Columbia University The Oldest Form of Relativism Discussion

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Do read Mary Midgley’s _Trying Out Your New Sword_ carefully; she is by no means falling into a simplistic opposition between ‘relativism’ in the pure (or absolute!) sense, and ‘absolutism’ in the sense of affirming the objective existence of an invariable set of ethical standards. Rather, she is sensitive to the historical and institutional realities that have produced a particular perspective — to the fact that, ‘for us’ as for anyone, we cannot help but have a certain allegiance to those standards, and that we very nearly ‘must’ bring them to bear on unusual situations, such as that reported in the old Samurai practice… yet, at the same time, we do know that our own standards, just like theirs, have been produced by a specific history and circumstances. How can we negotiate this ‘double-view’ as it were? Think about this question as you address the first Forum for the course, for Week One.

Indeed, relativism means that everything has a context, so that what holds in one circumstance may not hold in another. But this can become a quite complex observation; that perspectives are historically ‘produced’ does not imply that ‘one is as good as another.’ How do we acknowledge our own history, and yet engage in open dialogue with another? Questions like these go far beyond a simple-minded opposition between ‘political correctness’ and ‘natural’ emotional responses. We are working at a different level….

The oldest form of relativism, philosophically, seems to be formulated in Protagoras’s saying that ‘Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of those that are not, that they are not.” In other words, reality is relative to human perception and judgment. Plato opposed that perspective with his Theory of Forms, where the Forms enshrine an absolute model of reality in each case: The Form of the Horse is the ‘measure’ of horseness or being-a-horse, the Form of the City is the measure of the Good City, etc.

But even Plato yielded to a certain relativism later in his philosophical work, recognizing that reality is the result of an interaction among participating elements, an effect produced by the encounter of two other forces. It’s a way of introducing time; as a result of the interaction, what follows is different from what preceded it. There is no ‘ideal city,’ but only a history whereby different political orders are produced in time.

So relativism recognizes that everything is a ‘result’ of a process, of an interaction among already existing elements. that is why we study history; it is why we study physics; it is why we study evolution. “Becoming’ is the central focus of modern thought. How did the forms that constitute current reality arise? Here is a new, mutant form of staph; it’s evolved, very recently, as the result of the overuse of antibiotics. The ‘form’ of the bacterium is relative to our own overuse of pharmaceuticals. Here is something traveling close to the speed of light; time slows down for it, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Even the existence of time and space is ‘relative,’ contrary to Newton’s classical view, which held that space and time were absolute. Ethical systems are different for different cultures, because, sometimes, of practically random elements in their own history. It’s very cold, and people need to be warm, and so you share your wife with the visiting guest (considered rude not to, in some ancient cultures). Being a relativist doesn’t actually mean being ‘approving’ of every cultural practice, no matter what, but of seeing that every single one of them is ‘relative,’ i.e., has a history which locates it in a finite segment of time and space. We are creatures of time: that’s what ‘real’ relativism means!

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