Relativism is 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 behaviors only in terms of, for example, their historical and cultural context. Philosophers identify many different kinds of relativism depending upon which classes of beliefs allegedly depend upon what.
Relativism should not be confused with the theory of relativity in physics. This theory of Albert Einstein is a theory about objective, absolute features of spacetime, and the term "relativity" is a kind of misnomer. Einstein himself preferred to call his insight "a theory of invariances" because it is largely a theory about facts and physical quantities that do not depend on the observer.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson define relativism in their book Metaphors We Live By as the rejection of both subjectivism and 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, they characterize "objectivism" as a "straw man", and, to a lesser degree, criticize the views of Karl Popper, Kant and Aristotle.
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 is specifically concerned with avoiding ethnocentrism, or applying one's cultural standards to the assessment of other cultures.
Elements of relativism emerged at least as early as the Sophists.
One argument for relativism is that our own cognitive bias prevents us from observing something objectively with our own senses, and notational bias will apply to whatever allegedly can be measured without using our senses. In addition, we have a culture bias shared with other trusted observers, which cannot be eliminated. A counterargument to this is that subjective certainty and concrete objects and causes are part of our everyday life, and that there is no great value in discarding such useful ideas as isomorphism, objectivity and a final truth.
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.
A common argument against relativism uses an inherently contradictory (self-stultifying) notion: The statement "all is relative", which is either a relative statement or 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.
As a counter-argument, one can say that only one thing in the world, relativism, is absolute, thereby solving this dilemma. This is a softer take on relativism. It says that the argument presented above is correct in a way. Not all statements are relative, but the only statement that is not relative is the statement: "The only thing that is absolute is that everything else is relative." Although this may preserve relativism for all practical intents and purposes as it is commonly applied, it does so at the cost of accepting one objective truth: relativism itself.
Another counter-argument uses Bertrand Russell's Paradox, which refers to the "List of all lists that do not contain themselves". This paradox has been famously debated by Kurt Gödel, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jean Baudrillard.
A very different approach is to explicate the rhetorical production of supposedly 'bottom line' arguments against relativism. Edwards et alÂ’s influential and controversial Death and Furniture paper takes this line in its staunch defence of relativism.
Edwards, D., Ashmore, M. & Potter, J. (1995). Death and furniture: The rhetoric, politics, and theology of bottom line arguments against relativism. History of the Human Sciences, 8, 25–49.
- cultural relativism
- moral relativism
- linguistic relativism
- relativist fallacy