Relativism in the Social Sciences

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Relativism is central to the social sciences for the simple reason that customs and morals are diverse, and explaining this diversity is one of its major tasks. The explanations have relativistic implications, but they vary according to the type of explanation. In the nineteenth century evolutionary explanations dominated: differences were relative to stages. The social determination of ideas followed from these accounts, but could be logically separated from them. In the twentieth century, accounts based on the culture concept, understood loosely in neo-Kantian terms as a matter of different shared presuppositions, dominated. This conception informed a relativistic methodological approach to history and disciplinary differences, exemplified in the methodological writings of Max Weber, where they were related to values. This was more radical, in the sense that there was no further explanation of the presuppositions. They simply differed. As this conception was expanded into the epistemic realm, it became even more radical, by being applied to science itself. The “Strong Programme in the sociology of science” observed a principle of symmetry, which held that true and false scientific beliefs needed to be explained using the same explanatory tools. In each of these cases problems of reflexivity and self-undermining played a role.

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Relativism in the Social Sciences, in M. Kusch (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism, Routledge, p. 416-424