Thursday, June 5, 2014

What kind of relativist is Peter Winch?

Colin Lyas says of Winch that, "The whole thrust of his work is anti-relativist." (p. 92) That seems a little strong to me. It's true that Winch rejects "an extreme Protagorean relativism" ("Understanding a Primitive Society," p. 308), but that doesn't mean that he rejects all things that might be called relativism (nor even that he succeeds in avoiding the extreme kind of relativism that he says he wants to avoid). In Ethics and Action Winch says that that paper:
criticizes some forms of the idea that there is, or can be, a conception of 'a world' to be understood, which conception is independent of forms of social life and can provide us with criteria by reference to which we can criticize as 'irrational' certain ways in which men do live. I argue, rather, that any such conception of a world to be understood is intelligible only against the background of a way (or ways) in which men live together and understand each other. (pp. 2-3)
A little way down p. 3 he adds that the paper's:
argument is not, absurdly, that ways in which men live together can never be criticized, nor even that a way of living can never be characterized as in any sense 'irrational'; still less do I argue in it that men who belong to one culture can 'never understand' lives led in another culture.   
It is pretty clear to me that Winch does allow for both criticism (of some kind) of other cultures and that he accepts the possibility of understanding other cultures. Indeed he explains quite carefully how (and why he thinks one ought) to do this. It's the scare quotes around 'irrational' that are less clear and more bothersome.

Winch does seem to think that there is something the matter with calling a way in which people live 'irrational'. Look at the hedging: nor even that a way of living can never be characterized as in any sense [quote unquote] 'irrational'.

The problem with calling a way of living irrational is that for it to be a way of living (and not just some stuff that some people have done) it must have some regularity to it, some rules followed by the people whose way of living it is. And if there are rules then there is intelligibility, something that can rationally be understood, not just chaos.

Must a way of living be rational in the sense of being a means to people's ends? I'm not sure how much sense this question makes. A way of living goes at least some way towards setting those ends. Winch likes to quote Vico, who says that all nations practice some religion, solemn marriage, and burial of the dead. If we just take religion we could ask whether the Christian life, the Islamic life, the Buddhist life, etc. give Christians, Muslims,and Buddhists what they aim for. If by "what they aim for" we mean Heaven or Nirvana then at least sometimes the answer will be No. But so far as what a Christian, for instance, aims for is to live a Christian life then of course the answer is Yes. Any form of behavior that lasts is presumably satisfying to those who engage in it in some way or to some extent. If we regard it as failing to deliver we have probably misunderstood its point. But it is possible for people to find better ways of doing things or to discover problems in their traditional behaviors. So I don't think all customary forms of behavior are necessarily rational in this sense. It belongs to the very idea of a way of life that it is rational in the sense of being intelligible though.

In what sense then could a way of living be called irrational? I can think of two. One sense of 'irrational' is purely derogatory. We can, and I think Winch would allow this, call another way of living irrational in the sense simply that we reject it. Its rules are not ours and we want nothing to do with them. This is not a very careful use of 'irrational', but it is a possible use. Another would relate to things like marriage and burial. Winch emphasizes the universal human importance of birth, sex, and death. Any way of living that fails to recognize this importance, perhaps by insisting on universal celibacy or constant war, might be called irrational. It would not be absolutely irrational, in the sense of being shown by the world as it is in itself (the world as something independent of forms of social life that provides us with criteria of rationality) to be irrational, because even if the idea of the world as it is in itself makes sense and even if this world shows us something, it does not show us, for instance, that the gods do not require celibacy or war.  

So is Winch a relativist or not? He is, I think, a kind of relativist about rationality. So far as 'rational' means intelligible, what is rational in one culture will not be rational in another. This is not simply a matter of different cultures calling different forms of behavior rational. Of course they do that, just as they call different forms of behavior good. But what it makes sense to do actually is different in different cultures. Winch does not believe, though, that anything goes. Cultures or ways of living have their own rules, after all. Furthermore, for us to recognize something as a culture or way of living we have to be able to make some sense of it in terms of our own standards of rationality. If the behavior in question is puzzling enough then we won't be in a position to say even that it is part of a way of living.

In short, 'rational' can mean something like sane or intelligible, or it can mean useful in a narrow sense (getting a gun is useful if you want to rob a bank, but robbing banks is not a very useful thing to do), or good, or useful in a broader sense. Where a way of living has been identified as such, its characteristic forms of behavior will be rational in the first two of these senses, but not necessarily in the latter two. Or so it seems to me and, I think, to Winch.


  1. I found your post interesting and stimulating. However, I was not convinced you were on the right track.

    The scare quotes around ‘rational’ were, I took, it Winch’s way of saying in a Wittgensteinian way that ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ are just words, i.e. terms with an application in a linguistic practice. I did not take them, for instance, to express scepticism. So in that sense 'rationality' will always be relative in the sense of belonging to this or that linguistic practice. In chess, it will have one meaning. In military tactics, another. And, perhaps, in talk of affectations, it will be almost inapplicable.

    (Another, more intriguing example, is calling those who play the lottery irrational. On the one hand, they are if their aim is to have more money. On the other, it is perfectly intelligible why they do it.)

    Instead, perhaps we should see rational as being able to see the reasons for something, roughly comparable to finding it intelligible. But I am not sure we should suppose that in the absence of reasons we find something irrational. I am thinking of the inscrutable geometer in PI 237. Here, we recognise that he appears to be doing something, but we cannot fathom what it is or why. Here, calling him irrational seems misplaced, as if we do not yet understand him enough to say. There must be other practices in primitive peoples where we can see that they are doing something, but not with sufficient understanding to think it irrational.

    I suppose my worry is that rationality is to a certain extent obviously relativist insofar as I can recognise someone else's reasons as reasons for them, though they are not reasons for me. To be an anti-relativist about rationality then would imply that any reason for someone is also a reason for me, which seems daft.

  2. [part 2, split because the blogging system insisted]

    I may be taking advantage of the idea of a reason as a "reason for someone." We can try again with the idea of reasons that are unintelligible. Suppose I ask someone for their reasons for doing something. I can see them as inefficacious and call them irrational on that basis. Suppose instead I cannot see what they offer as reasons as reasons at all, for anyone. In that case, it seems to me premature to call them irrational. Surely, I should say, roughly, "They say those are their reasons, but I cannot see it."

    What seems to me to be doing the work here is the idea that we can see what they are doing as a doing at all. Where we are really at sea and we see hominids moving about but have no idea what they are doing (they may look like ants after the nest is disturbed), then it seems to me the question of ir/rationality cannot come up. What this seems to me to imply is that until we can see a way of living as a way of living, the question of ir/rationality does not come up. However, while we have a very good idea of what a doing is and can make fine-grained discriminations about them, I wonder whether the idea of a way of living is quite like that?

    We may be tempted to say that a way of living comprises how they marry, how they live in families, how they honour their dead, how they find food, how they distribute it, etc. But it seems to me that this is making a way of living into a lot of doings. Where there are doings, we might well think that we could call the doings ir/rational. Suppose instead we say their way of living includes indifference to the pain of their fellows or that they lacked grief. I do not think these are doings, however I also suggest that these are not matters where the idea of reasons or rationality gets a grip. Someone is not missing reasons when they do not feel grief.

    On the other hand, we might wonder the extent to which we would find creatures indifferent to the pain of their fellows intelligible. Even Klingons, when they shrug off pain manfully, do so manfully only because the pain is a challenge that can be met manfully. So they are not really indifferent, which is why they are intelligible. The replicants in Blade Runner become more familiar and intelligible to us when we are encouraged to view their responses to the loss of their fellows as grief (unlike their attitude to tortoises).

    Tentatively, I suggest we conclude that the idea of anti-/relativism does not make sense when applied to intelligibility. However, with regard to rationality, insofar as we understand someone as doing something, we can allow a relativism in the sense of reasons-for-someone, but are anti-relativist in the sense that all doings depend on the idea of reasons-for-doing.

    With regard to your discussion, this conclusion would speak against the close relationship you suggested between rationality and intelligibility.

    This is all rather rough and I suspect I have stumbled into recapitulating something Anscombe probably said in Intention, but I hope it is of some interest.


    1. Thanks, David (if I may).

      Speaking of Anscombe, one example of hers that sticks in my mind (accurately, I hope) is that of the man who puts all his green books on the roof. We can understand this as a doing--he isn't behaving like an ant whose nest has been disturbed--but he isn't obviously behaving rationally or intelligibly. Of course he might have good reason to do what he's doing (it will enable him to win a bet, e.g.) but in the absence of some further explanation his behavior seems neither intelligible nor rational. Once we know that he is just doing this because he wants to then we can, I think, judge that he is irrational. If a whole people behave this way it would be different. We might have to regard their behavior as part of their religion (although that in itself would hardly shed much light on it). When an individual's end is unintelligible in some cases we say we just don't understand (and so cannot judge) but in others we say that he is irrational. When a whole people or culture does something seemingly pointless then we are less likely to call them irrational. One person can be insane, but a whole culture can't be. So there is, I think, a close relationship between rationality and intelligibility (in the case of individuals, at least). Other than this, though, I agree with your tentative conclusion.

      One other thing I was trying to get at is the multiple uses of the words 'rational' and 'irrational'. Both ends and means can be irrational. In the case of means 'irrational' means something like inefficacious (although there are degrees here, and not every inefficiency is properly called irrational). In the case of ends it means something like crazy. But 'crazy' can mean insane (in a way that can be more or less objective) or something like bad (in a much more subjective sense). Ways of doing things can be, and probably usually are, irrational in the sense that they are not optimally efficient. (This seems like a weird use, perhaps a misuse, of the word 'irrational', but I think people do use the word this way.) More relevantly, a culture might be called irrational if it has inconsistent goals or if its goals just seem bad. Cultures that are irrational in the sense of having inconsistent goals are likely to be unhappy, and perhaps to change or die out relatively quickly. Cultures that are just bad (deeply racist or sexist ones, say, or those based on slavery) might be called irrational but are certainly intelligible (up to a point, at least). So it seems to me that there are various senses in which a culture might reasonably be called irrational without this implying that it is unintelligible. Which is a point you make, but also what I think I was trying to say as well.

  3. Thank you, Duncan (you may). Picking up on your ending remarks:

    It seems we might say that a culture's goals were inconsistent in the sense that the pursuit of one undermined the pursuit of the other. This seems to me covertly like a charge of sub-optimality of efficacy.

    We might say that a culture's goals were inconsistent in the sense of contradictory, e.g. a culture that prized chastity and infidelity. This seems a natural use of irrational.

    I am not sure why we should add to a culture's goals being bad that they are also irrational. Absent some Kantian framework, it seems to me that people have lots of sound reasons for bad goals. We might hope that they were not all also moral reasons, but, e.g. maintaining asymmetric polygamy, has sound reasons in certain conditions, such as scarcity of one sex. Adding irrational to bad for these goals seems more like wishful thinking than a fair use of the term, in my view.


    1. Thanks, David. I agree. What is and is not a fair use of the word 'irrational' is going to be controversial though. That doesn't mean we can't talk about it or take sides in any controversy that arises, of course, but it seems worth noting. When Winch talks about whether we can criticize a way of living as irrational I take him to be talking about what is coherent or intelligible rather than what is right. And some things that might seem like wishful thinking to me (or to be misguided in other ways) might still be intelligible as criticisms. (At least I think that's true. It isn't very clear to me what to say here.)