The Claim to Pluralism

By Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Some terms come with a built-in halo. We use words like inclusiveliberationempowerment, and diversity to characterize that which we aim to praise. For example, when a murderer gets off on a technicality, we say that he has been released rather than liberated. A club that welcomes membership from all who should be invited is inclusive, whereas one which denies membership to some who are entitled to it is exclusionary. Importantly, a club that has a highly restricted membership but does not deny membership to anyone who is entitled to it is not exclusionary, but exclusive. A club is exclusionary when it unjustifiably denies membership to some; it is exclusive when its membership is justifiably limited. In short, many terms do double-duty as both descriptive and evaluative. Or, to put the matter more precisely, some terms serve to describe how things stand from an evaluative perspective.

This is not news. However, it is worth noting that a lot can be gained from blurring the distinction between the descriptive and evaluative senses of such terms. For example, when one succeeds at describing an institution as exclusionary, one often thereby succeeds at placing an argumentative burden on those who support it. Now supporters of the institution in question must not only make their case in favor of the institution; they must also make an additional argument that it is not, in fact, exclusionary. Sometimes what looks like argumentative success is really just success at complicating the agenda of one’s opponents.

The point works in the other direction, too. When one successfully casts a policy as one which furthers diversity and empowers individuals, one has already made good progress towards justifying it. Very few oppose diversity and empowerment, and so a policy which is understood to embrace these values is to some extent ipso facto justified; those who support the policy in question simply need to announce that it serves diversity and empowerment. This is vindication by association.

The trouble with halo terms is that their power derives from their vagueness. As we have noted, everyone opposes exclusionary institutions and supports inclusive ones because everyone agrees that institutions should include all who should be included. And there’s the rub. There is far less agreement over the details concerning who is entitled to inclusion and why; in fact, on any issue of substance, there is great disagreement over these matters. Halo terms serve to distract away from the controversial details and towards the wholly endorsable but nearly vacuous verbal formulae: Include everyone who should be included! Permit the permissible! Do what’s right! These are not judgments so much as slogans parading as judgments.

In Philosophy, pluralism is a halo term, and it is put to use in a wide variety of contexts across a range of disciplinary sub-fields, including political philosophy, ethics, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology. But the term is used also in discussions about the nature of Philosophy itself. Sometimes, entire schools of thought are characterized as pluralistic, and others are dismissed for being “narrow” or otherwise non-pluralistic. In the arena of professional Philosophy, there is consequently a lot of jockeying for control over the term and its application. Much of this is somewhat embarrassing and rightly contested.

Naturally, trouble emerges when one tries to get a clear sense of what philosophical pluralism is. In a newly published book, Pluralism and Liberal Politics, one of us (Talisse) has tried to work through these complex issues. The term is often used to designate a commitment to a range of admirable traits, including open-mindedness and toleration. Sometimes it is also meant to convey an appreciation of diversity, or even the view that differences are good and should be encouraged. Self-identifying with the view seems, further, to correlate with other commitments, like taking underrepresented groups seriously, maintaining dialogue, and avoiding dogmatism about both the nature of Philosophy and the variety of value. Yet, in the end, all such conceptions of pluralism are vacuous. Here’s why. No conception of toleration or open-mindedness recommends those virtues across the board. Every conception of toleration identifies limits to what deserves toleration; and every conception of open-mindedness draws a distinction between possibilities that are worth being open to and those which are not. No advocate of toleration recommends that we tolerate real-world bands of armed fascists bent on world domination; no proponent of open-mindedness would suggest that we give closed-minded dogmatic bigotry a try. Every conception of toleration and open-mindedness identifies limits to what must be tolerated and seriously considered. But that is to say that on any conception of toleration and open-mindedness, there will be some views which are intolerable and unworthy of serious consideration.

Here again is the rub. Even the most dogmatic among us takes himself to be tolerant and open-minded; on his view, he tolerates everything that deserves toleration and openly considers all positions worthy of consideration. As it turns out, the dogmatist simply has far more circumscribed conceptions of what deserves toleration and serious consideration. So the disagreement between the dogmatist and others is not properly characterized a disagreement concerning the value of open-mindedness or toleration. The disagreement rather concerns the substantive matter of what the proper scope of toleration and open-mindedness is.

One may be tempted to cast the dogmatist as someone who employs an unduly narrow conception of what must be tolerated. And this may be correct so far as it goes. But, in the end, it does not go very far. Once again, every conception of the scope of toleration identifies limits to the tolerable. And for every conception of toleration, there is some other conception that charges the first with undue narrowness. To return to our original point, although our use of terms like toleration sometimes suggests that there is a simple, clean and purely descriptive way of separating out the tolerant from the intolerant, there is in the end no way of eschewing the substantive evaluative issues.

Accordingly, if pluralism is the philosophical position that recognizes differences within a given domain of philosophical inquiry and advocates toleration and open-mindedness across those differences, it is nearly vacuous. No one in Philosophy advocates intolerance and closed-mindedness; rather, philosophers differ over substantive questions concerning what kinds of differences can be plausibly seen as philosophical differences, as opposed to differences between Philosophy and something else, such as natural science or literary theory. Those who vie for the label in order to apply it to their own favored position or agenda within Philosophy are involved in political sloganeering, not meta-philosophical argument.

Yet there seems to be a paradox at the heart of the idea of pluralism as a political movement within Philosophy. Political movements must be set against an opponent. But philosophers who embrace the pluralist label present themselves as the champions of legitimate philosophical opposition, and welcoming of the full variety of philosophical difference. They are bound, then, to see their opposition as deriving from outside of Philosophy properly construed. For if they recognized the opposition between pluralists and non-pluralists as a dispute within Philosophy, they would have to embrace the legitimacy of both sides, and would have no basis for a political movement within the discipline. As it turns out, like everyone else, the self-described pluralists advocate for toleration of the tolerable, and inclusion of that which is entitled to inclusion. And it turns out that for the self-described pluralists, the category of the tolerable and to-be-included extends only as far those who see Philosophy in roughly the same way they see it.

This article originally appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.


About the Author

17 Responses to The Claim to Pluralism

  1. Ha Ha Ha… no room left for the truly pluralistic and tolerant… Damn fundamentalists…

    Well we can still discuss what is tolerable and what the extent of pluralism ought to be.. i’m not okay with bands of armed fascists roaming the planet.. no no…. but i’d also explain why rather than use a slogan.. or would i??

  2. This reminds me of a story Swami told in NC recently about leaving a certain institution, seeking good guidance and tolerating whatever comes.

  3. In the highest Absolute there is room to accommodate everything, otherwise it can’t be Absolute. If we consider something to be Absolute but can still find something outside of that, then it cannot be Absolute. The Absolute accommodates everything. In Him the enemy is not an enemy! The center is everywhere, there is no circumference. In that plane only God can be traced everywhere and He cannot be our enemy.

    -Srila Sridhar Maharaj

  4. Most of the time people support pluralism because they are sick and tired of the constant bickering and fighting among the various groups or parties, which makes life difficult even for people on the outside of the debate. That is very much the case when it comes to religions or politics. And most of the time such bickering and fighting comes from a desire to dominate others. “Of course WE want to dominate others so we can HELP everybody” – this is what all of these people think… and sometimes it may even be true, but if ultimately this kind of ‘help’ is not really helping anyone, we can safely conclude that such thinking is merely delusional. And because I have seen way too much of such delusional thinking (as well as flat out cheating), I firmly support pluralism.

  5. I have a hard time standing behind the main argument that these two gentlemen use to try to dismantle pluralism. Here’s a quote from them:

    “Yet, in the end, all such conceptions of pluralism are vacuous. Here’s why. No conception of toleration or open-mindedness recommends those virtues across the board. Every conception of toleration identifies limits to what deserves toleration; and every conception of open-mindedness draws a distinction between possibilities that are worth being open to and those which are not.”

    But isn’t any value a balance between two extremes? By their standards all values would be vacuous because you can’t take any value to its extreme most of the time and still stand by it. Say for example freedom of speech. I’m sure most of the readers of Harmonist value it. But it has to have its limits at the same time (or how would you like to hear child molesters etc. exercising their freedom of speech?).

    An inherent burden of a democratic society is that it has to have a constant dialogue and reassessment of values from which certain parameters are agreed upon. The fact that toleration and open-mindedness have their reasonable limits doesn’t in any way mean that there are no grades of more and less tolerant individuals. The article seems to be trying to say that no one is actually pluralistic and one’s tolerance is always purely subjective and contextual but that just doesn’t seem to be true.

    All this being said, I’m not any passionate spokesman for pluralism. I simply reacted to logic that seemed flawed to me.

    What do you all think? (Just see my inclusiveness!)

  6. The most general reason I think this article is relevant to spiritual aspirants and Gaudiyas who move about the world in contact with other ideas is because the claim to pluralism is so ubiquitous among spiritually inclined people. As the first part of the article discusses, this pluralism is a “halo term” that carries with it some assumed value. This is what makes the idea of a perennial philosophy so pleasing to the modern mind: it carries a sense of equality and tolerance (two more “halo terms”). The problem is, as the article states, that the power of these terms derives from their vagueness. It is not that there are no more or less inclusive viewpoints descriptively, but that by definition one can never include that which they do not deem worthy of inclusion, therefore the use of the term to suggest the inclusion of that which one does not deem worthy of inclusion (which is how the term is very often used) is in many ways vacuous.

    Tarun wrote:

    Ha Ha Ha… no room left for the truly pluralistic and tolerant… Damn fundamentalists…
    Well we can still discuss what is tolerable and what the extent of pluralism ought to be.. i’m not okay with bands of armed fascists roaming the planet.. no no…. but i’d also explain why rather than use a slogan.. or would i??

    Not sure if your agreeing with the general thrust or not, but I think you reinforce the point well. You are a pluralistic person in the sense that you appreciate a diverse range of worldviews and so on. But you appreciate them precisely because you unify them under various other values you hold. You do not then include in your pluralism those worldviews that like to say “my worldview is the only worldview,” because you do not feel such a worldview has qualities worthy of including. Thus, as the article is arguing, pluralism or tolerance or inclusiveness as terms meant to suggest some absolute value, are vacuous. When we say someone is inclusive we are actually saying that they deem a broader variety of things worthy of inclusion in comparison to others or perhaps in comparison to most. But that is not the way we tend to use these terms, rather we give them more meaning than they can actually have by keeping them vague.

    Syamananda, I can’t quite see the point of that quotation in this context. It is one of those discussion-enders, like inserting “lokavat tu lila kaivalyam” in the midst of an analysis of the material world and how best to navigate it as a sadhaka. From another angle, the quote could be read to support the point of the article when it says “the center is everywhere, there is no circumference.” “How inclusive!” the circumference would exclaim sarcastically. My point being that the Absolute is “all accommodating” only from a certain perspective, hence bhedabheda.

    Kula-pavana, I would suggest that nothing you say invalidates the points in this article, although what you said is a true description. You firmly support pluralism to the exclusion of singularism, so to speak. This stance is, in effect it’s own kind of singularism. The only difference being the latter draws wider borders. Thus, as the article says “As it turns out, like everyone else, the self-described pluralists advocate for toleration of the tolerable, and inclusion of that which is entitled to inclusion. ”

    Gurunistha wrote:

    But isn’t any value a balance between two extremes? By their standards all values would be vacuous because you can’t take any value to its extreme most of the time and still stand by it. Say for example freedom of speech. I’m sure most of the readers of Harmonist value it. But it has to have its limits at the same time (or how would you like to hear child molesters etc. exercising their freedom of speech?).

    I think more what he is saying is that pluralism, conceived of as a value, is vacuous. So it is not that a value is vacuous, but rather that pluralism is not a value at all. We are so accustomed to using the term evaluatively, that it is hard to disconnect it from that use. By contrast, as a descriptive term it is completely legitimate, although still relative. Freedom of speech does not seem completely analogous because it is promoting a right to behave in a certain way. Pluralism, used as a value, is promoting the right of an idea to be the truth, as if conflicting ideas could simultaneously be true. It is like the difference between saying “Child molestation is wrong, but I believe in the right of a child molester to argue for their right to molest” or saying “Child molestation is wrong, but I believe it is right (because others do).” The former may not be widely realistic, but it is not self-contradictory. But the latter is inherently self-contradictory. In other words, there is no ontological trait of pluralisticism. In the end, as the author says, it is always about what we deem worthy of including or not and this act of deeming something to be worthy undercuts pluralism in its “halo term” sense.

    An inherent burden of a democratic society is that it has to have a constant dialogue and reassessment of values from which certain parameters are agreed upon. The fact that toleration and open-mindedness have their reasonable limits doesn’t in any way mean that there are no grades of more and less tolerant individuals. The article seems to be trying to say that no one is actually pluralistic and one’s tolerance is always purely subjective and contextual but that just doesn’t seem to be true.

    Exactly. There can only be more and less tolerant individuals. Yes, I think he is saying there is no such thing as pluralism (tolerance, etc) as such, within the realm of philosophy. That is a crucial distinction. He is speaking about these ideas within the context of philosophy. In other realms I think you can say tolerance is an ontological thing, but it is also not the same kind of tolerance. In other contexts, tolerance often means tolerating that which is unpleasant. Like tolerance as a virtue for a sadhaka often means enduring the disagreeable or, on a higher end, honestly considering other views. But the claim that is rejected in this article goes beyond merely considering other views. But now I also think we have gone too far into tolerance specifically and it can’t really be used to represent all the halo terms alluded to in the article. Anyway…

    • Nitaisundara-ji… I try to make a distinction between what works for me, and what works for society in general. Thus as a Gaudiya Vaishnava I see no reason to attempt forcing society into adopting my view of the world, especially as there is quite a lot of pluralism and diversity among the various Gaudiya branches. There is plenty of historical evidence that singularism on a social level can quickly turn into a nightmare for large segments of population. From medieval Church run societies to modern day Islamic fundamentalism, and from communism to national socialism Third Reich style – singularity has thoroughly discredited itself. We can really only debate what kind of pluralism works best for society.

    • I would love to make some more points but I’m too busy with the spring marathon we are having at the ashrama. I’ll get back to this discussion once things slow down a little.

  7. Mangaladhara das

    Philosophically speaking pluralism(at first glance) seems to be a tolerant way to look at things, but, I believe that most people who embrace pluralism will end up eventually notcing its shortcomings and that kind of tolerance can only go so far until tolerance in that context becomes a hinderence to sucessful philosophic discussion or debate. So to me pluralism is generally questionable.

    I agree with Nitai, he wrote:

    Pluralism, used as a value, is promoting the right of an idea to be the truth, as if conflicting ideas could simultaneously be true.

  8. Mangaladhara das

    I found this interesting:

    “Types of Pluralism
    W Watson (in a paper “Types of pluralism” in The Monist, 73(3):350-65, 1990) suggested that there are four types of pluralism:

    Perspectival pluralism suggests that individuals do not experience the same world, but we all experience our own reality. There is no common reality and different views may be genuinely incommensurable. “Anything goes”.

    Pluralism of hypotheses suggests that there is a single reality but that we may hold different opinions about it. The differences may be incompatible, but they will disappear as ‘the truth’ is discovered. “Horses for courses”.

    Methodological pluralism also suggests that there is one reality but that different perspectives provide only partial access to it, because of the different methods used in finding out about it. A mixture of methods is desirable and ultimately reconcilable, but there can be danger of philosophical inconsistency.

    Archic pluralism holds that reality is constituted by the inquirer, so that each philosophy has its own reality, but since it is all based on inquiry (‘mind’) and ‘mind’ is shared, we can understand each other. “Given the dialectic nature of things, we all need our opponents.” (Geertz).”

  9. I don’t see any problem with pluralism of hypotheses and methodological pluralism per. And I find the attack that pluralism is not actually pluralism vacuous. It is similar to attacking an agnostic person about how is so sure about being unsure. These circular arguments contribute little in my opinion.

  10. I would be interested to hear what other thoughts Gurunistha has, but otherwise the objections raised here really just seem to be missing the point to me.

    Kula-pavana, my argument was that there is no ontological “thing” that is pluralism. Nowhere did I or the article say it could not be used descriptively to describe a practice. In rebuttal you refer to oppression in practice and say that pluralism is the only option we have. I agree, but that is a pluralism that is really just a relative inclusiveness. Conceptually, one can only have wider or more narrow versions of singularism. Again, you cannot think someone is both wrong and right at the same time.

    Gaura-vijaya, this is not a circular argument. Agnosticism is not analogous and does not have the same fault. The whole point of being unsure is that you are not sure. Even those agnostics who might say there can be no certainty still do not necessarily fall into the trap of thinking they accept all differing viewpoints, which is the illusion of pluralism as it is defined and attacked within this article. Again, we can accept that other people believe differently than us, but we can never truly accept contradictory truth claims as both true, even if we claim to.

    • Prabhu, this article does not limit it’s criticism of pluralism to the philosophy. Actually, it seems to be clearly aiming at the idea of religious pluralism, as writing about religions is the main business of these authors. Of course there can be religious pluralism – it happens all the time, thank goodness – it is a well known social phenomenon steadily growing in popularity in modern world, and it is the clear target of this article, as even the banner picture suggests (Coexist because I’m right).
      And btw. there IS such a thing as ontological pluralism, more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontological_pluralism

      You write: “Again, you cannot think someone is both wrong and right at the same time.”
      And exactly who decides who is right, and who is wrong in the sphere of philosophy and religion? Over the last 5000 years of recorded history there were thousands of completely different philosophies and religions. Clearly, pluralism in that area is a FACT. It may or may not square with your idea of reality in the philosophical sense, but it is still a fact. Disregarding facts by proponents of any type of singularity is a recipe for abuse. And that is my point.

      • From my view, these points still miss the mark. I will try to respond systematically in hopes of being more clear.

        Prabhu, this article does not limit it’s criticism of pluralism to the philosophy.

        Actually, it does. The article begins not speaking about philosophy, but about pluralism as it used adjectivally. Maybe we could call it descriptive pluralism in the sense that it relates to observable practices rather than strictly theory. Therefore the author and I agree with you that there is a FACTUAL thing that can be called pluralism, descriptively. It is not like the word has no meaning. BUT, the author goes on to highlight the somewhat deceptive nature of even the adjectival use of pluralism. But all of this is in building up to a categorically different objection to a categorically different type of pluralism (philsophical). But thus far the author has said, for example:

        If I say Senator ____________ is inclusive (or tolerant or pluralistic) I am doing two things. Firstly, I am describing his/her activities relative to something else (let’s say, his peers). This is accurate because he supports every measure of social equality and so on while there are many who don’t. But there may also be someone more adjectivally inclusive who supports measures that even our main character does not. So this descriptive pluralism is relative.

        The second thing I am doing when I say Senator ____________ is inclusive is ascribing him a certain ineffable value/quality that we call pluralism. This is what I called ontological pluralism. But please note that I used that term in my own way and the link to wiki you provided does not pertain in any way to my use of the term or this discussion. Just as we Gaudiyas speak of monism in reference to Advaita-vada while the more common use of monism is that there is no difference between mind and brain/body. So I have defined my use of ontological pluralism here. What this ontological pluralism is understood to imply is that a person possessing this quality is somehow different than those who only include what they deem worthy, value what they deem valueable and so on. But all that the ontological pluralist does is deem more things (viewpoints, etc) worthy of being valued and included. they do not, therefore, have some unique quality of being able to value that which they do not deem valuable. They are only descriptively pluralistic and that relatively moreso (and less so) than others.

        This latter argument is what the article is about: philosophical pluralism. There is never any objection to inclusive practices. The earlier objection is an objection to the use of the descriptive pluralism in as much as it has been tied to the ontological pluralism in its connotation, which it has in our culture. Therefore, when we describe someone as pluralistic the author wants us to only read that descriptively and not as some ontological quality.

        So yes, religious pluralism exists and has value, as I think even the atheist authors of this article will acknowledge.

        Another angle: If someone says Christianity and Islam are not inclusive of each other many will accept that as truth. Some, myself included, would object and say that that is a misinformed or shallow understanding of those paths. So I might say, “Actually in some more real ways they are quite compatible and offering non-exclusive spiritual experiences.” I have just taken the descriptively inclusive stance. It is not ontologically inclusive because I rejected the earlier assertion while advocating my own. I did not tap into some quality that the opposing person does not have, but rather I said that they have an innacurate description of the two paths and actually, their compatibility is worth being included in an understanding of reality. So the debate was one of “what is worth being included.” Both of us are singular in what we see as the truth of the matter, while I am more inclusive in that my view has a larger number/variety of elements contained within the version of truth.

        I don’t know how clear this is, but I don’t think I can really be clearer. Hope this helps shed light on my position.

      • Nitaisundara-ji… when I look at our Western society of devotees, I see the same arguments being brought up in order to promote what some devotees would like to see as the ‘Gaudiya Vaishnava singularity’… as in “clearly, there can only be one Truth, and this is what our acharyas describe”. Or as you put it: “Again, you cannot think someone is both wrong and right at the same time.”
        The problem is that even in this very narrow circle of Western Gaudiya Vaishnavas there are so many opinions on what that Truth really is. There are so many serious disagreements raging on among the devotees that speaking of any kind of philosophical singularity among them is clearly problematic. Even when it comes to Vedic literature, there is hardly any singularity there as well, with various sages describing Truth in sometimes contradictory terms, and promoting various paths in order to reach this Truth.
        Thus, in reality, the only factual (observable) thing is plurality, with singularity being somewhat of an abstract ideal.

        • I don’t understand how you find Christianity and Islam as compatible. What do you mean by they are incompatible superficially? You will find it compatible only with some pluralism thrown into the mix. Resurrection (and the doctrine of Paul) is the cornerstone of a majority of Christian beliefs and Islam rejects resurrection and has its own story on Jesus, which you have to believe if you are a singular “Muslim” and want to throw out pluralism. Only on some issues like rape, murder or child abuse, you can have some kind of “singular view”. I don’t know how you can compare issues of this world with comparing metaphysical details of various traditions. When you go to metaphysics and after life, pluralism is the the only way out (where u just believe your metaphysics knowing that it is just faith and others have their metaphysics and their faith and you respect that) at this point or else there is no way of living compatibly.

    • You are missing the point Nitai. Please see the different kinds of pluralism and I told you that “pluralism of hypotheses and methodological pluralism” are ones that I find alright and agnosticism (or agnostic theism if you will) is connected to pluralism in less than vague ways. If you are attacking a post-modern free for all pluralism, then yes no one can actually function with that. As long as basic human crimes like murder, child abuse and rape are accepted as unacceptable, people can accommodate everything else. That is how it has been for some time now. On other issues, discussions will happen and consensus will be built through time.

Leave a Reply to Nitaisundara Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to Top ↑