Relativism Part I: The Origins of Relativism

John Dickson explores the origins of modern day relativism

There is an ancient Indian parable in the Buddhist Scriptures, which tells how six blind men were once summoned to inspect an elephant and describe what they could feel. The first at the head declares, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ The second feels the ears and exclaims, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing-basket.’ Another is led to a leg and insists it is ‘pillar’ and the one holding the tail is sure it is a ‘brush’. And so on.

The point of the parable, as it is often retold today, is that when it comes to matters philosophical, Truth is in the eye of the beholder (or, in the case of blind men, the hand of the holder). In other words, your perspective determines your views. A person brought up a Christian will probably see things Christianly; a person brought up a Muslim will probably see things Islamically. One person views abortion as immoral; another views it as perfectly legitimate. No one is right or wrong. It is just one’s perspective or viewpoint.

Philosophers call this approach to life relativism. Officially defined, relativism is ‘the theory of knowledge or ethics which holds that criteria of judgment are relative, varying with the individual, time, and circumstance.’  As a worldview, relativism has impacted the range of human experience—morality, culture, religion, philosophy, science and the very notion of existence itself.

Descriptive and normative relativism

Before we explore where relativism came from and how it affects our world, let me distinguish two different types of relativism. Philosophers often make a distinction between ‘descriptive relativism’ and ‘normative relativism’. Despite the philosophical jargon, the concepts are not difficult to understand.

Descriptive relativism is the simple observational point that human beings have differing views about things like morality, religion, culture and so on. This is not rocket science. You only have to travel to another country to learn that societies (and individuals) have their own spin on reality. Descriptive relativism does not insist that all these viewpoints are equally right (or wrong); it simply affirms, as an empirical fact, that men and women throughout the history of the world have believed very, very different things. One can hardly argue with the point – though some have tried.

There is no absolute Right or True; there are only beliefs which are ‘right’ or ‘true’ relative to the culture in which they are held.

Normative relativism begins by observing that human societies do view things very differently (that’s descriptive relativism). It goes much further, though, and argues that each of these different beliefs is right or true only within the framework in which they are believed. There is no absolute Right or True; there are only beliefs which are ‘right’ or ‘true’ relative to the culture in which they are held.

Let me give you a striking example of the way a normative relativist might argue. Female circumcision (the removal of the clitoris, usually of a teenage girl) is considered a noble tradition in Sudan. However, in the West many condemn the practice as ‘female mutilation’. Just noticing this difference of opinion is what descriptive relativism is all about. But normative relativism goes a step further. It insists that neither the Sudanese approval of female circumcision nor the Western disapproval of female circumcision is Right in any ultimate sense.

These viewpoints are both correct within the cultural framework in which they are held. Female circumcision is right for the Sudanese and wrong for Westerners. This is normative relativism. From now on, when I speak of ‘relativism’ I mean normative relativism—the belief that a thing is right and true (or wrong and false) only in relation to the framework within which the thing is assessed.

Where did relativism come from? What factors gave rise to this way of looking at life?

A relatively brief history of relativism

The word ‘relativism’ first appeared in 1859 in the writings Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton. It probably entered English via the German ‘Relativismus’ which was being used by the followers of the massively influential German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Protagoras and Plato

More interesting than the origin of the word ‘relativism’ is the fact that the idea goes back long before the big brains of the 18th-19th centuries. In fact, scholars generally agree that the first ‘relativist’ was the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras (approximately 490-421 BC). Protagoras was a ‘Sophist’, an itinerant teacher of grammar, literature and philosophy. People would pay Protagoras huge fees because it was said he could argue any side of a case and, if he wanted to, could even make weak arguments sound the strongest of all.

The measure of ‘truth’ is the viewpoint of the man himself.

Somewhat ironically for a man with this ‘spin doctor’ reputation, Protagoras wrote a book called Alētheia – Greek for ‘Truth’. The opening line declared: ‘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.’ His provocative point was that truth and falsehood are determined not by things outside of a person, but from a person’s own perspective. The measure of ‘truth’ is the viewpoint of the man himself. As he later says, ‘Things are for every man what they seem to him to be.’

Not everyone was happy with Protoagoras—Plato for one. Perhaps no name is more associated with philosophical wisdom than the Athenian intellectual Plato (428-348 BC). Plato provided a devastating critique of Protagoras’ idea that ‘Man is the measure of all things’. If everything is relative to man’s perspective, argued Plato, that must also apply to Protagoras’ own idea that truth is relative. If so his view is just an opinion and so not worth worrying much about. But if Protagoras really thinks it is True that things are only true according to a person’s perspective, then, that would mean Protagoras’ idea is actually false. Why? Because at least one truth (Protagoras’ idea) would then not be relative. In other words, Plato showed that relativism of the strict kind proposed by Protagoras, refuted itself. As soon as you believe it is True you prove that it isn’t.

Most were satisfied with Plato’s response to Protagoras and so it was two millennia before people started to have another serious go at the relativist idea. Nevertheless, as time rolled on (and people stopped reading Plato) numerous cultural ripples gathered pace and came together to form a wave which many today enjoy riding. Some important ‘ripples’ in the wave of relativism include the following.


The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), mentioned earlier, argued that the true nature of reality was beyond our human senses. All we can deal with are the phenomena we see, smell, touch and so on. The deeper stuff of life, like God and morality, are inaccessible to us via our human senses, Kant said. Kant wasn’t rejecting these deeper things (which he called ‘noumena’). And he certainly wasn’t a relativist. He believed both in God and in a universal moral law. But the effect of his philosophy was that people who didn’t believe in God and an Absolute moral code started to argue that only things you can see, touch, smell and so on are objectively real; all the other stuff was subjective speculation. It was a very short step from here to the idea, which later philosophers proposed, that beliefs about spirituality, ethics and culture were indeterminable. They were therefore simply relative truths—true only within the framework of the society in which they were believed.


A major contributor to the wave of relativism was cultural anthropology, the comparative study of human societies. Early anthropologists studying, say, Indian or South Pacific communities, assumed that Western culture was superior to all others. This assumption began to be challenged, however, by a new breed of anthropologists including the German-born Franz Boas (1858-1942) and the Americans Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) and Margaret Mead (1901-1978). These anthropologists insisted that no one from one culture has the right to critique another culture. British ways are only ‘truths’ within British culture and have no relevance for assessing the cultures of, say, the Native Americans (studied by Benedict) or the Samoans (studied by Mead).

In 1947, as the United Nations was developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement challenging the whole project, arguing that moral values are relative to individual cultures and should not be thought to apply universally.

Only a few anthropologists continue to defend a deep cultural relativism.

This was astonishing given that the U.N. discussions were inspired in part by the shocking treatment of Jews under the Nazi regime. Only a few anthropologists continue to defend a deep cultural relativism, including Clifford Geertz of Princeton University (who died in Oct 2006) and Richard A. Shweder currently of the University of Chicago.

There is a fourth ripple that would join the wave of modern relativism.


Many suspect that modern psychology played a part in the rise of relativism. A key insight of psychology, of course, is that many of our actions and beliefs are determined by patterns of thought which lie beneath the surface of our everyday consciousness (until they are uncovered at a counseling session). The big name here is of course, the German father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Among other things, Freud argued that the entire religious sentiment was the result of our infantile longings for a protective father figure and/or a regression to our earliest postnatal feelings of oneness with our mums.

Freud’s views were speculative, and intellectuals of his day cheekily asked whether his views about religion might not just be the result of his own infantile longings to free himself from an overbearing father figure. That said, Freud and other early psychologists had a real impact on Western views of religious ‘truth’. Now it could be argued that religion was an internal psychological phenomenon. Not only are religious beliefs social constructs (‘true’ only relative to a communal framework), they are psychological constructs as well (‘true’ only within the framework of the believer’s mind). This relativising of beliefs to a psychological process seemed to establish Relativism itself as the grand Truth to which all other ‘truths’ had to bow. At this point, our old friend Plato would probably want to ask if the ‘truth’ of relativism was itself a relative construct of the mind.

Dr. John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and anHonorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Australia)

An edited version of this article appears in, Simon Smart (Ed) A Spectator’s Guide to Worldviews, (Blue Bottle Books), 2007.

Further reading:

Sissela Bok, Common Values, Columbia MO: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Gilbert Harman, Explaining Value: And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

John Hick, The Rainbow of the Faiths: Critical Dialogues on Religious Pluralism. London: SCM Press, 1995.

Robert Kirk, Relativism and Reality: A Contemporary Introduction. London: Routledge, 1999.

Hans Kung (ed.), Yes to a Global Ethic: Voices from Religion and Politics, New York: Continuum, 1996.

James Rachels, “Subjectivism,” in A Companion to Ethics (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy), edited by Peter Singer. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, 432-441.

Mi-Kyoung Lee, Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to Relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.

Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

David B. Wong, Moral Relativity, Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1984.

— “Relativism,” in A Companion to Ethics (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy), edited by Peter Singer. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, 442-450.

F. L. Woodward, The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon (Part II). London: The Pali Text Society, 1987.


‘Relativism,’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online):

‘Moral Relativism,’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online):


Relativism Part II: The Scope of Relativism

John Dickson examines different types of relativism