Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

the inconsistent relativist

Martin Rundkvist writes:

I'm a cultural and aesthetic relativist. This means that I acknowledge no objective standards for the evaluation of works of art. There are no definitive aesthetic judgements, there is only reception history. There is no objective way of deciding whether Elvis Presley is better than Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm. It is possible, and in fact rather common, to prefer Lady Gaga to Johann Sebastian Bach. De gustibus non est disputandum.

And he continues,

Conan the Barbarian, or Aragorn son of Arathorn, or Ronia the Robber's Daughter all represent something of central importance to the heritage sector and to the humanities in general. At the same time, on the one hand they embody something we must always seek to achieve, that is the wondersome excitement of discovering a fantastic past - and on the other something we must avoid if we are to fill any independent purpose at all, as these characters and the worlds they inhabit are fictional. Historical humanities, excepting the aesthetic disciplines, deal with reality. This is our unique competitive selling point that we must never lose sight of.

So here’s my question: if we have no grounds on which to say that one thing is better than another, on what grounds can we say that a particular story or character is “of central importance to the heritage sector and to the humanities in general”? That is, if it’s impossible to make “definitive aesthetic judgments,” what makes it possible to make such definitive judgments about what’s important and what isn't? I’m not sure you can consistently be a relativist about the one and a dogmatist about the other.

Rundkvist, like a lot of people, allows the word “objective” to get him off track. “Universal” is problematic in the same way. Aesthetic judgments, like moral and historical ones, are never made from nowhere and by no one; they’re made by real people in concrete situations, and the needs of both people and situations vary. But such judgments have to be made, and they can be made reliably. It’s really not that hard to make the case that Bach’s music is better than Lady Gaga’s, though there will be situations in which Bach’s music won't be the thing called for. And in much the same way one can make a case for the cultural value and historical importance of pulp fiction, though that importance will be rather different than the kind of importance that attaches itself to Bach's music. We make these kinds of judgments all the time, and only paralyze ourselves when we start invoking terms like "objective" and "universal."

Maybe more about this later. . . .


  • In some quarters, the word/idea of "judgment" has gotten a very bad rap, which is a pity.

  • On the contrary, Alan. I think Rundquist would agree with you on this. The way I understand what he is saying, it is that there are no deep, philosophical reasons for preferring Bach's music to Lady Gaga's, only cultural ones. We were brought up to regard them in a certain way, and that's how it is.

    So, seen in this light, one can be a cultural and aesthetic relativist (meaning one can acknowledge that all standards are cultural) while also acknowledging that the same cultural standards tell us what is important and in that sense, we must take seriously what these standards tell us.

  • scritic, I don't see any evidence in Rundkvist's piece for the view you ascribe to him. Seems to me he's pretty straightforward: "One thing is as good as another provided that it is fun."

  • Okay - let's assume for now that my gloss on Rundkvist is incorrect -- what would your objections to my stance be? I'm curious.

  • You mean to what you say in the second paragraph of your first comment? Basically, I would say what Alasdair MacIntyre says (especially in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?): that all beliefs arise from a particular culture and are grounded in that culture, but it's possible for people from different cultures to find a shared way of debating so that a given belief held in one culture can be shown to be superior to — a better fit for the evidence — that a corresponding belief from another culture.

    That is, you can agree that all beliefs and judgments are culturally grounded without being a relativist. After all, it often happens that people raised within a particular culture later decide that that culture's core beliefs are wrong, and end up affirming a different set of beliefs. That doesn't put them outside of culture but rather puts them into a different culture.

    So I may be "brought up to regard [some beliefs and judgments] in a certain way," but I'm not imprisoned by my upbringing. I can change my mind by being exposed to different ideas and then weighing their relative credibility. Happens all the time!

  • That's a very important point you're making, Alan. Seems increasingly relevant: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/us/19kentucky.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=gaskell&st=cse

    Keep up the good dialogue.

  • Alan, thanks for commenting on my blog entry!

    I think you are confusing aesthetical relativism, which I espouse, with epistemological relativism, which I oppose.

    Aesthetical relativism says "matters of taste are subjective". Epistemological relativism says "all factual claims are subjective".

    When I say that "Conan the Barbarian represents something of central importance to the heritage sector and to the humanities in general", I am actually making both an aesthetical and a factual claim. I am informing my readers that certain values are actually strong in the heritage sector. And that I, with my subjective judgement, support those values.

  • Thanks, Martin — though I don't believe that epistemological relativism comes into the discussion. Certainly I wasn't discussing it. When you say that you are a "cultural" as well as an "aesthetic" relativist, I take you to mean that you believe that values other than aesthetic ones are purely cultural relative. This your claim that "One thing is as good as another provided that it is fun."

    But if you say that something is of "central importance," you're making a value judgment. "Important" is a value-laden word. If you had just said that "there are a great many references in the general cultural conversation to Conan the Barbarian," that would be been a factual statement. But it wouldn't in itself suggest a reason for studying the Conan stories and movies. To make that argument you need value judgments, and value judgments that are stronger than personal preferences.

    So the only way you could make that statement consistent with your own claim to be a "cultural and aesthetic relativist" is to say " "Conan the Barbarian represents something that for me is of central importance, though if someone else prefers to study something else, that's as good as what I'm doing providing that they're having fun." But if you say that the Conan stories are not just important for you, but have an importance that others should recognize, then you're not being merely relativistic anymore.

    I think the problem here is that you're assuming that value judgments can only be "objective" or "relative," but there are many ways to articulate and defend value judgments that don't involve claims to "objectivity."

  • that all beliefs arise from a particular culture and are grounded in that culture, but it's possible for people from different cultures to find a shared way of debating so that a given belief held in one culture can be shown to be superior to — a better fit for the evidence — that a corresponding belief from another culture.

    Well, yes, and no. It is certainly possible for two people from different cultures to talk about their beliefs and their likes and dislikes, it is even possible for one person to be able to show to another why he finds one thing superior to another but I don't think being able to explain why I like Bach is going to make the other person like Bach also. And I am not even sure what a "better fit for evidence" means when it comes to music or the novel or for ways of life.

    Let me take an example. I find Lady Gaga as strange as I find Bach. I can see why people like them, but playing them at home for myself is another matter, I much prefer Hindi film music. My father will be able to explain to you why he finds any kind of rock music to be just "screaming" although I doubt that you would agree with him. Take that even further. You can certain try and convince a devout Muslim or Christian (or Hindu, for that matter) that a collectively secular way of life is superior to living in a theocracy (although I doubt that) but I definitely don't think that they're going to want to change their way of life in response to a linguistic argument for the superiority of a certain form of life.

    I don't want to say that one is "imprisoned" by one's upbringing. But I do think that our upbringing has a lot to do with our tastes and our aesthetic preferences or even how we think of ourselves or the narratives that we fashion. I know your own personal story is different but I don't think that's the case for many or even most people. My tastes are certainly a function of my upbringing.

    But anyway, my point is just that while I am a cultural relativist, and I understand that likes and dislikes are contingent doesn't mean that I take my likes and dislikes less seriously or that I take the priorities of the culture I come from less seriously. I am just less likely to argue that they are objective, deep or philosophical reasons for it.

  • I don't know why you say "Yes and no", scritic. As I say, this kind of thing happens all the time. Muslims become Buddhists, Jews become Christians, Christians become atheists, people who hate Bach become people who love Bach. People abandon the cultures they were raised in and embrace other ones, and they think they have reasons for doing so. These are common human experiences. My tastes as well ar yours "are certainly a function of my upbringing" — but only to a point, because my tastes have been changed by new experiences and often by other people's arguments, which have led me to try a book or a recording that I was previously suspicious of. "Cultures" and "backgrounds" have very permeable boundaries.

    The real question is whether, when we make these changes, they are purely preferential, purely at whim, or whether there are defensible reasons for making them. I think it's sometimes the one, sometimes the other.

  • By the way, scritic, I quote you in my forthcoming book on reading — a comment you made on your site about the need to "skim well." So thanks!

  • I don't hold that all aesthetic judgments are culturally rooted, but if they were, I don't see a contradiction between culturally rooted judgments and the existence of objective standards.

    Take beauty, for example. Beautiful pieces of art or beautiful artistic expressions can have many cultural manifestations (in different cultures), but can still be called beautiful by a set of objective aesthetic standards by a reasonable individual (or group).

  • Thanks, Alan!

    I think we have a half-full/half-empty situation here. You see all of the people who change their views as saying something important about the human condition (whatever that is) while I see all those people who don't change their views as something arguably more important in explaining who we are.

    You could see our own argument as a mirror of this. We both seem to be offering defensible reasons for each of our views. Yet, I am sure we find each others' reasons unpersuasive. That's one of the reasons I think that we must do away with the idea that some people change their minds for defensible reasons and others do so on a whim. I agree that some people do change their minds about things but I think we need to go beyond explanations that stress the post-facto reasons (as in rational/irrational reasons) for view-changes and move towards another way of explaining this. (As a Bourdieuian, I tend to go for "habitus" as an explanation but that's far too vague so I'll stop right here.)

    Gavin, I think the fact that you say that objective aesthetic standards can only be agreed upon by reasonable individuals is telling.

  • scritic,

    You shouldn't read too much into my use of "reasonable." I could have used "thoughtful," etc.

    By reasonable, I did not intend to suggest that those who agree with my standards are both objective and reasonable, and judgments made by other standards are not. That would be quite subjective.

    And I agree with your previous remarks about one being, to an extent, "imprisoned" by their upbringing in terms of likes/dislikes and beliefs.

    But one need not be thrown into a hyper-subjective postmodern fit wherein objectivity or aesthetic standards (that transcend culture) are rejected a priori on the basis that such goals are unrealistic or even impossible, not worthy of consideration.

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