'It's all relative'. In a world of increasing cultural diversity, it can seem that everything is indeed relative. But should we concede that there is no such thing as right and wrong, and no objective truth? Can we reconcile relativism and pluralism?

Relativism surveys the different varieties of relativism and the arguments for and against them, and examines why relativism has survived for two thousand years despite all the criticisms levelled against it.

Beginning with a historical overview of relativism, from Pythagoras in ancient Greece to Derrida and postmodernism, Maria Baghramian explores the resurgence of relativism throughout the history of philosophy. She then turns to the arguments for and against the many subdivisions of relativism, including Kuhn and Feyerabend's ideas of relativism in science, Rorty's relativism about truth, and the conceptual relativism of Quine and Putnam. Baghramian questions whether moral relativism leads to moral indifference or even nihilism, and whether feminist epistemology's concerns about the very notion of objectivity can be considered a form of relativism. She concludes the relativism debate by assessing the recent criticisms such as Quine's argument from translation and Davidson's claim that even the motivations behind relativism are unintelligible. Finding these criticisms lacking, Baghramian proposes a moderate form of pluralism which addresses the legitimate worries that give rise to relativism without incurring charges of nihilism or anarchy.

Relativism is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary philosophy, sociology and politics.


This book was written out of the conviction that the cluster of views falling under the heading of ‘relativism’, despite many problematic features, captures important insights. As a member of three distinct cultural and linguistic groupings (Armenian-Iranian-Irish) and as I attempt to negotiate their at times conflicting social and ethical outlooks, I remain convinced of the fact of diversity and the significance of intellectual and political efforts to comprehend and accommodate it. The idea of relativism arises out of an acknowledgement of the existence of deep differences in attitudes and beliefs. In the wake of political ideologies with global and universal aspirations, relativism has come to occupy a prominent place in the intellectual ethos of our time. It has become a constant theme in the theoretical orientation of various fields—including the social sciences, literary theory and cultural studies—and is often treated as a credo by undergraduate students in humanities. At its most basic, relativism is the view that cognitive, moral or aesthetic norms and values are dependent on the social or conceptual systems that underpin them, and consequently a neutral standpoint for evaluating them is not available to us. This simple definition, however, ultimately proves unsatisfactory since the single label ‘relativism’ has been used for a great variety of doctrines and positions. In analytic philosophical circles relativism is either dismissed readily as an incoherent position or is identified with irrationalism and cognitive anarchy. For instance, Popper argues:

One of the more disturbing aspects of the intellectual life of our time is
the way in which irrationalism is so widely advocated, and the way in
which irrationalist doctrines are taken for granted. One of the components
of modern irrationalism is relativism (the doctrine that truth is relative to
our intellectual background).

(Popper 1994:33)

Such a dismissive attitude has not had much impact on the popularity of the doctrine outside the confines of analytic philosophical circles. Philosophical arguments against relativism have failed partly because its opponents have ignored the variety of doctrines coming under that title, and partly for the lack of due attention to the reasons that have made it into an attractive philosophical position for many thinkers over the past two thousand years. In addition, opponents of relativism have a tendency to conflate the arguments against the various strands of relativism and consequently miss their target. This book attempts to understand the allure of relativism by looking at the family of doctrines that fall under its general heading, and to critically evaluate some key versions of it.

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