Relativism was not an entry in Raymond Williams’s Keywords, though his account of subjective—and its concomitant objective—is relevant. In recent decades, however, it has gained currency as a keyword in contemporary thinking and debate regarding the foundations and nature of knowledge and truth, as well as more widely in cultural studies and in common parlance.
Itself a recent word, relativism depends on relative, derived through Middle and Old French from Latin relativus, which appears as a noun at the end of C14, with a grammatical use to refer to words relating to an antecedent (so in the Prologue to the Wycliffite Bible, before 1397: “A relatif . . . may be resoluid into his antecedent with a coniunccioun copulative”); an equivalent adjectival use follows, particularly in respect of “pronownes relatives” (1530). There is an accompanying development of relative, both noun and adjective, in a variety of senses of relating. So, for example: “Having relation to the matter in hand; pertinent, relevant” (1579: “declarations relatiue”); “A person who is related to another or others by blood or marriage” (1650: “The sons and the parents, friends and relatives . . .”); “Having application or reference to; relating to” (1563: “Our Sauiour . . . willeth vs to do this in remembrance of him, which is relatiue to the whole action . . .”); “Existing or possessing a specified characteristic only in comparison to something else; not absolute or independent” (before 1500: “hope relative” as opposed to “determinacion substantyve”); and so on. It is this latter use of relative, with an attendant philosophical sense (1818) contrasting the relative with the absolute, that underpins the particular appearance of relativism in C19.
The OED dates relativism from 1865, as referring to “Any theory or doctrine asserting that knowledge, truth, morality, etc., are relative to situations, rather than being absolute”; with relativist, as one who holds the doctrine of relativism, preceding it in 1857. The first quotation in OED is from the Cambridge philosopher John Grote’s Exploratio Philosophica: “The notion of the mask over the face of nature is . . . what I have called ‘relativism.’ If ‘the face of nature’ is reality, then the mask over it, which is what theory gives us, is so much deception, and that is what relativism really comes to.” Behind Grote’s refusal of what he names relativism is a concern to resolve questions of knowledge. Knowledge involves relations with the objects known, but to recognize this is not, therefore, for Grote to call the achievement of knowledge into question. The OED also quotes the American philosopher Charles W. Morris in 1934 who, recognizing that “qualities of the object may yet be relative to a conditioning organism,” talks of “objective relativism.”
That the qualities of the object may be relative to a conditioning organism can be taken as a statement regarding the human in general; that knowledge is determined, for example, by the nature of our sensory apparatus. Thus for Kant we can have knowledge of space, time, and causation only because these are forms imposed by our minds upon experience. Objects and events as they are in themselves are shaped by the nature of our cognitive faculties: the noumenal world lies behind our phenomenal world. The OED has an 1857 example for subjectivism which talks of “the doctrine of Kant, that all human knowledge is merely relative; or rather that we cannot prove it to be absolute.”
The collocations cognitive relativism and epistemological relativism (neither presently recorded in the OED) acknowledge current debates in philosophy and the philosophy of science concerning the status, foundation, and production of knowledge, and appear in various forms involving some conception of truth as relative to an epistemic framework, whether specific to humanity or to a particular community.
This emphasis on frameworks of perception and judgment across a range of areas has given the keywordness of relativism. The OED records ethical relativism with a first date of 1889 and includes a 1937 quotation from the sociologist Talcott Parsons: “[Durkheim] was forced to define normality with reference to the social type alone, thus ending in a complete ethical relativism.” Such relativism refuses ethical theories that see moral criteria as transcending specific cultures or specific historical periods. This refusal goes beyond the empirical recognition that different cultures and societies have different moralities, and it can end in the claim that different moralities are of equal value or validity.
The same 1937 work by Parsons also includes a discussion of historical relativism (a collocation first recorded in 1893), “the theory that there can be no objective standard of historical truth, as the interpretation of data will be affected by subjective factors characteristic either of the historian or of the period in which the historian lives”; more widely, this is the view that our opinions overall are defined by our historical situation. Cultural relativism (1924) is then the more or less thoroughgoing derivation from this way of thinking. A clear example in OED is from the anthropologist F. M. Keesing in 1958: “The scientific habit of looking at each people’s standards and values objectively, seeing them as ‘relative’ to the particular view of life fostered within the culture concerned, has led some thinkers to a philosophic position often called ‘cultural relativism.’ ” Anthropology’s study of different cultures and the postwar expansion of the human sciences has largely contributed to the contemporary hold of relativism, nourishing ideas that cultures should be treated equally and that transcultural judgments are not to be made, or, if made, are no more than an imposition of external values, usually viewed as those of a Western cultural hegemony.
Relativism in this modern history has links with several other words with which it is often confused. Thus it can be equated with subjectivism (1845), described by the OED as the theory that all our knowledge is merely “subjective and relative,” denying the possibility of objective knowledge and in its extreme version making the truth of any judgment relative to the individual judging; perspectivism (1910), which the OED traces to the work of Nietzsche and which holds that knowledge is inevitably partial and limited by the individual perspective from which it is viewed, with objectivity impossible. The OED’s first quotation comes indeed from a translation of a work by Nietzsche: “Fundamentally our actions are in an incomparable manner altogether personal, unique and absolutely individual— . . . but as soon as we translate them into consciousness, they do not appear so any longer. . . . This is the proper phenomenalism and perspectivism as I understand it”; skepticism, referring to the doctrine of the Greek Skeptics and the opinion that real knowledge of any kind is unattainable (a1651; skeptic 1587), but also, beyond that historical reference, to (1646) an attitude of doubt regarding some assertion or supposed fact, or of doubt regarding knowledge in general or some particular area of knowledge (skeptic in this wider sense, 1615). Though all these may be (and often are) taken as forms, or used as synonyms, of relativism, they can be differentiated: relativism does not necessarily involve reduction to a subjective point of view, and is not necessarily an individual perspectivism; while skepticism’s doubt as to the possibility of truth is not by definition shared by relativism, which in many of its forms does not give up truth, but simply sees it as relative to the agreed norms of the culture within which truth statements are made.
Relativism today is a difficult word precisely because the term has spread widely and with conflicting and confusing uses. It runs from precise philosophical debates through to ideas of a postmodern world in which there are no foundations other than those relative to cultural contexts and orders of language. The phrase “it’s all relative” is recorded from 1812 but has become commonplace today to express the many ways in which relativism is now itself taken, paradoxically, as a fundamental truth.
Mention should be made of the specialist use of relativism and its related terms to refer to theories of relativity developed in physics at the beginning of C20: Einstein’s “special theory of relativity,” 1905; and “the general theory of relativity,” 1916. Recognition of motion as implying relativity of either place or time was there before Einstein, and the word relativity in that sense has an OED initial date of 1858. Popular accounts of relativity and its hold on the cultural imagination have allowed for its vague association with, and supposed support for, relativism, despite having nothing to do with it.