short book, Paul Boghossian aims to address, and to expose as bankrupt, the idea that there is even a coherent, let alone defensible philosophical stance about truth and knowledge that can underwrite these ‘pluralist’, or ‘postmodernist’ tendencies. But since it is crucial to his project that his style of discussion make it available to non-specialists, much of the recent more technical, less emotional debate within analytical philosophy about relativism’s renaissance as a particular form of semantic theory is passed over unmentioned. Part of my aim in what follows is to illustrate how Boghossian's discussion connects quite straightforwardly with relativism in its contemporary analytical philosophical livery—what I have elsewhere called New Age relativism1— and how some of his critical arguments may be presented in that setting. My main contentions will be, first, that when relativism about epistemic justification, and about morals, are couched in the currently canonical sort of form, they still remain in range of artillery that Boghossian positions in chapter 6 of his book; second, that there is evasive action that they can..
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