Source: p 58, Philosophy ; A Very Short Introduction (2002) by Edward Craig.

 Could Plato and Hobbes, 2,000 years apart, with their different backgrounds and circumstances, really have been discussing the same thing? Could a philosopher nowadays be asking the same questions about the self as Hume did, let alone the early Buddhists? Doesn’t the idea that we can talk about philosophical themes without reference to whose and when make them sound like timeless objects that thinkers of any epoch can plug into? That view would be quite the opposite of popular nowadays. All thought, we repeatedly hear, is ‘situated’ – tied to the particular historical, social, and cultural circumstances in which thinkers find themselves.

What exactly does the bolded mean?

Is the bolded a type of relativism, which includes the defense of dead luminaries' immorality by asserting their being only 'a product of their environment or time' (eg: Woodrow Wilson's racism)? As another example, the bolded appears to reflect US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's (relativistic?) reaction to Justice Felix Frankfurter's rejection of her application to be a law clerk because she was female:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: It was expected. That was the way things were.

  • Yes, in the sense of the quote. "Timeless objects that thinkers... can plug into" is plain Platonism, and that is not very popular nowadays. Rejection of it is not relativism, that would be much stronger, something like cultural frameworks do not have conceptual resources to fully translate ideas and arguments from other cultures.This is Kuhn's position. He still allows that "incommensurable" cultures can be penetrated, but only by becoming "bilingual", learning a different framework on its own terms. Full relativism denies that even penetration is possible.
    – Conifold
    Feb 14, 2016 at 23:54

4 Answers 4


My answer might work out to the same thing as Shane's, but I'm not entirely sure.

On a trivial level, everyone knows that thought is always "situated." Thus, it's relatively safe construction that just about anyone could use.

"Of course, Hegel's thought was situated and the questions he addresses are those that made sense to a 19th century Prussian." (made up but plausible sentence).

At the same time, that alone is a thoroughly trivial claim unless the speaker also means something in a holistic direction. This could be either:

  1. Our thought is not situated at all.
  2. Thought is always situated.
  3. Thought is merely situated.
  4. Thought is problematically situated.

Claim 1 (not situated) seems potentially problematic -- because well when we read things from different cultures, we can really feel the cultural position of things. I take this to be at a minimum Kant's position. (In philosophy of language parlance, our sentences are precisely propositional at all times).

I take Claim 2 to mean the least controversial claim -- that Plato was a Greek and wrote in Greek and thought in Greek and addressed questions that mattered to people living in Athens. This isn't necessarily relativistic. But it might be. (In philosophy of language parlance, people's utterances are sentences). I'd say this is the view of Hegel.

Things get more relativistic when we get to Claim 3 (that it is "merely" situated). In this case, we're not just saying Aquinas writes in Latin but also that his thoughts and questions are trivially Latin. I.e., this claim is that there are no transcendental thoughts that escape from their cultural underpinnings. This has some pretty strong relativistic implications, because now the claims cannot be translated or generalized (in philosophy of language parlance, people's sentences are not able to be propositions). This is roughly speaking the place Rorty thinks we wind up.

Claim 4 "problematically" adds a kind of "woe are we" because we cannot figure anything out to the third version. I think this is the crowning view of the post-structuralists like Derrida.

Most philosophers depending on the question are going to be either in the non-situated camp or in the always situated camp depending on the type of question. Most everything about doing philosophy is lost if we go to 3 or 4 since now we're just shuffling things around for no reason.

  • I agree with all this I think. There's a trivial sense of "situated" that doesn't threaten us with relativism. The more philosophically interesting sense of "situated" does threaten that, but it is decided implausible, since it hinges on epistemological or linguistic assumptions that are plainly false.
    – user5172
    Feb 14, 2016 at 23:58
  • Rorty waffles back and forth between these. See Boghossian, "The Fear of Knowledge".
    – user5172
    Feb 14, 2016 at 23:59

At the most basic level, "situated" just means that everything has a context. Things often simply cannot be understood unless you know the context (for example, the topic of homosexuality in Plato's writing is closely tied to prevailing Athenian attitudes, and is difficult to understand without understanding those attitudes).

It's arguably the case, however, that philosophers and their philosophies are, in a sense, outside of any specific cultural context --or at least that we expect them to be. The passage you quote is examining whether this is a reasonable or sensible expectation or not.

Personally, I find some philosophies to be much more context-dependent than others. Aristotle is strongly contextualized in Ancient Athens, Confucius in Ancient China, probably because both philosophers were primarily concerned with the application of philosophy to everyday life. On the other hand, figures like Plato and Lao Tzu, although undeniably products of their own time and place, are arguably a bit more universal because they were oriented towards more abstract matters.


Short answer: Yes, most people would take the 'situated' dimension of cognition to lead to a kind of relativism. However most philosophers (in the US at least) would deny our thoughts are situated in this way.

Here's one reason why: the only theories of mental content that seem to make the historical circumstances of a person's acquiring a thought relevant to its content are holist theories. The arguments for such theories aren't very good---and the view is decidedly implausible on its face. Was Euclid not doing Geometry? Was Shakespeare not writing plays? Was Thucydides not writing history? According to this "situatationalist" view it looks like the answer to each of those questions is no, but this simply beggars belief.

  • How does the situationist view make the answer to any of those questions 'no'? Different situations overlap. How are the arguments for holist views of mind 'not very good'? (As a Jungian, I find them quite compelling.) Beyond that, upon what basis did you decide that all intersubjective theories of mind are 'holist', and in what sense? A sheerly materialist model of mind-as-a-computer is clearly situationist, in that the computations depend more strongly on the available input than on the structure of the mind, without necessarily being 'holist' in any recognizable sense.
    – user9166
    Feb 15, 2016 at 22:45
  • 1
    So, does the fact that Aristotle lived at one particular point in time rather than another mean that we can't have the same thoughts as he did, yes or no? If you say "yes" then his historical situation is irrelevant. If you say, "no" then you have to give a reason why you say no. The only reason I'm aware of is an a priori commitment to meaning holism, which is false.
    – user5172
    Feb 16, 2016 at 19:22
  • 1
    Again, if you think I can think the same thoughts as Aristotle, then you are joining me in denying that his thought is 'situated' in the sense outlined in the reading given by the OP.
    – user5172
    Feb 16, 2016 at 19:25
  • 1
    To be perfectly clear, nobody has ever denied that thoughts were "situated" in the innocuous sense you mention above.
    – user5172
    Feb 16, 2016 at 19:29
  • 1
    What people deny is the relativistic consequences of that trivial historical fact.
    – user5172
    Feb 16, 2016 at 19:30

It is hard to believe anyone can avoid a least some level of relativism, except through hypocritical denial.

We have observed that obvious human concepts like universality and negation are not compatible (you cannot have a set of all sets in a universe with the law of the excluded middle.) We have seen the notion of science as a straightforward cumulative form of progress disappear when history is taken seriously (We have Kuhn and the notion of 'revolutions' which seem to be traceable historical facts.) We can no longer seriously believe any notion of meaning that can avoid circular interdependence between domains of definition (Wittgenstein and Desassure have spoken...) We can look at our attempts at truly non-relativist morality and see that they are driven by dialectical cycles (be they those of Hegel's God, Marx's Material or Nietzsche's Genealogy.)

So yes, what is true depends on who and when you are. To avoid that notion requires a purposeful blindness that should bar anyone from the field. Reality is intersubjective and non-convergent, and that point of view has been dominant long before 2002. The inability of all forms of 'positivism' to deal with the necessity of paradox inserted into the domain by the dark side of modernism leads us ultimately to Existentialism as a contributing thread to all of our Realisms, in a thoroughgoing form we can never entirely dismiss.

Trying to have an absolutist ethics layered on top of an intersubjective and evolving ontology and physics is just hypocrisy. We want to feel as though our current consensus morality is simply right. But we need to look much more often at our own past and the current state of other cultures around us as given facts, not subject to our judgement.

We know better, as we have historically judged the world by our own standards and found "them" lacking, which has allowed the righteous among us to do reckless damage and disown it.

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