Cultural Relativism as “Counter Enlightenment”

It was the intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin who coined the term “Counter-Enlightenment.”  He was referring to a widespread ideological-reactionary movement in the early 19th century — against the universalizing human rights doctrines which had originated in the 18th century Enlightenment and the French Revolution.  Berlin viewed this as primarily a German reaction, powerfully mobilized by the resistance to Napoleon’s wars of “liberation.”  Most prominently, pre-anthropological theorist Gottfried Herder had strongly insisted, not only on the multiplicity of viable cultural traditions, but also on a value-free “cultural relativism” (thereby condoning, by implication, feudalism, indentured servitude, female subjugation, and so forth).

Nonetheless, the doctrine itself, seemingly egalitarian and tolerant, was to set the groundwork for American cultural anthropology, founded around 1900 by the German scholar Franz Boas.  After all, colonialist massacres and expropriations of indigenous peoples had been previously justified by crude and racist notions of inferior “savages.”  But regrettably, not only did the anthropologists soon transform this vague doctrine into a virtually sacrosanct dogma, they intransigently proselytized an even more questionable (if not absurd) doctrine: cultural determinism.  In this prevailing assumption, individuals are born as merely raw, unfinished human specimens, to be entirely molded by the language and inclusive “world-view” of their Kultur.  This became a classic (and disastrous) example of mistaking a partial truth for the whole truth (if, ironically enough, such anthropologists even accepted such relative notions as “truth”!).

Those drawn to cultural anthropology in the 20th century were attracted by these twin dogmas, in which the individual human being was viewed as little more than a passive recipient and bearer of an all-embracing tradition.  (Whether the child’s initiation into normative culture was really so conflict-free was ignored.)  In part, the notion of a communal solidarity, in which actual persons were seamlessly embedded in, and wholly identified with, their supportive cultures, seemed on the surface egalitarian and “progressive” (in sharp contrast to the loneliness and personal alienation often suffered by those in industrial societies).  Yet there were a few anthropological dissenters who questioned this overly romantic construct: they pointed out that the real individuals they encountered “in the field” were sometimes sufficiently detached from their communities to offer acute insights about the limitations of such traditional life-ways.

Nonetheless, the vision of non-Western communitarian equality has proven highly seductive, and thus enduring, among cultural anthropologists (few of whom, by the late 20th century, had much regard for any rational evaluations of cultural practices).  Justifiably appalled by the global crimes of modern industrial States — the agents of techno-scientific war and conquest — such influential anthropologists even went so far as to dismiss the value of scientific reason itself (evidence, hypothesis-testing, etc.).

What explanations for causality were traditionally inculcated throughout most of the world?  Seeking an explanation for a sudden death; for instance, one culture might emphasize the “evil eye,” another poisoning by a sorcerer.  (As to physical cataclysms, one need only recall that angry Yahweh was originally a punitive “volcano god.”)  In their misguided allegiance to relativism, anthropologists came to insist that such (unprovable) “explanations” constituted culturally coherent “ethno-science.”  After all, to conclude that these explanations were invalid might be misconstrued as claiming some intrinsic inferiority of such “primitive” believers.  Exceedingly few anthropologists, the vast majority of whom have always been stalwart opponents of racist pseudo-science, were willing to concede that science is fundamentally different from such non-provable notions in that it only advances based on verifiability and evaluation of contrasting hypotheses.

Early Romans believed that the ritual slaying of war captives would satisfy their esteemed warrior-ancestors’ craving for blood — so they adopted the Etruscan practice of gladiatorial contests “to the death.”  The religious fanatics of Salem believed that elderly women were causing harm by secretly consorting with “the Devil” and practicing “witchcraft” — so they executed these harmless women.  The Pawnee believed that the ritual sacrifice of a young virgin every spring  as an offering to the Morning Star thereby guaranteeing bountiful buffalo and crops.  Such belief-systems necessitated innocent victims and thus, from the Enlightenment standard of universal individual rights, must be identified as objectively incorrect and harmful to human well-being.


Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.