CRITICS: Relativism

Brian Torode btorode at
Sat May 11 13:27:15 UTC 1996

Clearly the ongoing published work of productive writers such as Jonathan
and Teun deserves to be read and evaluated on its own merits: book-length
studies may require book-length replies.

That is not quite what we are engaged in here, however. Unavoidably we are
exchanging shorter messages. Some may be too short to be coherent at all,
notably one-word phrases (RELATIVISM) or even three-word phrases (CRITICAL
DISCOURSE ANALYSIS). Each of these can only be a gloss over elaborate
practices. They are more like badges, stickers, or tattoos than they are
like statements.

What worries me about the 'RELATIVISM' badge is that is draws attention
away from empirical study, into theoretical speculation which has been gone
on for thousands of years without making much progress. (Jonathan's debate
with Marxists in Manchester is presumably more of the same.) As a matter of
fact, I believe recent progress has been made in this debate, in the
seminal article by Garfinkel & Sacks, "On Formal Structures of Practical
Action". 1970, which  reviews writings on the subject from Greek times to
today. (For what amounts to a book-length explication of this article, see
Michael Lynch, _Scientific Practice and ordinary action_, Cambridge 1993.)

G&S offer a solution to the ancient problem of OBJECTIVITY (some statements
are absolute, and these are the ones we should aim for in philosophy or
science) versus INDEXICALITY (some statements are context-bound,
autobiographical, subjective, biassed etc: science and philosophy should
find _methods_ to escape these). Their solution is that all statements are
unavoidably indexical, but that nonetheless on a daily basis we unavoidably
do use _methods_ to try to achieve that objectivity-for-practical-purposes
by means of which to live our lives. This, I am sure, is what Teun alludes
to with his domain (b) for disocurse analysis: when he says "we may well,
and do usually accept some kind of foundations and the 'methods' to arrive
at 'truths'". Ethno-methodology is the study of these folk-methods,
including the study those of folk who are self-styled "philosophers" or
"scientists", or even "Professors of Discourse Analysis". The proposed
study is an empirical examination of everyday practical action in context.
So if we are into badges and tattoos here, mine would read INDEXICALITY,
and this is what it would mean. This approach is critical of claims to
objectivism, but does not proceed by setting up a new -ism of its own.

I admire much of what Jonathan has done, and I look forward to reading his
new book. But his messages so far this week are one-sided. They neglect the
need to live from day to day, and to have a practical foundation for doing
so. His own is, I am sure, quite secure, so he does not have to worry about
it. Instead, he imagines life as a "debate" as in his definition of
"scientific orthodoxy" as "those scientists who happened to have been
victorious in some debate". Of course scientists _do_ "debate" with one
another, but most of us for practical purposes don't pay any attention. We
eat the beef unquestioningly, until a scare story reaches the media. Then
what do we do? A few of us do now start to pay detailed attention to the
"debate"--the pronouncements of scientists and politicians on this subject
and others. But most people do not have time or inclination for this: they
have to respond in a practical manner.

McDonalds responded in a practical manner, by buying Dutch beef, while
precisely refusing to join the "debate"--their CEO said he had no personal
problem with British beef. Chancellor Kohl behaved the same way when fed
medallions of beef for lunch by J. Major. We do not know in detail how
families and other ordinary consumers are responding, it would be
interesting to examine this issue.  No doubt a range of "superstitions"
(unproven _ad hoc_ assumptions) are involved: beef steak is OK, not beef
burgers; Scottish beef is OK, not English beef; it's OK if your steak is
not rare or raw, roasted not grilled; etc.

It is also _possible_  that on the basis of this experience some ordinary
persons are provoked into more radical questioning of "scientific"  or
"political"  versions of objective truth, in ways Jonathan might identify
as 'RELATIVISTIC'. If so this would be extremely interesting for critical
discourse analysis. (It is often claimed that Television Audiences nowadays
behave in this way.) But we could only discover it by painstaking
descriptive study in context.

In summary, INDEXICALITY--which will always be with us--is the way to
'RELATIVISM', 'OBJECTIVISM', 'FUNDAMENTALISM' and the other absolutisms
which rise and fall as fashions and fads in the long ongoing march of daily

         Brian Torode
         Trinity College
         Dublin, 2, Ireland
         btorode at

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