- The Performance of Pluralism and the Practice of Theory (For Richard Rorty)
There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.—Leonard Cohen, Stranger Music (202)
argument: pluralistic theory opens itself toward different values, languages, histories, modes of reasoning, and forms of experience with a commitment not to reduce or hierarchize the many by means of the one. Such theory has emerged out of various traditions, including those associated with American pragmatism (Emerson, James, Dewey), analytic philosophy (Wittgenstein, Rorty), and continental philosophy (Derrida, Nancy). Not surprisingly, the pluralism issuing from these traditions takes diverse forms and articulates itself through heterogeneous concepts and styles. Many pluralist philosophers in the present, however, have inherited all of these traditions, not just one. Our networked relation to knowledge has expanded the latticework within us, allowing once opposed forms of theorizing to coexist and interplay. This historical contingency leads to the question of how to best articulate this co-belonging of multiple modalities of openness. In this essay, I attempt to answer this question not through developing a meta-pluralism that would govern and set the law for all the rest, thereby contradicting itself, but rather through orchestrating a gathering discourse I term “polyvocal pluralism.” This discourse unfolds not through a straightforward argumentative presentation (like this one), but rather in meditative engagement with various articulations of pluralism. In this engagement, rather than staying at a distance and neutrally conceptualizing and cataloguing the types of pluralism, the meditation allows the various theories it treats to come forward, taking over the essay like possessing spirits, sometimes merging, sometimes separating. At times, various organizing syntactic structures take dominance and enable bonds to be formed, but these structures as quickly become re-inscribed in the currents they channel. [End Page 103]
The outcome of such an “essay,” which should be heard in the older meaning of a weighing attempt rather than a synthesizing argument, is of necessity quite minimal. Since it deals with modes of theoretical pluralism, it does not attempt to heal the wounds of the world through either providing a critique of the imperial erasure of differences in society at large or through giving solutions to the homogenization of the lifeworld through the commodification of everything. At most, it provides a model of writing that resists the demanding telos of technical professionalization. To do so, it takes its directive from Richard Rorty’s still largely unexplored thought that we would be better-off if we blurred the distinction between literature and philosophy. What this attempt demonstrates, at least to its author, is that writing attuned to a syntax joining differing languages and styles, which yet share similar commitments, allows for harmonies and dissonances in a fractured life to be articulated, and the self-conscious satisfaction this articulation provides is an end in itself. Its more distant hope is to serve as a placeholder for the promise of “pluralism” as a site for experimental thinking and writing that would expand beyond the anti-(post)modernist corridors of universal intelligibility and scientific flatness into which even literary criticism is now forced, and philosophy more so. If it slightly helps to reinforce the importance of the connection between pluralism and reasonable experimentalism, then its purpose will have been achieved.
Sympathetic tolerance toward a diversity of philosophical methods, views, values, and styles provides a necessary condition for any decent philosophical education. Pluralistic attitudes let us approach the heterogeneous texts presented in the history of philosophy with respect, allowing them to flourish in their own element before we submit them to the argumentative apparatuses of the present. Absorbing wisdom from the alien vantages of historical distance requires tolerance and the cultivation of philosophical flexibility, the ability to fall into organically emerged cognitive microcosms, broken from one another with the abruptness of mutation and the independence of singular events.
For the pluralist, even texts requiring us to read our entire philosophical history through the lens of teleological Spirit or through the destiny of Being become only microcosms providing momentary projective perspectives on a self-alienating past. A sufficient pluralist education for the serious study of diverse figures...