More about pluralism and perspectivism

by Dave Maier

PluA couple of weeks back here at 3QD, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse told us about a certain contentious use of the term “pluralism” in philosophy, which tries to identify a particular conception of philosophical method with the institutional virtues of toleration, openmindedness, and cute little bunnies. In their opinion, however, that doesn't fly: “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[…. There] is in the end no way of eschewing the substantive evaluative issues,” i.e., in order to identify the virtue of toleration with a supposedly “pluralistic” method.

Well, yes – no slam dunk for the “pluralistic” side. But just for that very reason, it's worth a look at those substantive issues which we cannot eschew. This will involve making a few distinctions (mmm … distinctions …), so let's get started.

What kinds of “pluralism” are there in philosophy? First, as Aiken and Talisse indicate in referring to “the idea of pluralism as a political movement within Philosophy [my emphasis]”, one could be a “pluralist” by believing that the range of philosophers hired by university philosophy departments should be wide rather than narrow. Is the point of a philosophy department to be a center of research into a particular subdiscipline or issue or method, or rather to provide as broad a selection of courses for students as is practical given the department's resources? Notably, such a “pluralist” might come from anywhere on the philosophical spectrum. One could think of the university's educational mission in this latter way no matter how one pursued one's own philosopical agenda.

Naturally, departmental hiring is one of the main ways this issue comes up. Why should we get another X scholar when we don't have even one Y scholar? Students are clamoring for Z; should we give it to them, even though – or because – that's not really what we do here? Politically, the game goes like this: when you are in the minority, you call for inclusion and pluralism; while when you are in the majority, you call for quality control or even the stamping out of heresy. Again, this is independent of the content of your views or your philosophical method.

Of course, if Y or Z is bollocks, then maybe we shouldn't hire a scholar of same in any case. As we've already agreed, everyone beleves in quality control, no matter what their views about “pluralism” in the above sense. So again, simply waving the flag of pluralism (and attacking “exclusion”) is not particularly helpful or informative. Naturally one's judgment of whether Y or Z is indeed bollocks will depend on one's own philosophical commitments, so we'll need to look there for other senses of “pluralism.”

Philosophers disagree about the nature and purpose of philosophy itself. This is why it can seem that one such conception is inherently more “pluralistic” than another. For example, one might think that philosophy is the rigorous search for the one correct doctrine, the one that gets reality right, that represents it as it really is, independently of how it appears. Or one might think instead that there can be no such doctrine, so that philosophy is the development of various types of tools for dealing with reality, or of disclosing different aspects of reality to us, or of ways to dispel philosophical confusion. Proponents of the latter views (themselves a plurality) naturally self-ascribe “pluralism” to distinguish themselves from the perceived obsession of their opponents with True Doctrine – especially when they join together for political/institutional reasons. Yet of course each such philosopher can be just as dogmatic as any in the first group. (As A & T say, “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.”)

Still, it's no accident that the battle lines have formed in the way they have, at least recently. Since those calling for pluralism tend to be “continental” philosophers, it's natural to assimilate this controversy to that between realism and relativism. This is because “analytic” philosophers – the dominant group in American philosophy departments – tend to be realists in search of the one true doctrine, while continental philosophers have tended to value more literary and conversational or hermeneutic approaches, which can be difficult to distinguish from relativism. We won't be able to make departmental hiring decisions in this space today; but we can at least examine the connection between one's philosophical orientation and one's attitude toward difference and disagreement.

If you're a relativist, it seems that you would indeed be a “pluralist”; but then it's not clear that you would have any right to the idea of “quality control” at all. Must I then embrace realism and dogmatism in order to be “tolerant” in the sense in which it is indeed a virtue – one consistent with using one's judgment about what is valid and useful and what is bollocks? If so, then one engages in “quality control” simply by rejecting as bollocks any resistance to realism in philosophy, regardless of institutional politics.

But as I have already argued in this space, one can resist realism without falling into relatvism as a result. In an earlier post on the matter I said that Nietzsche resists realism by telling us to use the various perspectives in the service of knowledge, suggesting that they cannot simply amount to knowledge in themselves – that is, they are not themselves beliefs to refute or confirm. Yet they can't simply be detached from epistemic considerations, or it wouldn't make sense to argue for them, and perspectivism would then indeed devolve into some sort of relativism (e.g. historicism). This means that perspectivists cannot dodge the traditional challenge: how can perspectivism be tolerant of other perspectives? And if it is not, then what is the virtue of “perspectivism” if it simply amounts to a dogmatic attachment to its own rejection of dogma? Opponents usually present this challenge in the form of a dilemma: is perspectivism true, or just another perspective? The implication is that to say that it's the truth undermines its content (which supposedly rejects truth); while to admit that it isn't – that it's “just another perspective” – undermines its claim on us.

In other words, the issue here is self-reference. Everybody knows that relativism can, or must, run into self-referential difficulties, provoking the snippy rejoinder that “relativism isn't 'true-for-me'”. Less often recognized, and the key to the issue, is that realism does as well. Realism gives us a philosophical account of reality and truth. Is it true? The realist thinks he is on safe ground, self-referentially speaking, in being able, unlike the relativist who “rejects truth,” to say “yes it is”. But philosophical realism isn't the same thing as the empirical truths it describes. What is it for philosophical doctrine to be true? One can then retreat to a further account to stop the regress; but is that metaphilosophical doctrine then true in turn (and what does that mean in any case?)? Only in platonism can the regress be stopped (indeed, this is the very essence of the platonistic strategy – to ground truth in a transcendent ideal). This is of course not a refutation, as perhaps platonism can be made coherent after all; but it should cast some doubt on the easy assumption that self-reference is a point for realism.

In fact it is neither realism nor relativism, but instead perspectivism, which meets the challenge of self-reference head-on, as we can see from a detailed answer to the question of how perspectivism deals with the apparent paradox of non-perspectivist perspectives. In the Nietzschean terms of my earlier post, “objectivity [i.e. commitment to which is sufficient to repel charges of relativism] in inquiry is not the suppression of our subjective interests but instead the 'ability to control one's Pro and Con'”. Here's a way (not necessarily The way) of understanding this. Think of “Pro” as the pluralist element in perspectivism: every distinct perspective is a perspective on reality, and is thus potentially capable of revealing truths invisible from other perspectives. “Con” is the epistemic element: every perspective different from my own incorporates beliefs about the world which I consider false, and thus contains error as far as I'm concerned. Perspectivism thus means maintaining a balance between these elements (and not a facile political “balance” between competing perspectives).

Now, I can recognize what someone says as manifesting a different perspective on reality, and appreciate it without dismissing it, only to the extent that I understand it. If Davidson is right, this requires interpretive charity; but there's a tension between charitable readings, placing oneself imaginatively in the others' shoes (“Pro”), on the one hand, and, on the other, preserving one's own sense of how the world is, recognizing the possibility of error (“Con”) in what the other guy says. This is not a contradiction, as realists imply with their one-line dismissals (“relativism isn't true-for-me”), but instead a tension – in the sense that tensions are good, prompting one to steer carefully between Scylla and Charybdis.

How does this work? Let's consider a case which puts a different spin on the idea of pluralism and tolerance in philosophy. “Speculative realists” are continental philosophers who complain about a stifling orthodoxy of … idealism and relativism. We might expect them to call for “pluralism,” and in a way they do. However, here it's due less to metaphilosophical considerations – after all, they're realists – than a need for open-ended brainstorming, seeing as there is as yet no settled orthodoxy to defend (except perhaps the unacceptability of idealism) or even any coherent research program to focus on.

Af imagesNow you might think that the last thing I as a “perspectivist” want to hear is renewed calls for realism and (yikes) a “turn toward Platonism.” And indeed one option I have here is to take them at their word that they are realists, and as a committed opponent of same, treat them as hostile (as lawyers say on TV). Quentin Meillassoux's book After Finitude contains passages which sound very much like Alan Sokal's fatuous dismissals of (what he sees as) continental relativism, and it seems like I should be within my rights to close the book at that point and walk away shaking my head.

But this is not my only option. For one thing, it may be uncharitable, and it certainly doesn't show any exercise of interpretive imagination on my part. To dismiss “speculative realism” as simply mistaken may be, in my terms borrowed from Nietzsche above, to let my “Con” control me rather than the other way around. How then can I balance it with my “Pro,” seeing realism as a potentially valid perspective on reality even while rejecting it in favor of perspectivism?

The reference here to a potential failure of imagination, and one which is specifically interpretive, is our clue. Even when my concern is “simply” to understand rather than judge, doing so effectively involves the use of my whole array of faculties – including the faculty of judgment. That is, the interpretive or hermeneutic element of perspectivism, as inherited from Davidson and Gadamer, cannot be separated from the evaluative or epistemic element. “Perspectives” – like Wittgenstein's “forms of life” – are to be thought of in both doxastic and semantic terms: as incorporating both beliefs about how things are and the ways in which we pick them out and give them significance. Successful interpretation – and indeed successful inquiry – requires a skilled interplay between the two aspects.

Considered in their semantic aspect, different perspectives provide diverse ways of thinking about what we take ourselves to know. In this context, consider the status of the parallel postulate in the various systems of geometry. We used to think that Euclidean geometry was true: it got space “right”. Yet even though we now believe otherwise, we don't reject it as “false.” It isn't “true,” but we can use it as a way to speak truths about (say) the Euclidean plane. Similarly, we can use Newtonian physics to state undeniable truths about the macroscopic world. (Note for example that the discovery that solid objects are mostly empty space at the subatomic level doesn't mean that tables aren't solid after all – knock your head against one if you don't believe me.)

If we left it at that, as it is easy to do, we would be sent back into the relativism of diverse conceptual schemes set over against the empirical content of belief about the world. But it is fundamental to Davidson's conception of interpretation that this dualism is incoherent. This means that I may select among my interpretive options – and thus the framing of my epistemic commitments – as I see fit in the context, rather than seeing them as determined for me ahead of time. This allows us, again, to see the “Pro” and “Con” in a productive tension, rather than as constituting the implied self-refuting contradiction, a tension I may (if, as Nietzsche says, I am “healthy” enough to do so) control for my own purposes, rather than letting them control me. It also ties together the perspectivist rejection of the philosophy/metaphilosophy dualism with the related interpretivist rejection of the dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content.

How might this help me see “speculative realism” as something potentially more valid than more Stupid Realist Tricks? I have up to now been in the habit of interpreting continental idealism charitably, as providing hints (or even more) for ways to get past the dualisms inherent in much contemporary philosophy. But in interpreting continental realism, I may decide to take another tack. In looking for a way (following Davidson) to maximize shared belief with realists for interpretive purposes, I may, as they do, treat idealistic post-Heideggerians as hostile, emphasizing for rejection their differences from my own views instead of the similarities. In that context, I can see a “turn toward Platonism” as potentially a good thing, and construe my qualms not as a priori disagreement with the whole idea (as when I throw After Finitude across the room in disgust) but instead as a cooperative – and, again, interpretive – effort to understand where exactly such a turn would leave us, and how exactly talk of “independent” objects is to be construed.

It bears repeating that even this degree of Horizontverschmelzung (I love that word) leaves plenty of room for pushing back. (Davidsonian “charity” has its limits, a point which critics often miss, though Davidson himself is very clear on the matter.) This is not to say that my interpretive freedom is complete – another sense in which interpretive charity is limited. I can see the possibility of fruitful discourse here, rather than disgusted mutual rejection (which after all may still occur) only because I see potential resources nearby. Some “speculative realists” appeal not simply to tiresome anti-idealist persiflage but also to philosophers (such as Deleuze, Delanda, etc.) I consider at least potential allies. Deleuze's description of the “state philosophy” he opposes sounds like a laundry list of the contemporary Cartesian theses I reject; yet Deleuze is clearly not a relativist. If I didn't see this possible common ground (say if I had only the parts of After Finitude I've managed to get through so far to guide me), I would have no choice but to let my “Con” take the day – and not necessarily wrongly either.

It remains to be seen whether this is possible, and in any case I've run over. But at least it should be clear that the issue of “pluralism” has philosophical substance beyond that of institutional politics.