Relativism

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Sun Jan 15 11:10:48 MST 1995


Perhaps Wolff is right that this discussion has reached the point of
diminishing returns. Certainly we (he and I) seem not to be engaging each
other's concerns. Still, I thought I would say for one last time (unless
Wolff wants to go one) why it seems to me that Wolff's responses seem to
me to be nonresponsive.

>
> 	Brief reply to Schwartz:
>
> 	Critiques are different, too, in the ways that people understand
> what they are and do. Absolutists (that which lies beyond the boundary
> enclosing the various positions which I see as different but which Schwartz
> wants to lump together as "relativism") seek some "ground" (valid across
> theoretical frameworks/positions/perspectives) for critiques to be "valid"
> by which they mean "valid across frameworks, absolutely, not merely
> relative to this or that framework.

I have been pressing the question about how critique is possible without a
notion of truth to back it up. What is a critique if not a claim that some
claim or theory is wrong or some practice or institutions unsustainable or
unworthy of being sustained? Wolff replies here that critiques are
different in what they are what they do. But Wolff does not say what these
different notions of critique are nor does he try to answer my question
about how a Wahrheitsfrei notion of critique is coherent. As to the
different things people might understand critiques to do, or one might
add, the different motives people might have in making them, this is not
to the point if we cannot have critiques at all without making claims
about truth. The issue is what they are and what they presuppose, not what
they might do or why we might make them.

Wolff seems here to reject the term "relativism" as a description of his
views, but it was he and not I who started by insisting on the relativity
of what he called judgments to "frameworks." By relativism I understand
the view that the validity of all judgments or claims is entirely relative
to framework or standpoint. Isn't this what Wolff thinks?

As to "absolutism," a term I am uncomfortable with because I am not sure I
understand it, I have argued that it's important to distinguish between
epistemology and semantics, which I think Wolff runs together. The
semantic question concerns the truth-value of claims we might make, and I
certainly do want to say that t-value is framework and standpoint
independent. Whether capitalism is exploitative or whether the death
squads murdered Archbishop Romero, to take, respectively a theoretical and
and particular claim, doesn't depend on what standpoint we take or what
framework we adopt but on the facts of the matter.

The epistemological question, the issue of how we can be warranted in
accepting such theoretical or particular claims, is, by contrast,
framework or standpoint dependent, but this doesn't mean that what we are
warranted (or not) in accepting is thus dependent. Nor does the fact that
warrant is standpoint relative mean that there is no possibility of
finding considerations that apply across standpoints, or which someone
occupying one standpoint can adduce in an ad hominem way against someone
occupying another.

>
> 	That is not, from my perspective, possible. Critiques - arguments
> that differ from and oppose other arguments - may be launched within
> conceptual frameworks (by one adherent thereto against another) or across
> frameworks.

OK, although I am not sure how Wolff can say that cross-standpoint
critique is possible, unless he wants to adopt my view that the validity
of a position is not dependent on the standpoint of the one making the
critique.

 Changes of mind - overdetermined by an infinity of influences
> - are never "the result" of any argument and hence provide no "test." We
> make and purvey arguments for many reasons - convincing others sometimes
> being among them.

I'm not sure what this is supposed to show. I certainly did not propose
successful mind-changing as a test of the validity of a critique. As
Marxists we are all aware that people will maintain ideological views even
when evidence and argument are overwhelmingly against them. Thus I do not
think, for example, that whether Black people are genetically stupid, as
Murray and Herrnstein maintain, depends on whether Murray can be persuaded
of his errors, or that the acceptability of that vicious lie is so
dependent. We can explain perfectly well why Murray will stick to his guns
and still hold that racist psychometry is both false and ill-grounded.
Moreover, our holding this is not just a matter of our disagreeing with
Murray and vice versa, but of our thinking that he has not offered proper
support, even on his own terms, for the claim, i.e., adequate reason to
think it is true.

The reasons we offer arguments, our motives in doing so, are also not to
the point, as with our reasons for making critiques. They are varied, as
Wolff says--we might try to persuade others (and Wolff still has not said
what that might mean if not to convince others of the truth of some claim)
or to assure ourselves that our own beliefs are not arbitrary or just to
learn the truth about some matter or lots of other things. But why this is
supposed to show anything about the standpoint relativity of the validity
of our judgments I do not understand.


> 	Schwartz is quite right that antifoundationalism does not
> determine tolerance; to have argued that way would directly contradict
> overdetermination. Since I like overdetermination and see it as a marked
> advance over absolutism (in epistmeology) and economic, political,
> and cultural determinisms (in social theory), I cannot and would not
> argue that antifoundationalism determines tolerance. Tolerance is
> overdetermined....which means an infinite variety of configurations of
> social forces might produce it.

Well, then, what's the point of the claim that we have learned that
absolutism (Wolff's term) determines (ditto) intolerance?

 >
> 	Lastly - in a discussion whose repetitions seems to denote the
> approach of diminshing returns - let me try to be clear about one thing.
> People have made critiques like they have made scientific discoveries,
> moral arguments, and political speeches: their aim to influence others'
> thinking being among their complex purposes, they have thought it necessary
> (and often believed it themselves) to somehow link their
> critique/argument/speech to an asbolutely grounded foundation, some Truth
> (in the absolute singular, of course), some "fact" (valid for everyone), etc.

I think Wolff is again running together the epistemological question of
foundations for knowledge with the semantic questions about the truth of
propositions. I also find the disparagement of "singular" truth or "valid
for everyone" facts a bit puzzling. Take a concrete case: was Archbishop
Romero murdered by the death squads? What "plurality" of possible answers
could there be? How could the right answer ("Yes") be invalid for anyone?
(I don't mean, how could someone fail to be warranted in believing, which
is obvious.)

> They did this in the thought that if they contextualized their
> argument/speech/assertion/critique, if they made it relative to their own
> dimply grasped conceptual framework, others would be less likely to
> believe them, to be influenced by them, to be close to them. So they
> deepened absolutism by presuming it.

Well, some people may have rejected contextualization (which I do not,
properly constrained) because they thought that it would make their views
less credible to others, but others of us reject Wolffian relativism
because we do not understand how it could be coherent, how we can accept
it and deploy notions we want to use, such as critique, warrant,
acceptance, etc. I myself do not regard the acceptance of truth as a
rhetorical strategy, one I would, say, trade in for the use of drugs (as
in my last post) if drugs were more effective at inducing others to
believe or be influenced by me.

> 	My point is that Marxism stands more to gain from moving to
> question absolutisms - in epistemology and in social theory - than
> continuing a failed tradition of wallowing in it. Hence the interest in
> "overdeterminatiopn" as one flawed but indispensable means to move in
> that direction. Hence the interest in postmodernism as a wide, broad,
> popular movement in thought - to parts of which Marxism has much to say
> and from parts of which anti-asbolutist Marxism has much to learn -
> rather than dismissing it as some undifferentiated unity that is
> uniformly hostile to Marxism and its future.

I haven't said anything about postmodernism--that for another time.

Rick, I have a couple of papers, one published, one in draft, treating
these matters. You won't agree but you might be interested. If you think
you would, I'll send them to you.

--Justin Schwartz


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