views updated May 08 2018


Pluralism derives from the Latin plures, meaning "several" or "many," and it has formed the central concern of various intellectual traditions throughout the history of the West. Applied in philosophy, political theory, religion, and ethnic and racial relations, pluralism challenges the notion that a single authority or group must dominate all others. Rather than accepting the imposition of conformity to either a single standard of truth or a center of power, whether it is moral, political, cultural, or religious, pluralists have defended the right to diversity and difference. At its most promising, pluralism thus forms the basis of tolerance and the essential limitation of power and authority on behalf of human freedom.

Philosophical Pluralism

Philosophical pluralism's core belief consists of the notion that humans do not simply discover and copy, through the use of reason, a unified reality that exists independently of them. Rather, our view of reality, or that which we take as truth, is always influenced by our cultural and historical context. Truth, accordingly, can never be absolute, static, strictly objective, and monolithic. On the contrary, it always contains elements of subjectivity and change, more of relativism than absolutism. In short, truth, and even reality itself, consist of the many rather than the one.

Absolutism, on the other hand, holds that the human mind acts ideally as a passive mirror that faithfully reflects an independently existing, unified reality without distortion. Universal agreement about the nature of that reality is therefore possible. This notion was most famously articulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.). In his allegory of the cave, Plato regarded the knowledge of ordinary people to be distorted by the conventions of culture and the flux of change typical of the empirical world of passing phenomena. Plato's philosopher, on the other hand, abandoned the cave of culture and walked outside into the light. There he apprehended the eternal, the unchanging, the very essence of all beingthe pure Idea. Thus Plato's philosopher rose above myth, deception, and error, above the darkness of the empirical world typical of the cave of ordinary life. He transcended all limitations to achieve objective, transparent, and timeless truth through the exercise of unconditioned reason. With his mind thus unfettered, the philosopher should also assume the political authority of king in the ideal republic because he alone could rule on the basis of truth and reason. Plato thereby introduced the undemocratic view that only those with privileged consciousness should rule.


Future generations of pluralists would challenge absolutism in various ways, but it fell to Plato's student Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) to criticize the overly abstract quality of the Platonic Idea of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle pointed out that Plato's disembodied categories of thought proved unhelpful and even irrelevant because they were too disconnected from reality to serve as a useful guide to experience. Even if the Platonic Idea of the Good, for example, could somehow be known by human reason (and Aristotle thought this impossible) "it is not easy to see how knowing that same Ideal Good will help a weaver or carpenter in the practice of his own craft," Aristotle argued, "or how anybody will be a better physician or general for having contemplated the absolute Idea" (p. 25). For Aristotle, reality consisted rather of the empirical facts as faced by humans in concrete situations. Not even the physician studies the Good in the abstract. Rather, "he studies the health of the human beingor rather of some particular human being, for it is the individual that he has to cure" (p. 25). Like Aristotle, future generations of pluralists would chafe against the arid abstractions of idealist philosophy; they, too, would favor the multiplicity of empirical facts encountered by historically situated subjects in search of truth capable of guiding action in the world shared by men and women. Their universe, unlike Aristotle's, however, would be open-ended, changing; their truths would be plural rather than singular, monistic, and absolute. Nor would they come to expect universal agreement; for them, Socratic dialogue would be their guide.

German Historicism

Giambattista Vico (16681744) and Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803), the founders of German historicism, deepened the rebellion against monism and absolutism. These critics of the great tradition of Western philosophy rejected that tradition's key assumption that natural laws operated to maintain an independent, objective reality, knowledge of which would yield absolute, foundational truth. Attacking the Enlightenment claim that European culture best exemplified the triumph of reason and science, Vico and Herder surveyed the sweeping panorama of history and cultural variation with deep respect and tenderness. Rather than demanding conformity to some chimerical universal truth, these pluralists cherished a world made vibrant by difference. Each culture, each epoch did not represent a mistake, deviation, or lower stage of development. Like a colorful garden made up of many flowers, the plurality of cultures suggested beauty and completeness in each form, all wondrous manifestations of the creative force of humankind. Vico grounded his defense of pluralism in a rejection of the philosophes' notion that mathematical laws corresponded to those of an independent reality. Far from offering a paradigm of certainty, mathematics, for Vico, provided at best knowledge of regularity but certainly not authentic understanding of the human world. The utility of mathematics lay in its origin as a human creation, not in its presumed correspondence with reality. And humans could understand mathematics because they had created it. Vico then applied this maker's theory of knowledge to the realm of culture. We could come to understand other cultures by virtue of our shared humanity and capacities as cocreators of culture. For this to occur, however, we must abandon the fallacious doctrine of absolutism and approach other cultures on their own terms.

Herder too rejected the mechanical method of science and universalism for sympathetic understanding, which he termed Verstehen. In exercising this ability to understand others separated from us by time or cultural difference, we engage the other in a process of dialogue in an encounter between self and other. Through the use of subtlety and imaginative reconstruction, we attempt to understand the different on its own terms rather than attempting to force it into conformity with nonexistent laws. For Herder then, authentic progress consisted not in uniformity but in the acknowledgment that "not a man, not a country, not a people, not a natural history, not a state are like one another. Hence the True, the Good, the Beautiful in man are not similar either" (Berlin, p. 210). Thus by Herder's lights, "It is terrible arrogance to affirm that, to be happy, everyone should become European" (Berlin, pp. 210, 197). For these defenders of difference, the flowering of spontaneous, natural forms of human self-expression by men and women in cultural groups united by a common language and worldview provided humankind with a flesh-and-blood alternative to the abstract, lifeless citizen of the Enlightenment.


At the dawn of the twentieth century, a new philosophical movement called pragmatism emerged, part of the modernist revolt against nineteenth-century orthodoxy. Influenced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) and the French thinker Henri-Louis Bergson (18591941), the movement included such leading figures as Charles S. Peirce (18391914), William James (18421910), and John Dewey (18591952). Although differences existed within the movement, pragmatists were united in their search for empirical truths capable of guiding action in a changing world. Unlike absolutists therefore, pragmatists conceived of truth as relative and akin to scientific hypotheses verifiable through experience and subject to revision in the light of new conditions. William James captured the reigning view of truth in his critique of absolute theism. Like philosophical idealism, its more secular counterpart, absolute theism insisted that "truth exists per se and absolutely by God's grace and decree, no matter who of us knows it or is ignorant, and it would continue to exist unaltered, even though we finite knowers were all annihilated" (1909, p. 28). However, the proliferation of contending scientific theories in the late nineteenth century, as well as the profound influence of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, called into question the entire notion that truth represents a mere mental copy of a static, independent reality. Pragmatists believed "that even the truest formula may be a human device and not a literal transcript" (James, 1955, p. 233). Indeed James regarded the "very notion of a world complete unto itself, to which thought comes as a passive mirror, adding nothing to fact" as "irrational" (1955, p. 233).

By situating truth and reason inside the empirical flux of experience rather than outside it in some abstract, static transcendental realm, pragmatists abandoned the unhelpful quest for certainty and instead offered reason as an instrument of adaptation and dynamic transformation of the world. "What really exists," James held, "is not things made but things in the making" (1909, p. 263). Regarding truth as an encounter between subject and object, he looked to "living understanding of the movement of reality" as an alternative. Moreover that flux could only be seen as pluralistic rather than monistic. In the place of monism, James thus offered his pluralistic universe, which he regarded "more like a federal republic than like an empire or kingdom. However much may report itself as present at any effective center of consciousness or action," he cautioned, "something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity" (1909, pp. 264, 321322).

Cultural Pluralism

The pluralistic defense of cultural diversity typical of Vico, Herder, and James has grown more powerful in the modern world as ethnic and racial groups within multiethnic societies have increasingly sought to exercise political power and retain their cultural heritage in the face of demands for cultural conformity. In the United States the pragmatists Horace Meyer Kallen (18821974) and Randolph Silliman Bourne (18861918) supplied a spirited defense of diversity during World War I. Although the American political tradition of classical liberalism championed individual rights, it failed to extend those rights to include the right to be culturally different. Liberal rights had wrongly assumed "that men are men merely, as like as marbles and destined under uniformity of conditions to uniformity of spirit," Kallen wrote in "Democracy versus the Melting Pot" (p. 193). The right to cultural identity was essential to selfhood, however, and Kallen called for a "Federal republic," a "democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously in the enterprise of self-realization through the perfection of men according to their kind" (p. 220).

Similarly Bourne's 1916 essay "Transnational America" reminded dominant Anglo-Saxons that even the early colonists "did not come to be assimilated in an American melting-pot. They did not come to adopt the culture of the American Indian" (p. 249). Bourne also called for a "cosmopolitan federation of national colonies" within which ethnic groups "merge but they do not fuse" (pp. 258, 255). Thus an immigrant would be both a Serb and an American, for example, as difference harmonized with common ground.

Life can be seen through
many windows,
none of them necessarily
clear or opaque,
less or more distorting
than any of the others.

source: Sir Isaiah Berlin, "Winston Churchill in 1940," in Personal Impressions, p. 4.

Although both men challenged what was taken by most Anglo-Saxons to be the absolute truth regarding what it meant to be an American, Bourne went well beyond Kallen's demand for freedom defined simply as a private right to be different. Influenced by the Enlightenment, Kallen assigned ethnicity to private life while he placed the public world in the hands of technical experts. Bourne, on the other hand, urged a national collaboration in the construction of a new national culture by all racial and ethnic groups in terms reminiscent of Herder. Contrarily then, Bourne's freedom meant "a democratic cooperation in determining the ideals and purposes and industrial and social institutions of a country" (p. 252). Thus while Kallen's vision served to strengthen the dominance of experts in the public sphere of work and politics, Bourne called for a "Beloved Community" that placed democratic participation and a discussion of values at the very center of public life (p. 264).

Animated by these somewhat contradictory ideals, cultural pluralism constituted a protean movement in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States. Particularly important achievements include the efforts of John Collier (18841968) as commissioner of Indian Affairs during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt to overturn the U.S. government's policy of assimilation of the American Indian. Due to Collier's efforts, Native Americans regained the right to their cultures, lands, and tribal political institutions after decades of denial. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s also reflected the principles of cultural pluralism. Alain Leroy Locke (18861954), America's first African-American Rhodes scholar and a former student of William James, furnished the guiding vision of the Renaissance and helped to achieve Bourne's "beloved community." Finding beauty within himself, through a rebirth of black art, the "new Negro" would thereby achieve the moral dignity suited to a "collaborator and participant in American civilization" (Locke, 1925, p. 5). Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude Mackay, Jean Toomer, and others awakened black pride and offered an aesthetically and spiritually barren industrial capitalist America African-American wisdom and beauty instead of the ashes of materialism.

During the second half of the twentieth century, cultural pluralist thought in the United States was increasingly eclipsed by the lingering commitment of liberal intellectuals to the Marxist notion of culture as mere superstructure or as determined by the more fundamental struggle for power. Nevertheless, minority groups continue to struggle to achieve cultural democracy in the early twenty-first century's multicultural societies. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, following Herder, has argued, being true to oneself requires an acknowledgment by both self and other of the indispensable role of culture in the creation of identity. Because culture imparts those particular aspectsreligion, language, traditionsthat make an individual or group unique, the forced assimilation of minorities to the hegemonic standard of identity by a majority group constitutes a form of oppression and violence of the spirit. This recognition has led in turn to efforts to expand the political theory of liberalism to include not only a defense of identical universal rights but the right of groups to cultural differences as well. Cultural pluralists therefore seek to supplant cultural monism or absolutism with pluralism by reconciling community with diversity in the modern world.

Critics of cultural pluralism and multiculturalism worry, however, that the twenty-first century's emphasis on racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity will go too far and erode the common ground necessary to national unity. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., for example, decried the collapse of shared values and traditions under the weight of a dangerous tribalism in The Disuniting of America. Assimilation within the crucible of the melting pot, America's "brilliant solution for the inherent fragility of a multicultural society," was being destroyed by the multiculturalists' "search for roots" and the "cult of ethnicity" (Schlesinger, pp. 13, 15). Thus unity threatened to "give way to the Tower of Babel" (Schlesinger, p. 17).

David Hollinger has similarly pointed out the dangers of diversity. Unlike Schlesinger's prescription for a conformist unity based on assimilation, however, Hollinger has called for a postethnic America founded upon cosmopolitanism. Drawing a helpful distinction between cosmopolitanism and conformist universalism, he argued that the former "shared with all varieties of universalism a profound suspicion of enclosures, but cosmopolitanism is defined by an additional element not essential to universalism itself: recognition, acceptance, and eager exploration of diversity" (p. 84). At their best, such critics remind us that the claims of diversity and community must be reconciled, a reconciliation achieved by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them. The more people's standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion.

source: Hannah Arendt, "Truth and Politics," in Between Past and Future, p. 241.

Political Pluralism

In practice, the political variation on pluralist thought has attempted to disperse political power and authority in modern societies, with varying degrees of success. English political pluralists, for example, grappled with the problem of maintaining political diversity and liberty in the face of the growing power of the modern state in the early twentieth century. Influenced by the Whig tradition, which sought to safeguard the achievements of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 by limiting state power through a system of checks and balances, J. N. Figgis (18661919) and Harold J. Laski (18931950) feared this centralization of power and sought to disperse it among the various groups and associations within society. They thus opposed the idealist view of the state, typical of T. H. Green (18361882) and F. H. Bradley (18461924), as the highest expression of social unity. Contrarily, pluralists regarded the state as one group among many, the function of which consisted of maintaining individual liberty and the social order necessary to the pursuit of substantive goods by groups within a flourishing civil society. In their insistence that state power be limited, pluralists therefore followed the lead of Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859) and F. W. Maitland (18501906), both of whom sought to strengthen those intermediate groups between the individual and the state as the most effective bulwark against tyranny. The works of Laski and Figgis influenced English guild socialists, such as G. D. H. Cole, S. G. Hobson, and A. R. Orage, who hoped to use the state to establish guilds that would abolish capitalism and reinstitute worker control of industry. That tradition, however, lost influence from 1920 to 1960 to the state socialism of the Labour Party.

Whereas their English counterparts were preoccupied with limiting state power, American pluralists, such as Arthur F. Bentley, Walter Lippmann, David Truman, and Robert Dahl, stressed a notion of pluralism as a system of indirect democracy characterized by interest-group competition and a balance of power. Purportedly open to all citizens and overseen by enlightened elites, these groups engaged in bargaining and compromise over rational, limited ends. With its roots in the works of Roberto Michels, Gaetano Mosca, and Vilfredo Pareto, American political pluralism, especially after World War II, emphasized the necessity of political and economic elites in maintaining democracy. As interpreted by liberal intellectuals during the Cold War, the masses could not be trusted to act rationally out of reasonable self-interest. Instead, they were seen as authoritarian, prone to conspiracy theories, and uncommitted to the values of liberal democracy. Only a system of interest-group competition within a stable, corporate capitalist system overseen by enlightened elites could prevent the mass activism that had led in Europe to the totalitarian regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, it was believed. Thus democracy was redefined to mean not rule by the people but rather rule of the people by elites. Ethnic and racial groups were consequently redefined as organized interest groups vying with each other for a fair share of economic and political power within a responsive, expanding system of corporate capitalism and interest-group pluralism. Rule by the professional managerial class, experts, and intellectuals was therefore both rationalized and justified, a view for which pluralism has often been criticized. Nevertheless, Robert Dahl has called for the establishment of self-governing worker cooperatives in industry as a democratic antidote to the concentration of political power by America's corporate oligarchy. Likewise some neopluralist thinkers seek to revise conceptions of political power and better account for the political voice and engagement of the diverse groups pluralism aims to protect.


Reinhold Niebuhr captured the spirit of pluralism when he wrote: "Absolutism, in both religious and political idealism, is a splendid incentive to heroic action, but a dangerous guide in immediate concrete situations. In religion it permits absurdities and in politics unbearable tyrannies and cruelties" (p. 199). As the horrific events of September 11, 2001, demonstrated, religious absolutism too is capable of "unbearable cruelties." In the aftermath of September 11, pluralism therefore increasingly became synonymous with religious and cultural diversity and secularism as well as the decentralization of political power typical of the modern West. Thus pluralism has come to signify the tolerance and liberalism of the Western tradition as opposed to the closed, totalitarian societies of Islamic fundamentalists. Whatever the sources of absolutism may be, the works of Hannah Arendt (19061975) and Isaiah Berlin (19091997) as well as those of the earlier pluralists remain an important guide in troubled times.

See also Capitalism ; Citizenship ; Civil Society ; Cultural Studies ; Idealism ; Identity: Personal and Social Identity ; Liberalism ; Marxism ; Nation ; Representation: Political Representation .



Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking, 1968.

Aristotle. The Nichomachean Ethics. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939.

Berlin, Isaiah. Personal Impressions. 2nd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Bourne, Randolph. "Transnational America." In his The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911 1918. Edited by Olaf Hansen. New York: Urizen Books, 1977.

Dahl, Robert A. A Preface to Economic Democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Hirst, Paul Q., ed. The Pluralist Theory of the State: Selected Writings of G. D. H. Cole, J. N. Figgis, and H. J. Laski. London: Routledge, 1989.

James, William. A Pluralistic Universe: Hibbert Lectures to Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy. London: Longmans, Green, 1909.

. Pragmatism: And Four Essays from "The Meaning of Truth." Edited by Ralph Barton Perry. New York: Meridian, 1955.

Kallen, Horace M. "Democracy versus the Melting Pot." Nation 100 (18/25 February, 1915): 190194; 217220.

Locke, Alain. The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture. Edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart. New York: Garland, 1983.

. "The New Negro." In The New Negro: An Interpretation, edited by Alain Locke. New York: A. and C. Boni, 1925.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. New York: Scribners, 1932.

Taylor, Charles. "The Politics of Recognition." In Multiculturalism and "The Politics of Recognition": An Essay. Edited by Amy Gutmann. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.


Akam, Everett Helmut. Transnational America: Cultural Pluralist Thought in the Twentieth Century. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Berlin, Isaiah. Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. New York: Viking, 1976.

Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: Norton, 2003. An example of the identification of the West with pluralism, in contrast to "totalitarian" Islamic fundamentalism.

Hollinger, David A. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: BasicBooks, 1995.

Isaac, Jeffrey C. Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Runciman, David. Pluralism and the Personality of the State. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Disuniting of America. New York: Norton, 1992.

Everett Helmut Akam


views updated May 23 2018


Development of the doctrine


American analytical pluralism


In the context of public affairs and political thought, pluralism refers to specific institutional arrangements for distributing and sharing governmental power, to the doctrinal defense of these arrangements, and to an approach for gaining understanding of political behavior. Political pluralism is therefore a historical phenomenon, a normative doctrine, and a mode of analysis. As the exclusively proper way of ordering and explaining public life, it remains the heart of the liberal ideology of the Western world.

Six general propositions are integral to the political theory of pluralism: (1) individual fulfillment is assured by small governmental units, for they alone are representative; (2) the unrepresentative exercise of governmental power is frustrated when public agencies are geographically dispersed; (3) society is composed of a variety of reasonably independent religious, cultural, educational, professional, and economic associations; (4) these private associations are voluntary insofar as no individual is ever wholly affiliated with any one of them; (5) public policy accepted as binding on all associations is the result of their own free interaction; and (6) public government is obliged to discern and act only upon the common denominator of group concurrence.

These propositions may be employed as empirical generalizations, as components of a model for analysis, or as an outline for reform. They also define the exemplary state as one within which public authority will properly devolve on a plurality of groups. The public realm will become one in which coexisting groups naturally complement one another, and little government is necessary. The role of government will be limited to preserving an equilibrium that generally emerges spontaneously. This natural equilibrium, its parts in amiable competition with one another, will be granted independence from external controls and will not have to be made accountable to either the sovereign individual or the sovereign state.

Development of the doctrine

The theory of political pluralism has not been advanced in these idealized terms. In the hands of European thinkers at the turn of the century, political pluralism received a sophisticated formulation that at once clarified its liberal aspirations, its ideological sources, and its ultimate limitations.

In the period preceding World War I, Europe witnessed a burgeoning of intellectual interest in reconstructing institutions for the protection of individuals—individuals who seemed increasingly lost in the mass, debased by the industrial division of labor, and exposed to manipulation by an unrepresentative state. It was widely felt by different syndicalists and socialists (and by some sociologists, psychologists, and criminologists) that the emergence of the sovereign nation-state under conditions of industrialism posed a threat to the individual by destroying his natural social habitat. The state was seen to reinforce conditions under which men, while technologically interdependent, became emotionally and intellectually estranged from one another. Society had become a mere aggregation of individuals; men were no longer members of a true community. If they were bound together, it was not by their natural ties but by artificial devices: an ascending industrialism, a centrally controlled economy, and a legal order that made all coercion appear legitimate. Since these conditions were felt to be deplorable on the ground that they were not natural to man, the question was how to recover man’s natural place.

The first task, it seemed, was to reintegrate and resocialize the masses. Given the view that an unmitigated individualism was as reprehensible as statism and that the former would indeed lead to the latter, it became reasonable to argue for recognizing the rights of a plurality of associations. Poised between the individual and the state, a newly vindicated cluster of groups might enable man to develop his true potentialities, to find himself, and to be himself. Intermediary associations would provide a sense of community while shielding their members against undue state power.

This line of reasoning led to a renewed appreciation of the preindustrial landscape dotted with innumerable groups. The desire for a new social pluralism made it irresistible to plead for reorganizing productive units in the image of the medieval guild, for redesigning communities in the image of the village, or for reforming the social system generally in the image of an obviously “functional” regime. The modern world being so obviously “disfunction al,” the lost feudal world of guilds, corporations, churches, monasteries, universities, municipalities, and estates could take on the attributes of a utopian society. By integrating individuals in such a society, wholeness might be restored.

Thus it was thought possible to re-establish what Aristotle had considered the authentic human community—a compact, purposive group of men who would “know each other’s characters,” sharing a cultural background and a common political outlook. More important, it would also be possible to move beyond the territorial limits Aristotle had envisaged for the ideal state, for a whole variety of such groups could now be confederated within a single governmental complex. By providing for a comprehensive organizational frame and by extending the territory of a republic, a diversity of homogeneous groups could be accommodated within the heterogeneous state. Questions of general policy comprehensively affecting the public order, questions that Greek political theory could not confront because it did not consider the technique of federalism, could thus be explicitly met. Individual rights could be safeguarded despite modern social and industrial changes.

To guarantee the rights of individuals, it seemed primarily essential to fortify the rights of private associations. Small, close-knit, face-to-face groups, so it was held, constituted man’s true communities. Since the modern state had grown large and imperious, it now became appropriate to dismantle it, or at least to have it do no more than (1) foster, within its own boundaries, those small groups that alone preserve the habits of self-government and (2) administer the remaining public order so as to keep the peace between these coexisting groups.

These views found particularly cogent expression in English political thought. A number of English thinkers, prompted by their respect for individual freedom, were aesthetically and morally dismayed by what they saw in their social and industrial environment. They grew indignant over the ugly and degrading effects of industrialization, especially its inhuman discipline. They witnessed and proceeded to document the gradual concentration of economic power and the concurrent loss of individual autonomy. A seemingly laissez-faire economy that was postulated on individualism actually encouraged the exercise of power by a social class that performed no socially useful function.

While all this seemed clear to the critics of the ascending state, they did not feel that the state itself might be employed to assert individual rights against an increasingly concentrated economic order. They were dissuaded from relying on positive state action both by their liberal past and by the alarming developments taking place in imperial Germany. There, a nationalistic and militaristic state socialism circumscribed individual freedom just as effectively as an economic elite had done elsewhere.

The impulse of English pluralist thinkers remained consistently to protect the individual against the corrupting influence of monolithic power—against whatever force threatened to entangle and destroy him, whether political or economic. Because power was ever subject to abuse, they felt that the very possibility of its unified exercise must be frustrated. Because the existing state was increasingly the instrument of the dominant class ruling in its own interest, the neutralization of the state became imperative. And because the state was increasingly unrepresentative and irresponsible, it had to be fragmented—that is, pluralized.

In behalf of the dignity of the individual person, then, but aware of his fate when an unrestrained minority had the power to mechanize work and to organize the market, two generations of English pluralists attacked whatever political theory presumed to justify an exploitative capitalism. Frederic Maitland (1900), John Neville Figgis (1913), Arthur J. Penty (1906), and S. G. Hobson (1920) were followed by Harold J. Laski (1919), R. H. Tawney (1920), and G. D. H. Cole (1920a). All were prepared to challenge the theories that bound individuals and groups to the state, whether the state was defined as the embodiment of the general will, as legally omnipotent, or as the highest manifestation of disembodied reason. Rousseau, Austin, and Hegel—none of them escaped the onslaught of the pluralists. [SeeCole, G. D. H.; Figgis; Laski; Maitland; Tawney.]

On the one hand, the pluralists reacted against nineteenth-century liberalism and utilitarianism, which had placed the individual in a social vacuum, abstracting him from his associations and making him the sovereign calculator of his interests. Here the pluralists realized that such a detached individual was all too quickly coerced and reintegrated by Bentham’s sovereign legislator and by Austin’s positive law [seeAustin; Bentham]. And on the other hand, they reacted against Continental idealism in particular the Hegelian doctrine that the power then being exercised by the real state ominously intimated the all-powerful ideal [seeHegel].

Exposing the pretensions of German idealism, of the Austinian theory of sovereignty, and of Spencer’s defense of a laissez-faire state, the English pluralists sought to direct attention to the social reality and the political facts that philosophy and jurisprudence had generally begun to blur [seeSpencer]. They found philosophy out of touch with historical experience; it appeared increasingly artificial, contrived, and “unrealistic.” Determined to be empirical, they revolted against the prevailing fictions, in particular against the fiction of state sovereignty. The pluralists aspired toward a theory that took its bearing by the observed facts of political life, the most fundamental of which was the group nature of all politics. Thus, beneath the fictions of philosophy, they rediscovered man’s associations. What really aroused and commanded the individual’s interest and loyalty was a plurality of groups, and the modern state was not to be found among them. Neither the positive state of idealism nor the negative state of classical liberalism could satisfy genuine human needs. Men were far more inclined to feel obligated to their club, their church, or their union than to the sovereign state. History could be enlisted to show that conflicts between the cluster of these groups and the state were not necessarily resolved in favor of the state. Groups effectively preserved their prerogatives; they fought the state, modified it, parceled it out.

The theories of Rousseau, Austin, and Hegel seemed to be placed in jeopardy by the rediscovered facts. These facts buttressed the value assumptions of pluralist thinkers and supported their belief in the wholesome nature of group life. Their case could, therefore, be historical as well as moral, empirical as well as normative. Since the faÇade of British public life concealed a reality already approximating the pluralistic ideal, political theory needed merely to stress and nurture what was still hidden. The pluralists called attention to the associations that, they claimed, the liberal state had unjustly relegated to the periphery because, like the church, they represented a vanquished enemy, or because, like the trade union, they represented new economic interests. Theory could advance disguised as history.

This general appreciation of the significance of groups was given unintentional support by Otto von Gierke [seeGierke]. Ironically, his work had been intended as a contribution to German nationalism: it attempted to revive institutions native to Germany and to repudiate the alien doctrines of Roman law. Roman law had regarded the corporation as but a legal personality that owed its existence exclusively to state action. Against this, Gierke showed that the source of law was actually not the omnipotent state, but men acting through groups. The corporation, having flowered on German soil without state aid, was, he argued, an irreducible entity—not a creature of the law, not a fictitious personality made or unmade at the pleasure of the state. It was a living organization with its own will and consciousness (Gierke 1913).

Although there certainly was no need in England to react against Roman law, Maitland found application for Gierke’s ideas. Supported by Gierke’s research, he saw the state as but one of a number of associations, with no right to pre-eminence. Thus Gierke’s work, while not presuming to attack the doctrine of state sovereignty directly, helped the pluralists to perceive the natural autonomy— and therefore the natural rights—of a plurality of disparaged or unrecognized private associations. Figgis used Gierke’s ideas to vindicate the rights of the church; Laski and Cole, to defend various economic groupings. Should group and state ever come into conflict, the question of whom to obey could therefore be an open one; it could become legitimate to side with the group that represented the individual against the state.

The belief in the representative nature of the groups, as opposed to the state, was based on two premises. First, a voluntary association would quite naturally enlist the interests of those who established and maintained it. Second, the group’s managers would be professionalized and hence socially responsible. By giving men freedom where it mattered, namely within associations that encompassed their day-to-day economic and productive relations, men could be counted on to participate in politics. They would cease being estranged from one another and from the public order.

Whatever label might be attached to it—industrial democracy, economic federalism, occupational representation, functional corporatism, or guild socialism—the new confederation of self-regulating, harmoniously coexisting groups could, it was hoped, grow out of the old state. The state would become a passive coordinating authority, acting merely in response to group desires. Sound public policy would emerge without independent, positive state action. At most, the state would be a public-service corporation.

A full theoretical treatment of the state as a mere public-service corporation was given in France by Léon Duguit (1913) [seeDuguit]. Chiefly interested in defining the basis of law, Duguit took note of his country’s assumption of responsibility toward the community through its system of decentralized administrative courts. He saw the state not as the autonomous source of law but as the neutral servant of the community. Its commands, he observed, appeared imperative only by virtue of a legal fiction. Realistically seen, public enactments grew out of prevailing social groupings. Those who exercised governmental public-service functions, Duguit said, did so under laws actually expressive of that same underlying social solidarity by which governments first arose.

Although an idealist residue remained in Duguit’s formulations—just as it was to remain in Laski’s—the notion of state sovereignty was foreign to his thought. Both he and the English pluralists deprived the state of that primacy that idealist theory had postulated. After all, they had seen that men respond more strongly to various subnational associations, regions, and productive units than to the state. They found sovereignty divisible and allegiance to the state contingent and qualified. They argued what American statesmanship—insisting on bills of rights, on a separation of powers, and on the institution of federalism—had concluded more than a century before. They affirmed that the state could have no inherent natural right either to impose its will upon governmental competitors or to oblige men to obey the law of the state merely because the state so desired.

In adhering to this position, English pluralism gave a rational cast to political movements that professed to sponsor mass participation in politics, and that sought to draw interest groups into the policy-making process by providing for representation through trade associations, labor unions, chambers of commerce, and consumers. Insisting on the diffusion of the power to make public policy, pluralism encouraged movements for “economic democracy,” “functional representation,” and “codetermination in industry.” By helping to rationalize the doctrines of State rights, home rule, and decentralized administration, it established a link with theories of government by Soviets, by syndicates and cartels, or by fascist corporations.


Although the advocates of pluralism had taken a fresh look at society in the name of realism, they ultimately succumbed to new fictions. For one thing, they ignored the complex reality of group life and thus failed to deal with the possibility of group tyranny over individuals. To them, it appeared that groups necessarily represent human purposes and functions, realize individual values, and thereby make freedom meaningful. They depended on an individual rationality and interest in politics that they did not subject to empirical inquiry. Nor did they consider the possibility of manipulating individuals through groups that were themselves subservient to state power, a possibility realized by the corporatism Mussolini instituted in 1926. Furthermore, they were so concerned about the abuse of governmental power that they preferred to risk political stalemate, inviting what Laski frankly called contingent anarchy. Having devitalized the state, they saw it as a neutral umpire who would never act unless there were a common denominator of group interests. They saw it as carefully protecting the lawmaking prerogative of groups, and not presuming to take the initiative in the field of public policy. Government was considered an agency facilitating agreement, but not an independent source and initiator of policy. Pluralists realized that this might well make for deadlock, but inaction seemed better than action when action might be directed toward some group-transcending purpose discerned by the leadership.

Still, by the 1930s it appeared necessary to some of the pluralists themselves to reintroduce what they had previously banished: a unified purpose above and beyond the will of a plurality of groups. They had rejected such ideas as common good, community interests, and general will. Yet they found it scarcely possible to conceive of the political process without the purposeful, helping hand of the state, especially as domestic group competition and foreign threats endangered the viability of a pluralistic political order. Thus both Laski and Cole were finally driven to recognize needs more fundamental than a vibrant group life. They were to argue for both leadership to give expression to these needs and a state equipped to satisfy them. Thus, under the pressures of modern group life and revolutionary technological and economical developments, pluralists’ theory began to grow irrelevant.

During the first half of the twentieth century, various administrative reforms that appeared to be modeled on the theory of pluralism made the predicament of its proponents increasingly explicit. The national economic councils of Europe in the 1920s, Fascist corporatism, the Industrial Recovery Administration during the New Deal period, the use of advisory committees for departments of government, reliance on worker control of industry in Germany, Poland, and Yugoslavia after World War II—all these indicated that to implement governmental policy along geographically decentralized, federalistic, and pluralistic lines means to transfer the power to govern to the commanding elements within the most prosperous, entrenched, and unscrupulous groups. Rather than liberating individuals, it reinforces the power already centralized and consolidated under private auspices. Inasmuch as the proponents of pluralism were dedicated to the integrity of the individual person and to the extension of his freedom, they inevitably became embarrassed by the ostensibly voluntary and representative business corporation, agricultural organization, trade association, labor union, and professional group. Maturing under modern, industrial conditions, associations assumed a scale and an organizational structure making them oligarchical in their actual operations, and likely to smother the individual as effectively as the state. Furthermore, associations could preclude state action in areas in which liberty might yet be extended.

American analytical pluralism

Although empirical evidence jeopardized the case for pluralist institutions, it was slow to touch academic research, especially in the United States. In the United States, no systematic theoretical defense of political pluralism has ever been formulated. So secure and “natural” was the pluralistic foundation of government that it could be accepted as the axiomatic point of departure for political practice and public discourse. Alexis de Tocqueville’s reflections on self-governing “intermediate bodies” capable of countervailing both an atomistic and a totalitarian state could become the exclusive basis for public philosophy: it seemed to be at once descriptively accurate, normatively desirable, and analytically fruitful.

Thus, even though the structures of industry and of the economy have undergone radical changes during the past century, transforming the very organization of society, a considerable part of American academic research continues to follow the lines first suggested by Arthur F. Bentley’s Process of Government (1908) [seeBentley]. Sustained by an analytical model suitable for understanding the behavior of small groups, it treats large groups as if they were homogeneous, voluntary, single-interest associations. It variously seeks to give descriptive accounts of group life and to construct abstract frameworks charting the flow and counterflow of group pressures. It postulates (1) that the dynamics of social change are determined by interacting groups, (2) that government is but a responsive instrument for keeping stable the natural equilibrium of competing interests, and (3) that public policy is most usefully understood as the product of the free play of group pressures. Thus some American academic research identifies political decisions with the group process, and the group process with the significant reality of public life [seeFollett; Political group analysis].

So thoroughly has the group basis of politics been accepted that scholars could characterize the goals of Populism, Progressivism, and the early New Deal as irrational whenever these goals were too inclusive to be reducible to the special interests of the groups that advanced them. Whenever groups upheld their policies as being in the public interest generally, these policies could be pointed to as either screens for self-interest or as manifestations of irrationality—rationality being identified with self-interest expressing itself through a pluralistic political system. This approach has presented individual as well as public purposes as mere functions of interacting groups and ignores those aspects of individual goals, technological tendencies, and social forces that defy the techniques of group analysis.

To the extent that public policy, academic research, and such institutional arrangements as federalism adhere to the pluralist position and foreclose alternatives, they may be viewed as a conservative reaction against the presumed effects of a mass society. This reaction is unified by the unstated assumptions that (a) the social disintegrations, maladjustments, and alienations fostered by large-scale technology and a mass society are indubitable evils; and (b) mass society, being unjustifiably coercive, has intolerable implications for individual development, while small-scale technology and a pluralist society have not. These undebated premises remain operative in many policies that cripple responsible public government, and they also remain lodged in a well-endowed segment of research in the social sciences. However, political pluralism as an ideology has lost most of its explicit apologists and only lingers quietly as a submerged, inarticulate ingredient of Western liberalism.

Henry S. Kariel

[See alsoInterest groups; Political group analysis; Voluntary associations. Other relevant material may be found underOrganizations; Political participation; Social movements.]


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PLURALISM is both a doctrine and the label for a commonsense perception. As a doctrine, pluralism holds that multiplicity is a virtue in ideas and institutions; hence pluralism rejects unity as the measure of intellectual and institutional development. As a label, pluralism describes the cultural diversity and interest-group politics that characterize American life. Pluralist doctrine implies a commitment to difference often unacknowledged in uses of the label. In early-twentieth-century debates about immigration and national identity, doctrine and label converged. Their union was short-lived, however, as the cultural pluralism that emerged from these debates upheld a collectivist vision of American life anathema to liberal individuality. Over the course of the twentieth century, social scientists enlisted the term to describe a range of social and political developments. The triumph of multiculturalism at the century's end revived pluralism's association with ethnicity and culture, though few contemporary multiculturalists endorse the racial essentialism and ethnic separatism that distinguished cultural pluralism.

Early Commonsense Perceptions of Pluralism

Americans perceived the fact of pluralism long before they delineated pluralist doctrine. From colonial times, but especially after the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), American writers trumpeted the egalitarianism and religious and ethnic diversity of the New World to bemused European audiences. None exceeded in enthusiasm French immigrant farmer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. "What, then, is the American, this new man," Crèvecoeur demanded in Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America (1782):

"He is either an European or the descendant of an European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds." (pp. 69–70)

Two generations later, Herman Melville boasted in Redburn (1849) that one could not "spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world." (p. 238) In a similar vein, Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed America an "asylum of all nations" and predicted that "the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles & Cossacks, & all the European tribes,—of the Africans, & of the Polynesians" would combine on American soil to forge "a new race, a new religion, a new State, a new literature" to rival modern Europe's. (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, pp. 299–300) Emerson's paean to American exceptionalism was unusual in including non-Westerners in the mix; most denied the presence in the New World of slaves, Indians, and other "undesirables," elisions that suggest an enduring characteristic of pluralist discourse, namely its tendency to fix and maintain intellectual and social boundaries. But Emerson followed convention in regarding national homogeneity as a requisite of politics

and culture. Neither he, Melville, nor Crèvecoeur was pluralist in the sense of wanting to preserve diversity for diversity's sake. All three regarded ethnic diversity as a defining but not enduring quality of American life. All expected pluribus to yield ineluctably to unum.

Indeed, unity was America's burden in its first century of national life. Only after the Civil War (1861–1865) did Americans possess sufficient national consciousness to abide a flirtation with genuine difference. Which is not to say that most, let alone many, Americans embraced pluralism either before or after the Civil War. The majority probably concurred with John Jay, who, in Federalist 2, counted ethnic and cultural homogeneity among the blessings Providence bestowed on the thirteen states. No asylum for European refugees, Jay's America was home to a vigorous "people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, [and] very similar in manners and customs…"(p. 38). This America seems to have little in common with that of the literary bards. But from a pluralist perspective, the product of all these visions is more or less the same: cultural homogeneity in the service of national unity; unum, though with a different face.

Two other frequently cited pluralist texts from the late eighteenth century, James Madison's Federalist 10 and Thomas Jefferson's commentary on religious toleration, similarly aimed not to promote diversity for its own sake, but to neutralize political and social divisions in the name of civic order. Witness Madison, whose reputation as a pluralist stems from his conception of republican politics as an arena of competing factions. Madison cannot be said to have valued faction in its own right. He regarded factionalism as a mortal disease conducive to overbearing majorities and corrosive of the public good. Had it been possible, Madison would have expunged faction from politics. But "the latent causes of faction" were "sown in the nature of man," he recognized, hence there could be no eradicating faction without extinguishing liberty—a remedy "worse than the disease." Rather, he would mitigate faction's toxin by delineating a model of federal republicanism designed to propel individuals out of the ruts of local self-interest and into more amplitudinous state and national coalitions. "Extend the sphere" of government, he maintained, "and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens …" (pp. 77, 84). Concern for individual and minority rights likewise motivated Jefferson's defense of religious toleration in Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson viewed faith as a matter of private conscience and therefore beyond government jurisdiction. States that insisted on imposing an official religion invited social discord; by contrast, states that exercised religious tolerance enjoyed unrivaled prosperity. A self-described Christian who eschewed institutional religion, Jefferson appears to have been indifferent about the long-term fate of the world's faiths. He even suggests that given peace, prosperity, and the free play of reason, belief will converge on "the true religion," a proposition anathema to pluralist doctrine (p. 256).

Toward a Doctrine of Pluralism in the Late Nineteenth Century

Arguments on behalf of pluralism drew sustenance from the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment. Where Enlightenment thinkers tended to regard the world as governed by universal laws, Romantic critics insisted that human understanding of the world differs across cultures and that these differences make life meaningful. The German philosopher J. G. Herder argued for a world composed of distinct, language-and descent-based cultures, irreproducible, incommensurable, and of fundamentally equal value. Herder regarded culture as the repository of wisdom and expression; the sine qua non of human flourishing, culture was at once the source and foundation of individual agency. Writing at the end of the eighteenth century and thus well in advance of German unification, Herder said little about how different national cultures might interact across state boundaries and nothing at all about the challenge countries such as the United States faced in forging national solidarity amid ethnic diversity. For the generation of American intellectuals who took up that challenge a century later, and who were determined to effect solidarity without sacrificing cultural diversity, Herder's anthropology was inspiring but insufficient. They wanted a theory capable of reconciling the one and the many. They believed they found that theory in the pluralism of the American philosopher William James.

James engaged the problem of pluralism in the 1870s and 1880s not to vindicate cultural diversity but to vanquish "monism" in metaphysics and epistemology. Heirs to Enlightenment rationalism, nineteenth-century monists posited a single cosmos governed by a set of universal and objective laws. By the early 1870s, James had grown disenchanted with an account of the world that did not jibe with commonsense experience. In 1896, he identified the monism/pluralism distinction as "perhaps the most pregnant of all the differences in philosophy. Prima facie the world is a pluralism," James wrote; "as we find it, its unity seems to be that of any collection; and our higher thinking consists chiefly of an effort to redeem it from that first crude form." James devoted the last years of his life to elucidating this distinction. In A Pluralistic Universe, he likened pluralism's world to a "federal republic" of sensations in which:

"Everything you can think of, however vast or inclusive, has on the pluralistic view a genuinely 'external' environment of some sort or amount. Things are 'with' one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything. The word 'and' trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes. 'Ever not quite' has to be said of the best attempts made anywhere in the universe at attaining all-inclusiveness." (pp. 321–322)

James's pluralism appears at first glance to offer little aid to Progressive Era thinkers struggling with the problem of ethnic diversity. But look what happens when we inject Herder's culture into the preceding quote in place of James's amorphous "things." We get a federated republic of cultures in which cultures are with one another in many ways, but no one culture encompasses every other, or dominates over every other and from which something always escapes.

This is the move carried out by two of James's disciples at Harvard University, sociologist W. E. B. DuBois and philosopher Horace Kallen, to counter Anglo American nativism at the turn of the twentieth century. Du Bois would one day despair over the seemingly dim prospect of African Americans flourishing in America, but he insisted that the salvation of African Americans could only come in the United States. He delivered this message in two early and cogent essays, "The Conservation of Races" and "Strivings of the Negro People," both of which appeared in 1897, but of which only the latter, reissued in 1903 as chapter one of The Souls of Black Folk, garnered widespread attention. "Strivings" introduced Du Bois's potent imagery of the Veil and expressed his yearning "to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, and to husband and use his best powers." "Conservation" posed the dilemma that underlay that aspiration, and which has confronted members of every race and ethnic group that has had to weigh the cultural cost of pledging allegiance to American institutions and, by implication, to the dominant Anglo-American minority. "What after all am I," DuBois demanded? "Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American?" (p. 11) According to DuBois's melding of Herder and James, there could be but one answer to this query: race was irrelevant as a function of citizenship; ethnoracial diversity was essential to national vitality.

Cultural pluralism achieved full elaboration in the work of Kallen. In the winter of 1915, Kallen published a two-part essay in The Nation entitled "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot" in which he repudiated the conventional wisdom, given new life in nativist broadsides, that cultural homogeneity was a requisite of effective politics. Not so, Kallen maintained. The nation's political principles were culturally neutral, hence in no need of cultural buttress. Kallen wanted government to do for ethnic groups what it had long done for individuals: to under-write their pursuit of happiness. The product would be a "federated republic"—a phrase borrowed from James—of wholesome ethnic groups, each contributing its respective genius to the nation. Kallen's pluralism cut against the grain of American liberalism. Rather than challenging the racist premise of Anglo American nativism, Kallen recapitulated it, making race the bulwark of selfhood at the expense of individual agency. Nativists erred, his argument went, not by conflating culture and race, but by exalting one culture above all others. Kallen's would-be allies in the battle against Anglo American nativism recoiled from the communalism, racial essentialism, and ethnic separatism this vision implied; over the course of the next few years Randolph Bourne and Alain Locke, both friends of Kallen, produced apologies for ethnic diversity markedly more mindful of the imperative of individual agency. Moreover, Kallen's cultural pluralism assumed a degree of economic and political parity between ethnic groups demonstrably absent in Progressive Era America. His defense of cultural pluralism could only have come from a member of a few select immigrant communities, among them, Jews, whose assimilation in America afforded them the luxury to address culture independent of power.

The Legacy of Cultural Pluralism in the Twentieth Century

Kallen did not coin the term "cultural pluralism" until 1924, nine years after his essay in The Nation. By 1924, the heyday of cultural pluralism had past, at least for most liberal intellectuals. The publication of Kallen's Culture and Democracy in the United States coincided with the passing of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, restricting immigration on the basis of national origin. Together with wartime jingoism, postwar reaction, and the persecution of African Americans, the immigration legislation soured American intellectuals on the prospects of cultural differentiation as a medium of progressive reform. In the face of white, racist, cultural retrenchment, assimilation seemed a safer and more realistic means of achieving social and political integration. Kallen himself seems to have become discomfited by the essentialism and separatism undergirding cultural pluralism. He said very little about pluralism over the next three decades. When he finally returned to the subject in 1956, he appeared less confident that pluralism alone could serve as an animating source of national solidarity. A universalist ideology rooted in an increasingly conventional understanding of the so-called American creed now accompanied his cultural advocacy. In this, Kallen joined company with many Cold War liberals concerned to distinguish the United States from its totalitarian rivals. Liberals landed on culture diversity as the nation's signal characteristic: we were a pluralist country committed to liberty of groups and individuals, they totalitarian regimes devoted to eradicating diversity in the name of national aggrandizement. Later scholarship demolished the myths latent in Cold War ideology. More interesting from a pluralist perspective is Kallen's contribution to the process by which the doctrine of cultural pluralism he had helped establish came more and more to resemble the label. In the name of pluralism, America would demonstrate its openness to difference by assimilating it.

Writers still genuinely committed to cultural diversity had to reckon with this assimilationist consensus. Sociologists Robert M. MacIver and Robin M. Williams worried lest undue emphasis on group differences alienate the assimilated public on whose sympathy de facto pluralism

relied. Anticipating the response of white Americans to 1960s cultural nationalism, they exhorted advocates of pluralism to eschew rhetorical provocation for political bridge building across ethnic and racial divides. Stewart G. and Mildred Wiese Cole regarded cultural diversity primarily as a problem of democratic governance. Too much separatism would breed mutual suspicion and forestall social and political cooperation, they warned; too much assimilation would erode the individual and group integrity on which political empowerment relied. Meanwhile, Gordon Allport endorsed a choice-based approach to cultural affiliation. Some members of cultural communities would inevitably perpetuate core characteristics; others would just as surely drift from the core. There was little one could do about it in any case, short of intolerable coercion.

MacIver, Williams, Allport, and the Coles exposed the tension in American liberalism between individual agency and group identity, one destined to mount in the last several decades of the twentieth century. There were many catalysts of the renewed interest in cultural diversity: the exodus in the 1950s of African Americans from the deep South; the Immigration Act of 1965, ending restrictions on immigration based on national origin; student protest against alleged U.S. imperialism around the world; the radicalization of the civil rights movement. In "black power," particularly, we can chart pluralism's continuing evolution as the means to a political, rather than cultural, end. For the point of black power, activist Stokely Carmichael insisted repeatedly to audiences disinclined to listen, was not to celebrate black culture as an end in itself, but to foster racial solidarity sufficient to galvanize African Americans into a political force capable of negotiating independently with the white political parties. Only as an independent political force, Carmichael argued, did African Americans stand a chance of addressing the structural racism and inequality that endured in the wake of vaunted civil rights victories. Every African American of voting age who assimilated into white politics decreased the likelihood of black success. Carmichael's logic was very different from the early Kallen and had different ramifications for the members of racial and ethnic groups. For the early Kallen, culture was literally the end of human aspiration; perpetuating culture is what individuals did. For Carmichael, by contrast, culture was the means to economic and political justice; race-based commitment now, choice the payoff of the promised land.

Carmichael and black power have become a symbol of much that went wrong with late-twentieth-century cultural politics. By basing his political movement on color, he merely recapitulated the racism of the enemy, thereby ensuring his own defeat. So went the argument of a host of progressive intellectuals who recognized that the gravest threat to individuality at the end of the twentieth century stemmed from economic injustice spawned by racism, yet who rejected arguments like those of Du Bois and Carmichael that only race could vanquish racism. With great cogency, starting in the 1970s scholars John Higham, Steven Steinberg, and David A. Hollinger, along with many others, have upheld choice, agency, right of exit, and revocable consent as the route beyond racism. They argue that only individuals who insist they are more than members of a single race will ever be recognized as such by a still-racist society.

Political Pluralism in the Twentieth Century

Just as reformers were becoming wary of pluralism as a tool for cultural analysis, political theorists adopted the term to describe American politics. In this, the theorists followed the lead of Arthur F. Bentley, an independent scholar whose Process of Government (1908) is credited with establishing pluralism as a concept in political analysis despite never using the term. Like Madison (whom, curiously, Bentley does not cite), Bentley set out to explain the remarkable functioning of a government be-holden to special interests. He began by revising Madison's psychology. Faction—interest, to Bentley—was not the product of some innate selfishness in mankind to be overcome by virtue; rather, interest was the mechanism by which men acted. Thus, government could not be distinguished from interest; government consisted of the ceaseless collision of interests themselves. This was no less true of despotism than of democracy, though democracy differed from despotism by promoting a broader plurality of interests. Bentley's political theory promoted an ideal of government free of exclusions. Although he acknowledged that government often seemed the province of particular ("private") interests, his insistence that "no interest group has meaning except with reference to other interest groups" led him to attribute influence to even the most dispossessed classes.

"The lowest of despised classes," he wrote, "deprived of rights to the protection of property and even life, will still be found to be a factor in the government, if only we can sweep the whole field, and measure the caste in its true degree or power, direct or represented, in its potentiality of harm to the higher castes, and in its identification with them for some important purposes, however deeply hidden from ordinary view. No slaves, not the worst abused of all, but help to form the government." (p. 271)

Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, Robert A. Dahl recapitulated and amplified Bentley's argument. Dahl's Preface to a Democratic Theory (1956) attributed the success of the American political system to the endless, decentralized interest-group haggling it encouraged. Despite its shortcomings, the system maintained "a high probability that any active and legitimate group will make itself heard effectively at some stage in the process of decision"—"no mean thing in a political system" (p. 150). Dahl's Pluralist Democracy in the United States: Conflict and Consensus (1967) invoked the term "pluralism" itself to describe what he had earlier hypothesized: a decentralized system of government with multiple centers of power each contested

by a broad range of interests. Here, as in Bentley, were Madison's factions without the toxin.


Allport, Gordon W. The Nature of Prejudice. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958 [1954].

Bentley, A. F. The Process of Government. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967 [1908].

Bourne, Randolph. "Trans-National America." In War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays, 1915–1919. Edited by Carl Resak. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

Cole, Stewart G., and Mildred Wiese Cole. Minorities and the American Promise: The Conflict of Principle and Practice. New York: Harper and Bros., 1954.

Dahl, Robert A. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

———. Pluralist Democracy in the United States: Conflict and Consent. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967.

de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector St. John. Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. New York: Penguin Books, 1981 [1782].

Du Bois, W. E. B. "Strivings of the Negro People." Atlantic Monthly 80 (August 1897): 194–198.

———. "Conservation of Races." American Negro Academy Occasional Papers 2 (1897): 5–15.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Volume 9. Edited by Ralph H. Orth and Alfred R. Ferguson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. Edited by Clinton Rossiter. New York: Mentor, 1961.

Herder, Johann Gottfried. J. G. Herder on Social and Political Culture. Translated and edited by F. M. Barnard. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Higham, John. Send These to Me: Jews and Other Immigrants in Urban America. Baltimore: Atheneum, 1974.

Hollinger, David. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. 2d. ed. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

James William. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Dover, 1956 [1897].

———. Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals. New York: Norton, 1958 [1899].

Jefferson, Thomas. "Notes on the State of Virginia." In The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Adrienne Koch and William Peden. New York: The Modern Library, 1993.

Kallen, Horace. Culture and Democracy in the United States. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1998 [1924].

Katkin, Wendy F., and Ned Landsman, eds. Beyond Pluralism: The Conception of Groups and Group Identities in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Locke, Alain Leroy. Race Contacts and Interracial Relations. Edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1992 [1916].

MacIver, Robert M. Civilization and Group Relationships. New York: Institute for Religious Studies, 1945.

Melville, Herman. Redburn. New York: Penguin Books, 1986 [1849].

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Steinberg, Stephen. The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America. New York: Athaeneum, 1981.

Williams, Robin M., Jr. The Reduction of Intergroup Tensions: A Survey of Research Problems of Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Group Relations. New York: Social Science Research Council Bulletin 57, 1947.

Jonathan M.Hansen

See alsoFederalist Papers Multiculturalism ; Nativism ; Political Theory ; Souls of Black Folk, The .


views updated May 14 2018





Pluralism denotes more than one or two of anything and is contrary to monism, or the view that there is only one kind of a thing. Pluralism refers to a philosophical approach to the world as well as a theory of political and social power and, finally, to an empirical and normative focus on plural groups and group-based identities. Pluralism is central to liberal democracy in that it assumes that a diversity of views and identities, or a plurality of power centers, is essential to ensure democratic outcomes.

Contemporary debates over social and political pluralism tend to center on issues of identities in the context of multiethnic, multiracial, and multi-religious societies. This sense of pluralism is discussed in greater depth in the section below. Earlier theoretical formulations of pluralism reflected an evolving notion of competing interests in a democratic society and the role of non-state associations.


In twentieth-century Western thought, pluralism has at least two dominant strands. The first found expression is in works of British political philosophy such as those of Frederic William Maitland, John Neville Figgis, G. D. H. (George Douglas Howard) Cole, and Harold J. Laski, as well as in the work of the German theorist Otto Friedrich von Gierke. The unifying theme of these works was the plurality of associations and groups of various kinds that operate independently of the state but are vital for a functional government. The argument was that centralized power in the state ought to be lessened or pluralized to meet the needs of citizens in a free society. In order to preserve liberty it was preferable to disperse state power among a variety of distinct and functionally autonomous groups that could better reflect the specific and diverse interests of citizens. The English pluralists rejected the sovereignty of the state but differed in their conception of the relationship between citizens and the state, with some arguing that the state is composed of groups rather than individuals and that belonging to the state is mediated through membership in other groups. These thinkers generally considered the ideal to be a limited and constrained state with a proliferation of free associations. World politics in the postWorld War I era led to a resurgence of interest in a strong and effective state, thereby weakening the pluralist argument.

American theorists of pluralism shared an interest in the multiplicity of voices acting upon the state but focused on competing interest groups or pressure groups and their efforts to exert influence on the state. Notions of pluralism and its contribution to democracy originated in Alexis de Tocquevilles Democracy in America, in which Tocqueville argued in part that democracy depends on a plurality of secondary associations outside of the state that prevent majoritarian democracy from becoming tyrannical. Particularly since the 1950s, American pluralists have used theories of pluralism to describe a model of minimum democratic competition for influence and office. The role of the state in this view is as something of an arbiter, seeking balance among semiautonomous, often opposed and self-interested interest groups.

One prominent pluralist, Nelson W. Polsby, described American society in 1980 as a collection of hundreds of small special interest groups, with incompletely overlapping memberships, widely differing power bases and a multitude of techniques for exercising influence on decisions salient to them (p. 118). American theorists argued that U.S. society was differentiated and fractured into many interest groups. One of the most influential thinkers in this group was Robert A. Dahl, whose work reflected an interest in a plurality of relatively autonomous (independent) organizations (subsystems) within the domain of a state (Dahl 1982, p. 5). A democracy can be called a polyarchy if it meets certain specific conditions, especially that it contains plural centers of interest, each of which has some influence on policy making, and that no group has a monopoly of influence. Particularly relevant to the discussion below, Dahl and other pluralists argued that pluralism of identity (race, ethnicity, religion) is generally a feature of less competitive political systems, while pluralism of interests is a feature of a democracy. Dahl also posited that a democratic society is stronger if it is made up of citizens with crosscutting identity cleavages (rather than reinforcing cleavages), which reflect common interest on some issues and opposing interest on others. This means that a democratic society is one in which a broad array of issue-oriented movements draw together new constituencies that cut across identity lines.

Pluralism in this sense also stands in contrast to corporatist politics. Pluralist interest groups are made up of multiple associations focusing on a single interest issue, and the groups are voluntary, decentralized, and separated from the government. Corporatist politics is generally more organized and is characterized by a single association for each societal interest, typically with compulsory and universal membership and with central organization. For pluralists like Dahl (1998) the associations should be relatively independent and autonomous. In all respects, pluralists focus on power dispersal as a check on all centers of power, including the state.

Critics of American pluralist theory have challenged the ideal of pluralism as well as the empirical fact that such a process operates as it has been theorized in the United States. They point to the systematic inequality among interest groups that runs counter to the pluralist vision of equal and competing associations. For instance, critics such as C. Wright Mills have argued that American politics is dominated by an economic elite and that a discussion of a mere plurality of associations does not account for the hierarchies of power present in political life. In 1970 Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz highlighted the importance of nondecision-making processes, those individuals or groups that seek to limit decision-making to relatively uncontroversial issues, thereby influencing political decisions in significant ways. Their work pointed to the manner in which political systems are characterized by inequality that tends to persist over time, and how subordinated groups then are often unable to convert their demands for change into important political issues that are ever considered by policymakers (p. 105). Henry Kariel saw classic studies of American pluralism as elevating one particular institutional system, American pluralism, as both irreducible, beyond analysis and critique and objectively good, preventing systematic analysis of American institutions (p. 136).

Finally, Dianne M. Pinderhughess critical study of Chicago politics, Race and Ethnicity in Chicago Politics: A Reexamination of Pluralist Theory (1987), provided rich historical data on labor and housing markets, political participation, education, and the criminal justice system for black, Polish, and Italian immigrants, all of whom came to the city at roughly the same time and for similar reasons but had strikingly different patterns of social and political integration some decades on. Her work demonstrated that pluralist assumptions of black integration into American life based on the evolution of specific issue sets did not occur because of the substantial discrimination inherent in American political institutions and because black citizens own political attitudes led to a rejection of conventional American institutions and authority symbols. The assumptions about bargaining that undergird pluralist theories of issue-oriented politics cannot occur when the issues are not bargainable and the parties to the bargain are not equal.


Pluralism in political thought underwent something of a revival in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Building on the body of work such as that of Pinderhughes, pluralists have put the concept to use in defense of multiculturalism and diversity that run counter to assimilationist nation-building projects. Pluralists have charged that modern majoritarian democratic institutions and laws privilege dominant racial, ethnic, or cultural groups and should be thoroughly democratized by giving greater attention to inclusion of these plural identity groups. Unlike earlier forms of pluralism, the diversity of groups is not composed of voluntary associations or civil society groups in the strict sense. Neither are these issue-focused interest groups. Rather, plural identities in this conceptualization are communal groups, typically understood to include ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural characteristics and based on identities that, while situational and fluid, are not easily acquired or discarded.

The roots of this strain of pluralist theory are to be found in part in the writings of social anthropologists and historians of the colonized world in the first half of the twentieth century. Studies of colonial empires in South Asia and Africa in particular led to a focus on traditional societies, which were plural in the sense of being composed of ethnic groups who retained strong attachments to their distinct religions, culture, languages, and community life and were held together by pressure and even force from the colonial power and, in the postcolonial period, by the newly independent state. These distinct social segments, living side by side but rarely interacting, led to the types of heterogeneous societies found in newly independent states. Theorists typically argued that the state was captured by one minority segment within the plural society. Kuper summarized these as societies characterized by cultural diversity, social cleavage and dissensus (Kuper and Smith 1969, p. 12). While the focus was often empirical and descriptive, the normative tone suggested ways to reduce the plurality, which was presumed to cause political and social conflict through assimilationist nationbuilding policies.

Subsequent studies in comparative pluralism have widened this contemporary understanding of pluralism by emphasizing that nearly all states in the modern world are heterogeneous and plural in the sense that M. G. Smith and Leo Kuper had argued colonial societies were. Pierre L. Van den Berghe suggested that pluralism can encompass not only subcultural ethnic and communal identities but also differences based on race, caste, and class. This signaled a transition in two somewhat distinct but conceptually related subfields of social and political inquiry: race and ethnic stratification in the Western democracies, and the various ethnic (and sometimes racial) cleavages found in the former colonies of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

A flourishing interest in the empirics and theory of racial and ethnic differences in North America and western Europe has produced many strands of thought on pluralism, most with a focus on group-based citizenship. Scholars argued that the notion of a homogeneous Western nation-state was more a fiction than a reality. Michael Omi and Howard Winants concept of racial formation described the historical creation, deployment, transformation, and destruction of racial categories. Critical race theorists pointed to the distinct role that racial identities play in the context of a racial state and the social, political, and economic significance of group-based identities on life prospects for members. Philosophers such as Linda Martín Alcoff (2006) defended the attachment to cultural identities as ontologically real and fully defensible within a tradition concerned with individual autonomy and rationality. Political theorists asserted that political struggles over cultural diversity are at least as important in the West as elsewhere, and that only through multicultural citizenship (as Will Kymlicka put it in 1995) or differentiated citizenship (in Iris Marion Youngs 1991 formulation) can democracy or a just constitutional order be achieved. Critics of this approach, such as Brian Barry (2001), do not argue that there is a plurality of identity groups, but they insist that there is only one status of citizenship in a liberal democracy. Rights are, and should be, assigned to individuals as such, rather than to particular groups.

Paralleling this shift in Western thought on pluralism, and reflecting greater attention not just on a plurality of groups but specific kinds of groups (racial, ethnic, religious), was a deepening of theoretical attention to the nature of communal diversity in non-Western contexts. These theorists challenged perspectives like that of Kuper and Smith, which had focused on the conflictprone nature of groups and seemed to point toward assimilationist nation-building projects. Donald L. Horowitzs seminal study Ethnic Groups in Conflict (1985) attempted to explain not only the material and political basis of ethnic identities but also the psychosocial importance of relative group worth in plural societies. A wealth of literature has developed on the topic, much of it focusing on institutional engineering and conflict management in ethnically diverse societies (Lijphart), as well theoretical approaches accounting for the diverse citizenship models that emerge in the context of this kind of diversity (Berman, Eyoh, and Kymlicka).

What is increasingly clear is that various forms of pluralism, however constituted, are critical to the deepening of democracy. Pluralism disperses power and contributes to the vitality of the democratic community by acting as a check on a strong state. Further, it can support identification with the democratic state by recognizing and valuing the diverse communities to which citizens belong.

SEE ALSO Cleavages; Community Power Studies; Consensus; Dahl, Robert Alan; Democracy; Discrimination, Racial; Elites; Ethnic Fractionalization; Ethnicity; Interest Groups and Interests; Kariel, Henry S.; Lindblom, Charles Edward; Nondecision-making; Politics, Urban; Polyarchy; Power Elite; State, The


Bachrach, Peter, and Morton S. Baratz. 1962. Two Faces of Power. American Political Science Review 56 (4): 947952.

Bachrach, Peter, and Morton S. Baratz. 1970. Power and Poverty: Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barry, Brian. 2001. Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Berman, Bruce, Dickson Eyoh, and Will Kymlicka, eds. 2004. Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, ed. 1995. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New York: New Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1982. Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1998. On Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Furnivall, J. S. 1948. Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Goldberg, David Theo. 2002. The Racial State. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Hirst, Paul Q. 1989. The Pluralist Theory of the State: Selected Writings of G. D. H. Cole, J. N. Figgis, and H. J. Laski. New York: Routledge.

Horowitz, Donald L. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kariel, Henry S. 1961. The Decline of American Pluralism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kuper, Leo, and M. G. Smith, eds. 1969. Pluralism in Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kymlicka, Will. 1995. Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.

Lijphart, Arend. 1977. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nicholls, David. 1974. Three Varieties of Pluralism. New York: St. Martins.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Pinderhughes, Dianne M. 1987. Race and Ethnicity in Chicago Politics: A Reexamination of Pluralist Theory. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Polsby, Nelson W. 1980. Community Power and Political Theory: A Further Look at Problems of Evidence and Inference. 2nd, enlarged ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1992. Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tully, James. 1995. Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lahra Smith


views updated May 21 2018


Pragmatism and Continental hermeneutics combined to produce a decided turn toward forms of "pluralism" in twentieth-century philosophy (Geyer 1993, B. Singer 1990). This has led to the rejection of any one favored epistemological method (e.g., the scientific method, scriptural exegesis, introspection) and any one favored basis for the reconstruction of reality (e.g., mind, matter). Neopragmatists propose to replace the notion of truth with notions such as "fitting," "useful," and "warranted." Given that what is "fitting" is relative to the problem being faced and the means at one's disposal, we are left with the possibility of a plurality of ways of conceiving the world and of achieving our aims within it.

Moral pluralism opposes the monistic view that there is any one method of determining what is morally right (e.g., the utilitarian calculus or Kantian universalizability), and it also opposes the relativistic view that all things have value only with respect to a particular cultural context. Pluralists insist that a good life typically involves the desire, not for one, but for many kinds of "goods," often of incommensurable value; moreover, the realization of certain "goods" may conflict with and even preclude the realization of others. As such, pluralists believe that moral conflicts are inevitable and that there are not one but many alternative ways of resolving such conflicts (Kekes 1993). The trend toward pluralism has also been influenced by our growing awareness of different cultures with nonequivalent conceptions of reality and "the good life."

The modern nation-state has evolved beyond the belief that it manifests the cultural orientation of a single "race," usually its majority. The reality is that every nation is composed of numerous groups with different cultural orientations. And the state is considered the primary guarantor that minority views will be presented, respected, and given a voice in determining policy (Guttman 1993). The rejection of the view that a Eurocentric male-dominated culture is the norm to be achieved universally has led to the demand that the cultures of non-Europeans, women, and minorities be recognized and granted equal voice (Taylor 1992). In this way pluralism is considered by many to be an essential part of the liberal democratic state, and this has manifested itself in terms of educational policy as the rejection of monoculturalism and the demand for a multicultural orientation.

One form of multiculturalism has focused on the need of suppressed groups to have their cultures recognized. Such a demand for recognition may motivate certain proposalsfor example, to replace a Eurocentric focus with an Afrocentric focus or a male-centered orientation with a feminist-centered orientation. Some argue that because of the past harms inflicted upon such groups, ostensibly because they were different, they are justified in embracing those differences in order to cleanse them of the negative valuations imposed by the hegemonic culture. It is right for such groups to adopt a separatist posture if this is the best means of achieving a redefinition of themselves that is positive and self-affirming (Young 1990). Where members of the hegemonic culture have inflicted unjust harms on members of an oppressed group, some argue that the oppressed group has the right to cultural restitution. The domination of culture A by culture B may not be the result of culture A's not offering viable options; rather, it may be the result of unjust injuries and harms visited on culture A by culture B. In such cases groups sharing culture A have a right to "moral deference," affirmative action, and the preservation of their culture (Mosley 1990, Nickel 1994, Thomas 19921993).

Many have been concerned that multiculturalism might degenerate into a bedlam of different groups, each espousing its own brand of cultural authenticity. Critics argue that this would amount to merely replacing one culture's hegemony with another culture's hegemony. Multiculturalism in this sense would fail to reflect the pluralist maxim that no orientation is "fitting" for every situation and that for a given end there may be several equally "fitting" means (West 1993, Yates 1992).

An alternative form of multiculturalism, closer to pluralism, emphasizes the importance of diversity and cross-cultural communication. On this view the more cultural orientations there are for consideration, the better the likelihood of finding or constructing a "fitting" adaptation to some current problem (Rorty 1992). For this reason every culture should be allowed the opportunity of articulating itself to the public at large and of thereby influencing the manner in which individuals construct their character.

Pluralism does not end with the insistence on an equal voice for every culture but extends itself to the view that different biological species often have interests that may conflict with the interests of human beings. Some have argued that, just as racism and sexism accord special preference to white males and victimize women and non-Europeans, so speciesism accords special preference to the interests of human beings and unjustly victimizes nonhuman species (P. Singer 1990). The insistence on a plurality of interests and capacities has been extended to include the interests of other animal species, as well as trees, rivers, and ecological systems (Wenz 1990).

See also Affirmative Action; Animal Rights and Welfare; Pragmatism; Racism; Sexism; Social and Political Philosophy; Speciesism.


Baghramian, Maria, and Attracta Ingram, eds. Pluralism: The Philosophy and Politics of Diversity. London: Routledge, 2000.

Barry, Brian M. Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Geyer, M. "Multiculturalism and the Politics of General Education." Critical Inquiry 19 (1993): 499533.

Guttman, A. "The Challenge of Multiculturalism in Political Ethics." Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 (3) (Summer 1993): 171206.

Kekes, J. The Morality of Pluralism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Mosley, A. "Preferential Treatment and Social Justice." In Terrorism, Justice, and Social Values, edited by C. Peden and Y. Hudson. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press, 1990.

Nickel, J. W. "Ethnocide and Indigenous Peoples." Journal of Social Philosophy 25 (1994): 8498.

Okin, Susan Moller. Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Edited by Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha Nussbaum. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Rorty, A. "The Advantages of Moral Diversity." Social Philosophy and Policy 9 (2) (Summer 1992): 3862.

Singer, B. "Pragmatism and Pluralism." Monist 75 (4) (October 1992): 477491.

Singer, P. Animal Liberation. New York: New York Review of Books, 1990.

Taylor, C. Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Thomas, L. "Moral Deference." Philosophical Forum 24 (13) (Spring 19921993): 233250.

Walzer, Michael. On Toleration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Wenz, P. "Minimal, Moderate, and Extreme Moral Pluralism." Environmental Ethics 15 (1993): 6174.

West, C. Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1993.

Yates, S. A. "Multiculturalism and Epistemology." Public Affairs Quarterly 6 (1992): 435456.

Young, M. Y. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Albert Mosley (1996)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)


views updated May 08 2018


The term pluralism is applied to philosophical positions emphasizing diversity and multiplicity over homogeneity and unity. The word first appeared in the work of Christian Wolff (16791754) and was later popularized by William James (18421910).

Ontological pluralism

Just as one can distinguish substantival monism (everything is explicable in terms of one thing) from attributive monism (everything is explicable in terms of one kind of thing), so can one discriminate substantival pluralism (everything is explicable in terms of a multiplicity of substances) from attributive pluralism (everything is explicable in terms of a multiplicity of kinds). Sometimes substantival pluralism is called weak pluralism, and attributive pluralism is called strong pluralism.

Opposing the monistic metaphysics of Parmenides' Eleatic School, ancient proponents of pluralism include Empedocles (495435 b.c.e.), who held that everything is comprised of four elements (earth, air, fire, and water); Anaxagoras (500428 b.c.e.), who asserted that all things are made of up of bits of every thing; and the atomists Leucippus (fl. 450420 b.c.e.) and Democritus (460370 b.c.e.), who asserted that all things are constituted by indivisible particles configured in different ways. Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716 c.e.) can also be considered pluralists, the first because of his claim that reality is ultimately comprised of individual substances, the second because of his view that reality is made up of an infinite number of elemental monads having the fundamental attribute of perception.

Like substantival and attributive monism, substantival and attributive pluralism are logically independent. Because Baruch Spinoza (16321677) held that there is one substance with an infinity of attributes, he is a substantival monist and an attributive pluralist. Alternately, because Leibniz claimed that all monads have the same attributes, he is an attributive monist and a substantival pluralist.

In A Pluralistic Universe (1909), William James links pluralism and monism to the acceptance or rejection of the doctrine of internal relations. Accordingly, pluralism "means . . . that the sundry parts of reality may be externally related " (p. 274). While the pluralist believes that things are what they are apart from their relationship with other things, the monist claims that each thing is what it is only because of its relationship with other thingsand ultimately with the whole containing them.

Cognitive pluralism

While the Western philosophical and theological tradition has generally sought fundamental unity in ontology, truth, and meaning, recent thinking has soundly criticized this project. Among the complex reasons for this is the contemporary rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. If one cannot justifiably speak of a determinate contour of the world apart from human awareness, conception, and language about that world, then it seems there can be no "mirroring" of the world in representation and language, no ultimate criteria by which to adjudicate conflicting interpretations of reality. Accordingly, all that remains are perspectival interpretations based upon discipline-specific assumptions about rationality and truth. Thus cognitive pluralism arises, a situation owing much of its popular development to the later Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Richard Rorty, and the French postmodernists.

Jean-Francois Lyotard describes such a pluralism in his work, The Postmodern Condition (1984). Over and against modernity's universalizing reason and discourse, he points to the existence of various epistemic social practices and to the multiplicity of linguistic signifiers, discourse genres, and narratives. Because the assumptions underlying scientific activity are not self-evident, scientific discourse is controlled by various meta-prescriptive rules. Since such rules are locally assumed, there can be no universally applicable, rational discourse. Accordingly, postmodernism privileges antirealism over realism, perspectival epistemology over neutral epistemic and transcendental standpoints, pragmatic truth over the correspondence theory, and local narratives over overarching metanarratives. Cognitive pluralism rejects any foundationalist claim that knowledge is ultimately derivable from indubitable propositions or experiences; it recognizes a diversity of cognitive styles, patterns of rationality, and sensibilities, and it assumes that different sets of justified beliefs can exist alongside each other.

Other pluralisms

One can also identify ethical pluralism, discourse pluralism, and explanatory pluralism. Ethical pluralism claims that there are a number of incommensurable perspectives on the good or just society. (It can also mean the existence of a plurality of self-justifying, fundamental moral principles.) Discourse pluralism affirms the legitimacy of various kinds of discourse in speaking about a region of being. It holds that there can be irreducible levels of description, yet denies that each description refers to entities having metaphysical existence (e.g., possible worlds, numbers, mental states, etc.). Finally, explanatory pluralism asserts that explanations at different levels of description (e.g., psychology and neuroscience) can profitably be offered in the absence of reduction and without claiming the mutual metaphysical existence of the events and entities referred to in each (e.g., Cartesian dualism).

Pluralism, science, and theology

Is genuine dialogue between postmodern science and theology possible, or does the pluralism and localization of postmodern discourse produce epistemological incommensurability? Are there only isolated local narratives whose "truths" cannot be interrelated? Many in the theology-science discussion deny this radical claim. Wentzel van Huyssteen suggests that evolutionary epistemology reveals the biological roots of all rationality and thus provides a suitable basis for postfoundationalist rationality. Niels Gregersen attempts to fit cognitive pluralism into a common framework of rationality by using Nicholas Rescher's pragmatist coherence theory. Gregersen claims that coherence is the critical norm for all types of knowledge and that it provides a middle way between modernity's critical realism and the radical pluralism espoused by many postmodernists.

Explanatory pluralism is also important in the science-theology discussion. Accordingly, events within a common domain having both a physical and theological description can have both a physical and theological explanation. One can, however, question the coherence of explanatory pluralism, citing what Jaegwon Kim has called the "Principle of Explanatory Exclusion": There cannot be two complete and independent explanations of the same event.

Finally, one might ask if and how ontological pluralism, either in its substantival or attributive forms, is more conducive than monism for conceiving how God might act within the universe.

See also Explanation; Ontology; Postfoundationalism; Postmodernism; Pragmatism


gregersen, niels henrik. "a contextual coherence theory for the science-theology dialogue." in rethinking theology and science: six models for the current dialogue, eds. niels henrik gregersen and j. wentzel van huyssteen. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1998.

james, william. "a pluralistic universe." in essays in radical empiricism and a pluralistic universe, ed. ralph barton perry. new york: dutton, 1971.

kim, jaegwon. "mechanism, purpose and explanatory exclusion." in supervenience and mind: selected philosophical essays, ed. jaegwon kim. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1993.

lyotard, jean-francois. the postmodern condition: a report on knowledge, trans. geoff bennington and brian massumi. minneapolis: university of minnesota press, 1984.

van huyssteen, j. wentzel. duet or dual: theology and science in a postmodern world. harrisburg, pa.: trinity press international, 1998.

dennis bielfeldt


views updated May 23 2018

pluralism The term refers primarily to two major and very different bodies of work in political science. Most commonly, it refers to a body of American, empirically oriented work, which was highly influential during the 1960s. Largely on the basis of studies of political decision-making in local communities, most famously exemplified by Robert Dahl's Who Governs? (1961), the pluralists argued that the United States was a democratic society because political power was widely distributed amongst the competing interest groups that operated therein: none of these groups was all-powerful and each was powerful enough to secure its own legitimate interests. The empirical claims made by the pluralists have been subjected to serious criticisms by scholars working within the Marxist and élitist traditions (see, for example, G. W. Domhoff , Who Rules America?, 1967
), who argue that visible exercises of power may disguise the fact that some groups wield power in less obvious ways, and that expressed political preferences are not necessarily equivalent to objective (or ‘real’) interests. Nevertheless, this variety of pluralism continues to exercise considerable influence as a body of normative political theory (see, for example, Dahl 's A Preface to Economic Democracy, 1985

Less commonly, the term also refers to a body of British political theory, associated with such names as George Douglas Howard Cole, John Neville Figgis, and Harold J. Laski, which attracted equal attention in the 1920s. It argued that the sovereign power, whose concentration in the state is accepted by all other political theories save that of the anarchist tradition, should not simply be competed for, but should in addition be distributed amongst the self-governing associations of civil society. This latter body of work appeared to have died a death until it was exhumed by Paul Hirst in his The Pluralist Theory of the State (1989). According to Hirst, the ‘associationalism’ of the British pluralists may be combined with the American stress on group competition to produce a concept of ‘associational democracy’, which provides a model for a socialist polity which contrasts sharply with that provided by the social democratic and Marxist-Leninist traditions. See also COMMUNITY POWER; ÉLITE THEORY; MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX; POWER ÉLITE.


views updated May 21 2018

plu·ral·ism / ˈploŏrəˌlizəm/ • n. 1. a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist. ∎  a form of society in which the members of minority groups maintain their independent cultural traditions. ∎  a political theory or system of power-sharing among a number of political parties. ∎  a theory or system of devolution and autonomy for individual bodies in preference to monolithic state control. ∎  Philos. a theory or system that recognizes more than one ultimate principle. Compare with monism.2. the practice of holding more than one office or church benefice at a time.DERIVATIVES: plu·ral·ist n. & adj.plu·ral·is·tic / -ˈlistik/ adj.plu·ral·is·ti·cal·ly / -ˈlistək(ə)lē/ adv.


views updated Jun 08 2018

pluralism is the holding of more than one ecclesiastical benefice with cure of souls simultaneously. Although consistently denounced by the church, there was never a time, certainly from the Middle Ages onwards, when pluralism did not take place. There were many reasons for its continuance. The poverty of many benefices often made the holding of more than one a necessity. Shortage of clergy—increasingly a problem in the 20th cent.—was another reason. Today many Anglican clergy in rural areas are technically pluralists, holding three or more grouped benefices simultaneously—though now with official approbation and authority. The Church of England from the 16th cent. onward made efforts to reduce or regulate the incidence of pluralism, but not until the passage of the Pluralities Act of 1838 was there any real success. Even that Act protected the position of most of those already in possession of more than one benefice, and not until the last quarter of the century did its provisions come fully into force.

Revd Dr John R. Guy


views updated May 18 2018

pluralism In politics, theory that a number of groups with conflicting interests, none of which has absolute authority, wield state power. In philosophy, pluralism is the name given to the theory that there are many ultimate substances, rather than one (as in monism). Pluralism can also mean the holding of more than one office at the same time, especially within the Church.