Whose Relativism? Mine, Yours, Theirs?
“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.