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- Compare moral relativism, aesthetic relativism, social constructionism, cultural relativism, and cognitive relativism.
Relativism expresses the view that the meaning and value of human beliefs and behaviors have no absolute reference. Relativists claim that humans understand and evaluate beliefs and behaviours only in terms of, for example, their historical or cultural context.
Common statements that might be considered relativistic include
- "That's true for you but not for me"
- "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"
- "You can't judge other cultures by the standards of your own"
Some relativists claim that humans can understand and evaluate beliefs and behaviors only in terms of their historical or cultural context. There are many forms of relativism which vary in their degree of controversy. 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. Another widespread and contentious form is moral relativism.
Relativism can be contrasted  with:
- Universalism—the view that facts can be discovered objectively and that they thus apply universally in all situations, times and places.
- Objectivism—the view that cognitive, aesthetic and ethical values are independent of human thinking.
- Absolutism—the view that beauty, truth, etc, are timeless and unchanging qualities.
- Monism—the view that in any given area there can be no more than one correct opinion.
- Subjectivism—the view that any philosophical or moral question has an answer that is not falsifiable, and is therefore subjective.
- 1 Advocates of relativism
- 2 Forms of relativism
- 3 Related and Contrasting Positions
- 4 Relativism: pro and con
- 5 Advocates of Relativism
- 6 Critics of relativism
- 7 Postmodern relativism
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 Bibliography
- 12 External links
Advocates of relativism
The concept of relativism has importance both for philosophers and for anthropologists, although in different ways. Philosophers explore how beliefs might or might not in fact depend for their truth upon such items as language, conceptual scheme, culture, and so forth; with ethical relativism furnishing just one example. Anthropologists, on the other hand, occupy themselves with describing actual human behavior. For them, relativism refers to a methodological stance, in which the researcher suspends (or brackets) his or her own cultural biases while attempting to understand beliefs and behaviors in their local contexts. This has become known as methodological relativism, and concerns itself specifically with avoiding ethnocentrism (the application of one's own cultural standards to the assessment of other cultures).
The combination of both philosophical relativism and anthropological relativism results in descriptive relativism, which claims that different cultures have different views of morality, which they cannot unify under one general conception of morality. Thus, one might want to claim that all cultures, for example, prohibit the killing of innocents. The descriptive relativist reply to this is that while this might be true at a general level, different cultures have different understandings of what "innocent" means, and so are still culturally relative.
Elements of relativism emerged at least as early as the Sophists in the 5th century BCE.
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. (For more information on the "usefulness" of ideas, see Pragmatism.)
Relativism is sometimes (though not always) interpreted as saying that all points of view are equally valid, in contrast to an absolutism which argues there is but one true and correct view. In fact, relativism asserts that a particular instance Y exists only in combination with or as a by-product of a particular framework or viewpoint X, and that no framework or standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. That is, a non-universal trait Y (e.g., a particular practice, behavior, custom, convention, concept, belief, perception, ethics, truth, or conceptual framework) is a dependent variable influenced by the independent variable X (e.g., a particular language, culture, historical epoch, a priori cognitive architecture, scientific frameworks, gender, ethnicity, status, individuality). Notably, this is not an argument that all instances of a certain kind of framework (say, all languages) do not share certain basic universal commonalities (say, grammatical structure and vocabulary) that essentially define that kind of framework and distinguish it from other frameworks (for example, linguists have criteria that define language and distinguish it from the mere communication of other animals). Moreover, relativism also presupposes philosophical realism in that there are actual objective things in the world that are relative to other real things.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Moreover, relativism also assumes causality, as well as a problematic web of relationships between various independent variables and the particular dependent variables that they influence.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
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 biases while attempting to understand beliefs and behaviors in their local 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, is the skeptical position that asserts that the truth of a proposition depends on who interprets it because no moral or cultural consensus can or will be reached.
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, whereas philosophers engage in normative relativism, 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 (see Brown, 1991 for a good discussion).
The fact that they 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:"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.
Relativism is not skepticism. Skepticism superficially resembles relativism, because they both doubt absolute notions of truth. However, whereas skeptics go on to doubt all notions of truth, relativists want to replace absolute truth with a positive theory of relative truth. For the relativist, there is no more to truth and than a personal or cultural belief, so for them there is a lot of truth in the world. 
Relativism: pro and con
- One 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 posits truth as relative - i.e. epistemological/truth-value relativism. More specifically, it is only strong 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 "true" are not universal, yet still accept that other universal truths exist (e.g. gas 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.
- A third argument addresses the effects of relativism. As an idea, this argument contends, relativism has the sole social value of making everyone equal by taking away any rules, thus resulting potentially in (anarchy and complete Social Darwinism) Relativism allegedly allows individuals to do as they please. Many relativists would add a corollary about harming others, but relativism itself negates these kinds of systems. If I can believe it wrong for me to harm others, I can also believe it right — no matter what the circumstances. It makes no difference in this idealogical scheme.
- The problem of negation also arises. If everyone with differing opinions is right, then no one is. Thus instead of saying "all beliefs (ideas, truths, etc.) are equally valid," one might just as well say "all beliefs are equally worthless". (see article on Doublethink)
- Contradictions such as "all beliefs are equally worthless" appear irrelevant, as they constitute arguing from the premise. Once you have said if the X is absolute you have presupposed relativism is false. And one cannot prove a statement using that statement as a premise. There is a contradiction, but the contradiction is between relativism and the presuppositions of absoluteness in the ordinary logic used. Nothing has been proven wrong and nothing has been proven in and of itself, only the known incompatibility has been restated inefficiently.
- Another counter-argument uses Bertrand Russell's Paradox, which refers to the "List of all lists that do not contain themselves". Kurt Gödel, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jean Baudrillard have famously debated this paradox.
- A very different approach explicates the rhetorical production of supposedly 'bottom-line' arguments against relativism. Edwards et al’s influential and controversial "Death and Furniture" paper takes this line in its staunch defence of relativism.
- A strong epistemological relativist could theoretically argue that it does not matter that his theory is only relative according to itself. As long as it remains "true" according to a relative framework, then it is just as true as any apparently "absolute" truth that a realist would postulate. The dispute lies in the distinction between whether the framework is relative or absolute, but if a realist could be persuaded it was relative, then the relativist theory could exist logically within that framework, albeit accepting that its "truth" is relative. A strong epistemological relativist must remove his own notions of universal truth if he is to embrace his theory fully, he must accept some form of truth to validate his theory logically, and this truth, by definition, must be relative. In other frameworks his theory might be regarded as untrue, and so the theory cannot exist here. Looked at from this perspective, with all notions and premises of universal truth removed, the notion of strong epistemological relativism is logically valid.
Advocates of Relativism
Indian religions tend to be naturally relativistic. Mahavira (599-527 BC), the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism, developed an early philosophy regarding relativism and subjectivism known as Anekantavada. Hindu religion has no theological difficulties in accepting degrees of truth in other religions. A Rig Vedic hymn states that "Truth is One, though the sages know it variously." (Ékam sat vipra bahudā vadanti)
The Sikh Gurus (spiritual teacher ) have propagated the message of "many paths" leading to the one God and ultimate salvation for all souls who tread on the path of righteousness. They have supported the view that proponents of all faiths can, by doing good and virtuous deeds and by remembering the Lord, certainly achieve salvation. The students of the Sikh faith are told to accept all leading faiths as possible vehicle for attaining spiritual enlightenment provided the faithful study, ponder and practice the teachings of their prophets and leaders. The holy book of the Sikhs called the Sri Guru Granth Sahib says: "Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false." Guru Granth Sahib page 1350. and "The seconds, minutes, and hours, days, weeks and months, and the various seasons originate from the one Sun; O nanak, in just the same way, the many forms originate from the Creator." Guru Granth Sahib page 12,13.
Sophists are considered the founding fathers of relativism in the Western World. 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 opponents, Plato and Socrates.
Another important advocate of relativism, Bernard Crick, a British political scientist, 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.
- "All methodologies have their limitations and the only rule that survives is 'anything goes'"
Or, in a more conciliatory mood:
- "I argue that all rules have their limits, and there is no comprehensive 'rationality', I do not argue that we should proceed without rules and standards"
Thomas Kuhn's philosophy of science, as expressed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is often seen as relativistic (and enthusiastically proclaimed as such within the humanities). 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.
- "the third and most fundamental aspect of the incommensurability of competing paradigms: this is a sense that I am unable to explicate further, [in which] the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. One contains constrained bodies that fall slowly, the other pendulums that repeat their motions again and again. In one, solutions are compounds, in the other mixtures. One is embedded in a flat, the other in a curved, matrix of space. Practicing in two different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction. Again, that is not to say that they can see anything they please. Both are looking at the world, and what they look at has not changed. However in some areas they see different things and they see them in different relations one to the other. That is why a law that cannot even be demonstrated to one group of scientists may occasionally seem intuitively obvious to another. Equally, it is why, before they can hope to communicate fully, one group or the other must experience the conversion that we have been calling a paradigm shift."
Thus the truth of a claim, or the existence of a posited entity is relative to the paradigm employed. However, he was reluctant to fully embrace relativism.
- 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.
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 a 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".
The problem with the standard two-valued logic is simply that it only ever applies to sentential formulas and not to interpreted sentences in use. The principle of non-contradiction can easily be made not to obtain by reinterpreting the terms involved, as is the case with the corpuscular versus the wave theory of light[How to reference and link to summary or text].
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 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 our 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, but prefers to describe himself not as a relativist, but as a pragmatist.
- '"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. Thus his position, in the view of many commentators, adds up to relativism.
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 late Sir Isaiah Berlin expressed relativist views when he stated that, to "confuse our own constructions with eternal laws or divine decrees is one of the most fatal delusions of men."  And again when he said, "the concept of fact is itself problematic…all facts embody theories...or socially conditioned, ideological attitudes."
Critics of relativism
Philosopher Paul Boghossian has written a book called Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism.
In Science and Relativism, Larry Laudan writes "The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interest and perspectives, is—second only to American political campaigns—the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of relativism of our time."
The literary theorist Christopher Norris has written a book entitled "Against Relativism". He is an expert on postmodern thought, particularly deconstruction, and argues that deconstruction, properly understood, does not equate to relativism.
Plato was the first great critic of relativism. He criticizes the views of the sophist Protagoras in his dialogue Thaetetus.
Physicist Alan Sokal initiated the science wars in 1996 with his hoax paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". . He later co-authored the book Fashionable Nonsense (also known as Intellectual Impostures) with Jean Bricmont, which criticises the postmodernist use and (what they perceived to be) abuse of science.
Two of the most prominent modern opponents of relativism are also adherents of differing forms of absolutism: Richard Dawkins and the Roman Catholic Church. Interestingly, they seem to lambast against each other as much as against relativism.
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. Similarly, deconstruction is often termed a relativist perspective because of the ways it locates the meaning of a text in its appropriation and reading, implying that there is no "true" reading of a text and no text apart from its reading. 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 and Friedrich Nietzsche, political movements such as post-anarchism or post-left anarchy 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
- Cognitive relativism
- Degrees of truth
- False dilemma
- Fuzzy logic
- Moral relativism
- Multi-valued logic
- Philosophical realism
- Principle of Bivalence
- Propositional logic
- Social constructionism
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