Thursday, 29 September 2016

Epistemic relativism


            “Relativism is such a vast and a multi- faceted topic that it appears in huge areas of human inquiry, ranging from pop culture to current technical journals in philosophy. In discussions on relativism, the famous quotation from the controversial work of Allan Bloom i.e. The Closing of the American Mind, is often cited, ‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely sure of; almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.’[1]


Epistemology or the theory of knowledge is one of the main branches of philosophy.[2] It is concerned with the nature, sources and limits of knowledge.[3] The reflective character of the discipline of epistemology is seen in the very etymology of the word ‘epistemology’. It comes from the Greek episteme and logos both of which mean the same thing (science or knowledge), it gives us the idea of knowledge of knowledge.[4]

Any doctrine could be called relativism which holds that something exists, or has certain properties or features, or is true or in some sense obtains, not simply but only in relation to something else. Relativism is the denial that there are certain kinds of universal truths.[5] Epistemic relativism is an account of what makes a system of reasoning or belief revision a good one as relativistic if it is sensitive to facts about the person or group using the system.[6]


            The first articulation of relativism (at least in its epistemic form) from the history of philosophy appears to be given by Protagoras in his work Truth. What he says in his work is that what appears or seems to be true to a person is true to that person and anyone else to whom it seems so. His is an extreme version of relativism. According to him knowledge and truth are relative to the person contemplating the proposition in question. He denies any standard or criterion higher than the individual by which claims to truth and knowledge are made. [7]

            Relativism has been present in various ways and at stretches of time throughout the long history of Western thought from the ‘pre- Socratic’ period up through the 21st Century. One of the famous enlightenment philosophers Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) developed an idea of epistemology in which truth is understood as something that is made. He says that it is reasonable to accept what the ancient Italian sages believed namely “The true is precisely what is made”, and ‘human truth is what man puts together and makes in the act of knowing it.[8] I personally find it difficult to agree with this kind of epistemology.

Epistemology and Relativism

            The relativity of truth and value is a demonstrated fact which many contemporary writers have taken for granted. From the studies done in the past, it has come to be known that valuation, judgement and cognition among varied cultures and also among people of the same culture are quite different and unique from every other person. Relativism makes distinctions between values and norms to such an extent that it destroys the possibility of morality and also of truth. This can eventually lead to skepticism, nihilism, irrationalism and finally return to barbarism. To add to this, human culture is at stake or ceases to survive when people find it difficult to gauge a particular situation and take a firm stand on matters of truth and value. Relativism at the same time also has a positive aspect in which it frees us from considering our personal insights as ones which are necessarily true. It also frees us from thoughts which are rooted in a stagnant, absolutistic design of truth and hence enables us to assimilate some kinds of truth which are otherwise incomprehensible.[9]
            Epistemology is that branch of philosophy which is concerned with human knowledge as mentioned earlier. However this might seem strange because there are very many things that we take for granted as known to us. Skepticism creeps in when we speak about the possibility of knowledge. Skepticism is basically an attitude which holds that true knowledge is doubtful or in other words it is difficult to take a particular stance on any matter. Thus it can be said that epistemology is closely linked with skepticism in a kind of symbiotic relationship. Hence “Epistemology may be defined as a critical and systematic reflection on the possibility, nature, sources and structure of knowledge.”[10]

            The tripartite analysis of knowledge has remained the standard of knowledge among epistemologists and has also inspired me to a great extent. The first condition for anything to be called knowledge is the existence of beliefs i.e. propositions that are judged to be true or false. The second condition for knowledge is truth and the third condition is the evidence or justification for believing something to be true.[11]

Epistemological Relativism

            Relativism is an idea which says that there is no absolute or universal truth. To put it positively, it is good or true for me only when it appeals to or fulfills my interests and biases.[12] Here a situation arises wherein one system is best for one person or group, while another one which is quite different is best for another.[13] Epistemological relativism is seen both in philosophical works as well as in ordinary day to day conversation or debates where a person claims that something that is true for the other person needn’t or is not true for him/ her.[14]

Problem of Epistemological Relativism

            Many philosophers find epistemological relativism to be a dangerous doctrine. However it is difficult to find healthy arguments supporting this kind of a negative attitude. The first problem of epistemological relativism is that it is nihilistic. This problem arises because it simply gives up on the task of clearly distinguishing good reasoning from bad. The second problem is that it threatens the connection or link between cognitive inquiry and truth. If the epistemic relativist is right then the other group holding some other belief can’t be right or true to the same extent as the epistemic relativist is. Both good cognition methods can’t always lead to true beliefs.[15]


            The idea that every truth claim, every item of knowledge has some standard by means of which it is evaluated or understood to be a truth claim, as opposed to merely a belief, seems important for a general theory of what it is to come know something. This point while not unique to relativism about knowledge is one that is important in general for doing epistemology.” However the definition of epistemic relativism is self- defeating or leads to solipsistic consequences and hence it should be rejected.[16]

[1] Timothy Mosteller, Relativism: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2008) 1.
[2] George Karuvelil, “Epistemology (Western),” in ACPI Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1, editor. in. chief. Johnson J. Puthenpurackal (Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 2010) 452.
[3] Stephen P. Stich, “Epistemic Relativism,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3, gen. ed. Edward Craig (London: Routledge, 1998) 362.
[4] Karuvelil, “Epistemology (Western),” 452- 453.
[5] Mosteller, Relativism, 2.
[6] Stich, “Epistemic Relativism,” 360.
[7] Mosteller, Relativism, 3.
[8] Mosteller, Relativism, 4- 5.
[9] Gordon D. Kaufman, Relativism, Knowledge and Faith (London: University of Chicago Press, 1960) 3- 5.
[10] Karuvelil, “Epistemology (Western),” 452.
[11] Karuvelil, “Epistemology (Western),” 453.
[12] Stich, “Epistemic Relativism,” 360.
[13] Karuvelil, “Epistemology (Western),” 454.
[14] Mosteller, Relativism, 11.
[15] Stich, “Epistemic Relativism,” 361.
[16] Mosteller, Relativism, 29.

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