4

It seems that epistemic relativism denies the possibility of science per se; because if there are no objective facts then there can be no scientific evidence neither as inductive basis (to be used as generalizations) nor as deductive basis (to be used to falsify conjectures). My question is as in the title of this post - is the source of epistemic relativism in Postmodernism (that has rejected the idea of universal Truth and encouraged many-truths) or rather in something else?

Edit: Further related points/wonders: Regardless of whether postmodernism is the source of current relativistic cultural atmosphere in Western world, does being a postmodernist entail relativism? Or can one be postmodern and also non relativist? Are there any examples of philosophers being postmodernists without falling into relativism?

14
  • 3
    No. "Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not", Protagoras, c. 450 BC. Modern relativism is just a modern reincarnation of a very old idea, going back to ancient sophists and skeptics at least, and it has many "sources", postmodernism (a catchall label with loose scope) being one prominent in the pop-culture. – Conifold Apr 10 at 22:36
  • 1
    A good critical review of the genesis of postmodernism and its stance on science is Zammito's book, see reference in my post on Rorty. Quine and Kuhn, or even Deleuze, accept science, for example, although they undermine the more rigid conceptions of scientific fact. But ancient Greeks already displayed the whole spectrum of attitudes on truth. Greek sophists, like Protagoras, only accepted truths by convention, man as the measure of all things, not nature. – Conifold Apr 11 at 0:09
  • 1
    Lol, as if science isn't about truth relative to evidence, tentative truths rather than transcendental or absolute (even induction itself is only supported by evidence, rather than proof). Postmodernism is best thought of as a toolbox rather than a doctrine, as detailed here philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/76702/… The idea of epistemic certainty, if an absolute reality, is a shadow of a monotheistic cosmos, required implicitly to be arbiter of it. – CriglCragl Apr 11 at 3:12
  • 1
    @DoubleKnot, the opposite of epistemic relativism is not necessarily epistemic certitude - one can be for example Popperian. – Luna Apr 11 at 7:48
  • 2
    @CriglCragl, I do not assume that if one is not an epistemic relativist then she believes in epistemic certainty - Popper is an example to someone who rejected certainty and he was not a relativist. – Luna Apr 11 at 7:54
3

First of all, epistemic relativism is much less dangerous to science than it appears. Based on my (cursory) interactions with them, I would say that most historians of science are epistemic relativists…but this doesn't keep them from believing that science exists and is (broadly) accurate!

So how do they square this circle? The usual way one accepts science without epistemic certitude is to think quite carefully about the context-dependency of facts.1 Some information is quite particular — only accessible through unusual circumstances or elaborate sensory apparatuses. The more particular a phenomenon, the more illegible it is: the harder it is to convey to someone else, or to integrate into a larger theory of the world.

From this perspective, science is the process of making local, specialized, contingent information (for which epistemic relativism is essential) into information that is transferable, accesible, and universal (for which it is not). For example, a Thai fisherman might know that the tides on a Thai beach are higher at some times, and lower at others. This is really only useful to that person and their immediate community; anyone else interested in those tides really can only get qualitative information via word of mouth (which is, of course, untrustworthy). If the fisherman were to measure those tides with a convenient stick, then the word-of-mouth effect is removed: they can send the stick to another natural philosopher, who then compares the stick length to his own local tides. And if the measured heights of those tides were written down and tabulated, well…that fisherman's metis (in the sense of Scott) might end up incorporated into a universal theory of gravitation!

Of course, there are other perspectives on epistemic relativism and its relation to science, some of which are much more critical of scientific "knowledge". I personally don't find these compelling; YMMV. But my point is that the relationship between relativism and science is much less clear-cut than you assume.

Second of all, postmodernism isn't exactly epistemic relativism…although you are probably correct to conflate the two. Keith DeRose described postmodernism as a sort of mood; I would say that it is an…ahem…unusual perspective on what makes for good philosophy. To summarize the division (following Stove):

  • Postmodernists are interested in writing statements that are both true and important, and don't care too much about getting exactly right the reasons for why those ideas are true.
  • Modernists are interesting in writing statements that are true and indisputable, but don't worry too much about making them important right now.

These are clearly complementary sides of the same discipline,2 but they lend themselves to different research paradigms. Since postmodernists aren't too interested in explicating their ideas, they tend to prefer epistemic theories that emphasize real-world experience (which can verify their conclusions) over theory-building and argumentation. Conversely, modernists prefer epistemic theories that minimize real-world experience, so that their conclusions are still forced upon people living in faraway places and faraway times. This makes postmodernists more inclined towards epistemic relativism.

Unfortunately, I don't know a good example of a postmodernist philosopher who believes in epistemic certitude.3 Perhaps another answer can help with that. But philosophy as a whole has been drifting in the direction of epistemic relativism for a long time, so I think the best you can hope for is something like a postmodernist who enjoys Lakatos.

1 I believe this is what the SEP calls "Epistemic Contextualism".

2 …ignoring the fact that many philosophers don't agree on what truth is!

3 I'm also not a philosopher.

1
  • "epistemic relativism is much less dangerous to science than it appears" You will change your mind if you see how people today disregards science (not just as invalid, but even as villain), refuse to vaccinate, among other things. And this reflects, evidently, in decreasing funds to National Science all over the Western world. Take a look at Brazilian dire situation, for instance. – Rodrigo Jul 18 at 22:29
2

I'm not quite sure about your notion of epistemic relativism. The notion of relativism that I do understand is truth relativism with respect to some class S of sentences claiming that the truth of elements of S depends on more than a possible world. Maybe your epistemic notion means that S is the set of all assertoric sentences?

Furthermore, the absence of determinate facts for a particular domain of discourse D seems to be compatible with the falsity of truth relativism w.r.t. the set of sentences that can describe D. After all absence of facts seems to amount at most to truth value gaps. But that is compatible with a non-relativist truth concept.

In discussions about vagueness, many philosophers assume that there are no facts of the matter, and so no objective facts of the matter, that vague predicates can describe. But no one (I'm aware of) infers from this absence that vague discourse is truth-relative.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.