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  • The Experience of Pluralism
  • Scott L. Pratt

In this paper I begin the task of answering the question "what is pluralism?" The importance of the question may be obvious in the present world. Some have argued, for example, that the world might not be trapped in war if the U.S. administration had understood the character and implications of pluralism. If pluralism means anything like a concept that explains the differences among things, events, and ideas in human experience, especially differences that involve conflict, then the concept might provide a key to addressing the issues that are at the center of the present situation. Yet, the fact of war seems to suggest to others that pluralism is not an intractable philosophical puzzle but is more strictly a matter of conflicting interests, confusion, and stubbornness. From this perspective, it is natural to conclude that, in the face of violent conflict, pluralism simply marks a situation to be overcome by eliminating the differences.

In the philosophical tradition, pluralism has most often been understood literally: "more than one" or as the claim "there are many things." This is in contrast to monism, also literally taken: one or "there is one thing." Even the apparent simplicity of Latin roots gives way to ambiguity, however, when one wonders what "things" are in question. The result is a plurality of pluralisms. Does pluralism claim that there are many material things such as we apparently encounter in our daily activities? Or are the "many things" individuals more broadly understood: individual organisms, individual human beings, or individual nations? Or are they categories or classes? While various realists might claim that pluralism is found in the reality we encounter, skeptics and Kantians would probably argue that claims about a pluralism of "things" say more than we can reasonably conclude given the limits of our engagement with the world. In this case, pluralism would be better confined to a view about what we know or claim about the world.

One way that the variety of pluralisms has been organized is by recognizing both ontological pluralism, the idea that there are many "real" things, and epistemic pluralism, the idea that there are many "knowledges" (systems of knowledge or ways of knowing).1 Though it is difficult to keep the distinction sharp, the categories at first appear useful; the work of philosophers such as Leibniz, Spinoza, the British Empiricists, and the classical pragmatists can all seem to be classified along these lines.2 [End Page 106]

Of course, this propensity to classify philosophers already accepts certain principles that themselves may need more careful consideration. The received distinction between epistemic and ontological pluralism makes sense of some aspects of our experience, but it clearly misses other important aspects. Epistemic pluralism makes sense because it recognizes the role of perspective (as well as culture and interest) in experience and the process of inquiry.3 Ontological pluralism makes sense because it recognizes the experience of differences so sharp that they cannot be the product of mere human construction.4 In the end, this approach focuses on the things taken to be plural, knowledge or worlds. I will argue that this manner of understanding pluralism is a mistake, though the idea of beginning with experience can lead to a more adequate conception of pluralism.

Consider the comparison of Islam and "modernity" proposed by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. For Nasr, the "world of Islam" and the "modern world" are irreconcilably different. At the center of the difference are contrasting conceptions of human nature. Islam, Nasr argues, adopts the conception of "homo islamicus" in which human beings are properly understood as "the slave[s] of God (al-'abd) and His vice-regent[s] on earth."5 As such, homo islamicus "rules over the earth," but, as God's vice-regent, also "bears responsibility for the created order before the Creator." To carry out this role, human beings possess reason but also "the possibility of inward knowledge, the knowledge of his own inner being which is key to the knowledge of God." In contrast, Nasr holds that the "modern" conception of a human being is "an animal which happens to speak and think," who is "purely an earthly creature, master...


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pp. 106-114
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