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Totalistic relativism is (1) an epistemological theory denying any objective, universally valid human knowledge and affirming that meaning and truth vary from person to person, culture to culture, and time to time; (2) a metaphysical theory denying any changeless realities such as energy, space, time, natural laws, persons, or God and affirming that all conceivable meaning rests on activities, happenings, events, processes, or relationships, in which observers are changing participants; and (3) an ethical theory denying any changeless moral principles normative for all people in every situation and so of limited validity. From these three fields relativism pervades every field of meaningful human experience and knowledge.

Limited relativism considers totalistic relativism self-contradictory and wrong in its absolute denials of any absolute truth, and yet accurate in its assertion that much human knowledge is conditioned and slanted by innumerable variables. However, general divine revelation makes clearly known to all people the changeless truths about God's nature and particularly God's changeless plans for changing people in changing cultures in history. Although finite, fallen people may not be able to invent changeless truths, they can discover and receive them through divine revelation and enablement. In this way they can know not only changeless principles, plans, and purposes but also the meaning of unique, once-for-all events with objective validity.

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Human cognition does take place in the midst of countless cultural variables: subjectively (Kierkegaard), economically (Marx), politically (Reinhold Niebuhr), historically (H. Richard Niebuhr, W. Dilthey), educationally (Dewey), religiously (Cobb, Starcke, Watts), anthropologically (Kraft), and stylistically (Ricoeur). As a result of the kaleidoscopic impact of these and other influential variables, totalistic relativists have denied any invariable, absolute truth about things in themselves.

Increased consciousness of these cultural variables has generally been of significant value to the fields of interpretation and communication. To grasp the meaning of people from other cultures interpreters now realize how crucial it is to seek sympathetic identification with them in terms of their own presuppositions and historical roots. Such cross-cultural understanding is equally indispensable if one seeks to communicate to those of other cultures in terms of their own categories of thought and verbal expressions. Improved ways of grasping and communicating meaning, however, do not settles issues of objective validity.

Agreement has not been reached in regard to the degree of influence the cultural variables bring to bear upon human knowers. According to determinists, given a specific set of conditions present to a person's brain, nothing else could happen. All knowledge is relative to and determined by these situations (Skinner). For others, although all of human knowledge and behavior is predisposed to habitual responses by given sets of stimuli, this conditioning "falls somewhat short of total determination." All propositional assertions are nevertheless held to be time- and culture-bound (Kraft).

Others view persons not only as physical organisms but also as minds, souls, or spirits, with the powers of self-determination and self-transcendence. Hence their knowledge is not all time-bound and they are agents responsible for their own actions (Thomas Reid, J. Oliver Buswell, Jr.). Existentialists affirm that mankind is free from both external determination and internal self-determination by a self with a given, unchangeable nature. To be authentically free a person must, in fact, exercise an arbitrary freedom independent of cultural predispositions and past habitual choices. It seems more likely that some knowledge is predisposed by one's cultural influences and creative knowledge simply occasioned by one's situation.

Totalistic Relativism

Wheter the cultural and psychological variables determine, predispose, or occasion certain metaphysical beliefs, totalistic relativists know little about the nature of persons or things as terms or entities in themselves, and much about relationships, functions, and processes. Things and persons are what they do. Distinct, unique persons are reduced to influences, relations, events, or happenings (Arthur F. Bentley). Relational theology also intends to free people from the tyranny of absolutes, but may diminish the value of a person as such.

In Eastern monistic relativism persons are not real, but mere maya insofar as they are distingishable from the One. Differentiations of distinct persons with whom to have relationships are said to be made, not by nature, but by human conceptual assertions distinguishing subjects from predicates. Hence all propositions are illusory and relative to the viewpoints of those who assert them. In "reality" persons, like dew drops, slip into the shining sea, the part never again to be differentiated from the whole. Since all that can be conceived is relative, no permanent objective remains for which to strive and nihilism results. No self-nature can stand by itself, and no lasting distinction can be made between right and wrong. Moral conflicts are a sickness of the mind which should have cultivated a bland indifference. Decisions are to be made without having the faintest understanding of how one decides (Alan Watts).

Totalistic relativism, relationalism, or contextualization ends in amorality, "Asiatic fatalism," meaninglessness, and nihilism. Furthermore radical relativism is self-contradictory. Every human assertion is said to be time-bound and culture-bound, but the assertion that "all is relative" is taken to be universal and necessary. Total relativism absolutely denies any absolutes, and it absolutizes relativity.

Limited Relativism

Less reductive and more open approaches to meaningful human existence acknowledge not only differences among cultures but also similarities. Kraft alludes to over seventy-three constants in human societies in a chapter on human commonality, but concludes the chapter with only one criterion for evaluating cultural systems: their efficiency or adequacy in meeting people's personal, social, and spiritual needs. The forms of a culture, including the Christian missionary's culture, are judged solely in terms of their pragmatic usefulness. Usefulness for what? It sounds good to say, "for properly relating human beings to God." But having held that a hundred percent of human conceptual thought is time-bound, Kraft has no changeless criteria by which to distinguish counterfeit religious experience from authentic conversion to Christ. Apparently dynamically equivalent experiences may be of Satan, who changes himself into an angel of light.

The tests of authentic Christian experience, according to Scripture, include conceptually equivalent assertions about the nature of Christ, the eternal Word who became flesh (John 1:1-18; 20:31; I John 4:1-3; II John 9). Relational and functional theologians, succumbing to relativism, undermine the changeless conceptual validity of God's universal revelation in nature and special revelation in the teaching of the incarnate Christ and inspired prophetic and apostolic spokesmen.

What transcultural truths, then, are known through general revelation? (1) People are human. Persons everywhere in all cultures have been, are, and will be human. Dehumanizing and depersonalizing tendencies to the contrary, persons are subjects, not mere objects, and as agents responsibly participate in communities to achieve common, objective goals. (2) People have inalienable human rights and responsibilities. However different physically, economically, educationally, politically, socially, or religiously, people have a right to equal concern and respect. (3) People deserve justice. Whatever the situation, and whenever people are treated unjustly, they cry out against injustice. (4) Unjust people need a just amnesty and forgiving, holy love. (5) People ought to be intellectually honest and faithful to the given data of reality. They ought not bear false witness against others. (6) If human society, mutual trust, and communication is to be meaningful, people ought to be logically noncontradictory in their thought, speech, and writing. Human knowledge and experience are related not only to cultural variables but also to these invariables of mortality, fact, and logic.

To argue for but one absolute, love, as did Joseph Fletcher, is to ignore the breadth of the Creator's intelligence and wisdom. To argue for the absoluteness of factual data alone, as with scientism and positivism in their varied forms, overlooks the faithful words of the Logos regarding morality, sin, and salvation, and his own integrity as one who cannot deny himself or contradict himself. But to argue for logical absolutes alone, as rationalists may, blinds one to the given data of experience, the danger of autism, injustice, and irresponsibility in a day of nuclear proliferation.

The Need for Absolutes

Claims to truth, as distinct from mere uninformed opinion, must be justified on the basis of something more than subjective or community feelings of certitude. As Gordon Kaufman has argued, any claim to truth involves the claim to objective validity. Although hesitating to affirm belief in absolutes, Kaufman admits the objectively valid knowledge transcends actual thinking and feeling in three directions, givenness, universality, and logical interconnectedness. These he calls "functioning absolutes." Since they function as absolutes along with justice and love, intellectual honesty, and human worth to make life possible and meaningful, why not call them absolutes?

To acknowledge changeless truths in the midst of changing human experiences, as Augustine realized, is to acknowledge their changeless source and referent, ontologically. Paul Tillich also saw that all such absolutes point beyond themselves to an all-inclusive Absolute. Unfortunately, Tillich's concept of Being itself depersonalized the living and dynamic Logos of Scripture.

The most coherent account of both the variables and the invariables in meaningful human experience, Christians may argue, is the personal, living, moral, just, loving, faithful, and true God revealed not only in the world, history, and human nature, but even more significantly in the Jesus of history and the teachings of Scripture. Although finite, fallen people may not discover objectively valid, normative truths for themselves, as divine image bearers they may be enabled by common or special grace to receive them. Through general revelation from the absolute God, people find out about God's moral principles for justice in society and, through special revelation, about God's loving plans and purposes for unjust people. The living God is not determined by the relative processes of time, space, energy, and humanity. People and nature are relative to, dependent upon, and conditioned by God.

It is commonplace for radical religious relativists to affirm that people can experience God even though no conceptual or propositional truth about God is possible. Even the words of Jesus and the Bible, they hold, are time-bound and culture-bound. They can be taken only noncognitively, as pointers. Such religious relativism, however pious, misses the mark because it fails to take adequate account of mankind's creation in the image of God and renewal in the divine image to know God conceptually (Col. 3:10). Because they are created to know and commune with the Creator and Redeemer who is changeless in essence, attributes, and plans for space and time, humans in a sea of relativism can receive some effable absolutes by divine revelation and illumination.

Denials of propositional revelation may also result from a failure to grasp the relatedness of everything in changing and changeless experience to the Logos of God (John 1:1-3). The divine Logos is eternal and distinct from the universe but not limited to an intellectually other eternity as in Eastern mysticism. The divine Logos is immanent, governing nature and people, but not limited to natural processes as in liberalism. The divine Logos became incarnate as a truly human person but is not limited to noncognitive personal encounters as in neo-orthodoxy. The divine Logos was inscripturated, but is not limited to a mere biblicism as in some extreme fundamentalism. In sum, the Logos of God is transcendent and immanent, incarnate, and inscripturated as in classical orthodox theology.

A verificational apologetic for the absolutes of the divine Logos, general revelation, incarnate revelation, and inscripturated revelation is not itself another absolute. It is not necessary to be divine or an inerrant spokesman for God to verify God's wisdom, power, and morality in the world, divine sinlessness in Christ, or divine revelation in Scripture. The Israelites did not make themselves autonomous by distinguishing between true and false prophets. To check the credentials of one's surgeon is not to presume oneself more wise and capable in practicing surgery than the specialist. Acquainted with the countless variables every human knower faces, we are not surprised that Christian apologists frankly claim no more than an overwhelming probability beyond reasonable doubt.

Similarly, Christians claim only degrees of probability for their interpretations and applications of divinely revealed propositional truths. To affirm the absoluteness of God's understanding in eternity is not to affirm the absoluteness of any believer's understanding of revelation at any given time in his growth in knowledge and grace. Precisely the opposite result follows. To assert the absoluteness of divine revelation in terms of its intended purpose and the standards of accuracy when written for that end is to deny absoluteness to the pronouncements of governments, public schools, the United Nations, and religious institutions. Divine illumination does not result in inerrancy.

Although no interpretation of the Scriptures as given can be regarded as absolute, some interpretations are better informed than others by relevant data, valid hermeneutical principles, and sound criteria of truth. The most reliable checks and balances upon varied interpretive hypotheses are criteria drawn from the invariables found in general revelation: its grammar, literary context, author's purpose, historical and cultural setting, and broader theological context. Furthermore, one must be able to live by that interpretation with integrity while treating people as persons, not things, respecting their rights, treating them justly, and forgiving their injustices.

Untold harm has been done in the name of Christianity by people who have absolutized their relative interpretations of life or of Scripture. Presumptuous prophets who claimed to speak God's word to people, without divine authorization, in the OT administration were subject to the most severe penalities. May God deliver evangelicals today from prophetic ministries not validly drawn from divine revelation. This case for revealed absolutes must not be taken to justify absolutizing merely human ideas, however good.

Similarly, inestimable damage has been done the cause of Christ and Scripture by those who relativize divinely revealed absolutes, which have objective validity for all people of all cultures. Either Christianity is true for all people, or it is true for no one. We can be assured of our view of the major doctrines of Christianity and the realities to which they refer when our interpretations are based on numerous relevant and extensive passages of Scripture, supported by interpreters throughout the history of the church, and attested to us personally by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit to the teaching of the Word. Then we can confidently relate to the realities designated and preach the great doctrines of the faith with joy.

In a day when radical relativism reigns, disciples of the Lord, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, stand guard against attacks upon the cognitive faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3) with gentleness, respect, and a clear conscience (I Pet. 3:15-16).

G R Lewis

A. F. Bentley, Relativity in Man and Society; G. W. Bromiley, "The Limits of Theological Relativism," CT, May 24, 1968, 6-7; J. B. Cobb, Jr., Christ in a Pluralistic Age; R. J. Coleman, Issues in Theological Conflict; B. A. Demarest, General Revelation; J. W. Dixon, Jr., The Physiology of Faith: A Theory of Theological Relativity; C. F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics; G. Kaufman, Relativism, Knowledge and Faith; C. H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture; M. Kransz and J. W. Meiland, eds., Relativism Cognitive and Moral; G. R. Lewis, "Categories in Collision?" in Perspectives on Evangelical Theology, and Testing Christianity's Truth-Claims; F. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? B. F. Skinner, Back to Freedom and Dignity; J. S. Spong, "Evangelism When Certainty Is an Illusion," CCen, Jan. 6-13, 1982, 11-16; W. Starcke, The Gospel of Relativity; P. Tillich, My Search for Absolutes; D. Turner, The Autonomous Man.


Catholic Information

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, Höffding, 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 ETHICS, PRAGMATISM, TRUTH.) 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" (anthropos metron panton kai ton syton kai ton me onton, Plato, "Theæt.", 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, and 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, Parmedides'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 Scepticism).

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 won 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, and 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

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 hyle (raw material), while what we call the "thing" or the object of knowledge is this hyle 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 insist that reality must be regarded epistemologically as raw material, wholly propertyless 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.


M. Fonsegrive in his "Essais sur la connaissance" has discussed the question of Relativism at considerable length, and is 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 same as that used by Berkeley in his famous "Dialogue between Hylas and Philonus". As stated by Fonsegrive, it si 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. Forsegrive'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 thing 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 perdisguise (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 théorie 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 pros ti schesis, an ordo ad, which implies (1) a subject to which it belongs, (23) 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 fundamentals. 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 and 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.

Publication information Written by Leslie J. Walker. Transcribed by Jim McCann. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


Epistemological and Metaphysical - Caird, The Critical Philosophy of Kant (Glasgow, 1889); Fonsegrive, Essais sur la connaissance (Paris, 1909); Green, Prolegomena to Ethics (3rd ed., Oxford, 1890); Grote, Exploratio philosophica (Cambridge, 1900); Hamilton, Discussions (London, 1854); Idem, Metaphysics (London, 1871); Herbart, Metaphysics (Leipzig, 1850); Hobhouse, The Theory of Knowledge (London, 1896); Mill, Examination of Hamilton (4th ed., London, 1872); Prichard, Kant's Theory of Knowledge (Oxford, 1910); Renouvier, Les dilemmes de la metaph. pure (Paris, 1891); Idem, Le personnalisme (1903); Ray, La Théorie de la physique (Paris, 1907); Rickert Der Gegenstand der Erkenntnis (2nd ed., Tübingen, and Leipzig 1904); Riehl, Der philosoph. Kriticismus (Leipzig, 1887); Schiller, Humanism (London, 1903); Idem, Studies in Humanism (1907); Seth, Scottish Philosophy (London, 1885); Simmel, Philosophie des Geldes (Leipzig, 1890); Spencer, First Principles (6th ed., London, 1900); Veitch, Knowing and Being (Edinburgh, 1889); Walker, Theories of Knowledge (London, 1910). Psychological - Bain, Mental and Moral Science (3rd ed., London, 1884); Höffding, Outlines of Psychology (London, 1891); Maher, Psychology (6th ed., London, 1905); Wundt, Human and Animal Psychology, tr. (London, 1894); Idem, Grundzüge d. physiologischen Psychologie (5th ed., Leipzig, 1903).

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