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Relativism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Herodotus Histories 3. If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably—after careful considerations of their relative merits—choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one's country.
He mentions an anecdote of Darius the Great who illustrated the principle by inquiring about the funeral customs of the Greeks and the Callatiae , peoples from the extreme western and eastern fringes of his empire, respectively. They practiced cremation and funerary cannibalism , respectively, and were each dismayed and abhorred at the proposition of the other tribe's practices. The epistemological claims that led to the development of cultural relativism have their origins in the German Enlightenment. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that human beings are not capable of direct, unmediated knowledge of the world.
All of our experiences of the world are mediated through the human mind, which universally structures perceptions according to a priori concepts of time and space. Although Kant considered these mediating structures universal, his student Johann Gottfried Herder argued that human creativity, evidenced by the great variety in national cultures , revealed that human experience was mediated not only by universal structures, but by particular cultural structures as well.
The philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt called for an anthropology that would synthesize Kant and Herder's ideas. Although Herder focused on the positive value of cultural variety, the sociologist William Graham Sumner called attention to the fact that one's culture can limit one's perceptions.
He called this principle ethnocentrism , the viewpoint that "one's own group is the center of everything", against which all other groups are judged. The one has been the salvaging of distinct cultural forms of life from a process of apparent global Westernization. With both its romantic appeal and its scientific intentions, anthropology has stood for the refusal to accept this conventional perception of homogenization toward a dominant Western model.
Cultural relativism was in part a response to Western ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism may take obvious forms, in which one consciously believes that one's people's arts are the most beautiful, values the most virtuous, and beliefs the most truthful. Franz Boas, originally trained in physics and geography , and heavily influenced by the thought of Kant, Herder, and von Humboldt, argued that one's culture may mediate and thus limit one's perceptions in less obvious ways. He understood "culture" to include not only certain tastes in food, art, and music, or beliefs about religion. He assumed a much broader notion of culture, defined as.
This view of culture confronts anthropologists with two problems: first, how to escape the unconscious bonds of one's own culture, which inevitably bias our perceptions of and reactions to the world, and second, how to make sense of an unfamiliar culture. The principle of cultural relativism thus forced anthropologists to develop innovative methods and heuristic strategies.
Between World War I and World War II, "cultural relativism" was the central tool for American anthropologists in this rejection of Western claims to universality, and salvage of non-Western cultures. It functioned to transform Boas' epistemology into methodological lessons. This is most obvious in the case of language. Although language is commonly thought of as a means of communication, Boas called attention especially to the idea that it is also a means of categorizing experiences, hypothesizing that the existence of different languages suggests that people categorize, and thus experience, language differently this view was more fully developed in the hypothesis of Linguistic relativity.
Thus, although all people perceive visible radiation the same way, in terms of a continuum of color, people who speak different languages slice up this continuum into discrete colors in different ways. Some languages have no word that corresponds to the English word "green". When people who speak such languages are shown a green chip, some identify it using their word for blue, others identify it using their word for yellow.
Thus, Boas's student Melville Herskovits summed up the principle of cultural relativism thus: "Judgements are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation. Boas pointed out that scientists grow up and work in a particular culture, and are thus necessarily ethnocentric. He provided an example of this in his article, "On Alternating Sounds"  A number of linguists at Boas' time had observed that speakers of some Native American languages pronounced the same word with different sounds indiscriminately.
They thought that this meant that the languages were unorganized and lacked strict rules for pronunciation, and they took it as evidence that the languages were more primitive than their own. Boas however noted that the variant pronunciations were not an effect of lack of organization of sound patterns, but an effect of the fact that these languages organized sounds differently from English. The languages grouped sounds that were considered distinct in English into a single sound , but also having contrasts that did not exist in English. He then argued the case that Native Americans had been pronouncing the word in question the same way, consistently, and the variation was only perceived by someone whose own language distinguishes those two sounds.
Boas's students drew not only on his engagement with German philosophy. Boas and his students realized that if they were to conduct scientific research in other cultures, they would need to employ methods that would help them escape the limits of their own ethnocentrism. One such method is that of ethnography : basically, they advocated living with people of another culture for an extended period of time, so that they could learn the local language and be enculturated, at least partially, into that culture. In this context, cultural relativism is an attitude that is of fundamental methodological importance, because it calls attention to the importance of the local context in understanding the meaning of particular human beliefs and activities.
Thus, in Virginia Heyer wrote, "Cultural relativity, to phrase it in starkest abstraction, states the relativity of the part to the whole. The part gains its cultural significance by its place in the whole, and cannot retain its integrity in a different situation.
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Another method was ethnology : to compare and contrast as wide a range of cultures as possible, in a systematic and even-handed manner. In the late nineteenth century, this study occurred primarily through the display of material artifacts in museums. Curators typically assumed that similar causes produce similar effects; therefore, in order to understand the causes of human action, they grouped similar artifacts together — regardless of provenance. Their aim was to classify artifacts, like biological organisms, according to families, genera, and species.
Thus organized museum displays would illustrate the evolution of civilization from its crudest to its most refined forms. In an article in the journal Science , Boas argued that this approach to cultural evolution ignored one of Charles Darwin 's main contributions to evolutionary theory:. It is only since the development of the evolutional theory that it became clear that the object of study is the individual, not abstractions from the individual under observation.
We have to study each ethnological specimen individually in its history and in its medium By regarding a single implement outside of its surroundings, outside of other inventions of the people to whom it belongs, and outside of other phenomena affecting that people and its productions, we cannot understand its meanings Our objection Boas argued that although similar causes produce similar effects, different causes may also produce similar effects. Against the popular method of drawing analogies in order to reach generalizations, Boas argued in favor of an inductive method.
Based on his critique of contemporary museum displays, Boas concluded:.
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It is my opinion that the main object of ethnological collections should be the dissemination of the fact that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes. Boas's student Alfred Kroeber described the rise of the relativist perspective thus: .
Now while some of the interest in so called solial culture science anthropology in its earlier stages was in the exotic and the out-of-the-way, yet even this antiquarian motivation ultimately contributed to a broader result. Anthropologists became aware of the diversity of culture.
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They began to see the tremendous range of its variations. From that, they commenced to envisage it as a totality, as no historian of one period or of a single people was likely to do, nor any analyst of his own type of civilization alone. They became aware of culture as a "universe", or vast field in which we of today and our own civilization occupy only one place of many.
The result was a widening of a fundamental point of view, a departure from unconscious ethnocentricity toward relativity. This shift from naive self-centeredness in one's own time and spot to a broader view based on objective comparison is somewhat like the change from the original geocentric assumption of astronomy to the Copernican interpretation of the solar system and the subsequent still greater widening to a universe of galaxies. This conception of culture, and principle of cultural relativism, were for Kroeber and his colleagues the fundamental contribution of anthropology, and what distinguished anthropology from similar disciplines such as sociology and psychology.
Ruth Benedict , another of Boas's students, also argued that an appreciation of the importance of culture and the problem of ethnocentrism demands that the scientist adopt cultural relativism as a method.
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