Relatively Speaking

April 29, 2008

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Helen Rittelmeyer writes that :
“The Blame Relativism First choir has good instincts?political correctness is destructive, novelty is an idle pursuit?but setting conservatism?s rhetorical sights on moral and cultural relativism only returns attention to a topic with which liberals in academia are, for the most part, bored.?

As well we all should be.Though as she notes:

? The battles of Closing of the American Mind have faded and new ones arisen, and in this round of the fight apologists like Kronman pose a greater danger to their side than overzealous multiculturalists?

Yack TV , though not famed for dept , still hosts frequent philosophical debates , some lasting as long as twenty seconds. That suffices for a theocon to accuse whoever appears on the left side of the screen of ?relativism? and the accused to retaliate by crying? fundamentalist!?

But what in the name of Aristotle does ?relativism? mean?  Philosophers in the Judeo-Christian tradition have long maintained that verbal representations of the world scarcely scratch its complexity. Hence differing perspectives on a topic can each contain elements of truth, with old fashioned Kantians maintaining that what we know about a subject is relative to the world as others see it , especially when the Other is the subject .

More recent philosophers, l Quine and Rorty for example, have updated the pragmatism of the Enlightenment by contending that all propositions are true only within the framework of a given paradigm- the ?holistic? version of Pragmatism .

Such views compete with Nietsche?s contention that there are no facts, just interpretations, a notion Dostoyevsky carried to the Nihilistic conclusion that Theocons abhor—that if God is dead, everything is permitted.

Not even a literary critic can be a Kantian and a Nietschean relativist at the same time - it is next to impossible to reconcile such views with those of a God-fearing and dutiful fellow like Kant, or a holist like Quine, who insists on a healthy empiricism as to the existence of the world that provides the stimuli our senses perceive.

That?s why Umberto Eco muses that ?relativism? can refer to forms of modern thought that often clash-  committed Realists are sometimes considered relativists, and Theocons use the term ?relativism?  with all the vehemence of 19th century Jesuits damning ? poisonous Kantianism.?

If all this is relativism, what?s left that?s not? Eco maintains that two kinds of ferocious anti-relativists are still around : neo-Thomists and Leninists, which nowadays mostly means Trotskyites with heirloom copies of Materialism and Empirocriticism.  Not that they quote them in the No Spin Zone—relativism isn’t ready for prime time.

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