Three Forms of Pluralism

If we give up Eurocentrism and embrace pluralism, what does that look like? What are the options? I think there are three main options for being a pluralist.

On the first view, which I will call universal pluralismthe reason to look to other traditions is to enhance and supplement the universal methods and views which your own tradition has already discovered. Suppose you are an analytic philosopher of language trained in Western philosophy. Why should you be a pluralist and engage with, and learn from, other philosophical traditions? According to universal pluralism, it is because other traditions might have views pertinent to the questions you are interested in.

On this view, Western philosophy on its own has already caught hold of the universal questions of philosophy, and has mapped out some of the main possible answers. But if other traditions already also came to those questions and answers, then in a spirit of open inquiry, we should accept and learn from that. And perhaps other traditions have approaches to the universal questions which illuminate new possibilities for lines of inquiry.

On the second view, which I will call relativist pluralism, the reason to look to other traditions is to appreciate how different are even the philosophical questions and methods of different traditions. The relativist denies the universal pluralist’s claim that there is a universal mode of doing philosophy, and sees in universal pluralism a misguided impulse for grand narratives which end up enforcing narratives of global imperialism and capitalism. The relativist says: what an amazing coincidence that the categories prominent in contemporary Western departments just so happen to be the very same categories that the other traditions also came up with in their supposedly universalist moments!

Whereas the universalist sees in the idea of the universal questions of philosophy the root of the common humanity of all traditions, the relativist wonders whether this peppy optimism isn’t, intentionally or not, running over the diverse modes of philosophy both within one’s own tradition and other traditions. The relativist suggests that there is no such thing as the questions or methods of philosophy. There are only always local questions or methods, and the reason to be a pluralist is to appreciate the inner dialectic of alternate traditions, and to thereby better understand the essential localness of one’s own tradition.

I haven’t seen Russell or Wittgenstein write anywhere about pluralism and engaging substantially with other traditions. But I imagine that if they did, then Russell would be a universal pluralist, and Wittgenstein would be a relativist pluralist.

The crucial difference between Russell and Wittgenstein can be brought out with this question: Do the categories of Western philosophy enable one to grasp universal philosophical truths? Russell’s answer was that if one sets aside the theological dimensions of Western philosophy, then most definitely, yes. Wittgenstein’s answer was a strong no, where the power of this answer comes not from a knee-jerk relativism, but from a meta-philosophy which denies there is any such thing as philosophical truths at all.

No wonder that Wittgenstein, like Heidegger and Foucault, has been so popular in the broader humanities. Can you imagine a literature professor saying, “Building on Russell’s idea of logical atomism, I will argue…”? Of course not. But it has been natural for a literature professor to say, “As Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblence shows…”. The other humanities came to pluralism earlier than professional philosophy, and they were trying to find a framework within which to navigate the engagement with other traditions. Precisely what analytic philosophers love about Russell, Frege and Carnap – their unremitting universalism – can seem to shut down pluralism before it can even begin. If the West has already discovered the universal categories of philosophy, then what can the philosophical motivation (beyond generosity of spirit and empathy) for engaging with other traditions?

What is now coming to the surface of analytic philosophy is a pluralism built on the categories of a Russell or a Quine. This generation of analytic philosophers are saying: “Hey! We don’t have to be pushed into this corner where if we think of philosophy as universal, then we are imperialists. Universalism can be compatible with pluralism.”

Some thinkers, like Bimal Krishna Matital and J. N. Mohanty, were already doing this forty years ago. Matilal studied Indian philosophy in India, got his PhD in the Sanskrit and Indian Studies department at Harvard, where he also studied with Quine, and then taught at Toronto and Oxford, and wrote on, among other things, Indian systems of logic and philosophy of perception. Mohanty studied Indian philosophy in India, got his PhD from Gottingen, and then taught for many years at Temple University; he wrote on, among other things, Husserl (the most universalist of continental thinkers) and phenomenology, and links to Indian philosophy.

When I was in academia (1995-2011), universal pluralism was not a prevalent view in the departments I was in. It is striking to see how things have changed in 5-10 years, where my sense is that universal pluralism is at least in the air nowadays. Like the literature professors, my own link to pluralism was through Wittgenstein, where I often felt that I needed to get out of the universalist presumption of my education just to get into the open air of other traditions. When I was in academia, I never made it into that open air, and that is why I didn’t focus on learning much about other traditions, including Indian philosophy. Most of my work was within the dialectic of, as I saw it, universalist analytic philosophy and Wittgensteinian criticisms of that tradition.

This also explains why I had a hard time back then reading thinkers like Matilal and Mohanty. I would pick up their books only to set them aside after a casual perusal. It was because I didn’t identity with them. They knew Indian philosophy in a way I didn’t, and my own lack of knowledge was a sore spot for me. But this wasn’t the main reason, since I could have gained some of that knowledge by reading their books. The main reason was that back then for me pluralism was something I was grappling with through the philosophy of Wittgenstein, and its critique of universalism. But I found in Matilal and Mohanty (and Amartya Sen) no trace of the Wittgensteinian suspicion of philosophy which was my own entry into pluralism.

So it led to the somewhat bizarre situation where even though I could see that obviously Matilal and Mohanty were pluralists, I felt that their form of pluralism was lost to me. The cause seemed to me the difference in our starting points. They began from within Indian philosophy, and from within its assumption of universalism, and so for them the universalism in Western philosophy felt like something to merge with rather than something to overcome.

But I was beginning from within Western philosophy, and I experienced Indian philosophy as being on the other side of this big fence of Western univeralism which seemed to suggest that there was no real need to get beyond that fence at all. Like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, I was forever trying in my thinking to jump over the fence of Western universalism, only to find myself falling short and getting caught in the fence.

What I was looking for was a third form of pluralism, what I will call transformative pluralism. On this view, the synthesis of different traditions is only possible when each tradition is critical of the universalist assumption within itself, and is then able to find in other traditions fellow companions in the same situation. In this way pluralism involves two transformations: a transformation internal to each tradition, where the universalist claims within that tradition are rendered problematic, and an external transformation where through the internal transformations, the traditions meet each other as equal partners in a global dialogue.

One might also call this dialectical pluralism. For it suggests there are three stages to a true pluralism: the thesis stage where internally each tradition assumes that it has found the universal modes of philosophy; the anti-thesis stage where each tradition is critical of its own assumption of universality; and the synthesis stage where in each tradition recognizing their essential limitations to universal philosophy on their own, they are able to together construct a more universal philosophy.

According to this view, neither Russell nor Wittgenstein got it entirely right. Russell was right that philosophy can only be understood in terms of orientating towards a universal framework. But he was wrong in thinking that Western philosophy, or any individual tradition, could on its own have chanced upon that universal framework. And Wittgenstein was right that the assumption of universality in Western philosophy (or, by extension, in any individual tradition) is incorrect, and that in order to see that we have to take a diagnostic, therapeutic approach; the therapy is meant to free one from a false sense of an already acquired universalism. But Wittgenstein was wrong in thinking that therapy is the end in itself. It is only a step towards a greater, more pluralistic form of philosophical flourishing.

Du Bois famously wrote, “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” In a similar fashion, one might say: the problem of the 21st century is the problem of pluralism. A central debate of 21st century philosophy is bound to be: What form can, or should, pluralism take? The three forms of pluralism outlined here are some of the possible answers. I think transformative pluralism is the right view. But as with any position, that requires argument and an openness to the other views.

What is at issue here about pluralism is a genuine open question, which can’t be settled through one’s cultural identity or politics. Whether you are white, black, Asian, mixed or so on, nothing in the identity itself will determine which view of pluralism is correct.

As long as the conversation remains at the level of Eurocentrism vs pluralism, it can be tempting to view it through color lines, as if when I disagree with a fellow Indian-American on the topic, then one of us must be selling out. I don’t think this is true even regarding the Eurocentrism vs pluralism debate, since, as I have said here, I think that is a live philosophical debate. But this is even more obvious with the debate about pluralism, and whether universal, relativist or transformative pluralism is correct. A person with any identity can defend any of these views.

This is incredibly freeing. One reason I didn’t engage with Matilal and Mohanty’s writings was that in one sense I didn’t identify with them. But another reason was that, in a different sense, I all too obviously identified with them. If I was struggling in Western academic philosophy in 2010, how much more must they have gone through in 1970?

At a personal level, this question triggered such deep admiration for them as people – for what must have been their intellectual and emotional fortitude – that the prospect of disagreeing with them triggered shame and guilt in me. When their work was already marginalized in the departments I was being educated in, would my disagreeing with them make them, and me, seem more marginal? I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t want to take the risk. I was seeing their writing primarily through the lens that we were born in the same country. And given that shared identity, I wasn’t sure what it meant to critical engage with their work.

But, actually, the deepest identity I share with Matilal and Mohanty isn’t our connection to India. It is that we, like many others of different backgrounds, value pluralism. Given that shared value, it is perfectly possible that I can agree or disagree with them about the possibilities of pluralism without that getting reduced to our more local identities. From this perspective, I am now looking forward to reading their work, and seeing how it connects with my own thinking.

2 thoughts on “Three Forms of Pluralism

  1. Alex Scott

    I think an important point you bring out is that there is not just one pluralism or kind of pluralism in philosophy. There are in fact many pluralisms or kinds of pluralism (metaphilosophical, ethical, ontological, epistemological, social, and cultural). This is a truly exciting development!


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Yes, it’s really nice to be able to engage with pluralism as a topic in itself, instead of trying to fight for it as if it was an amorphous, unified block somewhere in the distant horizon. It is amazing how powerful is the grip of the idea that there is nothing to philosophize about pluralism, as if either philosophy as it is now is fine, or that it will be fine if we include some different kinds of texts into the already existing universal framework. But if one pushes through this complacency, there is so much to think about; so much that is genuinely philosophically puzzling in a way that requires sustained reflection.



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