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Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism
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95 of 107 people found the following review helpful
I've been waiting for a book like this - one that would clearly expose the shortcomings of relativism. Boghossian does just that, demonstrating the person claiming 'everything is relative' faces a predicament. Either the statement itself is true, and thereby defeating the statement. Or it's relative to the individual, which means the person holding an objectivist view point is just as correct as the relativist. And therefore it's a meaningless statement. These are the kinds of points Boghossian makes through the book, both with generosity and clarity.

While this is essentially a philosophy book, he presents his ideas in a very accessible way. As a result, his case is compelling and persuasive. As William Ewald said, this is a book that can be read in an afternoon and thought about for a lifetime - a reference to the book's brevity (at 139 pages) and it's depth.

At the same time, I wish Boghossian had asked questions about why humanity fears knowledge. Namely, what is it about the human condition which causes people to avoid making clear distinctions reflected in strong assertions about the way things are? Why is there an assumption that conviction and belief are the equivalents of arrogance and intolerance? What is it about knowledge which threatens people?

With that said, this is a very thoughtful book and one which will hopefully have a real impact, not just in the academy, but also in the public square. If relativism reigns then dialog and discourse are severely hampered. May this book contribute to keeping those flames alive in the Western World.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon April 22, 2007
This concise and well done book is devoted to rebutting relativistic anti-realist arguments that are apparently popular in some areas of the modern academy. I think Boghossian has a specific audience in mind. This book is not aimed primarily at his fellow philosophers nor the general reading public but rather at academics in humanities and social sciences where the relativist ideas have become popular. Boghossion points out that there is a widespread impression that modern analytic philosophy has undermined realist views and this impression provides legitimacy for the relativist points of view. As Boghossian also points out, these relativist views have actually been relatively unsuccessful in Philosophy Depts. and there are considerable doubts about their validity. Boghossian aims at presenting a fair characterization of relativist views and then providing an up to date critical attack. The philosopher Richard Rorty is a particular target, partly because of his prominence and partly because Boghossian regards him as expounding some of the most powerful relativist arguments. Boghossian examines relativist claims in three domains. These are relativism regarding the existence of 'facts," that is, a mind independent world, relativism concerning justification of knowledge (probably the strongest relativist argument and one articulated by Rorty), and relativism concerning rational explanation. The attack on relativism concerning rational explanation is the shortest and least satisfactory section, though still effective. I think he is generally fair to all these arguments and resists constructing straw man positions for his opponents. This criticisms of these positions are strong and he argues well for the general incoherence and incompleteness of relativist positions. If anything, I would say that he bends over backwards to be fair to relativist positions, omitting some strong arguments against Rorty and Thomas Kuhn.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2010
This book is a well-written attack on certain anti-realist, relativistic and post modernist strains in our culture and acdemic philosophy. It is well written in the sense that it is clear and concise but my main issue against it is that it is a little too concise (more than it should be) because it almost entirely deals with naive forms of anti-realism. It is a good introduction to the topic but stronger arguments have been made in contemporary times which Boghossian does not deal with in this work. Much of the positions Boghossian destroys are from Richard Rorty, the early Hilary Putnam and some of Wittgenstein's more obscure writings. But the objections he raises against them are not new and stronger versions of those arguments along with different arguments altogether have been proposed to argue for certain positions Boghossian is against (sometimes by these very philosophers later in life). Rorty's views on the subjects in question are actually considered laughably impotent among most working philosophers today and are not given much attention for that reason as with almost all of the other post-modern criticisms of realism and truth absolutism.

Even though I am very sympathetic to Boghossian's ultimate position of arguing against anti-realist and relativistic strains within our culture and philosophy, Boghossian, as far as I'm aware, does not advance new arguments; some of his arguments have been around since Plato used them against the sophist Protagoras (or at least Plato's version of Protagoras). Boghossian also does not advance arguments against the most sophisticated versions of these strains of thought (especially against fact constructivism). If you're looking for a good, clear, concise work on the history of these ideas within western thought sans work done in the last 50 years, this book is for you. If you're looking for the cutting-edge of philosophical work on anti-realism and relativism in philosophy of science, epistemology and metaphysics, this book falls short. It either does not deal with it at all or glosses over much of that work sometimes seemingly flippantly. If you want to get a general overview of the cutting edge work and contemporary stronger arguments in favor of relativism and anti-realism, use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy site to search for the articles "realism," "Scientific Realism," "Semantic Challenges to Realism" and "relativism."
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
This book is a reply to a widely-accepted relativism about knowledge, which is almost the default view at universities and colleges. It is aimed at readers with some college, and is accessible to anyone with only a slight acquaintance with philosophy. It is much more sympathetic to relativism than other books opposing relativism, and more sophisticated.

The book distinguishes three kinds of relativism. Different societies might construct different worlds, they might different views of evidence, or they might have different views of rational explanation. Boghossian disposes of each of these in turn.

Why read it? First, it tries very hard to be easy to understand, and to presume nothing. It mostly succeeds, but you do need to know what philosophers mean by "logic" (page 126 - it's not what ordinary people mean by that word) and "modus ponens" (page 72). These were the only two slip-ups I could find though, and everything else is very clearly explained. Be warned though, you do need to concentrate. At college level, this is an easy book; but that's at college level.

Second, it's careful and sophisticated. It doesn't make fun of relativism (some books do), or sneer. One common reply to relativism is that the relativist must presume that he, the relativist, can understand and explain the multiple social perspectives. So he must exempt himself from depending upon his own social perspective. But this exemption is really saying that relativism is false, and we can escape from our own social perspective. Boghossian replies to this on behalf of his relativist opponent, when it would have been easy for him to add it to his list of replies.

It is *very* difficult to write a book with both these advantages. This is a real achievement. It would make an excellent introductory text in epistemology (theory of knowledge). It explains the basics of the topic using an interesting debate. If Boghossian is right, we'd have to change many of our attitudes.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2007
The debate about truth has gone on for millenia, but Boghossian has done a superb job of summarizing the current debates about relativism. Considering that he is a former student of Richard Rorty, a book presenting a diametrically opposite point of view shows the kind of intellectual mastery that can only be generated from deep immersion in the point of view being criticized. For a 130 page book, there is tough sledding; but the advantage of a short book, is that you can read it a second time, and maybe even a third, without taking too much time away from your other pursuits of "the truth."
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
This is a polite book on a very controversial subject--the current prominence of relativist and constructivist thought in certain areas of the humanities and soft social sciences. Boghossian is respectful and fair in framing the arguments for this posture. He then systematically shreds them. There is nothing triumphal about his rhetoric. His is the rhetoric of the cautious, fair-minded doubter. He clarifies his arguments with a few salient examples and ends his book with an extremely economical and judicious epilogue in which he suggests the key reasons why someone might adhere to an ultimately untenable position. He then politely explains why that position will ultimately backfire on the well meaning. The book includes nice discussions of Rorty (both the earlier and later Rorty) and a very incisive discussion of Kuhn. Highly recommended for all academic readers, particularly those beyond departments of Philosophy who have been drawn to these issues or deeply skeptical of them.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2014
This is a good book. It is clear and well written. If you are a "philosophy person" you will understand this without any problem. If you do not know about the subject matter, you will have to "dig in " and work a little to understand this. It is a very important topic, one that influences every aspect of our lives. From evolution, to creationism, to religion to politics, relativism undermines the basic framework of our civilization. How can we make decisions if the basis of our knowledge is relative? How can there be any justice system if there is no agreement on an absolute way of investigating and concluding issues? Is it possible for something to be true for one person and false for another person, because they have different cultural back-grounds? Does gravity work differently, depending on your culture? Where can we say, this "blank" is true for everyone? Read this book if you are interested. The author has a very strong opinion on this, so be "fore-warned".
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2008
While this book doesn't necessarily accomplish the author's goal of being accessible to non-philosophers, it is elegantly written and well organized.

It is a rather convincing argument that accuses relativists and constructivists of being too liberal with the scopes of their theses. Boghossian is, however, partial to logic and the analytic tradition. I would imagine that some of the more Continental-leaning readers tend to think this text is biased. Notwithstanding, I have read few philosophical works that have been as clear and focused as this one.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2010
Professor Boghossian painstakingly establishes the arguments for relativism and constructivism and then systematically demolishes each of them. Chapter 2, "Constructing the Facts" begins, "Of the three constructivist theories before us, the most influential is the thesis of fact-constructivism--which is somewhat surprising given that it is also the most radical and counterintuitive. Indeed, properly understood, fact-constructivism is such a bizarre view that it is hard to believe that anyone endorses it. And yet, it seems that many do." He then goes on to make mincemeat of Goodman, Rorty, Foucault, and Putnam.

Who could be more dogmatic, intolerant, and absolutist than relativists? They fear argument more than knowledge, so buy this book and have some fun at their expense.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2010
I really liked this book for its efficiency. The author defines his terms clearly, and explains the issues concisely. He uses examples to clarify his points without straying off on tangents. For these reasons the book is short, and mercifully so, as the subject can easily become mired in jargon, confusion, and excess verbiage, as illustrated by the majority of postmodernist writers.

The book carefully describes various kinds of relativism, and the arguments put forward to support them. It then proceeds to expose the weaknesses and fallacies of each form of relativism, and leaves one quite refreshed by the common sense it imparts.

I particularly recommend the book for undergrads. It will allow them to recognise snake-oil and flim-flam when they see it. For anyone in the sciences, or those interested in the question of whether there is a real world out there, this is an important addition to your library.
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