Epistemological Relativism


Relativism is important partly because it tempts not just a few philosophers, and thinkers in the humanities, but also lay-people in ‘philosophical’ moods. In general, a relativist is anyone who accepts a ‘relativist thesis’, a thesis to the effect that:

For all X-judgements, some feature, F, of an X-judgement is relative to Y.

Because there are different parameters involved here, there are several different ways of categorising relativisms. Perhaps the broadest classification, made in terms of the X-feature, distinguishes cognitive relativism from value relativism. A value relativist accepts a relativist thesis to the effect that some feature of a value-judgement is relative to the tradition or community of speakers to which the utterer belongs. A moral relativist, for example, is a kind of value relativist who claims that some feature (e.g. meaning, truth, or justification) of a moral judgement is relative to a moral code or tradition of moral evaluation.

A cognitive relativist would then be someone who accepts a relativist thesis to the effect that some feature of factual judgements is relative to something. But cognitive relativism itself comes in many different flavours, and these can overlap in various ways, in virtue of an overlap in the judgements involved. In terms of this classification, our concern is with one of the most inclusive kinds of cognitive relativism, epistemological relativism.

Note that despite some ‘association’ (in the minds of some folk) between relativism and scepticism, the two aren’t even compatible, let alone the same. Sceptics think knowledge is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to attain. Relativists think it’s rather easy, and that there’s a lot more of it about than one might think!

Protagorean Relativism

Any position rightly thought of as relativist can be captured by a relativist thesis. For example, the original and most famous relativist, Protagoras, expressed the thought that

Man is the measure of all things; of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.

This thought is capable of being construed in more than one way. If it’s individual people referred to by the term ‘man’, then the dictum might express a form of subjective relativism, according to which the truth of a judgement is relative to the person judging. This, I take it, is another way of saying that things have just those qualities which they seem to have to any given observer, but have no qualities (or perhaps no existence?) independently of human observers. Or his famous saying might be an expression of the even more extreme doctrine of subjectivism, which says that every judgment is true absolutely, not merely ‘for’ the person whose judgment it is. The schema has the virtue of making explicit the relationship between relativism, subjectivism and subjective relativism. Subjective relativism is a limiting case of relativism, where the framework parameter (Y) has shrunk to encompass only a single individual. Subjectivism proper isn’t a form of relativism at all.

A more charitable construal of Protagoras’ thought has mankind as the subject of his saying, rather than individuals. On this interpretation, the thought expressed is a version of anthropocentrism. As long as we’re not squeamish about forcing Protagoras’ thought into the explicitly linguistic mould which the schema takes, its content can be captured each time. Unfortunately, what this shows us is that Protagoras’ doctrine, even if it was relativist, wasn’t a version of objective relativism, which, as we’ll see, is the most plausible form.

Total Relativism

If the class of X-judgements includes the relativist thesis itself, we have a version of what’s sometimes called ‘total’ (or ‘global’) relativism. This would be an example:

(R) The truth of any judgement is relative to the epistemic framework of the thinker’s epistemic community.

This basic form of relativism is very close to what some people (ordinary folk, not necessarily philosophers) do claim to believe. (It doesn’t take long to uncover the latent relativists in an undergraduate class). Moreover, the slippery ‘sophisticated’ forms of epistemic relativism advocated by illustrious philosophers such as Richard Rorty and Paul Feyerabend can sometimes be shown to contain, presuppose, or collapse into, the more simple forms, and are thus contingent on their validity. If this conjecture is correct, the study of the simple forms is by no means irrelevant, but is a matter of urgent foundational clarification.

Getting clear about the basic forms also enables us to see that some of the things advertised as ‘relativism’, and some of the theses commonly associated with it (by proponents as well as detractors) are really just optional extras, not part of the core position at all.

When Paul Feyerabend, for example, says that

Philosophical relativism is the doctrine that all traditions, theories, ideas are equally true or equally false or, in an even more radical formulation, that any distribution of truth values over traditions is acceptable (Science in a Free Society, p.83),

or when Rorty says that ‘"Relativism" is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other’, (Consequences of Pragmatism, p.166), they’re surely mistaken. As Rorty points out, no-one (with the possible exception of Protagoras) held this view, which is a version of subjectivism. He goes on to say that

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. (ibid).

Here we’ve slid from the ridiculous to the sublime. Rorty is right in thinking that no-one has believed even that all existing traditions/theories/ideas are equally true, let alone all possible ones. Even if one thought that the existence of a plurality of cultures with different conceptual schemes and no neutral way of evaluating their virtues meant that there’s no reason to think that one culture’s beliefs are better justified than those of any other, this still does nothing to show that they’re all ‘equally true or false’ - rather, it gives us a reason for thinking that these categories are inapplicable. This is what’s so perverse about subjectivism: instead of abandoning the absolute notion of truth, it tries to subvert it.

‘Is Relative to’, and ‘True for’

What’s the import of the crucial words ‘is relative to’? There’s certainly a connection between the notion of relativity and the relativised notion of truth usually expressed by saying that something is ‘true for’ someone or other. To say that it’s true for a person that p (or that ‘for them’ it’s the case that p) is to say that p is the case relative to that person’s conceptual framework. When we claim that some feature of an utterance is relative to a framework, one consequence of the claim is that evaluation of that feature of the utterance ought to involve considering its relationship to that framework, and that it’s conceptually misleading (and thus somehow unfair?) to evaluate it by reference to other frameworks, which it’s not conceptually tied to. The phrase ‘is relative to’ is perhaps clearer in its application to quasi-linguistic items than elsewhere. Here it appears to mean that the linguistic item has its semantic ground in the framework in question. But this raises the question of whether this claim embodies a genetic fallacy: why should the fact that a judgement has its origin in one framework preclude its evaluation in other frameworks? Why should origin matter?

What about the expression ‘true for’, which is often used to express the idea of relative truth? How much can we say about this? To say that a judgement p is true for a person is to say that p ‘follows from’ or ‘is determined by’ the framework assumptions or agreement that the person subscribes to, together with the nature of the world. But to say that a judgement p is true for a person isn’t simply to say that she believes that judgement. We don’t need another (and very misleading) way of saying that. Maintaining the gap between belief and truth, we want to allow that there can be things that are true for a certain person even though that person doesn’t believe them, and that there might be other things that a person believes which are false for them. On pain of failing to persuade us that the concept of relative truth is a concept of truth, the relativist must try to cleave as closely as possible to the ordinary concept of (absolute) truth.

Objections to Relativism: Self-Refutation and its Variants

When it comes to objections to relativism, the perennial charge of self-refutation is still the most popular. It is ‘a truism among philosophers’ (Reason, Truth and History, p.119), ‘we all know’, says Hilary Putnam, ‘that cultural relativism is inconsistent’ (‘Why Reason Can’t be Naturalized’, Synthese, vol.52, 1982, p.10). The thought is that the relativist cannot refuse to apply his or her own relativist thesis to itself. He or she is then faced with a dilemma: either admit that there are some utterances (viz., the relativist thesis itself) which are outside of the scope of the thesis, or concede that the thesis is only true, or justified, relative to the relativist’s own conceptual framework.

Note firstly that the objection only applies to ‘total’ relativism, since only there is the relativist thesis within its own scope. A total relativist who takes the first horn of the dilemma certainly owes us an explanation of how their thesis is miraculously exempt from its own claim, why it is self-excepting. Those who have held self-excepting relativisms are not total relativists but (what I’ll call) limited relativists.

The moral relativist, for example, puts forward a relativist thesis which doesn’t apply to itself, since it’s not itself a moral judgment, but rather a thesis about moral judgments. More problematic is the case of the sociologist Karl Mannheim, who held that a specific group of intellectuals, the ‘unattached intelligentsia’, were, by virtue of their social and intellectual status, able to see that the utterances of speakers not in their group were socially determined (and thus relative to social context), but that their own utterances had absolute truth-values. This sounds like a form of intellectual élitism. It’s difficult to see whether Mannheim was a total relativist who refused to apply the thesis to itself, or just a limited relativist.

The problem with limited relativisms is that they involve admitting that there are such things as absolute truths, which the relativist supposedly can’t do. The question is: does any interest attach to limited forms of relativism?

The second horn of the dilemma has seemed to the opponents of relativism to be intolerably uncomfortable. Many of them see it as a concession of defeat. The thought is that as long as the relativist admits that relativism is only true or justified relative to their own framework, there can be no need to take them seriously, for they have no prospect of converting anyone else to their belief. Relativism may not be self-refuting or logically inconsistent, but it is certainly self-vitiating in this respect.

This charge would be established if it could be shown either that

(a) there’s no possibility of a non-relativist coming to accept relativism;

or that (b) the non-relativist can have no reason to accept relativism;

or that (c) the relativist can have no motive for uttering his or her doctrine to a non-relativist.

It seems, however, that none of these is the case. (a) is patently not true, for the non-relativist might be ‘converted’ to relativism for any reason whatsoever, or even for no reason (but due to a cause, like being hit on the head!). (c) presupposes that only what is absolutely true or justified is worth expressing: not an assumption that the relativist is likely to accept! (b) says that there can be no rational grounds for coming to be a relativist. Relativists, however, typically argue for their point of view, and thus presuppose the possibility of rational alteration of belief, which the non-relativist claims is ruled out by the relativist’s own position. This would be a good objection to subjective relativism, but subjective relativism is only a limiting-case of relativism (as we saw). Non-subjective versions of relativism can perfectly well allow that there can be objective reasons within a framework of presuppositions. Given such a shared set of presuppositions the rest of one’s intellectual activity can be quite objective. For, ‘given those presuppositions, certain statements will be true. They will be true for anyone who adopts those presuppositions’ (J.Meiland, ‘On The Paradox of Cognitive Relativism’, Metaphilosophy, vol.11, 1980, p.124). It may be that these common presuppositions are ones from which relativism itself follows. In this case the relativist has at his disposal rational arguments with which to draw to the attention of the non-relativist the relativist implications of her own absolutist framework. The majority of the relativist’s work will consist in attempting to show that relativism does indeed follow from these shared presuppositions. We can conclude, I believe, that the relativist can have good reason for propagating his thesis whilst ‘conceding’ that it is not ‘absolutely’ true. It may still be an ‘objective’ truth: one that is true in all known frameworks. The espousal of a relativist thesis is therefore not self-vitiating.

Putnam’s Objections

Hilary Putnam’s objections are nearly all developments of the idea that relativism is self-inconsistent, although I think it’s one which isn’t connected with this idea that is most successful.

One ‘argument’ Putnam discusses is something he calls ‘Garfinkel’s one-liner’. He notes sadly that Californian youth have picked up on relativism to the extent of expressing agreement and disagreement by saying ‘That’s true (/false) for me’. Putnam’s colleague, Alan Garfinkel, is apparently in the habit of replying, to these relativistically-inclined students, ‘Well, Relativism isn’t true for me!’ Putnam admits that this doesn’t constitute an immediate refutation of relativism, but his suggestion is that the relativist should reply: ‘Truth for you is far less salient (for me) than truth for me’ (Reason, Truth and History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp.119-20). Why would a relativist want to reply in this manner? As soon as one starts ranking ‘true-for-X’s, ‘true-for-Y’s, etc., in some salience-ordering one has lost the original (political?, moral?) impetus for being a relativist at all. It’s surely an essential part of our concept of truth that, so to speak, one truth is as such as good as another. The relativist wants to preserve this aspect of our ordinary concept, not to overthrow it. Any other decision is an invitation to some form of just that conceptual élitism which makes the relativist (rightly or wrongly) recoil from absolutism in the first place.

The more profitable reply to Garfinkel is evident from the defence against the self-vitiation objection. It’s to insist that, contrary to the absolutist’s superficial diagnosis, relativism may well be (unbeknown to her) true for her. This reply has the advantage of demonstrating that the relativist is trying to stay as close to our ordinary concept of truth as possible, for it shows that he’s not merely conflating ‘P is true for x’ with ‘x believes that P’. Thus the original Platonic objection to Protagorean relativism is answered into the bargain. Of course, even now the relativist has all the work ahead of him, for he still has to show that the absolutist’s presuppositions do indeed entail relativism. But at least the path remains open.

Another objection deriving from Plato’s original is as follows. The idea of relativism, says Putnam, seems simple enough. It’s that

every person, (or, in a modern ‘sociological’ formulation, every culture, or sometimes every ‘discourse’) has his (its) own views, standards, presuppositions, and that truth (and also justification) are relative to these. One takes it for granted, of course, that whether X is true (or justified) relative to these is itself something ‘absolute’... But if statements of the form ‘X is true (justified) relative to person P’ are themselves true or false absolutely, then there is, after all, an absolute notion of truth (or of justification) and not only of truth-for-me, ..., truth-for-you, etc. A total relativist would have to say that whether or not X is true relative to P is itself relative. At this point our grasp on what the position even means begins to wobble, as Plato observed. (ibid., p.121).

This objection is, I believe, Putnam’s most successful one. The challenge affects all forms of cognitive relativism except conceptual relativism. It must be decided whether judgements to the effect that ‘X is true (justified) relative to framework P’ are supposed to be true absolutely, and thus ‘objective’, or not. If they are, what reason can be given for treating them differently from judgements of the plain form ‘X is true (justified)’, which are regarded by the relativist as elliptical? Is the relativist not condemned as long as he admits the existence of a single absolute truth?

The relativist might try to reply to the objection in the same way that Putnam himself replies to Plato’s attempted reductio of Protagoras. Plato argued that if every statement ‘X’ really means ‘I think that X’, then one ought to say not ‘I think that X’ but rather ‘I think that I think that I think that... X’, where the ‘...’ is infinitely long. Putnam points out that to say that the analysis of ‘X’ applies to itself does not mean that ‘it must be self-applied an infinite number of times, but only that it can be self-applied any finite number of times’ (ibid.).

In the same spirit the relativist might say that judgements to the effect that ‘X is true relative to framework P’ are themselves capable of being relativised (to P itself, or to another framework Q), but that they usually don’t need to be so relativised, for they’re normally true relative to any framework. This doesn’t mean that the relativist is forced to admit the existence of an absolute truth, but rather that just as a statement can be true relative to all existing frameworks, a statement of the form ‘X is true relative to framework P’ can itself (contingently and fortuitously) be true relative to P, and true relative to Q, and..., for every known framework. The relativist might want to call this an objective (or at least inter-subjective) relative truth. On the other hand things might go badly, and it may turn out that the statement ‘X is true relative to framework P’ is true relative to P, but false relative to Q, or even vice versa. (For example, it may be that the statement ‘Relativism follows from the presuppositions of the absolutist’ is true relative to the framework of the relativist, but false relative to the framework of the absolutist. This is quite likely, one might think. In such an event, relativism and absolutism might be said to be conceptually autonomous in the sense that there would be no way that a relativist could rationally convert an absolutist to relativism. There would be no rational argumentative path from the one to the other. This would seem to constitute a victory both for the first objection to relativism and for relativism itself!).

All is well as long as everyone agrees on which statements are true relative to which frameworks, but as soon as there is a disagreement on this the spectre of unintelligible complexity does indeed raise its exponentially-expanding head. The relativist has to hold that there is a determinate answer, with respect to any given judgement X and every framework (P,Q,R...), to each question of the form ‘Is X true relative to framework P?’, ‘Is X true relative to framework Q?’, etc. Furthermore, the decision-procedure for answering such questions must consist of something more than merely discovering whether the P-folk and the Q-folk believe X. It must be possible that some, perhaps even most, of the P-folk should believe that not-X and yet that X should be true relative to P. This much is, as we suggested earlier, part of our concept of truth which keeps it from collapsing into the concept of belief. Can the relativist swallow this conclusion? It’s surely untenable to hold that the frameworks themselves are such that they dictate univocal answers to all of these questions (whatever ‘all’ means here). Only the most determined of relativist Platonists could hold this.

Putnam’s best volley is followed by an attempt to deploy Wittgenstein’s ‘private language argument’ against relativism. Wittgenstein’s argument, Putnam says,

seems to me to be an excellent argument against relativism in general. The argument is that the relativist cannot, in the end, make any sense of the distinction between being right and thinking he is right; and that means that there is, in the end, no difference between asserting or thinking on the one hand, and making noises (or producing mental images) on the other. But this means that (on this conception) I am not a thinker at all but a mere animal. To hold such a view is to commit a sort of mental suicide. (ibid., p.122).

This argument (reminiscent of an objection to ‘Eliminative Materialism’) is supposed to have been directed, by Wittgenstein, against what Putnam calls ‘the form of relativism... known as ‘methodological solipsism’’ (ibid., p.121). A ‘methodological solipsist’, he says, ‘is a non-realist or "verificationist" who agrees that truth is to be understood as in some way related to rational acceptability, but who holds that all justification is ultimately in terms of experiences that each of us has a private knowledge of’. (pp.121-2).

Wittgenstein’s argument is as successful against subjectivism as it always was, but it doesn’t touch any realistic version of objective relativism. The relativists we’ve been considering have been at pains to accommodate the distinction between ‘being right’ and ‘thinking one is right’. Methodological solipsism is not a form of relativism but of subjectivism, since it involves no relativist thesis. The real-life relativist (even if he’s not a cultural relativist) relativizes truth, or justification, or whatever, to a public framework, not to an individual.

Can the objective relativist make sense of the distinction between being right and thinking he’s right, without relying on an absolutist notion of truth? All the objective relativist needs is: the idea that truth is idealized rational acceptability within a framework, and the idea that the objectivity of rational acceptability within a framework consists in inter-subjective agreement. He still has the public framweork to fall back on. Putnam is right when he says ‘it is a presupposition of thought itself that some kind of objective "rightness" exists’ (p.124). But only the subjectivist, not the relativist, denies this or attempts to evade it. The relativist wants some notion of objectivity, but won’t accept the metaphysical realist notion (objectivity as correspondence), and can’t accept the minimal realist notion at face value.

The import of this argument is just as the methodological solipsist cannot occupy the ‘transcendent’ point of view from which all persons can be surveyed, so the relativist cannot occupy the transcendent point of view from which all cultures can be surveyed and be seen to have the same relativity. In other words, a relativist thesis can be propounded only from within a particular culture. The relativist has to be content with saying ‘According to the norms of our culture, the truth of statements is relative to the culture from which they are uttered’. This position would be shown to be empirically false (but not inconsistent) if it were shown that our culture wasn’t characterised by the alleged relativity. But it would not be falsified by the discovery of another non-relativistic culture.

In a later article, Putnam again warns us that ‘At bottom, there is a deep irrationalism to cultural relativism, a denial of the possibility of thinking (as opposed to making noises...)’; it represents, in fact, ‘a far more dangerous cultural tendency than materialism’ (‘Why Reason Can’t be Naturalized’, p.10).

Conclusion: Relativism and Subjectivism

Much of the above argument highlights the weakness of a central anti-relativist strategy, the attempt to show that relativism is incoherent because subjectivism is so. This doesn’t succeed in demonstrating that cultural or conceptual relativism must degenerate into subjectivism. We’ve allowed that subjective relativism does form a part of the spectrum of relativisms, that part where the third parameter in the relativist thesis shrinks to encompass only the individual subject. The fact that subjective relativism is a limiting-case of relativism does nothing to show that all relativists must fall into subjectivism. No argument is given to sustain this conjecture.

Putnam says

I myself am fascinated by the different ways in which relativism is incoherent or self-contradictory. I think they are worth careful study by epistemologists, not just by beginning students, because each of the refutations of relativism teaches us something important about knowledge. (Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3, p.288).

I agree, but I think more care is needed in dealing with the idea that relativism is self-vitiating.