The Principle of Relativity and Philosophical Absolutism

Florian Znaniecki

ALMOST every one of the older philosophical systems strove for an absolute certain foundation, i.e., tried to establish beforehand some indubitable truth. It was considered the first task either to overcome scepticism or to attain a standpoint from which scepticism could be neglected. To-day the conditions of founding a philosophical system are different. If we do not wish to neglect wholly the fundamental problems and to accept as granted every assertion that is assumed, we also have to accomplish that first task, bequeathed by the older philosophy, but accomplish it in a somewhat different way.

The philosopher of to-day possesses a historical self-consciousness that his predecessors did not possess. He knows that his system is only one of the links of a historical development, like every system of his predecessors. Historical comparison teaches him that none of the great thinkers were able to find a final principle which could not be submitted to criticism, and that yet, on the other hand, the most fundamental criticism is never able to reveal definitively the erroneousness of a philosophical affirmation. The history of philosophical thought knows neither any indubitable truth nor any indubitable error. How can the philosopher of to-day hope to be able to find that final principle? Does he possess any particular evidence which would allow him to consider the standpoint of his philosophy as exceptional and to put it, with regard to its certainty, above all other standpoints?

There are, indeed, two kinds of philosophical systems which, notwithstanding the modern historical consciousness, still proceed on the assumption that they have found this exceptional standpoint. The first of these is irrationalism, which affirms that, having a basis more immediate and more comprehensible than the rationalism of the past, it occupies a privileged position; the

(151) second is that philosophy which believes that it has succeeded in rising above the past owing to the richness of material with which it deals,-the result of the extraordinary development of science during the last period of modern history.

But the irrationalistic position must be stated and its validity proved in rationalistic terms, and it loses thereby its exceptional character; furthermore, not one but many irrationalistic positions exist, which differ among themselves no less than the rationalistic ones. The fundamental data of irrationalism are defined by every thinker in a different way. In the second place, the richness of material that modern philosophy owes to the exceedingly rapid development of modern science proves to be a doubtful advantage. The development of science is not only the attainment of new truths, but it is also the acceleration of the process in the course of which old truths are replaced by new ones. The facts seem to remain; but, as they are conditioned by the point of view of the investigator, their permanence is only apparent: numerically the same fact is not the same if we consider it as the object of another theory or as the manifestation of another law. In this way not only is modern philosophy unable o find any foundation for absolute system-building in scientific results, but, on the contrary, its own relative character is reflected in the whole domain of knowledge. The unavoidable conclusion forces itself upon us that every truth is only a temporary and partial view of some artificially limited side of experience, that it is valuable only from the chosen position, on the ground of accepted assumptions. On the other hand, every error is also temporary and partial, because it is an error only in relation to some truth.

The same relativity which appears in the domain of knowledge can be asserted also in the domains of morality, art, religion, economics,-in these fields it was observed at an earlier period and more clearly demonstrated by means of historical and ethnological researches.

We adopt the term `value' for every thing which can undergo appreciation, which can be considered as positive or negative from any point of view. The following statement may then be

(152) adopted: A modern philosopher who has sufficient knowledge of the advancement of science and sufficient historical and ethnological data concerning morals, art, religion, economics, must admit, that all values are relative. This means, generally speaking, that no value is absolutely positive and none absolutely negative, but that each one can be positive under certain conditions, negative under certain others.

Thus enlarged, relativity becomes a general property of human values, and would seem to compel philosophy to extreme resignation. The relative character belonging to historical systems of philosophy cannot any longer be regarded as the result of the imperfection of methods, of the deficiency of material, or even of the weakness of human mind, but becomes a particular expression of some general features, immanent in the essence of every value.

But still the philosopher who believes in absolute truth can reasonably doubt the strength of our conclusion, since it has been drawn only from a consideration of a certain historical state of culture: although absolute truth was not discovered in the past, it is not sufficiently proved that it cannot be discovered in the future. Granting for the time being the validity of this presumption, our faith in the possibility just stated will nevertheless not have any concrete, practical importance. It cannot be said of any particular truth, that precisely this one is absolute,-at least so long as we do not find the criterion of its absoluteness in comparison with other truths; this criterion, being itself a truth, or, more generally, a value, requires a new criterion, etc. Practically we remain for ever in the same position: we can refuse to be relativists, but we can never become frankly absolutists on the ground of any definite theory.

But still more can be said. Every theory, if it does not consider itself the only knowledge existing, must admit that all knowledge is relative. A theory that considers other theories besides itself as existing, thereby occupies a standpoint concerning them. The occupation of this standpoint cannot consist merely in the acknowledgment of those theories as entirely true, because by being absolutely acknowledged by this theory, they would be

(153) reintegrated into it and would be its parts instead of being separate theories. So, if a theory occupies a standpoint concerning other theories, it submits them to criticism, i. e., it considers as erroneous at least some of the assertions which those other theories consider as true. From this moment however this theory is obliged to agree as a matter of fact that at least some assertions are considered in certain conditions as true, in other conditions as false. But then it is necessary to extend this admission to all assertions, whenever acknowledged as true, so far as the criterion of their truthfulness is the same as that of the assertions which were rejected. But the only final criteria of truth are its evidence, its objectivity and necessity (or the evidence, necessity and objectivity of its consequences, if we admit the pragmatic idea of truth), and every truth is acknowledged only when it presents itself with those characteristics. Therefore, if some theory were to be considered as absolute, it would have to point out that it possesses exceptional privileges among all other theories, that besides its own objectivity, evidence, and necessity, it gives also such guarantees of its truthfulness as no other theory can give; it would have to prove that it could never, under any conditions, be considered as false.[1]

Suppose, now, that philosophy, in spite of all, is unwilling to resign its claim to absolute validity-what will then be its task? Evidently, it must overcome, not scepticism, but this relativity which it finds around it and in itself ; it must create a new theory which will justify its exceptional rights to absoluteness, and warrant not only that it is true, but that under no conditions can it be considered as false. In this way philosophy would become the first absolute value. We say that such a theory would have to be created; for no theory that exists can show any exceptional rights to absoluteness, as none stands above all possible criticism : each existing theory can be opposed by others.

Now, we have established already one truth which can justify

(154) such claims and become a basis of such a theory: this truth is the assertion itself, that all values are relative. As soon as we acknowledge this assertion, which we call the philosophical principle of relativity, we admit the fundamental absolute principle, upon which we can build a system of relativism-the only absolute system possible.

Let us mention first of all, that a philosophical system has never yet been based upon the principle of relativity, and that such a system would therefore satisfy the above mentioned condition of novelty. The history of philosophy up to the present time shows either scepticism only or a partial relativism, in which the principle of relativity is not the final basis. Pure scepticism, as everybody knows, cannot be the basis of any system. As to partial relativism, its essence is, that some truths, not based upon the principle of relativity, are explicitly or implicitly acknowledged to be absolute, and are considered to be a constant condition of the relativeness of other truths and values in general. We find, for instance, a theory of this kind in all subjectivism that considers all values as relative with regard to the subject, but acknowledges as absolute truths regarding the existence of the subject, regarding its individual, social or transcendental character, regarding its acting in time or independently of time, regarding the laws of its action, its mutability or immutability, its relation to other subjects, to its environment, etc. Even in pragmatism, which claims to be a relativistic philosophy, there are many such fundamental truths concerning the nature of man and of the world, their reciprocal relation, human necessities arising from this relation, the character of consciousness and of knowledge, etc. It is only with reference to these truths that other truths are to be regarded as relative, i. e., the relativity of other truths depends upon the absoluteness of these. But it is easy to understand that there is no reason whatever to grant an exceptional importance to some truths in comparison with others, where there are not any exceptional proofs of their importance; in conformity with the same principle which causes all other values to be considered as relative, those truths which we have

(155) primarily accepted must also be relative. And further, as the relative character of all values depends upon the absoluteness of these fundamental truths, then, since the latter are not absolute, the former are not relative, and so forth. We are evidently traveling in a vicious circle; partial relativism destroys itself.

In order to avoid this circle, we must define more exactly the position of our radical relativism.

First of all, in the whole sphere of our experience and of our thinking nothing but values can be found. It is impossible for us to ascertain any entity (ens, subsiantia, natura, consciousness, life, or what else), which would be a basis of values, a condition of their positiveness or negativeness, existing per se and in se. No entity can be given or thought of otherwise than from a certain standpoint, as content of a certain truth. Suppose some entity given or thought of, not as content of any particular truth (besides which other truths are possible), but in itself ; the knowledge of it would be identical with it, would be no knowledge at all, but simply existence, of which we could not be aware, which we could not experiment with or think about. It is possible that something can be real, without being the content of our theoretical knowledge; but then it is immediately and in itself a value, a part of our practical, moral or aesthetical life.

We have already provisionally explained the principle of relativity, saying that every value is positive in some conditions, negative in others. But, as we see now, these conditions can be defined only through values and relations of values. The relativeness of a value means that the value is positive in relation to some values, negative in relation to other values. Asserting that all values are relative, we assert therefore, that all values are relative with regard to one another, or that there is no value, with regard to which others would be relative, and which itself would not be relative with regard to others. Now, as in the whole sphere of our experience and thinking we find only values, nothing can be ascertained that would not be a value, relative to other values.

The principle of relativity, formulated as above, is indeed a universal truth, extending to the totality of values. Suppose we

(156) meet some value (not this principle itself nor anything that is based on it) which will be positive in relation to all other values known and negative in relation to none, it will not yet be an absolute value, because we can always create a value in relation to which the first will prove negative-for instance, express an assertion contrary to the given one.

But is not the principle of relativity itself relative for the same reason? Can we not express an assertion disagreeing with it, which would make it relatively false?

Two assertions only could seemingly make this principle a relative error: the judgments `some values are absolute' and `all values are absolute.' But the first judgment itself is relative, it belongs to the sphere embraced by the principle of relativity. Standing on the ground of this principle, we can agree that any given values are absolute, but that this assertion is true only in relation to certain values, false in relation to others. The judgment ‘some values are absolute' will always be true from the standpoint of the acknowledged values themselves and in reference to them; it will be false in reference to and from the standpoint of some values other than the acknowledged ones. This judgment only seems to be opposed in form to the principle of relativity, owing to its inexact formulation; if we only deter-mine these values which are to be absolute, it will be evident that we can really acknowledge them as absolute so long as they are considered in themselves, apart from some other values. And the second judgment, `all values are relative' can have a double significance. If the term ‘all values' is used here with the same meaning as in the judgment `all values are relative,' i. e. all values that have the claim on absoluteness, that appear with objectivity, evidence and necessity, however much in disagreement with each other they may be, then the judgment `all values are absolute' has no significance whatever, unless we change the meaning of the term 'absolute ' so as to identify it in its consequences with the term `relative.' But if the term `all values' means `all values of some kind, some class, some system, etc.,' the judgment 'all values are absolute,' expressed in our termin-

(157) -ology, would be identical with the judgment `some values are absolute,' which we have considered above.[2]

Admitting therefore the supposition that an absolute system is possible, the principle of relativity, and that alone, could be its basis, because it is the only one that is not relative with regard to any other value. We have now to examine whether a system of philosophy could indeed be based successfully upon this principle. It is evident that a philosophy which wishes to be absolute cannot go beyond the limits of this principle, as it is the only absolute truth that can be attained at first. This means that the general relativeness of values itself must be the subject-matter of such a philosophy.

In the first place, we emphasize that it would not be a suitable conception of the task of philosophy, as a theory of general relativeness, if we should simply remove the positiveness or negativeness of values, explaining them, for example, causally, as empirically given facts of psychophysical, psychological or social nature. It is absurd for philosophy to define any truth, any good or beauty, as the result of the natural organization of the individual, of the economical needs of society, of the adaptation of living beings to their material environment, etc. As we have said already, in accepting Nature-material, psychical, or social-philosophy admits at the same time a whole series of values as absolute, and this leads to a partial relativism. Moreover, definitions of this kind do not concern the true, the good, or the beautiful, but only the fact that in the individual or the social consciousness there occurs some phenomenon (some feeling, desiring, thinking) which combines itself with some other phenomenon, some sentence, some more or less compound movement,

(158) some material product of the artist's work, etc. These phenomena are objectively given to the investigator, who analyses them all; they are considered as natural facts and, as such, they have to be devoid of any element of valuation (although they are values when considered as subject-matter of some truths). It is evident that their combination also will be nothing more than a compound natural fact, given also to the investigator. But it is no less evident that this fact cannot be equivalent to truth, goodness or beauty, which are given not to the investigator, but to the investigated individual or society. Moreover, those facts, as subject-matter of truth, belong them-selves to a particular theoretical system which is itself a small part of the world of values that it claims to express. Such a naturalistic system gives therefore only some scheme of this world, one of many schemes possible, and it is itself necessarily relative. We do not deny the usefulness of such schemes in particular sciences, but we do deny it in philosophy. The relations among natural facts are quite different from the relations among values, as they are properly speaking only the relations among the values of some particular order, i. e., of some system of knowledge; a philosophy which tries to explain values as facts deprives itself thereby of the possibility of under-standing in general the relations among values as values.

Philosophy must, then, begin by taking every value just as it is, with the whole objectivity of its meaning and its full claim to validity, but not in its subjective counterpart. The truth is a truth about something, not a proposition in which someone some-where believes; the moral norm is an effective norm of the positiveness of conduct, not a social rule or custom which someone somewhere observes; a beautiful picture is a beautiful picture with some content and some meaning, but not a combination of colors on canvas, awakening somewhere in somebody definite associations of ideas and the feeling of admiration.

But, since values are relative with regard to one another, if a certain value is positive, this means that it is in relation with such values in regard to which it possesses precisely the character

(159) of positiveness. And, because in conformity with the principle of relativity every value can be positive in some relations, it means that for every value there is such a group of values, with regard to which it is positive. If we call this group the sphere of validity of the value, we can state briefly that every value has its own sphere of validity. For every assertion there are limits within which it is positive, there are some other assertions, more or less numerous, in relation to which it is true. The same applies to moral and aesthetical values. A value is negative only if it is taken outside of its sphere of validity, in relation to some values which do not belong to this sphere. For example, the assertion that the sum of angles in a triangle is equal to two right angles, is true in the Euclidean geometry, false in other geometries, as that of Riemann or Lobatschewsky; duelling is a positive moral value in the morality of honor, and would be negative in the system of Buddhist morality; a picture of Cimabue was positively appreciated in the pre-Raphaelite period and evaluated negatively from the standpoint of the barocco.

Now, what kind of relation exists between the appreciated value on one hand and the group of values serving as a basis for its appreciation on the other? Is this relation accidental and changeable, or necessary and stable?

A simple consideration will allow us to answer this question. If that relation were accidental and changeable, there would be no objective values independent of the ever changing stream of individual and social life; every moment would bring with it new appreciations of the same values, and each appreciation would be equally justified, equally important. But really there exist standards of values, or better, standards of appreciation; and individual and social appreciations, as matters of fact, strive to approach to those standards. The latter, indeed, are not im-posed as absolute, only as relative appreciations, but they are imposed unconditionally. We are not obliged to admit the geometry of Euclid rather than that of Riemann (unless perhaps because of some external reason of the conformity of the former with other practical and theoretical necessities) ; but when we accept the axioms and postulate of Euclid we are indeed compelled to

(160) accept his other theorems, after having understood their relation to the admitted premises. The acceptance of the morality of honor is the result of some circumstances which seem accidental, as the fact of being born and educated in a certain social environment; but this morality, once accepted, necessitates the agreement of duelling; or-another example-we are not bound to be Christians, but if we agree with the Christian moral foundation, we cannot help acknowledging any particular precept, such as that of repairing the wrongs which we have inflicted or of repaying evil with good. In the same manner, the admiration granted to any particular style of art is not in any way obligatory in itself, but it implies necessarily the acknowledgment of the standard works of this style.

But here we meet naturalism again. There are, indeed, two kinds of necessary and stable relations. The first is a necessity of fact: a given cause is necessarily followed by a definite effect. The second is a necessity of rule: when certain premises are given we are obliged to come to a definite conclusion. Which of these necessities is to be found in the relation among values?

In the causal relation every concrete fact occurring in the life of an individual and a society is the combined result of all the facts that occurred up to this moment in the course of their respective lives; moreover, all the facts which occurred in the external world and conditioned the psychophysical organization of this individual or of the members of this society have an indirect or direct influence upon this one concrete fact. Thus every appreciation from this point of view is the direct expression of the individual's personality or of the society's culture, and the indirect expression of the whole past of the world. If on the ground of this supposition any objectivity of values could be attained, it would be merely an identity of appreciation, resulting from identical organizations and situations of many individuals or groups; `objective' would mean only `average.'It is evident, therefore, that the relation among values cannot be of this kind.

But still other arguments may be advanced. The appreciation

(161) of any value does not depend upon other values independently of their quality, but upon groups of values of a particular species. A truth does not depend upon moral or artistic considerations, but upon other truths, and particularly upon a certain part of them: a mathematical truth upon mathematics, a historical one upon history and, perhaps, on sociology or psychology, etc. In the same way, a moral act or a moral rule is appreciated in relation to other acts or rules, a work of art in relation to other works of art. Perhaps among these groups there are other relations still to be discovered, but that is another question. Immediately, the positiveness or negativeness of a value is always the expression of its appreciation within a group of values of some particular quality.

Moreover, the group of values upon which the appreciation of some value is based is not limited to the sphere of experience of any individual, or to the sphere of culture of any social group. A truth is related to the totality of the science to which it belongs, and not merely to that part of the science which constitutes the amount of learning of any particular individual or group; only thus can assertions be controlled and criticized.

Furthermore, the necessity of a causal relation is not identical with the necessity of a relation among values: the former is external to the given situation, exists only for an observer; the latter is internal, exists for the subject itself who experiences the appreciation. We are not aware that any one of our appreciations is necessitated by our past history or by our personal character; we may come perhaps to this conclusion, but only after a few very complicated processes of reflexion, which must be preceded by the general if not explicit acknowledgment of the principle of causality in psychical life. On the contrary, the necessity of accepting a conclusion from given premises, of admitting a moral rule when some other rules are admitted, of evaluating positively some chef d'oeuvre of a style which we appreciate-this necessity is felt and acknowledged by us immediately as such. In the first case, the appreciating subject must stand at the point of view of the observer; in the second, the

(162) observer, in order to understand the necessity, must occupy the standpoint of the appreciating subject.

But we are told that the necessity of relation among values is an illusion, which can be causally explained. Well, then the validity of this explanation is an illusion itself: there could be no necessity of fact if the necessity of rule did not exist. In affirming the existence of causality, in studying the causal relation of facts, we acknowledge and connect among themselves certain truths, and this acknowledgment and connection are already based upon some rules, they are the expression of some objective, necessary, and stable relations among truths.

We are, therefore, obliged to admit that these relations among values, which are the foundation of their positiveness or negativeness, possess a necessity of rules; on account of their general resemblance to the relation of premises to conclusion they may be termed logical.

In admitting such logical relations, we are not in any way untrue to the principle of relativity. Those relations were not given a parte ante as absolute logical values; they were not given at all before we reflected upon them, we had to do only with positive or negative values. Now these relations are given indeed, but a parte post, after one absolute principle-the principle of relativity-has been established; they are values, but as elements of our philosophical system. We can presume that they will prove absolute, i. e., that the truth we shall discover about them will be absolutely true, but our presumption will be justified only if we can construct with their help an absolute philosophy.

Now, a group of values, united by a logical relation in such a manner that every one of them is necessarily and objectively positive with regard to the group as a totality, is a system of values. As every positive value has its sphere of validity and every value can be positive, we conclude that every value belongs to some system, or systems.

A system, if we consider it in itself at any given moment, is a limited unity, independent of the individual or social course of life. Individuals and society can make any system their own, not by confounding it with other values, which belong to

(163) their own spheres of experience, but by becoming to a degree just this system. Indeed, we have established the fact that nothing can be ascertained except relative values; the contents of individual consciousness or of social culture are therefore constituted exclusively by values. Any system can become a part of individual or social life only on condition that the individual or the society shall actually realize in its sphere of experience those values and that connection among values which constitute this system; in other words, that a part of the individual's consciousness or the society's culture shall become this system.

Experience appears, therefore, as a plurality of systems of values, and each of those systems as internally connected in a logical manner, consequently as rational. But we must account for that part of the irrationality in experience which cannot be denied. There remains only one possible supposition: that there is no rational connection among the systems of values themselves. If the individual and social course of life appear as irrational—as they do indeed—it is because they are realizing, without order and incompletely, many different systems of values.

Moreover, any system is a limited logical unity only if taken in. itself, at a given moment of time. But new systems appear and old ones develop in the course of time. There is a new difficulty which makes it impossible to return to any former theory of rationalism; the rationality of experience, even so far as it can be ascertained, is a rationality of some order different from that to which we are accustomed ; it is not static and given once for all, but dynamic and becoming.

We can define now the conditions under which an absolute system of philosophy can be based upon the principle of relativity. The first task that imposes itself is a study of those relations by which values are connected in systems. Philosophy has to investigate the fundamental formal conditions of all system-building. As those conditions are at the same time the principles of positiveness and negativeness of values, philosophy partly rises above the general relativity in so far as its subject-matter is the foundation of this relativity itself. A small part of this

(164) task was accomplished by traditional logic, but it will be necessary to widen the domain of this science in order to comprehend all systems of values, and not merely theoretical systems of truths; moreover, the new logic ought to consider systems as becoming, not as eternally ready.

The second task of philosophy from this point of view is to unify the totality of the systems of values in a new and universal system; this is the old, implicitly acknowledged task of meta-physics, which Hegel stated explicitly. But it must be conceived and accomplished in a new manner. The total experience is not rational, but this does not mean that it cannot become rational, that we cannot create a rationalism above it, which would be a factor of its rationalization. Should philosophy succeed, it would be indeed an absolute system, because every relative system would be an indispensable part of its material, and no given system could disagree with it. But, as new systems are continuously created, the rational unity of the world of values can be obtained only by rationalizing the processes of creation itself ; thus the absolute philosophy must be a philosophy of creation and its system must be open to any new possibilities that may arise in the future.

Time will show whether such a philosophy is not merely possible in theory but also realizable in practice.



  1. Speaking of acknowledgment or rejection of theories, we admit implicitly that acknowledgment or rejection requires a complete understanding of the theory. We stand upon the ground of a subjectively perfect knowledge. i. e., we remove the question of individual or social misunderstanding of theories. because this question has nothing in common with the truthfulness of the theory itself,.
  2. Some formal objections may be still brought against the principle of relativity. First, it might be urged that, since the principle of relativity is demonstrated by way of reasoning, it admits implicitly the logical principles of reasoning, as absolute values. A second objection might maintain that the principle is contradictory in itself. when stated explicitly. For it takes the form 'Ali truths are relative except the truth that all truths are relative.' As we do not wish to lengthen unduly this article, we reserve the discussion of these objections for another occasion. Both objections can be removed without difficulty, but their discussion requires the introduction of new problems.

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