Countering Relativism

  • Paul Needham
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 423)


An objective conception of truth is brought into question by the doctrine of relativism, according to which there is no truth simpliciter, but rather the notion of truth is relative to a person, an interest, a perspective or some-such. Despite the dilemma advanced by the ancients in criticism of the doctrine, it has continued to attract favour, most noticeably in the context of the philosophy of science in Kuhn’s conception of revolutionary change in science. His argument is found wanting, and a recent attempt to revamp it by Wray construes it as a much tamer doctrine which no longer poses the relativist’s challenge. Euclidean geometry and hydrodynamics in the seventeenth century provide examples illustrating gradual progress, contrary to the Kuhnian idea of revolutionary paradigm change, by critical extension and revision of earlier lines of thought in the spirit of Duhem’s continuity thesis.


  1. Asay, J. (2018). Realism and theories of truth. In J. Saatsi (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of scientific realism (pp. 383–393). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Bjereld, U. L. F., Demker, M., & Hinnfors, J. (2002). Varför vetenskap? Lund: Studentlitteratur.Google Scholar
  3. Chalmers, A. (2017). One hundred years of pressure: Hydrostatics from Stevin to Newton. Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chang, H. (2012a). Acidity: The persistence of the everyday in the scientific. Philosophy of Science, 79, 690–700.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Descartes, R. (1991). The philosophical writings of Descartes (The Correspondence, Vol. III, trans: Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., Murdoch, D., & Kenny, A.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Frege, G. (1918 [1977]). Thoughts (trans: Geach, P. T. of “Der Gedanke”). In Logical investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  7. Hempel, C. G. (1954 [1965]). A logical appraisal of operationalism. Scientific Monthly, 79, 215–220. Reprinted in Aspects of scientific explanation. Toronto: Free Press, Collier-Macmillan.Google Scholar
  8. Hempel, C. G. (1950). Problems and changes in the empiricist criterion of meaning. Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 4(11), 41–63; amplified in Hempel (1965).Google Scholar
  9. Hilbert, D. (1899 [1971]). Grundlagen der Geometrie. Leipzig: Teubner. Translated from the 10th ed. by Leo Unger as Foundations of geometry. La Salle: Open Court, 1971.Google Scholar
  10. Hume, D. (1739 [1967]). A treatise of human nature L. A. Selby-Bigge (Ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  11. Kjeldstadli, K. (1998). Det förflutna är inte vad det en gång var. Lund: Studentlitteratur.Google Scholar
  12. Kuhn, T. S. (1962 [1970]). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  13. Masterman, M. (1970). The nature of a paradigm. In I. Lakatos & A. Musgrave (Eds.), Criticism and the growth of knowledge (pp. 59–89). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Maxwell, J. C. (1875 [1890]). Atom. Encyclopedia Britannica (9th ed., Vol. III, pp. 36–49). Reprinted in W. D. Niven (Ed.), The collected scientific papers of James Clerk Maxwell (Vol. II, pp. 445–484). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Needham, P. (2013). Hydrogen bonding: Homing in on a tricky chemical concept. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 44, 51–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Wray, K. B. (2018). The atomic number revolution in chemistry: A Kuhnian analysis. Foundations of Chemistry, 20, 209–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul Needham
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of StockholmStockholmSweden

Personalised recommendations