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I'm no philosopher and haven't extensively read or studied any philosophers.

I've recently been reading up a little on relativism and what it means and I'm a little confused about to what it is supposed to apply.

From my reading relativism is that truth belongs to the observer and there is no underlying truth.

Is this applied to everything or just morality and ethics?

If it is applied to everything and Descartes is correct about self existence as a provable thing (I think, therefore I am) how can my own existence be subjective (Ie I have proved it via Descartes how can an external observer claim to the contrary)?

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Generally speaking, "relativism" is used in ethics. Note that it is almost always used as a perjorative term, applied to others; I think you'll have a hard time finding anyone claiming to be a relativist (in a strong sense) as it is a self-defeating proposition.

Descartes's Cogito does satisfactorily prove one's own existence-- but it does nothing to prove the existence of others, so it is not immune to charges of solipsism. In other words, an external observer cannot claim to you that you don't exist, but you have no proof (via the Cogito) that they exist.

  • I'm not too sure what you mean by 'it is almost always used as a pejorative term'. Do you mean that people only use it in the sense that their own truth is correct and the external truth can only be relative? – Luke McGregor Jul 28 '12 at 11:31
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    No, I meant that some philosophers accuse other philosophers of being "relativists" (as a negative thing), but virtually no one claims to be a relativist themself. – Michael Dorfman Jul 28 '12 at 11:37
  • So are you saying its not a defensible view at all that truth is subjective? or am I missing the point of what it means? – Luke McGregor Jul 28 '12 at 11:46
  • That's correct. The point of view that "all points of view are equally true" has no way of arguing that it is more correct than any other point of view. – Michael Dorfman Jul 28 '12 at 11:51
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    Note also that although Cogito proves that you exist, you may nonetheless be utterly confused about what "you" are, and what "existence" entails. It really doesn't get you very far on its own. – Rex Kerr Jul 29 '12 at 18:06

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