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An emphasis on the variety and differences of cultures, bodies of knowledge, conceptual schemes, theories, values, etc. The term covers a variety of sociological and philosophical positions, ranging from ‘weak’ to 'strong’ forms.

At the weak end, the recognition of variety and difference appears to be little more than sociological common sense. However, strong versions of relativism, which can have powerful support, are the subject of much controversy.

For example, to claim 'strongly’, that ‘morals are relative’ – moral relativism - is to claim that what is right is solely a local matter, to be judged so only within particular communities at particular times. This rules out attempts to judge between different moral schemes. Thus there would be no general basis for rejecting Nazi policies towards non-German racial groups.

Similarly, strong cognitive relativism suggests that SCIENCE and other ways of knowing, e.g. MAGIC, are simply different, involving truth claims from different standpoints, so that there are no overarching rules or procedures for deciding between such different belief systems. There may be no scientific grounds for saying ‘X is a witch’, but there can be entirely adequate grounds within witchcraft, or witchhunting, for saying that ‘X is a witch’, so that within such practices this is ‘true without rational ground for privileging scientific truth’.

In contemporary sociology, some ETHNOMETHODOLOGISTS have argued that the meaning(s) of any categorization are essentially local achievements, unconstrained by any general definition, where any use does not bind future use.

To extreme critical relativists it is customary to reply: ‘your theory that all theories are relative is self-defeating’. Enthusiastic relativists, however, embrace this response, suggesting that we must take responsibility for our decisions and choices, our own ‘closures’. In this ‘rationality’ tends to fade into rhetoric, which relativists always assumed was so. See also TRUTH, OBJECTIVITY, PARADIGM, FORM(S) OF LIFE, SAPIRWHORF HYPOTHESIS, WITTGENSTEIN, FEYERABEND, VALUE RELEVANCE.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a methodological principle consisting in the metaphysical absolutization of the relativity and conditionality of knowledge. Relativism arises out of a one-sided emphasis on the continuous mutability of reality and out of a rejection of the relative stability of things and phenomena. The epistemological roots of relativism are a denial of continuity in the development of knowledge and an exaggeration of the dependence of the cognitive process on the conditions thereof, for example, on the subject’s biological needs or mental state or on available logical forms and theoretical methods. Relativists regard the development of cognition—during which any achieved level of knowledge is surpassed—as proof of the untruth and subjectivity of knowledge, and this view leads to the rejection of the objectivity of all knowledge, to agnosticism.

As a methodological principle, relativism may be traced back to the teachings of the ancient Greek Sophists. From Protagoras’ contention that “man is the measure of all things” follows the acknowledgment that cognition is based on fluctuating sensations that do not reflect objective, stable phenomena. Elements of relativism are characteristic of classical skepticism. Revealing the incompleteness and conditionality of knowledge and its dependence on the historical conditions of the cognitive process, skepticism exaggerates the importance of these aspects, interpreting them as proof of the unreliability of all knowledge.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, such philosophers as Erasmus of Rotterdam, Montaigne, and P. Bayle used the arguments of relativism to criticize religious dogma and metaphysical tenets. Relativism played yet another role in the idealist empiricism of G. Berkeley, D. Hume, and the exponents of Ma-chism, pragmatism, and neopositivism. For these philosophers, the absolutization of the relativity, conditionality, and subjectivity of knowledge—the consequence of reducing the cognitive process to an empirical description of sensations—served as a justification of subjectivism.

Relativism acquired a certain influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in connection with the philosophical assessment of the revolution in physics. Drawing on a metaphysical theory of cognition and ignoring the principle of historicism in analyzing the change in scientific knowledge, some scientists and philosophers spoke of the absolute relativity of knowledge (E. Mach, J. Petzoldt) or of its complete conditionality (J. H. Poincaré). In analyzing the situation that had developed in philosophy and physics, V. I. Lenin wrote: “To make relativism the basis of the theory of knowledge is inevitably to condemn oneself either to absolute skepticism, agnosticism and sophistry, or to subjectivism” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, p. 139).

According to dialectical materialism, knowledge is relative not in the sense of a denial of objective truth, but in the sense of recognizing the historical limitations of each level of knowledge that is achieved. Every relative truth contains elements of absolute truth, which makes possible the development of scientific knowledge.

Relativism as an approach to interpreting history is characteristic of the subjective-idealist currents in bourgeois philosophy of history. Denying the objectivity of historical knowledge, some theorists maintain that the evaluations and judgments of historians are completely relative and reflect their subjective experiences and dependence on political aims and that every representation of the historical process is the product of the historian’s arbitrary judgment (R. Aron).

The spread of the principle of relativism into the sphere of morality has led to the emergence of ethical relativism, according to which ethical norms are perceived as being purely relative, wholly conditional, and mutable.

Under diverse historical conditions, the principle of relativism has a different social meaning. In some instances, relativism has objectively contributed to the rejection of outmoded social principles, dogmatic thinking, and bigotry. Usually, relativism is a consequence and reflection of a crisis in society and an attempt to justify the loss of historical perspective in social development. It is precisely for this reason that relativism is inherent in a number of trends in modern bourgeois philosophy, notably the “philosophy of life,” existentialism, and personalism.


Kon, I. S. Filosofskii idealizm i krizis burzhuaznoi istoricheskoi mysli. Moscow, 1959.
Oizerman, T. I. Glavnye filosofskie napravleniia. Moscow, 1971. Chapter 2.
Paramonov, N. Z. Kritika dogmatizma, skeptilsizma i reliativizma. Moscow, 1973.
Wein, H. Das Problem des Relativismus. Berlin, 1950.
Relativism and the Study of Man. Edited by H. Schoeck and J. W. Wiggins. Princeton, N. J., 1961.
Aron, R. Introduction à la philosophie de l’histoire, new ed. [Paris, 1967.]
Mandelbaum, M. H. The Problem of Historical Knowledge: An Answer to Relativism. New York, 1967.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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