Peace and War LO29990

From: Alan Cotterell (
Date: 03/12/03

Replying to LO29984 --


You might find this article interesting, it is relevant to the cognitive
dissonance subject. I think it says that our truth is dependent on the
current paradigm, and that we may be deaf to alternatives:

 Cognitive Relativism

Cognitive relativism asserts the relativity of truth. On the other hand,
moral relativism asserts the relativity of morality. Because of the close
connections between the concept of truth and concepts such as rationality
and knowledge, cognitive relativism is often taken to encompass, or imply,
the relativity of both rationality and knowledge. The framework, or
standpoint, to which truth is relativized is usually understood to be a
conceptual scheme. This may be the conceptual scheme of an entire culture
or period; or it may be conceived more narrowly as the theoretical
framework of a particular community: for example, quantum physicists, or
Southern Baptists. Like other forms of relativism, cognitive relativism
denies that any of these standpoints enjoy a uniquely privileged status.
None of them offer a 'God's eye point of view', or represent the
standpoint dictated to us by objective standards of rationality.

Cognitive relativism, like many other forms of relativism, is often said
to have been first put forward by the ancient sophists, particularly
Protagoras, who began his work 'Truth' with the famous statement: "Man is
the measure of all things--of things that are, that they are, of things
that are not that they are not.' But with the possible exception of the
sophists, few philosophers in the Western tradition have espoused any form
of cognitive relativism until relatively recent times. Most assumed that
there is some standpoint--for example, that of God--in relation to which
our judgements are definitively true or false.

In the nineteenth century this assumption came to be seriously questioned
by a small number of important thinkers, most notably Nietzsche and
William James. In the twentieth century a relativistic view of truth,
although it still provokes vituperative responses from anti-relativists,
has undeniably gained many more adherents; indeed, it has become almost
commonplace in some philosophical circles. The reasons for this
development are diverse. They include:

    i) the example offered by relativistic views of moral standards, views
which gained in popularity as knowledge of other cultures was extended;

    ii) growing awareness, also due to research in anthropology and
linguistics, that people in different cultures view the world through
radically different conceptual frameworks;

    iii) the working out of the full implications of Kant's 'Copernican
Revolution' in metaphysics, according to which the objects of our
knowledge are shaped by the categories through which we cognize them;

    iv) in continental philosophy, the implications--intended or
otherwise--of Hegel's historicism, Marx's theory of ideology, and
Nietzsche's perspectivism;

    v) in English-speaking philosophy, the critique of the positivist
philosophy of science, the problems posed by the ideal of objectivity or
neutrality in the social sciences, and the impact of discoveries in
psychology concerning the interpretation of data.

Relativistic views of truth have received further impetus from or found
expression in the works of many widely read twentieth century thinkers
such as the later Wittgenstein, Quine, Kuhn, Winch, Goodman, Rorty,
Gadamer, Foucault, and Derrida.

Cognitive relativists do not simply assert the different cultures or
communities have different views about which beliefs are true; no-one
disputes that. Nor do they merely claim that different communities operate
with different epistemic norms--i.e. criteria of truth and standards of
rationality. That, too, seems to be obvious. The controversial claim at
the heart of cognitive relativism is that no one set of epistemic norms is
metaphysically privileged over any other. This is the claim which
non-relativists reject, arguing, on the contrary, that some epistemic
norms--for example, those employed by modern science--enjoy a special
status in virtue of which they can serve as objective, universally valid,
criteria of truth and rationality. Relativists respond to this argument by
challenging their opponents to prove the superiority of the epistemic
norms they favour. In reply, anti-relativists commonly argue that the
success of certain norms in practice--for example, the success of modern
science in enabling us to manipulate the world--constitutes a proof that
these norms are not just social conventions but really do help us decide
which of our judgements are objectively true.

The standard objection to cognitive relativism is that it is
self-refuting. If I assert that all judgements are only true relative to
some non-privileged standpoint, the objection runs, I am implicitly
claiming that this judgement--i.e. the thesis of relativism--is true in
some non-relativistic sense. The usual rejoinder by relativists to this
objection is a denial that they have to commit themselves to any
non-relativistic notion of truth. It is possible, they say, to advance a
claim and hold it to be true relative to a given set of norms, without
committing oneself to the view that it is true, or that the norms in
question are valid, in some further, non-relativistic sense.

A related objection is that the relativist, by his or her own lights, must
concede that from some points of view relativism will appear false.
Moreover, since no standpoint is uniquely privileged, these standpoints,
and the views they encompass or imply, are equally worthy of our respect.
The relativist must therefore hold that relativism is both true and false.
To this the relativists can reply that while relativism may indeed be
false from certain perspectives, these are not perspectives that
consistent relativists will be committed to. In fact, they will argue, of
those who accept the major paradigm shifts that have characterized
philosophy over the last two centuries, relativists can claim to be the
most consistent, since they alone accept the full implications of these
shifts for our notions of truth and rationality.

Emrys Westacott
Alfred University


"Alan Cotterell" <>

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