Is Truth Relative?

By Paul Herrick


What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. –Ecclesiastes 1:9


Postmodern relativism often presents itself as an exciting, cutting-edge discovery about the nature of truth, but the currently popular view that truth is relative was first given philosophical expression in ancient Greece by the sophist Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490-420 B.C.), who opened his book On Truth with these famous words:

Man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.[1]

We are not certain exactly what Protagoras meant by this, for the rest of his book has been lost over the ages, but we can infer the likely meaning of his opening statement.  To begin with, what did Protagoras mean by the word measure? Suppose we go fishing and you claim that the fish you caught is bigger than the one I caught. How would we normally settle the matter? We would measure our fish. We would get out a ruler or a yardstick and we would place our fish next to it. That would indicate whose fish is really bigger. I might believe my fish is bigger, but once I compare it to the yardstick, I’ll give up my claim if I am honest (supposing my fish really is not bigger). Our wooden yardstick is a measure. Notice that the yardstick is independent of the things being measured: we measure the fish against it. And the resulting measurement indicates what we should believe about the fish. Most of us would naturally say that it gives us the truth about the fish—it tells us whose fish really is bigger. A measure is thus an independent standard, a criterion, which we refer to when trying to figure out what is truly the case.

Protagoras is usually understood to be claiming two things: (1) each of us is his or her own measure of truth, and (2) there is no “objective” fact of the matter existing independently of what we believe and against which our beliefs might be checked or measured. In short, there is no such thing as objective truth, no measure outside ourselves of how things really are, no “fact of the matter” that is the way things are whether we believe it or not. There is evidence that this was Protagoras’ view.

If Protagoras was right, we cannot get beyond our own perspective, via the use of reason or the senses or any other means, to the way things really are “in themselves,” independently of our perceptions. Rather, all we can ever know is the way things appear to us to be. The only standard of truth for you is the perceptions inside you, the perceptions “relative” to you, and the only standard of truth for me is the perceptions inside me, those “relative” to me, and so on. This view is often called “Protagorean relativism” in honor of its first known proponent. 

It would follow, if Protagoras was right, that if I believe that such and such is the case, then it is true for me that such and such is the case, and if you do not believe it, then it is false for you, and that is all there is to truth and falsity. There is no further “fact of the matter” or objective basis, existing independently of what we believe, that would be a measure against which our beliefs can be checked or tested. Your believing something to be true is all it takes to make it true for you, and my believing something to be false is all it takes to make it false for me, and so on. With no independent fact of the matter, with no objective basis to which our beliefs ought to correspond, no basis exists for saying to another person, “You are mistaken.”

Protagoras used the wind to illustrate his point. Suppose we are standing outside, and I say the wind seems cold, and you say it seems warm. Who is right? What is the correct answer? According to Protagoras, there is no way that the wind really is, apart from how it seems to be to you and how it seems to be to me. How it seems from your perspective is all you have, and how it seems from my perspective is all I have, and there’s nothing more there. So when you say it’s warm, and I say it’s cold, I don’t have a leg to stand on if I say you are wrong, and if you try to correct me, you don’t have a leg to stand on. I can’t correct you, and you can’t correct me. I can’t be wrong, and you can’t be wrong.

Many young college students today find the conclusion exciting: Each person is his own standard of truth, “of what is, and of what is not.” There is no higher authority or standpoint. If we were to try to get beyond the relativity of it all, to some so-called objective standpoint binding on all, we would find that we have nothing to stand on. We would land on nothing but air. 

One reason many are attracted to this ancient view today is that it seems to imply universal tolerance, and we all agree that tolerance is a good thing. For if Protagorean relativism is true or reflective of reality, then nobody is ever wrong about anything…and nobody deserves criticism or correction for anything they say, believe, or do.  Or so it seems. Another reason may be that the view seems empowering: it seems to make each of us the creator of his or her own truth.

The Case for Relativism

Some of the sophists provided reasoned arguments for relativism. Two observations recommend their theory of truth, they argued. First, sincere and reasonable persons disagree on important matters, and they never find a way to reach a resolution. Second, it often happens in public debate that one speaker makes a powerful case for a certain view, but then the next speaker makes an equally powerful case for the opposite view, and there seems to be no way to settle the matter. One explanation for these facts is that relativism is true. The argument would therefore that relativism is probably true because it is the only way to make sense of the existence of irresolvable differences of opinion.

But do these two observations justify relativism? From a strictly logical point of view, they do not. Take the first reason. Relativism does not logically follow from the fact that sincere and reasonable persons disagree on important matters and never find a way to reach a resolution. It may be that there is a way, but they have not found it yet. Or it may be that they just need to think harder.

The second reason for relativism is also problematic. Relativism does not logically follow from the fact that one speaker makes a powerful case for a certain view, but then the next speaker makes an equally powerful case for the opposite view, and there seems to be no objective way to settle the matter. Again, maybe there is a way, but the parties have not looked hard enough or far enough. Relativism is thus not the only way to make sense of seemingly irresolvable disagreement, nor is it obviously the most reasonable way. However, a lack of supporting evidence is not all that is wrong with Protagorean relativism. The relativist view appears to suffer from a fatal flaw first discovered over 2000 years ago.

Relativism’s Fatal Flaw

I shall now present a line of reasoning inspired by the arguments of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 B.C.), the greatest opponent of sophistic relativism. Let us suppose that in the company of others, the great Protagoras asserts the doctrine of relativism: Each person is the measure of his or her own truth; there is no objective standpoint above an individual’s truth on the basis of which an individual’s truth might be criticized or found to be in error. We may ask: “Do you mean that in a relativist way, Protagoras, or in a non-relativist way?” Suppose Protagoras replies, “Why, I mean it in a relativist way, of course.”

To this we may respond, “Then you are only claiming that is the way things seem to you; you are not saying that is the way things really are. And since you say that the way things seem to you is only true for you, it has no bearing on what anyone else should believe, does it? And if so, then there is nothing wrong with completely disregarding what you say! The way it seems only to you is certainly not binding or obligatory on anyone but you. Relativism may be your truth, but that does not make it my truth or anyone else’s.

Let us suppose Protagoras replies, “I see your point. I’ve changed my mind. When I say that each person is the measure of his or her own truth, I am claiming that that is the way truth really is whether you believe it or not. I am saying that truth really is relative and not objective.”  Now we must ask for clarification: “So you are claiming that the nonrelativists about truth are mistaken?” 

I imagine Protagoras would answer, “Yes, that is what I meant to say. Those who believe in objective or absolute truth are deluded; objective truth is an illusion; no such thing exists.”    

If that is what Protagoras means when he asserts the relativist view, then he contradicts himself, for the claim that the doctrine of relativism describes the way truth really is—is a nonrelative claim. It is a claim about how something really is in itself, apart from what we may or may not believe about it.  Interpreted in this way, Protagoras’ statement is thus a claim to nonrelative truth. But this implies that there is at least one nonrelative truth, namely, relativism, which in turn entails that the doctrine of Protagorean relativism is false (since not all truth is relative)! In short, Protagorean relativism cannot be stated without self-contradiction. To assert the doctrine is to contradict yourself!

Here is another way to put the point. If Protagoras claims that it really is the case that all truth is relative whether we believe it or not—that this is the way truth really is—then he is in effect claiming that the statement, “There is no objective truth,” is objectively true. Self-contradiction. This Socratic argument can be displayed compactly in the form of a logical dilemma:

  1. When Protagoras, or any relativist, asserts the doctrine of relativism in the company of others, he either means it in a relativist sense or in a nonrelativist sense.

  2. If he means it in a relativist sense, then what he says is strictly autobiographical and has no bearing on anyone else, and we can simply disregard his statement.

  3. If, on the other hand, he is saying that relativism describes the way truth really is in itself, then he is making a nonrelative claim, and his statement of relativism is self-contradictory.

  4. So Protagorean relativism is either irrelevant or self-contradictory.

  5. Either way, relativism has nothing at all to back it up. It is not “belief-worthy.”

Further Problems

Relativism has further problems. First of all, if Protagoras is right and truth really is relative, then how can he teach it to others? There seems to be a contradiction between relativism and teaching anyone anything. For real teaching is only possible if there is an objective fact that exists independently of the learner and that is something the learner can learn. But if truth really is relative, as Protagoras claimed, it would seem to follow that there is nothing one person could even possibly teach another person (because there is nothing outside the individual that can be learned). Yet Protagoras made his living as a teacher! Was his profession in logical conflict with his philosophy?

A related problem arises when we consider this question: How could an advocate of relativism get a nonrelativist to change his mind and come to believe in relativism? Protagoras said, “Relativism is true for me,” and his opponents, such as the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 B.C.), said, “Relativism is not true for me.” Doesn’t it follow that relativism was true for Protagoras and not true for Socrates and that that is the end of the matter? Isn’t it like you saying, “I like vanilla ice cream,” and I say, “I like chocolate”? Nothing more to be said. A relativist cannot point to independent evidence that suggests relativism is true and at the same time remain consistent, for he does not believe evidence independent of what we believe can be known. He certainly cannot argue that there is an independent basis for accepting relativism as true, a basis that the nonrelativist ought to agree to. Other than force or trickery, how could a relativist get a nonrelativist to change his mind and accept relativism?

It seems that a relativist could provide evidence for relativism only if he could show us that there is independent evidence that relativism is the correct account of truth. But what could independent evidence be, except an objective fact of the matter about the way truth really is, an objective fact that exists independently of whether or not people believe in relativism. Does the relativist believe in objective truth without knowing it?

Reason and Relativism

If one is a relativist, then what is the point of reasoning with other people? Some sophists offered a provocative answer: The point of reasoning with others is not to find objective truth, because it does not exist. Rather, they said, the point is to win the argument, in other words, to get your way. Victory is the goal of argument, not something called “Truth.” This denial of objective truth, by Protagoras and other Sophists, is one of the reasons Socrates challenged them. Socrates was convinced that there is such a thing as objective truth and that it can be found by thinking critically and honestly. He stood up and in so many words basically said to the Sophists: “Because you seek only ’victory’ in debate and not truth, you are prepared to use any means to get it, even dishonest and unjust means. By abandoning the pursuit of objective truth, you have lost your moral compass.” The great debate between Socrates and the Sophists is one of the most important episodes in the intellectual history of mankind.

The sophistic rejection of objective truth and their switch to victory as the goal of reasoning is one reason why the term sophistry today suggests intellectual dishonesty, deceit, and manipulation. A sophist today is someone willing to use unethical means to win an argument and attain power over others at any cost, even at the cost of truth and justice.

Why This Matters

Critical thinking is evaluating your beliefs and values on the basis of independent, rational, reality-based standards. This includes testing your beliefs—holding them up to independent standards to see if they “measure up.” But if (as the relativist claims) believing something to be true makes it true and if there is nothing more to the truth than that, then critical thinking is not only unnecessary (because nobody can be wrong about anything anyway), it is impossible (since no independent standards exist).  

It is ironic that many of the harshest critics of the Western tradition in the academic world today are postmodernist relativists who reject the notion of objective truth and the claim that reason--even when carefully employed by critical thinkers--can be a reliable guide to real truth. One wants to ask these individuals: When you criticize the Western tradition, are your claims truly descriptive of the way things really are? Or are your claims relative only to your own individual context? If these Socratic questions are asked in just the right way, perhaps the postmodern relativist will come to see that it is his intellectual tradition, rather than the tradition he criticizes, that rests on nothing but thin air.    

Paul Herrick

Professor of Philosophy, Shoreline Community College


[1] The sophists were professional teachers who crisscrossed Greece during the fifth century B.C., offering instruction in various academic subjects for a fee.