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Rationality and cultural relativism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R024-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

Under what conditions may we judge the practices or beliefs of another culture to be rationally deficient? Is it possible that cultures can differ so radically as to embody different and even incommensurable modes of reasoning? Are norms of rationality culturally relative, or are there culture-independent norms of rationality that can be used to judge the beliefs and practices of all human cultures?

In order to be in a position to make judgments about the rationality of another culture, we must first understand it. Understanding a very different culture itself raises philosophical difficulties. How do we acquire the initial translation of the language of the culture? Can we use our categories to understand the social practices of another culture, for instance, our categories of science, magic and religion? Or would the mapping of our categories on to the practices of culturally distant societies yield a distorted picture of how they construct social practices and institutions?

A lively debate has revolved around these questions. Part of the debate involves clarifying the difficult concepts of rationality and relativism. What sort of judgments of rationality are appropriate? Judgments about how agents’ reasons relate to their actions? Judgments about how well agents’ actions and social practices conform to the norms of their culture? Or judgments about the norms of rationality of cultures as such? Can relativism be given a coherent formulation that preserves the apparent disagreements for which it is meant to account?

Can there be incommensurable cultures, such that one culture could not understand the other? According to Donald Davidson’s theory of interpretation, radical translation requires the use of a principle of charity that in effect rules out the possibility of incommensurable cultures. If this result is accepted, then a strong form of cultural relativism concerning norms of rationality is also ruled out.

Davidson’s theory, some argue, does not eliminate the possibility of attributing irrational beliefs and practices to agents in other cultures, and thus still leaves some room for debate about how to understand and evaluate such beliefs and practices. Three positions frame the debate. The intellectualist position holds that judgments of rationality are in order across cultures. The symbolist and functionalist positions, here taken together, try to avoid such judgments by attributing functions or symbolic meanings to cultural practices that are generally not understood as such by the agents. The fideist position, wary of too easily being ethnocentric, assumes a more relativist stance with regard to cross-cultural judgments of rationality.

Citing this article:
Simon, Lawrence H.. Rationality and cultural relativism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R024-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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