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Cognitive relativism (also called epistemic or epistemological relativism) is a philosophy that claims the truth or falsity of a statement is relative to a social group or individual.

Main figures Edit

The following gives examples of both representatives of epistemological relativism and those whose views might be interpreted as bearing similarities to the view of epistemological relativism.

One school of thought compares scientific knowledge to the mythology of other cultures, arguing that it is merely our society's set of myths based on our society's assumptions. For support, Paul Feyerabend's comments in Against Method that "The similarities between science and myth are indeed astonishing" and "First-world science is one science among many" (from the introduction to the Chinese edition)[cite this quote] are sometimes cited, although it is not clear if Feyerabend meant them entirely seriously.

The Strong program in the sociology of science is (in the words of founder David Bloor) "impartial with respect to truth and falsity"[cite this quote] . Elsewhere, Bloor and Barry Barnes have said "For the relativist [such as us] there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such."[cite this quote] In France, Bruno Latour has claimed that "Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome -Nature- to explain how and why a controversy has been settled."[cite this quote]

Other examplesEdit

Yves Winkin, a Belgian professor of communications, responded to a popular trial in which two witnesses gave contradicting testimony by telling the newspaper Le Soir that "There is no transcendent truth. [...] It is not surprising that these two people, representing two very different professional universes, should each set forth a different truth. Having said that, I think that, in this context of public responsibility, the commission can only proceed as it does."[cite this quote]

The philosopher of science Gérard Fourez wrote in that "What one generally calls a fact is an interpretation of a situation that no one, at least for the moment, wants to call into question."[cite this quote]

The archaeologist Roger Anyon told the New York Times that "science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. [...] [The zunis' world view is] just as valid as the archeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about." (22 October 1996)

Critics Edit

This view is criticized by many Analytic philosophers and Scientists. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their book Fashionable Nonsense. Sokal and Bricmont say that "if we adopt the customary [...] notion of truth, then cognitive relativism is patently false: since a proposition is true to the extent that it reflects [some aspects of] the way the world is, its truth and falsity depends on the way the world is and not on the belief or other characteristics of any individual group."[cite this quote] Things are especially problematic for social scientists: historians (for example) want to draw conclusions from available documents about how things actually are; it's hard to do this when you deny that such discovery is possible.

Larry Laudan's book Science and Relativism outlines the various philosophical points of view on the subject in the form of a dialogue.

See alsoEdit


  • Baghramian, M. (2004). Relativism. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415161509
  • Gellner, E. (1985). Relativism and the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521337984
  • Hollis, M., & Lukes, S. (1982). Rationality and Relativism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 0631127739
  • Meiland, J.W., & Krausz, M. (1982). Relativism, Cognitive and Moral. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 0268016119
  • Raven, D., van Vucht Tijssen, L., & de Wolf, J. (1992). Cognitive Relativism and Social Science. City?: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0887384250

External linksEdit

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