From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Relativism is a theory, especially in ethics or aesthetics, that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or groups holding them. Plato, along with Socrates, opposed the Sophists and set out to refute relativism. The first major relativist philosopher was Protagoras (c. ... That is, the value of everything is relative to the observer. Plato gives many arguments in opposition to Protagoras' radical relativism."--Sholem Stein
Compare relative and absolute theories of modesty:
"Ideas of modesty, therefore, are altogether relative and conventional. Peoples who are accustomed to tattoo themselves are ashamed to appear untattooed ; peoples whose women are in the habit of covering their faces consider such a covering indispensable for every respectable woman ; peoples who for one reason or another have come to conceal the navel, the knee, the bosom, or other parts, blush to reveal what is hidden. It is not the feeling of shame that has provoked the covering, but the covering that has provoked the feeling of shame."--The History of Human Marriage (1891) by Edvard Westermarck
"The provocative gesture of exposing the genitals has become the subject of widespread social control in every human society. There are no peoples in our sample who generally allow women to expose their genitals under any but the most restricted circumstances."--Patterns of Sexual Behavior , p. 94
Relativism consists of various theories each of which claims that some element or aspect of experience or culture is relative to, i.e., dependent on, some other element or aspect. For example, some relativists claim that humans can understand and evaluate beliefs and behaviors only in terms of their historical or cultural context. The term often refers to truth relativism, which is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture.
One argument for relativism suggests that our own cognitive bias prevents us from observing something objectively with our own senses, and notational bias will apply to whatever we can allegedly measure without using our senses. In addition, we have a culture bias — shared with other trusted observers — which we cannot eliminate. A counterargument to this states that subjective certainty and concrete objects and causes form part of our everyday life, and that there is no great value in discarding such useful ideas as isomorphism, objectivity and a final truth.
Sophists are considered the founding fathers of relativism in Western philosophy. Elements of relativism emerged among the Sophists in the 5th century BC. Notably, it was Protagoras who coined the phrase, "Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not." The thinking of the Sophists is mainly known through their opponent, Plato. In a paraphrase from Plato's dialogue Protagoras, Protagoras said: "What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me."
Pyrrhonist philosophy views relativity as a reason for philosophical skepticism, as it is one of the reasons that truth cannot be grasped. All perception is relative to a perceiver, and perception differs according to position. Hence, no particular perception can be judged as representing the truth about what is perceived. Arguments from relativity form the basis of trope 8 of the ten modes of Aenesidemus and trope 3 of the five modes of Agrippa.
The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend is often considered to be a relativist, though he denied being one.
Feyerabend argued that modern science suffers from being methodologically monistic (the belief that only a single methodology can produce scientific progress).
- In an aphorism [Feyerabend] often repeated, "potentially every culture is all cultures". This is intended to convey that world views are not hermetically closed, since their leading concepts have an "ambiguity" - better, an open-endedness - which enables people from other cultures to engage with them. [...] It follows that relativism, understood as the doctrine that truth is relative to closed systems, can get no purchase. [...] For Feyerabend, both hermetic relativism and its absolutist rival [realism] serve, in their different ways, to "devalue human existence". The former encourages that unsavoury brand of political correctness which takes the refusal to criticise "other cultures" to the extreme of condoning murderous dictatorship and barbaric practices. The latter, especially in its favoured contemporary form of "scientific realism", with the excessive prestige it affords to the abstractions of "the monster 'science'", is in bed with a politics which likewise disdains variety, richness and everyday individuality - a politics which likewise "hides" its norms behind allegedly neutral facts, "blunts choices and imposes laws".-- Cooper, David E., "Voodoo and the monster of science," Times Higher Education, 17 March 2000
Thomas Kuhn's philosophy of science, as expressed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is often interpreted as relativistic. He claimed that as well as progressing steadily and incrementally ("normal science"), science undergoes periodic revolutions or "paradigm shifts", leaving scientists working in different paradigms with difficulty in even communicating. Thus the truth of a claim, or the existence of a posited entity is relative to the paradigm employed. However, it isn't necessary for him to embrace relativism because every paradigm presupposes the prior, building upon itself through history and so on. This leads to there being a fundamental, incremental, and referential structure of development which is not relative but again, fundamental.
- From these remarks, one thing is however certain: Kuhn is not saying that incommensurable theories cannot be compared - what they can’t be is compared in terms of a system of common measure. He very plainly says that they can be compared, and he reiterates this repeatedly in later work, in a (mostly in vain) effort to avert the crude and sometimes catastrophic misinterpretations he suffered from mainstream philosophers and post-modern relativists alike.
But Thomas Kuhn denied the accusation of being a relativist later in his postscript.
- scientific development is ... a unidirectional and irreversible process. Latter scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles ... That is not a relativist's position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.
Some have argued that one can also read Kuhn's work as essentially positivist in its ontology: the revolutions he posits are epistemological, lurching toward a presumably 'better' understanding of an objective reality through the lens presented by the new paradigm. However, a number of passages in Structures do indeed appear to be distinctly relativist, and to directly challenge the notion of an objective reality and the ability of science to progress towards an ever-greater grasp of it, particularly through the process of paradigm change.
- In the sciences there need not be progress of another sort. We may, to be more precise, have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.
- We are all deeply accustomed to seeing science as the one enterprise that draws constantly nearer to some goal set by nature in advance. But need there be any such goal? Can we not account for both science’s existence and its success in terms of evolution from the community’s state of knowledge at any given time? Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal?
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson define relativism in their book Metaphors We Live By as the rejection of both subjectivism and metaphysical objectivism in order to focus on the relationship between them, i.e. the metaphor by which we relate our current experience to our previous experience. In particular, Lakoff and Johnson characterize "objectivism" as a "straw man", and, to a lesser degree, criticize the views of Karl Popper, Kant and Aristotle.
In his book Invariances, Robert Nozick expresses a complex set of theories about the absolute and the relative. He thinks the absolute/relative distinction should be recast in terms of an invariant/variant distinction, where there are many things a proposition can be invariant with regard to or vary with. He thinks it is coherent for truth to be relative, and speculates that it might vary with time. He thinks necessity is an unobtainable notion, but can be approximated by robust invariance across a variety of conditions—although we can never identify a proposition that is invariant with regard to everything. Finally, he is not particularly warm to one of the most famous forms of relativism, moral relativism, preferring an evolutionary account.
Joseph Margolis advocates a view he calls "robust relativism" and defends it in his books: Historied Thought, Constructed World, Chapter 4 (California, 1995) and The Truth about Relativism (Blackwells, 1991). He opens his account by stating that our logics should depend on what we take to be the nature of the sphere to which we wish to apply our logics. Holding that there can be no distinctions which are not "privileged" between the alethic, the ontic, and the epistemic, he maintains that a many valued logic just might be the most apt for aesthetics or history since, because in these practices, we are loath to hold to simple binary logic; and he also holds that many-valued logic is relativistic. (This is perhaps an unusual definition of "relativistic". Compare with his comments on "relationism"). "True" and "False" as mutually exclusive and exhaustive judgements on Hamlet, for instance, really does seem absurd. A many valued logic—"apt", "reasonable", "likely", and so on—seems intuitively more applicable to Hamlet interpretation. Where apparent contradictions arise between such interpretations, we might call the interpretations "incongruent", rather than dubbing either "false", because using many-valued logic implies that a measured value is a mixture of two extreme possibilities. Using the subset of many-valued logic, fuzzy logic, it can be said that various interpretations can be represented by membership in more than one possible truth sets simultaneously. Fuzzy logic is therefore probably the best mathematical structure for understanding "robust relativism" and has been interpreted by Bart Kosko as philosophically being related to Zen Buddhism.
It was Aristotle who held that relativism implied we should, sticking with appearances only, end up contradicting ourselves somewhere if we could apply all attributes to all ousiai (beings). Aristotle, however, made non-contradiction dependent upon his essentialism. If his essentialism is false, then so too is his ground for disallowing relativism. (Subsequent philosophers have found other reasons for supporting the principle of non-contradiction).
Beginning with Protagoras and invoking Charles Sanders Peirce, Margolis shows that the historic struggle to discredit relativism is an attempt to impose an unexamined belief in the world's essentially rigid rule-like nature. Plato and Aristotle merely attacked "relationalism"—the doctrine of true-for l or true for k, and the like, where l and k are different speakers or different worlds, or the something similar (Most philosophers would call this position "relativism"). For Margolis, "true" means true; that is, the alethic use of "true" remains untouched. However, in real world contexts, and context is ubiquitous in the real world, we must apply truth values. Here, in epistemic terms, we might retire "true" tout court as an evaluation and keep "false". The rest of our value-judgements could be graded from "extremely plausible" down to "false". Judgements which on a bivalent logic would be incompatible or contradictory are further seen as "incongruent", though one may well have more weight than the other. In short, relativistic logic is not, or need not be, the bugbear it is often presented to be. It may simply be the best type of logic to apply to certain very uncertain spheres of real experiences in the world (although some sort of logic needs to be applied to make that judgement). Those who swear by bivalent logic might simply be the ultimate keepers of the great fear of the flux.
Philosopher Richard Rorty has a somewhat paradoxical role in the debate over relativism: he is criticized for his relativistic views by many commentators, but has always denied that relativism applies to much anybody, being nothing more than a Platonic scarecrow. Rorty claims, rather, that he is a pragmatist, and that to construe pragmatism as relativism is to beg the question.
- '"Relativism" is the traditional epithet applied to pragmatism by realists'
- '"Relativism" is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called 'relativists' are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.'
- 'In short, my strategy for escaping the self-referential difficulties into which "the Relativist" keeps getting himself is to move everything over from epistemology and metaphysics into cultural politics, from claims to knowledge and appeals to self-evidence to suggestions about what we should try.'
Rorty takes a deflationary attitude to truth, believing there is nothing of interest to be said about truth in general, including the contention that it is generally subjective. He also argues that the notion of warrant or justification can do most of the work traditionally assigned to the concept of truth, and that justification is relative; justification is justification to an audience, for Rorty.
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity he argues that the debate between so-called relativists and so-called objectivists is beside the point because they don't have enough premises in common for either side to prove anything to the other.
The term "relativism" often comes up in debates over postmodernism, poststructuralism and phenomenology. Critics of these perspectives often identify advocates with the label "relativism". For example, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is often considered a relativist view because it posits that linguistic categories and structures shape the way people view the world. Stanley Fish has defended postmodernism and relativism.
These perspectives do not strictly count as relativist in the philosophical sense, because they express agnosticism on the nature of reality and make epistemological rather than ontological claims. Nevertheless, the term is useful to differentiate them from realists who believe that the purpose of philosophy, science, or literary critique is to locate externally true meanings. Important philosophers and theorists such as Michel Foucault, Max Stirner, political movements such as post-anarchism or post-Marxism can also be considered as relativist in this sense - though a better term might be social constructivist.
The spread and popularity of this kind of "soft" relativism varies between academic disciplines. It has wide support in anthropology and has a majority following in cultural studies. It also has advocates in political theory and political science, sociology, and continental philosophy (as distinct from Anglo-American analytical philosophy). It has inspired empirical studies of the social construction of meaning such as those associated with labelling theory, which defenders can point to as evidence of the validity of their theories (albeit risking accusations of performative contradiction in the process). Advocates of this kind of relativism often also claim that recent developments in the natural sciences, such as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics, chaos theory and complexity theory show that science is now becoming relativistic. However, many scientists who use these methods continue to identify as realist or post-positivist, and some sharply criticize the association.
A common argument against relativism suggests that it inherently contradicts, refutes, or stultifies itself: the statement "all is relative" classes either as a relative statement or as an absolute one. If it is relative, then this statement does not rule out absolutes. If the statement is absolute, on the other hand, then it provides an example of an absolute statement, proving that not all truths are relative. However, this argument against relativism only applies to relativism that positions truth as relative–i.e. epistemological/truth-value relativism. More specifically, it is only extreme forms of epistemological relativism that can come in for this criticism as there are many epistemological relativists who posit that some aspects of what is regarded as factually "true" are not universal, yet still accept that other universal truths exist (e.g. gas laws or moral laws).
Another argument against relativism posits a Natural Law. Simply put, the physical universe works under basic principles: the "Laws of Nature". Some contend that a natural Moral Law may also exist, for example as argued by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (2006) Dawkins said "I think we face an equal but much more sinister challenge from the left, in the shape of cultural relativism - the view that scientific truth is only one kind of truth and it is not to be especially privileged".
Plato opposed relativism. He criticized the views of the sophist Protagoras in his dialogue Thaetetus. In a paraphrased dialogue, the philosopher Socrates argued that relativism is self-defeating with the following: "My opinion is: Truth must be absolute and that you Mr. Protagoras, are absolutely in error. Since this is indeed my opinion, then you must concede that it is true according to your philosophy."
Philosopher Hilary Putnam, among others, states that some forms of relativism make it impossible to believe one is in error. If there is no truth beyond an individual's belief that something is true, then an individual cannot hold their own beliefs to be false or mistaken. A related criticism is that relativizing truth to individuals destroys the distinction between truth and belief.
- Aeshetic relativism
- Cultural relativism
- Moral relativism
- Philosophical realism
- Social constructionism
- The Science Wars