Beginning with a historical overview of relativism, from Pythagoras in ancient Greece to Derrida and postmodernism, Maria Baghramian explores the resurgence. The Many Faces of Relativism Maria Baghramian School of Philosophy University College Dublin Dublin, Ireland Relativism, an ancient philosophical topic, has. Columbia University Press Comments are welcome A Brief History of Relativism Maria Baghramian School of Philosophy University College Dublin I.

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Skip to main content. Log In Sign Up. A Brief History of Relativism. Draft of a paper to appear in Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology, Michael Krausz, ed.

Maria Baghramian – Wikipedia

Relativism is not one but several loosely interconnected doctrines developed and shaped in response to a variety of philosophical concerns and unified more by what they deny — absolutism, universalism and monism—rather than what they endorse. The varieties of relativism are customarily individuated in terms of their domains—hence the customary distinction between ontic, cognitive, moral, and aesthetic relativisms—or their objects, for example, relativism about science, law, religion, etc.

The doctrine of cultural relativism, inspired by the work of social anthropologists, where it is argued that there can be no such thing as a culturally neutral criterion for adjudicating between conflicting claims arising from different cultural contexts, has become one of the best known forms of relativism and has shaped not only the theoretical framework of the social sciences but also the ethical and political outlooks of many non- specialists.

It has also shaped the work of philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. The underlying rationale for this form of relativism is the belief that the world does not present itself to us ready- made or ready carved; rather we supply the different, at times incompatible, ways of categorizing and conceptualizing it. The extreme form of this approach is social constructionism where it is claimed that reality—objects, entities, properties and categories—is not simply out there to be discovered by empirical investigation or observation only; rather it is constructed through a variety of norm governed socially sanctioned cognitive activities such as interpretation.

Finally, Postmodernism is arguably the most potent source of the popularity of relativism today.

Maria Baghramian

The movement is identified with relativism because of its mistrust of claims to objectivity, denial of universal conceptions of rationality, and rejection of the role of truth and reason as courts of appeal.

Different stories may be told about the philosophical pedigree of each of these strands of relativism, but all these stories begin with the Ancient Greeks. The Beginnings We can detect an increasing awareness of diversity in cultural beliefs and habits foreshadowing relativism in Greek thought from fifth century BCE onwards.

Plato interprets Protagoras as meaning: Sextus also introduces the topic of conflicting appearances and attributes to Protagoras the view that truth is whatever appears to each individual.

It is difficult to know what variety of relativism, if any, Protagoras was defending. Plato also emphasizes the social and ethical dimensions of Protagorean relativism by attributing to him the view: In such matters, neither any individual nor any city can claim superior wisdom.

The argument, a model for numerous attempts to show that relativism is self-refuting, famously culminates in the conclusion: Protagoras believes his doctrine to be true.

Therefore, Protagoras must believe that his own doctrine is false. There has been much discussion as to whether Plato is entitled to impute this baguramian to Protagoras. In Book I of Metaphysics, Aristotle argues that relativism is tantamount to the denial of the principle of non- contradiction for if man is the measure of all things, then different bbaghramian would assign the value true or baghrxmian to the same assertion rendering it both true and false.

Therefore, the relativist is unable to make a meaningful statement, and even the very expression of relativism is meaningless since it does not exclude its denial. The relativist, then, by attaching the relativizing clause to all statements makes contradictions in principle impossible, and by so doing, all discourse is rendered devoid of content. Protagoras advocates the baghramjan of 1 P is true for F1; and 2 not-P is true for F2; and 1 and 2 are not mutually contradictory.

Sextus Empiricus, the most influential Pyrrhonian, reports: Protagoras has it that human beings are measure of all things, of those that are that they are, and of those that are not that they are not. For this reason he posits only what is apparent to each person, and thus introduces relativity. Hence he is thought to have something in common with the Pyrrhonists. The example he gives is that of the right and left, which can be established only in relation to other objects.

It follows that we must suspend judgment about the nature of objects. For instance, among classical and medieval philosophers, we find a conflation of the ideas of relativism and relativity.


Relativism, as currently understood, is the claim that what is true or false, right or wrong, logical and rational, is relative to a culture, belief system, conceptual scheme, or the psychological makeup of different people. Sextus, for instance, bases his arguments on data that may appear to favor relativism but the conclusions he draws support skepticism.

But there is nothing which is good or bad for everyone in common; therefore, there is nothing good or bad by nature. In the Modern era skepticism and relativism, which had been ignored for almost fifteen centuries, once more became live philosophical topics. Like Sextus, he points out that that with changes in our bodily and emotional conditions one and the same judgment may appear true to us on one occasion and false on another; therefore no absolute truths on such matters exist.

Maria Baghramian, Relativism – PhilPapers

How do we know that, a millennium hence, another theory will not be offered which would replace existing ones? Montaigne relies on accounts of recently discovered faraway cultures to argue that there are no universal laws of human behavior and no innate human nature. Unlike Sextus, however, Montaigne does not distinguish very clearly between relativism and skepticism and seems to think that the two philosophical attitudes are fundamentally at one. Montaigne was a major influence in the development of French Enlightenment,which heralded the emergence of the Modern scientific outlook and secular humanism.

Contemporary Postmodernist relativists condemn the Enlightenment for its faith in universal norms of rationality but at least some strands of the Enlightenment bear the unmistakable signs of a nascent relativism.

A strong interest in distant cultures of the New World and a call for tolerance towards other creeds and peoples marks the writing of key Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire —Diderot —and Montesquieu — Put on the costume of the country you visit, but keep the suit of clothes you will need to go home in.

I do not find it surprising that the Negroes paint the devil sparklingly white and their gods black as coal. The need for tolerance and respect for other cultures and beliefs are frequently used as key justifications for cultural relativism, the Enlightenment prepared the ground for this attitude of tolerance by turning alien cultures, habits and perspectives into central areas of literary and philosophical concern.

Contemporary relativism paradoxically also owes its origins to prominent strands of the Counter-Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the ensuing Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. Giambattista Vico —prominent above all for his anti- Cartesianism, Johann Georg Hamann —Johann Gottfried Herder —and Wilhelm von Humboldt — introduced the idea that an understanding of cultural outlooks and norms is possible only within their historical contexts and hence opened the way for a historicized and situational interpretation of cognitive and moral systems.

Language provides a conceptual framework for its users for thinking about the world. Different linguistic communities each bring their own possibly unique framework to bear on their ontological and metaphysical commitments. Despite a gap of two centuries, the distance separating von Humboldt and modern day linguistic relativists such as Edward Sappir and Benjamin Whorf is negligible. Hamann directly influenced Herder, another major figure in the Counter- Enlightenment.

With an intellectual attitude reminiscent of contemporary Postmodernism, Herder saw the rational, universal, and scientific civilization—the Enlightenment—as the enemy. His leaning towards historicism, which is a form of cultural relativism, is evident in the following passage: The Roots of Contemporary Relativism The four main contemporary relativistic views outlined in section I owe their origins primarily to the work of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche.

The raw data of our sensory experiences are organized and made intelligible by the concepts such as space and time, and the categories of understanding such as cause, unity, and substance. Without these a priori categories, experience itself would be impossible. For on the contrary, it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions, and that which the faculty of cognition supplies from itself.

Our experiences of the world, and their descriptions, are subject to the laws of these a priori categories, which are the preconditions of all actual and possible experiences. Classical Pragmatists, in the earlier part of the twentieth century, renewed the Kantian dualism of scheme and content.

William James, for instance, argued that we cannot make sense of the idea of a reality presented to us already formed, for the so-called reality is at least in part constructed through the very attempts to describe it. Foreshadowing Quine, James continues: There is nothing improbable in the supposition that analysis of the world may yield a number of formulae, all consistent with the facts. In physical science different formulae may explain the phenomena equally well—the one-fluid and the two-fluid theories of electricity, for example.


Why may it not be so with the world? Why may there not be different points of view for surveying it, within each of which all data harmonize, and which the observer may therefore either choose between, or simply cumulate one upon another? He argues that the very idea that there diverse and mutually incompatible conceptual scheme, an idea that is at the core of relativism, hinges on the hypothesis of incommensurability or untranslatibility between languages.

But contra Kuhn and Feyerabend, he thinks incommensurability is not a genuine possibility for something counts as a language, or conceptual scheme, only if it is translatable into ours. The idea of a language forever beyond our grasp is incoherent in virtue of what we mean by a system of concepts, so a worldview governed by a paradigm or conceptual scheme radically different from ours will necessarily turn out to be very much like our own.

We are actively engaged in making a world when, for instance, we make constellations by picking out and putting together certain stars rather than others, or when we make stars and planets by drawing certain boundaries rather than others. Furthermore, the worlds we construct would vary with the different conceptual tools we bring into play, tools shaped by our social background, cultural settings and context-bound interests.

Rather, they are constructed via interactive norm- governed processes and practices such as negotiations, interpretations and manipulation of data, etc. In their hands, the anti-realist insight, inspired by Kant, that we do not have access to a world uncontaminated by our concepts, becomes a fully fledged relativist position barely distinguishable from Postmodernism. Hegelian historicism and contemporary cultural relativism Like Kant, Hegel, the towering figure of nineteenth-century philosophy, could not be characterized as relativist.

Hegelian historicism had a crucial influence on Marxist and neo Marxist historical relativism and the relativistic Hermeneutics of Wilhelm Dilthey and his followers. Not only ethics, which varies greatly from society to society, but also even logic cannot give us conclusive truths and do not deal with unassailable universal principles.

Furthermore, it has had a role in the advent of social constructivism through the work of the Russian psychologist and social constructivist, Lev Vygotsky —an important figure in the development of social constructionism and sociology of knowledge, who, in turn, was strongly influenced by Marxist and Humboldtian approaches to culture and language. Therefore the methods of the natural sciences are completely inappropriate for the study of the human realm. Ironically, those beliefs that present themselves as unconditional and universal—metaphysical and religious systems in particular—more than all others carry the imprint of their historical conditions and consciousness.

Different historical epochs produce different values or norms, each presenting itself as unconditional and universal. By acquiring historical consciousness, we become aware of the conflicts between these supposedly unconditional and hence universal values and discover their historical contingency. Herskovits, cultural relativism not only became the orthodoxy in social anthropology but also shaped popular contemporary views on relativism in the moral and social domains.

Nietzsche and Postmodernism Nietzsche is possibly the most influential single philosopher in the recent history of relativism. His writing directly and indirectly influenced many varieties of contemporary relativism, but most notably foreshadowed and shaped key ideas of Postmodernism. This distinction has no coherent basis because to draw it is to presuppose the very thing Kant ruled out: All reports of so-called facts are statements of interpretation and could always be supplemented or replaced by other interpretations: Language however, is not the simple means of describing what there is.

We can only see the world, literally and metaphorically, from a particular angle. Furthermore, our perceptions and conceptions are colored by our values and desires. No one perspective can occupy a privileged position for there are no true or objective perspectives, only perspectives that prevail at any given time in history.

We cannot appeal to any facts or standards of evaluation independently of their relation to the perspectives we have; we can do little more than insist on the legitimacy of our own perspective and try to impose it on other people. The key ideas of postmodernism were propagated by a number baghrajian post-structuralist French philosophers during the s. Like Nietzsche, Postmodernists scorn the quest for universal values, cognitive and moral.

They see it as a manifestation of the will to power masquerading as objectivity. Postmodernism, on the other hand, is presented as an ally in the fight for emancipation from tyrannies of all sorts.

The will to truth is always bound up with particular political social, cultural, economic hegemonies.