Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Romanticism: Cultural relativism

 "Fire burns both here and in Persia, human institutions change under our very eyes".

There is a central doctrine running through Western civilization which holds that human nature is fundamentally the same everywhere, that local variations are unimportant, that there are universal human goals, a logically connected structure of laws and generalization susceptible to demonstration through logic or through the scientific method.

The Enlightenment accepted and built upon this doctrine by emphasizing the autonomy of reason and the scientific method. Rival claims of knowledge based upon tradition or revelation were firmly rejected.  This position was naturally opposed by the Church and by religious thinkers but the lack of common ground between both camps made mutual compromise impossible. A more serious challenge emerged from the romantic movement in the reemergence of an equally ancient doctrine: cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism is the belief that value judgments and the institutions founded upon them did not rest on firm universal grounds, but on human opinion which was variable and differed between societies; that therefore no universal truths could in principle be established.  In this post I will outline the seven key thinkers who constructed, mostly accidentally, the tower of cultural relativism.

Montesquieu was a mid-18th century political thinker best known for the theory of separation of state powers and who helped fell the great tree of Enlightenment universal rationalism to clear the land for the emergence of culture relativism.  Montesquieu argued that although human ends may be the same, the means for achieving them depend upon local conditions such as soil, climate and political institutions. The basic notion is a general pluralism that men are not the same everywhere, that institutions that serve Dublin may not suit Dubai. He profoundly shocked by suggesting that the Aztec religion, not Christianity, might be best for the Aztec people, and that religious truths should be evaluated by pragmatic means.

David Hume
Montesquieu may have helped fell the tree of universal rationalism, but David Hume cleared the land for new growths and ideas. Hume cast doubt upon two key rationalist axioms. First he undermined the causal relationship by claiming things are not necessitated but merely follow each other in a regulate manner. That is, X->Y does not mean Y is caused by X, rather Y regularly happens after X.  Secondly, he asked the inconvenient question of how we know the external world really exists? The answer must rest upon a form of belief and cannot be proved through mathematical propositions with deductive certainty.

Johann Hamann
The logical impact Hume's ideas handed the Romantic Counter-Enlightenment the tools to dig the foundations of cultural relativism. One of these was Johann Hamann, a mid-18th century Pietist Lutheran, who built the foundation on the work of Hume.  Hamann, whose writing is considered near incomprehensible, believed God spoke directly to every soul and the universe is known by faith not reason because the general propositions of the science can never catch the living reality, the flow, of life. Truth can only discovered by humans through communication because we think in symbols and words, and so language is how we express ourselves. God was a poet, not a mathematician.

Johann Gottfried Herder
Johann Herder was a protege of Hamann and deeply influenced by his theories of language. Herder's fundamental contribution to the tower of relativism is the doctrine of  expressionism.  This is a doctrine of art; that some things are made by individuals and some by groups, consciously and unconsciously, in a stream of inherited of traditional images. Art then must be analysed in terms of the particular group and we must understand the culture, the whole, to understand the person; different ages had different ideals which were valid for that time and place.  It is in Herder that we find the metaphor of human society developing organically, plant like, rather through forced social engineering of the sciences. Language for Herder is a bond which unites a society to it's past through myth, symbols and rituals which a society and individuals expressed themselves by.

William Blake 
The foundations are almost complete but the German architects were assisted assorted by English poets and artists like Byron and Willaim Blake. Such artists felt suffocated by the tidy categorical order imposed on reality by scientists and philosophers like Newtwon and Locke; scientists  who killed reality by cutting and discecting it into dead mathematical pieces for easy study. Blake captured this feeling succinctly when he wrote: "Art is the tree of life, science is the tree of death."

The tower of cultural relativism.
The tower was now fully erected and was soon inhabited by those who answered the Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humbold's call for an anthropology to synthesize Kant and Herder's ideas. The modern tower has many rooms, rooms  grouped into dormitories with names like Ethnocentrism, Cultural Imperialism, Critical Theory,  Queer Theory, Gender Roles. But most worryingly is the dormitory called moral relativism, the complete rejection of all universal morality, a position never intended by the architects but perhaps the logical conclusion of their thought. 

The history of ideas tend to obey a law of ironic unintended consequences. The Tower of Cultural Relativism was constructed by men who hated the diversity and the entirety of life being discected and categorized by the natural sciences, and yet their Tower with its inhabitants dislike of cosmopolitanism and universalism would later do exactly that by dividing and categorizing men and women into an ever increasing number of classes and hierarchies.
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