- The permanently tempting doctrine that in some areas at least, truth itself is relative to the standpoint of the judging subject (‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’). The first classical statement is the doctrine of the Sophist Protagoras that ‘man is the measure of all things’. Relativism may be a global doctrine about all knowledge, or a local doctrine about some area (aesthetics, ethics, or judgements of secondary qualities, for example). The aspects of the subjects supposed to determine what truth is ‘for them’ may include historical, cultural, social, linguistic, or psychological background, or brute sensory constitution. Relativism is one attempt to take these contingencies into account in formulating the relationship between the believer and the truth believed. It may be regarded as an attempt to avoid the scepticism that almost inevitably follows when an absolute conception of truth is combined with recognizing our differently rooted, variable, contingent ways of making judgements. Relativism is frequently rejected on the grounds that it is essential to the idea of belief or judgement that there are standards that it must meet, independently of anyone's propensity to accept it. Inability to make sense of such standards eventually paralyses all thought. Sophisticated relativists such as James (who described pragmatism as a form of relativism) reply that assessments of truth and falsity may be made in a disciplined way within a framework, even if the framework is itself contingent, and that the ‘circum-pressure of experience’ is all we need and can have as a ‘guarantee against licentious thinking’ (The Meaning of Truth, 1909). The central problem of relativism is one of giving it a coherent formulation, making the doctrine more than the platitude that differently situated people may judge differently, and less than the falsehood that contradictory views may each be true. Much postmodernist thought may be regarded as a somewhat abandoned celebration of relativism. See also perspectivism.
Philosophy dictionary. Academic. 2011.