Dealing with Relativism

  • Title: Contemplations, Dealing with Relativism.
  • Author: Arvindus.
  • Publisher: Arvindus.
  • Copyright: Arvindus, 2017, all rights reserved.
  • Index: 201707261.
  • Edition: html, first edition.


The word 'relativism' is a philosophical term which is used to indicate a movement or school of thought which teaches basically the relativity and non-absoluteness of truth.1 This in contrary to what can be philosophically called 'absolutism', which then teaches the idea of an absolute truth.

The words 'absolute' and 'relative' have already been contemplated in 'The Absolute Absolute' where it was found that absoluteness can etymosophically be understood as a detachment, a perfection (in quality and degree), an independence and an unconditionedness, and relativity as a fully completed reference or a fully completed being brought back (this through the etymological relations between 'relativity' and 'relation').2 But since relativity is the opposite of absoluteness the first may also be understood as an attachment, an imperfection (in quality and degree), a dependence and a conditionedness. So according to a relativist truth is relative and thus referred, related, attached, imperfect, dependent and conditioned. All these descriptions imply the existence of another truth, near the exclaimed relative truth. For any relative truth is conditioned by, dependent upon, attached to, related to and referred to another relative truth. From this follows that relativism teaches that there are multiple (relative) truths, in contrary to absolutism which considers the existence of only one (absolute) truth.

But truth is generally understood as "conformity with fact" or "agreement with reality".3 Now realities and facts are absolute in the sense that they are independent.4, 5 Whether something is real is not dependent upon anything else. So any reality is an absolute reality. And in agreement with this reality stands truth. So also for truth goes that if something is true it is absolutely true. Relativism denies reality and truth and posits instead of these pseudo-realities and pseudo-truths. The terms 'relative reality' and 'relative truth' are both a contradiction in terms. The absolutist is concerned with what is true and real and the relativist is concerned with what appears to be true and real.

This has implications for the positions of absolutists and relativists. For where the absolutist may discern between true and false statements there must the relativist for all statements deny an independent truth value (as does for instance Protagoras (c. 490-c. 420 BC) when he states that man is the measurement of all things).6 This seems to bring the position of the relativist into trouble. Because when for all statements goes that they have no truth value then the statement that all statements have no truth value has also no truth value. When one states that all statements are relative then that exact statement must be taken by the statement maker as relative also (as Socrates (470/469-399 BC) makes clear).7

The relativist may defend his position by stating (somewhat like Thrasymachus (c. 459-c. 400 BC))8 that communication on itself is not about finding truth but about winning discussions. But when defending relativism in such a way the relativist will still argue that one statement will be better than another, perhaps not in the light of truth but still in the light of winning, thus denying relativism (as Thrasymachus in a certain way confesses to Socrates).9

The above findings may be pointed out to the relativists, but this is not the best way to deal with them. To indicate the better way here first a few preparatory words must be given. Let us reiterate the given that the relativist is not concerned with truth. In communication he is not out to seek out truth, like the absolutist, but is only out to win discussions. Now as has been thematized in 'Competitive and Cooperative Communication' may one win by winning or by making the labeled competitor lose.10 And it shall be clear that the latter shall normally be the objective of the relativist. The relativist due to his relativistic position cannot make a statement which he himself considers as truthful. He can only undermine the considered truth value of the statement of another. Said differently; the relativist cannot posit a valuable thesis but can only devaluate thesis's by positing antithesis's.

Now a way to deal with such destructive and valueless relativism can be found in the philosophy of Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel's entire philosophy consists of the ever returning moments of 'an sich', 'für sich' and 'an und für sich',11 or in English 'on itself', 'for itself' and 'on and for itself'. These moments are often translated into the concepts of 'thesis', 'antithesis' and 'synthesis'. At the first moment of the 'on itself' thesis a given is posited as standing on itself, being thus characterized by absoluteness. In the second moment of the 'for itself' antithesis this given is placed against a related opposite, and becomes thus characterized by relativity. However in the third moment of the 'on and for itself' synthesis both opposites are taken together. This third moment however is not only a synthesis but also again a new thesis, and is thus again characterized by absoluteness (only now enriched by the previous relativity).

And this is the best way to deal with relativism. When relativism is fought it will be maintained in the moment of 'for itself'. So when an absolutistic statement is undermined by a relativist with a counter statement the latter must with the first statement be synthesized into a new absolutistic statement. Thus the communication will know no losers and truth will prevail.

  1. Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009, relativism.
  2. 'Contemplations, The Absolute Absolute', Index: 201012051.
  3. Oxford English Dictionary, truth, n.
  4. 'Contemplaties, Reduction (and Pseudo-Reduction)', Index: 201004221, Reality and Appearance.
  5. 'Contemplaties, Subjectivity, Objectivity and Conjectivity', Index: 201507281, Conclusion.
  6. Protagoras, cited by Socrates, in: Plato, Theaetetus, M.J. Levett (translator) / Myles Burnyeat (revisor), in: Complete Works, John M. Cooper / D.S. Hutchinson (editors), Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis / Cambridge, 1997, 152 / p. 169. "Man is the measure of all things: of the things which are, that they are, and of the things which are not, that they are not."
  7. Socrates in: Ibidem, 171 b, c / p. 190. "But Protagoras again admits this judgment to be true, according to his written doctrine? […]. It will be disputed, then, by everyone, beginning with Protagoras –or rather, it will be admitted by him, when he grants to the person who contradicts him that he judges truly– when he does that, even Protagoras himself will be granting that neither a dog nor the 'man in the street' is the measure of anything at all which he has not learned."
  8. Thrasymachus, cited by Socrates, in: Plato, Republic, G.M.A. Grube (translator) / C.D.C. Reeve (revisor), in: Complete Works, John M. Cooper / D.S. Hutchinson (editors), Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis / Cambridge, 1997, Book I, 338 e / p. 983. "This, then, is what I say justice is, the same in all cities, the advantage of the established rule. Since the established rule is surely stronger, anyone who reasons correctly will conclude that the just is the same everywhere, namely, the advantage of the stronger."
  9. Thrasymachus, cited by Socrates, in: Ibidem, 341 / p. 985. Bold emphasis added. "A ruler, insofar as he is a ruler, never makes errors and unerringly decrees what is best for himself, [...]."
  10. 'Contemplations, Competitive and Cooperative Communication', Index: 201508031.
  11. 'Academic Philosophy, The Subjective Spirit Summarized in Its Generality', Index: 200806262.