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The relativism , sometimes relationism (equivalent of Latin relatio , "money", "relationship"), is a philosophical school of thought, which as always of something else sees the truth of statements, demands and principles related and denies absolute truths - so that every The statement is based on conditions, the truth of which, however, is based on conditions and so on. These framework conditions also make it possible to change and negotiate the statement. Relativists often justify this with the epistemological oneArgument that a certain knowledge of the world is impossible. Others point to the compound nature of truths that always refer to other truths.

Ethical relativists reject the idea of ​​absolute ethical values . Different partial flows derive different consequences from this. Some ethical relativists assume that ultimately all ethical values ​​and statements about the world are equally true. Others argue that some statements are "truer" or "more correct" than others.


According to relativistic theories, the validity of statements is in principle dependent on prerequisites, which in turn cannot claim general validity. Therefore, relativistic positions can be divided according to which class of validity claims is viewed as relative and what kind of prerequisites are used. Depending on the possible combinations, there are a number of different types of relativistic thinking.

Epistemological relativism

Against the background of an apparently objectively recognizable world - for example with the help of measuring instruments - scientists are often inclined to believe in an objective scientific truth. Epistemological relativists reject this and believe that they can justify this with the fact that there is no science that does not require specific stipulations in order to even clarify what its object domain consists of and what kind of methods of knowledge about this object domain should be. This connection has been made explicit by the historicist philosophy of science of the philosopher Kurt Huebner . However, this does not solve the problem of how objectivity can be conceived in the cloak of relativity. However, the mathematician, physicist and philosopher Hermann Weyl has given the direction to solve this problem with the help of invariant theory .

Meaning relativism

The importance of relativism ( semantic relativism ) assumes that linguistic expressions only in the context of the language are understandable, in which they are formulated. It is assumed that the languages ​​or language families are in principle or partially untranslatable into other languages.


The importance relativism is criticized among other things that it in order to prove his thesis, has to rely on examples from that language or language comparisons detailed what it would not be possible under his own conditions. That is why Donald Davidson , among others , argues that the concept of language itself already implies translatability, since otherwise there would be no way of identifying something as language at all.

Truth relativism

The truth relativism ( ontological relativism ) again takes the view that there is no absolute truth, but the truth of the observer depends. Every belief (religions, ideologies, sciences, worldviews, etc.) is based on dogmas and axioms. Since these dogmas and axioms are doubted by relativists with regard to their claim to absoluteness, he no longer finds absolute truth . But because absolute truths cannot be used for special problem solutions because of their fundamental lack of relationship , the relativist does not look for absolute truths either, but only endpoints of the validity of which he is personally convinced, but for which he fundamentally cannot and does not want to make absolute claims .


The standard objection to truth relativism is the argument of self-referential inconsistency : if all assertions are only relatively valid, this also applies to the relativistic assertion itself. Thus, it cannot be regarded as more valid than its negation . Assuming that epistemic relativism is universally valid, the relativist would commit a performative self-contradiction ( Karl-Otto Apel , Jürgen Habermas , Vittorio Hösle ): The propositional content of his assertion would then be in contradiction to the speech act that he himself was performing. Authors such as Hösle and Apel see this argument as an ultimate justification for necessary truths.

Theodor W. Adorno, on the other hand, finds this form of refutation “poor” and advocates seeing relativism as a rather limited form of consciousness: “Behind this thesis stands the contempt for the spirit in favor of the supremacy of material relationships as the only thing that counts. [...] Relativism is vulgar materialism, the thought disturbs the acquisition. "

For advocates of the relativistic position, the mistake in the refutation by means of self-referential inconsistency is that a relativist makes no claim to universal validity and therefore also no claim to universal validity of relativism, because he has no reason to do so. From their absolutist point of view, absolutists such as Vittorio Hösle naturally assumed that relativists would also have to make a claim to universal validity, which, however, they fundamentally do not do according to their self-understanding; because then they would of course contradict each other in their position. In fact, relativists claim that they can do without an absolute claim. Of course, a relativist also needs justification endpoints to justify. But these are not intended by him as ultimate justifications in the sense of an absolute truth, as Hösle suggests; because for him, justification endpoints are related to the subjective standpoint of the justifying person himself.

Karl Popper has also taken a firm and detailed position against truth relativism in numerous works. Popper advocates the correspondence theory of truth (“truth as the correspondence of a statement with the facts”), which he sees as being placed on a logically and semantically solid foundation through the work of Alfred Tarski . As a result of Popper, we can never be certain about the truth of our (presumptive) knowledge (see fallibilism ). But we can and must hold on to objective truth and striving for it. Popper argues against the thesis of the incommensurability or incomparability of theories that are based on different “paradigms”, that is, that do not share a common “framework” of fundamental assumptions. In the case of contradicting theories about reality, according to Popper, there is no rational procedure with which we could finally justify the truth of one theory and the falsity of the other. However, according to Popper, we can use rational and objective methods (based on our preliminary level of knowledge) to determine which of the theories is more truthful .

The philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin points out that the very terminology itself indicates relationships: “If words such as subjective, relative, prejudiced and biased are not terms of comparison or contrast, if they do not refer to the possibility of their opposite, to objective ( or at least less subjective), in an unbiased (or at least less biased) way, what are they supposed to mean? To relate them to everything, to use them as absolute rather than correlative expressions, is a rhetorical twisting of their usual meaning. ”Berlin concedes that cultural and historical conditions are effective factors, but regards a strictly relativistic position as erroneous: about intercultural ones To enable communication and mutual understanding, there must be a certain degree of “common ground”, which is objective.

Value relativism

Within the value relativism or ethical relativism, a fundamental distinction can be made between a descriptive and a normative relativism.

The descriptive relativism refers to the fact that the morals of the people due to external factors such as culture, economic system, class etc. are due. Therefore, no generally applicable morality can be formulated. For example, the ethnologist Melville J. Herskovits is of the opinion:

Standards and values ​​are relative to the culture from which they are derived. Therefore, any attempt to formulate postulates that stem from the beliefs or moral code of only one culture would impair the applicability of a declaration of human rights to humanity as a whole.

The normative relativism on the other hand takes the view that an ethical judgment then be valid if seen from the moral point of view of the company from which the judgment end belongs, is correct. For example, the looks of Alasdair MacIntyre represented communitarianism the tradition as the ultimate criterion of ethical rationality. In his view, therefore, ethical conflicts between two different traditions cannot be resolved.


The ethical relativism is considered by some circles as morally reprehensible or even politically dangerous. He doubts the universal validity of human rights . Furthermore, it makes the moral condemnation of practices such as the mutilation or circumcision of female genitals impossible on an absolute level.

According to the relativistic view, the flaw in this argument is that the proponents of the practices mentioned refer to an absolute value system. Precisely the reference to the right to self-determination, ie the possibility of the individual to live according to his own values, deprives the absolutists of the possibility of disregarding the will of individuals with an absolutist argument. The requirement that the actions of the individual should not be directed against the will or the freedom of others is, however, normative by its very nature.

Realism , (new) scholasticism and natural law argue against ethical relativism . These in no way deny that ethical relativists also have or can practice ethical or moral convictions. However, they point out that their beliefs often contradict each other and so not (all) can be true. However, relativists see no way of establishing absolute truths, so that all assumed contradictions only appear as such from the point of view of absolutist positions.

Critics of descriptive relativism attack this primarily on the following two levels. On the empirical level it is disputed that the factual moral differences between different individuals and cultures are in principle completely incompatible with one another.

As an example in this context, the custom of killing old and weak people, widespread in some “primitive” groups such as the Eskimos , is often cited. But this happened with their consent and

Is only comprehensible against the background of extreme living conditions, which are characterized by the inhospitable living space and scarce food. Only in this way can it be understood that the moral norm of doing good to one's parents and sparing them suffering is fulfilled by sparing them an agonizing death by killing them in a painless manner and thus increasing the chances of the boys' survival. "

On the level of argumentation theory, the objection is raised against descriptive relativism that it is not easy to derive validity judgments from descriptive judgments. From the fact that people actually judge morally differently, it cannot be inferred that different moral concepts are actually valid. It is precisely this that has to be proven.

Didactic relativism

In the emerging knowledge society , the concept of knowledge can no longer be met with the conventional ontological claim to truth. Knowledge is seen today and tomorrow as a distinction in many respects and reference systems. Every topic or problem today can be constructed using very different and different references and each of these constructions has its own meaning. Knowledge is primarily based on terms, types of knowledge, contexts of knowledge, logics of knowledge and fields of knowledge. In the didactic knowledge construction it is important to realize a solid relativism, which assumes that teachers and learners have to disclose their reference systems and the underlying knowledge architecture (reference areas, relations, dimensions, knowledge logics, etc.) to each other (Kösel 2007).

Weak relativism: dualism and trialism

A weakened relativism includes dualism , for example that of being and ought, and the trialism that is linked to dualism , for example that of seeing a unifying third in “socially real culture”. At the same time, however, both ways of thinking offer a mediating, ultimately a systemic solution. Each view is initially set absolutely and then put into perspective on the next level, the side, with or against each other.


The increasing acquaintance with foreign peoples and the accompanying insight into the plurality of religious ideas, worldviews and local customs and traditions led to the development of relativistic views as early as the ancient sophistry . For example, the Homo-Mensura sentence of Protagoras “Man is the measure of all things, beings for their being and non-beings for their non-being” is an expression of relativistic modesty, because man is no god and beyond has no divine dimensions. But he was misunderstood by his contemporary (godly, aristocratic) adversaries. With the conceptual distinction between nature ( "physis") and human Statute ( "nomos" ) also created the basis for an ethical relativism, alleging not based moral norms and laws of nature, but on human understanding and therefore contingent , the means that they are both culturally and historically changeable.

Recent critical source research assumes, however, that the Homo-Mensura theorem of Protagoras, like other traditional epistemological positions of the sophists , should be understood in the sense of modern systems theory or (radical) constructivism rather than in the sense of today's ( Platonic ) relativism definition .

Modern relativism developed particularly since the 18th century. Impressed by the discovery and exploration of new continents and the growing number of travel reports from distant countries, scholars such as Herder , Humboldt or Hamann developed approaches to theories of language, culture and rationality with relativistic implications at a critical distance from the universalistic concept of reason of the Enlightenment . The triumphant advance of modern science created the ideological prerequisites for the emergence of a large number of relativistic theories in the course of the 19th century. For example, historical historicism was based on the historical conditionality of all human expressions of life, while biologism and psychologism suggested the relativistic view that human thinking and behavior are only to be understood as an expression of the biological or psychological constitution of humans, which also includes the natural right to one relativistic basis was established.

In the 20th century, relativistic positions, in particular by Evans-Pritchard and others in ethnology , by Benjamin Lee Whorf and others in linguistics ( Sapir-Whorf hypothesis ) and by Thomas S. Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend in post-empirical philosophy of science as well developed by Kurt Huebner in his historical theory of science. In the context of contemporary philosophy, constructivism , post-structuralism, and pragmatism in particular show many relativistic tendencies.

In the 21st century, it is above all Roman Catholic Christianity under Pope Benedict XVI that is turning . Against a "rampant relativism": A "dictatorship of relativism" is emerging, which recognizes nothing as definitive and which only allows one's own self and wishes to count as the ultimate measure.

supporting documents

  1. Kurt Huebner: Critique of Scientific Reason. Alber Verlag, Freiburg 1978, ISBN 3-495-47592-3 .
  2. Wolfgang Deppert: Hermann Weyl's contribution to a relativistic epistemology. In: Wolfgang Deppert, Kurt Hübner, Arnold Oberschelp, Volker Weidemann (eds.): Exact Sciences and their Philosophical Foundations / Exakte Wissenschaften und their philosophical foundation. Lectures at the International Hermann Weyl Congress, Kiel 1985. Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main / Bern / New York / Paris 1988, ISBN 3-8204-9328-X , pp. 445–467.
  3. a b Wolfgang Deppert: Relativity and Security. In: Michael Rahnfeld (Ed.): Is there any reliable knowledge? (= Fundamental problems of our time. Volume V). Leipziger Universitätsverlag, Leipzig 2006, ISBN 3-86583-128-1 , pp. 90-188.
  4. ^ Theodor W. Adorno: Negative Dialektik. (= Collected Writings. Volume 6). suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2003, p. 46.
  5. Hans-Joachim Niemann: Lexicon of Critical Rationalism, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2006, ISBN 3-16-149158-0 , pp. 317-319, (the article "Relativism").
  6. ^ Karl Popper: Logic of Research, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2005, ISBN 978-3-16-148410-0 , p. 261 f. (First note in section 84).
  7. ^ Karl Popper: The open society and their enemies, Volume II, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2003, ISBN 978-3-16-148069-0 , pp. 330-363 (Appendix I: "Facts, standards and truth: Another criticism des relativism (1961) ”); Karl Popper: Assumptions and Refutations, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2009, ISBN 978-3-16-150197-5 , p. 575 f .; Karl Popper: The logic of the social sciences, in: Karl Popper: Knowledge and Evolution, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2015, ISBN 978-3-16-150348-1 , p. 16 (“Twentieth thesis”).
  8. ^ Karl Popper: The Myth of the Frame (1965), in: Karl Popper: Knowledge and Evolution, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2015, ISBN 978-3-16-150348-1 , pp. 118-166.
  9. ^ Karl Popper: Realism and the goal of science, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2002, ISBN 978-3-16-147772-0 , esp. P. 30 f. 60-71.
  10. Isaiah Berlin: Historical Inevitability. In: Isaiah Berlin: Freedom. Four attempts. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 3-596-16860-0 , pp. 176ff.
  11. Herskovits: Ethnological Relativism and Human Rights. In: Dieter Birnbacher, Norbert Hoerster (Ed.): Texts on ethics. 12th edition. dtv, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-423-30096-5 , p. 39f.
  12. ^ Pieper: Introduction to Ethics. P. 33f.
  13. See ibid.
  14. ^ Bf. Mons. Agostino VALLINI, Archbishop Emeritus of Albano, Prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature (VATICAN CITY), Press Office of the Holy See
  15. Against the dictatorship of relativism. In: FAZ . April 19, 2005, see also the encyclical Spe salvi


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