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CAN THE RELATIVIST AVOID REFUTING HERSELF? by David L. Roochnik Value relativism is attractive. Given the great diversity ofhuman beings and their values, and the seemingly impossible task of unambiguously providing an objective standard applicable and agreeable to all of them, it is tempting to declare that no value judgment is inherendy right or wrong; that nothing is good or bad in itself. It is tempting to believe that all values areanimated by and get their meaning from the particular persons or groups holding them under contingent circumstances that are sure to change. Barbara Herrnstein Smidi, in her new book Contingencies of Value, subscribes to such a view: "Evaluation is always compromised because value is always in motion ... it is constandy variable and eternally indeterminate."1 Smith, who is a well-known editor of Shakespeare's sonnets and lately president of the Modern Language Association, is chiefly concerned with valuejudgments made about works ofliterature: "like all value, literary value is not the property of an object or of a subject but, rather, the product of the dynamics of a system" (p. 15). This view is hardly novel. Relativism is appealing and has been adopted, in a wide variety of forms, for a very long time (beginning, at least, with the Greek sophists of the fifth century). The twist that Smith gives to her version of relativism is "economic." For her a value judgment is much like a market operation and deliberation is a costbenefit analysis: a judgment of 92 David L. Roochnik93 "the value" ofsome entity—for example, an artwork, a work ofliterature, or any other kind of object, event, text, or utterance—cannot be ajudgment ofany independendy determinate or, as we say, "objective" property of that entity . . . what it can be (and typically is) is a judgment of that entity's contingent value: that is, the speaker's observation or estimate of how the entity will figure in the economy of some limited population of subjects under some limited set of conditions, (p. 94) As a consequence, the "competent and effective evaluators . . . operate in some ways very much like market analysts" (p. 103). For Smith, evaluation is not a matter of discovering what is simply good or bad in a work of literature or a human action; it is a process of assigning value and then advertising it successfully. Evaluation is, in other words, strictly a matter of rhetoric. There is no Truth, no Good, built into the Nature of Things; there are only truths and goods and these vary as widely as the polyglot communities in which they circulate. I shall not dwell on Smith's "economic metaphorics" (p. 114), although these of course merit thorough examination. Instead, I shall focus on a more fundamental argument ofthis book, one that I believe manifests the central problem surrounding any attempt to justify relativism. Relativism is alluring. But it is always plagued with a decisive problem (one articulated as early as Plato's Theaetetus): how can it account for itself? If the value of all entities is relative to the person or group propounding these values, and if relativism as a theoretical position is an entity, then its value is relative. If this is the case, then relativism cannot coherently make any assertions about values in general; it cannot universalize itself. If, as Smith declares, there are no objective Truths, then she, good relativist that she claims to be, cannot coherendy assert one. One of the best features of Contingencies of Value is that Smith understands the centrality ofthis problem. Indeed, her lastchapter, gravely tided, "Matters of Consequence," is devoted to overcoming it.2 She is convinced that she has succeeded. " 'Relativism' in the sense of a conception of the world as continuously changing, irreducibly various, and multiply configurable does not conceive of itself as a logical deduction, or as an inescapable conclusion drawn either from personal experience or scientific experiment, or as an insight into the underlying nature of things. Rather, it conceives of its own conception of the world as a contingent product of many things" (p. 183). Smith is determined that her account does not refute itself, does not engage in precisely those 94Philosophy and Literature types...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 92-98
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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