Strictly, any doctrine that something exists, has a property, or obtains, relative to something else.
Two forms of relativism have been common, cognitive and moral; both of them are different from subjectivism, though some versions are also subjectivist.
Cognitive relativism may say that all beliefs are true, or true for their holders (the view Plato attributes to Protagoras in his dialogue Theaetetus); or it may take the form of perspectivism (or cultural relativism), perhaps limited to the advanced sciences, where straightforward reputation may be rare.
As cognitive relativism relativizes truth, so moral relativism relativizes Tightness or moral values, but must be distinguished from merely saying that what is (absolutely) right for one to do depends on one’s role or the circumstances one is in. A thoroughgoing relativist must also avoid concluding that it is (absolutely) right to live and let live.
(For linguistic relativism, see: SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS.)
M Krausz and J W Meiland, eds, Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (1982)
Forms of relativism
Anthropological versus philosophical relativism
Anthropological relativism refers to a methodological stance, in which the researcher suspends (or brackets) his or her own cultural prejudice while trying to understand beliefs or behaviors in their contexts. This has become known as methodological relativism, and concerns itself specifically with avoiding ethnocentrism or the application of one’s own cultural standards to the assessment of other cultures. This is also the basis of the so-called “emic” and “etic” distinction, in which:
- An emic or insider account of behavior is a description of a society in terms that are meaningful to the participant or actor’s own culture; an emic account is therefore culture-specific, and typically refers to what is considered “common sense” within the culture under observation.
- An etic or outsider account is a description of a society by an observer, in terms that can be applied to other cultures; that is, an etic account is culturally neutral, and typically refers to the conceptual framework of the social scientist. (This is complicated when it is scientific research itself that is under study, or when there is theoretical or terminological disagreement within the social sciences.)
Philosophical relativism, in contrast, asserts that the truth of a proposition depends on the metaphysical, or theoretical frame, or the instrumental method, or the context in which the proposition is expressed, or on the person, groups, or culture who interpret the proposition.
Methodological relativism and philosophical relativism can exist independently from one another, but most anthropologists base their methodological relativism on that of the philosophical variety.
Descriptive versus normative relativism
The concept of relativism also has importance both for philosophers and for anthropologists in another way. In general, anthropologists engage in descriptive relativism (“how things are” or “how things seem”), whereas philosophers engage in normative relativism (“how things ought to be”), although there is some overlap (for example, descriptive relativism can pertain to concepts, normative relativism to truth).
Descriptive relativism assumes that certain cultural groups have different modes of thought, standards of reasoning, and so forth, and it is the anthropologist’s task to describe, but not to evaluate the validity of these principles and practices of a cultural group. It is possible for an anthropologist in his or her fieldwork to be a descriptive relativist about some things that typically concern the philosopher (e.g., ethical principles) but not about others (e.g., logical principles). However, the descriptive relativist’s empirical claims about epistemic principles, moral ideals and the like are often countered by anthropological arguments that such things are universal, and much of the recent literature on these matters is explicitly concerned with the extent of, and evidence for, cultural or moral or linguistic or human universals.
The fact that the various species of descriptive relativism are empirical claims, may tempt the philosopher to conclude that they are of little philosophical interest, but there are several reasons why this isn’t so. First, some philosophers, notably Kant, argue that certain sorts of cognitive differences between human beings (or even all rational beings) are impossible, so such differences could never be found to obtain in fact, an argument that places a priori limits on what empirical inquiry could discover and on what versions of descriptive relativism could be true. Second, claims about actual differences between groups play a central role in some arguments for normative relativism (for example, arguments for normative ethical relativism often begin with claims that different groups in fact have different moral codes or ideals). Finally, the anthropologist’s descriptive account of relativism helps to separate the fixed aspects of human nature from those that can vary, and so a descriptive claim that some important aspect of experience or thought does (or does not) vary across groups of human beings tells us something important about human nature and the human condition.
Normative relativism concerns normative or evaluative claims that modes of thought, standards of reasoning, or the like are only right or wrong relative to a framework. ‘Normative’ is meant in a general sense, applying to a wide range of views; in the case of beliefs, for example, normative correctness equals truth. This does not mean, of course, that framework-relative correctness or truth is always clear, the first challenge being to explain what it amounts to in any given case (e.g., with respect to concepts, truth, epistemic norms). Normative relativism (say, in regard to normative ethical relativism) therefore implies that things (say, ethical claims) are not simply true in themselves, but only have truth values relative to broader frameworks (say, moral codes). (Many normative ethical relativist arguments run from premises about ethics to conclusions that assert the relativity of truth values, bypassing general claims about the nature of truth, but it is often more illuminating to consider the type of relativism under question directly.)
Related and contrasting positions
Relationism is the theory that there are only relations between individual entities, and no intrinsic properties. Despite the similarity in name, it is held by some to be a position distinct from relativism—for instance, because “statements about relational properties […] assert an absolute truth about things in the world”. On the other hand, others wish to equate relativism, relationism and even relativity, which is a precise theory of relationships between physical objects: Nevertheless, “This confluence of relativity theory with relativism became a strong contributing factor in the increasing prominence of relativism”.
Whereas previous investigations of science only sought sociological or psychological explanations of failed scientific theories or pathological science, the ‘strong programme’ is more relativistic, assessing scientific truth and falsehood equally in a historic and cultural context.
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?] 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) and addressed by C. S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity” (1952). 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”. 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.
Ancient Indian philosophers Mahavira (c. 599 – c. 527 BC) and Nagarjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 BC) made contributions to the development of relativist philosophy.Ancient India
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.
Bernard Crick, a British political scientist and advocate of relativism, wrote the book In Defence of Politics (first published in 1962), suggesting the inevitability of moral conflict between people. Crick stated that only ethics could resolve such conflict, and when that occurred in public it resulted in politics. Accordingly, Crick saw the process of dispute resolution, harms reduction, mediation or peacemaking as central to all of moral philosophy. He became an important influence on the feminists and later on the Greens.
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). Feyerabend summarises his case in his work Against Method with the phrase “anything goes”.
- 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”.
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?