KNOW YOUR ENEMY – “Relativism,” No Absolute Values

KNOW YOUR ENEMY – “Relativism,” No Absolute Values


First published Sun Feb 2, 2003

Relativism is not a single doctrine but a family of views whose common theme is that some central aspect of experience, thought, evaluation, or even reality is somehow relative to something else. For example standards of justification, moral principles or truth are sometimes said to be relative to language, culture, or biological makeup. Although relativistic lines of thought often lead to very implausible conclusions, there is something seductive about them, and they have captivated a wide range of thinkers from a wide range of traditions.

Relativistic motifs turn up in virtually every area of philosophy. Many versions of descriptive relativism (described below) bear on issues in the philosophy of social science concerning the understanding and interpretation of alien cultures or distant historical epochs. Other versions bear on issues in the philosophy of mind about mental content. Still others bear on issues in the philosophy of science about conceptual change and incommensurability.

Relativistic themes have also spilled over into areas outside of philosophy; for example, they play a large role in today’s “culture wars.” Some strains of ethical relativism (also described below) even pose threats to our standards and practices of evaluation and, through this, to many of our social and legal institutions. And the suggestion that truth or justification are somehow relative would, if correct, have a dramatic impact on the most fundamental issues about objectivity, knowledge, and intellectual progress.