Subjective Meaning: Alternatives to Relativism

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A second approach to defining relativism casts its net more widely by focusing primarily on what relativists deny.

Defined negatively, relativism amounts to the rejection of a number of interconnected philosophical positions. Traditionally, relativism is contrasted with:. Absolutism , the view that at least some truths or values in the relevant domain apply to all times, places or social and cultural frameworks. They are universal and not bound by historical or social conditions. Absolutism is often used as the key contrast idea to relativism. Objectivism or the position that cognitive, ethical and aesthetic norms and values in general, but truth in particular, are independent of judgments and beliefs at particular times and places, or in other words they are non-trivially mind-independent.

Monism or the view that, in any given area or topic subject to disagreement, there can be no more than one correct opinion, judgment, or norm. The relativist often wishes to allow for a plurality of equally valid values or even truths. Realism , when defined in such a way that it entails both the objectivity and singularity of truth, also stands in opposition to relativism. What also binds various forms of relativism is an underlying idea that claims to truth, knowledge or justification have an implicit, maybe even unnoticed, relationship to a parameter or domain.

Gilbert Harman , Robert Nozick , and Crispin Wright are among the philosophers to propose versions of this thesis. Paul Boghossian summarizes the position this way:.

Subjective Meaning: Alternatives to Relativism

Boghossian b: To take an example, moral relativism, according to this approach, is the claim that the truth or justification of beliefs with moral content is relative to specific moral codes. The justifying thought is that judgments about the morality of slavery, or any other ethical issue, are based on differing conventions, and there is no universal or objective criterion for choosing among differing competing socio-historically constituted conventions. Moreover, as a corollary of this approach, there is no truth of the matter of whether it is wrong to sell people as slaves, independently of the specification of some standard.

Thus on the hidden parameter account, a consequence is that the relevant claims will be true, if at all, only relative to some parameter. This particular approach to relativism is often expressed in explicitly linguistic terms and is favored by philosophers interested in the semantic dimensions of relativism. The three approaches outlined here are compatible and sometimes complementary. Moreover, as we shall see, since various subdivisions of relativism appearing in table 1 could, with appropriate modification, be expressed as claims about the truth of sentences falling in a particular domain, then the hidden predicate approach is applicable to them as well.

The claim is that all beliefs, regardless of their subject matter, are true only relative to a framework or parameter. Local relativists, by contrast, limit their claim of relativization to self-contained areas of discourse, e. It is worth noting that local relativisms, typically, are endorsed on the basis of philosophical considerations connected to the kinds of features that are claimed to be relative e.

Global relativism, by contrast, seems to be motivated not so much by considerations about particular features, but by more general considerations about truth itself. As we will see, global relativism is open to the charge of inconsistency and self-refutation, for if all is relative, then so is relativism. Local relativism is immune from this type of criticism, as it need not include its own statement in the scope of what is to be relativized.

Subjective Meaning: Alternatives To Relativism 2016

Unsurprisingly, local rather than global relativism is much more common within contemporary debates. A further distinction is made between weak and strong forms of relativism. Strong relativism is the claim that one and the same belief or judgment may be true in one context e. Weak relativism is the claim that there may be beliefs or judgments that are true in one framework but not true in a second simply because they are not available or expressible in the second. Williams argues that certain concepts are only available to people who live a particular form of life.

Truths that require these concepts for their formulation are expressible only in languages whose speakers take part in that particular form of life. Such truths need not be true in a relativized sense—true relative to some parameters, false relative to others; rather, such truths are perspectival: real but visible only from a certain angle, i. Interest in relativism as a philosophical doctrine goes back to ancient Greece. In more recent decades, however, relativism has also proven popular not only as a philosophical position but also as an idea underwriting a normative—ethical and political-outlook.

Cultural Relativism

A number of philosophical considerations as well as socio-historical developments explain the enduring interest in and the more recent popularity of relativism. The mere fact of empirical diversity does not lead to relativism, but, relativism as a philosophical doctrine, has often been taken as a natural position to adopt in light of empirical diversity, in part, because relativism helps to make sense of such diversity without the burden of explaining who is in error. Descriptive relativism, an empirical and methodological position adopted by social anthropologists, relies on ethnographic data to highlight the paucity of universally agreed upon norms, values and explanatory frameworks.

From polygamy to cannibalism, from witchcraft to science we find major differences between the worldviews and outlooks of individuals and groups. Descriptive relativism is often used as the starting point for philosophical debates on relativism in general and cultural relativism in particular. The observed radical differences among cultures, it is argued, show the need for a relativistic assessment of value systems and conceptual commitments.

Some anti-relativist universalists, on the other hand, argue that underlying the apparent individual and cultural differences, there are some core commonalities to all belief systems and socio-cultural outlooks e. The anti-relativist may concede the point and insist that where such disagreements exist, at most one view is correct and the rest mistaken.

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But in so far as we are reluctant to impute widespread and systematic error to other cultures, or to our own, relativism remains an attractive option. There is not only a marked diversity of views on questions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, etc. There are instances of long-standing disagreement, such that the disputants are very plausibly talking about the same subject matter thus avoiding incommensurability and genuinely disagreeing with each other; and yet, no amount of information and debate enables them or us to resolve the disagreement.

And moreover, in such cases, it can seem that neither side seems to have made any obvious mistake see, e. If well-informed, honest and intelligent people are unable to resolve conflicts of opinion, we should, some relativists argue, accept that all parties to such disputes could be right and their conflicting positions have equal claims to truth, each according to their own perspective or point of view.

Many relativistically inclined philosophers, e. When people disagree at least one of them is making a mistake or is failing to believe what he or she ought to believe given his or her cognitive aims. Relativism accordingly offers a revisionary account of what it means to disagree e. According to Rovane, relativism is motivated by the existence of truths that cannot be embraced together, not because they contradict and hence disagree with each other but because they are not universal truths.

The example Rovane gives is conflict between a belief that deference to parents is morally obligatory in Indian traditionalist sense and the belief that it is not morally obligatory in the American individualist sense. Each belief is true within its particular ethical framework but the two beliefs cannot be conjoined or embraced together.

Objective/Subjective: Once More With Feeling

The underlying thought, for Rovane, is that not all truth-value-bearers are in logical relations to one another, that there are many noncomprehensive bodies of truths that cannot be conjoined. What the two approaches have in common is the claim that truth and justification are plural, that there could be more than one correct account of how things stand in at least some domains and their correctness has to be decided relative to a framework of context of assessment.

Additionally, the relativistically inclined find further support for their position in the contention that there is no meta-justification of our evaluative or normative systems, that all justifications have to start and end somewhere see Sankey and and that there are no higher-order or meta-level standards available for adjudicating clashes between systems in a non-question begging way. Steven Hales, for instance, argues that faced with disagreement and given non-neutrality, relativism is the most viable non-skeptical conclusion to draw Hales 98; Similar considerations apply to attempts to anchor beliefs on secure foundations.

Various intellectual developments, leading to loss of old certainties in the scientific and social arena have strengthened the appeal of this point. The relativists often argue that justifications are not only perspectival but also interest-relative and there is no neutral or objective starting ground for any of our beliefs see Seidel ; Carter ch. According to the underdetermination thesis, incompatible theories can be consistent with available evidence.

Relativism threatens whenever conflicting theories or views appear to have equal claim to truth or justification. The relativistically inclined use underdetermination to claim that evidence could be brought to justify opposing explanations and justification. The underdetermination thesis is also used to highlight the absence of neutral starting points for our beliefs. Choices between incompatible but equally well-supported rival theories, it is argued, are often made based on interests and local preferences rather than neutral universal grounds.

Relativists argue that beliefs and values get their justification or truth only relative to specific epistemic systems or practices see Kusch forthcoming. Strong support for this view has come from social scientists and cultural theorist who focus on the socio-cultural determinants of human beliefs and actions. The social sciences, from their very inception, were hospitable to relativism. Other social scientists, under the influence of Karl Marx — , Max Weber — , and Wilhelm Dilthey — , have given credence to the idea that human beliefs and actions could be understood and evaluated only relative to their social and economic background and context.

Beliefs, desires and actions, the argument goes, are never independent of a background of cultural presuppositions, interests and values. We cannot step out of our language, culture and socio-historical conditions to survey reality from an Archimedean vantage point. Context-dependence is also used to explain empirical observations of diversity in beliefs and values; different social contexts, the argument goes, give rise to differing, possibly incompatible norms and values. Advocates of relativism, particularly outside philosophical circles, often cite tolerance as a key normative reason for becoming a relativist.


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On this rationale, all ways of life and cultures are worthy of respect in their own terms, and it is a sign of unacceptable ethnocentrism to presume that we could single out one outlook or point of view as objectively superior to others. Anti-relativists find this normative advocacy of relativism unconvincing for two key kinds of reasons. Some anti-relativists e. Others argue that if all values are relative then tolerance and maximizing freedom are valuable only to those who have already embraced them.

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