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Tamer Nawar

'La Vérité', by Jules Joseph Lefebvre
'La Vérité', by Jules Joseph Lefebvre

Relativism in Ancient Philosophy

(NWO – Veni scheme, 2016-2020)

The idea that truth and morality are relative, not objective, originated in ancient Greece and has divided thinkers ever since. But how can something be ‘true for someone’? What is it to assert a claim if not to put it forward as true absolutely? What implications are there if morality is relative? Supporters of relativism have seen it as promoting open-mindedness and tolerance. However, ever since Plato subjected the relativistic views of Protagoras to detailed criticism, many philosophers have taken relativism to be confused and ultimately untenable.

The existing literature on ancient relativism has often focused primarily on refutations of relativism, such as those offered by Plato and Aristotle, at the expense of offering a clear account of ancient relativistic views themselves or their motivations. This project will examine the nature of relativism in ancient Greco-Roman philosophy. It will investigate not only responses to relativism, but also the precise nature of ancient relativistic views and examine how relativistic views arose in response to several early Greek philosophical problems. By providing a systematic and holistic approach to ancient relativistic views, this project will seek to recapture the rich dialectical context of antiquity, restore certain neglected figures (such as Protagoras and Euthydemus) to their rightful places in the history of philosophy, and shed light on some longstanding difficulties in interpreting important philosophical texts, notably Plato’s Theaetetus, Protagoras,Euthydemus, and Aristotle's Metaphysics.

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Last modified:21 April 2023 11.44 a.m.