SORITES, ISSN 1135-1349

Issue #14 -- October 2002. Pp. 36-41

Copyright © by SORITES and William Ferraiolo

A Dilemma for Robust Alethic Relativism

William Ferraiolo


The robust alethic relativist claims that no truth bearer is objectively true. The most we can ever say of any truth bearer (statement, belief, proposition, etc.) is that it is true relative to some conceptual framework, worldview, situation, or other parameter. The most we can ever say of any truth bearer, according to the robust alethic relativist, is that it is true-for-X. In this paper, I will argue that robust alethic relativism is entirely untenable, as it is either a self-refuting thesis, or it must degenerate into something that cannot coherently serve as a theory of truth (or anything else) at all. I hope to show that Socrates understood this difficulty for the thoroughgoing relativist, and that his objection against this thesis is more compelling than has been recognized.

Socrates and Protagoras

Socrates was, perhaps, the first to charge the doctrine of robust alethic relativism with self-refutation (i.e. in order that it be true, it must be false). His charge is offered in response to Protagoras' (alleged) assertion that «man is the measure of all things -- alike of the being of things that are and of the not-being of things that are not» (Theaetetus 152a). This assertion was interpreted (by Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle) as an expression of Protagoras' commitment to a thoroughgoing relativism about truth. Plato's Theaetetus (152a-171d) shows his argument against Protagoras proceeding as follows:

  1. You hold that what seems to me to be true is true for me, and that what seems to you to be true is true for you.

  2. I believe that doctrine to be false (i.e. it seems false to me).

  3. If the doctrine you have put forward is true, then it must be false (because it seems so to me and what seems so to me is so).

  4. Hence, your doctrine cannot be true -- it is self-refuting.

Of course, the standard charge against Socrates' objection to Protagoreanism is that it crucially ignores the relativization of truth to the individual. Protagoras (so the counterobjection goes) claims that relativism is true for him. He is also committed to the thesis that if Socrates does not believe it, then it is not true for Socrates. Thus far we have neither self-refutation nor any contradiction. Relativism is true for Protagoras and it is not true for Socrates (Trp & ~Trs). This does not amount to relativism being both true and not true in the same respect, but merely to its being true relative to one individual and not true relative to another. Socrates' objection, therefore, misses the mark because it illicitly assumes the objectivist's account of truth in generating the alleged paradox or self-refutation. In short, the objection begs the question against Protagoras.

Jack Meiland has noted Plato's (or Socrates') apparent failure to see the role of the relativizing locution «true for...» in the Protagorean doctrine:

      Plato's own attempt, in the Theaetetus to show Protagorean relativism to be self-refuting appears to be radically defective due to Plato's dropping of the relativistic qualifier (the «for me» in «true for me») at crucial points. (Meiland, 1979: p. 54)

A number of other authors have expressed similar concerns about the Socratic charge of self-refutation (see, for example, Jordan, 1971; Swoyer, 1982). But can a theory about the nature of truth be, itself, true or false only relatively to some parameter or other? We must note that Socrates challenges Protagoras (albeit in absentia) to defend the viability of the Protagorean doctrine itself, and not just its application to some arbitrary truth-bearer. Socrates does not choose just any proposition to make the case that it must be false in order that it be true given relativism; he makes that case against Protagoras' articulation of relativism itself. The robust relativist's thesis is supposed to range over all truth bearers. Can Protagoras' rejection of objective truth be true only relatively? Can Socrates' claim that there are objective truths be only relatively true?

The Socratic Dilemma

Socrates' charge is essentially in the form of a dilemma, one horn of which branches into a subsidiary dilemma. The overarching dilemma is as follows:

D: Either the doctrine of alethic relativism is objectively true (in which case it is self-refuting) or it is only relatively true.

Socrates also saw that if Protagoras were to opt for the second disjunct (as, apparently, he must), he would get caught in the following subsidiary dilemma:

DS: Either the concept of relative truth depends ineliminably upon the existence of some objective truth(s) (and so is, as before, self-refuting) or it collapses into a triviality about beliefs.

Before explicating this double dilemma, it is worth pointing out that, pace Meiland (et. al), Socrates appears to be fully aware that Protagoras means to assert only the relative truth, or truth-for-X, of that which is believed by X, or of that which seems to be so to X. In fact, Socrates carefully constructs his dilemma so that he will not be guilty of begging the question against Protagoras:

       No, he [Protagoras] will say, show a more generous spirit by attacking what I actually say, and prove, if you can, that we have not, each one of us, his peculiar perceptions, or that, granting them to be peculiar, it would not follow that what appears to each becomes -- or is, if we may use the word «is» -- for him alone to whom it appears...For I do indeed assert that the truth is as I have written. Each one of us is a measure of what is and of what is not, but there is all the difference in the world between one man and another just in the very fact that what is and appears to one is different from what is and appears to the other. (Theaetetus: 166c-d -- emphasis added)

Socrates seems to have developed his objection with the proper understanding of Protagoreanism in mind.

If the robust alethic relativist is to defend his thesis, then he must do so in (broadly speaking) one of two ways. He must make the case either that the relativistic thesis is true simpliciter (i.e. objectively true), or that the thesis is true in the relative sense. Obviously, the first disjunct is unacceptable to the robust relativist as it involves the affirmation of a non-relative truth (of which, ex hypothesi, there are none). It must be that the robust relativist means to defend the relative truth (the truth-for-X, replacing X with whatever relativistic parameter you will) of the relativistic thesis. But what exactly would the relative truth of the claim that there are no objective truths amount to? Is there any account of relative truth upon which a defense of robust alethic relativism may be founded?

The Second Branch of the Socratic Dilemma

The relativist must be operating with some account of truth-for-X that does not rest upon, or ineliminably involve any notion of objective truth (to which the robust alethic relativist is not entitled). Neither can the relativistic account of truth amount to some simple epistemic property of the parameter to which truth is relativized. If truth is relativized to individuals (as Protagoras apparently suggests), the truth-for-X of any given truth bearer must amount to something other than the mere fact that X believes the truth bearer in question to be true. If «S is true-for-X» amounts to no more than «X believes S,» then the relativistic notion of truth is entirely uninteresting. Any truth bearer's truth-for-X is a trivial entailment of its being believed by X. Given such an «account of truth,» there can be no dispute and no productive discourse about the superiority of relativism as opposed to any «competing» theory of truth. If whatever anyone believes thereby becomes true-for-her, then the issue cannot even be joined by theorists in opposing camps. Indeed, there can be no opposing camps. There can be no dispute about anything, nor is it possible for anyone to ever have a false belief. If you believe it, it's true-for-you (and true-for-you is as true as it gets). What then is Protagoras, or any robust alethic relativist, doing advocating this doctrine and rejecting other theories of truth? Aren't they all equally true-for-whomever-believes-them?

Socrates is aware of the difficulties that Protagoras faces in attempting to defend the relative truth of relativism if the doctrine's «relative truth» means no more than its being believed by some cognizer:

      ...if, just as no one is to be a better judge of what another experiences, so no one is better entitled to consider whether what another thinks is true or false, and, as we have said more than once, every man is to have his own beliefs for himself alone and they are all right and true -- then, my friend, where is the wisdom of Protagoras, to justify his setting up to teach others and to be handsomely paid for it, and where is our comparative ignorance or the need for us to go and sit at his feet, when each of us is himself the measure of his own wisdom...for to set about overhauling and testing one another's notions and opinions when those of each and every one are right, is a tedious and monstrous display of folly if the Truth of Protagoras is really truthful and not amusing herself with oracles delivered from the unapproachable shrine of his book (Theaetetus: 161d-162a)

Socrates is getting at a fundamental problem for the robust alethic relativist. If relative truth is not just, at root, the same thing as objective truth, then it had better not end up being tantamount to mere belief. What does it mean to say that one theory of truth (e.g. relativism) is, in any interesting sense, superior to another if the «truth» of the matter is simply determined for each disputant by virtue of that disputant's particular beliefs?

Furthermore (and more importantly), the relativist who defends such a doctrine is not offering a coherent theory of truth at all, but is merely articulating a triviality about beliefs. The relativist asserts:

R: Whatever X believes is true-for-X.

But if being «true-for-X» amounts to no more than being believed by X, or seeming so to X, then R (upon analysis) amounts to:

R': Whatever X believes is believed by X.

Obviously, R' is a trivial and uninteresting claim. It is hardly a theory of truth (or of anything else for that matter). This type of «relativism» no longer entails the assertion of any relative truth at all. This type of «relativism» is not relativism! The relativist, therefore, owes an account of true-for-X that is neither the trivial, uninteresting «thesis» R', nor involves the objectivist notion of truth simpliciter. Is there any such account to be given?

Impaled On The Final Horn

What, within the just-mentioned parameters, can «true-for-X» mean? What is there «between» objective truth and mere belief? Meiland mentions a solution that is fairly well representative of attempts to find a middle ground. Relativists, Meiland suggests, must add a third term to the truth relation. Standard «objective» truth is a two-term relation between statements (or other truth bearers) and the world. On the objectivist interpretation, a statement is true if and only if there is some objective fact to which the statement is appropriately related (by, for example, correspondence -- however, exactly, that relation is to be understood). Put simply, objectivist truth is a word-world relation. Relative truth is, by contrast, a three-term relation involving statements, the world, and something like a conceptual framework or worldview as its relata. Meiland's explicit characterization of these competing conceptions of truth is as follows:

  1. The concept of absolute truth seems to be a concept of a two-term relation between statements (or perhaps propositions) on the one hand and facts (or states of affairs) on the other. But the concept of relative truth, as used by some relativists, seems to be a concept of a three-term relation between statements, the world, and a third term which is either persons, world views, or historical and cultural situations.

  2. The relation denoted by the expression `absolute truth' is often said to be that of correspondence. The relativist can make use of the type of notion and say that «P is true relative to W» means something like «P corresponds to the facts from the point of view of W» (where W is a person, a set of leading principles, a world view, or a situation). (Meiland, 1977: p. 571)

What we have here is, essentially, a correspondence relation that obtains between, not a statement and the world, but rather a statement and some world version («the facts from the point of view of W»).

Harvey Siegel correctly points out that Meiland is still really just offering a two-term evaluation of truth, and then dismisses the account on the grounds that it must either co-opt an objectivist conception of truth or else it will fail to be anything more than truth-in-virtue-of-so-seeming (Siegel, 1986; pp. 234-240). In effect, Siegel's charge is that Meiland's account fails to prevent «relative truth» from collapsing into mere belief if truth-for-X is not just a pseudonym for truth simpliciter. If world versions are the truth-makers, and world versions are just constructs, unrestrained by objective truths (which, according to the robust alethic relativist, do not exist), then we are left with a more complex version of truth-in-virtue-of-so-seeming.

First, as Siegel points out, Meiland's truth relation holds between statements and the world-as-construed-by-X. True-for-X is just a two-term relation between words and world versions:

On the relativist conception, the world is not distinguishable from the third relata (either persons, world views, or historical and cultural situations). What are related by the alleged three-term relation are statements and the-world-relative-to-W (where W is a person, a set of leading principles, a world view, or a situation -- in short, where W is the third relata). On the relativist conception, the world cannot be conceived as independent of W; if it is so conceived, the relativist conception collapses into an absolutist one, for it is granted that there is a way the world is, independent of statements and W's. This is precisely what the relativist must deny, however. So Meiland's three-term relation collapses into a two-term relation, between statements and the-world-relative-to-W...(Siegel, 1986, pp.234-5)

This point, in itself, is not terribly problematic for Meiland. Whether his truth relation involves two or three terms is an ancillary matter. In setting up world versions as truth-makers, however, Meiland lands back in the same predicament from which he sought to extract himself with his «three-term» conception of relativistic truth.

In the absence of a body of objective, invariant truths, there can be no constraint upon the world versions concocted by cognizers. The versions created need not (in fact, cannot) conform to pre-existing objective truths (as, according to the robust alethic relativist, there is no such thing). World versions are constructed in an alethic vacuum without external guidance or constraint. A world version is, therefore, as you like it. If the-way-that-things-seem-to-X, an unrestrained construct, serves as truth-maker for statements, then any statement is true-for-X so long as it seems so to X (or «fits in» with X's world version). This will be the case with any relativistic conception of truth that is not in any way grounded in, or constrained by, objective truth. Whether a statement (or other truth-bearer) is true-for-X will inevitably be a function of whether it fits in with the world-as-it-seems-to-X. But that just means that the statement is true-for-X if it seems so to X. So, again, we are left with a triviality about how things seem that is hardly distinguishable from R'.

There can be no legitimate dispute between the relativist and the objectivist if the relativist «defends» relativism by claiming that relativism «fits in» with her worldview. In fact, such a claim, as we have seen, cannot serve as the expression of a theory of truth at all. The robust alethic relativist, it would seem, can neither embrace objective truth nor offer a coherent account of relative truth that does not ineliminably involve some body of objective truth. If the onus of providing a viable alternative to objective truth (truth simpliciter) is on the relativist, then the original Socratic charge of self-refutation stands until some such alternative is concocted. But if the relativist's conception of truth is not ultimately constrained by objective truth, it degenerates into the aforementioned triviality.


Protagoras did not offer an adequate response to Socrates' charge in the Theaetetus -- he was dead, after all. It is not, moreover, clear that any robust alethic relativist can offer an adequate response. If truth makers are entirely unrestrained constructs, then they simply are however we believe them to be. Any set of truth-makers obtains for me so long as I believe it to. So, it is what I believe (or the way that things seem to me) that determines the «relative truth» of what I believe! The claim that I believe what I believe, or that things seem to me the way that they seem to me, is hardly a theory of truth. It is just an empty triviality. Socrates had Protagoras pegged, and I see little hope that the intellectual heirs to Protagoreanism will fare better than their patriarch in the horns of the Socratic dilemma.


William Ferraiolo
San Joaquin Delta College
5151 Pacific Ave.
Stockton, CA 95207. U.S.A.