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Arguments for Relativism


A Plethora of Evidence?
That people tend to have different views with respect to a same issue seems to be a platitude. Generational gaps, differences in social status, upbringing, religion, scientific perspectives can all contribute, at one time or other, to form contrasting opinions. Some people take these situations to provide a plethora of evidence to take an relativistic attitude towards the topic at hand. Of course not everyone agrees, affirming that relativism ought to be resisted. Needless to say, to a relativist the disagreement will just be additional evidence that she is on the right side of the debate.

What reasons in favor of relativism can be brought forward?

Cultural Relativism
Culture, as studied within an anthropological perspective, is the most general and all-encompassing trait indicating the genuine relativity of positions humans can take on a very same issue. For instance, take the idea of a human person: are a person’s boundaries determined by her body? What is a human body anyway? How is the gender or the race of a person determined? What are genders and races anyway? Not every population seems to make use of such properties to characterize a person.

The considerations here advanced with respect to the idea of a person hold also with respect to most other concepts that we employ on a daily basis to construe our worldview. Conceptions of time vary greatly across space and time; so do conceptions of private property, of the family, of nature, of the divine, and so on.

In modern Western thought, cultural relativism has traditionally been one of the main weapons in the hands of the relativists. Unless you dare to assert that some cultures are superior with respect to others (a dangerous and pretentious move, it seems), you are bound to accept some form of de facto relativism.

Linguistic Relativism
Another major source of inspiration for relativists are the differences across languages. Take for instance the use of genders: some languages have gender-neutral expressions, others do not. Some languages make a very sparse use of the first person, while in others the first person is prominently featured. Even at a more modest scale, when you translate a sonnet by Shakespeare into French, you end up with a diverse work: the sound, the syntactic structure, and the nuances of meaning will be jeopardized; is the translated poem really the same work? This is a typical instance of a metaphysical puzzle regarding identity.

Historical Relativism
That in different epochs different views have been held regarding topics of all sorts is also a platitude. Take the image of the ideal woman body. Three-hundreds years ago a round, well-fed body was a mark of beauty, as a look at representations of – say – the Venus in paintings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can quickly confirm. Nowadays, of course, the bodies of supermodels and actresses are everything but fat. So, is a fatty body beautiful? It depends, says the relativist. And, what is beauty anyway?

Perception and Theory
Last but not least we shall speak of the relativity of perception. Two centuries ago, most Europeans would have seen in a tomato the image of mandrake and, for that reason, they would have abstained from eating it; today, we do not see that image in a tomato; as well as we do not see the symbol of the Turkish half moon in a croissant, despite the fact that – according to the legend – the shape of the pastry was inspired by the battle of Vienna, occurred on September 11-12, 1683, when the Austrian troops managed to rebut the Ottoman’s attempt to conquer the city.

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