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Relativism. — Any doctrine which denies, universally or in regard to some restricted sphere of being, the existence of absolute values, may be termed Relativism. Thus one form of Relativism asserts that we are conscious only of difference or change (Hobbes, Bain, Hoff ding, Wundt. Cf. Maher, “Psychology“, 6th ed., p. 91). Another asserts that truth is relative, either (a) because judgments are held (i) to have no meaning in isolation and (ii) to be subject to indefinite modification before they can become embodied in the one coherent system of ideal truth (Joachim and Hegelians generally), or else (b) because truth is conceived as a peculiar property of ideas whereby they enable us to deal with our environment more or less successfully (Pragmatists). A third affirms moral worth to be essentially relative and to emerge only when motives are in conflict (Martineau). (See .) The term Relativism, however, is more commonly applied to theories which treat of the nature of knowledge and reality, and it is in this sense that we shall discuss it here.

THE RELATIVITY OF KNOWLEDGE.—Whatever may be the real and primary significance of Protagoras’s famous dictum, “Man is the measure of all things” (Greek: anthropos metron panton kai ton onton kai ton me onton, Plato, “Thest.”, 152 A; in “Mind“, XIX, 473, Mr. Gillespie maintains that the dictum has an ethical significance), it has ordinarily been understood in an epistemological sense, as a statement of the relativity of all human knowledge, of the impossibility of penetrating beyond the appearances of things. And this interpretation is in conformity with the general tendency of the age in which Protagoras lived. Heraclitus’s doctrine of a perpetual and universal flux, Parmenides’s view that plurality and change are but the semblance of reality, futile attempts to explain the nature of sense-perception and to account for illusion and false judgment, together with a dawning consciousness (evident in Democritus) of a subjective factor in the perceptual process—all this tended to make philosophers distrust the deliverances of their senses and rely solely upon reason or intelligence. Reflection, however, soon made it clear that rational theories were no more consistent than the data of perceptional experience, and the inevitable result of this was that the Relativism of Protagoras and his followers eventually passed into the Scepticism of the Middle Academy (see Skepticism).

Modern Relativism, on the other hand, though it too tends to pass into Scepticism, was in its origin a reaction against Scepticism. To dispel the doubt which Hume had cast on the validity of universal judgments of a synthetic character, Kant proposed that we should regard them as arising not from any apprehension of the nature of real things, but from the constitution of our own minds. He maintained that the mental factor in experience, hitherto neglected, is really of paramount importance: to it are due space, time, the categories, and every form of synthesis. It is the formal element arising from the structure of the mind itself that constitutes knowledge and makes it what it is. Hume erred in supposing that knowledge is an attempt to copy reality. It is nothing of the kind. The world as we know it, the world of experience, is essentially relative to the human mind, whence it derives all that it has of unity, order, and form. The obvious objection to a Relativism of this kind is the outstanding thing-in-itself, which is not, and can never become, an object of knowledge. We are thus shut up with a world of appearances, the nature of which is constituted by our minds. What reality is in itself we can never know. Yet this is, as Kant admitted, precisely what we wish to know. The fascination of Kant’s philosophy lay in the fact that it gave full value to the activity, as opposed to the passivity or receptivity of mind; but the unknowable Ding-an-sich was an abomination, fatal alike to its consistency and to its power to solve the problem of human cognition. It must be got rid of at all costs; and the simplest plan was to abolish it altogether, thus leaving us with a reality knowable because knowledge and reality are one, and in the making of it mind, human or absolute, plays an overwhelmingly important part.

THE RELATIVITY OF REALITY, which thus took the place of the relativity of knowledge, has been variously conceived. Sometimes, as with Fichte and Hegel, Nature is opposed to Mind or Spirit as a twofold aspect of one and the same ground—of Intelligence, of Will, or even of unconscious Mind. Sometimes, as with Green and Bradley, Reality is conceived as one organic whole that somehow manifests itself in finite centers of experience, which strive to reproduce in themselves Reality as it is, but fail so utterly that what they assert, even when contradictory, must be held somehow to be true—true like other truths in that they attempt to express Reality, but are subject to indefinite reinterpretation before they can become identical with the real to which they refer. Still more modern Absolutists (e.g., Mackenzie and Taylor), appreciating to some extent the inadequacy of this view, have restored some sort of independence to the physical order, which, says Taylor (Elem. of Metaph., 198), “does not depend for its existence upon the fact of my actually perceiving it,” but “does depend upon my perception for all the qualities and relations which I find in it”. In other words, the “what” of the real world is relative to our perceiving organs (ibid.); or, as a recent writer (Murray in “Mind“, new series, XIX, 232) puts it, Reality, anterior to being known, is mere Greek: ule, (raw material), while what we call the “thing” or the object of knowledge is this ule as transformed by an appropriate mental process, and thus endowed with the attributes of spatiality and the like. Knowing is, therefore, “superinducing form upon the matter of knowledge” (J. Grote, “Explor. Phil. I, 13). Riehl, though usually classed as a Realist, holds a similar view. He distinguishes the being of an object (das Sein der Objekte) from its being as an object (Objektsein). The former is the real being of the object and is independent of consciousness; the latter is its being or nature as conceived by us, and is something wholly relative to our faculties (cf. Rickert, “Der Gegenstand der Erkenntnis”, 2nd ed., pp. 17 sq., where the inconsistency of this view is clearly indicated).

The relativity of Reality as thus conceived really involves a return to the position of Kant, except that for the thing-in-itself with its unknowable character ‘and properties is substituted a kind of materia prima, without qualities, attributes, or determinations, and therefore as unknowable as the thing-in-itself, but unknowable now because there is nothing to be known. On this point modern Idealism is at one with Pragmatism or Humanism, which also insists that reality, must be regarded epistemologically as ule wholly propertiless and wholly indeterminate. The difference between the two views lies in this, that for the Idealist, form is imposed upon matter by the very act by which we know it, while for the Pragmatist; it is imposed only after a long process of postulation and experiment.

CRITICISM.—M. Fonsegrive in his “Essais sur la connaissance” has discussed the question of Relativism at considerable length, and is of opinion that we must in some sense grant that knowledge is relative to our faculties. But, while in principle he grants this universally, as a matter of fact in his own theory it is only our knowledge of corporeal objects that is regarded as strictly relative. We can know other minds as they really are, because we ourselves are thinking beings, and the external manifestation of our mentality and theirs is similar in character. But “we do not know the essence of things, but the essence of our relations with things; of the laws of nature in themselves we know much less than we do of our dealings with nature” (pp. 85, 86). “Whatever we know is known in terms of the self” (p. 125; cf. pp. 184 sq.). The principal argument upon which this Relativism rests, is fundamentally the sarxle as that used by Berkeley in his famous “Dialogue between Hylas and Philonus”. As stated by Fonsegrive, it is as follows: “the concept of an object which should be at the same time in-itself and an object of knowledge is clearly contradictory…. For `object of knowledge’ means `known’, but it is quite evident that the known, qua known, is not in-itself, since it is qua known” (p. 186). Hence what we know is never the object as it is in itself, but only as it is in our knowledge of it. Of course, if the notions “being in itself” and “being as known” are mutually exclusive, the above argument is valid; but as conceived by the Realist or the anti-Relativist, this is not so. Being in-itself merely means being as it exists, whether it be known or not. It implies therefore that the nature and existence of being is prior to our knowledge of it (a fact which, by the way, Fonsegrive stoutly maintains); but it does not imply that being as it exists cannot be known. Fonsegrive’s argument proves nothing against the view that the real nature of objects is knowable; for, though in the abstract the thing qua existent is not the thing qua known, in the concrete there is no reason why its really existing nature cannot become known, or, in other words, why it cannot be known as it is.

The argument by which absolutists seek to prove the relativity of Reality is precisely similar to the above. We cannot think of real things, says Taylor (“Elem. of Metaph.”, 23, 69, 70; cf. Bradley, “Appearance and Reality”, 144-45), except as objects of experience; hence it is in connection with mind that their reality lies. Surely this argument is fallacious. All that it proves is that things must either be or else become objects of experience in order to be thought of by mind, not that they must be of their very essence objects of experience. Unless reality is intelligible and can enter into experience, it cannot become the object of thought; but in no other sense does the possibility of knowing it suppose its “connection with mind”. True, to conceive anything is “eo ipso to bring it into consciousness”, but from this it follows merely that to be conceivable things must be capable of becoming objects of consciousness. Psychological considerations force us to admit that Reality, when it enters experience, becomes, or better is reproduced as psychical fact; but we cannot conclude from this that Reality itself, the reality which is the object of experience and to which our experience refers as to something other than itself, is of necessity psychical fact. Experience or perception is doubtless a condition without which we could not think of things at all, still less think of them as existing, but it is not a condition without which things could not exist. Nor again, when we think, do we ordinarily think of things as objects of experience; we think of them simply as “things”, real or imaginary, and the properties which we predicate of them we think of as belonging to them, not as “superinduced by our minds”.

Our natural way of thinking may, however, conceivably be wrong. Granted that what “appears” is reality, appearances may none the less be fallacious. It is possible that they are due wholly or in part to our minds, and so do not reveal to us the nature of reality, but rather its relation to our perceiving selves, our faculties and our organs. Most of the arguments advanced in support of this view are based on psychology, and though the psychology is good enough, the arguments are hardly conclusive. It is urged, for instance, that abstraction and generalization are subjective processes which enter into every act of knowledge, and essentially modify its content. Yet abstraction is not falsification, unless we assume that what we are considering in the abstract exists as such in the concrete—that is, exists not in connection with and in mutual dependence upon other things, but in isolation and independence just as we conceive it. Nor is generalization fallacious, unless we assume, without proof, that the particulars to which our concept potentially applies actually exist. In a word, neither these nor any other of the subjective processes and forms of thought destroy the validity of knowledge, provided what is purely formal and subjective be distinguished, as it should be, from what pertains to objective content and refers to the real order of causes and purposes.

A further argument is derived from the alleged relativity of sensation, whence in the Scholastic theory all knowledge is derived. The quality of sensation, it is said, is determined largely by the character of our nervous system, and in particular by the end-organs of the different senses. It is at least equally probable, however, that the quality of sensation is determined by the stimulus; and in any’case the objection is beside the point, for we do not in judgment refer our sensation as such to the object, but rather as qualities, the nature of which we do not know, though we do know that they differ from one another in varying degrees. Even granted then that sensation is relative to our specialized organs of sense, it by no means follows that the knowledge which comes through sensation in any way involves subjective determination. Secondly, sense-data do not give us merely qualitative differences, but also spatial forms and magnitudes, distance, motion, velocity, direction; and upon these data are based not only mathematics but also physical science, in so far as the latter is concerned with quantitative, in distinction from qualitative, variations. Thirdly, sense-data, even if they be in part subjective, suppose as their condition an objective cause. Hence, a theory which explains sense-data satisfactorily assigns to them conditions which are no less real than the effects to which in part at least they give rise. Lastly, if knowledge really is relative in the sense above explained, though it may satisfy our practical, it can never satisfy our speculative strivings. The aim of speculative research is to know Reality as it is. But knowledge, if it be of appearances only, is without real meaning and significance, and as conceived in an Idealism of the a priori type, also it would seem without purpose.

EXPERIENCE AS A SYSTEM OF RELATIONS.—It is commonly taught by neo-Kantians that relation is the Category of categories (cf. Renouvier, “Le personnalisme”, pref. vi). Qualities are but relations in disguise (Caird, “The Phil. of Kant”, 329; Green, Prolegom.” 20). Matter and motion “consist of” relations (Prolegom., 9). In fact Reality, as we know it, is nothing but a system of relations, for “the nature of mind is such that no knowledge can be acquired or expressed, and consequently no real existence conceived, except by means of relation and as a system of relations” (Renouvier, “Les dilemmes de la metaph.”, 11). This form of Relativism may be called objective to distinguish it from the Relativism which we have been discussing above, and with which, as a matter of fact, it is generally combined. Primarily it is a theory of the nature of knowledge, but with Green and others (e.g., Abel Rey, “La theorie de la physique”, VI, 2), who identify knowledge and reality, it is also a metaphysic. Such a view supposes a theory of the nature of relation very different from that of the Scholastics. For the latter relation is essentially a Greek: pros ti schesis, an ordo ad, which implies (I) a subject to which it belongs, (2) a special something in that subject on account of which it is predicated, and (3) a term, other than itself, to which it refers. A relation, in other words, as the moderns would put it, presupposes its “terms”. It is not a mysterious and invisible link which somehow joins up two aspects of a thing and makes them one. A relation may be mutual; but if so, there are really two relations (e.g., paternity and sonship) belonging to different subjects, or, if to the same subject, arising from different fundamenta. True, in science as in other matters, we may know a relation without being able to discover the nature of the entities it relates. We may know, for instance, that pressure and temperature vary proportionately in a given mass of gas of which the volume is kept constant, without knowing precisely and for certain the ultimate nature of either pressure or temperature. Nevertheless we do know something about them. We know that they exist, that they each have a certain nature, and that it is on account of this nature that the relation between them arises. We cannot know a relation, therefore, without knowing something of the things which it relates, for a relation presupposes its “terms”. Hence the universe cannot consist of relations only, but must be composed of things in relation.


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