cross-posted at New International Times

It might just be the result of a media class dominated by pseudo-intellectual journalists or, more likely, it could simply be an effect of the fact that human beings tend to speak and write these days thinking only of the manner in which their words and phrases will be represented by the media. But, in any case, one gets the disturbingly powerful impression that certain debates and discussions (even between people who may not be entirely devoid of an elementary philosophical education) increasingly resemble primitive tribal struggles in which the winner is the one who has given out the greatest number of clubbings and in which delicate terms are used if they were bricks.

A typical example is the heated discussion which surrounds such terms as “relativism” and “fundamentalism”.

But what does “relativism” actually mean in philosophy? Well, first of all there are many relativisms:
1) epistemological relativism (also known as “perspectivism” or “irrationalism”) is the thesis that, as Nietzche best expressed it, “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

It is currently espoused by certain rare philosophers of science in the tradition of P.K. Feyerabend and Thomas Khun who beleive that science does not pursue truths or anything approximating truths but only offers alternative narratives  or “paradigms” each of which are incommensurable with one another.

2) Ontological relativism is the very subtle thesis that “objects”, “events” and “things” can only be defined within the context of an overarching intersubjective conceptual sheme which is ultimately mind-dependent. The objects and/or propositions about them  do indeed exist objectively but can only be demonstarted to be real to the extent that they are indispensable to out best available scientific theories and to the degree of confirmation of the truth of these theories themselves.

Or, quoting from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philopophy:

According to this line of argument, reference to (or quantification over) mathematical entities such as sets, numbers, functions and such is indispensable to our best scientific theories, and so we ought to be committed to the existence of these mathematical entities. To do otherwise is to be guilty of what Putnam has called “intellectual dishonesty” (Putnam 1979b, p. 347). Moreover, mathematical entities are seen to be on an epistemic par with the other theoretical entities of science, since belief in the existence of the former is justified by the same evidence that confirms the theory as a whole (and hence belief in the latter). This argument is known as the Quine-Putnam indispensability argument for mathematical realism.

Mathematical entities in this view are on a par with quarks and other such invisible entities whose existence is inferred precisely from their effects on scientific prediction and on the verification of certian events which would not take place without them. It is called “relativism” because even our “best” theories may be falsified and replaced by better ones (closer to the truth) which posit other entities dependent on (relative to) the new theory.

This position is mathematically realist but anti-Platonist and has been adopted in recent years by W.V.O. Quine and Hilary Putnam.

3) Moral relativism can be subdivided further into two theses:

a) the thesis that our values and norms cannot be judge to be true or false except within the context of a certain culture. There are no human universals or human nature. I cannot judge the Japanese army’s behavior in covering up the systematic raping (or the raping itself) of Japanese women during the Second World War becaese I am not a member of Asian culture and consequently do not “understand” their “values”.

b) the thesis that an individual’s values and norms cannot be judged at all since the ultimate arbiter of moral jugement lies in subjectivity.

There is much confusion betwen moral relativism and a comletely different concept called “moral pluralism”.  Moral relativism is not the same as moral pluralism, which acknowledges the co-existence of opposing ideas and practices, but does not require that they be equally valid. Moral relativism, in contrast, contends that opposing moral positions have no truth value, and that there is no preferred standard of reference by which to judge them.

With regard to fundamentalism, things are much simpler.
Fundamentalism is the doctrine that the words of certain sacred texts (the Bible, the Koran) are literally true.
Catholicism, in this sense, cannot be fundamentalist. This is because Catholic texts are interpreted exclusively
by the hierarchical authorities of the Catholic Church. The ordinary Catholic has no place in the process. The Catholic Church early on adopted the hermeneutical tradition of people like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine which allowed for metaphorical and allegorical interpretation.

What is often referred to as “fundamentalism” in the Catholic Church (it’s rigid positions on abortion and stem-cell research, for example)and in Islam  is not fundamentalism, but what in Italy is called “integralismo” (integralism).

To adapt from an artcile by Umberto Eco in L’Espresso magazine, integralism is simply the attempt to bridge the gap bewteen  Church and State: the idea that religious principles should become models of political life and the source of laws for the State.

It might be objected to all of this that it is just a question of semantics. No, in the words of Eco, it’s a question of extremely subtle philosophical, theological and political discorse which gains nothing by being reduced to a brick-throwing match of ritualistically invoked  word talismans.

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