Andrei Marga, Relativism and its Consequences, Cluj University Press, 2004

English translation by Iulia Bobaila, Anca Mircea, Aldea Bogdan


The present volume belongs to my general philosophical program meant to articulate an approach based upon critical pragmatism.

This approach represents the substance of several of my published books. It began with Cunoaştere şi sens. Perspective critice asupra pozitivismului [Knowledge and Meaning. Critical Perspectives on Positivism] (1984) and remained present in Raţionalitate, comunicare, argumentare [Rationality, Communication, Argumentation] (1990), Metodologie şi argumentare filosofică [Philosophical Methodology and Argumentation] (1992), Filosofia unificării europene [The Philosophy behind European Unification] (1997), Reconstrucţia pragmatică a filosofiei [The Pragmatic Reconstruction of Philosophy] (1998), being also supported by historical-philosophical analyses such as Acţiune şi raţiune în concepţia lui Jürgen Habermas [Action and Reason in the Thinking of Jürgen Habermas] (1985), Introducere în filosofia contemporană [Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy] (1988), by investigations of contemporary realities, collected in volumes such as Explorări în actualitate [Exploring Contemporary Reality] (1992), Philosophy in the Eastern Tradition (1995), and by translations from German and American philosophy.

My philosophical program continues in volumes that await completion, volumes dedicated to the issue of meaning, to the rehabilitation of pragmatism and to the detailed presentation of the options pertaining to critical pragmatism.

The aspect that interested me more as far as the present volume is concerned was that of providing a response and an alternative to relativism, capable of countering its arguments. Since the most serious relativist controversy was hosted by American universities and research institutes, the United States represented the most suitable place for documentation and meditation. I wish to thank my colleagues from the National Endowment for Democracy of Washington DC for the excellent conditions they offered me in 1996, as a fellow of that research institute.




Part I The Connotation and the Impact of Relativism

Chapter 1 What Is Relativism?

Chapter 2 Politics and Philosophy

Chapter 3 The Cultural Resources of Democratization

Part II Forms and Types of Relativism

Chapter 1 Cultural Relativism

Chapter 2 Cognitive Relativism

Chapter 3 Moral Relativism

Chapter 4 Philosophical Relativism

Chapter 5 Types of Relativism

Part III The Impact of Relativism

Chapter 1 Diversification or Fragmentation?

Chapter 2 Globalization and Universalization

Chapter 3 The Ambiguity of Relativism

Part IV The Criticism of Relativism

Chapter 1 Logical Arguments

Chapter 2 Semantic Arguments

Chapter 3 Epistemological Arguments

Chapter 4 Pragmatic Arguments

Chapter 5 Historical Arguments

Chapter 6 Transcendental Arguments





The existence of a cultural diversity was acknowledged a long time ago in Europe. Even Xenophon of Colophon noticed the differences regarding the representations of gods: The Ethiopians say that their gods are black and flat-headed, the Thracians claim that theirs have got blue eyes and reddish hair. If the oxen, the horses or the lions had hands and could paint the way humans do, then each of them would make gods after their likeness”. Later on – we are still quoting famous ancient authors – Herodotus pointed to the diversity of customs and concluded his famous description of Darius’ discussion with the Greeks and the Indians like this: “ Pindar was right, in my opinion, when he said that custom governs everything”. Finally, to shorten the list, Protagoras already possessed enough factual knowledge to decant it in a famous generalization: Man is the measure of all things, of those which exist because they exist, of those which do not exist because they do not. It is difficult to say what he really meant by this maxim. He surely rejected the belief according to which there are objective realities which can be taken for absolute reference (such as temperature, laws, tastes) on behalf of the simple remark that everything is relative, depending on the one who knows and evaluates. The idea of the homomensura lies at the core of the maxim and this maxim has become the guiding principle, first of a conception, then of a philosophy – relativism- which opposed different directions of philosophical thought.

Relativism came to oppose objectivism (the conception according to which we can establish areas of objectivity in the world, deprived of any subjectivity), realism (according to which we can establish a univocal correspondence between our knowledge and the objects it refers to) and, above all, universalism (according to which there are truths and values whose validity transcends all cultures, whose differentiation has been denied so many times).

Anyway, nowadays relativism is elaborated both extensively (it passed beyond the current consciousness, into the intricate elaboration of certain fields of science like history, sociology, ethnography, as well as a considerable area of philosophy) and intensively (it benefits from refined elaborations in methodology, in the logic of applications). The importance of relativism is now so considerable that its statements (reality depends on who determines it, truth depends on who establishes it, values depend on who adopt them, etc.) are taken for granted, there is no need to check them. On the other hand, today, relativism continues to deny objectivism and realism but it mainly rejects universalism.

The way things are, a discussion on relativism is no longer an academic problem for the analysts of ideas but a problem of practical decisions. Do we let ourselves led only by our views or do we also share other people’s views? Do we acknowledge systems of values and truths valid to all national cultures, groups and individuals or do we limit ourselves to the truths and values we have conceived?

In order to present clearly the profile of relativism and the nature of its reaction against universalism, let us make a few remarks on universalism, resorting again to the classical authors. We know that after the successful raid in the Orient, Alexander faced the problem of organizing an empire that included the Greeks, at one border, and the Persians at the other. Instead of taking Aristotle’s advice to treat the Greeks as leaders and the Persians as subjects, the young emperor chose to treat all equally, as belonging to the empire, out of tactic and, perhaps, idealistic considerations. He also replaced Aristotle’s division between the Greeks and the Barbarians by a division between the good and the bad. This option turned into a theoretical statement due to Zenon of Citium who considered man a citizen of the world. Later, Plutarch initiated the universalist point of view claiming that “ people should not live in so many republics, separated from one another by different systems of justice but consider everyone a fellow citizen involved in a life and an order (cosmos), a common situation, living together according to a common law”. And the “common law” was promulgated by the Romans who separated ius civile, that is the law that applied to the Roman citizens, from ius gentium, the law that universally controls commerce within the Empire on the basis of ius naturale, that is the interpretation that relies on the assumption that human nature is common to all the people. The idea of a rational order became substantial and effective in Roman Law and was going to be the ordering principle for many centuries, at least from an intellectual point of view.

Historically speaking, the awareness of a world based on rules whose validity transcends groups, communities and contexts, in one word, universalism, was the result of the organizational needs required by Alexander’s empire. The core of this consciousness – the idea of a natural order – which goes deeper than the differences that history creates between people, was the normative basis of the Roman Law and spread into the civilized world as a doctrine of natural right. This was brought to light again during the modern age of the European history. “The modern school of the natural right, which flourished around 1500 and went on till 1800, was a response to the pluralism of the modern age, to the dimension of the national state, the schism of the Church, the geographical explorations and the expansion of commerce, the progress of science and of secularism, the progressive labor division and specialization. Since the diversity of beliefs, opinions and interests increased, the need for a common criterion and common laws became more acute”1. But diversity itself was more powerful than the appeal to the natural right and the universalism that circumscribed it, because both of them were to give in under the pressure of major processes which, historically speaking, were characteristic for modernity: the formation of the national states, the industrial revolutions, the genesis of imperialism and its decline, the scientific revolutions. Diversity has come to be perceived as a fundamental phenomenon of the reality –according to which universal rules are, at most, a derivative if not a mere ornament – and to be intellectually elaborated in the form of relativism.

In order to illustrate the intricate problems implied by the crisis of universalism and the simultaneous emergence of relativism, we need to note that relativism was associated to four major processes of the modern age: the central and the east-European cultures became part of the historical consciousness, the way it happened later, and more systematically, to Asian history and African history; the formation, on the other side of the Atlantic, of an autonomous culture which has turned into a guiding force of the historical evolution, the way Western Europe did a long time ago; the change of the scientific paradigm as a result of the scientific revolutions that assigned the subject a new position in the process of knowledge; the crisis of the European modernity which made it possible, among other things, to have a deeper look into the mechanisms of the social revolution and the genesis of knowledge.

Consequently, relativism does not mean an abandonment – out of superficial reasons – of the universalist frame, viewed as “a nature” of civilization, but rather the exploit and the coherent formulation of an alternative to universalism, based on real problems. In time, relativism itself has accumulated a history and has extended on the surface of sciences and interpretations. In social sciences, it supported the expansion of factual research. For instance, as soon as factual investigations regarding the history of Central-Eastern Europe expanded and information multiplied, the normative approach of historical facts became unreliable. Depicting historical facts from the perspective of a moral principle which could be universalized, as Kant meant, was perceived as a violation of their diversity. Herder immediately reacted by presenting the history of mankind as a collection of histories of peoples rather, each with its own “mode of organization” as a result of “tradition” and under the impact of the climate.2 The diverse histories converge in order to accomplish progressively the divine plan but they remain specific, to such an extent that is it impossible to level them. Humboldt recorded cultural performances of different peoples, especially linguistic ones, and considered that language reflects that “spirit of a nation”(Geist der Nation) which individualizes national cultures and determines their specific forms.3

The normative perspective on historical facts, at a universal level, was put aside in favor of a new normativism – a normativism in a particular sense, which postulated the irreducible diversity of cultures. Dilthey clarified the new normative background of historical research, by formulating the famous “general law of relativity” according to which the way human beings approach the world are conditioned, distinct, and incomparable so that an objective, unique history is definitely impossible”4.

The expansion of factual investigations in sociology was the ground on which relativism laid its foundations. In this case, relativism reacted against the tradition that took ideas as values in themselves, pointing to their dependence on social contexts and trying to undermine the naïve belief in ideas. Karl Manheim most clearly expressed the effect of this development on the sociologic investigations, when he proposed to revise the problem of truth in social sciences, in all the fields of knowledge, reevaluating the importance of the “will” within the systems of knowledge.5

The presence of the “will” in knowledge makes it relative from the very beginning and changes it into “ideologies” of the situations so that it is impossible to establish the truth in the absence of the context or independently of the subject. The specialization of the studies concerning the history of science, which has become – in the meantime- an instructive subject, even for the scientists themselves, has also encouraged relativism. Thomas Kuhn went further and formulated it quite clearly with his thesis that scientific “paradigms” and, as a result, specialized knowledge, apart from being the basic units of knowledge, are also “incommensurable” to such an extent that they can neither be compared nor ordered hierarchically. Knowledge implies the choice of a paradigm sustained by an inevitable selection among competing “values”, but there is no sufficient reason to make us consider a paradigm “better” than another. We cam legitimately say that we can solve better a set of problems using a certain “paradigm” but we lack arguments in favor of the idea that a “paradigm” adjust to reality better than others.6

Finally, relativism emerges as a result of the efforts of integrating art as a modality of knowledge and within the context of the efforts of comprehending “primitive societies”. For the former case, Nelson Goodman’s view according to which in the process of knowledge, we generally operate with “descriptions” which are, in fact, equally legitimate “versions” of the reality, even if they contradict one another, is illustrative.7 For the latter, a relevant example is that of Peter Winch who subscribes to Wittgenstein’s thesis that our utterances are part of some “speaking games” whose rules derive from certain “forms of life“ that, in turn, depend on options regarding the meaning of life which cannot be compared8.

Nevertheless, relativism has not remained just the perspective of some intellectuals who tried to understand knowledge, history and reality, in a new cognitive stage, challenged by new problems. It has become the philosophical platform that served as a starting point for political movements of different orientations. Surprisingly, in Eastern and Central Europe, the movements of national liberation of the last century were based on the doctrine of the natural right. The nationalisms that proliferated later in their vicinity relied on “the national feature” while their intellectual spokesmen tried to describe it resorting to the relativist perspectives according to which reality depends on the specific, cultural instruments of a community. As a result of the cultural differentiation, the undeniable diversity was stylized into a vision which reacted to modernization, encouraging the impassable relativity of the specificity.

The political exploit of relativism took place on a larger scale in Russia, during the 20s, with the theory of “ its own way of development” and its notorious excrescences such as the thesis of the “Soviet science”, then during the 30, in Germany, that experimented on the “third way” of evolution, similarly adorned with the idea of “a new science”, “ the Nazi science”.

The political exploit of the relativist platform did not end there. It went on, in the form of the “ Eastern socialism”, which claimed to have found the bases of a new art and of specific morals. This happened in the context of the reaction of the “ Eastern socialism” leaders to the universality of the doctrine of the human rights and the Western efforts to apply it. During the 70s, as well as later, in the 80s, in an attempt to react against Gorbachev’s reforming ideas, the “Eastern socialism” revived the defensive form of nationalism, by resorting to a supposed “national character” which would make some people willing to take advantage of modern freedoms, whereas others would show no interest in them. The programs of the movements which came to power, in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989, centered on the human rights, market economy, pluralism, politics, universalist programs react by resorting to a parochial nationalism along with a circumstantial relativism. “Let us not betray the incommensurable richness of our traditional culture”, “we need nobody except ourselves” have become the leitmotif of the new resistance to modernization in Central and Eastern Europe.

In this attempt of revealing the magnitude of the relativist impact, one cannot ignore that relativism is not only the ideology of the reaction against modernization but also the opinion shared by many renowned intellectuals. Suffice it to say that Soljenitzin noted from the very moment the Soviet Union oriented itself towards the irreversible way towards glasnost and perestroika, benefiting the history of the world, that Western evaluation criteria were not adequate to the original Russian life experience so that the efforts of applying them to other realities than those they were designed for had to cease.9

Finally, one cannot ignore that, in the meantime, relativism has trickled into the Eastern mentality so that it not only begins to appear to the current consciousness as a natural view which needs no further confirmation, but also influences people’s decisions on a large scale. Not only the decisions related to matters of private life but public life as well. ”The immediate privatization is the solution to the problems Eastern Europe is facing today”, “parlamentarism is preferable to authoritarianism”, ‘private property is the promoter of the economic development” – such statements represent to many a set of truths which are valid for other societies than their own. This is not the case of countless empirical situations where these statements prove to be true for some people and false for other. The statement “working timetable is too short” is surely true, in the case of a country with a very modest per capita income, but it is certainly false when applied to a country provided with high technology and work discipline, focused on the intensive use of the available working time and on allotting time to train the employees.

On the other hand, relativism has nothing to do with the almost trivial difference of opinions generated by the fact that he speakers assign different meanings to terms. Water is, indeed, H2O for those who give the connotation we do to the terms H,2,O but it is HxOx for those who assign the terms completely different connotations. It is simply a matter of considering that an acknowledged truth is a truth for the individual who produces but it has nothing to do with me because “ everybody has his own truths”.

A decade after the war, Walter Lippman, in his analysis of the evolution of the American society, pointed out that society had become plural and fragmented to such an extent that, finding new principles shared by all the people, aiming at recovering the unity that made cohabitation possible, was vital. Otherwise, there is a risk of the proliferation of that human type who experiences the feeling of being free from the ancestral order, followed by the lack of any point of reference – as André Gide noted – and the risk of proliferation of that “lonely crowd” made up of disoriented individuals whose movements are connected, without finding common reference points, as David Riesman described it. Discovering the new principles is the preparatory mission assumed by what is called public philosophy. After more than a decade, while reflecting upon the intellectual evolution of our times, Karl Popper was even more worried. He said that “the main philosophical disease of out time is an intellectual and a moral relativism, the latter depending at least partially on the former”10.

Throughout this book, I examine relativism from the point of view of its theses and its impact, outlining the general alternative to relativism in the form of the pragmatic pluralism. The general thesis I defend is that relativism is a truth, but a half-truth and its impact is ambiguous, immanently ambiguous. To be more precise, the examination of relativism is not undertaken here as an exercise in the rhetoric of general ideas but from the perspective of its consequences on three fundamental contemporary experiences: the Eastern transition and the emergence of open societies in the Eastern Europe; the European integration and unification; globalization. These experiences are decisive tests for the philosophical theorems and philosophies as a whole.

In the course of the following examination, the approach to relativism starts from its impact on actions, then passes through philosophical themes proper, absorbing as many philosophical themes as necessary for a philosophy to be clear and able to guide actions. On the other side, this philosophy is taken into account al the level of the cultural infrastructure of the present historical situation, which has acquired new importance. Today, the cultural infrastructure which becomes more obvious in the philosophical conceptualizations, conditions, as a resource, the performances and becomes the real key and the actual ground of for comparisons and competition. One can perceive today, in a precise sense, that the battle field of the global system has moved from the rivalry of the superpowers to a clash of civlizations”11. The cultural infrastructure is now, more than ever, a condition for performances and the winner of the battle is the one who possesses the cultural infrastructure that supports performance.