Friday, March 24, 2006

Cultural Relativism, briefly.

Earlier posts have shown the reaction against social Darwinism that results in cultural relativism among anthropologists of the Boas clique. Unfortunately for us, the inheritors of these reactions don't quite understand why they think they think the things they mouth, and therefore we end our with cultural relativism as multi-culturalist phantasies and gnostic buffoonery. We can look at posts past on Edward O Wilson, Richard Feynman, and Frances Bacon as well as posts on Herder and Fichte for a fuller view of the theme of this post. If that didn't grab your attention, trust me, the rest will be a lot clearer.

Below we have excerpts from wikipedia to give a quick overview of cultural relativism, quick because I cut out tons of nonsense. The remainder, those it shows the word anthropology, is little to do with such and much to do with cultural relativism in this rush job.

The point here is to show that there is a difference between cultural relativism and its distant relative aporia, the two not being the same. (See aporia in the archives.) On the far side of cultural relativism is multiculturalism, the mentally retarded version of intellectual honesty and inquiry. We'll look at that next post.With this bit of background we might see how we and our public lives have been hijacked by a tiny minority of extremists bent on taking an epistemology of peace and how they have corrupted it to the point we are now afraid to voice opinions against this fascistic mind-trap that is "political correctness.

We will have seen by now that the German reaction against the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution produced the Herderian and Fichtean reactions that lead us to ecology, true racism, identity politics, communitarian eschatology fascism, and philobarist Left dhimmi fascism culminating in today's cultural relativism, multiculturalism, and the quite possible triumph of Islam in Europe.

OK, so this isn't the snappiest post I've put up. Still, we have to know where we came from to have some idea of why we think the way we do. If we know the history of our ideas we can sort out where others went wrong and try to fix our current condition with some hope of doing it right. This will help.

Cultural relativism

Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities make sense in terms of his or her own culture. This principle was established as axiomatic in anthropological research by Franz Boas [....]

Immanuel Kant, argued that human beings are not capable of direct, unmediated knowledge of the world. All of our experiences of the world are mediated through the human soul, which universally structures perceptions according to sensibilities concerning time and space.

Kant considered these mediating structures universal, his student Johann Gottfried Herder argued that human creativity, evidenced by the great variety in national cultures, revealed that human experience was mediated not only by universal structures, but by particular cultural structures as well.


Although Herder focused on the positive value of cultural variety, the sociologist William Graham Sumner called attention to the fact that one's culture can limit one's perceptions. He called this principle ethnocentrism, the viewpoint that "one's own group is the center of everything," against which all other groups are judged.

Cultural Relativism as a Methodological and Heuristic Device


Cultural relativism was in part a response to Western ethnocentrism. ...Boas, ...argued that one's culture may mediate and thus limit one's perceptions in less obvious ways. ... He assumed a much broader notion of culture, defined as the totality of the mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize the behavior of the individuals composing a social group collectively and individually in relation to their natural environment, to other groups, to members of the group itself, and of each individual to himself.

[H]ow to escape the unconscious bonds of one's own culture, which inevitably bias our perceptions of and reactions to the world, and second, how to make sense of an unfamiliar culture....

A Methodological Tool

Between World War I and World War II, "cultural relativism" was the central tool for American anthropologists in this refusal of Western claims to universality, and salvage of non-Western cultures. It functioned to transform Boas' epistemology into methodological lessons.


Boas and his students realized that if they were to conduct scientific research in other cultures, they would need to employ methods that would help them escape the limits of their own ethnocentrism. One such method is that of ethnography: basically, they advocated living with people of another culture for an extended period of time, so that they could learn the local language and be enculturated, at least partially, into that culture. ...


Boas argued that although similar causes produce similar effects, different causes may also produce similar effects.


Anthropologists became aware of the diversity of culture. They began to see the tremendous range of its variations. From that, they commenced to envisage it as a totality, as no historian of one period or of a single people was likely to do, nor any analyst of his own type of civilization alone. They became aware of culture as a "universe," or vast field in which we of today and our own civilization occupy only one place of many. The result was a widening of a fundamental point of view, a departure from unconscious ethnocentricity toward relativity.


Ruth Benedict, [argued] the necessary method of study is to group the relevant material and to take note of all possible variant forms and conditions. In this way we have learned all that we know of the laws of astronomy, or of the habits of the social insects, let us say. It is only in the study of man himself that the major social sciences have substituted the study of one local variation, that of Western civilization.

Benedict was adamant that she was not romanticizing so-called primitive societies; she was merely pointing out that any understanding of humanity must be based on as wide and varied a sample of cultures as possible. Moreover, it is only by appreciating a culture that is profoundly different than our own, that we can realize the extent to which our own beliefs and activities are culture-bound, rather than natural or universal.


Relativism does not mean that one's views are false, but it does mean that it is false to claim that one's views are self-evident.


[P]eople misinterpreted cultural relativism to mean that all cultures are both separate and equal, and that all value systems, however different, are equally valid. Thus, people came to use the phrase "cultural relativism" erroneously to signify "moral relativism."

People generally understand moral relativism to mean that there are no absolute or universal moral standards. The nature of anthropological research lends itself to the search for universal standards (standards found in all societies), but not necessarily absolute standards.... Cultural relativity means, on the contrary, that the appropriateness of any positive or negative custom must be evaluated with regard to how this habit fits with other group habits. [A]nthropology does not as a matter of theory deny the existence of moral absolutes. Rather, the use of the comparative method provides a scientific means of discovering such absolutes. If all surviving societies have found it necessary to impose some of the same restrictions upon the behavior of their members, this makes a strong argument that these aspects of the moral code are indispensable.


Political scientist Alison Dundes Renteln ... supports a different formulation: "there are or can be no value judgements that are true, that is, objectively justifiable, independent of specific cultures" (Schmidt 1955).


The history of our ideas has lead us to where we are today, and we usually don't have any idea that such is true. Once we know the German reaction to the French Revolution we can begin to understand why Herder and Fichte reacted as they did and how the ecologists and racists developed as they did to form the gnostic fascism that became Nazi Germany. Knowing that we can understand why the French, cutted and emasculated by the Germans turned to socialism, dhimmitude and neo-feudalist anti-Modernism. We can see why we are stuck in a time of blindingly stupid cliches that threaten our very survival and lead us into the Shadows of the Valley of Death. There's more to cover yet, that being triumphalism, multiculturalism and the concept of social progress. At the risk of overwhelming the reader, he being you, I'll post it tomorrow and move on from there to show how we might change things for the better in our future.

I find all this interesting and valuable. I do hope you'll return and discuss this as you will.


Always On Watch said...

Without absolutes in the moral code, a culture cannot survive as a cohesive entity.

Moral relativism is the undoing of our society.

What you have explicated here shows how deep the roots of these ideologies are, especially in academia, and helps to explain what so many turn away from examining the realities of Islam.

dag said...

I think that without moral absolutes in ones personal life that life is banal and frivolous and meaningless. There's room here to go deeply into the mire of p.c. ideologies that we often take for granted as the way things are and have always been, concepts such as "moral contingencies." I shriek.

No one who knows me would ever mistake me for a moral or even an ethical man, but never you mind, I am adamant that morality, regardless of me, is universal and absolute. I might edge into shrill on occasion when confronted with moral and cultural relativism, and it does upset some of our reraders here, but they have no counter to universality. I'm not able to lay it out like Liebnitz's universal moral language attempts, but that's my purpose in witing this blog, and I will succeed somehow. All this inquiry into fascism is a way of seeing how we are consistently wrong; the point is to find a way to make right the mistakes we make. I hate failure. I will, therefore, succeed.

I know when I'm wrong. If I somehow miss that I can learn. I won't settle for anything less, and I'll struggle for this victory till the end. We must all do so. That moral authority is the nature of the point. It's why we're here.

Pastorius said...

Good stuff, Dag.

Cultural Relativism is a natural outgrowth of Anthropology, if the Anthropologists are being intellectually honest. Once recognized it becomes necessary to enact a method to strip away the layers of cultural prejudices in the pursuit of truth.

Physicists, and Astronomer, occasionally find themselves up against the same problem when bends and twists in light and gravity distort their findings, they must work to see through the perspective of the Earth and of whatever else it is they are looking through.

But, of course, this is not the same thing as when a culture decides it has no access to truth, because it's perspective is that of a windowless Monad (since you brought up Leibniz).

It would actually be interesting to also look into whether moral relativism is perhaps a natural outgrowth of Democracy. Is it not true that, if people are voting, albeit guided by a Constitution, over time they will vote according to popular tastes, dictated by trends, and the changing necessities spurned by technological innovation. Isn't it then natural that mistakes would be made, and that we may find ourselves asking, "Well, how did I get here?"

dag said...

It's hard to respond sometimes to comments because to do so would require a lengthy book.

At a guess, I suggest that social science is an analogy, nonsense cooked up by philosophes in France that eventually spread to America through the natural philosophy departments, and all of it based on Artistotlean analogies rather than science in the Baconian sense. It is, I suggest, Scholastic in approach. Democracy doesn't devolve when rational men act in their own best self-interest in the public marketplace of ideas. It does devolve when ideologues and phantasists kerb the discourse and phantasise and police in the sacred-word tradition. Intellectual pursuit becomes Scholastic Aristotleanism. This is like that, therefore this is that; and if we look at the evidence we can see it based on this, therefore that; thus it is proved; and given the sacredness of the texts, truth is self-evident regardless of people mucking it up.

I'll cover a bit more of this in an up-coming post. Once again, you make me wnder about things I might not have had I been writing without contributions.