Epistemological Relativism: Nature and Problems

Dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo (1994)

Relativistic accounts of scientific knowledge have become more popular over the past thirty years than, perhaps, at any time previous to this. Ever since Kuhn offered his account of science in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the philosophy of science has had to contend with various accounts of scientific truth ranging from Kuhnian type positions to the most radical positions such as that of Feyerabend. Relativism has not simply been limited to the philosophy of science, however. More and more, thinkers sympathetic with relativism in the philosophy science have become interested in knowledge claims in general. The work of Feyerabend and Rorty present the most notorious examples of this line of questioning, but such concerns are not limited to them or even a few people. Indeed, there has been a resurgence of a kind of pragmatism which considers itself, by some of its proponents, to be a variety of relativism. In a sense, accounting for scientific knowledge is viewed as a subset of the larger and more pressing problem of accounting for all knowledge. My discussion of relativism begins here. ;My dissertation is divided up into six chapters. In chapter one I discuss the Platonic objection to relativism which charges epistemological relativism with being self-refuting. As it happens, this objection goes very little distance towards convincing the relativist that their position is untenable. This exchange, and the ultimate failure of the Platonic argument to convince, is discussed so as to justify the development of a new approach. ;Chapters two and three set out to clarify what exactly epistemological relativism is, what varieties of epistemological relativism there are, and how they are related to each other. Such clarification is badly needed as confusion presently abounds concerning which views can properly be construed as relativist and which views qualify as certain types of relativism as opposed to others. The discussion in these two chapters serves as a foundation for the criticism of relativism I develop in the chapters focusing on the work of Joseph Margolis and Paul Feyerabend. ;My concern with Margolis and Feyerabend is only as examples of moderate relativism and radical relativism respectively. In essence I argue that both views are committed to views about the world, ontologies, which are so far from the common-sense view that the proponents' must provide a justification for their ontological commitments. This poses a serious problem because neither view is such that a justification of the ontology is permitted by the views' own commitments. By arguing as I do, I provide a novel objection to relativist epistemologies.
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