The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism
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The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism

Martin Kusch, Martin Kusch

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism

Martin Kusch, Martin Kusch

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About This Book

Relativism can be found in all philosophical traditions and subfields of philosophy. It is also a central idea in the social sciences, the humanities, religion and politics. This is the first volume to map relativistic motifs in all areas of philosophy, synchronically and diachronically. It thereby provides essential intellectual tools for thinking about contemporary issues like cultural diversity, the plurality of the sciences, or the scope of moral values.

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism is an outstanding major reference source on this fundamental topic. The 57 chapters by a team of international contributors are divided into nine parts:

  • Relativism in non-Western philosophical traditions
  • Relativism in Western philosophical traditions
  • Relativism in ethics
  • Relativism in political and legal philosophy
  • Relativism in epistemology
  • Relativism in metaphysics
  • Relativism in philosophy of science
  • Relativism in philosophy of language and mind
  • Relativism in other areas of philosophy.

Essential reading for students and researchers in all branches of philosophy, this handbook will also be of interest to those in related subjects such as politics, religion, sociology, cultural studies and literature.

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Relativism in non-Western philosophical traditions

Relativism in the Indian tradition

Examining the viewpoints (dṛṣṭis)

Sthaneshwar Timalsina

1. Introduction

Thinking about classical Indian philosophy in light of relativism is a challenging hermeneutic task. There are no readymade volumes in the classical literature that we can identify under this category. Siderits argues along these lines that “the cultural factors that make relativism a pressing issue for us were largely absent from the classical Indian context, so that the various forms of relativism do not receive philosophical scrutiny in the Indian tradition” (2016, 24). The fundamental problem in thinking about Indian philosophy through relativism is not that there are no readymade texts but that scholars refrain from engaging relativism, as if it is taboo or a disease that philosophers need to stay away from (e.g. Siderits 2016, 31, 35). My own approach to relativism is relativistic, as I believe that endorsing relativism in one respect does not require one to be relativistic in all accounts. Just like any other “ism,” relativism should be handled as a device to fathom human nature and to help humanity negotiate a perplexing, complex social reality. When we open ourselves to read classical Indian materials through the lens of relativism, we encounter a wealth of materials. Dialogues recorded in Vedic literature epitomize cultural fluidity, diversity and an openness to perspectives. Traditions have adopted perspectivism to make sense of an otherwise bewildering variety of commentarial literature with conflicting interpretations. The problem then is we encounter a semblance of relativism and can be easily misdirected. Before we assign epistemic relativism in the Jain “multiperspectivalism” (anekāntavāda) or moral relativism in the Mahābhārata or meaning relativism in Bhartṛhari’s philosophy of language, we need to carefully define the categories and explore the parameters.
Cultural pluralism was a norm in classical India and every region dealt with religious differences. Everyday society also incorporated linguistic differences and grammarians such as Patañjali were keenly aware of dialectical variations even within a single language. Combined with polytheism and panpsychism, India is founded upon the co-existence of different and at times, conflicting viewpoints. Written in this cultural milieu, texts such as Bhagavadgīta endorsed different soteriological approaches by necessity, to combine multiple methods for liberation. It is not possible to address all these issues in a few pages. I therefore limit myself to re-examination of some of Nāgārjuna’s claims, keeping in mind both classical and contemporary interpretations. I explore, in particular, the doctrine of “two truths” and Nāgārjuna’s interpretation of the “viewpoints” (dṛṣṭis). In so doing, I am open to drawing parallels and initiating a cross-cultural dialogue on relativism. In conclusion, this conversation boils down to relativism leading to truth skepticism on the one hand and pluralism and hierarchical truth predications on the other.

2. Nāgārjuna on viewpoints (dṛṣṭis)

Nāgārjuna (150–250) is one of the major Buddhist philosophers and the founder of the Mādhyamika school. Scholars have primarily read his philosophy for its dialectical methods, rejection of substantialism, and interpretation of the doctrine of “emptiness” (śūnyatā). Most importantly, he is known for his pioneering doctrine of “two truths” (dve satye) and deconstruction of “viewpoints” (dṛṣṭi). Nāgārjuna introduces a unique logical method that reduces the opponent’s viewpoints to absurdity (reductio ad absurdum) to defend his position that there is no inherent nature (svabhāva), whether by ontological truth claims regarding substance, or epistemic claims regarding reality – including the limits to human rationality. Nāgārjuna explores any proposition in terms of fourfold possible extremes (koṭi), eventually proving it absurd to adopt any one of those extremes.
Regarding the inherent nature (svabhāva) of being and things, Nāgārjuna posits and then refutes that:
  1. (1) Things have inherent nature (“is” thesis).
  2. (2) Things do not have inherent nature (“is not” thesis).
  3. (3) Things simultaneously possess and lack inherent nature (“is and is not” thesis).
  4. (4) Things lack both the inherent nature and the lack thereof (not – “is and is not” thesis).
Regarding causality, he likewise proposes as categories that:
  1. (1) Things emerge because of the internal factors (“svataḥ” or “from within” thesis).
  2. (2) Things emerge because of the external factors (“parataḥ” or “from without” thesis).
  3. (3) Things emerge due both to the internal as well as the external factors (“dvābhyām” or “from both” thesis).
  4. (4) Things emerge without any cause (“ahetutaḥ” or from “no cause” thesis).
In rendering this thesis of an “intrinsic nature” (svabhāva) absurd, Nāgārjuna establishes the doctrine of “emptiness” (śūnyatā). Examining this discussion historically, what he says is that, just like aggregates do not have their own intrinsic nature (the position that the Abhidharma school has endorsed), so also do the building blocks of the manifest reality, the so-called dharmas, not have any inherent nature. The tricky part is that he is not advocating this last statement as his thesis. The argument is if the emptiness of inherent nature were a thesis, this would be tantamount to endorsing absolutism by another name. Therefore, the negation of intrinsic nature is just a negation. The problem is that this understanding only partially captures the way Nāgārjuna has been historically understood. Reading Nāgārjuna is perplexing for both the classical commentators and contemporary scholars alike. The following verse is ground-zero of our investigation:
There are obviously two different ways to understand this passage. It can mean that phenomenal truth exists and only applies to conventional reality and that absolute truth transcends language and concepts. This understanding of a hierarchy of truth does not reject truth claims, and can be interpreted in two different ways: first, that there are two tiers of truth, or second, that there are different sets of truths. In another possible interpretation of “two truths,” this verse can also be explained by truth that is conceived of in the “covered” (saṃvṛti) state. For example, a truth such as seeing a sand dune as mirage or a rope as a snake, does not amount to actual truth due to its origination within a state of delusion. As a result, this view asserts that truth only exists corresponding to the way the entities are (parama-artha-taḥ). Therefore, a correspondence theory of truth underlies this interpretation. And if this position is followed, Nāgārjuna would not be making any anti-foundational claim in the exalted sense. This reading, however, would contradict Nāgārjuna’s own proclamation that there is no “inherent nature” (svabhāva), as this would simply be replacing one form of absolutism with another. This would also contradict Nāgārjuna’s direct statement that openly rejects absolutism regarding emptiness (śūnyatā):
Keeping these straightforward stanzas in mind, Siderits argues that the term paramārtha or “the way the things are” does not confirm any ultimate truth, but on the contrary, “the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth” (Siderits 1989, 231). Garfield confirms this same interpretation:
There are two possible responses to the preceding statements, and both were historically applied by Nāgārjuna. One response is to reject such a claim, demonstrating circularity in its logic, arguing that even this amounts to a truth claim. The other is to apply linguistic or conceptual tactics to interpret negation while keeping open the possibility of speaking about the truth. The current conversation on relativism claims a central place in this shift from a correspondence theory of truth. Whether to understand Nāgārjunian claims as metaphysical or semantic is not a new quandary. So far, recent discussions and arguments are a flimsy replica of the debate between the Prāsaṅgika and the Svātantrika readings sustained over millennia.3 The dilemma though is if this is a rejection of the absolute truth, and the conventional is not the “truth” per se, there is no truth to defend. With this view, the category “truth” would be fictitious, like rabbit-horn. And if this is only the rejection of absolute truth but not of relative truth and therefore interdependent truth, this would mean that truth is always relative, perspectival, and this position is not a rejection of “truth.”

3. Truth: metaphysical or semantic

If what Nāgārjuna meant is that there are two truths, this would be a metaphysical theory, a theory about the ultimate nature of reality. The semantic interpretation recognizes this proclamation as not about the nature of reality but about the nature of truth. Siderits explains that, “all things are empty [means] that the ultimate truth [has] no ultimate truth – there is only conventional truth” (Siderits 2003, 11). This would help to separate truth claims from metaphysical reality and we could say, the statement “Rāvaṇa had ten heads” is true based on narratives, irrespective of the possible existence of such a monster. Returning to the position of “two truths,” a semantic interpretation claims that no statement can be ultimately true. Siderits argues further, “Given that dharmas must be things with intrinsic natures, if nothing can bear an intrinsic nature, then there is nothing for ultimately true statements to be about; hence the very notion of ultimate truth is incoherent” (2003, 11–12). It appears Siderits draws from Hilary Putnam to develop a thesis that requires the rejection of any singular truth regarding the nature of reality that would presuppose a model of metaphysical realism. The target is to reject “emptiness” (śūnyatā) itself as a metaphysical claim. And this position omits the demolition of such a premise by the logical fallacy of circularity. To say that “there is no final truth about reality” would also apply to the claim that “all things are empty,” which of course one would expect the Mādhyamika philosophers to reject. And historically some have taken this route. Siderits, however, suggests that even the claim “all things are empty” is only conventionally true.
Re-contextualization of the claims is necessary to establish any form of relativism based on the aforementioned position. To say that truth is only conventional, the conclusion derived from Siderits’ reading, opens up a potential space for multiple perspectives in which all retain a degree of validity. This, however, is not what Siderits proposes and it deviates from Nāgārjuna’s position, as it yet again underlies a supposition on the truth per se; specifically that, in an underlying metaphysical claim, even absolute truth can only be relatively revealed. The rejection of absolute truth does not, however, confirm the validity of viewpoints (dṛṣṭi), as has already been argued. To assume all that can be spoken of truth are just viewpoints does not mean the same judgment can’t be true in one perspective while false in another. Nāgārjuna is not proposing that the human encounter with reality is mediated by language or culture. But if we were to read that “two truth” theory affirms perspectives, while not discrediting the category truth in the ultimate sense, we can derive that truth is relatively revealed in different modes. We can now engage G. Ferraro’s (2013) arguments with this new accommodation to address relativism.
Ferraro argues against this semantic reading, maintaining that Nāgārjuna’s doctrine of “two truths” upholds “two visions of reality on which the Buddhas, for soteriological and pedagogical reasons, build teachings of two types” (2013, 563). Emptiness (śūnyatā), in this reading, is in fact “equivalent to supreme truth.” To make his claim, Ferraro first divides the metaphysical claims into two groups:
  1. (1) a realistic metaphysical reading that considers “supreme truth an existing and somehow characterizable dimension,” and
  2. (2) an anti-realistic metaphysical reading that denies the “existence of supreme truth” and affirms “existence exclusively of ordinary reality” (2013, 566).
Now the argument is that whatever applies to our pedagogical approach also applies to the use of language: our use of language or words are relational, and while our objective may be to speak the “truth,” given that there are metaphysical truths to be conveyed by language, our approaches can vary. Consequently, we can derive that the conventional is a necessary step, that we can discuss truth only conventionally. And since it is counterintuitive to conceive of the “conventional” as being a single perspective, the discourse on truth automatically becomes perspectival and relational. This claim, therefore, could reject both the metaphysical claim, and the validity of the so-called supreme truth. The fundamental divergence in this interpretation with Siderits and Garfield (2013) arises due to confusion between metaphysical and semantic interpretations. Siderits and Garfield argue that semantic interpretation does not interpret “two tru...

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APA 6 Citation
Kusch, M. (2019). The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
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Kusch, Martin. (2019) 2019. The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
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Kusch, M. (2019) The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
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Kusch, Martin. The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.