The term 'relativism' in philosophy often refers to the generalized view that there are no objective truths about the world (or at least none that we can discover for certain), and that what we as societies or individuals take to be such truths are really just cultural or individual biases. This is the basic viewpoint of that nutty bunch which now seems to dominate American liberal arts academia, the "postmodernists". For them, the "belief system" of the scientific community is on a par with, and no better than, the "belief system" of Christian fundamentalists or worldviews of native peoples in the Amazon forest.
Those who look to science
For method and for facts
Are now declared old fogeys
And biased, backward hacks.
Science gave us "modern"—
That term just had to go!
The Profs now say "postmodern",
And sneer at "those who know".
And when this dumb fad passes
I wonder will they say:
"It's time for 'post-postmodern!"
Or "Pre-postmodern, yea!"
—JSH ("Ode to Prepostmodernism")
However, 'relativism' may also refer to more limited spheres such as ethical relativism—the denial that any moral principles are universally applicable—or aesthetics, where the view that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is popular. Relativism, whether in a limited sphere, or generalized (where it may be called epistemological relativism or cognitive relativism), is thus a form of subjectivism which has been raised to the level of an absolute principle.
Epistemological relativism is so far-fetched that you may be surprised that even among philosophers there is anybody crazy enough to defend it! (But recall Cicero's comment: "There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.") Among those who have championed relativism (or something close to it) are: Protagoras (quoted in Plato's dialog Cratylus), Nelson GOODMAN, Hilary Putnam, and the whole school of philosophy known as PRAGMATISM, including William James and recent adherents such as Richard Rorty.
Epistemological relativism is similar to philosophical (or epistemological) AGNOSTICISM. Both deny that we can know anything about the world, or at least that we can know anything about the world for certain. But philosophical agnostics emphasize (or grossly exaggerate in most cases) the degree of doubt we may reasonably have about this or that fact or theory. Relativists, however, just want to say that any "belief system" is as good as any other. This sort of nonsense came originally from cultural anthropologists—those most directly in contact with other "belief systems"—, but has now infected many university English departments and far beyond.
One of the many problems with epistemological relativism is that if this theory is supposed to be true then the theory, like every other theory, is mere cultural bias, and therefore is not really true afterall. We have a logical contradiction! In other words, the very statement of the theory of epistemological relativism is fundamentally incoherent.
Dr. Graham D. Smith, of University College, Northampton, England, makes note of this little difficulty in the following limerick which he wrote and sent to me:
Relativists would like us to think,
That theories are merely "spilt ink".
But they've no hope of victory,
'Coz it's self-contradictory.
At the fountain of knowledge we must drink.
—Graham D. Smith
Another fatal problem for relativism, or any kind of dogmatic subjectivism, is that no true judgment is really entirely subjective. The reason for this is that to judge anything is to categorize it in light of a certain set of objective criteria, or set of standards of judgment. True, there is often—maybe always—a subjective element here as well, but there are also the objective criteria or standards. This is why beauty is never entirely in the eye of the beholder, and why ethical relativism, and all such absolutist relativism, is fundamentally mistaken.
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