A Synopsis of Viewpoint Relativism
Viewpoint relativism is a new approach to epistemological relativism based on the concept of points of view (Hautamäki, 2020). The idea of viewpoint relativism is to apply a concept of points of view to define relativism and defend it against standard criticism. The target of this article is to present outlines of viewpoint relativism. Points of view are often equated with perspectives or even conceptual frameworks, but satisfactory definitions of points of view are seldom presented. So the first step is to present a scarp definition of points of view. Then I will develop viewpoint relativism as a form of epistemological relativism and compare it to perspectivism and realism. I will consider forms of relativism related to truth, justification, ontology, and rationality. A major issue is how to analyse disagreements in terms of points of view. Lastly, I will present critical relativism, which is a mundane application of viewpoint relativism to culture and social life.
Points of view
Although the concept of points of view is often used in philosophical discussion, satisfactory definitions of points of view are hardly presented. Some exceptions are e.g. Moline (1968), Moore (1987), Hautamäki (1983, 1986, 2016), Lehtonen (2011), Vázquez and Liz (2011, 2015), and Colomina-Almiñana (2018). In the definition of points of view by Vázquez and Liz, there are a bearer B of a point of view, a set of relations of B to conceptual or non-conceptual contents and a set of possession conditions for having the point of view (Vázquez & Liz, 2015, p. 21) Intuitively, a point of view is a relational system connecting a bearer to contents in various ways. A typical case is belief, which is the propositional attitude of a subject towards a proposition.
What is characteristic for points of view it that they include choosing features of an object to represent it. In my 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. Metaphorically, an aspect is what is “seen” from the point of view. Say, one considers human beings as animals whereas another considers them as cultural creatures. It is important to note, that objects and aspects vary considerably from issue to issue. Especially in epistemic issues aspects are often epistemic systems (sets of rules and criteria of correctness) and in ontology aspects might be conceptual systems used in carving reality. What is essential here is that in a points of view some aspect, relevant to object, is selected (or given).
Aspects are natural, social or subjective (or psychological) features of objects. Say, weight and size are natural features of physical objects whereas norms and prize are societal aspects. By subjective aspects I mean feelings and memories we have about objects. Say, a certain wooden table is valuable for a person who is the grandchild of its carpenter. Quite often aspects are categories classifying objects, like animal, fruit, furniture, or democracy. This definition of points of view stresses the selection of existing aspects, and is in this sense “objective” although selection is an act of subjects. We can think that aspects are entities a par with objects leading to the notion of points of view as metaphysically primitive entities (cf. Colomina-Almiñana, 2018).
Epistemological relativism and perspectivism
There are many version or forms of epistemological (or cognitive) relativism (cf. O’Grady, 2002; Baghramian, 2004). In this diversity Baghramian and Coliva see some common features to all accounts of relativism. They are non-absolutism, dependency (from extra parameter), multiplicity, equal validity and non-neutrality (see Baghramian & Coliva, 2019, Chapter 1). If we are looking for a minimal account of relativism, then we have to mention at least the following two thesis:
- knowledge (or truth, justification etc.) is always relative to some particular framework (culture, language, point of view, evaluation standard etc.), and that
- no framework is privileged over all others.
According to the first condition, knowledge (truth, justification etc.) 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 – as such – 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 (non-neutrality). This doesn’t mean that all frameworks are equally good: Some are better in relation to criteria and interests of actors or community.
In this article I will present viewpoint relativism, which is committed to the following principles (see Hautamäki, 2020, p. x):
- There is no viewpoint neutral way to approach reality
- All people have their own subjective points of view, but they can be objectified
- Each object can be considered from several different points of view
- There are no absolute, privileged, or universal points of view
- Points of view are suited to be improved and changed
- Different kinds of criteria can be used to compare points of view
Each of them contains important philosophical issues. Especially the first thesis expresses the basic tenet of viewpoint relativism: to approach reality we always use a point of view. The world is “seen” trough the “lenses” or “filters” of points of view used.
These principles can be compared to some well-known theses of perspectivism (see Baghramian & Coliva, 2019; Liz & Vázquez, Manuscript). Perspectivism accepts the conviction that all judgements or beliefs are irredeemably perspectival. The view from no-where is not available. Liz and Vázquez (Manuscript) propose that perspectivism can be characterized by the following principles T1-T4
T1 Perspective dependency: All of our access to reality, and to ourselves, are dependent on our perspectives in the sense that we cannot understand reality, nor ourselves, apart from the way they appear in the perspectives we adopt.
T2 Pluralism: A variety of perspectives is always possible.
T3 Non-egalitarianism: Not all perspectives have the same value.
T4 Meliorism: It is always possible to adopt better perspectives, that is, perspectives with more value.
T1 corresponds, roughly, to principle 1, T2 to principle 3, T3 to principle 6 and T4 to principle 5. If perspectivism is defined by the principle T1 – T4, then one can wonder is there real differences between relativism and perspectivism. Relativism is often claimed to be committed equal validity, i.e. to keep all points of view equally good or valid (Boghossian, 2006; Mosteller, 2008; Baghramian, 2019). The principle T3 denies this thesis. One issue here is what is the relation between non-neutrality and equal validity. Non-neutrality means that there is no neutral criterion based on which different points of view can be ranked. It is claimed that non-neutrality implies equal validity of points of view (see Baghramian & Coliva, 2019). If non-neutrality is denied then the ranking must be absolute. Relativism, which accepts non-neutrality, does not deny that there might be relative ordering according to which some points of view are better than others (c.f. Kusch, 2019). This is an important point, because if we consider all points of view equally valuable, we have to accept (or reject) all points of view, leading us to extreme relativism. Note that evaluation of points of view is taking place always in some context of life, containing interests and values as well as shared facts. Logically speaking, keeping all points of view equally good, is not a neutral supposition, because it contains introducing an equivalence relation into a set of points of view. It is just one order among many possible orders. Equal validity thesis seems to suppose that there is neutral position, on which points of view are considers to be equally valid. To conclude, it is not a contradiction to accept non-neutrality and deny equal validity of points of view. Relativism, which rejects equal validity of points of view, is compatible with perspectivism.
Let us consider still one principle attributed often to relativism, namely universalism: Everything is relative. Universalism is prone to refutation by standard arguments of self-refutation of relativism (cf. Mosteller, 2008). Viewpoint relativism considers the universality issue by referring to epistemic questions. They are questions about basic epistemological issues: What is true, justified, existent, rational etc. The form of an epistemic question is
(1) Is the claim X true (or justified)?
(2) Is the entity or property X existent?
where 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 them, some point of view must be referred. Thus the answer to (1) has an extended, complete form:
The claim X is true [from the point of view P].
The stance of viewpoint relativism is that viewpoint-dependent epistemic questions exist. This is a moderate position. The viewpoints relativism is not committed to claim that all epistemic questions are viewpoint-dependent. This would be global or universal relativism. Moderate relativism is local relativism and this means that there are areas, where epistemic questions are viewpoint-dependent, and possibly also areas, where epistemic questions are viewpoint-independent.
The existence of viewpoint-dependent epistemic questions is a testable hypothesis. It is plausible claim that some types of epistemic questions are viewpoint-dependent, like statements about taste or values. So the stance of viewpoint relativism is defensible. But many epistemic questions, say in physics or chemistry, seem to be viewpoint-independent.
The scope of viewpoint-dependency is not yet studied enough in order to settle which questions are viewpoint-dependent and which viewpoint-independent. If all questions turned out to be viewpoint-dependent, then viewpoint relativism could be considered to be universal relativism. So far I have not seen any compelling arguments for universalism. Note that the principle 1 (or T1) doesn’t imply that all epistemic questions are viewpoint-dependent. The principle 1 is an antithesis of realism: We have no direct access to the reality; access is always mediated by points of view (cf. Dreyfus & Taylor, 2015). When an approach is selected, many questions could be viewpoint-independent inside this approach.
The relativity of knowledge
Viewpoint relativism takes different forms in various fields of epistemology. Let’s consider here the questions of truth. 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 the same statement is true and false at the same time, but from different points of view. This relative concept of truth does not mean that truth is irrelevant. Truth is operating within points of view: every statement is true or false, depending on a point of view under consideration. Within any point of view the principle of non-contradiction is valid.
In the standard definition of knowledge the concepts of truth and justification are used: Knowledge consists of true, well justified believes. Viewpoint relativism considers 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. In disagreement, it is important to be aware of viewpoint-dependency of knowledge claims. This opens ways to change or retract own point of view. New evidence and methods as well as comparison of different viewpoints help to settle disagreements.
A word about objective knowledge. Realism tends to see the correspondence with reality as a defining condition of objective knowledge. But knowledge could be defined also in terms of consensus in epistemic communities. For example, scientific communities are just epistemic communities, which try to produce objective knowledge by mutual criticism and testing. If a statement is accepted from all points of view, that is, if it is invariant in community, then we can consider it to be objective knowledge. Objective knowledge needs not be invariant, but, anyhow, it must be true and well justified from some point of view recognized in community. Here objectivity means intersubjectivity, something that is shared by many members of community. Objectivity as unspecified correspondence with reality is incompatible with perspectivism and viewpoint relativism.
Conceptual relativism and ontology
Conceptual relativism deals with the questions about reality, its objects and their properties. It 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. (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 doesn’t consider essentialism and the existence of natural kinds (like species of animals) to be compatible with relativism. 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. In fact, objects are not given, but are identified as such by certain qualities, like causal connections, permanency and stabile properties. Criteria of sameness are never absolute; they are dependent on points of view and finally on interests. This means that ontology is dependent on epistemology and our constructive abilities, especially building and adopting points of view.
The realism issue is important for relativism. Philosophically viewpoint relativism is in opposition to realism, according to which reality and the truth are independent of the human mind: 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. According to viewpoint relativism, all we know about reality is mediated by points of view. But reality also contributes to our knowledge: if the reality were different, our knowledge (perceptions, experience etc.) would be different, too. The viewpoint relativism considers that knowledge is a function of reality and points of view.
It is interesting that also realism can bend to accept certain kind of relativity. For example, Niiniluoto (1987) argues that we have as many description of the world as we have interpreted language. Inside such a language truth is completely fixed by realty. He called this view “conceptual pluralism”. Searle (1995, p. 161) proposes a similar theory he called “conceptual relativism”, according to which “[a]ll representation of reality are made relative to some more or less arbitrarily selected set of concepts.” The problem with Niiniluoto’s and Searle’s approach is the supposition that the reference relation of the given language to the world is uniquely fixed by the world itself. For example, according to Niiniluoto (1987, p. 142) “the function which correlates the linguistic expression of [the language] L with the possible worlds has unique values (denotation, extensions, truth-values) in each possible world.” Instead, relativism argues that the world does not present itself to us ready-made or ready-carved or ready-structured (Cf. Baghramian & Coliva, 2019, Chapter 1; Hautamäki, 2020, Chapter 6.2).
The issue of disagreement is in the core of relativism (cf. MacFarlane, 2014; Carter, 2016; Coliva & Pedersen, 2017, Hautamäki, 2022). Relativism is sensitive to disagreements, because it stresses the existence of difference of points of view. According to Baghramian and Coliva (2019) incompatibility is one of the major characteristics of relativism. They make a distinction between strong and weak incompatibility. Strong incompatibility is the claim that the same proposition can be true or false depending on points of view whereas weak incompatibility claims that some statement can be true in one point of view but undefined in relation to an other point of view. The truth-concept presented in Hautamäki (2022) supports a form of strong incompatibility; in viewpoint logic every statement has a truth-value in all points of view.
It is useful to separate two kinds of disagreement. In logical disagreements, points of view support contradictory statements. In practical disagreement, although no apparent contradiction is present, practical actions and consequences are in conflict, like often in politics. According to viewpoint relativism logical disagreements are apparent, not real, if the same proposition (the content) is evaluated to be true from one and false from another point of view (see Hautamäki, 2022). Often in disagreements people do not recognize that they are looking the same issue from different points of view, and therefore disagreements seem to be real contradictories. Viewpoint awareness is a key to solve logical disagreement.
In many practical issues, it is crucial that people will find a solution to disagreement. The bare recognition that we have different points of view is not enough to solve practical disagreement. For that some subjects must change their viewpoints. Points of view are not static elements: they are receptive to changes. Dynamics of points of view is dependent on possession conditions for having a point of view (see Vázquez & Liz, 2015, p. 21). There are at least three factors influencing points of view: Self-reflection, communication and practical activity (Hautamäki, 2020, p. 58). In self-reflection, one is able to set her own beliefs as the object of consideration and think critically about it. We assess the validity of our beliefs in interaction with the surrounding reality. We submit in communication our beliefs to criticism by other people. In communication people meet other minds and learn to see differences in points of view. For successful communication, people must objectify their points of view by wording them in common language. Action and acting have strong impact on our thinking. Especially, successes as well as fails give opportunities to learn and unlearn. Successful actions demand collaboration and communication with other people. All these three sources of change are interrelated and together explain the dynamics of adopting and changing points of view.
In summary, we correct, change and clarify our points of view in this process self-reflection, communication and action. There are several ways to try to solve disagreement:
These and possible some other ways open the prospect to solve disagreement. Weak solving is just to recognize that we have different points of view. But sometimes the situation (e.g. practical issues) demands that disputants adopt the same point of view. Then somebody must change her point of view.
Sometimes relativists deny that there are universal principles of rationality (cf. Hollis & Lukes, 1982; Carter, 2017). 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 and tools in all reflective discussion. These principles define what I call core rationality (cf. O’Grady, 2002). Core rationality consists, at least, in the principles of consistency, deduction, induction and evidence.I think that they provide tools for rational discussion, especially in philosophy and science. Consistency and deduction are related to the structure of knowledge and induction and evidence to probability. Core rationality makes possible rational comparison of points of view, which is a central part of viewpoint relativism.
Those who deny rationality, refer often to incommensurability of “worldviews”, frameworks or points of view. Incommensurability implies that worldviews are incomparable; there is no ground on witch to based comparison. Famous in this context is Davidson’s (1984) argument about translatability of different conceptual schemes. If conceptual schemes are translatable, they are not radically different. On the other hand, if a conceptual schema is not translatable to our language, it is not a schema for us (we can not identify it). Davidson omits the possibility that two schemes might be partly different and partly similar. And this similarity gives a base to compare and even translate different parts to each other; we can learn new words as Putnam (2004) argues.
Besides core rationality, (philosophical) discussion has some conditions, which guarantee its success and 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. It is our everyday world consisting of other people, things around us, frequent events etc. Without common C-reality we can’t live. C-reality is not intended to be The Reality, it is just a common reference point. C-reality is what Sellars (1962) calls manifest image.
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 elaborated in many directions leading to different theories of truth, like correspondence theory, consensus theory, or pragmatistic theory. The role of C-theory is to provide an equilibrium between radical relativism and absolutism. The disagreement based on different points of view is possible only in massive agreement about many common things. Note that C-theory works also in cross-cultural contexts, when we translate different languages.
Relativism is a philosophical theory, after all. It argues about viewpoint-dependency of many epistemological concepts like truth, justification, knowledge and ontological commitments. But relativism has also its mundane forms in everyday life. I refer here to many disagreements in politics, science and civil society: many common things are seen from different points of view leading to conflicts. Pluralism of opinions is an empirical fact in modern society. My claim is that viewpoint relativism helps people to orient in pluralistic society: It rises viewpoint awareness which is important capability in communication and support searching solution to disagreements.
I call critical relativism the stance, which accepts the following maxims (Hautamäki, 2020, Chapter 8.1; cf. Baghramian, 2019):
- realisation that people have different points of view;
- realisation that your own point of view is only one among many;
- ability to objectify your own point of view;
- ability to conceptualise (wording) the interests, experiences, and cognitive and emotional elements behind points of view;
- listening to others and trying to understand their points of view;
- comparing points of view (what are their effects, how justified are they);
- ability to learn from others’ points of view; and
- rejection of absolute points 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. Tolerance is a virtue to tolerate and become familiar with different points of view. But from the fact of plurality of opinions we cannot 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 my mind, nowadays critical relativism is even more important that in the last century. Especially phenomena related to post-truth era are worried. Notre that maxims of critical relativism do not give anybody the right to lie or distribute misinformation.
Critical relativism calls for dialogue in society. Different points of view meet in a dialogue. A dialogue can be seen as a method where people become conscious of their own points of view and those of others’, and learn to find the shared experiences and meanings behind them. The conditions of a successful dialogue are:
Without dialogue, it is very difficult to overcome serious disagreement in society. First step towards dialogue is to recognise that behind our disagreement there might be different points of view.
Viewpoint relativism is introduced as a version of epistemological relativism. It is based on the concept of points of view. In my presentation a point of view is three element system [S,O,A] where an aspect A represents the object O to the subject S. I apply this concept to major forms of epistemological relativism: the relativity of truth, knowledge, ontology, and science. On the issue of rationality I ask for common core rationality, which supports comparison of different points of view. Viewpoint relativism is moderate relativism and it criticizes radical relativism, which is committed to equal validity of points of view. Lastly, I argued that a societal stance, called critical relativism can be based on viewpoint relativism. Its maxims are plurality, tolerance and criticality.
My book Viewpoint Relativism owns very much to discussion with Manuel Liz and Margarita Vázquez. Vázquez & Liz (2015) is so far the most comprehensive presentation of points of view and their application to diverse issues of philosophy, including relativism. Especially my concept of points of view is a derivative from their definition of points of view. Liz and Vázquez have risen the question about relationship of perspectivism and viewpoint relativism. Because my theory is against radical relativism and it shares the principles T1-T4, it might be classified as perspectivism, as they propose. I prefer to call my theory relativism, still, because I like to stress the problem of disagreements and strong incompatibility (see Hautamäki, 2022).
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 According to Boghossian (2006, p. 73), the core element of epistemic pluralism (i.e. relativism) is the existence of many different epistemic systems, but “no facts by virtue of which one of these systems is more correct and others”
 Compare Kusch (2019).
 I use here brackets […] to express that reference to points of view can vary from context to context.
 Cf. Carnap’s (1980) account of internal and external questions.
 In the book Viewpoint Relativism (2020), there is an exact definition for viewpoint-dependent notion of truth, based on viewpoint logic (cf. Hautamäki, 1983; Hautamäki, 2022). In this definition sentences are interpreted in relation to possible worlds and their aspects. A point of view picks up an aspect in all worlds. Cf. Hales (2006).
 For relativism it is important to stress that the meaning of a sentence could be the same in different contexts, against contextualism (cf. MacFarlane, 2014). Then we can have genuine disagreements based on different points of view (contexts).
 See the discussion of objectivity and realism in Hautamäki (2020, Chapters 5.2 and 7.1).
 In my book Points of view and their logical analysis (1986, see also Hautamäki, 2016) I apply conceptual space theory and define a point of view to be a set of quality dimensions. From a point of view two entities are the same, when their value in each quality dimension is the same, like same color, same size etc. For conceptual space theory see Gärdenfors (2000).
 Cf. Putnam (1981, p. xi): “the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world.”
 Kusch (2016) makes a distinction between Question-Centered Exclusiveness and Practice-Centered Exclusiveness, corresponding our logical and practical disagreements.
 O’Grady (2002) defines core rationality by four principles: Non-contradiction, Coherence among beliefs, Non-avoidance of available evidence, and Intellectual honesty.
 Note alternative facts, hate speech, misinformation, even accepting lies etc.; cf. McIntyre (2018).