Relativism is a “movement of thought that has spanned the centuries since Greco-Roman Antiquity” (Raymond Boudon), to designate a set of varied doctrines which have in common the defense of the thesis according to which the meaning and value of human beliefs and behavior do not have absolute references that would be transcendent. The success of cultural relativism from the second half of the twentieth century, and politically in the 1980s in the West, ensured the primacy and even the exclusivity of this sense of the word. Anti-realist ideologues, too, have often used the term “relativism” in a particular sense because it relates to historicism, one of the most pronounced features of our time.
Relativism representing since Antiquity one philosophy among others, today there are different variants.
We find in particular a cognitive relativism (variant of epistemological relativism) espousing a point of view according to which “knowledge is the product of a construction and that it cannot therefore be held as objective”
There is also an ethical relativism, as well as a cultural relativism which affirms that “norms and values are specific to each “culture” or “subculture” and that they cannot therefore be considered as objectively founded”. The consequence of this is that it is difficult to compare the cultures with each other, because the difference in their respective frames of reference becomes the significant element which invalidates or at least relativizes all the possible comparison criteria.
Relativism today, despite its predominance in our intellectual world, is the subject of various criticisms. Thus, for the aforementioned sociologist Raymond Boudon, “the current predominance of relativism raises two questions: that of the validity of its theses and that of the reasons for their influence”.
The sophist Protagoras has remained famous for his avowed agnosticism and a certain relativism: “Man is the measure of everything”. It is with these words, attributed to Protagoras, that Plato refutes in the Theetetus (152a-183b), that the first relativistic philosophy is formulated.
The Gnostic Carpocrates and his followers maintain that Buddha, Moses, Mani and Jesus were of equal human value.
One of the arguments of relativism is that our own cognitive biases prevent us from being objective, our own senses come between us and the observed. In addition, a rating bias, through the language used, applies to what we have learned. Finally, we have a cultural bias shared with other observers of the same culture but which can differ according to the cultures and we cannot hope to escape it completely.
Skeptics, on the other hand, argue that subjective certainties and concrete objects are part of our daily life and therefore there is little value in wanting to set aside concepts like objectivity and truth. Objectivists consider that there is no way to prove the introduction of bias by our sensations; such proof would not be valid because the knowledge necessary for this proof has been acquired through our perceptions and in such a philosophical system perceptions are considered axiomatically valid.