Searching for Pluralism

by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

JellyBeanSome terms come with a built-in halo. We use words like inclusive, liberation, empowerment, 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.