Relativism

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Sat Jan 14 23:17:39 MST 1995


On Sat, 14 Jan 1995, Richard Wolff wrote:

>
> 	In reply to Schwartz, I cannot, of course, throw at him words of
> the sort her throws at me - for example, "wrong." To do that, as
> Schwartz's comments show, slips an absolute in despite lip service to the
> refusal of foundationalism.

I didn't say that Wolff is wrong (although I think he is), just that he
can't make use of the notion of critique if he won't say that what is being
critiqued is wrong. To say, "I won't say you're wrong, but I disagree"--a
statement of doubtful coherence (what is it to disagree with a claim
unless you think it is wrong?)--isn't to offer a critique of it. What
could it mean to offer a critique which was not a reasoned explanation of
why it should be rejected, i.e., regarded as wrong?

This strategy I deploy against Wolff is an instance of immanent critique.
I argue, using a concept accepted by Wolff, that he cannot have that
concept and keep his other, relativist, premises. (Of course he could
offer a different notion of critique which avoids this problem, which he
hasn't yet.)

>
> 	Schwartz rehearses the usual defenses of absolutist judgements on
> anything from efficiency to "error" to "plausibility".

Actually I don't. The above argument and the notion of immanent critique
as offering a nonfoundationalist basis for, well, critique, is the only
argument I rehearse.

There is, sadly
> for Schwartz, no way out: either you accept the relativity of all
> judgement to the perspective/standpoint/commitments of the judger or else
> you imagine, seek, and - typically - find some non-relative (i.e.
> absolute) standard (i.e. perspective/standpoint/commitment) for judgements.
> 	
This is just an assertion.

I think Wolff confuses the epistemological and semantic aspects of
judgments. Antifoundationalism is an epistemological doctrine, as I
understand it. Foundationalism holds that all beliefs are warranted, when they
are, by either being based on (inferrable from) or being themselves some
beliefs which are not based on anything else but which have antecedent
warrant or credibility. AF, which I hold, rejects this views about
warrant, and holds that no beliefs have any antecedent warrant; rather,
all warrant depends on other beliefs. However, this view has no
implications for the semantic status of what is believed, the propositions
warranted (or not) by others. The truth or falsity of a proposition is
independent of its warrant. It depends solely on whether that proposition
is satisfied by the state of affairs which it purports to describe. Unlike
warrant, truth (and falsity) are "absolute" in what I take to be Wolff's
sense, that is, independent of the perspective of cognizers. Obviously be
we have no independent, nonperspectival access to truth and falsity: our
reason to accept some proposition (to regard it as true) is just the
degree of warrant it has by our standards. But that does not mean that
truth is idle or replaceable by a notion of warranted assertability or
something of that sort. The notion of warrant derives its force from the
idea that the better warranted is a proposition, the more likely it is to
be true.

> 	Contrary to Scwartz's assertions, I have not the slightest
> problem in formulating judgements and acting in ways I find consistent
> with them.

I didn't say you had problems with either. I just said that you couldn't
do critique without a notion of wrongness or falsity.

 I just cannot and do not claim I am doing other than that. Nor
> will I accept others' claims that they are doing more than that - whether
> or not they claim their judgements (or critiques) are "immanent" or
> "grounded intersubjectively" or any of the host of other phrases used to
> comfort those who make judgements but want them to be "valid" absolutely.
> 	Contrary to Schwartz's assertions, I try hard to convince others
> to see my way because I need their help, cooperation, and comradeship to
> achieve the goals that make sense to me socially.

So for you, argument is just an attempt to influence the behavior of
others? To admit this is rather self-defeating, eh? If other people
thought that you were quite serious about that, they might resent it and
refuse to be influenced.

 I understand them to do
> likewise. Indeed, these postings are part of all that. But there is no
> need nor, in my view, any warrant to require or claim that my judgements
> are other than views for which I seek adherents - like others do for
> theirs.

So what is it to adhere to a view? Suppose you "convince" me--in your
terms, what have you done? I do not, as you see it, come to agree that you
are right. It's no use to say that I agree with you, because the question
arises at the level what it is to agree with someone if I do not think
they are stating truths. Perhaps--I'm just trying to think out how this is
supposed to go--you mean that we, you and I, concur that we act in ways
that "make sense" to us. But then the question arises, how can we tell, is
there a matter of fact, about whether I have so acted? I'm finding it very
difficult to get a hold of this Wahrheitsfrei manner of talking.


 Depending on the social contexts, some views will and some views
> wont win such adherents. But none of this has anything to do with any
> claims about "grounds: for critique of judgement beyond the actual social
> realm of different, contesting, mutually changing perspectives

What does this mean? Epistemologically, of course we work with evidence we
have from our perspectives and with norms we accept. But the evidence must
be evidence for something and the norms, if they are norms of rational
acceptability, must be norms related to whether evidence and argument is
truth-conducive. Or at least I don't see that Wolff has shown the contrary.

A thought experiment may help with the problem I'm having with Wolff's
theses as I understand them. If warranta nd "rational" acceptability for
Wolff boils down to effective persuasion, inducing cooperation (setting
aside for the moment the puzzle of how we can tell whether it has occured
on his account), then in principle it might be replaced by drugs or
hypnosis. If I can get cooperation on goals that make sense to me just as
well by letting Wolff sample my medicine cabinet, why isn't that an
"argument" for Wolff? "Here, Rick, try this argument. It's Colombian!"
Maybe I am missing something, but I'd like it explained to me. (Good drugs
are gratefully accepted, but not in lieu of more conventional arguments.)

 > 	Contrary to Schwartz, I need not nor do I exclude his
absolutist
> perspective on grounds it is "wrong" (the way he does mine). I see his
> perspective as different from mine, as having social consequences I do
> not like, and as worth opposing in discourse as I do. In contrast, he has
> to see my view as "wrong," in precisely the sense of something beyond
> "different from Schwartz" - in short as more than relatively wrong, as
> abvsolutely wrong.
> 	My parting shot thus is: have we not had more than enough
> illustrations, left, right, and center, of awful consequences of such
> absolutist judgement styles.........to be at least a little suspicious of
> them and defenses of them, to be just a little open to alternative,
> different ways of conceptualizing difference?

This is the notion that relativism promotes tolerance. It is a fallacy. As
Wolff notes, the intolerant can claim to be just as justified from their
own perspective as the tolerant are from theirs. Nor does antirelativism
promote intolerance. Even epistemologically, anyone in their right
mind--foundationalist, antifoundationalist, whatever--ought to be a
fallibilist. This is just a fancy way of saying what Cromwell told the
Long Parlaiment, "I beseech you, gentlement, by the bowls of Christ, to
consider that you might be wrong!" And of course believing that your views
are true (and what else could it be to believe them) does not mean that
you think you have a right to impose them on the unbelievers by force. If
tolerance is the issue, there are more direct and relevant arguments for
it than epistemological and semantic ones. See, e.g., Mill (a
foundationalist and absolutist about truth) on liberty of thought and
expression, as a good place to start.

I don't think Wolff really believes, though, that Stalin exterminated the
unbelievers because he thought his vviews were true rather than because he
thought they posed a potential threat to his rule. There's a limit to the
plausibility of idealiasm (in the Marxist sense of thinking that ideas are
the main determinants of social phenomena), and it gives altogether too
much credit to the power of any philosophical doctrine to attribute to it
the power to cause or prevent totalitarianism.

Anyawy, I'm sure we will hear more.

By the way, Rick, I gather we may be on a panel together on the German
Ideology at the SSC.

--Justin Schwartz


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