Does the phrase “It's all relative” mean that everything is quantifiable in terms of individual perception or opinion?

In other words, we all have different opinions or viewpoints with regard to a topic or subject. Examples, to me, would be:

I think it's cold out; he thinks it's actually quite mild.

I think Martha is fairly attractive; he thinks she's quite homely.

I think that The Beatles were the greatest rock band in history; he thinks the Rolling Stones are.

She thinks Obama's budget plan will save millions of dollars in the long run; he doesn't.

Am I on track here?


Expressions like "it's all relative" or "everything is relative" are used in all kinds of sloppy ways. A schoolteacher once explained to my class that the meaning of Einstein's Theory of Relativity is "Everything is relative"; no need to understand issues like the speed of light or the Lorentz contraction, just utter a cliché and you're a scientist.

But in a more precise (relatively speaking :) usage of the term, I'd say that "It's all relative" refers to the possibility of different vantage points and contexts. For example: "To Bill Gates, ten thousand dollars is nothing, but to a homeless person it's a fortune. It's all relative." It's stretching the usage to apply it to two "greatests." The cold vs. mild and attractive vs. homely cases would be "relative" if different scales of valuation are implied. For instance, if the implication of the first one is "I'm from Florida and I think it's cold out; he's from Siberia and thinks it's quite mild," then "it's all relative" makes sense.

  • I agree with you. A common saying in the U.S. is "One man's trash is another man's treasure." Why is the saying a truism? Because in matters of value, people have different and relative standards by which to evaluate! For example, Person X considers a rare, gold fountain pen that cost him $100,000 a real treasure, but a chewed-up and dull pencil mere trash. On the other hand, Person Y, who is on a desert island with a bottle, a cork, a piece of paper, the same pen--without ink--and the same chewed-up pencil, would consider the pen trash and the pencil worth its weight in gold! – rhetorician Apr 6 '13 at 17:16
  • @rhetorician: That's true. It's all relative. – J.R. Apr 6 '13 at 17:52

I think you're on the right track.

Your first two examples are pretty good ones; things like warmth and beauty are hard to quantify, and so the word relative can apply.

Greatness in music is also hard to quantify, but the greatest in history is a superlative, so I don't think “It's all relative” works as well there. Typically, the phrase is uttered as a way to say, “There's no sense arguing about this, we'll just have to accept that we're looking at this differently, and neither of us is right or wrong.” Indeed, in the end, the two engaged in the music debate may also have to “agree to disagree,” but I still don't think “It's all relative” is a good way to summarize that disagreement. Perhaps if the argument was:

He thinks Green Day is a great band, I say they're just alright.

then “It's all relative” would apply more aptly.

As for the last one, I don't think “It's all relative” applies to just any difference of opinion, there should be some sort of quantitative difference in the argument. So if you set it up like this:

She thinks the budget will result in significant savings; he thinks it'll only be a drop in the bucket.

then “It's all relative” would do better job of describing the disagreement. In your original, there's nothing relative about the argument, they are arguing about whether or not the budget will “save millions.” Sure, that's quantitative, too, but it's only when that argument shifts to a question like, “Do those millions represent a ‘lot’ of money?” would “It's all relative” come back into play.

protected by tchrist Nov 2 '14 at 15:23

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