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Relativism about Truth

Edited by Jonny McIntosh (University College London, Oxford University)
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Summary Philosophers have often claimed that truth is in some way relative. However, whether such a claim is coherent, and if so, how exactly it should be understood, is a matter of some controversy. To a first approximation, the idea is that the bearers of truth (e.g. propositions, utterances, sentences-in-context) may be true relative to some parameter and not others. Contemporary debate, informed by work in formal semantics, often focusses on attempts to motivate some form of relativism about truth by appeal to particular linguistic phenomena, like predicates of personal taste, epistemic modals, and future contingents.
Key works Contemporary debate generally focusses on proposals formulated within frameworks arising out of work by David Kaplan (1977) and David Lewis (1980). John MacFarlane's work, arguing for what he calls assessment sensitivity, is central. See his 2003 and 2007, for example. Other key contributions include, on the pro-relativist side, Lasersohn 2005Stephenson 2007, and Egan et al 2005, and, on the anti-relativist side, Cappelen & Hawthorne 2009. One worry that is sometimes raised about relativism is that it makes language somehow impossible. One influential version of the worry is raised in Evans 1985. MacFarlane responds in various places, including his 2003. Arguably, the worry can be traced to Plato, and his discussion of Protagorean relativism in the Theaetetus. For a classic discussion of this, see Burnyeat 1976
Introductions MacFarlane 2012
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  1. Alexander Almér & Dag Westerståhl (2010). Review of Relativism and Monadic Truth. [REVIEW] Linguistics and Philosophy 33 (1):37-50.
    This is a review of Herman Cappelen and John Hawthorne’s book Relativism and Monadic Truth (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009).
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  2. N. Ángel Pinillos (2011). Time Dilation, Context, and Relative Truth. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 82 (1):65-92.
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  3. M. Baghramian (2010). 'Relativism: A Brief History. In Michael Kausz (ed.), Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology. Columbia University Press
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  4. Maria Baghramian & Richard Hamilton (2011). Relativism 'and the Norm of Truth. Trópoand; RIVISTA DI ERMENEUTICA E CRITICA FILOSOFICA (3):33-51.
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  5. Carl Baker, The Limits of Faultless Disagreement.
    Some have argued that the possibility of faultless disagreement gives relativist semantic theories an important explanatory advantage over their absolutist and contextualist rivals. Here I combat this argument, focusing on the specific case of aesthetic discourse. My argument has two stages. First, I argue that while relativists may be able to account for the possibility of faultless aesthetic disagreement, they nevertheless face difficulty in accounting for the intuitive limits of faultless disagreement. Second, I develop a new non-relativist theory which can (...)
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  6. Carl Baker (2013). The Role of Disagreement in Semantic Theory. Australasian Journal of Philosophy (1):1-18.
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  7. Brian Ball (2010). Relativism and Monadic Truth. [REVIEW] Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 13.
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  8. Stephen J. Barker (2010). Cognitive Expressivism, Faultless Disagreement, and Absolute but Non-Objective Truth. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 110 (2pt2):183-199.
    I offer a new theory of faultless disagreement, according to which truth is absolute (non-relative) but can still be non-objective. What's relative is truth-aptness: a sentence like ‘Vegemite is tasty’ (V) can be truth-accessible and bivalent in one context but not in another. Within a context in which V fails to be bivalent, we can affirm that there is no issue of truth or falsity about V, still disputants, affirming and denying V, were not at fault, since, in their context (...)
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  9. Julien Beillard (2010). Appearance of Faultless Disagreement. Dialogue 49 (4):603-616.
    A common argument for relativism invokes the appearance of faultless disagreement. I contend that the appearance is possible only under conditions that disqualify it as evidence: gross ignorance or irrationality, or else a prior commitment to an especially crude and implausible form of relativism.
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  10. Alexandre Billon (2011). My Own Truth ---Pathologies of Self-Reference and Relative Truth. In Rahman Shahid, Primiero Giuseppe & Marion Mathieu (eds.), Logic, Epistemology, and the Unity of Science, Vol. 23. Springer
    emantic pathologies of self-reference include the Liar (‘this sentence is false’), the Truth-Teller (‘this sentence is true’) and the Open Pair (‘the neighbouring sentence is false’ ‘the neighbouring sentence is false’). Although they seem like perfectly meaningful declarative sentences, truth value assignment to their uses seems either inconsistent (the Liar) or arbitrary (the Truth-Teller and the Open-Pair). These pathologies thus call for a resolution. I propose such a resolution in terms of relative-truth: the truth value of a pathological sentence use (...)
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  11. Gunnar Björnsson & Alexander Almér (2010). The Pragmatics of Insensitive Assessments: Understanding The Relativity of Assessments of Judgments of Personal Taste, Epistemic Modals, and More. In Barbara H. Partee, Michael Glanzberg & Jurģis Šķilters (eds.), The Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic and Communication. 1-45.
    In assessing the veridicality of utterances, we normally seem to assess the satisfaction of conditions that the speaker had been concerned to get right in making the utterance. However, the debate about assessor-relativism about epistemic modals, predicates of taste, gradable adjectives and conditionals has been largely driven by cases in which seemingly felicitous assessments of utterances are insensitive to aspects of the context of utterance that were highly relevant to the speaker’s choice of words. In this paper, we offer an (...)
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  12. Gunnar Björnsson & Alexander Almér (2009). Contextualism, Assessor Relativism, and Insensitive Assessments. Logique Et Analyse 52 (208):363-372.
    Recently, contextualism about epistemic modals and predicates of taste have come under fire from advocates of assessment relativistic analyses. Contextualism, they have argued, fails to account for what we call "felicitous insensitive assessments". In this paper, we provide one hitherto overlooked way in which contextualists can embrace the phenomenon by slightly modifying an assumption that has remained in the background in most of the debate over contextualism and relativism. Finally, we briefly argue that the resulting contextualist account is at least (...)
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  13. Berit Brogaard, Perspectival Truth and Color Perception.
    Perspectivalism is a semantic theory according to which the contents of utterances and mental states (perhaps of a particular kind) have a truth-value only relative to a particular perspective (or standard) determined by the context of the speaker or bearer of the mental state. I have defended this view for epistemic terms, moral terms and predicates of personal taste elsewhere (Brogaard 2008a, 2008b, forthcoming). The main aim of this paper is to defend perspectivalism about color perception and color discourse. The (...)
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  14. Berit Brogaard (2010). Perspectival Truth and Color Primitivism. In Cory D. Wright & Nikolaj J. L. L. Pedersen (eds.), New Waves in Truth. Palgrave Macmillan
    Perspectivalism is a semantic theory according to which the contents of utterances and mental states (perhaps of a particular kind) have a truth-value only relative to a particular perspective (or standard) determined by the context of the speaker, assessor, or bearer of the mental state. I have defended this view for epistemic terms, moral terms and predicates of personal taste elsewhere (Brogaard 2008a, 2008b, forthcoming a). The main aim of this paper is to defend perspectivalism about color perception and color (...)
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  15. Berit Brogaard (2009). Introduction to Relative Truth. Synthese 166 (2):215--229.
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  16. Berit Brogaard (2009). Perceptual Content and Monadic Truth: On Cappelen and Hawthorne's Relativism and Monadic Truth. Philosophical Books 50 (4):213-226.
    I will begin with a brief presentation of C & H’s arguments against nonindexical contextualism, temporalism, and relativism. I will then offer a general argument against the monadic truth package. Finally, I will offer arguments in favor of nonindexical contextualism and temporalism.
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  17. Berit Brogaard (2008). Sea Battle Semantics. Philosophical Quarterly 58 (231):326–335.
    The assumption that the future is open makes well known problems for traditional semantics. According to a commonly held intuition, today's occurrence of the sentence 'There will be a sea battle tomorrow', while truth-valueless today, will have a determinate truth-value by tomorrow night. Yet given traditional semantics, sentences that are truth-valueless now cannot later 'become' true. Relativistic semantics has been claimed to do a better job of accommodating intuitions about future contingents than non-relativistic semantics does. However, intuitions about future contingents (...)
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  18. Berit Brogaard (2008). Moral Contextualism and Moral Relativism. Philosophical Quarterly 58 (232):385 - 409.
    Moral relativism provides a compelling explanation of linguistic data involving ordinary moral expressions like 'right' and 'wrong'. But it is a very radical view. Because relativism relativizes sentence truth to contexts of assessment it forces us to revise standard linguistic theory. If, however, no competing theory explains all of the evidence, perhaps it is time for a paradigm shift. However, I argue that a version of moral contextualism can account for the same data as relativism without relativizing sentence truth to (...)
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  19. Jessica Brown & Herman Cappelen (eds.) (2011). Assertion: New Philosophical Essays. Oxford University Press.
    Assertion is a fundamental feature of language. This volume will be the place to look for anyone interested in current work on the topic.
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  20. Anthony Brueckner (1998). Conceptual Relativism. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 79 (4):295–301.
    What is conceptual relativism? Several formulations of the idea that truth, or existence, is somehow relative to conceptual schemes are considered. All are found lacking.
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  21. F. A. I. Buekens (2009). Faultless Disagreement and Self-Expression. In Jesus M. Larrazabal & Larraitz Zubeldia (eds.), Meaning, Content and Argument. University of the Basque Country Press 249--267.
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  22. Heidi Teres Buetow, Taste Disagreements and Predicates of Personal Taste.
    In my dissertation, I explore the role of taste disagreements in the debate about the semantics of predicates of personal taste. Linguistic data derived from examples of gustatory disagreement often plays a major role in deciding the correct semantics of taste. I claim that, contrary to the trend in the recent literature, taste disagreements should not play any part in this debate. I argue that the data can be accommodated independently of the semantics by a theory of the purpose of (...)
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  23. Bernd Buldt, Review of "Ulrich Pardey, Frege on Absolute and Relative Truth". [REVIEW]
  24. M. F. Burnyeat (1976). Protagoras and Self-Refutation in Plato's Theaetetus. Philosophical Review 85 (2):172-195.
  25. Richard Campbell (1992). Truth and Historicity. Oxford University Press.
    In this scholarly but non-technical book, Campbell elucidates the concept of truth by tracing its history, from the ancient Greek idea that truth is timeless, unchanging, and free from all relativism, through the seventeenth-century crisis which led to the collapse of that idea, and then on through the emergence of historical consciousness to the existentialist, sociological, and linguistic approaches of our own time. He gives a scholarly but vivid and economical exposition of the views of a remarkably wide range of (...)
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  26. Herman Cappelen (2008). Content Relativism and Semantic Blindness. In Manuel Garcia-Carpintero & Max Koelbel (eds.), Relative Truth. Oxford University Press 265-86.
    For some relativists some of the time the evidence for their view is a puzzling data pattern: On the one hand, there's evidence that the terms in question exhibit some kind of content stability across contexts. On the other hand, there's evidence that their contents vary from one context of use to another. The challenge is to reconcile these two sets of data. Truth relativists claim that their theory can do so better than contextualism and invariantism. Truth relativists, in effect, (...)
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  27. Herman Cappelen & John Hawthorne (2011). Reply to Glanzberg, Soames and Weatherson. [REVIEW] Analysis 71 (1):143-56.
    One of Weatherson's main goals is to drive home a methodological point: We shouldn't be looking for deductive arguments for or against relativism – we should instead be evaluating inductive arguments designed to show that either relativism or some alternative offers the best explanation of some data. Our focus in Chapter Two on diagnostics for shared content allegedly encourages the search for deductive arguments and so does more harm than good. We have no methodological slogan of our own to offer. (...)
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  28. Herman Cappelen & John Hawthorne (2011). Reply to Lasersohn, MacFarlane, and Richard. [REVIEW] Philosophical Studies 156 (3):417-419.
    Reply to Lasersohn, MacFarlane, and Richard.
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  29. Herman Cappelen & John Hawthorne (2009). Relativism and Monadic Truth. Oxford University Press.
    Relativism has dominated many intellectual circles, past and present, but the twentieth century saw it banished to the fringes of mainstream analytic philosophy. Of late, however, it is making something of a comeback within that loosely configured tradition, a comeback that attempts to capitalize on some important ideas in foundational semantics. Relativism and Monadic Truth aims not merely to combat analytic relativism but also to combat the foundational ideas in semantics that led to its revival. Doing so requires a proper (...)
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  30. Herman Cappelen & Torfinn Huvenes (forthcoming). Relative Truth. In Michael Glanzberg (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Truth. Oxford University Press
    An introduction to relativism about truth.
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  31. G. Carpintero & M. Koelbel (eds.) (2008). Relative Truth. Oxford University Press.
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  32. J. Adam Carter (2013). Disagreement, Relativism and Doxastic Revision. Erkenntnis (1):1-18.
    I investigate the implication of the truth-relativist’s alleged ‘faultless disagreements’ for issues in the epistemology of disagreement. A conclusion I draw is that the type of disagreement the truth-relativist claims (as a key advantage over the contextualist) to preserve fails in principle to be epistemically significant in the way we should expect disagreements to be in social-epistemic practice. In particular, the fact of faultless disagreement fails to ever play the epistemically significant role of making doxastic revision (at least sometimes) rationally (...)
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  33. Ramiro Caso (2014). Assertion and Relative Truth. Synthese 191 (6):1309-1325.
    An account of assertion along truth-relativistic lines is offered. The main lines of relativism about truth are laid out and the problematic features that assertion acquires in the presence of relative truth are identified. These features are the possibility of coherently formulating norms of assertion and the possibility of grounding a rational practice of assertion upon relative truth. A solution to these problems is provided by formulating norms for making and assessing assertions that employ a suitably relativized truth predicate and (...)
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  34. Mark Criley (2013). Cappelen, Content Relativism, and the “Creative Interpreter”. Southwest Philosophy Review 29 (1):211-219.
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  35. Marian David (1997). Review of F. Schmitt: Truth, A Primer. [REVIEW] Philosophical Review 106 (3):441-443.
  36. John K. Davis (2015). Faultless Disagreement, Cognitive Command, and Epistemic Peers. Synthese 192 (1):1-24.
    Relativism and contextualism are the most popular accounts of faultless disagreement, but Crispin Wright once argued for an account I call divergentism. According to divergentism, parties who possess all relevant information and use the same standards of assessment in the same context of utterance can disagree about the same proposition without either party being in epistemic fault, yet only one of them is right. This view is an alternative to relativism, indexical contextualism, and nonindexical contextualism, and has advantages over those (...)
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  37. Dan López de Sa (2015). Expressing Disagreement: A Presuppositional Indexical Contextualist Relativist Account. Erkenntnis 80 (1):153-165.
    Many domains, notably the one involving predicates of personal taste, present the phenomenon of apparent faultless disagreement. Contextualism is a characteristically moderate implementation of the relativistic attempt to endorse such appearances. According to an often-voiced objection, although it straightforwardly accounts for the faultlessness, contextualism fails to respect “facts about disagreement.” With many other recent contributors to the debate, I contend that the notion of disagreement—“genuine,” “real,” “substantive,” “robust” disagreement—is indeed very flexible, and in particular can be constituted by contrasting attitudes. (...)
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  38. Dan López de Sa (2009). Relativizing Utterance-Truth? Synthese 170 (1):1-5.
    In recent years, some people have held that a radical relativist position is defensible in some philosophically interesting cases, including future contingents, predicates of personal taste, evaluative predicates in general, epistemic modals, and knowledge attributions. The position is frequently characterized as denying that utterance-truth is absolute. I argue that this characterization is inappropriate, as it requires a metaphysical substantive contention with which moderate views as such need not be committed. Before this, I also offer a more basic, admittedly less exciting (...)
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  39. Dan López de Sa (2008). Presuppositions of Commonality: An Indexical Relativist Account of Disagreement. In G. Carpintero & M. Koelbel (eds.), Relative Truth. Oxford University Press
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  40. Lorenz Demey (2010). Herman Cappelen and John Hawthorne, Relativism and Monadic Truth. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009. Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 72 (1):173-174.
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  41. Ezio Di Nucci (2012). Knowing Future Contingents. Logos and Episteme 3 (1):43-50.
    This paper argues that we know the future by applying a recent solution of the problem of future contingents to knowledge attributions about the future. MacFarlane has put forward a version of assessment-context relativism that enables us to assign a truth value 'true' (or 'false') to future contingents such as There Will Be A Sea Battle Tomorrow. Here I argue that the same solution can be applied to knowledge attributions about the future by dismissing three disanalogies between the case of (...)
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  42. James Dreier (2009). Relativism (and Expressivism) and the Problem of Disagreement. Philosophical Perspectives 23 (1):79-110.
    Many philosophers, in different areas, are tempted by what variously goes under the name of Contextualism, Speaker Relativism, Indexical Relativism. (I’ll just use Indexical Relativism in this paper.) Thinking of certain problematic expressions as deriving their content from elements of the context of use solves some problems. But it faces some problems of its own, and in this paper I’m interested in one in particular, namely, the problem of disagreement. Two alternative theories, tempting for just the same kinds of expressions (...)
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  43. Rolf A. Eberle (1984). Logic with a Relative Truth Predicate and “That”-Terms. Synthese 59 (2):151 - 185.
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  44. Andy Egan (2014). There's Something Funny About Comedy: A Case Study in Faultless Disagreement. Erkenntnis 79 (1):73-100.
    Very often, different people, with different constitutions and comic sensibilities, will make divergent, conflicting judgments about the comic properties of a given person, object, or event, on account of those differences in their constitutions and comic sensibilities. And in many such cases, while we are inclined to say that their comic judgments are in conflict, we are not inclined to say that anybody is in error. The comic looks like a poster domain for the phenomenon of faultless disagreement. I argue (...)
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  45. Andy Egan (2007). Epistemic Modals, Relativism and Assertion. Philosophical Studies 133 (1):1--22.
    I think that there are good reasons to adopt a relativist semantics for epistemic modal claims such as ``the treasure might be under the palm tree'', according to which such utterances determine a truth value relative to something finer-grained than just a world (or a <world, time> pair). Anyone who is inclined to relativise truth to more than just worlds and times faces a problem about assertion. It's easy to be puzzled about just what purpose would be served by assertions (...)
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  46. Andy Egan, John Hawthorne & Brian Weatherson (2005). Epistemic Modals in Context. In G. Preyer & G. Peter (eds.), Contextualism in Philosophy. Oxford University Press 131-170.
    A very simple contextualist treatment of a sentence containing an epistemic modal, e.g. a might be F, is that it is true iff for all the contextually salient community knows, a is F. It is widely agreed that the simple theory will not work in some cases, but the counterexamples produced so far seem amenable to a more complicated contextualist theory. We argue, however, that no contextualist theory can capture the evaluations speakers naturally make of sentences containing epistemic modals. If (...)
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  47. Iris Einheuser (2012). Relativized Propositions and the Fregean Orthodoxy. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84 (3):590-603.
    This paper answer the question how propositions whose truth is relativized to times, places, asserters or assessers can, despite their relativity, be used to represent the world.
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  48. Iris Einheuser (2008). Three Forms of Truth-Relativism. In Manuel Garcia-Carpintero & Max Kölbel (eds.), Relative Truth. Oxford University Press 187-203.
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  49. FIlippo Ferarri & Dan Zeman (2014). Radical Relativism, Retraction and 'Being at Fault'. In Fabio Bacchini, Stefano Caputo & Massimo Dell'Utri (eds.), New Frontiers in Truth. Cambrige Scholars Publishing 80-102.
  50. William Ferraiolo (2002). A Dilemma For Robust Alethic Relativism. Sorites 14:36-41.
    Robust alethic relativism is the thesis that no truth bearer is objectively true or false. According to the robust alethic relativist, the most we can ever say of any truth bearer is that it is true or false relative to some conceptual framework, worldview, or other parameter . In this paper, I will argue that robust alethic relativism is either self-refuting, or an entirely trivial and uninteresting thesis that cannot coherently serve as a theory of truth. I hope to show (...)
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