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  • It Usually Begins With Isaiah Berlin1
  • Jacob Levy (bio)


There is, by now, a relatively standard way of talking about the turn to pluralism in liberal political theory. Isaiah Berlin, in his suggestive and imprecise but captivating way, convinced two generations that there was a plurality of fundamental moral goods, that recognizing this was not tantamount to relativism, that they were not reducible to a single theory or calculus, that choices among them were sometimes necessarily tragic, and that at least some liberal theorists had recognized this in an inchoate way, especially after they incorporated the legacy of Romanticism into the legacy of the Enlightenment. Influenced to varying degrees by Berlin, and certainly not always agreeing with him, some of the leading political and moral theorists of the past three decades—including Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, Bernard Williams, Stuart Hampshire, Joseph Raz, Charles Larmore, and William Galston (some avowed liberals, some theorists of but not in liberalism)—expanded on these insights and made them pillars of contemporary political philosophy, not only elements in Berlin's history of ideas. Several of these—Berlin, Taylor, Walzer, and Raz—were also concerned with the social facts of cultural and national pluralism, and drew more or less explicit links between these and the moral pluralism thesis.2

Renewed normative and political attention to multiculturalism beginning in the late 1980s infused the study of pluralism with new urgency. Berlin's own rising status as a celebrity sage played its part, as did the intellectual turn to civil society and voluntary associations in the 1990s.3 Throughout, pluralism was attractive to those trying to resist the intellectual imperialism of utilitarianism, the attempt to reduce all moral goods to a single commensurable and quantifiable stuff. It also became attractive to those uncomfortable with what came to be called "comprehensive liberalism," the idea that liberal political freedom is justified because but only insofar as it aids in the exercise of Kantian autonomy. And some of these theorists—Walzer and Taylor especially, and later John Gray—used pluralism as a tool to critique the apparent universalism of liberal political philosophy itself, the universalism of, say, human rights principles allegedly binding on all states of whatever cultural background. A lively debate has ensured since the 1990s about whether liberalism presumes moral pluralism, is defeated by it, or is tangential to it.4 And some sought to understand the intellectual relationships between Berlinian pluralism on the one hand and, on the other, the associational liberalism of early-20th-century British pluralists, the interest group theories of mid-century American pluralists, or both.5

Of our great living teachers of political theory, Richard Flathman is perhaps the most idiosyncratic and the least classifiable. He has always followed his own intellectual muse, to the great benefit of his students and readers. And Flathman wears his idiosyncrasy on his sleeve in writing a marvelous book entitled Pluralism and Liberal Democracy that consists of extended meditations on and analyses of William James, Hannah Arendt, Hampshire, and Michael Oakeshott. Not only does Flathman proceed by analysis of this unconventional cast of characters; he also leaves the more familiar characters offstage. Berlin and Williams go entirely unmentioned, despite their intellectual closeness to Hampshire. Neither is Raz anywhere to be found; and Walzer and Taylor make only the briefest of cameos. Not until the penultimate paragraph of the book does he reach, in order to say that the theories under examination will not dictate answers to, such familiar questions as:

"how English-speaking Canadians should relate to aboriginal tribes or the Québecois or those groups to them, how the Sunnis should relate to the Shiites or the Kurds to the Sunnis, the Pakehas to the Maori, whether Muslim girls should be allowed to wear head scarves in French public schools," and so on.

In place of the themes mentioned in the first two paragraphs above, Flathman considers problems of determinism and agency, the necessary pluralities of categories of thought, boldness of action and creativity of artistic endeavor. Continuing themes developed throughout his career, but most prominently in Willful Liberalism and Freedom and Its Conditions,6 Flathman considers the pluralistic conditions of humans thinking, experiencing...


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pp. 23-26
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