Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

In all my posts so far, I have assumed that there are objective truths about the world, and we can know some of them. For some, however, those assumptions should be questioned.

Relativists suggest that there are many ways to know the world. Some relativists believe that facts about the world are constructed and dependent on the interests of social groups or individuals. Other relativists think there are no objective facts about justification. The rules of logic are constructed by social groups or individuals. Consequently, we cannot explain any belief solely by appealing to facts in the world or facts about what makes a belief rational.

What might motivate such a view? In his book, Fear of Knowledge, Paul Boghossian suggests that our desire not to impose worldviews on others explains our willingness to accept relativist views. We don’t want to ‘colonize’ the lives of other people. So, we might accept that knowledge is relative to people or culture.

Although it might be well intentioned, relativism does not constitute an available alternative to the kinds of standard views I have been talking about in recent posts. To be an available alternative, it must be a competitor to the traditional view. It may turn out that some relativisms are compatible with a more traditional view. Hence, we need a version that is genuinely threatening to it.

Further, relativism is supposed to be a view to which we can hold. Hence, we’ll need one that can be coherently stated. If it turns out that threatening forms of relativism are unintelligible, then they cannot be genuine alternatives to standard views of knowledge.

In what follows, I will discuss two genuinely threatening relativisms and try to show that they either turn out to be consistent with a more traditional view or cannot be coherently stated.

A Threatening Relativism?

One thing being relative to another isn’t necessarily something unacceptable. For example, there is nothing threatening in the view that knowledge is relative to people, times, or cultures. Knowledge differs from one person or social group to another or from one time to another. I know more than I used to, people know different things, and societies know different things at different times and locations. Even being justified in one’s beliefs can also be relative to persons. People can form rational beliefs but disagree with one another. Being justified in believing something is person-relative. But that doesn’t contradict our common-sense view either.

One might say that the way we describe the world is relative to people and cultures. On the face of it, this looks like a genuinely threatening view. However, it turns out that even this view is compatible with a common-sense view. One culture may describe the world differently to another but what makes any of those descriptions true isn’t also relative to those cultures. For example, some people measure in metres, others in yards. Their descriptions of the world might vary relative to their preferred measurement, but what makes any of those descriptions true is a mind-independent world. Hence, descriptions of the world can be relative to people or cultures and leave our assumed view intact.

There is, however, a relativism that would be genuinely threatening to a common-sense view. Relativists who say that facts are relative to people or cultures provide a genuine alternative. On this view, truth is constructed by people and cultures. In its most explicit expression, someone of this persuasion might genuinely say, “that may be true for you but false for me.” I say ‘genuinely’ because many people use this expression to recognise the more harmless state of affairs in which two people may be justified in their beliefs but disagree. But if the world’s facts are not independent of our minds, then a relativist can claim that people and cultures can have genuinely different (and incompatible) ‘worlds.’ Call this view, Fact-Relativism.

Alternatively, a relativist may say that the standards by which we judge the justification of our beliefs are not facts about the world. Instead, they are facts about people and cultures. Rules of inference as we might find in a logic book don’t describe anything more than a set of conventions for a culture. Hence, justification for one’s beliefs are relative to those people or cultures. Someone might say, “the laws of logic are constructed by your culture. They aren’t rules that apply to everyone.” This kind of relativist suggests that there are no mind-independent facts about what justifies which beliefs. Call this view Standards-Relativism (Richard Feldman’s term).

What both relativisms share is the conviction that there are no facts of the matter by which to judge one view to be correct and another incorrect. According to fact-relativists, there are no facts about the world. There are only social constructions of a world. According to standards-relativists, there are no facts about what makes any belief more rational than another. Rules of logic are not facts about the world. They are no more than conventions of various social groups.

A Coherent Fact-Relativism?

Now that we have kinds of relativisms that are genuine alternatives to the view we have been assuming so far, we need a version that can be coherently stated. In other words, we need a version that is intelligible. If there is no way to understand it, then a person can’t genuinely hold to it. If it turns out that there aren’t any versions we could hold, then relativism fails as an alternative to traditional views.

To get at what makes relativism difficult, if not impossible, to hold, I am summarising the work of Paul Boghossian, particularly his book, Fear of Knowledge.

The essential problem for relativism is that the view is very hard (or impossible) to state without affirming what one is supposed to be denying. Since the fact-relativist denies that there are any unconstructed facts in the world, he cannot end up stating one to deny them. Most basically, the question is: can the thesis that there are no mind-independent facts be stated without stating a mind independent fact?

First, let us consider fact-relativism. Fact-relativists suggest that instead of mind-independent facts, there are only facts relative to people and cultures. A culture or person has a ‘world’ that they have ‘built.’

For example, according to a fact-relativist, there is no mind-independent event in which Jesus rose from the dead. Instead, facts like that are relative to the Christian culture. Hence, whenever a Christian claims “Jesus Christ rose from the dead,” what they are really claiming is, “According to the Christian world theory that Christians accept, Jesus rose from the dead.” Let us give this statement a name for the sake of brevity. Call it T:

T: “According to the Christian world theory that Christians accept, Jesus rose from the dead.”

T looks like a statement of relativism. But it also looks like a statement of fact. The Christian might be saying something about Jesus, but isn’t the relativist just making a statement about Christians? If so, that would count as a mind-independent fact about Christians. Moreover, wouldn’t there be lots of mind-independent facts about the world. Indeed, there would be just as many facts about the world as there are beliefs. Indeed, it isn’t even a threatening fact. A Christian can accept it. We do think that Jesus rose from the dead according to what we believe about the world. But if it is a fact about the world, then at least one fact is not relative. If so, then there is no reason to think any of the other facts are either.

The only alternative is to suggest that T itself is a constructed fact. If T is ‘built’ and only a fact relative to how Christians see the world, then we have to talk about T as something that is constructed by Christians. Hence, the following is the description we ought to be using:

T2: According to the Christian world-theory Christians accept, there is a Christian world-theory that Christians accept and according to that theory, Jesus rose from the dead.

But then we can ask the same question. Is T2 a mind-independent fact? If so, then relativism is not true or at least, unsupported. If not, we would have to say that T2 is only true relative to Christians. We would be committed to the following description:

T3: According to the Christian world-theory Christians accept, there is a Christian world-theory that Christians accept and according to that theory there is a Christian world-theory that Christians accept and according to that theory, Jesus rose from the dead.

As has become clear, in principle, T must be reiterated infinitely to avoid stating a mind-independent fact. Hence, to succeed in describing a relative fact, we’d need an infinite sentence that we could never write or say. But facts we cannot write or say are things no one could understand. They would be unintelligible. Since one cannot hold a view that is unintelligible, one cannot be a fact-relativist.

A Coherent Standards-Relativism?

According to the view of rationality we have been assuming, many of our beliefs are supported by evidence. If we take the evidence and base a belief on it, then we have a ‘well-formed’ belief. For example, my belief that there is a computer in front of me is based on the following standard: Under ordinary conditions, if it visually seems to me that there is a computer in front of me, then I am justified in believing so. Or perhaps I see that it is raining. I might infer that the ground will be wet. I use a standard of the following kind: If I have observed enough incidences of it raining and the ground being wet, I am justified in believing that any time it rains, the ground will be wet.

The standards-relativist says that there are no mind-independent facts about justification. Those rules are not universal rules that apply to everyone. There are no independent criteria for assessing the merits of the connection between one’s evidence and the beliefs it supposedly supports. Those facts are about the people who form the beliefs. They are relative to those systems of thought. Hence, a relativist may claim:

The evidence justifies the belief that p relative to the standards accepted by a given person or community. And there are no facts in virtue of which one set of standards are any more correct than any other.

For example, a relativist might say that my belief that Jesus was resurrected is justified according to a set of standards Christians accept. But there are no facts about which sets of standards are correct. Hence, no one else must accept the standards by which Christians come to their beliefs. What standard might we be using? Perhaps, we’d employ something like the following:

Testimony: If a person tells me he saw an event, sincerely believes it, and knows what he is talking about, then I have reason to believe what he says.

So, a Christian has a standard, [Testimony], which is accepted by Christians. By using the standard, Christians are justified in their beliefs about Jesus. We believe, for example, that John tells us that he saw Jesus die on the cross. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity and, if it happened, John would know about it. He was there and saw it. Applying our more general rule of [Testimony], we have good reason to believe what John says.

However, according to the relativist, [Testimony] is not a fact. It isn’t true. It is merely a description of what Christians use to come to beliefs about historical occurrences. If it were true, then it must be made true by it being a fact in the world. But, according to the relativist, there aren’t any facts about justification for beliefs.

According to Boghossian, the weak point in the view is what can be meant by ‘accepting a standard.’ Christians are supposed to accept the [Testimony] rule. But acceptance can’t be belief. For any statement, belief entails thinking it is true. But the relativist thinks that [Testimony] is false. There are no objective rules of reasoning.

But now ask a Christian to accept relativism. Sure, the Christian can keep all her beliefs but only if she also accepts that the rules she uses such as [Testimony] by which she comes to those beliefs are false. Now she must believe something she knows is false to come to any belief! Can anyone achieve such a feat! If you know something is false, could you believe it anyway? Maybe, but it would be a fruitless effort! As Boghossian points comments, “it is hard to explain why anyone should care about what follows from a set of propositions that are acknowledged to be uniformly false” (Fear, 87).

Hence, acceptance can’t be a matter of belief. According to the relativist, Christians can’t believe testimony without relativism being difficult or nigh on impossible to hold. Instead, they must think of acceptance in a different way. Suppose what is meant is more like a command. The relativist could say that accepting amounts to saying,

Whenever one’s relative standards accepted by a person or a culture support p, then believe it!

‘Believe it!’ is a command. Hence it is neither believed nor disbelieved since commands don’t have truth values. The relativist appears to have a solution.

However, as Boghossian points out, most beliefs about epistemic rules are not obligatory. They are permitted. For most of our inductive beliefs, we have a rule of this sort: if there is good enough evidence for p, one is permitted to believe it. So, the relativist needs some way to give permission without having belief re-enter the equation. But there simply isn’t a non-declarative way of giving permission. Returning to the testimony example, a relativist has to say something like,

Testimony: If a person tells me he saw an event, he sincerely believes it, and knows what he is talking about, then I am permitted to believe what he says.

But, again, to believe [Testimony] is to think it is true. And we are left with the same problem facing us before. Hence, standards relativism can’t be coherently stated. It isn’t an available alternative to the views we have been considering.


In this post, I have tried to show that relativism isn’t automatically something threatening to a standard view of knowledge. Only a couple of species appear to be alternatives. However, when trying to state those alternatives, we come up short. And if a view cannot be coherently stated, then one cannot hold to it. Hence, Relativism is not an available alternative to the view we have been assuming so far.

It might be suggested that showing that relativism is incoherent falls short of demonstrating that the standard view is a good alternative for the relativist. Suppose one succeeds in showing that relativism is incoherent. What’s a relativist to do? In my previous post on postmodern scepticism, I gave a couple of strategies that one might employ to show that there are rules for reasoning and that those rules are universally applicable. If one can show that standards of reasoning are universal, then one can begin to use them to come to conclusions about the world, including the most important conclusions we make about Jesus.

Paul Boghossian’s book, Fear of Knowledge (OUP, 2006) provides a guide to both fact and standards relativism. It is a genuine attempt to show the alternatives in their best light. Boghossian’s strategy for showing the incoherence of relativism is much more complex than my summary above, but it successfully demonstrates relativism’s problems without dismissing his opponent. There is also a good chapter in Richard Feldman’s Epistemology on relativism. Feldman makes the point that not all relativisms are bad.