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Whose Relativism? Mine, Yours, Theirs?

January 8, 2012

“Relativism” was an absolutely bad thing when I was a little kid, growing up in the household of evangelical Bible-believing Christian missionaries, who preferred “absolute Truth,” which is what the Holy Scriptures contained. Never mind that I must use adjectives in that previous sentence to qualify — to make relative — even what must be meant by Truth and by Scriptures. However, I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Relativism” was bad because, most often, it referred to “moral relativism,” and that adjective moral was and always is really — essentially and absolutely — important. Professional philosophers for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, who have written and revised the definitional entry on the topic stress this point, with their beginning sentence:

Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.

I’d like to go back “outside” of philosophy again now. If you’re staying with me — are not too bored relatively speaking — I’d like to tell you a couple of my post-childhood stories, tales of conundrums of and with relativism. Before I do go back outside of philosophy to new stories, I’ll just say again how moral relativism threatened to crumble not the worldview of my parents but their sure work against those “anything goes” practices of hippies, and war protesters, and drug users, and rock and rollers, and sexual offenders of all types and sorts. Well, thinking about it all over again now, in retrospect, I guess “relativism” and even “moral relativism” was a problem in my parents’ worldview.

And this brings me to the whole question “Whose relativism”? which seems like a fantastically relative question.

My first story begins in graduate school, when I was studying linguistics. I took a seminar with a linguist who had pretty much created his own school of thought about language, a radically relatively school, I should add. Of course, any professional linguist worth his salt (whether Chomskyian or Saussurean or even Whorfian) was a relativist. But this particular linguist was relatively radical with his radical relativity, and he loved to paraphrase a phrase by professional philosopher Nelson Goodman, saying: “What we need is radical relativism within rigid restraints.” I’m quite sure I got at the time that this linguist quoting Goodman was “paraphrasing” the philosopher. I’d read the philosopher’s book, Ways of Worldmaking, and I saw that he really used the phrase “radical relativism” only three times in it, once in the forward, and once in the text of the book, and once more in the text of the book with a relative turn on the phrase. My linguistic professor was Kenneth L. Pike, and he was purporting to be Goodmanian — not philosophically so much but more linguistically. Pike was doing with Goodman what readers of the US Declaration of Independence have tended to do through the years, according to historian Pauline Maier. Here’s how R. B. Bernstein describes Maier’s description of that:

The central theme of Maier’s book is that the Declaration of Independence has become a vast “Container for the Thing Contained.” Not only does it hold far more than we conventionally associate with it–in the more than two centuries since its adoption, we have added to its contents far more than its drafters and adopters had intended.

Thanks to Theophrastus for sharing both Maier’s book and Bernstein’s review. So let me paraphrase what I just said, relatively speaking: My linguistic professor let a philosophy professor’s phrase (“radical relativism under rigid restraints”) become a vast container for relativism contained. Or perhaps Professor Pike let Professor Goodman’s statement become a relatively — not vast but — restrained controlling idea for a relatively relative theory of language. I’m not talking, as you should infer, of the particulars of the linguistic theory. Rather, I’m trying to use the English word, relativism, as a fair description of what one does with language, what my professor did with his theory of language. So I’m hoping that even though you don’t share my story, that you’ll understand my story and maybe think of one of your own that’s similar.

My second story is shorter. Some years later, when I was a professional linguist myself, I met a professional philosopher who spoke with me at great length about “relativism.” He is Harvey Siegel, who is absolutely and philosophically and professionally dead set against philosophical relativism. He was on the campus where I work, delivering a series of talks and lectures on this topic. I brought up Professor Pike’s paraphrase of Professor Goodman (as noted in the previous story I told you). Then Professor Siegel told me that “Goodman wasn’t really dealing in “relativism” proper, but rather in “pluralism.” Siegel said: “‘Radical relativism under rigid restraints’ makes for some good, perhaps poetic word alliteration; but that doesn’t make what Goodman is doing ‘relativism’.” After he returned to the campus where he works, Professor Siegel took the time, then, to mail to me an essay he’d written on the topic. It is entitled, “Goodmanian relativism,” and I still chuckle at the word “Goodmanian” as a qualification, as a an adjective, as a relativising word. (One essay he did not send me — and he’s published three now on this very topic — was the one he’d written in reply to another professional philosopher, one Catherine Z. Elgin. I’m bringing this up because I had to find on my own her substantial refutation of Professor Siegel’s refutation of Goodman’s “relativism,” that is, of “Goodmanian Relativism.” Today, I think Professor Elgin is one of the most brilliant and important philosophers, somebody who’s helped many of us understand relativism and absolutism and epistemology and epistemologies in general. You may note that Siegel considers a different professional philosopher — Israel Scheffler — to be eminently important; this is a relatively important thing to see, because even Scheffler, like Elgin, finds Goodman’s relativism useful and Scheffler, like Elgin, finds that Siegel has not understood that sort of relativism in very relative ways at all.)

Well, in this post, I didn’t mean to be so pedantic. I know I have been pedantic anyway, relatively speaking. Similarly, I didn’t initially intend to drop names, or to name drop. But I wasn’t sure how I could tell the stories without telling the names of the ones in the stories. If you’ll pardon me, I’ll just end with one of my favorite quotations of Catherine Elgin (from her book, Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary) who cautions all of us, or any of us, relatively, against using the container for the thing contained (and notice how she notices how we “name drop” sometime):

Aristotle, of course, was not named “Aristotle”; the name he went by had a different pronunciation and a different spelling. So the claim that our use continues the chain that began with his being baptized “Aristotle” needs refinement. Then there is the worry that chains that originate in a single stipulation may later diverge. In that case a term has two different reference classes despite its link to a single introducing event…. Ambiguity occurs because correction… allows for alternative continuations of the causal chain…. Each continues the chain, but the two uses of the word… are not coextensive. Nor do we always succeed in referring to what our predecessors did, even when we intend to do so.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2012 12:44 pm

    Goodman and relativism, eh? With apologies to Crystal Gayle (unlikely that she is your relative (ism)): “Don’t it make your brown eyes grue?”

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 8, 2012 11:23 pm

    Is it true then that women are more susceptible to moral relativism? Do we happily fall twixt the absolute and the arbitrary? And men don’t???

  3. January 9, 2012 1:18 pm

    I’m not sure how gender came into this; I would not have thought there was a relationship between gender and moral absolutism.

    However, I see that there are some folk beliefs on the topic.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 9, 2012 1:39 pm

    It was drilled into me for 30 years by relativistic-phobic fundamentalists that this is why women never get to make decisions. And, I notice that in this post it is the woman author who defends relativism.

    I don’t believe it myself. While it is true that men are more-risk-taking, (one can make some kind of assessment on physical risk-taking, at least) I don’t have a sense that women are more prone to compromise.

    Think of Antigone and Ismene, or Elektra and her sister, where the absolutist position is taken by the stronger sister in each case, but both extremes of compromise and absolute are represented by a woman -unhappily for Haemon in the first case, and happily for Orestes in the second.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 9, 2012 1:42 pm

    Of course, Jean Anouilh has made Antigone the only ethical choice, but reading the original is more ambiguous.

  6. January 9, 2012 1:49 pm

    in this post it is the woman author who defends relativism

    That may be the case, but there’s not only the woman Catherine Elgin but also the man Israel Scheffler. They both defend the man’s (i.e., Nelson Goodman’s) relativism, but I’m not sure it’s “moral relativism” that these three, a woman and two man, are “susceptible to.”

    If we look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “moral relativism,” then we see some of the blame for it coming, in part, from Cultural Anthropology in general and specifically from “Franz Boas, and his students—in particular, Ruth Benedict, Melville J. Herskovits, and Margaret Mead.” Now, we find two men and two women.

    (I like your analyses of Antigone and Ismene and Elektra, even reading through Anouilh.)

  7. January 9, 2012 1:53 pm

    Goodman and relativism, eh? With apologies to Crystal Gayle (unlikely that she is your relative (ism)): “Don’t it make your brown eyes grue?”

    Before I’d read Goodman’s grue, I was speaking as a native speaker the word xanh. Your comment might inspire me to post something about prototype theory (you know, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s studies on color terms and Eleanor Rosch’s studies on furniture words and gradations and the like).

    Some time ago, I did post at another blog on eye color, with relative apologies to Crystal Gayle. There, I even showed you my eye color, and hers too. More than that, I answered the question about whether Crystal and I are relatives and mentioned “xanh” as something like “grue”: “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?

  8. January 9, 2012 8:23 pm

    In the end, “grue” is the thing that I most remember from Goodman’s books. Yes, I was taking a course in philosophical induction, and it shook me to the core. Not only is the idea of grue “grue-somely” all over philosophy, it even made it to the computer game Zork.

  9. January 11, 2012 1:40 pm

    By the way, “grue” is not at all the same thing as “xanh”. “Xanh”, as I understand it, is a color designation in Vietnamese denoting a range of blue-green colors. It raises the issue that different languages distinguish different color ranges.

    “Grue” is different and much more challenging.

    An object is “grue” if it is “green and examined before or during 2015, or blue and not examined before or during 2015.” (Goodman did not use 2015 — but I am substituting the date in to make this meaningful.)

    The problem is as follows: All emeralds seen to date are grue. Therefore, by induction, we expect that all or most emeralds will be grue. Therefore, in 2016, all emeralds will be grue, or, in English, “blue.” This is not such an easy problem to solve, and has provided philosophers with a lot of challenges.

  10. January 11, 2012 3:44 pm


    I agree.

    First, “grue-somely” never works in Vietnamese, not with the same English or play anyway. (And by “English” I mean not only the language but also the spin that one might put on it. And by “play” don’t I mean “playfulness” and “performance” and semantic “wiggle-room” perhaps with my three senses overlapping in some sense or another, at various points?)

    Notice that the Vietnamese language wikipedia entry on “grue” has these (funny and – depending on who’s reading and how they’re reading – “foreign”) statements:

    Từ nguyên

    Từ green (“xanh lục”) + blue (“xanh lam”). Được đặt mới bởi Nelson Goodman để minh họa những khái niệm trong triết lý về khoa học.

    grue (không so sánh được)

    (Triết học) Mới đầu màu xanh lục nhưng về sau là màu xanh lam.

    The grue property is defined as: x is grue if and only if x is green and is observed before the year 2000, or x is blue and is not observed before the year 2000. (Nelson Goodman, Fact, Fiction and Forecast, 1965)

    Cách dùng

    Đôi khi được sử dụng để dịch những từ “xanh” trong những ngôn ngữ (như tiếng Việt) thường không phân biệt giữa lục và lam.

    In English (if it’s possible) that roughly means (and I’m back translating as literally as I can, [but my use of brackets is to explain sort of all that I can’t easily translate]):


    from [The English language word] green (or “blue-green [that is closer in color to] greenery”) + [the English language word] blue (or “green-blue [that is closer in color to a deep dark] forest”). A neologism of Nelson Goodman created to illustrate certain matters of philosophy.

    grue (without analogy)

    (Philosophy) Initially the blue-green color [that is closer in color to] greenery which is thereafter the color green-blue [that is closer in color to a deep dark] forest.

    [Originally it appears in this context in English:] The grue property is defined as: x is grue if and only if x is green and is observed before the year 2000, or x is blue and is not observed before the year 2000. (Nelson Goodman, Fact, Fiction and Forecast, 1965)


    [as] blue-green [also understood as green-blue]
    [This English word grue is] sometimes used to translate the (Vietnamese) word “blue-green [ / green-blue]” [spoken as “xanh” in Vietnamese], which does not make a distinction as do the words lục and lam [which are metaphorical terms in Vietnamese to separate the hues into colors more like the more abstract English color terms green and blue].

    And, second, when you read Goodman’s first “grue” riddle, then you find it evolving into others’ conceptions of “grue.” Even when Elgin and Goodman write about the concept, to explain more, and when Elgin writes about it alone later, to counter what others have misunderstood about it or have claimed fallaciously by it, then there’s a bit of difference I’d say between what he first proposed and how it ended up.

    I’m thrilled that you illustrate this sort of evolution of (or at the very least the updating of) the term:

    “green and examined before or during 2015, or blue and not examined before or during 2015.” … to make this meaningful

    The Vietnamese descriptions of grue (and the acknowledgement by the Vietnamese wikipediaists also that “xanh” for some is “grue”) and later descriptions of Goodmanian “grue” in English make this whole thing another Heraclitus riddle. I do think Goodman is much more sophisticated (i.e., he wasn’t engaged in sophistry and is attaching to “language vs. reality” [or to language as worldmaking] a bigger problem) than Heraclitus is.

  11. January 11, 2012 4:09 pm

    At least Chomsky, in 1965, didn’t say, “Colorless grue ideas sleep furiously.” 🙂 It was in 1957 that he used “green” so meaningfully, but not blue.

  12. January 11, 2012 4:28 pm

    Here’s one thing that Nelson Goodman and Catherine Z. Elgin authored together (page 14 of their Reconceptions in Philosophy and Other Arts and Sciences 1988). Notice how, to this day, “grue” has grown in popularity in philosophy (and discussions around it) but how “bleen” has just been blown out of the water by “grue” making the following question about what’s “more basic or more natural” complex in a novel way:

    Some seemingly plausible attempts to justify our preference are easily discredited. We cannot claim to base our current preference for “green” over “grue” on the knowledge that emeralds in the future will turn out to be green, not blue (and hence, not grue); for we have no way to know this. Nor can we maintain that “green” is epistemically more basic or more natural than “grue”, for we have found no way to make sense of absolute epistemological priority. Since “blue” and “green” are interdefinable with “grue” and “bleen”, the question of which pair is basic and which pair derived is entirely a question of which pair we start with.

  13. January 11, 2012 5:15 pm

    “Grue” is fun to say.

    “Bleen” is harder to say for an English speaker, and is too similar to unpleasant words such as “bleep” or “bling” or “bleed” or “spleen.”

  14. January 11, 2012 5:27 pm

    “Grue” is fun to say.

    Interesting. “Grue” also has an English homophone, “grew” (a word with relatively pleasant connotations also).

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