The Monist 67 (3):395-404 (1984)

Various issues are characteristically associated with discussions about relativism. The first concerns defining relativism—which is not an easy matter, since there seems to be no clear and well established usage to which one might appeal. Some stipulation is required, though this need not be arbitrary. One may proceed by distinguishing relativism from its putative contrast: absolutism, although defining this latter notion is as difficult as defining the former. Absolutism, however, at least, holds that the truth or the truth value of a proposition is not tied to the contingent conditions of the assertion of truth or truth value. Relativism denies this, holding that some truths or truth values are tied to such contingent conditions. What the nature of this “tie” is, and for what sorts of cases it might obtain, depends upon more precise formulations. Still, relativism is a theory of logic rather than epistemology, though in particular discussions a clear-cut distinction is not easily drawn. Nelson Goodman, for example, claims to be a “radical relativist with restraints,” and his arguments derive from an unwillingness to carry the dispensable burden of a non-nominalist epistemology. Since no “world” independent of our symbol systems is accessible, it cannot function in our cognitive judgements. So, “truth,” for Goodman, turns out to be a feature of the internal relations within symbol systems, a feature explicable after the epistemic limits have been drawn. But one could argue that the burden of carrying a “heavier” epistemology might be worth the effort—not by insisting that an inquiry-independent world is, after all, accessible, but rather along different lines that concern regulative or pretensial considerations. For example, in answer to the general question, “What does the sort of inquiry I am engaged in pretend to do?”, a scientific realist might say, “I, as a scientist, pretend to explain the ‘external’ world.” Questions of pretense arise for all cultural practices, such as art, religion, science, history, philosophy, and so on, as well as for any accounting of them. So, in discussions of relativism we need to be mindful of these distinguishable areas of concern: the logical, the epistemological, and the pretensial. The main thrust of the present treatment concerns the first two, and it asks, What is the status of the logical thesis of relativism and its negate, and how does that relate to the epistemological thesis of foundationalism and its negate?
Keywords Analytic Philosophy  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest  Philosophy of Mind  Philosophy of Science
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ISBN(s) 0026-9662
DOI monist198467320
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