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  • Flathman’s Pluralism
  • George Kateb (bio)

Can there be a general defense of pluralism? Richard Flathman's Pluralism and Liberal Democracy is certainly a book that aims to provide such a defense. The merits of the book are many; Flathman's interpretations of some leading thinkers of pluralism from William James onward into the twentieth century are subtly and richly developed, and comparisons among the thinkers often illuminate each one. Nevertheless, I think that there is a conceptual difficulty inherent in any attempt to praise pluralism as such. The reason is that pluralism itself is plural: it exists in several kinds, and some kinds seem to be in tension with other kinds or even incompatible with them. Indeed, it may be the case that each kind is incompatible with all the others. I will work with the initial assumption of incompatibility. (It is not necessary to my case to specify every kind of pluralism; only to show that the kinds I specify demonstrate incompatibility or come close to doing so; my hope is that I single out some important kinds.) If I am correct in thinking that there are incompatibilities, at least at first sight, then the project of producing a general defense of pluralism might have to be re-thought. If each kind of pluralism appears to exclude the others, then it would have to be promoted at the expense of the other kinds; there would have to be a ranking and then a choice in the abstract.

Flathman discusses three kinds of pluralism and touches on a fourth. I accept his sense that these four are perhaps the main kinds of pluralism—surely when liberal democracy is at issue. But it is questionable whether any of them is compatible with the other three. The four kinds are: the inner plurality of every individual human being; the pluralism of diverse individuals in a given society; social or cultural pluralism, which is the existence of plural groups within the same society; and global pluralism, which is the existence of numerous diverse societies in the world. Let us discuss them in this order.

1. The idea of the inner plurality of every individual has several versions: it may refer to the parts of the soul, as in Plato's view or Freud's; or to the duality between me and myself, in which I hold converse with myself and examine myself or, on the other hand, divide myself into an actor and an observer of the actor I am; or to the inner multiplicity that Montaigne in his way and Walt Whitman in a somewhat different way attest to, and claim that everyone possesses, whether he or she chooses to acknowledge the condition or not. The normative doctrine of pluralism says that people should not shun their internal division into parts or their duality or multiplicity, but instead explore it and thus celebrate the complexity of their constitution. Internal complexity is often hard to acknowledge or painful to explore, but attention to it may liberate a person from a rigid and simple-minded understanding of oneself or others.

2. The pluralism of diverse individuals in any given society arises from the undeniable fact that all human beings are different inwardly and distinguishable outwardly. But that is merely descriptive. Pluralism as a normative doctrine holds—and Flathman has devoted his recent work, including the book that is our subject, to advocating the normative doctrine—that it is good that people endeavor to differentiate and distinguish themselves beyond the elementary fact of plurality and work to become as distinct and different from one another as lies in their capacity to do so. Elsewhere I have called this endeavor the quest for positive (democratic) individuality. One of its presuppositions is that the powers of a person to express or realize himself or herself, and respond to other persons and to life's mutability and indefiniteness of condition and situation, could lie dormant unless the endeavor to become positively oneself were undertaken. Both narrowness and suffocation of potentiality can and should be avoided. If these harmful limitations are avoided, and the person becomes better developed, the surrounding world may benefit in numerous ways and also...


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pp. 11-14
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