Cultural relativism  

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"Leo Strauss once suggested that if all laws are relative, then "cannibalism is a matter of taste."" --A Responsum on Questions of Conscience - Pagina 21, Samuel I. Korff, 1970, see cultural relativism


"If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably—after careful considerations of their relative merits—choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one's country." --Herodotus (Histories)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual's own culture. This principle was established as axiomatic in anthropological research by Franz Boas in the first few decades of the 20th century and later popularized by his students. Boas first articulated the idea in 1887: "...civilization is not something absolute, but ... is relative, and ... our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes." but did not actually coin the term "cultural relativism."

Cultural relativism involves specific epistemological and methodological claims. Whether or not these claims necessitate a specific ethical stance is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, this principle should not be confused with moral relativism.

Epistemological origins

Herodotus (Histories 3.38) observes on the relativity of mores (νόμοι):

"If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably—after careful considerations of their relative merits—choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one's country." (tr. Aubrey de Selincourt)

He mentions an anecdote of Darius the Great who illustrated the principle by inquiring about the funeral customs of the Greeks and the Callatiae, peoples from the extreme western and eastern fringes of his empire, respectively. They practiced cremation and funerary cannibalism, respectively, and were each dismayed and abhorred at the proposition of the other tribe's practices.

The epistemological claims that led to the development of cultural relativism have their origins in the German Enlightenment. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that human beings are not capable of direct, unmediated knowledge of the world. All of our experiences of the world are mediated through the human mind, which universally structures perceptions according to a priori concepts of time and space.

Although Kant considered these mediating structures universal, his student Johann Gottfried Herder argued that human creativity, evidenced by the great variety in national cultures, revealed that human experience was mediated not only by universal structures, but by particular cultural structures as well. The philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt called for an anthropology that would synthesize Kant and Herder's ideas.

Although Herder focused on the positive value of cultural variety, the sociologist William Graham Sumner called attention to the fact that one's culture can limit one's perceptions. He called this principle ethnocentrism, the viewpoint that "one’s own group is the center of everything," against which all other groups are judged.

See also

Case: humour

A sense of humour is the ability to experience humour, although the extent to which an individual will find something humorous depends on a host of variables, including geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, intelligence, and context. For example, young children may possibly favour slapstick, such as Punch and Judy puppet shows or cartoons (e.g., Tom and Jerry). Satire may rely more on understanding the target of the humour, and thus tends to appeal to more mature audiences.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Cultural relativism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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