Give me a student through his sophomore year and he will be a relativist for lifethus runs the boast of certain Eng. Lit. professors and other wannabe philosophers. Unfortunately, the prediction is often fulfilled since undergraduate students are not in a good position to distinguish a philosopher manqué from the real thing. Moreover, people who have been to college tend to overestimate the intelligence and originality of the professors who first introduced them to new ways of thinking.
Moral relativism is now endemic in Western society, though presumably it had its beginnings in the academies. It boils down to the view that nothing is right but thinking makes it so, the view that, if you and I disagree about some moral issues, we are both right because my thinking makes my opinion right and your thinking makes yours right.
Moral relativism appeals to folk who feel baffled about how best to argue against obnoxious behavior and insulting opinions. Some feminists, for example, having experienced male condescension and ordinary male rudeness in job interviews and conferences and college venues supposedly devoted to a pure, calm, unprejudiced search for truth, have come to blame masculine ways of thinking for their unhappy experiences. They are right in the sense that masculine thinking has been known to start from selfish or prejudiced premises but wrong to conclude that male and female thinking are essentially different from one another. Even supposing that last proposition were true, it would not follow either that all modes of thinking are equally OK or that the feminine variety is superior to the masculine.
Moral relativism also appeals to baffled folk because of a mistaken idea that belief in the possibility of objective truth in ethics always goes with pig-headed dogmatism. That view can lead, in turn, to the conclusion that relativism necessarily generates noble ideals. Which is also a mistake because relativism cannot dictate idealsit can combine with any or with none.
If objectivity is impossible in morality can it be possible in science, in logic, in philosophy, in history? This question tempts students onto a slippery slope which ends in global (total) relativism. Global relativism is not endemic in Western society but it is quite fashionable in Western universities where it soon leads to the conclusion that truth as such is an empty concept and so cannot be the goal of education and inquiry. However, if truth isnt the aim of teaching and research, then professors everywhere are taking money under false pretenses. They should give up their pleasant, lucrative jobs and leave the education of young people to political propagandists and advertising agents, in other words, to professional brain-washers.
Although relativism in its present form is currently very fashionable it does not go unchallenged, of course. Thomas Nagel, Bernard Williams, and John Searle, for example, have all questioned its premises and conclusions. But (as far as I am aware) the most wide-ranging examination of these fashionable dogmas is being carried out by Susan Haack, of the University of Miami. Haack has been publishing articles and reading conference papers about the varieties of relativism ever since 1992. Eleven of these papers make up the work under review.
Haack, who is the author of a highly praised book called Evidence and Inquiry (Blackwell, 1993), explains in the Preface to her Manifesto that she lacks the ostrich temperament and so could scarcely ignore a great revolutionary chorus of voices announcing that disinterested inquiry is impossible, that all supposed knowledge is an expression of power, that the concepts of evidence, objectivity, truth, are ideological humbug. Two pages later she adds: radical feminists, multiculturalists, sociologists literary theorists, and (I am embarrassed to say) a good many philosophers as well profess to have seen through what the rest of us take for granted. Its all an illusion, they tell us: honest inquiry is really neither desirable nor possible. Her central aim, in the work under review, is to confront all these intellectual cynics, but especially her wayward colleagues in philosophy.
In the first essay, Confessions of an old-fashioned prig, Haack describes what it means to care for the truth, and what the difference is between genuine inquiry and pseudo-inquiry. She also argues that intellectual integrity is both possible and valuable.
The second chapter, We pragmatists . . . , is a playlet compiled from the words of C. S. Peirce and the self-styled neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty, its point being to show that Rortys views have virtually no connection with genuine (Peircean) pragmatism. It seems that this little comedy has been performed more than once at American philosophy conferences.
In Dry truth and real knowledge and Puzzling out science, Haack argues that all genuine inquiry is committed to scrutinizing results for error and that scientific inquiry is the same, only more so. Science is more systematic than, say, history but it has no uniquely rational method and its practitioners are not uniquely rational human beings. We ought to be wary about claims to superior rationality, but wariness about the merits of human scientists and their human organizational arrangements should not lead to cynicism about science as such or inquiry as such.
The sixth and seventh chapters, Science as social and Knowledge and propaganda, have to do with sociology and feminism. Haack argues that a radically social conception of science is not distinctively feminist and is not accurate either. There is an examination of the phrase feminist epistemology, an expression which she describes as incongruous. And so it is: you might as well invent categories with names like zoological banking practice or pharmacological hockey. Masculinist epistemology isnt any better, of course.
Chapter 8 has to do with the meaning or meanings of multiculturalism. The first half of Chapter 9, Reflections on relativism: from momentous tautology to seductive contradiction, contains several excellent insights, though I found the second part, which deals with theories put forward by Hilary Putnam, rather confusing. (Indeed, Haack says that she herself feels confused by Putnam). The reflections in this essay begin with a useful taxonomy of relativisms. Haack then turns her attention to conceptual relativism, the thesis of which is that how many and what kinds of objects and properties there are in the world depend on ones conceptual scheme or ones vocabulary. Conceptual relativism is pretty global and not very enticing. If it makes sense at all it must entail propositions like the following: relative to scheme/vocabulary V1 there are rocks in the world but relative to scheme/vocabulary V2 there are no rocks; rocks do not exist. According to Haack this way of thinking about the existence of objects is almost incomprehensible. [It] wavers unsteadily between the trivial: you cant describe the world without describing it and the manifestly false: incompatible descriptions of the world can both be true. The first alternative is the momentous tautology and the second the seductive contradiction. Toward the end of the essay Haack says she has not refuted relativism but I think that must be a slip of the pen. If she has shown that conceptual, global relativism wavers between triviality and falsehood, has she not refuted it? If that isnt a refutation, what is?
Chapters 10 and 11 discuss the ethical issues that arise when university committees make academic appointments. Is affirmative action a good thing or a bad thing? Haack rejects an all-or-nothing approach but on the whole sticks to the view that the best man should get the job even if the best man is black or a woman. What about research? What happens when getting onto a short list depends on the number of ones publications? Here Haack returns to questions about the differences between the genuine, the pseudo, and the sham. She argues that the practice of giving jobs to the applicants with the best research records (i.e., the most publications) encourages sham research.
This book consists in the main of attacks on fads and fashions and the people who espouse them. Yet at the same time it is very good-humored. It is also well written and accessible and can be recommended to lay readers as well as professional philosophers and other academics. Years ago a well-known professor said: Sue Haacks style is as clear as the purest water and he was right.