Skip to main content

Pluralism, Philosophical

PLURALISM, PHILOSOPHICAL

The term pluralism has two uses in philosophy. In one it designates a philosophical position about the nature of reality and is opposed to monism. In the other it designates a phenomenon of philosophy itself, namely, that in history one does not find one philosophy but rather many philosophies. This raises a question of "metaphilosophy," that is, a question about philosophy: why are there many philosophies and not one? This article is concerned with the second use of pluralism and considers the problem it poses and various types of responses it elicits; a sketch of a solution along lines acceptable to Catholics is presented in conclusion.

The Problem of Philosophical Pluralism

A characteristic of philosophy as it is known in history is the multiplicity and diversity of philosophical systems. This is not merely a question of historical development, which obtains in all fields of human learning, nor is it a question either of the proliferation of divisions of philosophy as in the proliferation of the positive sciences, or of division within the sciences. Rather the historical situation is that philosophy exists not simply as philosophy, but as individual philosophies that are wholes or systems; these systems are in varying degrees different from and opposed to each other, and some tend to endure or to recur in the course of history.

Different Philosophies. To take the Greek period as an example, there are the classic philosophies of platonism, aristotelianism, stoicism, epicureanism, skepticism, and neoplatonism. Some of these systems are themselves repetitions in a more developed way of pre-Platonic philosophies (Stoicism of heraclitus, Epicureanism of democritus, skepticism of the sophists, etc.), and they are repeated again in the late medieval and Renaissance periods of European philosophy.

That they are designated as "isms" itself shows that they are not simply the thought of one man, but rather express a viewpoint and a doctrine that became a school and a tradition to which groups of philosophers adhere. They are in other words different philosophies. Moreover, they are not only different, but they are frequently explicitly and radically opposed to each other. Thus Aristotelianism is opposed to Platonism; Stoicism and Epicureanism are opposed to both and to each other; skepticism rejects all of them. In this feature of diversity and pluralism philosophy resembles religion and culture more than mathematics and the positive sciences. Thus, as there is a history of religions rather than religion, so there is a history of philosophical systems (see V. T. A. Ferm).

World Philosophy. The problem of philosophical pluralism can be situated within circles of narrowing dimensions. There is first the circle of the whole civilized world and the question of the comparison of Chinese, Indian, and Western philosophy. This question came into prominence after World War I with the increase of communication between all peoples (see C. A. Moore, S. Radhakrishnan). A difficulty with this comparison is the use of the term philosophy, how it is distinguished from religion and culture, and to what extent it is a Greek and therefore a Western phenomenon (see chinese philosophy; indian philosophy).

Western Philosophy. Second, there is the circle of Western philosophy, which is traditionally divided into three periods: ancient, medieval, and modern. The ancient period is the time of the Greco-Roman philosophies mentioned above. The medieval period is the time of the religious philosophies: Jewish, Islamic, and Christian. Peculiar to the period was the problem of reconciling philosophy as developed by the Greeks (reason) with scripture (revelation, faith). Each religion had its polarity of Platonism and Aristotelianism (Jewish: Avicebron and Maimonides; Islamic: Avicenna and Averroës; Christian: Bonaventure add Thomas) (see jewish philosophy; arabian philosophy; christian philosophy).

The beginning of the modern period in philosophy witnessed the rebirth of the Hellenistic philosophies (Stoicism, Epicureanism, and skepticism) and of Platonism, the issuance of Averroism into rationalism (the rejection of a divine revelation and an effort to return to the pre-Christian Era), the division of Christianity into Greek Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism, and the continued development of new philosophies (Continental rationalism, British empiricism, Kantian criticism, German idealism, American pragmatism, Marxism, existentialism, analytical philosophy, etc.).

Catholic Philosophy. The third circle is that of Catholic philosophy and includes all the philosophies that have been developed in the Catholic community from its origins. There are in the main three families, or traditions, which are not, however, completely cut off from each other: the Greek Neoplatonic tradition (Pseudo-Dionysius, Erigena, Eckhart, Cusa); the Augustinian tradition (Anselm, Peter Lombard, Bonaventure); the Aristotelian-scholastic tradition (Boethius, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham). This third circle has become especially significant in the third phase of the neoscholastic revival: for while the non-Thomistic scholastic schools have receded, nonscholastic philosophies have become increasingly importantphilosophy of the spirit (M. Blondel, M. F. Sciacca), phenomenology (D. von Hildebrand), existentialism (G. Marcel), etc.

Scholastic Philosophy. The fourth circle is that of scholastic philosophy. Though three schools (thomism, scotism, and nominalism) eventually dominated the medieval scholastic period, historical study has concluded that scholasticism was not a collection of two or three schools, but of many philosophical theologies: each master of theology was precisely a teacher and not a disciple. When nominalism moved in the direction of Protestant Christianity and modern rationalism, or scientism, its place in the scholastic circle was taken by suarezianism, which, however, intended to be a Thomism. The "second scholasticism" of the 16th century became largely a competition among these three schools. The first stages of the Leonine revival at the end of the 19th century brought back a repetition of this old competition, particularly between Thomists and Suarezians (R. Garrigou-Lagrange and P. Descoqs), but gradually the issue developed between Thomism and nonscholastic contemporary philosophies.

Thomism. The fifth circle is that of Thomism. The preferred status given to St. thomas aquinas within the Church led to a diversification within Thomism itself. Three categories can be designated: classical Thomism, which is the Thomism of the commentators and of the "second scholasticism" (Cajetan, Báñez, John of St. Thomas, J. Maritain); historical Thomism, which went behind the commentators and approached the 13th century from a historian's point of view (É. Gilson, C. Fabro); and developmental Thomism, which aimed to develop the thought of St. Thomas in relation with modern science (D. Mercier, American Dominicans, B. F. Lonergan) or with modern philosophy (J. Maréchal, K. Rahner).

Church Legislation. The issue of philosophical pluralism became particularly acute with the publication of the new Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church in 1918, which directed that theology and philosophy in seminaries must be taught ad Angelici Doctoris rationem, doctrinam et principia (1917 CIC c.1366.2). This raised two difficulties. One was the problem of determining what the "doctrine" of St. Thomas was, not to mention the method and principles, for there was controversy about this among the theologians and philosophers. Three schools of interpretation were discernible. One was literalist and restrictive and understood the doctrine of St. Thomas in the sense of the classical Dominican commentators. The second was broader and interpretative and understood the doctrine in the sense of an Aristotelian-scholastic philosophia perennis that fitted a Suarezian version of Thomism. The third maintained the Thomist position but reinterpreted it in the light of modern philosophy.

The other difficulty rose from the very idea of this sort of legislation in philosophy. It appeared to restrict Catholic philosophy to one particular historical system and to exclude or at most to tolerate all other philosophies past or present. First, this appeared to be the destruction of philosophy itself, for it seemed to close off the search for new philosophical understanding. Second, it seemed to put an impossible psychological burden upon philosophers who had elaborated a non-Thomist philosophy either by reason of having been formed in another Scholastic or Catholic tradition, or of having been converted to Catholicism as mature philosophers (e.g., Edith Stein, Von Hildebrand, Marcel), or of having come to philosophy with different problems and concerns than St. Thomas (e.g., contemporary science, evolution, history, socialism). Furthermore, the legislation tended to widen the gap between clerical and lay philosophy, since it applied directly and explicitly only to seminaries, though the encyclicals Aeterni Patris and Humani generis were directed to the Church at large. From these difficulties there arose the question of philosophical pluralism within the Church or within Thomism as intended by the Church.

Types of Responses

However, the problem of philosophical pluralism is broader than the question of philosophy in the Church. Catholicism adds another dimension and context to the problem because of the unity of faith and the completion of the deposit of faith in a definite time in the past. But the question arises also from the pluralism of Greek and modern philosophies. It is a question of ultimate truth and whether truth is one or many: and if one, in what way; and if many, in what way. There have been many responses to these questions. They can be summarized into the following five types.

Denial of Ultimate Truth. First, there are the various types of denial of a unified ultimate truth. The very phenomenon of the diversity and disagreement of philosophies was one of the arguments used by the Greek skeptics and by the skeptical tradition for rejecting absolute knowledge and speculative truth. Modern empiricism since D. Hume has denied the validity of metaphysical truth and granted meaning only to the empirically verifiable or to fruitful action (pragmatism). Though not adherents of the skeptical tradition, philosophers of the finite, such as N. hartmann, have rejected any overall system of thought and truth.

Unity of Ultimate Truth. At the opposite pole is the response asserting the absolute and univocal unity of ultimate truth and identifying this truth with a particular historical system or tradition in such a way that all other philosophies are measured by this system and are judged false or inadequate insofar as they differ from this system. Thus the true system is that of Plato, of Aristotle, of Thomas, of Kant, or of Hegel.

Philosophia Perennis. Next there is an intermediate responsethat of the philosophia perennis, though this term itself has been used in different senses. According to this view philosophy is not a collection of different systems, but rather a continuous and gradual development by many philosophies and philosophers of an increasingly more adequate explanation of reality. Philosophy itself is continuous with nonphilosophical thought; there is a continuity between pre-Christian and Christian philosophy. The term seems to have been originated by A. Steuco in his De perenni philosophia libri X (Lyons 1540), but the idea harmonizes with the notion of the Catholic tradition since Justin and Origen. The general notion that there is truth in all systems and that they can be reduced to one synthesis was an ideal with G. W. leibniz. Both the notion and term are found in the documents of the neoscholastic revival along with the affirmation of Thomism. It was the position of the (German) Suarezian tradition, which, however, tended to limit the perennial philosophy to the Aristotelian tradition.

Parts of a Whole. Next there is the response that considers all particular philosophies even in their contradictions as parts of a whole or of an infinite unity. In one form of this position, the infinite can be expressed only in finite modes that are contradictory or opposite (Spinoza). In another, reality is dialectically structured so that opposition forms a stage in the process of the whole (Hegel). This response is generally that of the pantheisms or monisms, whether Oriental or Western.

Different Expressions. Finally, there is the response judging that, though the many philosophies are apparently diverse and opposed, they are simply different expressions from different viewpoints and by different methods of one ultimate truth (R. P. McKeon, N. P. Stallknecht, and R. S. Brumbaugh). They can either be translated into each other if one studies the semantics involved or they simply point at the ineffable truth across the dialogue, as is stated in Plato's seventh letter.

Outline of a Solution

Only the general lines of a solution can be given here. It is necessary to note first of all that the solution itself does not escape the problem of pluralism, for any solution will involve a notion of philosophy and the notion of philosophy is itself involved in pluralism. The different philosophies conceive philosophy differently.

Personal Aspects. The reason for this is that philosophy is a reflexive science or wisdom that includes its own subjective viewpoint in its philosophizing. This characteristic of philosophy is derived from the fact that philosophy aims at ultimate and universal understanding of reality. As a consequence of this aim philosophy must include itself in its investigation of the real, for the philosopher and his knowing are a part of the real. In other words, the philosopher must inquire not only into the world before him but also into himself and into his relation with the world. As a consequence of this, philosophy is intrinsically concerned with the question of the destiny of man as well as with the nature of the universe. That is why philosophy has always had two orientations, cosmological and scientific (Ionian), and humanistic and ethical (Italian). Both, if pressed to the ultimate as they must be, lead to the theological question and thus a third possible orientation is given, the theological. It is for this reason that philosophy shows some of the characteristics of religion as well as of science.

Because the reflexive character of philosophy so engages the subject in the work of philosophizing, personal choice and decision have a central role to play. For the philosopher determines his own fundamental orientation. That is, a man must ultimately determine his attitude toward the world, toward himself and his ultimate destiny. He may determine his attitude by default, that is, by not making any decision, by simply allowing himself to be carried along, or he may determine it by a series of minor decisions or by one major decision; but ultimately he must determine his basic freedom by a fundamental choice (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 90.6).

Because the world and man himself are diversified and complex, many choices are possible to him. He may choose to rest in a polar opposite, in determinism rather than in freedom, in skepticism rather than in absolutism, etc.; or on a level of being, matter rather than spirit, nature rather than grace; or in a sphere of life, in art, political action, science, or business, etc.; or he may accept a contradiction between his way of life and his metaphysics. Thus according to J. G. fichte, the difference between idealism or materialism is determined by a choicewhich, however, is conditioned by the kind of person the philosopher isand William james speaks in this connection of tough-minded and tender-minded men. The ultimate choice for a philosopher is whether he will open himself to the infinite and receive the word of the transcendent being (Blondel, K. Rahner), or whether he will close himself within the finite or the world of space and time. Thus ultimate philosophical truth depends upon the exercise of man's freedom.

Communal Aspects. This ultimate choice and orientation automatically makes a man a member of a community and a part of a tradition, the community and tradition of those who have made a like choice. This it is that makes for the fundamental diversity of philosophies in the world. Since the fundamental choice and orientation of the Catholic is the acceptance of the revelation of Yahweh and Jesus in the Church, he by that fact becomes a member of the community of the Church and a part of the tradition of the Church. His philosophia perennis, then, is determined by his membership in that community. But the community of the Church permits further determination and consequently there are communities within the community, specifications of the fundamental orientation. Typically these are the religious orders with distinctive spiritualities. Thus the diversity of philosophies in the Church frequently accompanies the diversity of spiritualities.

Philosophy therefore has both an objective, communal and traditional aspect, and a subjective, individual and creative aspect. It participates in the general conditions of all human knowing, which is developmental and dialogic, and hence social and historical. It never begins completely anew without antecedents, and consequently it shows continuity with its past. On the other hand, because it is seeking the ultimate and comprehensive, it must continually attempt to rethink the whole, to find a deeper integrating center or point of synthesis between itself and the world, the past and the future. Because philosophy is the work of finite thinkers in a complex and changing environment, it has many possible starting points. Because it is constantly striving to transcend its finite situation, it keeps trying new methods. Yet the philosopher works within a tradition, the larger tradition of the universal philosophia perennis, and the more specific tradition of his ultimate orientation.

Because of the personal element in philosophy, it is not possible to formulate the tradition once and for all. For philosophy is not a collection of single propositions that can readily be compared with other single propositions. Rather philosophy is a unity of viewpoints and totalities that are worked out in history not according to a straight, additive development, but by devious personal, social, and historical movements. Each philosopher is committed to remake the synthesis between the personal and traditional elements. He must recapitulate the tradition in himself, as did Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, Suárez, Hegel, etc.

Catholics and Revelation. For the Catholic philosopher another possibility is given for determining the common elements and the tradition: revelation as developed in the Church. For revelation teaches ultimate truth. Besides drawing the fundamental distinction between the supernatural and the natural, it teaches truth directly or indirectly relevant to the natural investigations of man. These provide a center or outline for man's life and reflection. Like the universal tradition, the Catholic tradition is not formulated once and for all. It is gradually built up, by the work of many, over the centuries. This work of determining the Catholic tradition for philosophy must always be redone in the light of new knowledge and new problems.

The conclusion must be that philosophy cannot be only objective and communal; it must also be personalnot by moral obligation, as it were, but by the very nature of man and philosophy. Hence even within the Catholic community there will be different philosophies and schools. It is not possible to make one of these schools in its personal and individual elements the common philosophy of all, because these elements simply cannot be repeated by all. It is possible, however, to set one of the schools in its common and traditional elements as a norm for the developing tradition of the community. But this tradition will always be developed in personal and different philosophies.

Bibliography: j. d. collins, Three Paths in Philosophy (Chicago 1962). v. t. a. ferm, ed., A History of Philosophical Systems (New York 1950). g. g. grisez, "Toward a Metaphilosophy," American Catholic Philosopical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting 37 (1963) 4770. h. guthrie, Introduction au problème de l'histoire de la philosophie (Paris 1937). r. f. harvanek, "Philosophical Pluralism and Catholic Orthodoxy," Thought 25 (1950) 2152. b. j. f. lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (New York 1957). g. a. mccool, "Philosophical Pluralism and an Evolving Thomism," Continuum 2 (1964) 316. r. p. mckeon, Freedom and History (New York 1952); Thought, Action, and Passion (Chicago 1954). c. a. moore, ed., Philosophy, East and West (Princeton 1944). e. przywara, Polarity, tr. a. c. bouquet (London 1925). s. radhakrishnan, Eastern Religions and Western Thought (2d ed. New York 1940). n. p. stallknecht and r. s. brumbaugh, The Compass of Philosophy: An Essay in Intellectual Orientation (New York 1954).

[r. f. harvanek]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Pluralism, Philosophical." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Pluralism, Philosophical." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pluralism-philosophical

"Pluralism, Philosophical." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pluralism-philosophical

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.