Sunday, September 06, 2015

What Relativism Isn't: Columbia Journalism Review Edition

   The terms 'relative' and 'relativism' are thrown around so indiscriminately that one might sensibly argue that they mean very little. Here's an example of one common, fairly clear misuse of the term. (Here the polysemy problem for 'relative' and 'relativism' probably intersects with a very different kind of problem: people who write articles often don't write their own headlines.)
   At any rate, there's nothing like a problem of relative truth at issue in this story. Rather, we have very ordinary, not-terribly-philosophical problems about (a) differences of opinion among individuals and (b) the epistemic problem we face when we have conflicting evidence--in this case, conflicting testimony about the facts.
   But--as with most casual uses of the relevant terms--there's really nothing in the vicinity of "relative truth" afoot. It's just some very ordinary phenomena described in a sexy way. The same can be said for almost all references to relativism, especially in popular discussions.
   In fact, it might be worth noting that the problem as described in the piece wouldn't be a problem if alethic relativism were correct--at least in its individualist version. Each conflicting story would simply (simply!) be true "for" each individual. We'd be stuck trying to make sense of relativism at the theoretical level...but we'd no longer have the problem about trying to figure out which version were true--they'd all be true (each "for" the individual in question), and there'd be no need nor hope of trying to fit them all into a unified account. (Or, to use the trendy terminology in the story: "narrative" [shudder])
   None of this is an argument against "relativism," of course. (Scare quotes because it's defective terminology.) I'm just commenting in passing on the general type of mistake you'll find central to most uses of the term. And it's certainly not a criticism of the actual content of the story, about which I've got nothing worth saying.


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