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  • Pluralism in the Thought of William James
  • Eric MacGilvray (bio)

One of the distinctive features of Richard Flathman's book Pluralism and Liberal Democracy,1 especially when it is considered as a book by a distinguished political theorist, is that it provides a detailed discussion of the "bases" of pluralism—of the psychological, epistemological and metaphysical commitments upon which it rests and to which it gives rise—but only a rather "diffident" consideration of its "limits and values"; that is, of its ethical and political entailments (e.g.p.6). In this respect Flathman not only follows the lead of the thinkers whom he analyzes, he remains true to the spirit of pluralism itself. One of the implications of pluralism is, after all, that among the possibilities that the world will admit are at least some with which we are not in sympathy, and perhaps even some that we find abhorrent—just as there are some attractive possibilities that it will not admit at all. To accept pluralism is therefore also to accept the finitude, the fragility, and (or) the fallibility of one's own ideals. I agree with Flathman in thinking that there is something about this sensibility that is congenial to the liberal project—or, to speak pluralistically, to some among the several liberal projects. I also agree that there is something about the radical contingency of the pluralistic worldview that can have a corrosive effect on liberal ideals, precisely because it requires that we defend them, and treat them as entailments of plura-lism, only with some "diffidence."

Much, perhaps everything, depends here on the spirit in which we approach a pluralistic world: on the tempera-ment from which our metaphysical commitments spring, and the will that we apply in testing and modifying them in the crucible of experience. And few thinkers have done as much to explore the relationship between will and temperament, and between metaphysics and experience, as William James, to whom Flathman devotes the first substantive chapter of his book. Among the thinkers that Flathman engages James is the one with whom I am in greatest sympathy, and so I approached this chapter with particular interest. It is, like the companion chapters on Arendt, Hampshire and Oakeshott, an exemplary discussion; it succeeds in seeing James's work whole—no small accomplishment in itself—and in treating him without undue reverence or condescension.

The three ideas for which James is best-known today are his pragmatism, his radical empiricism, and his pluralism.2 Although the antecedents of all three positions can be traced back to his earliest writings, they became central to his thought—and, in the case of pragmatism and radical empiricism, acquired their proper names—only relatively late in his career, in the later 1890s, when he turned his attention decisively toward philosophical questions. What I would like to focus on in this essay is not Flathman's representation of these ideas themselves, with which I have no quarrel, but rather on what we might call the question of priority among them; the question of the relationship in which they stand with respect to one another. I want to argue in particular that there are two ways in which we might place pluralism within the constellation of James's thought: one in which it appears as the point of departure for a philosophical project that ultimately encompassed, as Flathman says, "cosmological, metaphysical, epistemological, moral, aesthetic, and religious" concerns (19), and another in which it appears as the tentative fruits of a laborious exercise in epistemological reconstruction. We can read James, in other words, as a pluralist first and a pragmatist and (radical) empiricist second, or we can read him the other way around. The former approach is the one adopted by Flathman and by many other distinguished commentators, and I do not wish to call either its plausibility or its utility into question. I believe, however, that we learn something important about James, about pluralism, and also—though this is beyond the scope of the present essay—about liberalism, if we add the latter point of view to our exegetical repertoire.

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