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.