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My Philosophy Library: Relativism

Thomas Llewellyn "bemused metaphysician"
The list author says: "The problem of relativism has bedeviled the Western philosophical tradition at least since the 5th century B.C. The difficulty is especially noted in two important areas for philosophy--truth and ethics. If truth is relative, then knowledge is at best problematic. And any type of situation ethics is thought by many to erode the foundational stability needed for moral behavior.

The essence of relativism is the denial of absolute truths. The relativist believes that truth and falsehood are relative to any or all of the following: cultures, belief-systems, the idiosyncrasies of individuals.

The predicament of relativism has waxed and waned over the centuries. It was dormant during the Medieval Ages, bursting forth again at the dawn of modern philosophy in the 17th century. Skepticism, a first cousin of relativism, closely tracks the activity of the latter. Both have experienced renewed vigor in the last 40 years, fueled by the controversies generated by multiculturalism and postmodernism.

An interesting fact is that few of the prominent actors are willing to acknowledge their part in the play. It seems that nobody wants to be labeled a relativist. The books below will shed much light on the subject, and the reader may decide for herself."
Relativism (Problems of Philosophy)
Relativism (Problems of Philosophy)
"If one had time for only one book on relativism, this would be my choice.  It is comprehensive, clearly written, and well-organized.  A fine achievement!  Buy the cheaper paperback edition."
Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology
Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology
"This is the best anthology dealing with relativism.  There are 33 essays by outstanding scholars in the field.  Some are by historically important contributors (Goodman, Davidson, Putnam, Williams, Nagel, Geertz).  Nine essays were written especially for this volume.  Classic and cutting-edge scholarship all in one book!  Highly recommended."
Relativism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for the Perplexed)
Relativism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for the Perplexed)
"A short (110 pp.) and accessible introduction to the subject.  Best suited to the philosophy beginner and the general reader."
Rationality
Rationality
"Relativists claim the following: (1) Rationality is normative rather than descriptive.  (2) The concept of rationality is relative to cultural and historical situations.  (3) No unique method is available to decide among a plurality of cognitive systems.  This 1970 collection of essays frames the debate from the perspective of the social sciences."
Rationality and Relativism
Rationality and Relativism
"This influential anthology examines in depth the problems of interpretation, translation, and explanation as they relate to the concept of rationality.  Contributors include such luminaries as Ian Hacking, Charles Taylor, Jon Elster, Ernest Gellner, Martin Hollis, and Steven Lukes.  Highly recommended."
Moral Relativism (BIG IDEAS//small books)
Moral Relativism (BIG IDEAS//small books)
"The author, a distinguished sociologist and social theorist, is a leading scholar in the field.  In this insightful, succinct book he tackles the problem of moral relativism with much verve and intelligence.  Highly recommended."
Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation
Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation
"Professor Krausz has edited several books of essays dealing with relativism.  He is a world-class authority on the subject, and all are highly recommended.  This one contains writings by eminent scholars such as Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and Amartya Sen.  Several of these essays are reproduced in his latest anthology."
Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis
Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis
"This book is a tour de force accomplishment in several areas.  Specialists in social philosophy, philosophy of science, and hermeneutics will all profit from a close reading of the text.  The author seeks to "confront the specter of relativism" by analyzing "the character, dimensions, and texture of human rationality" (p. x).  My highest recommendation."
Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy
Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy
"Professor Hales presents us with a philosophically sophisticated defense of relativism.  His arguments are bold and original, but they are definitely not for beginners.  Highly recommended for advanced students of philosophy."
Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism
Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism
"An accessible and well-argued monograph against epistemic relativism.  The author strongly defends the common-sense view that gives science a privileged position in the knowledge/cultural wars raging in some areas of academia."
Relativism: Cognitive And Moral
Relativism: Cognitive And Moral
"These essays, five each on the cognitive and moral aspects of relativism, are mostly from the 1970s.  Five of the contributions (half of the collection) are reprinted in Krausz (2010)."
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
"First published in 1962, this important and controversial work in intellectual history has been accused of various relativistic sins.  Required reading for all students studying relativism and the philosophy of science."
Scientific Revolutions (Oxford Readings in Philosophy)
Scientific Revolutions (Oxford Readings in Philosophy)
"An excellent collection of essays addressing issues raised by Kuhn's influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  The contributors are some of the greatest names in 20th century philosophy of science: Kuhn, Shapere, Putnam, Popper, Lakatos, Hacking, Laudan, Feyerabend.  There is also a superb annotated bibliography.  Highly recommended."
Against Method
Against Method
"This book is a radical attack on the idea of scientific method.  The author's position includes the following: (1) Meaning invariance is not supported by the history of science.  Cultural and subjective factors reign supreme. (2) Theoretical and observational terms are frequently related; facts are too closely bound to theories to separate them.  Highly recommended."
Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science (Science and Its Conceptual Foundations series)
Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science (Science and Its Conceptual Foundations series)
"Laudan's defense against the relativist assault on science takes the form of a dialogue.  The four participants are identified by their philosophical positions: positivist, realist, relativist, and pragmatist.  An interesting and fun introduction to some current issues in epistemic relativism."
Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to Relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus
Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to Relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus
"Protagoras was a 5th century B.C. Greek philosopher, and may be described as the father of relativism.  His famous dictum was "Man is the measure of all things."  This fresh, discerning study examines his ideas and the responses of three important critics--Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus.  Highly recommended."
Truth and Method (Continuum Impacts)
Truth and Method (Continuum Impacts)
"Gadamer denied being a relativist (don't they all?).  However, his ideas are important and do lead to relativism.  To summarize his position: (1) Understanding is a "primordial mode of being of human life."  (2) This understanding is historically situated and linguistically mediated.  T&M is an influential, difficult work and is highly recommended."
Philosophical Hermeneutics
Philosophical Hermeneutics
"This collection of essays by Gadamer is the best entry point to his philosophy.  His Heideggerian hermeneutics can be quite opaque for the beginner, and these writings are about as accessible as he gets.  Highly recommended."
Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition, and Reason (Key Contemporary Thinkers)
Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition, and Reason (Key Contemporary Thinkers)
"Most of us need a little help with Gadamer.  This book accomplishes the task quite well.  The author has that special knack of deciphering difficult texts and presenting the results in a pleasing, user-friendly fashion.  Insightful discussions of Habermas and Rorty are an added bonus.  Highly recommended."
The Specter of Relativism: Truth, Dialogue, and Phronesis in Philosophical Hermeneutics (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy)
The Specter of Relativism: Truth, Dialogue, and Phronesis in Philosophical Hermeneutics (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy)
"An anthology exploring the problem of relativism as it relates to Gadamer's hermeneutics.  It contains Gadamer's important essay "On the Truth of the Word."  This collection has a distinctively postmodern flavor which may clash with traditional Anglo-American philosophical sensibilities."
Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Philosophical Essays of Donald Davidson)
Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Philosophical Essays of Donald Davidson)
"Cognitive relativism was an especially hot topic during the last half of the 20th century.  Professor Davidson, one of the century's most prominent philosophers of language, contributed much to the debate.  These essays showcase some of his best work.  Highly recommended."
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
"First published in 1979, this controversial work is Rorty's magnum opus.  Using a historical perspective, the author pulls back the philosophical curtain to expose the Great Epistemologist Wizard to be a mere humbug.  There is no (absolute) truth, only conversation.  For the record, Rorty denies being a relativist (don't they all?).  Highly recommended."
The Rorty Reader
The Rorty Reader
"A fine collection of essays written by an important 20th century contributor to the relativism debate.  Start with "Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism."  Rorty (1931-2007) considered himself part of the American pragmatist tradition.  His historical naturalism was highly critical of much of mainstream modern philosophy."
Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers (Philosophical Papers (Cambridge)) (Volume 1)
Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers (Philosophical Papers (Cambridge)) (Volume 1)
"As a major player in the relativism debate, the philosophy of Richard Rorty should merit serious consideration.  This collection includes essays written during the period 1980-1989.  The following important thinkers are discussed: Davidson, Quine, Putnam, and Geertz."
Philosophical Relativity
Philosophical Relativity
"Relativism has no better defender than this brilliant philosopher.  This short, well-argued book makes the following points: (1) The answer to a philosophical problem will depend on one's assumptions.  (2) Assumptions will always be somewhat arbitrary.  (3) Semantic relativity, a constant challenge, works against finding an objective solution to many problems."
Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity
Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity
"This fine book is a debate concerning an important ethical issue: Are there objective answers to moral questions?  Harman is the relativist and Thomson defends moral objectivity.  The respective positions are clearly stated and ably defended.  A solid contribution to metaethics."
Relativism (Central Problems of Philosophy)
Relativism (Central Problems of Philosophy)
"This book is an examination of cognitive relativism.  The relativistic implications of the following topics are astutely analyzed: truth, logic, ontology, epistemology, and rationality.  The author's position is that there are "good" and "bad" relativisms, and the former are congruent with an account of universal rationality."
Relativism in Contemporary American Philosophy: MacIntyre, Putnam, and Rorty (Bloomsbury Studies in American Philosoph)
Relativism in Contemporary American Philosophy: MacIntyre, Putnam, and Rorty (Bloomsbury Studies in American Philosoph)
"Epistemological relativism is the subject of this erudite study.  Three leading scholars in the relativism debate (MacIntyre, Putnam, Rorty) are critically scrutinized, and the result is intellectually rewarding.  Best suited for advanced philosophy students."
Reclaiming Truth: Contribution to a Critique of Cultural Relativism (Post-Contemporary Interventions)
Reclaiming Truth: Contribution to a Critique of Cultural Relativism (Post-Contemporary Interventions)
"These essays, written during the early 1990s, are a rigorous evaluation of the development of cultural theory during this time.  Most of the leading thinkers in critical theory and postmodernism are discussed, including Habermas, Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty.  A first-rate philosophical achievement, and thus highly recommended."
On Truth and Untruth: Selected Writings
On Truth and Untruth: Selected Writings
"I believe Nietzsche to be the most important relativist of the modern era.  This inexpensive selection of his writings contains a sampling of his views on the nature and value of truth.  A good starting place for those unfamiliar with this influential philosopher."
The Will to Power
The Will to Power
"This selection from Nietzsche's unpublished notebooks has had a tremendous influence on Nietzsche studies.  For our purposes concentrate on the sections in the index under "interpretation" and "perspectivism," especially 481, 483, 487, 616, 617, and 636."
On the Genealogy of Morality
On the Genealogy of Morality
"Nietzsche's most sustained argument is also one of his best works.  The translation here is first-rate, and the editorial material is very helpful.  The Third Treatise is our object of focus, especially sections 12, 24, and 27."
Truth: A Guide
Truth: A Guide
"Central to the debate over relativism is the nature and scope of truth.  This book is a solid contribution to the ongoing discourse.   Relativism plays a prominent role in Blackburn's discussion, and there is an insightful chapter on Nietzsche.  An excellent introduction to an important topic, and thus highly recommended."
Reason, Truth and History (Philosophical Papers (Cambridge))
Reason, Truth and History (Philosophical Papers (Cambridge))
"The author, a distinguished Harvard philosopher, is an admitted conceptual relativist.  He importantly denies that the crucial concepts of truth and rationality are included in this relativity.  However, once the relativist camel gets his nose inside the objectivist's tent, the danger is that the camel may take over the whole darn tent."
Objectivity: A Very Short Introduction
Objectivity: A Very Short Introduction
"Relativism is the obverse of objectivity.  This succinct account of the latter concept has two insightful chapters dealing with relativity.  The author, an outstanding Descartes scholar and historian of science, has given us a stimulating analysis of the problem."
Relativism and Reality: A Contemporary Introduction
Relativism and Reality: A Contemporary Introduction
"This book takes difficult concepts and presents them in a clear and helpful manner.  The author's twist is to approach the realism-antirealism debate from the perspective of epistemological relativism.  Along the way we encounter perceptive discussions of Wittgenstein, Quine, and Rorty.  The result is an antirelativist defense of a type of strong realism."