Conference on the Coherence of Relativism

December 13, 2014
International Centre for Philosophy North Rhine-Westphalia

Poppelsdorfer Allee 28
Bonn 53115


  • Universität Bonn


Maria Baghramian
University College Dublin
Otávio Bueno
University of Miami
Catherine Elgin
Harvard University
Michael Forster
Universität Bonn
Markus Gabriel
Universität Bonn
Michael Krausz
Bryn Mawr College
Universitat de Barcelona
Alyssa Luboff
Grand Valley State University
Christopher Norris
University of Wales, Cardiff
Huw Price
Cambridge University
Dorothee Schmitt
Universität Bonn
Lionel Shapiro
University of Connecticut
David B. Wong
Duke University


Michael Forster
Universität Bonn
Alyssa Luboff
Grand Valley State University
Dorothee Schmitt
Universität Bonn

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Philosophy’s preoccupation with relativism dates back at least to Plato.  Despite the view’s long life, it is not usually endorsed, or even very carefully developed, by philosophers.  A primary concern with relativism is its coherence, whether the view can be formulated in a way that holds together, both logically and in practice.  Formally, this concern includes whether relativism is self-refuting, or whether the view commits some other type of logical fallacy (like self-exemption.)  Practically, the concern extends to whether the very act of endorsing relativism transcends the sort of constraints that define the view (for example, by asserting tolerance as a universal value, or by describing another framework that is supposed to be somehow inaccessible/inevaluable from our own.)  It also involves the worry that relativism does not allow us to oppose practices (like genocide) that we believe to be clearly wrong.

Despite such concerns, relativism has enjoyed popularity as a methodological, and often also theoretical, framework in many other disciplines, such as literary theory, history, anthropology and sociology.  Over the last 100 years, developments in mathematics and physics, such as the discovery of non-Euclidian geometries and the observer dependence of relativity theory and of quantum theory, have encouraged some to reconsider relativism.  New developments in formal semantics, by John MacFarlane and others, have also brought relativism back into prominence.  Perhaps even more importantly, relativism is a view that we confront in our daily lives, as the forces of globalization bring people with very different practices and beliefs into frequent and direct contact with each other.

This conference gathers a wide range of philosophers representing a variety of viewpoints, including those who are opposed to, sympathetic to and ambivalent about relativism, to develop a fruitful conversation about the coherence of relativism, both at a formal level and in a more social context.  It aims to understand with greater sophistication the possibilities, variations and limitations of a view that has long been on the philosophical horizon but is perhaps now more relevant than ever.

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