Right now I am listening to a talk on youtube which starts with the declaration "of course we all know truth is a relative notion".

There are certainly some directions in philosophy which accept this statement, and certainly there are some others which are based on the presumption that, to the contrary, there is absolute truth. There might be still some others which are undecided on this particular question.

Does somebody know whether there is an accepted classification of alternative philosophical doctrines along this splitting?

I tried Wikipedia; the page about truth is huge, it contains lots of different subdivisions. Its contents is like this

    1 Definition and etymology
    2 Major theories
      2.1 Substantive theories
        2.1.1 Correspondence theory
        2.1.2 Coherence theory
        2.1.3 Constructivist theory
        2.1.4 Consensus theory
        2.1.5 Pragmatic theory
      2.2 Minimalist (deflationary) theories
        2.2.1 Performative theory of truth
        2.2.2 Redundancy and related theories
        2.2.3 Philosophical skepticism
      2.3 Pluralist theories
      2.4 Most believed theories
    3 Formal theories
      3.1 Truth in logic
      3.2 Truth in mathematics
      3.3 Tarski's semantic theory of truth
      3.4 Kripke's semantic theory of truth
      3.5 Revision theory of truth
    4 Folk beliefs about truth
    5 Notable views
      5.1 Ancient history
      5.2 Middle Ages
        5.2.1 Avicenna (980–1037)
        5.2.2 Aquinas (1225–1274)
        5.2.3 Changing concepts of truth in the Middle Ages
      5.3 Modern age
        5.3.1 Kant (1724–1804)
        5.3.2 Hegel (1770–1831)
        5.3.3 Schopenhauer (1788–1860)
        5.3.4 Kierkegaard (1813–1855)
        5.3.5 Nietzsche (1844–1900)
        5.3.6 Heidegger (1889–1976)
        5.3.7 Whitehead (1861–1947)
        5.3.8 Peirce (1839–1914)
        5.3.9 Nishida (1870–1945)
        5.3.10 Fromm (1900–1980)
        5.3.11 Foucault (1926–1984)
        5.3.12 Baudrillard (1929–2007)
    6 In medicine and psychiatry
    7 See also
      7.1 Other theorists
    8 Notes
    9 References
    10 External links

As you see there are very many subdivisions here, I mean something coarser than that, not depending on some particular theory but rather on whether truth is considered relative, absolute or undecided.

I also tried "Absolute truth" on Wikipedia, this carries you to the page on Universality (philosophy). There I could find something closer to what I seek, e. g. the paragraph "Universality in logic" says

In logic, or the consideration of valid arguments, a proposition is said to have universality if it can be conceived as being true in all possible contexts without creating a contradiction. Some philosophers have referred to such propositions as universalizable. A truth is considered to be universal if it is logically valid (logical) in and also beyond all times and places. Hence a universal truth is considered logically to transcend the state of the physical universe, whose order is derived from such truths. In this case, such a truth is seen as eternal or as absolute. The patterns and relations expressed by mathematics in ways that are consistent with the fields of logic and mathematics are typically considered truths of universal scope. This is not to say that universality is limited to mathematics, since it is also used in philosophy, theology, and other pursuits.

The relativist conception denies the existence of some or all universal truths, particularly ethical ones (as moral relativism). Though usage of the word truth has various domains of application, relativism does not necessarily apply to all of them.

and the paragraph "Universality in metaphysics" contains, in particular, the passage

Universal truth is regarded as ontic, i.e. expressing the order of being itself. A universal truth is epistemic only to the extent that its ontic expression is apprehended or discerned in a veridical way, which cannot affect its being in any case. Most ontological frameworks do not consider classes to be universals, although some prominent philosophers, such as John Bigelow, do.

I feel like these hold the key but still do not understand them well enough. Should one say "universalism" and "relativism" with respect to truth?

To summarize: if I want to read about prominent philosophers arguing that truth is a relative notion, how to find out which ones are these, or under what heading are they gathered? The same about philosophers arguing that there is absolute truth - what is the umbrella term that collects them together?

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    See SEP for a review of Relativism in philosophy, with biblio. And see also Truth. Commented May 10, 2019 at 7:43
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    Would you accept a bit more subdivisions? Relativism about truth has a pretty wide currency, the opposite is variously called absolutism, objectivism, realism, or Wikipedia's "universalism", depending on context. But you'll find few who are realists about every kind of "truth", the word is a loose catchall papering over very different things, arguments vary accordingly. There are many realists about the material world (even that depends on which aspects of it count), fewer about ethics or mathematics, fewer still about aesthetics. Radical skepticism and cultural relativism are the extremes.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 8:07
  • Theories of truth vary much according to needs and domain if interest. Naively empiricists would favor correspondence: observations accurately reflect actuality. In formal logic with its limited and deductively sound domain it is coherence. And consensus theory of truth was invented by sociologists. See a sort of summary here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/59490/33787
    – christo183
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 10:21
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    A book that provides a comprehensive history of how traditional and analytic philosophy of science and positivism evolved/devolved into relativism/post positivism/post empiricism/post analytic philosophy (and why) is John Zammito’s A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour. (amazon.com/Nice-Derangement-Epistemes-Post-positivism-Science/…). (Aside from the contributions of pragmatism and Wittgenstein to the realism/antirealism debate, its pretty much all there.) Contains a very good index/bibliography as well.
    – gonzo
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 1:59
  • The only way truth can be absolute/universal is by being objective -- i.e. something is true when it's real, a part of the objective reality. The latter itself constitutes a leap of faith, as the only rational choice. Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 9:28

3 Answers 3


This is a big question, and drives at the heart of one of the major unresolved issues in Western philosophy. It is also a multi-part question, which makes it difficult to answer fully.

One part -- the categories of philosophies/philosophers -- is not answerable validly. While a significant fraction of philosophers will admit to being part of a "school", a similarly large portion will refuse to identify based on labels. And for those who accept a label -- there is often enough disagreement even within a movement that its views cannot be accurately described by any summary. The rest of my answer will refer to movements and schools, but my usage, and that of anyone else who offers an answer -- will be a gross oversimplification and straw manning of a much more complex collection of ideas. I will use labels anyway, as I don't know of a better option to describe the development of ideas.

I trace a key period in the philosophical question you are asking about "truth" to the early 20th century, and two efforts to find certainty when philosophy seemed to be pointing away from any certainties. One effort was an attempt to ground philosophy on mathematics and logic, and it was pursued by Frege, Russell, and Whitehead. This is a well-known movement in the US, as Analytic philosophy, the dominant school in Anglo-American philosophy, is the child of this project. The other was an effort to ground certainty in language, and the structure of thought. This effort, called Structuralism, was the antecedent for most Continental philosophy. The best summary I have found for Structuralism, and its consequential spawning of subsequent Continental movements, is a series of podcasts from Philosophize This, episodes 115-118, here is a link to 115: https://www.philosophizethis.org/podcast/structuralism-and-context.

It is notable that both these projects failed. The Russell project eventually showed that Logic itself could not be justified, other than circularly (the Munchausen Trilemma), and that even IF one embraces the circular logic fallacy, one STILL cannot then have confidence in what one derives (Godel's Theorem). Similarly, the Structuralists -- when they turned their analysis on their own methodology, showed that they were assuming in their processes the very structure they were supposedly uncovering.

There are three primary responses to these failures: 1) embrace relativism -- accept that one's assumptions drive one's conclusions, truth is relative. 2) accept that PROOF is impossible, but that CONCLUSIONS can be drawn anyway -- IE truth is not absolute, but is instead pragmatic. 3) Reject theses conclusions as flawed, and hold by logic and truth as absolutes, known by intuition rather than reasoning. Most people I have met who are attracted to science, math, logic, or philosophy believe intuitively that there IS a TRUTH, and gravitate to the 3rd option, even if it cannot be defended nor justified. I suggest that you use these three approaches to bin your categories of thinking about truth. This is the part of your question I can best answer.

The resulting ONTIC nature of Truth -- does not couple neatly with the answers to the second question. Most 20th and 21st century philosophers are monistic materialists, and no matter what answer they accept about truth, truth is not material, and therefore could never have ontic status. This despite the progenitors of modern movements mostly NOT being materialists, Frege was an ontic triplist, accepting that matter, experiences, and abstractions all had separate and orthogonal ontic status (three worlds). Russell was a neutral monist, Whitehead was a process idealist, and both Structuralism and a significant fraction of the Vienna circle came from a Phenomenalist POV, in which experience was primary, and matter only inferred. However, few of these non-materialist POVs support TRUTH as ontic -- really only Frege (and Popper who adopted Frege's 3 worlds) and some of the logical positivists (Quine's "2 Dogmas of Empiricism" argued for the reality of abstractions through inferential indirect realism). What you will find is that the ontic nature of truth does not couple neatly with these three types of answers on its absoluteness.

When you probe for philosopher's answers to the absolute and ontic questions, what you will often find is that these answers do not hold together well. As I noted, most philosophers gravitate toward answer 3 -- but most 20th and 21st century philosophers also reject intuitionism, and claim to ground their views on reason. This leads to a conflict where a philosophers actual views and their rationale for that view often do not cohere. Hence my describing these questions as a core unresolved issue in contemporary philosophy.

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    A further comment -- Frege and Popper's 3 worlds ontology accepts the existence of TRUTH ontically, but then Popper takes a pragmatic approach to defining "truth" based on empirical inference -- IE we can never have JTB, only pragmatically Justified Beliefs. This particular approach to knowledge is ontically and epistemologically coherent, and survives the questions you are asking.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 7:13
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    The search for truth began centuries before the 20th and 21st. Limiting an answer to these two centuries is entirely misleading, since all of the competing theories covered during that time span all involved truncated epistemology employed by a group of authors who simply toss out any consideration of views which might contradict their own.
    – user37981
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 12:24
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    @CharlesMSaunders -- I encounter many critics of philosophy, who disparage it as a field which does not progress and nothing is ever accomplished. I reject that critique, while you seem to embrace it. The primary advance in philosophy is to develop a much better understanding of empiricism, and how to avoid it simply becoming a method of confirmation bias, and a realization that much of historical philosophy relies upon intuited assumptions which are not well supported. The last century and a half has tried to drop poorly supported intuitive assumptions. In a large part unsuccessfully.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 16:07
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    @CharlesMSaunders -- The absoluteness of TRUTH, the innate trustworthiness of perception, the ability to intuitively perceive math truths, the intuitive validity of logic -- these are all intuitive assumptions embedded in historical philosophy which contemporary investigation has shown to be wrong. Many contemporary philosophers disparage intuitionism, but have their own intuitive assumptions unrecognized within their thinking, as I noted for materialism and the absoluteness of logic, for most analytic philosophers. But if one wants a philosophy that addresses this one must look at now.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 16:14
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    @CharlesMSaunders -- while you may personally object to the three reactions to these twin failures early in the 20th century, that they are the paths that philosophy has taken is still the case. As I am an advocate of Popperian pragmatic empiricism, and I consider that to be the by far most valid of these three responses, I disagree with you claim they are all nonsense. But debating the validity of any one, or all of these responses is not the purpose of Philosophy Stack exchange. If you wish to do so, then I would be happy to discuss further with you in Chat or the Symposium.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 18:26

Drilling down into the two major conceptual bifurcations on the 'nature' of truth may ultimately answer your question. Treating first of relativity, all of the categories under subdivisions 1 through 3 can be grouped as 'relative'. The commonalities they share are; they all hold to some variation on Descartes duality in which mind/body or thought/experience originate in two absolutely irreconcilable realms. Because of this duality again, they all view absolute truth as an impossibility. This includes in the disciplines of science, mathematics and logic. This is also the prevailing firmly entrenched belief system in most if not all academic philosophy.

Because of the primacy and prevalence of this belief holders of this type of conceptual take on truth do not even entertain the possibility that what they take as a given, or metaphysical assumption concerning truth might be flawed or involved in any inconsistency.

On the other side of the bifurcation are those who posit absolute truth as an attainable epistemological goal but who have experienced difficulty clearly and simply explicating how a contingent and finite being might prove capable of entertaining any segment of any thing knowable with absolute certainty.

Those who have tried in the distant past to achieve this are so roundly dismissed and ridiculed today that it is nearly impossible to gain any audience for talk of certainty today.

To unbundle all of this in such a short space is not doable, nevertheless, as one who has been fortunate enough in life to have unearthed a philosopher who claims that his writings are self evidently certain to be true, I must direct your kind attention to Baruch Spinoza(1632-1677). He set himself the full time task of attempting to discover if there exists any type of knowledge that is both certain and accessible to the human mind. What he discovered is a type of knowledge he termed, 'scientia intuitiva' or intuitive understanding. This is possible due to the projicient capability of the mind's agency to gather 'reflexive' knowledge( (raw data) from its environment to which it is organically united, and by applying a process of analysis and reflection arriving at veridical certainty.

To see for yourself how this operates visit wikisource online and read Spinoza's "On the Improvement of the Understanding", it is 43 pages. Also there is an essay by S. Paul Kashap titled, "Spinoza on Certainty". Spinoza's piece is also called the TIE. Be sure to pay close attention to what he means by 'idea'. It is a unique usage which lays claim to human knowledge of the absolute sense. As for Kashap's piece, pay close attention to what he intends by 'thought objects'

The serious tone implied in your question drove me to attempt to honor your request. I know my answer is indirect. Regards,

  • Thank you for the thorough and accurate answer! It is a pity though that you only address the epistemic aspects of truth and say nothing about stances of philosophers regarding its ontological status. I wonder if you could (maybe in a separate answer) at least briefly mention those who investigate (non-/)existence of absolute truth, regardless of its reachability by us. Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 6:14
  • For Spinoza the epistemic and the ontological are inseparable. To know and to be are one and the same capacity. As for any search for 'absolute truth' in the annals of philosophy, all the names you list from 5.2 -5.3.9, each in their own right incrementally serves up reflections which when accrued to a baseline of accumulating data or reflective knowledge lead the pilgrim to an appreciation for and an acceptance and appreciation for the store of 'absolute certainty' which brought these people's thoughts to the attention of the world to begin with.
    – user37981
    Commented Oct 31, 2020 at 3:29
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    Providing links to the references would improve this answer. Also, the vast majority of 20th and 21st century philosophers are monistic materialists -- the claim that philosophy is dominated by Descartian dualism is absolutely false. If Spinoza, and his claims to directly apprehend truth are not accepted today, it would be useful to reference the reasons why, and counter-arguments that make the critiques of Spinoza invalid.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 19:10
  • The analytic/synthetic distinction is in effect, a shadow of dualism and still persists today. The reference to Spinoz's TIE and a careful reading of it, by setting preconceptions aside, can go a long way to answering your questions. Cheers,
    – user37981
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 19:36
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    @CharlesMSaunders -- answering a question on PhSE consists of more than "read X, and it will answer everything." And particularly when X is some 400 years old, and been dismissed with reasons by most philosophers, "X will answer everything" is implausible. Worse, when X claims to provide CERTAINTY, it is refuted by example by the rejection by most philosophers, as a definitive argument for certainty by definition would be convincing, and X, in the circumstances described has not been, for centuries now.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 23:58

@მამუკა ჯიბლაძე

What follows addresses the issue at the heart of your question about the nature of truth;

"Right now I am listening to a talk on youtube which starts with the declaration "of course we all know truth is a relative notion"."

This confusion over the possibility of the existence of 'certainty' is age old and still undecided. For purposes of clarifying this issue, the excerpt which follows comes from "Creation, Emanation and Salvation", by H. F. Hallett. For the full picture, download this work from the Z library (Free) and read the Prolegomena carefully. Specifically, (ii Knowledge and Reality, pp. 9-11.)

What he maintains is that truth is a 'process' and not a comparison or correspondence between 'data' or 'facts' with an extrinsic proof. This process involves an accrual or built-upon platform within the human mind of 'intelligible', verifiable information.

*"Now, a problem is solved when its elements are ordered to intelligible form, with or without transcendence according to requirement, so that the more intelligible the theory or speculation the more perfectly credible it is. Thus, it is the formal nature of knowledge, implicit in all cognizance - even in the largely defective and ambiguous, i.e. problematic, pseudo-cognizance of experientia vaga, though privatively - that determines the reso1ution of all problems and this because it is 'vagrant', i.e. indiscriminate . Each stage in successful investigation is a movement from problem to understanding, from disordered, distorted, and pulverulent appearance towards the real in the 'order of the intellect.'

Truth does not arise as a separate question to be independently determined by comparison of theory with 'fact,' or by any other form of extrinsic test. Resolution of problem is a movement towards truth, which thus reveals and certifies itself and falsity. Truth, in other words, lies not at the beginning of analytic inquiry (for then inquiry would be otiose) but at the end, not in problematical data but in understanding. Yet it is the very nature of truth that guides a well-conducted speculation towards its pre-determined goal. And I suggest that even natural science, i.e. pure science, depends for its interim-truth, not on verification (which does but widen its problematical bases) but on approximation to intelligibility.

Empirical verification does but register the investigator's recognition of the limitation and problematical character of that which he seeks to make intelligible. For if the 'facts' from which he starts are problematic, so also are the 'facts' by reference to which he pretends to 'verify' his theory. Dissatisfaction with experientia vaga is his spur, and this is founded on an implicit ideal of intellectual satisfaction already operant; for the recognition of defect implies the ability to transcend it."*

  • Correct me if I misunderstand you, but once again you address entirely epistemological aspects of truth, completely avoiding its ontological status. Certainly you may view truth as an object of human discourse, but this is not what question was about. I asked about truth as something independent of knowledgeability. This is in fact in accord with truth in mathematical sense, as introduced by Tarski and others. They radically distinguish truth and derivability. There are several theorems to the effect that there are true propositions which you can never discern as such. Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 6:58
  • Sorry, I cannot make it any more plain. Knowlege can only be experienced as an aspect of being. There is no separation between the knower and the intelligible. Truth is not an extrinsic quality, but an affirmation of accrual of certain knowledge in the human mind.
    – user37981
    Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 3:43
  • That is your point of view. There are people whose points of view contradict it. I am not claiming there is evidence in support of them and against you, it is just that the question was about all points of view, not only yours. Or do you have a proof that they all are wrong and you are right? Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 5:17
  • Unless you are willing to respond to my suggestion to read the TIE, then unfortunately my time is gone. Regards,
    – user37981
    Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 12:57
  • Read it (sorry for not doing this at once). Sorry but I could not find in this Tractatus anything that would support your interpretation of it as postulating inseparability of epistemic and ontological. What I could find there is all about knowability and discoverability of truth, not anything about its existence or nature. My impression is that he finds ontological status of truth self-evident and not needing any discussions, and contemplates only its reachability, which in the end he also finds so clearly achievable that he views people sharing Socratic views being completely mentally blind. Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 16:18

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