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Introduction | Metaphysical Relativism | Epistemological Relativism | Other Types of Relativism
Introduction Back to Top

Relativism is the idea that some element or aspect of experience or culture is relative to (or dependent on) some other element or aspect. Therefore, as Aristotle expressed it, things are what they are only relative to other things, and nothing is what it is simply in virtue of itself.

It 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. Thus, as well as Metaphysics, Relativism is relevant to Epistemology, Ethics, even Aesthetics.

Protagoras and the other Sophists, as early as the 5th Century B.C., are considered the founding fathers of Relativism in the western world, although their beliefs are mainly known through the writings of their opponents, Plato and Socrates. Relativism was also discussed by early Hindu, Jain and Sikh philosophers in India.

Metaphysical Relativism Back to Top

Metaphysical Relativism is the position that objects, and reality in general, only exist relative to other objects, and have no meaning in isolation.

Metaphysical Relativism presupposes Realism in that there are actual objective things in the world that are relative to other real things. The idea that there is no reality "out there" independent of our minds is similar to the concept of metaphysical Subjectivism, and opposed to Objectivism.

Epistemological Relativism Back to Top

Epistemological Relativism (or Cognitive Relativism) is the idea that our knowledge of the real world must be assisted by our mental constructs, and that the truth or falsity of a statement is relative to a social group or individual.

It argues that there is cognitive bias, notational bias and culture bias, all of which prevent us from observing something objectively with our own senses, and which we cannot eliminate. It is therefore an anti-dogmatic position that asserts that the truth of a proposition depends on who interprets it because no moral or cultural consensus can or will be reached.

Perspectivism is a type of Epistemological Relativism developed by Friedrich Nietzsche which holds that all ideations (the creation of new ideas) take place from a particular perspective. This means that there are many possible perspectives which determine any possible judgment of truth or value that we may make. Therefore, no way of seeing the world can be taken as definitively "true", but it does not necessarily mean that all perspectives are equally valid.

Other Types of Relativism Back to Top
  • Moral Relativism is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.
  • Aesthetic Relativism is the philosophical view that the judgment of beauty is relative to individuals, cultures, time periods and contexts, and that there are no universal criteria of beauty.
  • Anthropological Relativism (or Methodological Relativism) refers to a methodological stance in which a researcher suspends his or her own cultural biases so as to avoid ethnocentrism in an attempt to understand beliefs and behaviors in their local contexts. In general, anthropologists engage in descriptive relativism, as opposed to the normative relativism of philosophy.

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