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Reviewed by:
  • Relativism and Beyond
  • Sor-hoon Tan
Relativism and Beyond. Edited by Yoav Ariel, Shlomo Biderman, and Ornan Rotem. Leiden: Brill, 1998. Pp. 425.

Relativism and Beyond, edited by Yoav Ariel, Shlomo Biderman, and Ornan Rotem, is the fourth volume in the publisher's Philosophy and Religion Series. It brings together [End Page 603] eleven essays that examine relativism and absolutism from a variety of disciplines. In the first section, on general considerations of the tension between relativism and absolutism, Frits Staal's argument against relativism uses materials from both Western and Eastern traditions and touches on the role of comparative philosophy. According to Staal, neither religion nor philosophy at present has antidotes to relativism. "Religion in its extreme forms exhibits a series of mutually inconsistent forms of absolutism; elsewhere, differences that are equally inconsistent with each other . . . equally strongly support relativism" (p. 42). Staal notes that philosophy is strikingly parochial, especially contemporary Euro-American philosophy. If a strong philosophical stand against relativism requires "the transmission of ideas between philosophies in different civilizations," this task might have to be entrusted to comparative philosophers, given that mainstream philosophers "have yet to come to terms with the fact that all humans are able to argue, reason, and think" (p. 49).

Staal is critical, however, of the current status of comparative philosophy, which, despite limited success, still often fails to go beyond the elementary phenomenological study of similarities and dissimilarities between philosophers or philosophies. Staal suggests that linguistics, with its notion of a "Universal Grammar," and, on a more limited scale, anthropology, if it frees itself from "common prejudices" and devotes itself to the search for human universals may provide a foundation for comparative philosophy that has explanatory value. These suggestions raise more questions than they answer, however judicious Staal's criticisms may be.

Staal's own answer to relativism lies in rationalism and science. While some may dismiss this as a typically Western response, he argues that science is not merely Western, giving examples of the "global evolution" of science over a continuum of three thousand years in Eurasia. Relativism cannot account for these developments of science that span different civilizations—from Indians to Arabs to Europeans and sometimes from Chinese (to Indians) to Arabs to Europeans (p. 52). The scientific revolution that ushered in modern science "was not a European but a global revolution which happened to be set off in Europe" (p. 54). It is not clear that the evidence provided by Staal is sufficient to demolish other contending accounts of the history of science that deny the "progress of science toward unification," which if true may be fatal to relativism.

The second section of the book contains more particular manifestations of the tension between relativism and absolutism. Paul Griffith's comparison of transcendental arguments in Western analytic philosophy and Buddhism offers a "corrective to the tendencies toward chauvinism and insularity of philosophers formed mostly or entirely by the broadly European traditions of thought." Griffith believes that drawing upon materials from traditions uninfluenced by one another also improves constructive philosophical work by increasing the philosopher's range of interlocutors. According to Griffith, Indian Buddhists shared the desire of Western analytic philosophers for "knockdown" arguments by constructing transcendental arguments following the form: (1) p noncontroversially obtains; (2) p has q among its necessary conditions; (3) (hence) q. Griffith shows quite persuasively that a similar form of argument [End Page 604] is found among the classifications and definitions of Mokshākaragupta's Tarkabhāshā (Description of logic, or The language of logic). Griffith argues that in both traditions such transcendental arguments fail as dialectical tools to coerce agreement. Neither the philosophical desire nor its frustration is a culture-specific phenomenon.

Other essays in the second section also draw on diverse traditions in dealing with the particular manifestations of the tension between relativism and its various contraries. Joseph Agassi's discussion of how Maimonides reconciled faith and reason ranges over Jewish philosophy, Greek philosophy, and Islamic thought. Ornan Rotem introduces Buddhism into his philosophical interpretation of Kierkegaard's Christianity to provide a comparative dimension to his discussion of what happens when a religious outlook is subjugated to a philosophical inquiry in which...


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