Philosophy Relativism
by
Paul O’Grady
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0084

Introduction

That people disagree about fundamental issues—such as the nature of reality, the scope of knowledge, or what moral code is correct—is uncontroversial. What is much more controversial is the thought that antagonists in such debates may both be right, that there is a sense in which people legitimately may hold competing views. This is understood not merely in the political sense of allowing people to hold views no matter how daft they may seem, but also in the stronger sense that there is no single correct view but a multiplicity of equally viable, conflicting alternatives. This is the intuition behind relativism. Normally one might think that this simply leads to contradiction and chaos. However, the relativist argues that relativism offers a way of avoiding both contradiction and chaos. In modern academia, relativistic views are widely found across the humanities. Partly this is due to the influence of postmodern thought, but it has other roots in philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and W. V. O. Quine. Yet in academic philosophy, relativism has always been a minority view and reckoned as something pernicious. Even Richard Rorty, a figure widely held to be an archetypal relativist, denied that he is a relativist and argued it was an untenable position. This points to the proliferation of views on what exactly constitutes relativism and over what domains it might be appropriate to hold relativistic views. For example, some might think that moral beliefs are relative to the culture or historical period but consider scientific beliefs to be firm and absolute. However, relativizing the claims of science has produced some of the liveliest controversies in recent academia (the so-called science wars). The debates about relativism flow over to related discussions of realism and antirealism, representation and reality, constructivism and concept formation, and thus feature in metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophies of science, mind, and language. In the past decade, the debate has taken an interesting turn, with a proliferation of studies exploring and defending relativism from within the analytical philosophy of language. It is treated as a semantic theory offering ways of solving technical problems about the meaning of sentences of certain kinds, such as future contingents or epistemic modals. This “new relativism” is narrower and more focused than previous approaches to the topic. Nevertheless, the kinds of analysis offered yield genuine advances about defining relativism, for example, and shed light on the bigger issues treated in earlier discussions of relativism.

Anthologies and Collections

Numerous useful collections of articles are available on relativism. Hales 2011 is the most up to date and comprehensive of these, with Krausz 2010 having a comprehensive survey of recent and classical discussions of relativism. García-Carpintero and Kölbel 2008 offers a clear path into recent analytic semantic relativism, with Brogaard 2009 offering a good sample of contemporary work. Older collections such as Hollis and Lukes 1982 and Wilson 1970 reflect an interest in relativism about rationality and how different cultures may have alternative conceptual schemes. Krausz and Meiland 1982 is a helpful collection of classic papers. Villa, et al. 2010 is a good representative of contemporary work on relativism from a non-Anglophone context.

  • Brogaard, Berit, ed. Special Issue: Relative Truth. Synthese 166.2 (January 2009).

    E-mail Citation »

    A special issue devoted to relativism with an informative introduction by Brogaard and sections on context and semantic content, the open future, and epistemic and moral relativism.

  • García-Carpintero, Manuel, and Max Kölbel, eds. Relative Truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199234950.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A collection presenting work from the “new” relativism associated with analytical philosophy of language and focusing on questions of semantics. Has an excellent introduction and includes essays critical of the project.

  • Hales, Steven D., ed. A Companion to Relativism. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444392494E-mail Citation »

    Contains papers by many of the leading contemporary writers on this topic. Includes sections on defining relativism, kinds of relativism, relativism in relation to epistemology, ethics, philosophy of science, logic, mathematics, and ontology.

  • Hollis, Martin, and Steven Lukes, eds. Rationality and Relativism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1982.

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    This collection has papers pertaining to relativism about rationality, including Barnes and Bloor 1982 (cited under Relativism about Rationality).

  • Krausz, Michael, ed. Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Contains thirty-three papers, including older papers such as Davidson 2010 and Harman 2010 (both cited under Moral Relativism) and important recent work such as excerpts of Boghossian 2006 (cited under Surveys), MacFarlane 2005 (cited under Defining Relativism), and Wright 2006 (cited under Semantic Relativism). An excellent compendium of work on relativism.

  • Krausz, Michael, and Jack Meiland, eds. Relativism: Cognitive and Moral. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    Contains classic papers on cognitive relativism such as Davidson 2010 (cited under Relativism about Rationality) and Swoyer 1982 (cited under Alethic Relativism) and good introductory papers on moral relativism, such as Williams 2010 and Harman 2010 (both cited under Moral Relativism).

  • Villa, Vittorio, Giorgio Maniaci, Giorgio Pino, and Aldo Schiavello. Il Relativismo: Temi e prospettive. Rome: Aracne, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection dealing with the history of relativism, defining relativism, semantic relativism, faultless disagreement, value pluralism, relativism and fallibilism, and relativism and pragmatism, among other themes. In Italian.

  • Wilson, Bryan R., ed. Rationality. Oxford: Blackwell, 1970.

    E-mail Citation »

    A useful collection of classic texts relating to relativism about rationality, including Winch 1970 and Lukes 1970 (both cited under Relativism about Rationality).

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