Skip to main content

"The Emergence of Relativism -- Historical, Philosophical and Sociological Perspectives"

Final Report Summary - RELATIVISM (The Emergence of Relativism -- Historical, Philosophical and Sociological Perspectives)

This project studied relativism from historical, sociological and philosophical perspectives.

The historical and sociological work focused on the emergence of, and early debate over, different forms of relativism amongst late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century German-speaking historians, philosophers, sociologists, and theologians. The main outcomes are as follows:

(a) The debate over historical relativism (“historicism”) was inseparable from an increasing awareness that history and historical knowledge pose serious challenges for received ways of legitimating social, political or disciplinary hierarchies.

(b) A particularly important debate took place between “hermeneutic” philosophers (e.g. Dilthey) and “neo-Kantians” (e.g. Windelband, Rickert). The neo-Kantians accused the “hermeneuticists” of relativism. But they too struggled to reign in their own relativistic motifs.

(c) The emergence of the social sciences had similar consequences. Particularly important here is the (understudied) tradition of “Berlin Völkerpsychologie,” a crucial intellectual background to Simmel (a philosopher and sociologist) who was the first to systematically defend a form of epistemic and metaphysical relativism.

(d) One philosopher often cited as the first influential “historicist” or “historical relati-vist” is Herder. We have argued against this interpretation. Herder’s anthropology and philosophy of history is based on various metaphysical and theological ideas that are important for understanding the history of eighteenth-century thought and the advent of modernity. Relying on these ideas, Herder in fact aimed to reconcile theological absolute truth with (historical and cultural) relativity.

(e) We have also re-evaluated the history of the “philosophy of life” (Lebensphilosophie): from its first systematic formulations in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, through its main forms at the turn of the twentieth century and in the Weimar Republic, all the way to its entanglement with National Socialism. We have shown that relativist themes were central in this tradition throughout: sometimes “life” was seen as an intrinsically varied and irreducible plural phenomenon; sometimes life was presented as something containing and unifying plurality. In NS philosophy there was a open debate over the standing of relativism.

The systematic-philosophical work was concentrated on the assessment of (epistemic and moral) relativism in a number of different areas of philosophy and sociology of knowledge:

(f) We have studied the relationship between feminist “standpoint theory” and epistemic relativism, showing that – contrary to what many feminists assume – standpoint theory involves a form of epistemic relativism. And this is not problematic.

(g) We have argued that a plausible form of relativism emerges from a plausible view of knowledge and epistemic justification. There are no “absolute” epistemic standards one must meet in order to fulfil one’s epistemic obligations. Rather, there is a plurality of “local” standards, with different standards imposed in different situations, and communal variation in the standards themselves. We have defended this view on theoretical grounds, and as the natural consequence of certain approaches to epistemology (e.g. feminist epistemology).

(h) We have argued that certain versions of moral relativism can account for the possibility of moral progress. The main idea behind the argument is that moral relativists must explain the local validity of different sets of moral norms. In case this explanation establishes a criterion of validity that can be met to varying degrees, the account will imply a standard of progress. The resulting relativist conception or moral progress has advantages that make it interesting beyond the debate on moral relativism.

(i) We have revisited arguments over epistemic relativism in philosophy of science and the “Sociology of Scientific Knowledge” (“SSK”). This has resulted in talks and papers arguing that the naturalistic relativism of SSK is defensible against the standard arguments, e.g. in the form formulated influentially by Boghossian or Baghramian. We have also defended SSK as an approach in the history of philosophy.