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C H A P T E R S I X T E E N Relativism, Coherence, and the Problems of Philosophy E L I J A H M I L L G R A M The eventual topic of this paper is the perhaps grandiose question of whether we have any reason to think that philosophical problems can be solved. Philosophy has been around for quite some time, and its record is cause for pessimism: it is not, exactly, that there are no established results, but that what results there are, are negative (such-and-such is false, or will not work) or conditional (as Ernest Nagel used to say, “If we had ham, and if we had eggs, then we’d have ham and eggs”).1 I hope in what follows , first of all, to explain the record. My explanation will naturally suggest a way of turning over a new leaf, and I will wrap up the paper by laying out that proposal and critically assessing its prospects. However, the approach to my topic will have to be roundabout. Along the way, I will detour to consider how the problems of philosophy can be identified and what makes them philosophically interesting. And I will begin at quite some distance from my destination, with the uneven intellectual respectability of relativism among academics. I The degree to which the acceptability of relativism varies between academic disciplines is a familiar but still striking fact. In, for instance, literary studies and cultural anthropology—including, importantly, science 392 studies and sociology of knowledge—relativism, among the several competing views of which it is one, has a monopoly on intellectual respectability . In the so-called hard sciences, physics, for example, relativism is an affront and an object of contempt.2 Philosophy is an interestingly mixed case. Some philosophers are relativists, though most are not. Those philosophers who believe relativism false for the most part still take it seriously , to one or another degree. Sometimes it’s regarded as a threat, a dangerous (thus live) doctrine that needs to be refuted, and from them one sometimes hears the phrase “the specter of relativism.” And within the professional literature, there is steady discussion of relativism’s merits, shortcomings, and consequences.3 I need to say what I mean by “relativism” and to do so without flying in the face of Aristotle’s advice not to attempt more precision than a subject matter will allow. We are looking for a common denominator that can be examined across disciplines, a cluster of connected, roughly marked-out claims and attitudes. The most important of these is the idea that truth in some domain, or perhaps all truth, is truth-for—claims are not true simpliciter , but true-for-someone or true-for-something. Truth may be relativized to particular persons, or groups of persons, or societies, or cultures, or social practices (for instance, physics as it is practiced at a particular time), or even interests of one kind or another. By way of illustration, Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex conveys what seems to be the outlandish suggestion that, until the eighteenth century, there was only one biological sex, but that thereafter there were two, and this without any biological alteration to effect the transition.4 Biological facts (or “facts”) are being taken to be true, not tout court, but for the scientific, legal, and popular cultures that accept them; a writer without relativist commitments would put the point rather differently, and simply say that it used to be thought that there was only one biological sex, but that now it is thought (or, perhaps, known) that there are two. Other predicates, covering classes of items not thought to be strictly truth-evaluable, may also be understood as relativized: “good,” “beautiful,” “appropriately a member of the canon,” and so on. Relativism is signaled by the attitude that many apparently logical conflicts are not in fact that at all. If “right,” properly understood, has the force of “right-for-me” when uttered by me, and “right-for-him” when uttered by him, disagreement between the two of us over whether a particular proposed action is right does not show that either of us is mistaken; what Relativism, Coherence, and the Problems of Philosophy 393 is wrong-for-me may nonetheless be right-for-him. Disagreement in this case turns out to be practical rather than logical, and to be resolved not by determining who is actually correct, but by...


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