Relativism Research Paper

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1. Definition

Relativism is the view that cognitive, moral, or aesthetic norms are dependent on the social or conceptual systems that underpin them and consequently a neutral standpoint is not available to us. Relativists claim that standards of truth, rationality, and ethical right and wrong vary greatly between cultures and historical epochs and that there are no universal criteria for adjudicating between them. Relativism hence stands in opposition to universalism and absolutism. Although the first expression of relativism as a philosophical thesis is found in ancient Greece, it was only in the second half of the twentieth century that relativism became a prominent feature of various intellectual fields, including philosophy, social sciences, and literary theory. In recent years, postmodernism, in particular, has become identified with relativism.

2. Motivations

The appeal of relativism arises out of certain features of our experiences of the world as well as a number of intellectual currents.

2.1 The Indexicality Of Our Judgements

Many of our judgements and assertions refer to events that happen at a particular time, place, and are experienced by a particular individual. Such assertions seem to be true only at the time, place, or context of their utterance. For instance, the sentence ‘It’s raining today’ is true at the time of writing it but may be false when uttered at a different time or place. This feature of our judgements has led some to argue that the truth of all our judgements depends on, and in that sense is relative to, their time and place, and context.

This argument for relativism, despite its popularity, is not very convincing. Sentences containing indexical expressions such as ‘this,’ ‘here,’ ‘now,’ ‘I,’ etc., are abbreviations of statements or sentences containing references to specific objects, dates, geographic locations, and named persons. The content of an indexical statement can be made explicit in such a way that its truth or falsity would arise from specifiable events occurring at a particular time, place, or context. For instance, ‘It’s raining here today’ is equivalent to ‘There is rain in Dublin on September 12, at 5:45 local time, 1999’ and that sentence is true or false irrespective of when or where or by whom it was uttered.

2.2 Perspectivalism

The perspectivalism of all our reports and experiences, the impossibility of having a view from nowhere, has been used to support relativism. All our judgements, beliefs, or assertions, it is claimed, are made from a point of view, a perspective. A God’s eye view or a view from nowhere is not available to us. Perspectivalism goes beyond the mere indexicality of our judgements in that even a nonindexical judgement, for instance, ‘there are nine planets in the Solar system,’ is a statement made from a human perspective as we cannot step out of our skin, so to speak, and experience reality as it is. In addition, relativists assume, explicitly or implicitly, that different perspectives could not converge and therefore what is true or right from one perspective may not be so from a different one and consequently the truth of a judgement is relative to a perspective or point of view we have or we adopt.

2.3 Cultural Diversity

Increasing awareness of the extent of diversity of beliefs, practices, and customs of different cultures and different historical epochs has cast doubt on the universality and objectivity of our judgements. Most significantly, the reports by anthropologists about the thinking habits of remote peoples have led to the suggestion that all normative judgements, whether cognitive or ethical, may have only a local validity. Opponents of relativism argue that the extent and scope of diversity between different cultures and individuals is often exaggerated. Beyond the apparent dissimilarities, they argue, there are many core similarities which unify all human cultures and systems of beliefs. Relativists, on the other hand, believe that Western ethnocentrism and the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment prevent us from appreciating or even seeing the uniqueness of different cultures and modes of thought.

2.4 The Disappearance Of Old Certainties

The disappearance of old certainties, both in the religious and scientific arena, has been instrumental in the popularity of relativism in recent years. The collapse of a religiously motivated cosmology which fixed the position of individual human beings within a larger and immutable framework and provided firm foundations for their ethical outlook helped to bolster a climate that was conducive to relativistic outlooks.

In science, the discovery of the possibility of non-Euclidean geometries followed by the scientific developments at the beginning of the twentieth century eroded the confidence placed in classical geometry and physics. Einstein’s theory of relativity cast doubt on Newtonian physics and deprived it from the unassailable status it had enjoyed. The new theories in the area of quantum mechanics and particle physics, Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty in particular, often misrepresented and misunderstood, added to the belief that universal, absolute laws are rarer than it was once imagined.

2.5 Influence Of Early Philosophers

In addition to the above intellectual and sociohistorical influences, contemporary relativism is heir to the legacies left by earlier philosophers. The earliest documented source of relativism in the Western intellectual tradition is Plato’s account of the Sophist philosopher Protagoras and his famous dictum, ‘Man is the measure of all things; of the things that are, that they are; and of the things that are not, that they are not’ (Plato 1961). As in twentieth century, the relativistic tendencies in ancient Greece were fostered by the increasing contact between the Greeks and other people; the realization that other societies may arrange their social and ethical beliefs and customs in radically different ways had a great impact on Greek thinkers. Relativism was subsumed under scepticism by the Pyrrhonian sceptics who in turn influenced Michel De Montaigne (1533–92) one of the most important figures at the outset of modern philosophy. Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) and Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) paved the way for historicism, which in turn has shaped twentieth century relativism. Contemporary relativists are influenced directly by the perspectivism of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and the historicism of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911).

According to Nietzsche, all claims of knowledge are representations of reality only from a certain standpoint. Reports of so-called ‘facts’ are statements of interpretation which could always be supplemented or replaced by other interpretations. Language is not a means of describing what there is, Nietzsche claims, rather it imposes its own interpretation on our thinking. Thus, the very idea of truth and reality is called into question by Nietzsche. Whether Nietzsche’s perspectivism should be equated with relativism is open to debate. However, his writings have become a source of inspiration for postmodernist and relativist thinkers.

Dilthey also has influenced a relativistic understanding of social and historical conditions in contemporary hermeneutics and social theory through his argument that each nation can be seen as a self-contained unit with its own conception of reality and system of values. Different historical periods, Dilthey maintains, produce different norms and values, each of which is taken to be unconditional or universal. We cannot gain a correct understanding of social and intellectual conditions if we do not understand or take into account the inevitable historicity of all thought.

3. Varieties Of Relativism

Relativism takes many shapes and forms. One way to distinguish between different types of relativism is to consider the questions:

(a) What is it that is being relativized?


(b) What is it being relativized to?

A reply to the latter question allows us to distinguish between subjective relativism (or subjectivism) on the one hand and social (or historical) relativism on the other. Subjectivists or subjective relativists argue that truth and falsity of all judgements and the right and wrong of actions are relative to the beliefs and opinions of the individual thinkers and actors. The view entails that the truth and falsity of our judgements come down only to what we believe or like. This type of relativism, although quite popular, is too naive and unsophisticated to be worthy of serious philosophical consideration. Subjective relativism rules out the possibility of disagreement and the very distinction between correct and incorrect judgements, for it turns all our judgements, as long as we believe in them, into correct or true ones.

Social (historical) relativism is the claim that the truth and falsity of all judgements and the right or wrong of actions are relative to their social, historical, and cultural contexts. According to this view, we are indeed in a position to distinguish between true and false beliefs and right and wrong actions and judgements, but only within the parameters of socially given norms and beliefs.

The most influential form of social relativism in twentieth century is known as ‘cultural relativism.’ Cultural relativism was inspired by the work of social anthropologists who conducted their fieldwork among tribal people. Ethnographic evidence seems to suggest that various groups of people hold systems of belief which according to Western standards are false, irrational, and even self-contradictory. The Nuer’s belief that twins are birds or the Azande belief in witchcraft and oracles are some of the frequently cited examples.

Anthropologists distinguish between the methodological and the normative components of cultural relativism. The methodological principle enjoins the practicing anthropologist to refrain from taking judgmental positions on the people under study in order to attain a greater degree of objectivity. The normative consequence of cultural relativism is respect for other cultures and value systems—which can manifest itself as an adherence to multiculturalism and avoidance of ‘ethnocentrism’ in contemporary Western societies.

One important stimulus for the adoption of cultural relativism has come from the study of languages of non-Western people. The work of Benjamin Whorf— known as ‘linguistic relativity’—is the locus classicus of this approach. Whorf’s study of American Indian languages, such as that of the Hopi, led him to claim that ‘we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organised by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organise it into concepts, and ascribe significance as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organise in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language’ (Whorf 1956). According to Whorf, the Hopi articulate and hence perceive the world in terms of events rather than objects, and see time not in terms of duration as English speakers do, but as relations between events. Whorf’s principle of relativity states that ‘all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated’ (p. 214). We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. In this sense, the worlds in which different societies live, he argues, are distinct worlds and not the same world with different labels attached to them.

Further ethnographic and linguistic studies have not supported Whorf’s hypothesis of linguistic relativism. Nonetheless his views have had great impact on the resurgence of interest in relativism in recent decades.

The attempt to answer the question ‘what is it that is being relativized?’ gives us a different set of subdivisions of relativism. Depending on whether cognitive or ethical norms are being relativized, philosophers distinguish between cognitive and moral relativism.

3.1 Cognitive Relativism

Cognitive relativism is the view that what is true or false, rational or valid can vary from society to society and culture to culture and we have no transcultural or ahistorical criterion for adjudicating between conflicting cognitive norms. Some main subdivisions of cognitive relativism are relativism about truth, relativism about rationality and logic, and conceptual relativism.

3.1.1 Relativism About Truth. Relativism about truth is the claim that what is true for one individual, or one social group, may not be true for another and that every effort to adjudicate between context dependent standards of truth and falsity is bound to be futile. The truth of an assertion, so the claim goes, is relative to the beliefs, attitudes, and other psychological idiosyncrasies of the individuals, or more generally and commonly to the conceptual, or cultural, background of the persons uttering them.

Relativism about truth is the core of all relativistic positions since other subdivisions of cognitive relativism, and even moral relativism, are reducible to it. For instance, relativism about rationality can be expressed in terms of whether there are true (universal) standards of rationality. Relativism about logic may be restated as the question whether logical truths are relative to specific cultures or cognitive schemes or whether they are in any sense universal. Ethical relativism can be seen as the claim that the truth of ethical judgements is relative to the context or the culture in which these particular judgements are being made. In this sense relativism about truth is the most general and strongest form of relativism and the target of most criticisms of relativism (see Sect. 5).

3.1.2 Relativism About Rationality. The relativist about rationality argues that various societies or cultures have different standards and criteria of rationality and we are not in a position to evaluate, or choose, between these divergent standards. For instance, Peter Winch has argued that since standards of rationality in different societies do not always coincide, we should use only contextually and internally given criteria of rationality in our assessment of the systems of belief of an alien culture. Winch, who based his arguments on Evans-Pritchard’s account of Azande’s beliefs in witchcraft and magic and who was greatly influenced by the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, argues that we can only use contextually and internally given criteria of reasoning and validity in our assessment of the systems of belief of other cultures, and hence we cannot impute irrationality or illogicality to the Azande. It does not make sense to speak of a universal standard of tionality because rationality means conforming to internal norms given by the language and society, i.e., the form of life in which the language is being used.

In more recent years, the discussion of the Azande material, coupled with a strongly relativistic interpretation of Wittgenstein’s views have led Barry Barnes and David Bloor to argue that not only standards of rationality but also laws of logic, often seen as the necessary conditions for rational thought, are defined by and hence are relative to their social context. According to them the very distinction between valid and invalid modes of argument is relative to the practices prevalent in a given linguistic community or society and cannot in any sense be seen as universal. Bloor argues that there are no culture-transcendent rules of validity and inference. Different societies may have incompatible, but internally coherent, systems of logic and the norms of logical reasoning are relative to a background of cultural conditioning. According to Bloor, ‘The Azande have the same psychology as us but radically different institutions. If we relate logic to the psychology of reasoning we shall be inclined to say that they have the same logic; if we relate logic more closely to the institutional framework of thought then we shall incline to the view that the two cultures have different logics’ (Bloor 1976, pp. 129–130).

3.1.3 Conceptual Relativism. Conceptual relativism is motivated by philosophical considerations about the relationship between human thought and the world rather than mere observation of cultural and historical differences, and for that reason it is both quite distinct from and much more sophisticated than other varieties of cognitive relativism. The roots of conceptual relativism rest with Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) distinction between the data of our sense experiences and the principles of organization or categories we use to organize them. Kant believed that all thinkers necessarily apply the same categories or conceptual schemes to the undifferentiated flow of their experiences. However, once the distinction between a conceptual scheme and the content of that scheme was introduced, then it was easy to accept that there may be more than one system or scheme of organization and the idea of conceptual relativism was born.

One of the most influential versions of conceptual relativism in twentieth century was proposed by W. V. O. Quine (1908–2000). According to Quine, to be able to talk about the world and to cope with our stream of sensory experience, we must impose upon the world a conceptual or linguistic scheme or theory. However, it is possible to envisage a plurality of conceptual or theoretical frameworks all of which explain and predict our experiences of the world equally well. There are no determinate facts to enable us to choose between these different frameworks, hence what Quine has called ‘ontological relativity’ ensues.

The influence of Quine’s views is widespread. Philosophers working in differing areas have explicitly, or implicitly, made use of his arguments to support their relativistic positions. We can see the impact of Quine’s ontological relativism on the writings of Nelson Goodman and Hilary Putnam who have proposed very sophisticated forms of conceptual relativism. Putnam, for instance, has denied that there is a fact of the matter as to even what counts as an object outside the standards set by a conceptual scheme. One and the same situation, according to Putnam can be described ‘as involving entirely different numbers and kinds of objects’ (1992, p.120). Different conceptual schemes will contain bits that are ‘true’ (or ‘right’) and bits that will turn out to be ‘wrong’ by the standards appropriate to the scheme itself—but we do not have an account of truth which would be external to, and independent of, all conceptual schemes.

It is important to note that most conceptual relativists, Quine and Putnam in particular, wish to distance themselves from cultural relativism which they think is fundamentally incoherent (see Sect. 5). Their brand of relativism is based on their theories of meaning and truth rather than the purported differences between cultural traditions.

Conceptual relativism has also influenced the philosophers of science, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, who have emphasized the role of different modes of reasoning at various periods in the history of science and have argued that scientific theories be- longing to these divergent styles of reasoning are incommensurable. Kuhn has claimed that scientists working with different paradigms live in different worlds, Feyerabend has argued that a change of universal principles brings about a change of the entire world. Speaking in this manner we no longer assume that there is an objective world that remains unaffected by our epistemic activities, except when moving within the confines of a particular point of view. Kuhn’s thesis of incommensurability rested on his assumption that scientific theories cannot be compared or assessed independently of the paradigms in which they are embedded. For Kuhn, each paradigm acts as a unique and untranslatable language or conceptual framework and since rival paradigms do not have access to a common criterion for adjudication, they cannot be compared and hence remain self-contained and beyond the critical reach of other paradigms. Ac- cording to this understanding, incommensurability implies that evaluation of different conceptual schemes, cultures, or ways of life is impossible.

Subsequent to the first publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, Kuhn, unlike Feyerabend, attempted to distance himself from relativism but his views remain an important source of inspiration for relativistically inclined thinkers in many fields.

3.2 Moral Relativism

Moral inquiry is concerned with how life should be lived and how human beings should behave towards each other and their world. Moral relativism is the claim that there exist diverse, incompatible moral systems and there are no overarching criteria to decide between them. Moral relativists start from the premise that moral values are grounded on societal conventions, historical conditions, metaphysical beliefs, etc., which vary from one society or social grouping to another and argue that there are no neutral standards available to us for adjudicating between such competing claims. The truth or falsity, the appropriateness or inappropriateness of ethical beliefs, are relative to their sociohistorical backgrounds and moral beliefs cannot be assessed independently of their social framework.

Moral relativism is usually subdivided into descriptive and ethical (or meta-ethical) relativism. Descriptive relativism purports to be an empirical doctrine based on observation of diversity in moral judgements and moral values in different societies and at different times. There is widespread disagreement among individuals and cultures on issues ranging from capital punishment to abortion, from human rights to animal rights, and so on. Descriptive relativists go so far as accepting that there may be broad similarities in the core beliefs of different societies, for instance, injunctions against the killing of innocents, but argue that such shared values are given very different and even incompatible interpretations by different cultures.

Ethical relativists claim that descriptive relativism entails that all ethical judgements are relative to the culture or context in which they are made and that there is no unique criterion for adjudicating between them. Of course moral diversity is compatible with the possibility that there are right and wrong answers to ethical questions. But this would depend on having a dependable path towards the discovery of ethical truths or the establishment of a universal framework for arbitrating between incompatible moral claims. Ethical relativists deny this possibility because they claim that any rational decision making procedure will have deeply seated normative historical and cultural presuppositions embedded in it. Reason and rationality are themselves evaluative concepts, constrained in turn by cultural and historical influences and hence are incapable of leading us to a set of neutral universally applicable standards of evaluation. Thus, ethical relativists deny the possibility of convergence between conflicting ethical frameworks.

Ethical relativism can be embraced independently of cognitive relativism. Ethical relativists may agree that convergence between diverse world views and theoretical frameworks is possible in the natural sciences but deny that this is the case in the realm of ethics. According to this view, moral precepts and judgements are not part of and do not pertain to the natural furniture of the universe. They are man-made and would not exist independently of human actions, beliefs, and customs, hence, there exists a fundamental difference between scientific investigations and moral enquiry.

Ethical relativism is often associated with tolerance and open-mindedness. It is sometimes argued that ethical relativism is itself a normative doctrine insofar as it prohibits interference with the ways of life and moral practices of other cultures. But this degree of tolerance can also lead to moral indifference and even nihilism. A relativist does not have the certitude to condemn genocide, torture, child abuse, etc., so long as it is argued that such actions are part of the fabric of the social life of some cultures and peoples. Furthermore, if ethical relativism is true then even tolerance and noninterference could not be seen as a universal ethical value and could not be recommended to those who do not already embrace it.

4. New Developments

Relativism has gained support from two recent philosophical developments. A new variety of relativism has been introduced through the work of the neo-pragmatist philosophers, the most prominent among whom is Richard Rorty. Although Rorty denies the charge of relativism he does believe that truth, rationality, and objectivity are all defined only in terms of the practices of a community. Furthermore, he argues that no external questions can be asked about the relationship between the practices of a community and a reality that exists independently of it. ‘Objective truth,’ then, for Rorty, is simply the best idea we currently have about how to explain things. The argument supports relativism insofar as it identifies truth with (best) views current in a society at a given time.

The work of postmodernist cultural and literary theorists has been hugely influential in establishing relativism as one of the strongest intellectual currencies of recent times. Jacques Derrida’s proposed deconstruction of Western ideas of logic, truth, and rationality has been seen as a harbinger of a new intellectual era free of the logocentrism and phallocentrism of Western rational intellectual traditions. Derrida, like Rorty, has denied that he is a relativist but his own and his fellow postmodernists’ writings lend themselves easily to relativistic interpretations.

5. Arguments Against Relativism

Relativism has been challenged on several grounds.

5.1 The Self-Refutation Argument

The most common criticism leveled against relativism is the charge of inconsistency. The argument goes back to Plato and the main claim is that relativism, at least in its stronger form of relativism about truth, is either inconsistent or incoherent because of the dubious status of the claim that ‘truth is relative.’ It is suggested that if ‘truth is relative’ is itself true unconditionally, then there is at least one truth which is not relative, and hence relativism is not true. If, on the other hand, ‘truth is relative’ is true only relative to the relativist’s framework, then the claim is devoid of significance. To avoid inconsistency a relativist should accept that ‘truth is relative’ is itself only relatively true, i.e. true only for people who suggest it, but then she or he would not be in a position to try and convince a nonrelativist of the veracity of the claim. The relativist is condemned to silence.

5.2 Argument From Translation

A new type of criticism of relativism has surfaced in recent years directed at the intelligibility of the claim that one and the same statements may be true for one linguistic community and false for another. Donald Davidson, one of the main advocates of this position, argues that all types of relativism rely on the assumption that there can be radically divergent conceptual schemes or systems of belief. In order to ascertain that a system of belief or cognitive scheme diverges from ours in a significant manner, he argues, we first need to identify such a scheme. In order to identify something as a belief we must be able to interpret it (or translate the sentence expressing that belief into our language). But, to translate a sentence or to assign meaning to it, we will have to regard that sentence, or the belief system underpinning it, as true or in agreement with us. A correct understanding of the beliefs and other propositional attitudes of a person, Davidson maintains, leads to the conclusion that most of her beliefs must be true. If this argument is right, then relativism cannot even get started, because arguments for relativism are built on the premise that there are, or can be, fundamental cultural and conceptual differences between human beings. If this assumption is untenable, then so is relativism.

5.3 Evolutionary Arguments

The origins of this approach can be traced to Quine and his infamous dictum that natural selection guarantees that organisms would know many truths and abide by the laws of logic and rational cognitive procedures or become extinct. The philosopher of mind, Daniel Dennett, following Quine, has argued that natural selections guarantee that most of an organism’s beliefs will be true and most of its strategies rational. ‘True’ and ‘rational’ have to be interpreted univocally, therefore we have empirical grounds for rejecting the possibility of relativism about truth and rationality.

Relativism has survived 2,000 years of attempts to bury it. Its perennial appeal and periodic fashion ability are due to its ability to capture and express an essential insight, be it in an exaggerated fashion, about the human condition. The insight that we live in a world of pluralities and do not have access to univocal answers to our diverse problems.


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