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Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy

Erich von Dietze reviews Steven D. Hales’s book, Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy. Below is an excerpt available in metapsychology:

his book is a dense and carefully argued defense of relativism. I had once thought that I had sorted out my views on relativism but this book has made me think again, and much more carefully.

The introduction gives a guide to the shape of the overall argument. Without this overview in mind, it would be easy to become sidetracked at various points.

It must be underscored that Hales is defending a very specific sense of relativism, namely that “philosophical propositions are true in some perspectives and false in others” (p.1-2). This is not the form in which arguments about relativism are commonly written. Hales’ position depends on a theory of intuition. He contends that philosophers have long founded their arguments on various forms of intuition (p.13-14) but the notion of intuition itself remains philosophically unclear at best. He suggests that there seem to be two sorts of intuition “One kind of intuition is scientific or physical intuition, and the other is philosophical or rational intuition” (p.12). Physical intuition is a hunch, based on experience, about how we think the world works. Physical intuition can (potentially) be verified or falsified by future experiences. Philosophical intuition is more about ‘thought experiments’ which challenge or progress our thinking. This tradition largely has its origins in Descartes, but its genesis can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosophers. Based on Descartes conception, Hales states:

1) Intuition is of propositions

2) The propositions known through intuition are necessary truths

3) Intuitive knowledge is foundational

4) Intuitive knowledge is indubitable” (p.15)

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