Relativism

We explain what relativism is and its main characteristics. In addition, the criticisms of this school of thought, examples and more.

relativismo
Relativism holds that there is no absolute truth but rather that truth exists in relation to something else.

What is relativism?

Relativism is a philosophical stance that views truth in relative, not absolute terms. The idea that truth is relative and not absolute means that its truthfulness (the nature of truth) is such only in relation to something else.

For relativism, to speak of "truth" means to speak of one truth among others, a concept that is related to knowledge and its truthfulness. Thus, for relativism, human knowledge is relative, conditioned by its historical, cultural, economic and political context.

Different forms of relativism exist, depending either on their radicalness or the domain where they are applied. Moral or ethical relativism, gnoseological relativism, cultural relativism and relativism in physics are among some of its forms.

History of relativism

As a philosophical stance, relativism has existed since the beginnings of Western philosophy. An example of this are the Sophists, Greek 5th century BC thinkers. In opposition to the ideas of Socrates and Plato (who proposed fixed and absolute truths), the Sophists postulated a theory of knowledge whose concept of truth was relative to the form in which it was presented in discourse. The best known of the Sophists, Protagoras (490-420 BC), claimed that man is the measure of all things. This can be interpreted as a form of subjective gnoseological relativism, in which the notion of what things are depends on who and how observes them.

The ideas of Protagoras and the Sophists were followed by Pyrrhonian skepticism. Pyrrhon (360-270 BC) was a Greek philosopher who took up the ideas of Protagoras and built upon them. Some traits of Pyrrhonian thought can be seen in the work of Boethius (480-524) and even in Averroes (1126-1198). The same applies to the works of modern philosophers such as Montaigne (1533-1592), Rousseau (1712-1778), Voltaire (1694-1778) and Montesquieu (1689-1755), all of whom shared the idea of a cultural relativism.

Among the figures who helped shape 20th century relativism are Hegel (1770-1831), Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Dilthey (1833-1911). Nietzsche's dictum "no facts, only interpretations" gave rise to what is known as Nietzschean perspectivism, a radical form of relativism. Nietzsche as well as Hegel and Dilthey modified the way in which science was done in the 20th century and influenced philosophical thought into the 21st century, as was the case with post-structuralism or posthumanism.

Forms of relativism

Relativism is a philosophical stance that denies the existence of a single, absolute truth. Instead, relativism holds that truth is relative to at least one frame of reference, whether it be the perspective of the observer or other context frameworks. Three main forms of relativism exist:

  • Gnoseological relativism. Gnoseological or cognitive relativism holds that there are no universal truths. All knowledge is relative to the conditions or context in which it is asserted. A form of gnoseological or cognitive relativism is subjectivism, which states that knowledge is relative to the specific conditions of individuals.
  • Cultural relativism. Cultural and moral relativism argues that there is no absolute truth but rather that truth depends on individuals in a given space and time. It claims that the diversity of cultural values cannot be reduced to a single form, since all societies are different. As moral relativism, it often faces ethical dilemmas that ultimately define the laws and norms governing each society.
  • Relativism in physics. Relativism in physics upholds that truth is relative to the frame of reference. This became evident in the field of quantum physics, especially after Einstein's theory of relativity and other ideas which are still valid today, even when these ideas may contradict one another.

Characteristics of relativism

Among the main characteristics of relativism are:

  • Knowledge is not unique and absolute but exists in relation to something else or its context. For instance: something is considered good only in relation to something bad and given a particular circumstance.
  • Knowledge is conditioned by culture, morality and the preconceptions held by individuals. For example: something is true in a given culture but is false in another, since it is beliefs and customs that condition the definition of concepts.
  • Relativism applies to the whole spectrum of knowledge, though it is most noticeable in the realms of morality, ethics and culture.
  • Different ways of interpreting and explaining the world are valid, as long as they are grounded in comprehensible and justifiable arguments.
  • Truth and knowledge are not independent of individuals and their context (as the objectivist school proposes) but rather the contrary.

Example of relativism

An example of relativist thought is the conception of thunder throughout human history. Primitive civilizations interpreted thunder as the manifestation of the "anger of the gods" rather than as a meteorological phenomenon.

The definition or explanation of an event is influenced by the context and the historical moment in which it takes place. As time and place change and individuals evolve, the conception of the same event becomes relative or different.

According to relativism, it is not a question of one culture being better or superior to another, but rather that both are equally important and grounded in their own knowledge and beliefs which, despite their differences, are necessary for a better understanding of the world (as long as their concepts are founded).

Criticism of relativism

Among the major criticisms of relativism, the following stand out:

  • Everything is ultimately subjective. It is impossible to approach certain issues with absolute subjectivity: coherence is lost in attempting to accept all points of view unconditionally. Due to the lack of parameters, relativist thought is thus subjective.
  • Relativism contradicts itself. Logic as a philosophical discipline posits that "all truth is relative" as a statement that purports to be true. If this is the case, the statement becomes contradictory, since to hold that all truth is relative implies that even this very fact is relative, thus providing the possibility for absolute truth.

References

  • Hoyos, L. E. (2005). Relativismo y racionalidad. Univ. Nacional de Colombia.
  • Baghramian, M. (2004). Relativism. Routledge.
  • Hales, S. D. (2009). Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy. MIT Press.
  • “Relativism”. Stanford encyclopedia
  • “Relativism”. Science direct
  • “Relativism”. Cambridge dictionary
  • “Ethical relativism”. Britannica

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ESPÍNOLA, Juan Pablo Segundo. "Relativism".
Encyclopedia of Humanities. 28 September, 2023, https://humanidades.com/en/relativism/.

About the author

Author: Juan Pablo Segundo Espínola

Bachelor of Arts in philosophy (University of Buenos Aires)

Translated by: Marilina Gary

Degree in English Language Teaching (Juan XXIII Institute of Higher Education, Bahía Blanca, Argentina).

Updated on: 28 September, 2023
Posted on: 28 September, 2023

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