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Guide for the Perplexed Relativism

Dec 27, 2015






  • Continuum Guides for the Perplexed

    Continuums Guides for the Perplexed are clear, concise and acces-sible introductions to thinkers, writers and subjects that studentsand readers can nd especially challenging. Concentrating speci-cally on what it is that makes the subject dicult to grasp, thesebooks explain and explore key themes and ideas, guiding the readertowards a thorough understanding of demanding material.

    Guides for the Perplexed available from Continuum:

    Adorno: A Guide for the Perplexed, Alex ThomsonDeleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed, Claire Colebrook Derrida: A Guide for the Perplexed, Julian WolfreysDescartes: A Guide for the Perplexed, Justin SkirryExistentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed, Stephen EarnshawFreud: A Guide for the Perplexed, Cline SurprenantGadamer: A Guide for the Perplexed, Chris LawnHabermas: A Guide for the Perplexed, Eduardo MendietaHegel: A Guide for the Perplexed, David JamesHobbes: A Guide for the Perplexed, Stephen J. FinnHume: A Guide for the Perplexed, Angela CoventryHusserl: A Guide for the Perplexed, Matheson RussellKant: A Guide for the Perplexed, T. K. SeungKierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed, Clare CarlisleLeibniz: A Guide for the Perplexed, Franklin PerkinsLevinas: A Guide for the Perplexed, B. C. HutchensMerleau-Ponty: A Guide for the Perplexed, Eric MatthewsNietzsche: A Guide for the Perplexed, R. Kevin HillPlato: A Guide for the Perplexed, Gerald A. Press Quine: A Guide for the Perplexed, Gary KempRicoeur: A Guide for the Perplexed, David PellauerRousseau: A Guide for the Perplexed, Matthew SimpsonSartre: A Guide for the Perplexed, Gary CoxSpinoza: A Guide for the Perplexed, Charles JarrettWittgenstein: A Guide for the Perplexed, Mark Addis



  • Continuum

    Continuum International Publishing GroupThe Tower Building 80 Maiden Lane11 York Road Suite 704London SE1 7NX New York NY 10038

    Timothy Mosteller 2008

    All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced ortransmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,

    including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrievalsystem, without prior permission in writing from the publishers.

    British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication DataA catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

    ISBN-10: HB: 0-8264-9699-7PB: 0-8264-9700-4

    ISBN-13: HB: 978-0-8264-9699-7PB: 978-0-8264-9700-0

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataMosteller, Timothy,

    Relativism : a guide for the perplexed / (p. 123) and index.ISBN 978-0-8264-9699-7 ISBN 978-0-8264-9700-0 1. Relativity. I. Title.

    BD221.M665 2008149dc22


    Typeset by Servis Filmsetting Ltd, ManchesterPrinted and bound in Great Britain by MPG Books, Ltd, Bodmin, Cornwall


    Acknowledgements vii

    1 A Denition and Brief History of Relativism 1

    2 Epistemological Relativism 11

    3 Ontological Relativism 30

    4 Ethical Relativism 43

    5 Aesthetic Relativism 58

    6 Relativistic Worldviews in Science, Politics andReligion, and the Possibility of Neutrality 70

    Notes 99Works Cited 104Index 109


  • To my mother and father, with love.


    I am grateful to the administration at California Baptist Universityfor travel funding for participation in several academic conferencesin which ideas for this manuscript were explored. Special thanks isdue to Cornerstone University, the University of Central Floridaand London Metropolitan University for hosting quality confer-ences where I was able to present papers on the topics of relativismand its connection with issues in religion, politics and philosophy. Iam also grateful for my students who ask the hard and probing ques-tions about the limit, scope and extent of human knowledge and thechallenge that relativism plays in developing an overall philosophyfor ones life. Thanks is due as well to Aaron Preston, Kevin Timpeand Dallas Willard for providing helpful suggestions for the manu-script.


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    Relativism is a multi-faceted topic that ranges over a vast array ofareas of human enquiry, from pop culture to technical journals inphilosophy. In discussions of relativism, one often hears cited AllanBlooms famous quotation from his controversial work The Closingof the American Mind, that, There is one thing a professor can beabsolutely sure of; almost every student entering the universitybelieves, or says he believes, that truth is relative (Bloom 1987, p. 25).

    There appears to be some empirical data that may supportBlooms claim. For example, consider the following:

    In two national surveys conducted by Barna Research, oneamong adults and one among teenagers, people were asked ifthey believe that there are moral absolutes that are unchanging orthat moral truth is relative to the circumstances. By a 3-to-1margin (64% vs. 22%) adults said truth is always relative to theperson and their situation. The perspective was even more lop-sided among teenagers, 83% of whom said moral truth dependson the circumstances, and only 6% of whom said moral truth isabsolute (Barna Group 2002).

    This may not mean that a majority of Americans are moral rela-tivists in a strong sense, but it does give some support for the ideathat relativism is part of how people think about philosophicalissues today.1

    Whether unreective relativism is a default intellectual position incontemporary Western culture remains to be seen. This guide is not


  • meant as a proof that relativism is accepted by most people; ratherthis study will attempt to show what relativism is and the variouscriticisms of it that occur in the sub-disciplines of philosophy. Webegin this chapter with a short discussion of how to dene andunderstand relativism broadly speaking. We then present a briefsurvey of the history of relativistic thought. We conclude thischapter with a cautionary note that seeks to be charitable to someforms of relativistic thought while simultaneously maintaining thatcertain forms of relativism are intellectually implausible.


    What is relativism?2 In developing a general statement of what rela-tivism is, it may be useful to examine several recent denitions of relativism. Consider the following: Any doctrine could be called rel-ativism which holds that something exists, or has certain propertiesor features, or is true or in some sense obtains, not simply but onlyin relation to something else (Lacey 1986, p. 206). This denition istoo broad. Its broadness lies in the phrase only in relation to some-thing else. For example, philosophers who maintain some kind ofcorrespondence theory of truth might claim that a proposition p istrue in virtue of the relation that p has to a fact f; p is true only inrelation to f. A theistic philosopher might argue that the universeexists and has the properties it has only in relation to the mind ofGod. This denition will not work since only in relation to includes,in the two examples just presented, alethic (truth) and ontological(existence) dependence (which is a relation of something with some-thing else) in the denition. But this is not what is ordinarily meantby advocates of relativism. There are only certain kinds of relationsthat result in relativism.

    Other denitions are too narrow. For example: Relativism [is] thedenial that there are certain kinds of universal truths (Pojman 1995,p. 690). This denition puts an epistemic premium on what rela-tivism is, but not all forms of relativism need to have epistemic ele-ments although all forms of relativism have epistemic implications.Ontological relativism, according to which the existence and/ornature of some entity x is relative to language(s), concepts, etc., doesnot seem to have an epistemic element to it. However, it seems tohave epistemic implications in that if the existence and/or nature ofan entity x is relative to language, then knowing that x exists and



  • exists as such, will be dependent upon what x is like which is depen-dent upon language, concepts or whatever.

    Let me propose the following denition of relativism that is broadenough to encompass a wide variety of relativism and narrowenough to exclude other varieties:

    Relativism = df:the nature and existence of items of knowledge, qualities, valuesor logical entities non-trivially obtain their natures and/or exis-tence from certain aspects of human activity, including, but notlimited to, beliefs, cultures, languages, etc.

    This denition is broad enough to show that philosophical relativismcan be applied to a variety of views within the academic discipline ofphilosophy (e.g. ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics), but it isalso narrow enough to draw out the idea that the existence of thingswithin these philosophical categories is dependent in some non-trivial way on the activity of at least one human mind. With thisnotion of relativism in mind, let us turn briey to examine a shorthistory of relativistic thought in Western philosophy.


    From the history of philosophy, it appears that the rst articulationof relativism (at least in its epistemic form) was given by Protagorasin his work Truth, now lost but most widely known through Platospresentation of it in the Theaetetus. What exactly is Protagorean rel-ativism? It is simply the view that what seems true to anyone is truefor him to whom it seems so (Plato, Theaetetus 170a). Siegel claims,

    Protagoras view is an extreme

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