From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- A theory, especially in ethics or aesthetics, that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or groups holding them.
Relativism consists of various theories each of which claims that some element or aspect of experience or culture is relative to, i.e., dependent on, some other element or aspect. For example, some relativists claim that humans can understand and evaluate beliefs and behaviors only in terms of their historical or cultural context. The term often refers to truth relativism, which is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture.
One argument for relativism suggests that our own cognitive bias prevents us from observing something objectively with our own senses, and notational bias will apply to whatever we can allegedly measure without using our senses. In addition, we have a culture bias — shared with other trusted observers — which we cannot eliminate. A counterargument to this states that subjective certainty and concrete objects and causes form part of our everyday life, and that there is no great value in discarding such useful ideas as isomorphism, objectivity and a final truth.
The term "relativism" often comes up in debates over postmodernism, poststructuralism and phenomenology. Critics of these perspectives often identify advocates with the label "relativism." For example, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is often considered a relativist view because it posits that linguistic categories and structures shape the way people view the world. Similarly, deconstruction is often termed a relativist perspective because of the ways it locates the meaning of a text in its appropriation and reading, implying that there is no "true" reading of a text and no text apart from its reading. Claims by literary critic Stanley Fish are also often discussed as "relativist".
These perspectives do not strictly count as relativist in the philosophical sense, because they express agnosticism on the nature of reality and make epistemological rather than ontological claims. Nevertheless, the term is useful to differentiate them from realists who believe that the purpose of philosophy, science, or literary critique is to locate externally true meanings. Important philosophers and theorists such as Michel Foucault, Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche, political movements such as post-anarchism or post-left anarchy can also be considered as relativist in this sense - though a better term might be social constructivist.
The spread and popularity of this kind of "soft" relativism varies between academic disciplines. It has wide support in anthropology and has a majority following in cultural studies. It also has advocates in political theory and political science, sociology, and continental philosophy (as distinct from Anglo-American analytical philosophy). It has inspired empirical studies of the social construction of meaning such as those associated with labelling theory, which defenders can point to as evidence of the validity of their theories (albeit risking accusations of performative contradiction in the process). Advocates of this kind of relativism often also claim that recent developments in the natural sciences, such as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics, chaos theory and complexity theory show that science is now becoming relativistic. However, many scientists who use these methods continue to identify as realist or post-positivist, and some sharply criticize the association.
- Aeshetic relativism
- Cultural relativism
- Moral relativism
- Philosophical realism
- Social constructionism
- The Science Wars