Episode 52: The spectrum of relativism with Prof. Martin Kusch


Welcome to another episode of The Words Matter Podcast.

As usual, I want to start by thanking everyone that supports the show via Patreon and for those of you that share the podcast. The growth of the podcast over the past 6 months has been incredible, and I’m frequently getting messages from people across the globe and professional and academic landscape saying how much they’ve enjoyed the conversations – so a sincere thank you.

Like many of you, I’ve had a bit of a break over the summer and hopefully you have caught up on the incredible qualitative research series, so perfectly finished off by my chat with Prof. Dave Nichiolls.

And on this episode I’m continuing to explore the philosophical and conceptual side of the social world by speaking about relativism with Prof. Martin Kusch.

Martin is professor for applied philosophy of science and epistemology at the University of Vienna, and previously he was Professor of Philosophy and Sociology of science at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University.

Martin has published widely on the philosophy of social science, social epistemology, the sociology of knowledge and the history of psychology. He also has a long-standing interest in everything to do with relativism and has published extensively in the area, including the books The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism, Social Epistemology and Relativism, The Emergence of Relativism and Relativism in the philosophy of science

So on this episode we talk about:

  • Relativism as a spectrum concept, with many different views of the doctrine ranging from radical to the more subtle.
  • The many different domains of relativism, such as aesthetic value, taste, morality or epistemic justification.
  • Martin sets out his five key ingredients of relativism, regardless of view or form of relativism. These principles are: Standards dependence, plurality, conflict, convergence and symmetry.
  • How the commitment to equal validity, aka the ‘anything goes’ form of relativism is often by critics to define relativism in the most implausible way in order to attack it, and therefore can avoid engaging in the more nuanced, sensible and interesting versions of relativism.
  • Why our sense taste is often used as a ‘test case’ for the plausibility or implausibility of relativism.
  • We talk about the main opponent of relativism, namely absolutism.
  • How relativism provides us with a sense of epistemic humility, but importantly this does automatically assume a position of epistemic tolerance.
  • How methodological relativism has been used to good effect in the social sciences such as anthropology, ethnography and many of the qualitative research approaches which I've discussed on this podcast before.
  • Finally, Martin offers his views about the different ways that we might access a reality, and what relativism has to say about notions of a single objective reality.

So it was a complete privilege speaking with Martin – I’d been dreaming of wanting to explore relativism on the podcast for a long time and had been hovering over the direct message button on Martin’s Twitter profile for many months – his friendliness and enthusiasm to share his knowledge and expertise podcast was just brilliant.

He really is one of the foremost thinkers and writers of relativism, and here are some of his excellent talks and videos, including an excellent TedX talk he gave in 2019 titled Scientific expertise in the age of post-truth.

Find Martin on Twitter @MartinKusch

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