So much for the doubts about the possibility of understanding the past. But to understand is not to accept. Vico experiences no intellectual discomfort – nor need he do so – when he damns in absolute terms the social injustice and brutality of Homeric society. Herder is not being inconsistent when he denounces the great conquerors and destroyers of local cultures – Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne – or glorifies Oriental literature or primitive song. This would not be consistent with conscious (or, shall I say, conscientious) relativism of values, but is compatible with pluralism, which merely denies that there is one, and only one, true morality or aesthetics or theology, and allows equally objective alternative values or systems of value. One can reject a culture because one finds it morally or aesthetically repellent, but, one this view, only if one can understand how and why it could, nevertheless, be acceptable to a recognisably human society. Only if its behaviour is not intelligible at all are we reduced to a mere ‘physicalist’ description and prediction of gestures; the code, if there is one, which would yield their meaning remains unbroken. Such men are not fully human for us; we cannot imaginatively enter their worlds; we do not know what they are up to; they are not brothers to us (as Vico and Herder supposed that all human beings were); we can at most only dimly guess at what the point of their acts, if they are acts, may be. Then truly do we have to confine ourselves to mere behaviourist reports of unexplained brute fact, or, at best, resort to the language of pure relativism, to the extent tht these men’s ends, somehow grasped as ends, seem wholly unrelated to our own. I repeat, pluralism – the incommensurability nd, at times, incompatibility of objective ends – is not relativism; nor, a fortiori, subjectivism, nor the allegedly unbridgeable differences of emotional attitude on which some modern positivists, emotivists, existentialists, nationalists and, indeed, relativistic sociologists and anthropologists found their accounts. This is the relativism from which I hold Montesquieu, Vico and Herder to have been free. This is no less true of other, more reactionary, critics of the Enlightenment: of Justus Moser, for example, in his polemic against Voltaire’s disparaging references to the absurd variety of laws and customs in the various little German principalities; or Burke, in his indictment of Warren Hastings for trampling on the traditional ways of life of the natives of India. I am not attempting to judge the validity of their objectivism or their pluralism, only to report it. Je ne suppose rien, je ne propose rien, je n’impose rien, j’expose. [Isaiah Berlin. Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought. 1980]

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