ABSTRACT

Writing a survey chapter on the history of relativism poses particular challenges as the term “relativism”, and its original German counterpart “Relativismus”, are 19th-century inventions, while the doctrines with some of the core features of relativism, outlined in Chapter 1, have been discussed by philosophers at least since Plato. 1 However, while some of the key ideas behind the label have a long and complicated history, it is symptomatic of the complexity of the topic that a linear and uncontested history of relativism is not readily available. 2 What further complicates this survey of the history of relativism is that the label “relativist” has frequently been used as a pejorative term. Indeed, a great deal of the critical discussions of relativism, in the final decades of the 20th century, was framed in terms of a rejection, if not the ridicule, of the excesses of some strands of contemporary 26continental philosophy, postmodernism in particular. Consequently, the label is often rejected by the very philosophers whose views are in line with what we think are the core features of the doctrine. 3 A further complication is that, as we saw in Chapter 1, the many forms of relativism are customarily individuated in terms of their domains – hence, the distinction between alethic, ontic, cognitive, moral, and aesthetic relativisms – or their objects, such as relativism about science, law, and religion. Each variety has a distinct, if occasionally overlapping, history. These histories are shaped in response to a variety of philosophical concerns and are often unified only through what they deny rather than what they endorse. A complex web of philosophical positions both connects and separates these strands of relativism, but their story, like all stories of Western philosophy, begins with Greece and centrally involves Plato. 4