Relativism is the idea that views are relative to differences in perception and consideration. There is no universal, objective truth according to relativism; rather each point of view has its own truth. [1]

The major categories of relativism vary in their degree of scope and controversy. [2] Moral relativism encompasses the differences in moral judgments among people and cultures. [3] Truth relativism 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 ( cultural relativism). [4] Descriptive relativism, as the name implies, seeks to decribe the differences among cultures and people without evaluation, while normative relativism evaluates the morality or truthfulness of views within a given framework.

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." - Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2.

Forms of relativism

Anthropological versus philosophical relativism

Anthropological relativism refers to a methodological stance, in which the researcher suspends (or brackets) his or her own cultural biases while attempting to understand beliefs and behaviors in their local contexts. This has become known as methodological relativism, and concerns itself specifically with avoiding ethnocentrism or the application of one's own cultural standards to the assessment of other cultures. [5] This is also the basis of the so-called " emic" and " etic" distinction, in which:

  • An emic or insider account of behavior is a description of a society in terms that are meaningful to the participant or actor's own culture; an emic account is therefore culture-specific, and typically refers to what is considered " common sense" within the culture under observation.
  • An etic or outsider account is a description of a society by an observer, in terms that can be applied to other cultures; that is, an etic account is culturally neutral, and typically refers to the conceptual framework of the social scientist. (This is complicated when it is scientific research itself that is under study, or when there is theoretical or terminological disagreement within the social sciences.)

Philosophical relativism, in contrast, asserts that the truth of a proposition depends on the metaphysical, or theoretical frame, or the instrumental method, or the context in which the proposition is expressed, or on the person, groups, or culture who interpret the proposition. [6]

Methodological relativism and philosophical relativism can exist independently from one another, but most anthropologists base their methodological relativism on that of the philosophical variety. [7]

Descriptive versus normative relativism

The concept of relativism also has importance both for philosophers and for anthropologists in another way. In general, anthropologists engage in descriptive relativism, whereas philosophers engage in normative relativism, although there is some overlap (for example, descriptive relativism can pertain to concepts, normative relativism to truth).

Descriptive relativism assumes that certain cultural groups have different modes of thought, standards of reasoning, and so forth, and it is the anthropologist's task to describe, but not to evaluate the validity of these principles and practices of a cultural group. It is possible for an anthropologist in his or her fieldwork to be a descriptive relativist about some things that typically concern the philosopher (e.g., ethical principles) but not about others (e.g., logical principles). However, the descriptive relativist's empirical claims about epistemic principles, moral ideals and the like are often countered by anthropological arguments that such things are universal, and much of the recent literature on these matters is explicitly concerned with the extent of, and evidence for, cultural or moral or linguistic or human universals. [8]

The fact that the various species of descriptive relativism are empirical claims, may tempt the philosopher to conclude that they are of little philosophical interest, but there are several reasons why this isn't so. First, some philosophers, notably Kant, argue that certain sorts of cognitive differences between human beings (or even all rational beings) are impossible, so such differences could never be found to obtain in fact, an argument that places a priori limits on what empirical inquiry could discover and on what versions of descriptive relativism could be true. Second, claims about actual differences between groups play a central role in some arguments for normative relativism (for example, arguments for normative ethical relativism often begin with claims that different groups in fact have different moral codes or ideals). Finally, the anthropologist's descriptive account of relativism helps to separate the fixed aspects of human nature from those that can vary, and so a descriptive claim that some important aspect of experience or thought does (or does not) vary across groups of human beings tells us something important about human nature and the human condition.

Normative relativism concerns normative or evaluative claims that modes of thought, standards of reasoning, or the like are only right or wrong relative to a framework. ‘Normative’ is meant in a general sense, applying to a wide range of views; in the case of beliefs, for example, normative correctness equals truth. This does not mean, of course, that framework-relative correctness or truth is always clear, the first challenge being to explain what it amounts to in any given case (e.g., with respect to concepts, truth, epistemic norms). Normative relativism (say, in regard to normative ethical relativism) therefore implies that things (say, ethical claims) are not simply true in themselves, but only have truth values relative to broader frameworks (say, moral codes). (Many normative ethical relativist arguments run from premises about ethics to conclusions that assert the relativity of truth values, bypassing general claims about the nature of truth, but it is often more illuminating to consider the type of relativism under question directly.) [9]

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