Viewpoint Relativism

Springer

Viewpoint relativism is a new approach to epistemological relativism based on the concept of points of view (Hautamäki, 2020). Epistemological relativism is characterized as a form of epistemology accepting the following two theses (cf. Baghramian, 2004; O’Grady 2002):

  1. knowledge (or truth, justification etc.) is always relative to some particular framework (culture, language, point of view, evaluation standard etc.), and that
  2. no framework is privileged over all others.

According to the first condition, knowledge (truth or justification) is dependent on the framework (or point of view) in which statements are presented. Therefore, absolute claims independent of frameworks do not exist. Meanwhile, the other condition denies that any one framework is better or more correct than any others. This can be expressed by saying that no neutral criteria exist to arrange the frameworks into a hierarchy.

The novelty of viewpoint relativism is to apply a definite concept of points of view to define relativism and defend it against standard criticism.  Points of view are often equated with perspectives or even conceptual frameworks, but the exact nature of points of view are seldom presented. Some exceptions are Hautamäki (1983, 1986, 2016), Vazques and Liz (2015), Lehtonen (2011), and Colomina-Almiñana (2018).  In my recent book Viewpoint Relativism (2020) I defined a point of view to be a three element system [S,O,A] where S is the subject and O is the object of point of view whereas A is an aspect of O representing O to S. In short, in a point of view, an aspect represents the object for the subject. Aspects are natural, social or psychological features of objects or things. What is characteristic for points of view it that they include choosing features of an object to represent it.

The “philosophy” of viewpoint relativism can be condensed into six theses.

  1. There is no viewpoint neutral way to approach reality.
  2. All people have their own subjective points of view, but they can be objectified.
  3. Each object can be considered from several different points of view.
  4. There are no absolute, privileged or universal points of view.
  5. Points of view are suited to be improved and changed.
  6. Different kinds of criteria can be used to compare points of view.

Each of them contains an important philosophical issue. Especially the first thesis expresses the basic tenet of viewpoint relativism: to approach relativity we always use a point of view. The world is “seen” trough the “lenses” or “filters” of points of view used.

To define viewpoint relativism, I refer to epistemic questions. They are questions about basic epistemological issues: truth, justification, existence, rationality etc. The standard form of an epistemic question is

Is the claim X true (or justified)?

or

Is the entity or property X existent?

Here X might be a sentence like “Climate change is caused by human actions”, or a property like “spouse”.  These questions are viewpoint-dependent, if in order to answer it, some point of view must be referenced. Thus the answer to Q has an extended, complete form:

The claim X is true [from the point of view P].

I define viewpoint relativism as a hypothesis according to which viewpoint-dependent epistemic questions exist. The viewpoints relativism is not committed to claim that all epistemic questions are viewpoint-dependent. This would be global or universal relativism, but viewpoint relativism is local, accepting that perhaps only some types of epistemic questions are viewpoint-dependent, like statements in mathematics or physics. Therefore viewpoint relativism is a testable hypothesis.

Relativism is often claimed to be committed to keep all points of view equally good (Boghossian, 2006; Bagramian, 2019). According to viewpoint relativism, all viewpoints are in fact comparable and could be evaluated by different criteria, like the practical consequences of points of view. In defending viewpoint relativism it crucial to note, that “no neutrality” does not imply “equally good” in relations to points of view (Kusch 2019).

Philosophically viewpoint relativism is in opposition to realism, according to which reality and the truth are independent of the human mind (Niiniluoto, 1999): Reality determines the verity of statements independently of what we know. Viewpoint relativism is a form of anti-realism which argues that “the talk of a reality that is completely independent of our judgement is incoherent” (Baghramian, 2004, p. 229). It’s worth to stress that anti-realism is not idealism, which denies the existence of external reality.

Viewpoint relativism takes different forms in various fields of epistemology. Let’s consider here the questions of truth, justification and existence. The question of truth is fundamental in all fields of epistemology. In viewpoint relativism the truth of statements is dependent on aspects used to represent objects of knowledge. If a point of view is P =[S,O,A], then the statement p is true from the point of view P if p is true of O interpreted as A (or qua A). For example, if somebody is considering hospitals form the point of view of the quality of nursing, then the statement that the hospital is effective, must be related to nursing: True, if it’s effective from the point of view of nursing. Still, it might be ineffective from the point of view of finance.  Thus, it might be turn out that he same statement is true and false at the same time, but from different points of view. In the book Viewpoint Relativism (2020), there is an exact definition for viewpoint dependent notion of truth, based on the  logic of viewpoint (Hautamäki, 1983).

Justification is the basic notion of epistemic relativism. For example, it is needed for defining the standard concept of knowledge: knowledge consists of true, well justifies believes. Viewpoint relativism consider justification in relation to epistemic systems, consisting of different standards or principles used in justification. A statement is justified not absolutely, but relative to epistemic systems. Epistemic systems are selected by epistemic points of view, deciding what epistemic standards are relevant. So the “formula” of justification is:

epistemic point of view -> epistemic system -> justification.

It follows from this approach that there might be real disagreements about knowledge. In such a disagreement, the dispute is difficult or even impossible to solve if both parties are strongly committed to their epistemic systems. One way out is to change own point of view, thanks of new evidence, methods, and comparison.

A word about objective knowledge. Realism tends to see the correspondence with objective reality as a defining condition knowledge. But knowledge could be defined also in term of consensus in epistemic communities. If a statement is accepted from all points of view, that is, it is invariant in community, then we can consider it to be objective knowledge. Of course, objective knowledge must be justified from all points of view in community. Objective knowledge needs not be invariant, but, anyhow, it must be true and well justified from some point of view in community (cf. Hautamäki 2020, Chapter 5.2.2).

Ontological relativism deals with the questions about reality, its objects and their properties. Ontological relativism is often defined referring to articulation of reality by conceptual frameworks.  Compare how Hilary Putnam (1981, p. 52) expresses conceptual relativism:

“Objects” do not exist independently of conceptual schemes. We cut up the world into objects when we introduce one or another scheme of description.”

This proposition characterizes a version of relativism, which Putnam calls “internal realism”. Its opposition is “metaphysical realism” according to which….

The world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects. There is exactly one true and complete description of “the way the world is.” Truth involves some sort of correspondence relation between words or thought-signs and external things and sets of things. (Putnam, 1981, p. 49)

Viewpoint relativism claims that ontology is a function of points of view and reality. This means that what objects there are is dependent on both points of view and reality itself. Points of view are ways to conceptualize the world. Viewpoint relativism rejects essentialism and the existence of natural kinds (like species of animals). The core question here is that similarity of objects is not absolute but dependent on which properties (qualities) are considered to be relevant by points of view.

Sometimes relativists deny that there are universal principles of rationality. I think that the situation is more complicated. I agree that there are quite different principles used in different sciences and in different cultures. But I still believe that we can find some general principles which are as universal as possible and which are working as norms in all reflective discussion. These principles define what I call core rationality (cf. O’Grady, 2002). So far, I have identified four of them: principles of consistency, deduction, induction and evidence. I think that they provide tools for rational discussion, especially in philosophy and science.

Beside core rationality, philosophical discussion has some conditions, which guarantee its possibility (Hautamäki, 2020, Chapter 2). I have collected these conditions under the term C-theory, where C refers to common or even common sense. C-theory consists of a theory of common language (C-language), a common conception of truth (C-truth) and sheared conception of reality (C-reality). C-language is our common language, which we use to communicate. In communication we have to use common words, which have fixed meanings (C-meaning) in language but which are always subjectively interpreted (S-meaning).  By C-language we can describe our experiences and common world, which I call C-reality. Equally important is to assume, that we have a common conception of truth; without which we can’t trust on each other in communication. According to this shared C-truth, true is to say how things are (Lynch, 2005). Often this kind of truth concept is stated to be correspondence theory, but I consider it to be more primitive, intuitive concept which could be elaborate in many directions leading to different theories of truth, like correspondence theory, consensus theory, or pragmatistic theory.

Viewpoint relativism has great impact on the orientation in our pluralistic modern society. I call critical relativism the societal view which accepts the following maxims (Hautamäki, 2020, Chapter 8.1.):

  • Plurality: Recognise the plurality of points of view;
  • Tolerance: Tolerate and listen to points of view differing from yours;
  • Criticality: Weigh every point of view.

Viewpoint relativism explains the plurality of different opinions and approaches: behind opinions there are often, but not always, different points of view about common issues. But from the fact of plurality of opinions we can not infer that they are equally good. Therefore we have to be critical towards all points of view and weigh them. It’s important to note that tolerance and criticality are not in contradiction: tolerance is against suppression of different opinions and criticality is against accepting all opinions. In the discussion about post-truth era recognizing pluralism and accepting misinformation (lies) are confused. Accepting pluralism does not give anybody the right to lie or distribute misinformation.

References

Baghramian, M. (2004). Relativism. London: Routledge.

Baghramian, M. (2019). Virtues of Relativism. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, 93(1), 247–269.

Boghossian, P. (2006). Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Colomina-Almiñana, J.J. (2018). Formal Approach to the Metaphysics of Perspectives: Points of View as Access. Springer.

Hautamäki, A. (1983). The Logic of Viewpoints. Studia Logica, 42(2/3), 187–196.

Hautamäki, A. (1986). Points of view and their logical analysis. Acta Philosophica Fennica, 41. Helsinki: Societas Philosophica Fennica.

Hautamäki, A. (2016). Points of View, A Conceptual Space Approach. Foundations of Science, 21, 493–510.

Hautamäki, A. (2020). Viewpoint Relativism, A New Approach to Epistemological Relativism based on the Concept of Points of view. Synthese Library 419. Springer.

Kusch, M. (2019). Relativist Stances, Virtues and Vices. A Comment of Maria Baghramian’s Paper. Aristotelian society, Supplementary Volume, 93(1), 271–291.

Lehtonen, T. (2011). The Concept of a Point of View. SATS, 12, 237–252.

Lynch, M.P. (2005). True to Life, Why Truth Matters. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Niiniluoto, I. (1999). Critical Scientific Realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Grady, P. (2002). Relativism. Chesham: Aucumen.

Putnam, H. (1981). Reason, truth and history. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press.

Vázquez, M & Liz, M (Eds.) (2015). Temporal Points of view, Subjective and Objective Aspects. Springer.