Pro-Social Relativism in Ancient Chinese Thought
Basic Program instructor Stephen Walker examines Daoist arguments that relativism is crucial for healthy human interaction.
About the Event
Presented by Basic Program instructors and open to all, these lectures also complement the texts and ideas from our curriculum and always include a Q&A session.
“Relativism” plays a peculiar role in English-speaking culture. On the one hand, a “relativist” would seem to be someone who sees truth, goodness, and other values as depending on diverse frameworks and perspectives. On the other, this person is typically imagined to be dogmatic in their relativism, using it to trivialize or invalidate other people’s views. Today’s talk will explore two claims rooted in the classical Daoist tradition. The first claim is that someone who thinks in a relativistic way will simply not be prone to dogmatism; the second is that their relativism will manifest primarily as openness toward other people’s views. Together these imply that the conversation-stopping “relativist” is a fictional straw man, that a lot of what we see as healthy in social interaction (curiosity, empathy, flexibility) draws on relativistic thinking, and that any cultural aversion we have to acknowledging this draws on anti-social conceptions of what truth or goodness would ultimately need to be.
Basic Program Instructor
Stephen C. Walker holds a PhD in Philosophy of Religions from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He studies philosophy and the history of philosophy across multiple traditions; his research focuses on classical Chinese thought and especially on Daoism. Walker has also worked extensively with Sanskrit materials, particularly those reflecting the classical heritage of exacting interreligious debate. Interests that inform his writing and teaching include the personal and social contexts for philosophical work, the ambiguity and malleability of concepts, and the role that humanistic studies can play in cultivating appreciation for diverse points of view.