Pluralism, Good Manners and The Idea of a Common World

People and cultures have some non-overlapping beliefs. Some folk believe that there is a God, some that there is no God, some that there are many gods. Some people believe that personal autonomy is a paramount value, while others feel that virtues like honour and courage take precedence over personal freedom. These core beliefs are serious, in that they make a difference to whether people live or die, or are able to live the kinds of life that they wish. People fight and die for the sake of autonomy. People fight, die or (institute gang rapes) in the interests of personal honour.

Some folk – the self-styled pluralists – believe that respect for otherness is a paramount political value. Respecting otherness, they say, is so paramount that it should regulate our ontological commitments – our assumptions about what exists. I must admit that I find this hard to credit ontologically or ethically. But it is also unclear how we should spell the principle out. So I’ll consider two versions that have circulated in the blogosphere recently. The first, I will argue, teeters on incoherence or, where not incoherent, is hard to justify in ethical or political terms. The second – which demands that we build a common world – may also be incoherent, but I will argue that we have no reason to think that its ultimate goal is realisable.

According to Philip at Circling Squares Isabel Stengers and Bruno Latour think that this position should enjoin us to avoid ridiculing or undermining others’ values or ontologies. Further, that we should:

grant that all entities exist and, second, that to say that someone’s cherished idol (or whatever disputed entity they hold dear) is non-existent is a ‘declaration of war’ – ‘this means war,’ as Stengers often says.

I’ll admit that I find first part of this principle this damn puzzling. Even if we assume – for now – that it is wrong to attempt to undermine another person’s central beliefs this principle seems to require a) that people actually embrace ontological commitments that are contrary to the one’s they adhere to; b) pretend not to have one’s core beliefs; c) adopt some position of public neutrality vis a vis all core beliefs.

The first interpretation (a) results in the principle that one should embrace the contrary of every core belief; or, in effect, that no one should believe everything. So (in the interests of charity) we should pass on.

b) allows us to have beliefs so long as they are unexpressed. Depending on your view of beliefs, this is either incoherent (because there are no inexpressible beliefs) or burdens believers that no one is likely to find it acceptable.

So I take Philip to embrace c).  His clarification suggests something along these lines. For example. He claims that it is consistent with respecting otherness to say what we believe about other’s idols but not to publicly undermine their reasons for believing in them. Thus:

Their basic claim seems to be that ‘respect for otherness,’ i.e. political pluralism, can only come from granting the entities that others hold dear an ontology, even if you don’t ‘believe’ in them.  You are thus permitted to say ‘I do not follow that god, he has no hold over me’ but you are not permitted to say ‘your god is an inane, infantile, non-existent fantasy, grow up.’  And it’s not just a question of politeness (although there’s that too).  The point is to grant others’ idols and deities an existence – one needn’t agree over what that existence entails, over what capacities that entity has or what obligations it impresses upon you as someone in its partial presence but to deny it existence entirely is to ‘declare war’ – to deny the possibility of civil discourse, of pluralistic co-existence.

I must admit that I find this principle of respect puzzling as well. After all, some of my reasons for being an atheist are also reasons against being a theist. So unless this is just an innocuous plea for good manners (which I’m happy to sign up to on condition that notional others show me and mine the same forbearance) it seems to require that all believers keep their reasons for their belief to themselves. This, again, seems to demand an impossible or repugnant quietism.

So, thus far, ontological pluralism seems to be either incoherent or to impose such burdens on all believers that nobody should be required to observe it. There is, of course, a philosophical precedent for restricted ontological quietism in Rawls’ political liberalism. Rawls’ proposes that reasonable public deliberation recognize the “burdens of judgement” by omitted any justification that hinges on “comprehensive” ethical or religious doctrines over which there can be reasonable disagreement (Rawls 2005, 54). Deliberations about justice under Political Liberalism are thus constrained to be neutral towards “conflicting worldviews” so long as they are tolerant and reasonable (Habermas 1995, 119, 124-5).

However, there is an important difference between the political motivations behind Rawlsian public reason and the position of “ontological charity” Philip attributes to Stengers and Latour. Rawls’ is motivated by the need to preserve stability within plural democratic societies. Public reason does not apply outside the domain of political discourse in which reasonable citizens hash out basic principles of justice and constitutional essentials. It is also extremely problematic in itself.  Habermas  argues that Rawls exclusion of plural ethical or religious beliefs from the public court is self-vitiating because comprehensive perspectives are sources of disagreement about shared principles (for example, the legitimacy of abortion or same-sex marriage) and these must accordingly be addressed through dialogue rather than circumvented if a politically stable consensus is to be achieved (126).

Finally, apart from being incoherent, the principle of ontological charity seems unnecessary. As Levi Bryant points out in his realist retort to the pluralist, people are not the sum of their beliefs. Beliefs can be revised without effacing the believer. Thus an attack on core beliefs is not an attack on the person holding those beliefs.

So it is hard to interpret the claim that we should grant the existence of others’ “idols” as much more than the principle that it is wrong to humiliate, ridicule or insult people because of what their beliefs are. This seems like a good rule of thumb, but it is hard to justify the claim that it is an overriding principle. For example, even if  Rushdie’s Satanic Verses “insults Islam” having an open society in which aesthetic experimentation and the critical evaluation of ideas is possible is just more important than saving certain sections of it from cognitive dissonance or intellectual discomfort. Too many people have suffered death, terror and agony because others had aberrant and false core beliefs to make it plausible that these should be immune from criticism or ridicule. A little personal dissonance is a small price to pay for not going to the oven.

So what of the principle that we should build a “common world”. This is set out by Jeremy Trombley in his Struggle Forever blog under the rubric of “cosmopolitics”. Jeremy regards this project as an infinite task that requires us to seek a kind of fusion between different word views, phenomenologies and ontologies:

The project, as Latour, Stengers, James, and others have described it, is to compose a common world. What pluralism recognizes is that, in this project, we all start from different places – Latour’s relativity rather than relativism. The goal, then, (and it has to be recognized that this project is always contingent and prone to failure) is to make these different positions converge, but in a way that doesn’t impose one upon the other as the Modern Nature/Culture dichotomy tends to do. Why should we avoid imposing one on the other? In part because it’s the right thing to do – by imposing we remove or reduce the agency of the other. The claim to unmediated access to reality makes us invulnerable – no other claim has that grounding, and therefore we can never be wrong. But we are wrong – the science of the Enlightenment gave us climate change, environmental destruction, imperialism in the name of rationality (indigenous peoples removed from their land and taken to reeducation facilities where they were taught “rational” economic activities such as farming), and so on. It removed us from the world and placed us above it – the God’s eye view.

I think there a number of things wrong with cosmopolitics as Jeremy describes it here.

Firstly, seeking to alter beliefs or values does not necessarily reduce agency because people are not their beliefs.

Secondly, some worldviews – like the racist belief-systems that supported the European slave trade – just need to be imposed upon because they are bound up with violent and corrupting socio-political systems.

Thirdly, I know of no Enlightenment thinker, or realist, for whom “unmediated access to reality” is a sine qua non for knowledge. Let’s assume that “realism” is the contrary of pluralism here. It’s not clear what unmediated access would be like, but all realists are committed to the view that we we don’t have it since if we believe that reality has a mind-independent existence and nature, it can presumably vary independently of our beliefs about it. In its place, we have various doctrines of evidence and argument that are themselves susceptible to revision.  Some analyses of realism suppose that realists are committed to the claim that there is a one true account of the world (the God’s Eye View) but – as pointed out in an earlier post – this commitment is  debatable. In any case, supposing the the existence of a uniquely true theory is very different from claiming to have it.

Finally, much hinges on what we mean by a common world here. I take it that it is not the largely mind-independent reality assumed by the realist since – being largely mind-independent – it exists quite independently of any political project. So I take it that Jeremy is adverting something like a shared phenomenology or experience: a kind of fusion of horizons at the end of time. If we inflect “world” in this sense, then there is no reason for believing that such an aim is possible, let alone coherent. This possibility depends on there being structures of worldhood that are common to all beings that can be said to have one (Daseins, say). I’ve argued that there are no reasons for holding that we have access to such a priori knowledge because – like Scott Bakker – I hold that phenomenology gives us very limited insight into its nature. Thus we have no a priori grasp of what a world is and no reason to believe that Daseins (human or nonhuman) could ever participate in the same one. The argument for this is lengthy so I refer the reader to my paper “Nature’s Dark Domain” and my forthcoming book Posthuman Life.


Habermas, Jurgen. 1995. “Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on John Rawls’s Political Liberalism.” The Journal of Philosophy 92 (3): 109–131.

Rawls, John. 2005. Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press.




56 thoughts on “Pluralism, Good Manners and The Idea of a Common World

  1. “I dont follow, Scott. How am I attempting to stand above the fray by engaging others’ ontologies on a level playing field? Why is it my job to affirm anyone’s ontology? My job is to relate to others, and I can’t do that if I’m continually accusing them of holding false beliefs or paternalistically “tolerating” their faulty belief systems.”

    How is the playing field ‘level’? Do any of the believers you so ‘respect’ share your view? If not, then HOW CAN IT BE THE CASE THAT YOU SHARE THEIRS?

    Unless, that is, your view is more ‘accommodating,’ more ‘expansive,’ more ‘inclusive,’ capable of including their view even though their view is hostile to yours. Or in other words, unless your view somehow stands above their particular fray.

    What you’re doing is paternalistic in the extreme, obviously so, the way a parent might ‘refuse to take sides’ when their children are squabbling.

    The ‘level playing field’ just is the playing field of argumentation. When I invite the Mormon onto my porch, and say, ‘I disagree with your ontology, and here’s why,’ how on earth am I disrespecting them? I think I’m right. The Mormon think’s he’s right. We naively trust to language to sort things out. Where is the ‘disrespect’ here? The ‘unlevel playing field’?

    What do you do when the Mormon comes up on your porch? Say, ‘Oh I believe everything you say.’ And the Mormon says, ‘Great! Because you’re neighbours are excommunicated, and you need to stop associating with them!’ And you say? ‘Oh… well, I don’t believe like *that.*’

    So then how do you believe? The way a loving parent might?

    “Looks as though you’ve found a nice gimmick for claiming a solid moral high ground. Hypocrisy in denial.”

    And the ‘gimmick’ is? That I’m embroiled, same as everyone, hardwired to suppose moral superiority, same as everyone? You’re the dude claiming to be special.

    And this is the reason I think my view is *painfully* superior to yours, if only because it’s more honest. I see offending people, regardless of their beliefs, with hard questions is important work, because in a world where gene resequencing can be ordered online, decision making based on fantasy worlds is no longer a luxury our species can afford. I see positions such as yours as an expression of cowardice, as an example of yet another academic loathe to genuinely engage the hoi polloi *on the level,* dressing up their allergy to conflict as a form of piety.

    So of course I think my position morally superior to yours. The question of whether my grounds are more ‘solid’ depends on whether disagreeing = disrespect, or conversely, believing in a way actual believers wouldn’t recognize as believing = respect.

  2. Good grief, Scott, read the comments and the other posts in this debate – we’ve been through this before. I’ve already explained many times that I am opposed to racism, homophobia, sexism, and a whole lot of other things. I’ve said that my ontology does not prevent me from opposing or even actively fighting against those things because they don’t go away just by arguing and there are often more effective ways of resisting them that don’t depend on truth claims.

    What it does mean is that, when a Shoshone tribe member invites me on his porch, we can talk about how to stop the water pipeline from being built on the land occupied by his spirit ancestors rather than arguing about whether or not his spirit ancestors are real or simply saying “yeah, you believe in your spirits and I’ll believe you’re delusional and we’ll just agree to disagree.” It forces me to confront those spirits and consider what they demand of me. As for the Mormons, when they come to my house, I tell them I’m not interested and they generally go away.

    It’s nice for you that all of the world’s problems can be solved just by arguing them out on your porch. As an anthropologist, I actually have to go out and engage with Indian Tribes, government agencies, corporate interests, ranchers, farmers, scientists, etc. For that I need something a little stronger than discourse and also flexible enough to engage with a variety of worlds and beings. So enjoy your moral superiority arguing on your porch with those Mormons, and in the meantime I’ll be out there working on issues that matter.

  3. And you did a great job rolling eyes on the issue of coherence. The point here, however, is paternalism. Even if one were to grant the coherence of your view, your inability to *believe with* those you claim to ‘believe for’ makes it difficult to understand how your claim to moral superiority (pluralism is more moral than monism) is supposed to work. With the Mormon, I can actually *engage* them and their views, argue with them the way their uncle would on the back deck. The playing field (your metaphor) is entirely level. But you, by your own admission, can only *manage* them. You can pause, reflect on what the Book of Mormon ‘means to you’ (something entirely different than what it means to the Mormon), congratulate yourself on your inclusiveness, then demur.

    What you cannot do is have the conversation the *Mormon himself* genuinely wants to have: namely, a conversation about the truth. The fact is, this is only a conversation you can have with your ingroup intellectual peers. You have removed yourself from the ‘playing field’ in a very profound way.

    I can engage, because I genuinely think the Mormon is wrong. Openly disagreeing is not disrespect. You think the Mormon is neither right nor wrong, just special in their own way. If that’s not paternalism then what is?

    And as for what ‘matters’ – THIS! This is what matters. Academic heads up academic asses. I’ve argued all across the web, actually grappled with the facists you use as your bogeymen. I’ve engaged. And I can tell you first hand just how much your ingroup is despised, hated, how much people resent the kind of attitude you’re actively promoting to your fellows. I appreciate that you’re blind to it, but for a good many of the people you claim to be affirming, your ‘ontological inclusiveness’ reeks of arrogance and paternalistic presumption.

    And they’re pretty much spot on.

    The fact is, the days when academics could trade lazy generalizations over the ‘masses’ without direct social consequences are long, long gone. People are *actively* identifying themselves against intellectuals now, and you of all people should know what that means. But the problem is that engagement takes work. Work like THIS, where egos get bruised, and fingers feel light. This is what actual engagement feels like. Often angry, always anxious.

    Managing is so much easier, especially when you can wank it into a way of feeling morally superior.

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