Why Relativism Won’t Do

Socrates Death IIn the dialogue between Socrates and Theaetetus, as recorded by Plato, Theaetetus is presented as holding the opinion of Protagoras. Theaetetus explained to Socrates that “he who knows anything perceives that which he knows, and, as it appears at present, knowledge is nothing else than perception.”( Plat. Theaet. 151e)

Protagoras, according to Socrates, said “that man is ‘the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not.’”(Theaet. 152a) Socrates interpreted Protagoras to mean that “individual things are for me such as they appear to me, and for you in turn such as they appear to you – you and I being ‘man’”(ibid).  Socrates presented peritropê case against that opinion in 159a-171e.

Some doctrines of relativism hold that what we mean by saying proposition p is true is that p is true for an individual i who believes p. When I assert something like: “it is true that that grass is green”, what I mean is that, “it is true that that grass is green for me”.

Following that chain of reasoning, all truth, we are led to believe, is relative to its believer in a given context. A proposition is not “truth” in and by itself, but only “truth for” its believer.

Now, like Socrates would have said, “come now, let us examine [this] utterance together, and see whether it is a real offspring or a mere wind-egg.” (151e) I think this form of relativism is a mere wind-egg. When I say to you that p is true, I am expected to give reasons why I think p is true or why I think you should also think that p is true. But if I say to you, p is true for me, I would not be surprised if your answer is: “good on ya’ Prayson, that is good for you, so what?”

If we reduce truth to truth for an individual, including a relativist holding such view, then the proposition “all truth are relative” is also true for its believer (i.e. a relativist holding such a view). If that is true, we can simply answer that relativist with, “good on ya’ that is good for you, so what?” If she wishes us to also believe that it is true that truth is relative not only for her but also for us, then she would have peritropê her own case against herself.

Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 12 translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.

11 thoughts on “Why Relativism Won’t Do

  1. This is wonderful food for thought. I, like Pipteinpteron above, don’t have a particular struggle with this idea that each “truth” could be strictly a matter of perspective. I think it’s very handy when a large group of people come to agree on a definition like “red” or “blind,” as you say above, Prayson. However, I am not ready to believe that since we agree on the term, then it is a universal truth.

    But you make me think. I have to consider under what circumstances cause many people to agree on something, and even to agree that something is truth. Certain moral values can hold many subscribers, which is how groups of people can be defined by others. But does that make it truth? Is there a case when something really *IS* a universal truth? When the obstacle for professed unbelievers is simply their stubbornness to admit the truth? What is it, then, that makes many (even most) people say to each other about something, “well, this is truth.” I truly don’t know.

    What niggles my brain is the persistent voice that says, “But there must always be an exception!”

    • This is wonderful input Crystal. I think I not only not ready to believe, but also not believe that since we agree on the term then it is a universal truth. Universal truth has nothing to do with consensus but objectivity. Example if the whole world begin to believe that the earth is flat, their consensus does not make it true that the flat indeed flat.

      If truth relativism were true, we cannot say “I truly don’t know” because there again we assume objectivity that truth can(or cannot) be known. Science is impossible in a relativistic worldview because it assume that there is objectivity truth to be discovered.

      We should not struggle with the idea that truth could be strictly a matter of perspective because the same idea assumes objectivity, thus bites itself. If truth was a matter of perspective, and I think that “truth is a matter of perspective” is true, then that too is my perspective, thus I cannot know if it true or not. 🙂

  2. It’s an interesting piece, even for a staunch relativist. 🙂
    When someone puts forward that the grass is green, I think of the people who are completely colour blind, of the animals that see the infra-red, of the many theories on colour that scientists have put forward until they came up with a credible answer. It’s not a problem for me to be a relativist and see that what’s in my head, is not like any other. The interesting thing is that whatever is in my head is liable to change. It’s possible that many people are looking for shared truths because they are afraid of that.

    • Thank you for your comment. It is interest to note that we already assumed objectively that it is true that there are colour blind people, that some animal have infra-red like sight, etc. Socrates pointed out that if truth relativism is true, we cannot assert that there are colour blind people etc because, if there is no objective ground for coloration, then we cannot assert that not seeing say green or red, one is colour blind.

      A deeper skepticism would be that we cannot assert “blind” or “unblind” or “red” because what is blind for you can be unblind for another, what is red for you is not red for another et cetera. Even deeper our dialogue itself assumes that you objectively understand my words and I yours, to which would not be possible if truth relativism was true.

      That you can understand what I mean by red, and blind, and have understood my sentences shows that truth relativism is a snake that bites its own tail.

  3. I tell my students (tongue-in-cheek) that the only reason they are moral relativists is because they want to get laid (and get plastered every weekend, etc.). The desire for self and the desire to rebel are parts of our fallen nature, and relativism is a way that people who know better try to justify their own wrongs.

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