The Debate over Epistemic Relativism

A Guide to the Dialogue: Science and Relativism by Larry Laudan

Up to the beginning of this century virtually all of Western epistemological theorizing has been caught up in what John Dewey called "the quest for certainty." Following Plato, who was much influenced by the debates between Socrates and the sophists, traditional epistemologists drew the crucial distinction between "knowledge" and mere "belief" on the grounds that genuine knowledge was "certain" in the sense that it was "necessarily true" or could not be rationally doubted. Conversely mere belief was "fallible" in the sense that one could always find some rational possibility for doubting it. The opponent of the epistemologist in this context naturally becomes the "skeptic" as one who maintains that nothing is certain in this strong sense. The skeptic's anti-epistemological mission becomes showing that there is always some rational possibility for doubting any claim, no matter how strongly or universally held it might be. Although few Western philosophers have chosen to take on the label of "skeptic" -the ultimate epistemological enemy- it is probabably fair to say that no epistemology could ever vanquish such a foe and that every theory of knowledge must start by making some assumptions which are "dogmatic" in the sense that they are not themselves justified as certain.

Faced with such a standoff between the traditional epistemologist and the skeptic, much twentieth century epistemological theorizing has been directed towards recasting the nature of the debate over knowledge. Rather than making "certainty" the defining characteristic of knowledge as opposed to mere belief, virtually all current epistemologists are "fallibilists" who hold that it is possible to make rationally justified claims to knowledge and at the same time admit that no such claim is eternally immune to any possible future revision or abandonment. Thus contemporary epistemologists have given up on the traditional quest for certainty and admit that nothing is certain in the strong sense demanded by traditional epistemology. The best one can hope for is "rationally warranted belief" in light of any given body of evidence. If the evidence should change in the future, what we may be rationally warranted in believing today may no longer be so in the future.

Once this move to fallibilism is made, the traditional skeptic is left without an opponent. Thus in this century epistemology has witnessed a shift in the old debate. Today the "postmodernist foe" of the defender of knowledge is the relativist, not the traditional skeptic. Both the relativist and the non-relativist admit that people can (and do) make rationally justifiable claims to know various statements, but the relativist insists that such justification relies essentially on the adoption of some partiicular "conceptual framework" or scheme, and thus that any and every epistemic claim can be justified only relative to the adoption of some such framework. At the same time, the relativist also insists, there can be no "higher" justification for claiming that any particular framework is the "correct" or "true" one to adopt in the sense that it represents the world in a way that corresponds to how it truly is. Only the most fanatical relativists would argue that any framework is as good as any other, that all are "equal"; but all relativists insist that there can be more than one (and they slyly suggest that there are a very large number) conceptual scheme relative to which the justification of epistemic claims may be made. Thus two individuals making conflicting epistemic claims may be each equally well justified relative to his or her own conceptual scheme. There is no rational way, the relativist insists, for epistemology to settle such disputes, for there can be no "higher court of appeal."

Thus, the relativist claims, the question of whose conceptual scheme is rationally preferable cannot be usefully asked; instead, those interested in human epistemic behavior would do better to ask why, in historical, psychological, or sociological terms, people have come to operate with the conceptual schemes with which they do in fact operate. In effect, the task of epistemology is handed over to the social sciences.

Anti-relativists are united in rejecting the relativist's transformation of epistemology into the sociology of epistemic behavior. They tend to agree that the choice of a conceptual scheme is to a certain extent arbitrary and reflects one's social and historical point of departure, but they insist that this fact does not imply that a rational choice between competing conceptual schemes cannot be made. However, it is fair to say that aside from this extent of agreement in opposing relativism, anti-relativists are a very varied lot and tend to go in a variety of different directions with respect to how to make a rational choice amongst competing conceptual schemes.

In Laudan's dialogue, the relativist view is opposed to three different epistemological positions: positivism, realism, and pragmatism. Unfortunately each of these "-ism's" represents quite a broad label and there will be considerable divergence of opinion among those sharing the same label as to what particular epistemological view that label implies.

Laudan's labels his own position "pragmatism," though no doubt there are pragmatists who would find him a strange bedfellow. In the dialogues he is represented by "Percy Lauwey" a synthesis (presumably) of C.S. Peirce, founder of pragmatism, John Dewey, its most prolific exponent, and Larry Laudan himself. The particular pragmatism this character espouses is rooted in the doctrine that the rational choice of framework is contingent on a variety of "utilities" or "epistemic values" which are themselves revised dialectically as our knowledge of the world grows. Percy the pragmatist, is moderator of the discussions, and since Laudan has written this, the winner of the debate.

The defender of "realism," is personified here as "Karl Selnam," a synthesis of Karl Popper, Wilfred Sellars, and Hillary Putnam, all of whom have taken the label of "realist" to describe their views. Realists hold that the rational choice among frameworks is adjudicated by the world itself, the way things really are. Better frameworks are those which more closely approximate the truth about the world; progress in human knowledge is a process of covergence on a conceptual scheme which represents reality as it really is.

The "positivist" view is personified here by "Rudy Reichfeigl," a synthesis of Rudolph Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, and Herbert Feigl, all card-carrying positivists. The positivist is of course an empiricist, but in Laudan's presentation has abandoned talk of "truth" and "reality" so favored by realists. Conflicting conceptual schemes are to be judged by the court of experience and experience only. Any two schemes will really be in conflict only if they imply, at least theoretically, some empirical difference which can in principle be determined. A scheme that is in accord with all possible experience (not just actual experience) will achieve the positivist's ideal of "empirical adequacy."

Finally, the "relativist" whom the other three are opposing is personified here by "Quincy Rortabender," a synthesis of W.V.O. Quine, Richard Rorty, and Paul Feyerabend. Quine disavows the relativist label, though his work is generally seen as abetting the relativists' case; the other two are open, robust relativists. Of course behind the relativist view stands the work of Kuhn, who also disavows the relativist label but is practically canonized as the patron saint of relativism by those who do take this label.