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The Case Against Cultural Evaluation: Relativism, Culturalism and Romanticism

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Abstract

In order to develop a universal account of enduring, immanent human interests upon which to mount a case against cultural sources of injury, it is necessary to overcome a series of ‘relativist’ claims regarding the nature of the human condition. My aim in this chapter is to unpack these claims and, by examining elements of the work of John Gray, to suggest means by which to overcome them. To do this, I outline, first, the empirical case against universalism and, second, the epistemological and methodological basis of the anti-universalist paradigms — social constructivism. I then identify three different, and to varying degrees incompatible, schematic claims. The first, anti-foundationalist, schema holds that there can be no objective basis for any form of evaluation as all matrices are pure, subjective constructs. The second, culturalist approach, departs normatively, if not analytically, from this position, arguing that matrices of evaluation do have validity but only within particular cultural-linguistic spheres. The third, romantic form is not relativistic at all, holding that the interests of humans lie in pre-modern societies with close ties to nature, and employing relativism instrumentally to check the advance of Western, industrial culture. Having detailed these positions, I then provide brief exegesis of one possible means of responding to their challenges — elements of the thought of John Gray. Gray’s pluralist perfectionist defence of objective, universal values and categories of well-being together with deployment of circumstance as an evaluative parameter, serve as a bridge to the remaining chapters of the book, in which I examine more fully ideas to which Gray refers only cursorily. I begin by discussing the historical development of contemporary, anthropological invocations of relativism.