Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Contra Strauss, Historicism Is Not the Same As Relativism

Apparently Leo Strauss, and certainly many of his acolytes, use the term "historicism" as if it were a synonym for "relativism." Now, it is possible for someone to practice "relativist historicism" I guess, but for most important thinkers who might be labeled "historicists," the charge of "relativism" is false. It might help to think of this first in areas aside from ethics as it relates to historical cases, so we can understand it in a less charged atmosphere.

Let us say that a critic of the Ancient Romans declares, "They were fools: they had to calculate things all the time, and yet they never invented the computer." This complaint is, of course, ridiculous: there were centuries of technological development that had to occur before the computer could be invented, and so it is no fault of the Romans that they failed to invent it.

Similarly, imagine someone scolding a three-year-old child as follows: "By watching that television program sponsored by Monsanto, you are offering your support to a giant recipient of corporate welfare, a lawsuit-happy foe of the small farmer, and a destroyer of the environment." The point here is not whether any of these charges against Monsanto are true, but rather that a child of three is in no position to evaluate such issues. It will take years of intellectual development before she can begin to even discuss them. For now, she is being "good" if she shares her toys with her brother, and "bad" if she hits him.

While these cases show the historical contingency of practical judgments, they are not a case for relativism. If a Roman engineer failed to calculate the number of stones needed for a job using the best tools available, he would be blameworthy for doing so. If the three-year-old smacks her brother it is reasonable to discipline her. Their own possible thoughts that they were doing right do not exonerate them: we can look at their circumstances, and see that, given that situation, they should have known better.

As I replied to Samson when he asked about this in a comment, if one thinks historicism implies relativism, one should ask oneself: "Does pointing out that quantum mechanics could not have been developed before the 19th-century advances in physics commit one to scientific relativism, and a belief that Aristotle's physics are every bit as good as ours?" No, but it does mean comprehending that Aristotle's physics was about the best that could have been developed at that time and place, and realizing it would be silly to condemn him for not formulating Newton's laws of motion.

Morals, too, develop over time. It also would be ridiculous to condemn the American founders for not giving women the vote: basically no one at the time of the founding, not even women, was considering such a thing. (Wollstonecraft's groundbreaking book did not appear until 1792.) On the other hand, since they themselves were expressing reservations about slavery, it is a quite different question whether or not they should be condemned for their handling of that issue: the idea that slavery is wrong was already well developed by that time.


  1. Do you think there's any way to reconcile this type of historicism which you've proposed with a Mengerian outlook on economic theory? I think Public Choice theory could be one option.

    1. I don't think there is any real problem: see, for instance, Collingwood, who was a historicist of this sort and yet wrote the essay "Economics as a philosophical science" that Mises liked so much.

    2. Thank you for the reading suggestion. Perhaps "relate" would have been a better choice of words than "reconcile".

      Just in case you're interested, there was an article critiquing Leo Strauss in the last volume of Studies of Burke and His Times: http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/burke/journal/


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