Convention (7) – Relativism

by Neil Rickert

When I mention my ideas about the role of conventions in science, I am often accused of being a relativist or a social constructionist or a post-modernist.  Those seem to all be related.  I am not any of those.  Today’s post will look at why my ideas about conventions do not have any relativist implication.

What am I

I’ve just said that I am  not a relativist or a social constructivist or a post-modernist.  So perhaps I should say something about what I am.  It’s not easy to say what I am, because my views don’t fit any of the standard labels.

In his book “Science and Relativism“, Larry Laudan presents a discussion between four philosophers of science, whom he labels as a positivist, a realist, a pragmatist and a relativist.  I disagree with all four of them.  For each of them, there are places where I agree with what they say.  But, overall, I do not see science the way that any of them see it.

J.J. Gibson has described himself as a naive realist, though he is sometimes described as a direct realist.  I suppose my view of our relation to the world comes closer to that of Gibson, than of anyone else I can think of.  But I don’t totally agree with Gibson, either.

What is relativism?

The term “relativism” is used in many different ways.  The most significant of those are “moral relativism” and “epistemic relativism”.  When people ask, on the basis of my views about science, whether I am a relativist, they are usually asking about epistemic relativism.

To a first approximation, epistemic relativism is the view that truth is relative.  But that’s too simple.  I am writing this in mid morning.  But, if I were to talk to somebody in London, they would tell me that it is mid afternoon.  So, of course, truth is relative in some sense.  But that kind of relativity, such as the relativity of time to location, does not seem to be troubling to anyone.  The concern is about more serious disagreements over truth.

It is very hard to say exactly what counts as epistemic relativism.  I have, from time to time, come across very clear statements of relativism.  But those clear statements have been written by philosophers who were presenting a refutation of relativism.  When I look at the writings of people who are said to be relativists, I do not find them saying the kinds of things that the critics of relativism like to refute.

In the preface to his book, Larry Laudan explains how he came up with the views that he attributes to his relativist.  He writes:

I note in passing that I have not been helped very much in this task by the sorry state of the relativist literature.

So it seems fair to say that Laudan also found it difficult to define what relativism is supposed to be.  He does mention Kuhn and Quine as two names that loom large in relativism, as Laudan presents it.  And he acknowledges that both Kuhn and Quine have denied that they are relativists.

Kuhn and Feyerabend

I’ll take it that the views of Thomas Kuhn and of Paul Feyerabend count as supportive of relativism.  So perhaps it’s appropriate for me to say how I see those two philosophers.

I see Kuhn as having done two things:

  1. He made a strong case that there is something seriously wrong with traditional philosophy of science;
  2. He presented an alternative account of how science works, with particular reference to his idea of crises in science and of paradigm shifts.

I agree with Kuhn on the first of those.  I disagree on the second.  I see Kuhn’s proposal as just another misdirection.

Feyerabend supports the first of those Kuhnian points.  However, Feyerabend declines to present an alternative account.  Instead, he argues that there is no good account of science.  He even suggests that, instead of the government supporting science, it should equally support other endeavors such as religion and voodoo.  Presumably the idea is that they could be just as productive, if well supported.

I’m not at all sure how serious Feyerabend was about supporting endeavors such as voodoo.  I read him as presenting deliberately exaggerated arguments as a way of adding emphasis to his view that there isn’t a distinctive characterization of science.

Of course, I disagree with Feyerabend about that.  This series of posts on convention is part of what I see as characterizing science, and how it works.


If epistemic relativism has to do with the relativity of truth, then what is truth?

Our notion of truth is a mess.  The way people use the concept of truth in ordinary speech is a mess, full of apparently contradictory views.  The religious view (or views) of truth is likewise a mess.  And, as best I can tell, there is no good philosophical account of truth.

If we look only at the use of truth in mathematics or in formal logic (propositional logic), then we can have a reasonably clear and consistent picture.  But once we leave those restricted areas, our use of truth becomes murky.  And somebody is likely to quote that last sentence, and ask me if that is the truth!

Perhaps the most common view is that truth is correspondence.  However, that does not help unless “correspondence” is explained — which it usually isn’t.

A definition that I often see is “Truth is correspondence to the facts.”  To me, this seems thoroughly question begging.  Most people see facts as just true statements, so that definition becomes entirely circular.  Other people claim that facts are metaphysical entities known as truth makers.  However, it is far from clear what these metaphysical entities are, if there are any such things.

I prefer the idea of truth as correspondence to reality.  But that leaves the question of what “correspondence to reality” actually means.

Here’s a thought experiment.

I have, in front of me, two photographs.  Both were taken, within seconds of one another, at the rose garden of The White House.  Both are pictures of the president and his family.  I’ll leave to the reader to choose a year, and a president to match.

The thing about these two photographs, is that they are very different from one another.  Yet, most people will unhesitatingly say that both are true.

What do we make of this, if truth is correspondence to reality?

The two photographs are different, because one of them is a color photograph while the other is a black and white photograph.  It seems that people understand that we have multiple ways in which a representation could correspond to reality.  Color photography provides one form of correspondence.  Black and white photography presents a quite different form of correspondence.  People evaluate the truth of those pictures based on what they see as the appropriate correspondence.

If I were to colorize that black and white picture, so that it looked more like the colored picture, many people would then see that as false.  It would violate the correspondence that we presume between black and white photographs and reality.

Scientific theories

I see scientific theories as establishing a correspondence between reality and our linguistic descriptions.  As such, I see a scientific theory as neither true nor false.  Rather, the theory establishes a correspondence with reality that enables us to make observations and descriptions, and enables us to determine whether those descriptions correspond to reality.

John Wilkins criticized my view on conventions, by saying that there is no matter of fact (see the fifth post in this series).  John saw that as a problem.  I see it as a plus.  We want our theories to enable us to see the world as it is.  We don’t want our theories to bias us in how we see the world.  A convention that defines a species, is a move that carves out an aspect of reality and gives it a name to use in our statements.  That enables us to further investigate that part of reality and to form true descriptions that follow the correspondence that is established by the convention.  So the convention itself should not be seen as true or false.  It should be seen as an enabler.  And that’s how I described it in that earlier post.  Thus the convention set up a correspondence that allowed me to look out the window and see that “there is a cat in the backyard” was true with respect to this correspondence.


In brief, I am not a relativist.  But I do disagree with traditional philosophy of science on the role of scientific theory.  I do not see a theory as a description.  Rather, I see it as a set of methodological principles which enable us to make detailed and precise descriptions such as were not previously available to us.

8 Comments to “Convention (7) – Relativism”

  1. “a move that carves out an aspect of reality” is precisely the point where you seem to want to have it both ways. Either there’s this aspect there already, hence no “carving” is necessary, only noticing. The seams are there and we need only name what they separate.

    Or, OTOH, there’s a kind of “sludge” where there are no ready made “aspects” making “carving” necessary for communication.

    The first view is essentialist, the second is anti-essentialist. To say, “well, we are carving, but it’s of aspects that are already there” is to sort of “conventionalize essences.” It requires the assumption that there are these properties in the world that need only be “taken in” and named, but, disliking the idea of essentialism, calls it something else.



    • Either there’s this aspect there already, hence no “carving” is necessary, only noticing. The seams are there and we need only name what they separate.

      Perhaps I should have used some word other than “aspect”. But then I think you would have still said the same thing.

      I have a standard sheet of paper. But I want a smaller piece. So I draw a pencil line, then take out my scissors and cut off the part that I want. But, of course, when cutting I only had to be noticing. The line on which to cut was already there because I had previously marked with a pencil.

      Perhaps I should have said that a convention creates an artificial essence, instead of contrasting the use of conventions with essentialism. It always seems hard to communicate in philosophese.


      • Of course it’s fine if that is your view (it’s a very reputable one!). What I don’t understand is how is it consistent with the following remarks (from an earlier post)?

        “Here’s the point. Anyone who applies those sets of criteria will come out with pretty much the same groupings. I suggested that if an alien from the Andromeda galaxy were to visit, and apply those criteria, he would come up with the same decisions as to what are cats and what are dogs. The scientists who established these criteria have tested them for the reliability with which they can be applied.

        “I’ll note that I suggested an alien from Andromeda, to make the point that the categorization into the two groups is not a matter of purely subjective or purely human judgment.

        “So it seems to me that the criteria are therefore real, and the division is into groups or categories that are thus also real.”



        • This is probably a matter of miscommunication.

          My comment about an alien from Andromeda was not intended to suggest that the alien would come up with the same criteria and would therefore divide things up the same way. That’s unlikely. My point was just that if the alien did happen to come up with the same criteria, then the dividing would be the same. That is, it is the criteria that do the work.


  2. This is an interesting post. I did not realize you were a philosopher.

    I read Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” about 10 years ago, and it changed the way I look at discoveries. I have not read any of his other books.

    This issue of truth comes up a lot in discussions of religion and is problematic as you mentioned here:

    “Our notion of truth is a mess. The way people use the concept of truth in ordinary speech is a mess, full of apparently contradictory views. The religious view (or views) of truth is likewise a mess. And, as best I can tell, there is no good philosophical account of truth.”

    We bring different definitions of what constitutes truth and where it came from. So your idea, “I prefer the idea of truth as correspondence to reality.” is an interesting way to look at truth. If you’re suggesting that it’s just a vehicle to get to our individual realities, how is this different from relativism? My apologies if this seems like a stupid or uninformed question.


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