Isaiah Berlin and Mikhail Bakhtin: Relativistic Affiliations
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Isaiah Berlin and Mikhail Bakhtin:
Relativistic Affiliations

In the realm of filiations and associations, whatever it is that links relativists with one another is a most paradoxical substance. Relativists form a class—if they do—because they acknowledge no single or transcendental reckoning point for truth or value; on this one point they come together. But by definition the relativist position is an unlabeled point, devoid of cumulative content. Constituted wholly by its epistemic modesty and tolerant methodology, it more resembles a temporary site of exchange than an ideological platform. Unsurprisingly, moral philosophers have routinely held it in ambivalent regard. And even in everyday usage, the ethical shading of the word “relativist” is probably more disparaging than complimentary to the person labeled with the quality. The present essay revisits this troubled site through two twentieth-century philosophers, Isaiah Berlin and Mikhail Bakhtin, Russian by birth, cosmopolitan in intellectual scope, each famous for a doctrine of “pluralism” and each nervously resistant to the appellation “relativist,” whenever it threatened to attach itself to their philosophical worldview. Why this was so—why “relativism” seemed such dangerous, compromised company—is itself a meaningful part of their biography, I shall argue, and reflects a common underlying affiliation that they did confirm, overtly or covertly: an intimate association with the tradition of Russian thinkers.

For the better part of their long lives, Berlin and Bakhtin were academics. Each prided himself on being a systematic philosopher and attracted a devoted following. And each was keenly aware that the issue of relativism in the humanities has always had a pedagogical relevance more urgent than in the physical sciences, where hypotheses can be tested in more objective ways. In the human (or humanities) realm—a realm, as Bakhtin defines it, where there are two consciousnesses at work studying each other, not just one consciousness studying a thing—is there one truth about a [End Page 139] phenomenon, or are there many? Is there a single perspective—most likely a distant one, and for that reason true and transcendental—from which all aspects of experience will fit together into a single coherent whole? Or does every event, experience, and worldview have the right to resist the larger scheme, to justify itself solely to its own participants, to claim that only insiders “truly understand” the situation, and therefore to claim exemption from external judgment? In a variant on this question, is each of us so conditioned by cultural environment, genes, psyche, undecodable intention that no common denominator among us can be found—and thus no accusatory finger pointed and no blame laid down?

Such questions defy easy resolution. On the one hand, relativism appears to promise tolerance, flexibility, co-existence, an individual’s right to self-fashioning; on the other, it holds forth the specter of a value-free universe with no shared or coordinating norms. In recent years (and peaking, perhaps, with Stanley Fish’s provocative, flashy 1999 volume The Trouble with Principle), neopragmatists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists have come together in an attack on foundationalism. The assault has been answered by a counter-volley of impatient correctives. 1 That these modern-day relativists should be so congenial, even buoyant while engaged in their task—as if nothing real were at stake—only increases the irritation of their more monist foes. As one discontent observed, “Where ancient philosophy sought to discipline the poets with science, some contemporary philosophers have surrendered to the tricksters of meaning. . . . [and] literary critics have theorized their trickery seemingly ad infinitum” (Fairlamb 405).

A host of newly-configured academic rubrics—at first multiculturalism, more recently transnationalism—have become the uneasy beneficiaries of this debate. We are taught not only that centers cannot hold on their own; they come under attack precisely [End Page 140] because they persist in our mind as “centers.” But all centrifugal gestures, however welcome and overdue, inevitably raise awkward methodological questions of the sort that have long agitated anthropologists and language pedagogues. How does one best enter the structures of someone else’s world? Can one ever learn to “speak” that world completely? Should one try to learn in that way? In assessing the other and trying to learn the...