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Cognitive (or epistemological) relativism is the view that every belief is bound to some individual, group, place, or time—whence there are no objective, cross-cultural, and universal truths. According to it, what is true for us may be false for them. Hence, all beliefs would be equivalent. Whence there would be no point in searching for objective truths. Consequently, there would be no such thing as objective advancement of knowledge. Under cover of the search for truth there would only be struggle for power. Therefore, the task of the relativist would be to unmask (‘deconstruct’) scientiﬁc discourse and expose the powers lurking behind it. How this task can be accomplished without ﬁnding out what is really, truly the case, is not being explained.
1. Relations To Skepticism, Constructivism, And Postmodernism
1.1 Relativism Is An Aspect Of Skepticism
Cognitive relativism is an aspect of systematic (as opposed to methodological) skepticism. This is the view that truth is unattainable, whence ‘anything goes.’ It is part of anthropological relativism, and a frequent concomitant of axiological and moral relativism (‘All value systems and moral codes are equivalent’). Relativism opposes absolutism, the view that all verities are both universal and timeless, hence uncontroversial. It also opposes scientiﬁc realism, which holds that there are universal truths, such as ‘Agency and structure are mutually dependent.’ But realism contends that, unlike mathematical theorems, propositions about matters of fact may be only approximately true, yet corrigible in the light of further discussion and new evidence. Thus, scientiﬁc realism is antidogmatic and moderate, whereas relativism is neither. In small doses, skepticism whets the appetite for research; in large doses, it extinguishes such appetite.
1.2 Constructivism Entails Relativism
Constructivism can be cognitive or ontological. The former holds that concepts and hypotheses are human constructions rather than either innate ideas or the product of revelation, perception, or intuition. Ontological constructivism claims that the knower makes the world. Cognitive psychology has conﬁrmed the hypothesis that all concepts and hypotheses are constructed rather than given. By contrast, ontological constructivism strains credibility. Moreover, it is destructive, because it dispenses with any tests aiming at checking whether a hypothesis matches the facts it refers to. In particular, it denies the diﬀerence between reality and appearance, which may be deceiving: it bans recurrent questions of the forms ‘What is really the case?’ and ‘Which of the two hypotheses is the truer?’
Whether ontological or epistemological, constructivism comes in two varieties: individualist and social. Whereas according to the former the individual is the source of everything, according to the latter the social group, in particular the scientiﬁc community, constructs whatever it studies, even natural things such as stars. Whether individualist or collectivist, ontological constructivism implies cognitive relativism. However, cognitive relativism can be held, and is usually held, independently of ontological constructivism. After all, it is logically possible to admit the reality of the external world while claiming that it is impossible to know it objectively, hence intersubjectively. Therefore, relativism must be evaluated separately from constructivism.
1.3 Relativism Is A Component Of Postmodernism
What is usually called ‘postmodernism’ in social studies and in philosophy is neither a worldview nor a method: it just boils down to the rejection of the ideals of rationality and objectivity. Cognitive relativism ﬁts in with postmodernism because it denies the superiority of rigorous reasoning over ‘weak thought,’ as well as the possibility and desirability of attaining objective knowledge. It is unfazed by hard social statistics, or even by the ﬁndings of natural science. It ignores the diﬀerence between ‘I feel cold’ and ‘The room temperature is below the freezing point,’ and a fortiori between ‘That government is generally perceived as corrupt,’ and ‘The audits found that the government oﬃcials are regularly bribed.’
2. The Alleged Accomplishments Of Cognitive Relativism
2.1 Relativistic Epistemology
Cognitive relativism is suggested by the multiplicity of simultaneous or successive rival views about many a domain of facts. Actually, such variety only goes to prove that scientiﬁc research does not guarantee instant, complete, and deﬁnitive truth, let alone instant worldwide diﬀusion. Experience shows abundantly that we often obtain approximately true data and hypotheses, which can usually be improved upon. For instance, water was ﬁrst regarded as simple and continuous, later as constituted by HO molecules, and nowadays as made up of H O molecules—and moreover as a mixture of light and heavy water. Scientiﬁc realism accounts for such successive approximations to the exact objective truth.
The denial of the possibility of objective truth has several consequences. One is that it discourages the very search for truth. Another is that it renders the idea of error unintelligible since, by deﬁnition, error is discrepancy from truth. A third consequence of relativism is that it regards all controversies as unending unless stopped by nonscientiﬁc means, such as authority or negotiation—which invites censorship. A fourth is that, by placing magical thinking on the same footing with critical thinking, it debases a key accomplishment of modernity. By the same token, it deprives people of a key tool to diagnose deceit and resist arbitrary authority.
2.2 Relativistic Sociology Of Knowledge
Constructivist–relativist sociologists of science have been known to claim to study the sociology of peptides, rather than that of peptide-research laboratories. Moreover, they contend that scientiﬁc research is a kind of struggle for power, not truth. They miss the two main generally acknowledged motivations of basic scientists, namely curiosity and peer recognition. This explains why they have not helped explain the occurrence of any of the scientiﬁc breakthroughs in recent decades, such as the birth of tectonic plate geology, molecular biology, the neurobiological study of the mind, or socioeconomics. Understanding the search for truth requires realizing that this is what scientiﬁc research is all about.
Worse yet, although the constructivist–relativists talk much about power, they overlook the main loci of social power: politics, business, and organized religion. This explains why they have not studied such important facts as the campaigns against evolutionary biology; the budget cuts in pure mathematics, sociology, and the humanities under conservative governments; the persistent overlooking of naturalist (materialist) philosophies in the philosophy curricula; or the current toleration of charlatanism in the faculties of arts alongside the continuing demand for rigor in the faculties of science, engineering, medicine, and law.
2.3 Relativistic Pedagogy
If there is no objective truth, but only opinion, the teacher’s mission is not to teach but to promote the confrontation of rival views. In this view, the teacher is not a master craftsman but a moderator, and the student is not an apprentice but a discussant. This is in fact how many university classrooms have functioned in the US and in Europe since the mid-1960s: not as learning centers but as debating clubs. Such transformation has had two eﬀects, one positive and the other negative. The former consists in a lessening of the dogmatism, authoritarianism, and stodginess of traditional education. However, this liberation has also deprived students of the motivation and discipline required to learn diﬃcult ideas and procedures— among them the art of informed rational discussion. Consequently, the graduates of relativistic pedagogy have few skills to sell. The most they can hope for is a university post where they can turn students away from serious learning.
3. Intellectual And Social Roots
Skepticism has waxed and waned in diﬀerent periods since antiquity. It is likely that it prospers in times of social crisis, when the established order of things is challenged, and a number of individuals lose their old faith but are not yet ready to embrace any new belief system. In this connection, it has been claimed that relativism is a perverse eﬀect of egalitarianism and liberalism. However, the Enlightenment and its heirs endorsed reason and science, which they regarded as universal. Their targets were despotism and religious dogma. Much the same holds for the Renaissance skeptics, such as Francisco Sanches and the early modern skeptics, such as Bayle, Montaigne, and Hume. But this does not hold for the ancient skeptics, such as Sextus Empiricus, who only criticized the ignorance and petulance of the professors of their time.
The postmodern skeptics, from the constructivist– relativists to the academic feminists and the ‘deep ecologists,’ are of a diﬀerent color. Unlike the skeptics of old, they seldom argue cogently: typically, they just pile assertion upon assertion. Some of them attack reason and science out of horror of the nuclear bomb and other misuses of science. Others seem just alienated from the more rigorous, demanding, and rewarding disciplines. Some are suspicious of science because they confuse it with positivism. Others, because they mistake physical relativity (dependence of the values of certain physical magnitudes upon the reference frame) for cognitive relativism. Still others invoke either the Marxist thesis that ideas are produced by social classes, or the subjectivism inherent in phenomenology and hermeneutics.
The current vogue of cognitive relativism is further congruent with two contemporary social and intellectual currents and attitudes: individualism and uncritical nonconformism. The radical individualists, such as the members of the so-called ‘me-generation,’ claim that their own views are not inferior to any others. And the emotional non-conformists do not use social science to diagnose or cure social ills: they just revolt against all the powers that be—political, economic, and cultural. They mistrust or even reject the entire culture that comes with the social order they reject. In particular, they reject mathematics, science, and technology—some, for regarding them as tools of ‘late capitalism.’
Cognitive relativism, like skepticism in general, has a grain of truth, namely, the thesis that all propositions about matters of fact are in principle fallible. But, to be realistic and fertile, fallibilism must be combined with meliorism, or the thesis that error can be corrected. What counts as truth in science and technology, even as partial truth, is universalizable. If a view is only acceptable to some people, then it is not scientiﬁc but aesthetic or ideological. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder: truth is not. Unless this be admitted, it becomes impossible to distinguish science from pseudoscience and ideology, to tell science-based technology from quackery, and humanity from tribe. Worse yet, relativism undermines democracy and the rule of law, because both require rational debate and agreement about the truth or falsity of certain claims, such as, for example, whether the family is in decline, and whether ‘wars on crime’ work. In short, relativism paralyzes.
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