Pro-Social Relativism in Ancient Chinese Thought

Basic Program instructor Stephen Walker examines Daoist arguments that relativism is crucial for healthy human interaction.

An Eastern Han Dynasty mural
Oct 07

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.

Who's Speaking

Stephen Walker

Stephen Walker

Basic Program Instructor

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