Definitions and Discussions of Culture

Richard A. Shweder, A Logical Argument for Relativism
From Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in CulturalPsychology , 1991



Richard A.Shweder, in this quote from his book of essays on culture, summarizes theproblem of multiple, coexisting, closely-interacting cultural systems. Hissolution to the problem is to accept relativism and to be accepting of thecontradictions different cultures have relative to one another.

Quotation Marks


Consider the following four propositions. Each will seem plausible tosome readers, yet taken together they are incompatible. One or more of themmust be rejected, but which?
  1. We, the members of our ethnic group, are rationally justified in ourconception of things; for example, that when you are dead you are dead,that virtuous people can die young, that souls do not transmigrate, andthat authors have a natural inalienable right to publish works criticalof revealed truth.
  2. They, the members of some other ethnic group, have a different conceptionof things; for example, that the spirits of your dead ancestors can enteryour body and wreak havoc on your life, that widows are unlucky and shouldbe shunned, that a neighbor's envy can make you sick, that souls transmigrate,that nature is a scene of retributive causation and you get the death youdeserve, that a parody of scriptural revelation is blasphemous and blasphemersshould be punished.
  3. They, the members of that other ethnic group, are rationally justifiedin their conception of things.
  4. If others are rationally justified in their conception of things andthat conception is different than ours, then we cannot be rationally justifiedin our conception of things. Conversely, if we are rationally justifiedin our conception of things and that conception is different then theirs,then they cannot be rationally justified in their conception of things.
The four propositions are mutually incompatible. Accepting any three entailsrejection of the fourth. Here one is presented with a fateful choice, forrejecting first one and then another of the four can resolve the inconsistencyin a variety of ways.

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