The Racism of Philosophy’s Fear of Cultural Relativism

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Shuchen Xiang


By looking at a canonical article representing academic philosophy’s orthodox view against cultural relativism, James Rachels’ “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism,” this paper argues that current mainstream western academic philosophy’s fear of cultural relativism is premised on a fear of the racial Other. The examples that Rachels marshals against cultural relativism default to the persistent, ubiquitous, and age-old stereotypes about the savage/barbarian Other that have dominated the history of western engagement with the non-western world. What academic philosophy fears about cultural relativism, it is argued, is the barbarians of the western imagination and not fellow human beings. The same structure that informs fears of cultural relativism, whereby people with different customs are reduced to the barbarian/savage of the western imagination, can be seen in the genesis of international law which arose as a justification for the domination of the Amerindian (parsed as “barbarians”). It is argued that implicit in arguments against cultural relativism is the preservation of the same right to dominate the Other. Finally, it is argued that the appeal of the fear of cultural relativism is that, in directing moral outrage at others, one can avoid reflecting on the failures of one’s own cultural tradition.

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How to Cite
Xiang, S. (2020). The Racism of Philosophy’s Fear of Cultural Relativism. Journal of World Philosophies, 5(1), 99–120. Retrieved from
Author Biography

Shuchen Xiang, Peking University

Shuchen Xiang is assistant professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Peking University. She specializes in comparative philosophy between the Chinese and western traditions. She received her PhD (summa cum laude) jointly from the Department of Philosophy at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and King’s College London. Her first monograph, based on her dissertation, A Philosophical Defence of Culture: Perspectives from Confucianism and Ernst Cassirer, is forthcoming with the State University of New York Press. She is the translator of History of Chinese Philosophy through Its Key Terms, which is forthcoming with Springer Verlag.