This introduction to the Common Knowledge symposium titled “Comparative Relativism” outlines a variety of intellectual contexts where placing the unlikely companion terms comparison and relativism in conjunction offers analytical purchase. If comparison, in the most general sense, involves the investigation of discrete contexts in order to elucidate their similarities and differences, then relativism, as a tendency, stance, or working method, usually involves the assumption that contexts exhibit, or may exhibit, radically different, incomparable, or incommensurable traits. Comparative studies are required to (...) treat their objects as alike, at least in some crucial respects; relativism indicates the limits of this practice. Jensen argues that this seeming paradox is productive, as he moves across contexts, from Lévi-Strauss's analysis of comparison as an anthropological method to Peter Galison's history of physics, and on to the anthropological, philosophical, and historical examples offered in symposium contributions by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Marilyn Strathern, and Isabelle Stengers. Comparative relativism is understood by some to imply that relativism comes in various kinds and that these have multiple uses, functions, and effects, varying widely in different personal, historical, and institutional contexts that can be compared and contrasted. Comparative relativism is taken by others to encourage a “comparison of comparisons,” in order to relativize what different peoples—say, Western academics and Amerindian shamans—compare things “for.” Jensen concludes that what is compared and relativized in this symposium are the methods of comparison and relativization themselves. He ventures that the contributors all hope that treating these terms in juxtaposition may allow for new configurations of inquiry. (shrink)
Introduction: Scandals of Knowledge -- Pre-Post-Modern Relativism -- Netting Truth: Ludwik Fleck's Constructivist Genealogy -- Cutting-Edge Equivocation: Conceptual Moves and Rhetorical Strategies in Contemporary Anti-Epistemology -- Disciplinary Cultures and Tribal Warfare: The Sciences and the Humanities Today -- Super Natural Science: The Claims of Evolutionary Psychology -- Animal Relatives, Difficult Relations.
. . . I should like to review and summarize the preceding general points: 1. For any particular narrative, there is no single basically basic story subsisting beneath it but, rather, an unlimited number of other narratives that can be constructed in response to it or perceived as related to it.2. Among the narratives that can be constructed in response to a given narrative are not only those that we commonly refer to as "versions" of it but also those retellings (...) that we call "plot summaries," "interpretations," and, sometimes, "basic stories." None of these retellings, however, is more absolutely basic than any of the others.3. For any given narrative, there are always multiple basic stories that can be constructed in response to it because basic-ness is always arrived at by the exercise of some set of operations, in accord with some set of principles, that reflect some set of interests, all of which are, by nature, variable and thus multiple. Whenever we start to cut back, peel off, strip away, lay bare, and so forth, we always do so in accord with certain assumptions and purposes which, in turn, create hierarchies of relevance and centrality; and it is in terms of these hierarchies that we will distinguish certain elements and relations as being central or peripheral, more important or less important, and more basic or less basic.4. The form and feature of any "version" of a narrative will be a function of, among other things, the particular motives that elicited it and the particular interests and functions it was designed to serve. Some versions, such as translation and transcriptions, may be constructed in order to preserve and transmit a culturally valued verbal structure. Others, such as adaptations and abridgements, may be constructed in order to amuse or instruct a specific audience. And some versions, such as "interpretations," "plot summaries," and "basic stories," may be constructed in order to advance the objectives of a particular discipline, such as literary history, folklore, psychiatry—or, of course, narratology. None of these latter versions, however, is any less motivated or, accordingly, formally contingent than any of the other versions constructed to serve other interests or functions. Barbara Herrnstein Smith is professor of English and communications and the director of the Center for the Study of Art and Symbolic Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Poetic Closure and On the Margins of Discourse. "On the Margins of Discourse" was also contributed as an essay to Critical Inquiry in the June 1975 issue. Responses to the present essay are Nelson Goodman's "The Telling and the Told" and Seymour Chatman's "Reply to Barbara Herrnstein Smith". Both appear in the Summer 1981 issue of Critical Inquiry. (shrink)
Asked to define poetry, one is likely to reply with a sigh, a shrug, a look of exasperation or even one of contempt, indicating not only that the question is oppressive but that anyone who asks it must be something of a fool, a pest, or a vulgarian. Though these uncongenial reactions may be interpreted as the signs of intellectual embarrassment, they are, I think, quite justified. For the nature of definition and the particular historical fortunes of the term poetry (...) conjoin to this effect: that a definition of the term will either be a total chronicle of those fortunes or will constitute merely one more episode in them. In other words, a definition of poetry is bound to be either inadequate to the job or, if adequate, then both unmanageable and uninteresting for any other purpose. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, professor of English and communications at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, for which she received the Christian Gauss and Explicator awards, and the editor of Shakespeare's Sonnets. This article will be part of a book, Fictive Discourse. She has also contributed "Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories" to Critical Inquiry. (shrink)
One of the major effects of prohibiting or inhibiting explicit evaluation is to forestall the exhibition and obviate the possible acknowledgment of divergent systems of value and thus to ratify, by default, established evaluative authority. It is worth noting that in none of the debates of the forties and fifties was the traditional academic canon itself questioned, and that where evaluative authority was not ringingly affirmed, asserted, or self-justified, it was simply assumed. Thus Frye himself could speak almost in one (...) breath of the need to “get rid of…all casual, sentimental, and prejudiced value-judgments” as “the first step in developing a genuine poetics” and of “the masterpieces of literature” which are “the materials of literary criticism” . The identity of those masterpieces, it seemed, could be taken for granted or followed more or less automatically from the “direct value-judgment of informed good taste” or “certain literary values…fully established by critical experience” .In a passage of particular interest, Frye wrote:Comparative estimates of value are really inferences, most valid when silent ones, from critical practice…The critic will find soon, and constantly, that Milton is a more rewarding and suggestive poet than Blackmore. But the more obvious this becomes, the less time he will want to waste belaboring the point. [AC, p. 25]In addition to the noteworthy correlation of validity with silence , two other aspects of Frye’s remarks here repay some attention. First, in claiming that it is altogether obvious that Milton, rather than Blackmore, is “a more rewarding and suggestive poet [for the critic] to work with,” Frye begged the question of what kind of work the critic would be doing. For surely if one were concerned with a question such as the relation of canonical and noncanonical texts in the system of literary value in eighteenth-century England, one would find Blackmore just as rewarding and suggestive to work with as Milton. Both here and in his repeated insistence that the “material” of criticism must be “the masterpieces of literature” , Frye exhibits a severely limited conception of the potential domain of literary study and of the sort of problems and phenomena with which it could or should deal. In this conceptual and methodological confinement, however , he has been joined by just about every other member of the Anglo-American literary academy during the past fifty years. Barbara Herrnstein Smith is University Professor of English and communications and director of the Center for the Study of Art and Symbolic Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of, among other works, Poetic Closure and On the Margins of Discourse. Her previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories,” appeared in the Autumn 1980 issue. The present essay is part of a full-length study of literary and aesthetic value and evaluation. (shrink)
In this response to comments on “The Chimera of Relativism,” her article in the same Common Knowledge issue, by cognitive neuroscientist Andreas Roepstorff, classicist G. E. R. Lloyd, and anthropologist Martin Holbraad, Smith begins by describing her experiences visiting China in 1983 as a scholar of comparative literature. This account is meant to illustrate and reinforce Lloyd's cautions regarding the hazards of intercultural—here, Chinese-Western—comparisons in studies of culture and cognition. Examination of a foundational study in East-West cultural/cognitive differences by psychologists (...) Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, cited by Roepstorff, indicates extensive conceptual and methodological problems in that tradition of research. It also indicates that, contrary to Roepstorff's description of the new field of cultural neuroscience as a site of cultural-relativist energy, researchers in the field appear committed to the uncovering of psychological/cognitive universals. Although Smith writes that Holbraad champions a more radical relativism than that offered in her own work, she argues that the moves he urges have either been present in her work from the beginning or are, from her perspective, both dubiously radical and otherwise undesirable. She points out that the vulnerable positions, arguments, and views that Holbraad attributes to her are spuriously derived from the texts he cites and that, for this reason, his evident effort to duplicate certain philosophically creative intellectual acts by Gilles Deleuze fail of their desired effects and yield only “a litter of baby chimeras.”. (shrink)
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. (shrink)
Questions of evidence—including the idea, still central to what could be called informal epistemology, that our beliefs and claims are duly corrected by our encounters with autonomously resistant objects —are inevitably caught up in views of how beliefs, generally, are produced, maintained, and transformed. In recent years, substantially new accounts of these cognitive dynamics—and, with them, more or less novel conceptions of what we might mean by “beliefs”—have been emerging from various nonphilosophical fields as well as from within disciplinary epistemology. (...) Because of the distinctly reflexive nature of these developments—that is, new conceptions of concepts, revised beliefs about belief, invocations of evidence said to challenge the operation of evidence, quasi-logical refutations of the authority of logic, and so on—the deployment of positions and arguments becomes extremely difficult here, as does even the description of the relevant events in intellectual history. Indeed, since we are dealing here not merely with shifts of, as it is sometimes put, “vocabulary,” but, often enough, with clashes of profoundly divergent conceptual idiom and syntax, every major term and discursive move is potentially implicated in the problematic itself, and, thereby, open to radical questioning and liable to charges of question-begging.The aim of the present essay is twofold: first, to suggest the more general interest and significance, beyond the fields in which they are being developed, of these emerging reconceptions of belief; and, second, to frame that suggestion in an account which, since it cannot escape the rhetorical difficulties just mentioned, foregrounds them. A number of related themes—notably, symmetry, circularity, reciprocality, and ambivalence—recur throughout and, at various points, are drawn together in accord with the account itself. Barbara Herrnstein Smith is Braxton Craven Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Duke University, and director of its Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and Cultural Theory. Her current work examines contemporary models of cognition and communication. (shrink)