Common Knowledge 17 (1):1-12 (2011)

Abstract
This introduction to the Common Knowledge symposium titled “Comparative Relativism” outlines a variety of intellectual contexts where placing the unlikely companion terms comparison and relativism in conjunction offers analytical purchase. If comparison, in the most general sense, involves the investigation of discrete contexts in order to elucidate their similarities and differences, then relativism, as a tendency, stance, or working method, usually involves the assumption that contexts exhibit, or may exhibit, radically different, incomparable, or incommensurable traits. Comparative studies are required to treat their objects as alike, at least in some crucial respects; relativism indicates the limits of this practice. Jensen argues that this seeming paradox is productive, as he moves across contexts, from Lévi-Strauss's analysis of comparison as an anthropological method to Peter Galison's history of physics, and on to the anthropological, philosophical, and historical examples offered in symposium contributions by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Marilyn Strathern, and Isabelle Stengers. Comparative relativism is understood by some to imply that relativism comes in various kinds and that these have multiple uses, functions, and effects, varying widely in different personal, historical, and institutional contexts that can be compared and contrasted. Comparative relativism is taken by others to encourage a “comparison of comparisons,” in order to relativize what different peoples—say, Western academics and Amerindian shamans—compare things “for.” Jensen concludes that what is compared and relativized in this symposium are the methods of comparison and relativization themselves. He ventures that the contributors all hope that treating these terms in juxtaposition may allow for new configurations of inquiry.
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DOI 10.1215/0961754x-2010-029
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