The Specter Haunting Multiculturalism
Richard J. Bernstein, New School for Social Research 1 May 2010

In recent decades, the expression “multiculturalism” has been widely discussed and has taken on many meanings. But a specter has haunted this discussion. Cultures are complex, changing and dynamic. Yet when we speak of multiculturalism, there is an enormous temptation to think of cultures as more or less coherent wholes, each with its own distinctive integrity that distinguishes it from other cultures—whether we think of this difference in an anthropological, religious, political or ethnic manner. Individuals living within a given culture frequently feel that they gain their deepest sense of identity as members of it. So the problem of multiculturalism becomes how we are to think about it, and how to deal practically with different cultures when there are serious conflicts. These conflicts become especially acute when members of cultures think that their values and beliefs are incommensurable with each other. The specter that haunts these controversies is incommensurability. I want to examine why the talk about incommensurability became so popular in the later part of the twentieth century—and why I believe that the concept, used uncritically, has pernicious consequences when dealing with multiculturalism. I propose to do so by exploring some of the philosophical sources of incommensurability.

In 1962, when Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions appeared, it was an intellectual sensation. It would be difficult to name another book written in the 1960s that caused such an intellectual stir and was so widely discussed in the full range of the humanistic, cultural, and social scientific disciplines. Although Kuhn’s primary interest was with the well-established natural sciences, few natural scientists paid much attention to it, but the book became a central text for humanists and social scientists. Consider the extent to which expressions that Kuhn popularized have become part of our everyday discourse. We all speak about “paradigms” and “paradigm shifts”—frequently without realizing that they have their source in Kuhn’s monograph. And one expression became a lightning rod for controversial debate: incommensurability. Suddenly everybody seemed to be talking about incommensurability—incommensurable paradigms, theories, languages, vocabularies, cultures, and world views. I do not want to review the tangled twists and turns of the debates about incommensurability—and what I take to be confusing and illuminating in these debates [1]. I am primarily concerned with another issue, the issue of reception. Why has the heady talk about incommensurability been so widespread? What is it about this expression and the many ideas associated with it that captured the imagination of so many thinkers? Even more important, what can we learn from the fierce debates about incommensurability? But I do want to begin with Kuhn’s original text and briefly explore how Richard Rorty appropriated and transformed Kuhn.

The expression “incommensurability” is used about a half-dozen times in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [2]. When discussing the phenomenon of competing schools of thought in the early developmental stages of most sciences, Kuhn writes: “What differentiated these various schools was not one or another failure of method—they were all ‘scientific’—but what we shall come to call their incommensurable ways of seeing the world and of practicing science in it” (Kuhn, 41). Much later, when he analyzes the nature and necessity of scientific revolutions, he tells us that, “the normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but often actually incommensurable with what has gone before.” (Kuhn, 103)

But the main (although very brief) discussion of incommensurability occurs in the context of Kuhn’s analysis of the resolution of scientific revolutions. Kuhn seeks to clarify why proponents of competing paradigms “may [each] hope to convert the other to his way of seeing his science and its problems [but] neither may hope to prove his case.” He isolates three reasons why “the proponents of competing paradigms must fail to make complete contact with each other’s viewpoints.” These are the reasons for claiming that there is “incommensurability of the pre- and post-revolutionary normal-scientific traditions.” “In the first place, the proponents of competing paradigms will often disagree about the list of problems that any candidate for a paradigm must resolve. Their standards or their definitions of science are not the same” (Kuhn, 148). Secondly, “more is involved than the incommensurability of standards.” There is also a radical shift in the conceptual web of concepts used for explanation. Thus, for example, to make the transition from Newton’s universe to Einstein’s universe, “The whole conceptual web whose strands are space, time, matter, force, and so on, had to be shifted and laid down again on nature whole.” But the third reason is the “most fundamental aspect of the incommensurability of competing paradigms” (Kuhn, 149). I shall quote this passage at length because it became a primary source for the controversy about incommensurability:

“In a sense that I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. One contains constrained bodies that fall slowly, the other pendulums that repeat their motions again and again. In one, solutions are compounds, in the other mixtures. One is embedded in a flat, the other in a curved, matrix of space. Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction. Again, that is not to say that they can see anything they please. Both are looking at the world, and what they look at has not changed. But in some areas they see different things, and they see them in different relations one to the other. That is why a law that cannot even be demonstrated to one group of scientists may occasionally seem intuitively obvious to another. Equally, it is why before they can hope to communicate fully, one group or the other must experience the conversion that we have been calling a paradigm shift. Just because it is a transition between incommensurables, the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic and neutral experience. Like a gestalt switch, it must occur all at once (though not necessarily in an instant) or not at all.” (Kuhn, 150)

I have cited virtually all the passages in which Kuhn speaks explicitly about incommensurability, although, of course, much of what he says in other places is relevant to his discussion. But these passages are instructive not only because of what they say but because of what they don’t say—what they are silent about. Note that in none of these passages does Kuhn define or specify what he means when he uses the expression “incommensurabilty.” [3]

But before commenting on Kuhn, and the fate of the expression “incommensurability,” I want to consider the way is which Kuhn’s views were radicalized and transformed by Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature—a book that proved to be as provocative and controversial as The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I have already indicated that Kuhn was concerned to clarify the structure and dynamics of the natural sciences. His primary motivation for introducing the term “paradigm” is based on the claim that the appeal to paradigms is what enables us to distinguish the natural sciences from other disciplines and discourses. But with Rorty there is no such restriction. He is after bigger game. He seeks nothing less than to deconstruct Philosophy (with a capital “P”) a tradition that he traces back to Plato, was transformed in the “Cartesian-Lockean-Kantian tradition,” and has taken on new life in the epistemological and semantic obsessions of analytic philosophy. Rorty, unlike Kuhn, explicitly tells us what he means by “commensurable”: “able to be brought under a set of rules which will tell us how rational agreement can be reached on what would settle the issue on every point where statements seem to conflict. These rules tell us how to construct an ideal situation, in which all residual disagreements will be seen to be “noncognitive” or merely verbal, or else merely temporary—capable of being resolved by doing something further” (Rorty, 1979: 316). Modern philosophy shaped by the Cartesian-Lockean-Kantian tradition in both its analytic and Continental forms has been obsessed with commensuration. This is the quest that is characteristic of epistemology. Hermeneutics, as Rorty understands it, is not a name for a new method or discipline but is “an expression of the hope that the cultural space left by the demise of epistemology will not be filled” (Rorty, 1979: 315). We can bring out the force of Rorty’s provocative claims by seeing how he radicalizes Kuhn’s understanding of “normal” and “abnormal” (revolutionary) science. For Kuhn, normal science is a form of puzzle solving in which there are accepted procedures of commensuration. Abnormal science arises when an increasing number of anomalies occur that do not seem to fit a prevailing paradigm. But for Rorty, commensuration is not exclusively a characteristic of normal science, rather it can be a characteristic of any form of inquiry where there are

“agreed-upon practices of inquiry (or more generally, of discourse)—as easily in “academic” art, “scholastic” philosophy, or ‘‘parliamentary” politics as in “normal” science. We can get it [epistemological commensuration] not because we have discovered something about “the nature of human knowledge” but simply because when a practice has continued long enough the conventions which make it possible—and which permit a consensus on how to divide it into parts—are relatively easily to isolate.” (Rorty, 1979: 321)

In short, it is the “familiarity” of entrenched practices that make a discourse normal and commensurable. Practices can become “normalized” in any field of discourse—from physics to theology. Abnormal discourse arises when familiar and accepted practices (whatever their domain) are challenged. “The product of abnormal discourse can be anything from nonsense to intellectual revolution, and there is no discipline which describes it, any more than there is a discipline devoted to the study of the unpredictable, or of ‘creativity’.” (Rorty, 1979: 321). Rorty is perfectly aware of the radical provocation of his claims. He knows that philosophers from the time of Plato until the present have generally thought that commensuration is, at the very least, a necessary condition for rationality.

“Normal science is as close as real life comes to comes to the epistemologist’s notion of what it is to be rational. Everybody agrees on how to evaluate everything everybody else says. More generally, normal discourse is that which is conducted with an agreed-upon set of conventions about what counts as a relevant contribution, what counts as answering a question, what counts as having a good argument for that answer or a good criticism of it.” (Rorty, 1979: 320)

It is little wonder that both The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature initiated so much heated and intense discussion. Almost immediately, critics of both books claimed that the views of Kuhn and Rorty sanction irrationality and lead straight to a self-defeating relativism. Karl Popper, for example, criticized Kuhn for endorsing the “Myth of the Framework,” a metaphor that suggests that “we are prisoners caught in the framework of our theories; our expectations; our past experiences; our language” and that we are so locked into them that we cannot communicate with those encased in radically different “incommensurable” paradigms (Popper, 56). Hilary Putnam, who is sympathetic with many of Rorty’s claims, nevertheless has consistently argued that Rorty leads us down the path of a self-defeating relativism.

Now it is one task to sort out what is right and wrong in the tangled disputes about incommensurability and its critics—disputes that preoccupied philosophers for several decades. But it is a very different question to ask why these disputes captured the imagination of so many thinkers in widely divergent fields. In Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, I suggested the beginnings of an answer when I spoke of the “Cartesian Anxiety”– the anxiety that is generated by a grand Either/Or: “Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos. . . . It would be a mistake to think that the Cartesian Anxiety is primarily a religious, metaphysical, epistemological, or moral anxiety. These are only several of the many forms it may assume. In Heideggerian language, it is ‘ontological’ rather than ‘ontic,’ for it seems to lie at the very center of our being in the world” (Bernstein, 1983: 18-19) [4]. Using Rorty’s terminology, we might say that if we abandon commensuration, if “vocabularies” are genuinely incommensurable, if there are no neutral ahistorical standards for judging and evaluating competing vocabularies, then it is hard to see what reasons one can have for favoring one vocabulary or paradigm over other vocabularies or paradigms. After all, Rorty tells us that “anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed” (Rorty, 1989: 73).

Outsiders may be bemused by the passion with which philosophers debate these issues. But similar issues gain poignancy when we turn to the moral, political, cultural, and religious dimensions of our everyday lives. The belief in commensuration is closely allied to the conception of moral universality. Many of us have been shaped by the conviction that there are moral universals and universal human rights that transcend religious, ethnic, and cultural differences among peoples. Some critics argue that these alleged “moral universals” (when unmasked) turn out to be projections of Eurocentric prejudices. This has not shaken the conviction of those who believe that all human beings possess a worth and dignity that ought not to be violated. But if we really pursue the claim of incommensurability “all the way down” then we may well ask, what is the warrant for believing in moral universals and universal human rights?

Furthermore, despite the great hopes of what might happen after the fall of Communism in 1989, we have witnessed the outbreaks of all sorts of collective hatreds, massacres, and even genocides. From Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and many other places, we learn how easy it is to whip up murderous hatreds and manipulate ordinary people so that they become murderers and rapists. Peoples confront each other as if their total outlooks, values, and commitments are incommensurable—so incommensurable and objectionable that the only “solution” is to engage in “ethnic cleansing” or the massacres of entire peoples. Perpetrators do not think of themselves as violating human rights because they do even think of their “enemies” as human. Richard Rorty makes this point succinctly when he says that

“The moral to be drawn about the stories of the cruelties perpetuated in the ’90s by Serbs on Bosnian Muslims is that Serbian murderers and rapists do not think of themselves as violating human rights. For they are not doing these things to fellow human beings, but to Muslims. They are not being inhuman, but rather discriminating between true humans and pseudohumans. They are making the same sort of distinction as the Crusaders made between humans and infidel dogs, and the Black Muslims make between humans and blue-eyed devils. . . .” (Rorty, 1993: 112-13)

This is also the way in which many Nazis thought about Jews—they really were not human; they were vermin to be eliminated. The despised “other” is not only incommensurable with everything that “we” take to be human but a dangerous threat to humanity.

What then are we to say about this kind of incommensurability? And what are we to do about it? I certainly do not want to pretend to give full answers to these questions. I have a much more modest aim—to begin to suggest how to think about it and how to work through the relevant issues. Let us return the philosophical context in which so much heated discussion about incommensurabilty was generated. Popper was on to something when he spoke about the “Myth of the Framework,” even though I think he was off the mark in his critique of Kuhn [5]. To use a Wittgensteinian turn of phrase, a certain picture of incommensurability has held us captive. It is a picture where –whether we speak of paradigms, frameworks, vocabularies, conceptual schemes, world-views, cultures, etc.—we think of them as windowless monads. They are so self-enclosed that there is no real communication, no real points of contact between them. Kuhn’s talk about “different worlds” can suggest such a picture. But it is extremely misleading to use the commensurable-incommensurable dichotomy in such a global manner. Both Kuhn and Rorty presuppose that different paradigms or vocabularies—no matter how incommensurable they may be in some respects—are nevertheless commensurable in some other respects. If this were not true, we would not even be able to do what Kuhn and Rorty are always doing—comparing different paradigms or vocabularies. When we speak about incommensurability or commensurability in any domain, we should always specify in what respect (and in what sense) the candidates we are considering are incommensurable or commensurable. The point is not trivial because recognizing that there is always some overlap provides the necessary basis for comparison and mutual discussion [6]. But there is an even more important point. The picture of cultures, vocabularies, languages, paradigms, etc. suggested by totalizing incommensurability is deeply misleading; it is static and reified. This picture neglects the extent to which any living language, any vocabulary is intrinsically open. Hans-Georg Gadamer makes this point vividly when he argues that all horizons are necessarily open even though our situations and perspectives are always finite and limited.

“Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of “situation” by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence essential to the concept of situation is the concept of “horizon.” The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the thinking mind, we speak of narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion of horizon, of opening up of new horizons, and so forth. Since Nietzsche and Husserl, the word has been used in philosophy to characterize the way in which thought is tied to its finite determinacy, and the way one’s range of vision is gradually expanded.” (Gadamer, 2004: 301)

And Gadamer goes on to criticize the very idea of a closed horizon:

“The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never absolutely bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving.” (Gadamer, 2004: 303)

In Truth and Method, Gadamer is primarily concerned with the understanding of texts, works of art, and historical traditions, but his reflections have important consequences for understanding other cultures and peoples. He is certainly not claiming that all horizons, all languages, all world views are commensurable (as Rorty defines it). On the contrary, the hermeneutical problem of understanding arises precisely because other historical and cultural horizons are incommensurable with our own. We do not have straightforward commensurable standards for understanding, interpreting, and translating what initially strikes us as strange and alien. Gadamer is not denying incommensurability, but neither is he totalizing or reifying it. Incommensurability sets the hermeneutical problem whether we are concerned with understanding a strange text, tradition, or an alien people. The task of understanding requires imagination, learning how to listen and respond. We have to pay careful attention to differences, to be wary of glib forms of translation, to modify our prejudgments when they do not fit. We cannot out leap out of our own finite limited horizon to some neutral objective perspective, to some God’s eye point of view, but we can attempt to enlarge and enrich our horizon accomplishing what Gadamer calls a “fusion of horizons.” This is essentially a dialogical process.

In his classic article “From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding” Clifford Geertz beautifully captures the spirit of this hermeneutical process when he speaks of

“A continuous dialectical tacking between the most local of local detail and the most global of global structure in such a way as to bring both into view simultaneously. . . .Hopping back and forth between the whole conceived through the parts which actualize it and the parts conceived through the whole which motivates them, we seek to turn them, by a sort of intellectual perpetual motion into explications of one another.” (Geertz, 239)

Geertz recognizes that he is describing the hermeneutical circle, arguing that it is essential for ethnographic interpretation when he concludes his article by telling us:

“Whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are “really like” comes not from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs, but from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the danger word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an illusion, seeing a joke—or, as I have suggested, reading a poem—than it is like achieving communion.” (Geertz, 241)

Because historical horizons are always changing, its makes no sense to speak of a final or complete understanding—one that, in principle, cannot be revised and modified. But even with the best will in the world and the most patient detailed attempts to understand what “other” and incommensurable, we may fail. There are limits to understanding; we become aware of our own finitude and fallibility. The concept of incommensurability that emerges from Gadamer’s hermeneutics is radically different from that of the myth of the framework. Incommensurability is a challenge to understanding; it is not fixed or static, but is changing, fluid, and open to reconsideration and revision. What Gadamer says about critical appropriation of tradition can be generalized for all understanding—including understanding other cultures, religions and ethnic groups.

“It is a grave misunderstanding to assume that emphasis on the essential factor of tradition which enters into all understanding implies an uncritical acceptance of tradition and sociopolitical conservatism. . . . In truth the confrontation of our historical tradition is always a critical challenge of this tradition. . . . Every experience is such a confrontation.” (Gadamer, 1979: 108)

I do not want to suggest that Gadamer’s reflections on understanding, horizons, language, and incommensurability are unproblematic. He tends, at times, to downplay the obstacles that stand in the way of understanding and the fusion of horizons. He doesn’t account for all the ways in which understanding can fail or why misunderstanding is such a prevalent phenomenon. He has little to say about how power and media in the contemporary world distort communication. He is scarcely concerned with the “material conditions” that are required to engage in the type of dialogue that he describes. As Habermas once remarked, Gadamer sometimes writes as if dialogue and Aristotelian phronesis are possible in any society or culture. But nevertheless, I do think there are important lessons to learn from Gadamer about the challenge of incommensurability.

There is an ethical-political horizon to his understanding of hermeneutics. Gadamer is not “merely” describing and elucidating the happening of understanding. He is constantly telling us what is required for “genuine” or “authentic” understanding and dialogue. Dialogue, for Gadamer, requires learning the difficult art of listening—really listening—and learning to hear what is different and other than us. When he stresses our dialogue with texts, traditions, and works of art, he emphasizes that dialogue is a reciprocal process. But this becomes much more central when we are speaking from a second person participant’s perspective—where the other is not a text or a tradition, but another person who can speak back to us, who can literally answer yes or no. This is a point that stands at the very center of Habermas’s theory of communicative action and his discourse theory of ethics.

Genuine understanding requires both imagination and humility—the imagination to enlarge our own horizon and the humility to realize that our horizons are finite and limited. It is in the happening of understanding that we critically test our prejudgments and prejudices. We enhance our self-understanding only in and through the nuanced encounter with what is other than us. In short, to engage in the type of hermeneutic understanding that Gadamer sets as a task for us requires the development and cultivation of a whole set on interlocking virtues. Now I can easily imagine a critic raising the following objection:

“What does this sketch of Gadamer’s hermeneutics have to do with what you even called the “frightening” problem of incommensurability in the “real” world—the type of incommensurability that can lead to massacres and even genocide? Aren’t you (and Gadamer) guilty of the temptation that is all too common among philosophers: the temptation of thinking that the brutal world of politics can or should be compared to an idealized seminar where presumably civilized dialogue can take place. In the “real” world the call for dialogue turns out all too frequently to be a disguised power play for gaining dominance, not an invitation to reciprocal give-and-take.”

As someone who has strongly identified with the American pragmatic tradition for more than fifty years, I do not need to be warned about the temptation of philosophers to ignore the hard realities of everyday practical life. But let me meet the objection head-on. I do not think that one can appeal to philosophy to solve concrete political problems. What philosophy—or more generally, intelligent self-reflection—can do is to orient us in our everyday lives and in confronting concrete problems and tasks. Gadamer’s reflections on understanding and dialogue are relevant to the problem of incommensurability because they direct us to a practical task. One of the paradoxes of the global world that we live in is that on the one hand there are powerful tendencies toward the commonality and homogenization of everyday practices and experience, but on the other hand, these very tendencies exacerbate the sense of incommensurable hostile differences. All sorts of groups, whether religious, ethnic, or political, begin to think of themselves as self-enclosed windowless monads that are threatened by their “enemies.” The “Myth of the Framework” is not a myth for them but a living reality. One of the great dangers of the “politics of identity” is that it fuels this type of mentality—the mentality of those who are convinced that “outsiders” do not really understand; that “outsiders” are threatening because they oppress and humiliate.

A first task for philosophical reflection is to explode the “Myth of the Framework,” to engage in the type of philosophical or intellectual deconstructive therapy that allows us to escape from the grips of the picture of incommensurability as consisting of self-enclosed paradigms, world-views, etc. Incommensurability is not a theoretical, epistemological, or semantic barrier that blocks understanding. Rather it presents us with a practical challenge and a task (actually a complex set of tasks). Too frequently, “talk” of incommensurability is an excuse—a sign of the practical failure to engage in the difficult work of mutual understanding. It is much easier to retreat to simplistic binary oppositions and dichotomies—“us” versus “them.” And in times of perceived crisis, as occurred after 9/11, widespread anxiety and fear (frequently cynically manipulated) make simplistic binary thinking appealing [7].

If we are serious about encouraging mutual understanding, then we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this can be achieved simply by willing or by talking about it. It requires, as I have indicated, a whole set of interlocking habits, dispositions, and practices. And it requires hard work. There is no wholesale way of achieving this. It requires constant effort and attention to detail—and it starts in local contexts. There is no substitute for—or algorithm—for practical judgment that it attentive to details. Regardless of how we define “culture,” cultures are dynamic and rapidly changing. And within any given culture there are enormous differences. Secular Jews and secular Muslins frequently have much more in common than they do with orthodox members of their own communities. All of us have multiple identities.

As I have indicated, seeking to understand what is incommensurable does not mean approval or agreement. There is a subtle dialectic between critique and understanding. If our critiques are to be intelligent then they must be informed by understanding—not by caricatures and stereotypes. In carrying out the task of understanding, our critiques will be modified and transformed.

In recent years Jürgen Habermas has written a number of challenging articles dealing with secularism and religion. I can relate what I have been arguing to one of his main concerns. Too frequently, secularists and religious believers caricature each other’s outlook and confront each other as if their “world views” were totally incommensurable. I have reservations about Habermas’ talk about “post-secularism,” but I am sympathetic with his call for both secular non-believers and religious believers to be self-reflective and make the serious attempt to learn from each other. I agree with Habermas when he affirms that democratic citizenship requires a “mentality on the part of secular citizens that is no less demanding than the corresponding mentality of their religious counterparts.” [8] This requires a spirit of openness that is compatible with a deep commitment to one’s own values and convictions.

I want to conclude by emphasizing three key points.

1) First, a cautionary warning. We must be wary of being unrealistic and sentimental. No concept escapes from the possibility distortion and corruption. This is especially true of the concept of dialogue as it is sometimes used in political life. Frequently, the call for dialogue is a ploy to gain political advantage; it is a move in a power game to advance one’s interests. And we must be skeptical of the idea that conflicts can always be resolved or negotiated by talking them through. Hannah Arendt once remarked that the world of politics is not a nursery. Nor is it like an ideal seminar where we can talk through our differences. We can reach a point where incommensurable differences are intractable—where we encounter individuals or groups who have no interest in engaging in mutual understanding and genuine dialogue.

Their primary goal is to eliminate physically what they take to be different, other, and incommensurable. No one who has lived through the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first century can be naïve about this. But a primary danger is that we are all too quick to make this judgment about intractable incommensurable differences and to act in misguided ways upon this belief.

2) Second, we must appreciate the fragility of the practices and virtues required for the type of hermeneutic openness that I am calling for. The quest for certainty—for psychological, moral, political, and religious secure foundations—is deep and persistent. One rarely abandons the craving for absolutes because of philosophical argumentation. It is not easy to live with contingency, ambiguity, a sense of one’s fallibility, and genuine openness to what is other and different from us.

Openness and fallibility are always potentially under threat. I do not see this as a reason for despair or cynicism. On the contrary, because of the fragility of hermeneutical openness in the face of what is incommensurable, there is a need for passionate commitment to the task of achieving its concrete realization in both local and global contexts. Pluralism is a basic fact of modern life, and it can take a great variety of benign and malignant forms. The key issue is how to respond to pluralism. We can seek to deny it or (literally) to eliminate it—this is the goal of totalitarian regimes. But we can also seek to engage critically what is really different, what strikes us as incommensurable and to attempt honestly to further the task—die Aufgabe—of critically understanding what is other than us without denying or distorting its “otherness.” And we must constantly and passionately seek to bring about the “material conditions” that are the necessary condition for forthright critical engagement.

3) Finally, we must be honest about the limitations and the importance of philosophic inquiry. As I noted earlier, I do not believe that philosophy by itself is ever sufficient to solve practical problems in the “real world.” But it can help to deconstruct myths and prejudices that block mutual understanding and it can criticize misleading pictures of incommensurability that perpetuate hatred. It can clarify goals and norms that ought to govern our behavior. It can encourage the types of civility and public discourse about hard issues that arise when we encounter forms of otherness that seem to threaten us by challenging our most deeply held convictions.

I conclude with one of my favorite quotations from John Courtney Murray that epitomizes what I have been arguing.

“Barbarism . . . threatens when men cease to talk together according to reasonable laws. These are laws of argument, the observance of which is imperative if discourse is to be civilized. Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice; when its vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared; when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues; when the parties to the conversation cease to listen to one another, or hear only what they want to hear, or see the other’s argument only through the screen of their own categories. . . .When things like this happen, men cannot be locked in argument. Conversation becomes merely quarrelsome or querulous. Civility dies with the death of dialogue.”[9]


[1] attempted to do this in Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983). See especially Part Two, “Science, Rationality, and Incommensurability.”

[2] The following paragraphs are based on Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, 81-82.

[3] See my discussion of Kuhn’s later attempts to clarify what he meant by incommensurability in Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, 80.

[4] See my discussion of the “Cartesian Anxiety” in Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, 16-25.

[5] See my discussion of Popper in Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, 84-85.

[6] For a related critique of incommensurability see Donald Davidson’s famous paper, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.”

[7] See my discussion of the dangerous consequences of the simplistic binary opposition of good and evil in The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption f Politics and Religion since 9/11.

[8] Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” 143.

[9] John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths, 14.


Bernstein, Richard J. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983).

________________. The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion since 9/11 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005).

Davidson, Donald. “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 47 (1973-74): 5-20.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg “The Problem of Historical Consciousness” reprinted in Interpretive Social Science, eds. P. Rabinow and W. Sullivan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

_________________. Truth and Method (London” Continuum, 2004)

Geertz, Clifford. “From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding”. Reprinted in Interpretive Social Science, eds. P. Rabinow and W. Sullivan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” in Between Naturalism and Religion (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008).

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. enl. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

Murray, John Courtney. We Hold These Truths (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 14.

Popper, Karl. “Normal Science and Its Dangers” in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, eds. I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

____________. Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

____________. “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality” in On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993 (New York: Basic Books, 1993).

The final/definitive version of Richard J. Bernstein’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 36 nos 3-4 March and May 2010, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 381-394, Special Issue: “Postsecularism and multicultural Jusirdictions”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2008-2009, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue