© 2020

Facing Relativism


Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 425)

Table of contents

  1. Front Matter
    Pages i-xvii
  2. Alyssa Luboff
    Pages 1-33
  3. Alyssa Luboff
    Pages 35-62
  4. Alyssa Luboff
    Pages 63-81
  5. Alyssa Luboff
    Pages 83-121
  6. Alyssa Luboff
    Pages 123-143
  7. Alyssa Luboff
    Pages 145-164
  8. Back Matter
    Pages 165-171

About this book


This book tackles the difficult task of defending relativism in the age of science. It succeeds where others have failed by combining the rigor of analytic philosophy with the first-hand insights of anthropological experience. Typically, an anthropologist’s work on relativism offers rich examples of cultural diversity, but lacks philosophical rigor, while a philosopher’s work on relativism offers rigorous argumentation, but lacks rich anthropological examples. Facing Relativism, written by a North American philosopher who lived in the Ecuadorian rainforest, does both.

Relativism at a global scale is a view that our claims about the world, both theoretical and practical, are evaluable only relative to a context shaped by factors such as culture, history, language, and environment – or, “a way of life.” It can be at once intuitive and disturbing. While we might expect a way of life to exert some influence on our claims, relativism seems to move to the overly strong conclusion that all of our claims about what is true or good must merely be expressions of cultural bias. It easily opens itself to a host of charges, including paradox and self-contradiction.

Facing Relativism argues that such problems arise largely from a failure to situate the view within the context that has, throughout its long history, been its inspiration: the experience – whether through literature, the imagination, or direct anthropological contact – of deeply engaging with a very different way of life. By starting with a careful analysis of the experience of deep engagement, this book shows that relativism is neither as incoherent nor as alarming as we tend to think. In fact, it might just offer the tools we need to face these times of global crisis and change.

Alyssa Luboff has produced an exceptional defense of a cultural relativism that recognizes how the epistemic and the ethical intertwine in a way of life. Drawing from her deep engagement over many years with the Chachi and traditional Afro-Ecuadorian people, she provides vivid and compelling examples of how one can come to understand another way of life as well-reasoned, coherent, and integrated, as challenging to one’s own commitments at the same time that one challenges it. Luboff combines her deep engagement with command of the relevant
philosophical and anthropological literature. She presents the major arguments against relativism in a sympathetic and generous way, and carefully responds with a sophisticated relativism that acknowledges how the world resists and responds to different conceptual shapings of it. This book is beautifully written and will engage both the academic specialist and the intelligent general reader. – David Wong, Duke University

By the time her brilliant faceoff is over, philosophical relativism will never again be seen as a straw man. – Richard A. Shweder, University of Chicago

This book will interest readers who seek an astute account of how the pursuit of “truth” – whether relative or absolute – enters into practices of power. Luboff ’s treatment is impressive. – Michael Krausz, Bryn Mawr College and Linacre College, Oxford University


Chachi Ecuador Dynamic of Resonance and Loss cultural relativism epistemic relativism ethical relativism moral relativism philosophy and anthropology relativism and realism science and relativism

Authors and affiliations

  1. 1.PortlandUSA

About the authors

Alyssa Luboff is an independent philosopher living in Portland, Oregon. She earned her B.A. in philosophy with honors from Yale Universitiy, and her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. She has taught at Grand Valley State University (Michigan), Portland State University (Oregon), and ESPOCH University (Riobamba, Ecuador). Her research brings together philosophical and anthropological reflection, drawing especially on her experiences living and working in the Ecuadorian Chocó rainforest. She believes that cross-cultural investigation is not only imperative in our rapidly shifting times, but that it may hold the key to solving our most pressing global problems.

Bibliographic information