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Philosophical History


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Cambridge History of Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century (1790-1870)by Allen W. Wood and Songsuk Susan Hahn (Cambridge University Press) brings together twenty-nine leading experts in the field and covers the years 1790-1870. Their twenty-seven chapters provide a comprehensive survey of the period, organizing the material topically. After a brief editor's introduction, it begins with three chapters surveying the background of nineteenth century philosophy: followed by two on logic and mathematics, two on nature and natural science, five on mind and language, including psychology, the human sciences and aesthetics, four on ethics, three on religion, seven on society, including chapters on the French Revolution, the decline of natural right, political economy, and social discontent, and three on history, dealing with historical method, speculative theories of history and the history of philosophy. The essays are framed by an editor's introduction and a bibliography. More

Reflections on America: Tocoqueville, Weber and Adorno in the United States by Claus Offe, translated by Gareth Schott, John Thompson (Polity Press) At a time when so many cracks have emerged within the imagined community of 'the West', this important new book, by one of the leading social scientists in Europe, examines the intellectual history of comparing Europe and the United States. Claus Offe considers the perspectives adopted by three of Europe's greatest social scientists — Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber and Theodor W Adorno — in their comparative writings on Europe.  More

Weimar in Exile: The Antifascist Emigration in Europe and America by Jean-Michel Palmier, translated by David Fernbach (Verso) In 1933 thousands of intellectuals, artists, writers, militants and other opponents of the Nazi regime fled Germany. They were, in the words of Heinrich Mann, "the best of Germany," refusing to remain citizens in this new state that legalized terror and brutality. One of the many sobering lessons of the Third Reich was the failure of Germany's intellectual elite to stop the rise of Hitler. Starting in 1933, with Hitler's assumption of power, German poets, philosophers, playwrights, artists and scientists—including Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig and thousands of others—seeing the writing on the wall, packed up and found new homes.
They emigrated to Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Oslo, Vienna, New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Mexico, Jerusalem, Moscow. Throughout their exile they strove to give expression to the fight against Nazism through their work, in prose, poetry and painting, architecture, film and theater. Weimar in Exile follows these lives, from the rise of national socialism to the return to their ruined homeland, retracing their stories, struggles, setbacks and rare victories.
This absorbing history covers the lives of Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, Hans Eisler, Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann, Anna Seghers, Ernst Toller, Stefan Zweig and many others, whose dignity in exile is a moving counterpoint to the story of Germany under the Nazis. More

The Inversion of Consciousness from Dante to Derrida: A Study of Intellectual History by Hugh Mercer Curtler (Studies in the History of Philosophy: Edwin Mellen Press) Starting with a portrait of the lost world of transcendent meaning as captured by Dante in the Divine Comedy, he traces the slow extraction of deity and spirit from human consciousness. He documents as well the many consequences of that fateful decision to split our world and our selves between reason and faith, and shows us too those who revolted against this reduction of the intricate, complex mystery of human life and consciousness. He ends with a portrait of our own times and the various movements that with varying degrees of coherence attempt to come to terms with our fragmented times and our anxious souls. Most important, he recognizes that a balance of reason and faith is our best hope for recovering a life that fulfills all aspects of our humanity.

Judged by the scale of past human experience, we inhabitants of the industrialized Western nations are the most fortunate mortals ever. Our nutrition and health care ensure that we live long active lives free of`chronic pain and want. Technology has liberated us from nature's tyrannous imperative to seek food through backbreaking labor, endowing us as well with both leisure time and various forms of entertainment with which to spend it. Liberal democracy bestows upon us freedom from arbitrary force and communal intrusion in our lives, and the scope for self-expression and individual development. By every criterion the vast majority of human beings have used to judge well-being, we moderns of the West enjoy a life our ancestors imagined only in their myths and dreams.

This world has been created, of course, by the mastery of the material world that followed from the rise of science and its rational understanding of nature and its laws. Yet that achievement came at a price. The success of science and technology seemingly validated an epochal assumption: that all reality is material, and that the spiritual reality all humans for millennia had experienced and expressed in various rituals and religions, myths and legends was an illusion of the human race's childhood. A whole dimension of human identity and experience had become cloud and vapor, and we were now mere things in the world, as was nature too. Worse, this stuff of matter was accidental, a consequence of vast material forces and laws without direction or meaning. From a world saturated with meaning, purpose, and presence we had journeyed into a world filled with nothing but the brute blind forces moving matter, our puny selves included, to an ultimate extinction.

The consequences of this long slow murder of God, to borrow Nietzsche's famous observation, have been many. A morality once sanctioned and validated by a transcendent reality has now lost its moorings, and we vainly wait for science to fill the void. But so far only various determinisms—Marxian economics, the Freudian subconscious, Darwinian genetics—have been proposed, and all have been found wanting, not least because they compromise our humanity by ignoring or reducing those aspects of our experience that many of us feel to be quintessential: love, altruism, beauty, mystery, creativity, and particularly our freedom to choose.

Moreover, we feel the pain of having the heart torn out of our mystery:

despite that material abundance and freedom mentioned at the start, many of us are still unhappy, unfulfilled, and unsatisfied. Surrounded by a thousand excitations and sensations, we still sense an emptiness hidden in the various pleasures with which we fill our time, we still strain to hear through the din of modern prosperity the voice of the transcendent telling us what it all means, and where we might, or should, be going.

Some of us ignore that voice and camouflage the unease with ever more pleasures and diversions, more gadgets and toys. Some turn to various pseudo-religions: noble-savage multiculturalism, Marxist utopianism, New Age spiritualism, or pop psychological nostrums. But most simply turn to the self, its desires and appetites, its perceptions and reactions, and away from the larger world beyond the self. The self then becomes the world and God both, and from this frail reed are supposed to come the significance and meaning that make life and death alike bearable. Yet the numerous pathologies evident in our society today suggest that the solitary self simply cannot bear this burden. And how could it, when the dominant discourse of meaning, science, tells us that we are only bundles of genetic chemicals, at best clever chimps, bits of matter whose experience and fate are ignored by the juggernaut of forces hurtling toward extinction?

The story of how we came to this pass is perhaps the most important we should know, and Hugh Mercer Curtler tells the tale in the this study with learning, clarity, and insight. Starting with a portrait of the lost world of transcendent meaning as captured by Dante in the Divine Comedy, he traces the slow extraction of deity and spirit from human consciousness. He documents as well the many consequences of that fateful decision to split our world and our selves between reason and faith, and shows us too those who revolted against this reduction of the intricate, complex mystery of human life and consciousness. He ends with a portrait of our own times and the various movements that with varying degrees of coherence attempt to come to terms with our fragmented times and our anxious souls. Most important, he recognizes that a balance of reason and faith is our best hope for recovering a life that fulfills all aspects of our humanity.

Relativism by Maria Baghramian (The Problems of Philosophy: Routledge) Baghramian offers a critical analysis of relativism through discussions on the historical account of relativistic doctrines, the various types of relativism and appraises the most influential on-going debates on the subject. Also included are discussions on Donald Davidson, the neo-pragmatic defense, Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, the empiricists, Kant, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein.

'It's all relative'. In a world of increasing cultural diversity, it can seem that everything is indeed relative. But should we concede that there is no such thing as right and wrong, and no objective truth? Can we reconcile relativism and pluralism? Relativism surveys the different varieties of relativism and the arguments for and against them, and examines why relativism has survived for two thousand years despite all the criticisms levelled against it. Beginning with a historical overview of relativism, from Pythagoras in ancient Greece to Derrida and postmodernism, Maria Baghramian explores the resurgence of relativism throughout the history of philosophy. She then turns to the arguments for and against the many subdivisions of relativism, including Kuhn and Feyerabend's ideas of relativism in science, Rorty's relativism about truth, and the conceptual relativism of Quine and Putnam. Baghramian questions whether moral relativism leads to moral indifference or even nihilism, and whether feminist epistemology's concerns about the very notion of objectivity can be considered a form of relativism. She concludes the relativism debate by assessing the recent criticisms such as Quine's argument from translation and Davidson's claim that even the motivations behind relativism are unintelligible. Finding these criticisms lacking, Baghramian proposes a moderate form of pluralism which addresses the legitimate worries that give rise to relativism without incurring charges of nihilism or anarchy. Relativism is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary philosophy, sociology and politics.

Excerpt: The books falls into two parts. Part I (chapters 1—3) provides a histor­ical examination of the idea of relativism in its many forms, from ancient Greece to the present. Part II critically examines a variety of relativistic doctrines in different domains.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the term `relativism' can be traced to J. Grote's Exploratio Philosophica (1865): 

The notion of the mask over the face of nature is . . . what I have called `relativism'. If `the face of nature' is reality, then the mask over it, which is what theory gives us, is so much deception, and that is what relativism really comes to. (Grote 1865: I.XI: 229) 

Grote in this passage seems to be discussing a version of what, in this book, I call `conceptual relativism' (see chapter 7). However, the idea of relativism has a much longer and quite complicated history. I examine the history of relativism by discussing not only some of the main claims made on its behalf, but also key philosophical theories which have influenced the development of various forms of relativism.

Chapter 1. The beginnings: relativism in classical philosophy. Theearliest documented source of relativism in the Western intellectual tradition is Plato's account of the Sophist philosopher Protagoras and his famous dictum, `Man is the measure of all things' (Plato 1997g: Theaet. 152a1-3). Plato's charge of self-refutation against Pro­tagoras has become the model for frequent attempts to show that relativism is incoherent. I discuss some possible interpretations of the Protagorean doctrine and assess Plato's criticisms. Aristotle also argued that relativism is an unintelligible doctrine as it contravenes the law of non-contradiction — which is presupposed by all thought. Subsequently, relativism was subsumed under scepticism by the Pyrrhonian sceptics who gave a new life to Protagoras' doctrine. I examine these developments in turn.

Chapter 2. Relativism in modern philosophy traces the development of a variety of philosophical positions linked to relativism over the past three centuries. The disparate strands of contemporary rela­tivism, I argue, have their sources in various philosophical currents of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We begin with Michel de Montaigne, who was greatly influenced by Pyrrhonian scepticism, and is the precursor of both relativism and scepticism in modern thought. The chapter also examines the influences of the French Enlightenment, Kant's introduction of the distinction between con­ceptual schemes and sensory content, the romanticism and anti-rationalism of the Counter-Enlightenment, the post-Hegelian historicism of Engels and Dilthey, and Nietzsche's perspectivism, on the development of relativistic views.

Chapter 3. Contemporary sources of relativism. A variety of con-temporary intellectual currents has contributed to the resurgence of interest in relativism. The theoretical and empirical observations of social anthropologists on the diversity of cultural practices have led directly to cultural relativism. Ludwig Wittgenstein's ideas on the role of language and forms of life in shaping thought and action have been used, by philosophers and anthropologists alike, to draw rela­tivistic conclusions about rationality and logic. The intellectual climate created by the writings of postmodernist philosophers and lit­erary theorists has fostered relativism and has had a decisive impact on its popularity.

Part II (chapters 4—9) is devoted to a critical discussion of a variety of relativistic positions.

Chapter 4. Relativism about truth. Relativism about truth (alethic relativism) is the claim that the truth of an assertion is relative to the beliefs, attitudes and other psychological idiosyncrasies of individuals or, more generally, to their social and cultural background.

Relativism about truth is central to many relativistic positions since the arguments for various subdivisions of cognitive relativism, and even ethical relativism, can be recast as a question about the truth of judgements in those particular domains. Since Plato it has been fre­quently argued that relativism about truth is incoherent because of the dubious status of the claim that `truth is relative'; for if `truth is relative' is itself true unconditionally, then there is at least one truth, which is not relative, and hence relativism is not true. The chapter examines the force of this famous argument. The self-refutation argu­ment, often seen as the most decisive argument against relativism, is directed at the most extreme form of alethic relativism. Several philosophers have argued in favour of more restricted forms of rela­tivism about truth. One such view has been proposed by Richard Rorty, who problematises traditional accounts of truth. In the final part of the chapter, I examine his influential views on truth and find them unconvincing.

Chapter 5. Relativism and rationality. The relativist about rational­ity argues that various societies or cultures have different standards of rationality and that we are not in a position to choose between them; the search for universal standards of rationality is futile, she argues, because rationality consists of conforming to the prevalent cognitive norms and different societies may subscribe to different norms. Ratio­nality can be seen as the requirement of having good reasons and justifications for one's beliefs and actions. Adherence to universal rules of logic has often been seen as a prerequisite of rationality. However, it has been argued that laws of logic are defined by and hence are relative to their social context. In this chapter, I examine and reject relativism about logic. But this rejection does not com­pletely rule out moderate forms of relativism about rationality. Stephen Stich has argued that empirical studies support the view that human beings in their day-to-day reasoning do not adhere to standard norms of rationality. Alasdair Maclntyre, on the other hand, argues that norms of rationality are, to a large extent, products of specific cultural and historic conditions. I examine these views in turn.

Chapter 6. Epistemic relativism. Philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have emphasized the role of different modes of reasoning at various historical periods in shaping our con­ceptions of scientific knowledge. According to them, scientific theories belonging to different paradigms are incommensurable, and the co-evaluation of different cognitive frameworks (and even cultures and ways of life) is impossible. I shall argue that the connection between incommensurability and relativism is more complex than the participants in the debate about relativism in science have led us to believe. In doing so, I distinguish between different forms of incommensura­bility and suggest ways of overcoming them.

Feminist philosophers have questioned the very notion of objectiv­ity that underpins the ideal of science, and the possibility of giving a universal account of knowledge without taking into account the spe­cific social and political contexts which give rise to them. Their questioning of the theory and practice of science has, at times, assumed a relativistic tone. I shall argue that the legitimate concerns of feminist epistemologists need not lead to relativism.

Chapter 7. Conceptual relativism. The roots of conceptual rela­tivism rest with Kant's distinction between the data of our sense experiences and the principles of organisation or categories we use to organise them. Once the distinction between a conceptual scheme and its content was introduced, it became easy to accept that there may be more than one system or scheme of organisation, and the idea of con­ceptual relativism was born. In this chapter I discuss the views of some prominent defenders of different strands of conceptual rela­tivism – a group of philosophers I call Harvard relativists. Harvard relativism can be traced back to the pragmatist philosophers, William James and C. I. Lewis in particular. The most influential version of this view was proposed by W. V. O. Quine, according to whom to be able to talk about the world and cope with our stream of sensory experiences, we must impose upon them a conceptual or linguistic scheme or theory. However, it is possible to envisage a plurality of conceptual or theoretical frameworks all of which explain and predict our experiences of the world equally well. Quine's so-called 'ontolog­ical relativity' influenced his colleagues, Nelson Goodman and Hilary Putnam, who have proposed very sophisticated forms of conceptual relativism. This chapter critically assesses their contributions to this topic.

Chapter 8. Relativism, interpretation and charity examines some of the recent influential criticisms levelled against various forms of rela­tivism. Critics of relativism question the intelligibility of the claim that one and the same statement may be true for one linguistic com­munity and false for another. A correct understanding of the beliefs and other propositional attitudes of a person, they argue, leads to the conclusion that speakers of other languages, members of other cul­tures, must have beliefs and cognitive practices very similar to ours. Arguments for relativism often rely on the premise that there are fun­damental cultural and conceptual differences between human beings. If this assumption is incoherent or untenable, then so is relativism. In this chapter I examine the arguments offered by Quine, Donald Davidson and Richard Grandy against, respectively, relativism about logic, truth and rationality. In the process I also examine, in some detail, Davidson's arguments against the key presupposition of con­ceptual relativism – the dualism of scheme and content – and find them wanting.

Chapter 9. Moral relativism. Moral or ethical relativism is probably the most popular relativistic doctrine. It is the claim that there exist diverse and incompatible answers to questions on ethics, and that there is no overarching criterion for deciding between the various replies. Ethical relativism can be embraced independently of cognitive relativism. Many ethical relativists argue that convergence between different worldviews and theoretical frameworks is possible in the nat­ural sciences but not in the realm of ethics. According to this view, moral precepts and judgements are not part of the natural furniture of the universe; they are man-made and would not exist indepen­dently of human actions, beliefs and customs; hence, there exists a fundamental difference between scientific investigations and moral enquiry. In addressing these issues, I critically discuss naïve moral rel­ativism, normative moral relativism, metaethical claims arising from naturalism (Mackie and Gilbert Harman) and the limits of commen­surability (Bernard Williams). In conclusion, I defend a form of pluralism (inspired by Isaiah Berlin) that rejects the absolutist con­ceptions of moral value without accepting the relativist conclusion that moral evaluations are the expressions of social and cultural conventions.

Chapter 10. Conclusion: relativism, pluralism and diversity. In discussing issues relating to epistemic, conceptual and moral relativism I propose a form of pluralism that may satisfy some of the intellectual concerns that give rise to the various strands of relativism, without plunging us into the anarchy of `anything goes' or the intellectual paralysis that comes with the inability to reject or condemn any worldview as false or wrong. In the concluding section I use the metaphor of map making to accommodate pluralism without suc­cumbing to relativism. Pluralism, as construed in this book, allows for diversity and multiplicity of `right' worldviews, belief-systems, ethical orientations and cognitive frameworks, but is curtailed by the imper­atives of our shared physical world and biology. Our conceptions of the world are varied and diverse, I maintain, and yet they are answer-able to the natural world. There are many, and at times incompatible, right conceptions, but their rightness, although context-sensitive, is not in any sense relative.


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