The Pragmatic Roots of Cultural Pluralism
Richard J. Bernstein, The New School 23 July 2014

I want to begin by telling you something about the American Pragmatic Movement. Although the word “pragmatism” has become extremely popular and is sometimes used to mean “being practical” in a mundane sense—and frequently even to be anti-theoretical and anti-intellectual—this has little do with the meaning of pragmatism as philosophical movement associated with the names of Charles S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey and those influenced by them. I will single out five themes that characterize the pragmatic movement: (1) anti-foundationalism; (2) community of inquirers; (3) fallibilism; (4) radical contingency; (5) pluralism.

Let me say a brief word about each of these few themes. (1) antifoundationalism. The pragmatic thinkers reject the idea that ultimately knowledge rests on a secure foundation whether we think of this foundation as ultimate principles or even ultimate sense data. They accept a principle clearly formulated by Wilfrid Sellars: “For empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational, not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy though not all at once.” For the pragmatists this self-correcting enterprise is characteristic of all inquiry. (2) community of inquirers. If one rejects foundationalism then the question arises how do we test knowledge-claims—or more generally—validity claims. For the pragmatists the alternative is that all validity claims must be submitted to the criticism of the relevant community of inquirers. Public criticism is essential for testing and evaluating our claims. They must be warranted by a critical community of inquirers. (3) fallibilism. For the pragmatists the alternative to foundationalism is not epistemological skepticism but fallibilism. And fallibilism is the thesis that any validity claim can be challenged and modified. Fallibilism is implicit when Sellars suggests that inquiry is a self-correcting enterprise that can put any claim in jeopardy although not all at once. Inquiry is always open to correction. Fallibilism can also be understood as an ethical and political virtue—a willingness to be open-minded, to listen to others, to learn from others, and a willingness to modify one’s views in light of public criticism. (4) radical contingency. Contingency and chance has always been problematic for many traditional philosophers. There has been a prevailing quest for certainty. For the pragmatists, contingency and chance are not merely signs of human ignorance. They are constituents of the universe and our experience. The universe is an open universe which can be a source of both tragedy and opportunity. The primary issue is how to respond to contingency. This is why pragmatists emphasize cultivating those critical habits that constitute reflective intelligence. Finally I come to (5) pluralism. We can see how pluralism pervades the other themes that I have sketched. There can be no escape from the plurality of traditions, perspectives, and philosophic orientations. The type of pluralism that the pragmatists advocate is engaged fallibilistic pluralism. Such a pluralistic ethos places new responsibilities upon each of us. For it means taking one’s fallibility seriously—resolving that however much we are committed to our own beliefs and styles of thinking, we are willing to listen to others without denying or suppressing the otherness of the other. It means being vigilant against the dual temptations of simply excluding and dismissing what others are saying or assimilating it to our familiar categories. It means a willing to enlarge our horizons in and through the encounter with others.

The first philosopher to use the expression “pluralistic” in the tile of a philosophic book was William James when he entitled his book A Pluralistic Universe. A Pluralistic Universe is based on a series a lectures that James gave at Oxford University in 1908. James had long argued against two opposing tendencies in philosophy. The first, which was very popular both in England and America during the latter part of the nineteenth century, was Absolute Monism. In the United States, its primary champion was Josiah Royce, James’ colleague at Harvard. Absolute monism was itself based on an Anglo-American appropriation of Hegel. Monists maintained that all knowledge and all reality in encompassed in a single monistic system. But James also opposed extreme forms of empirical atomism, which maintained that experiences consists of aggregates of discrete and separate sense data. Here is how James described his radical pluralism.

“It is curious how little countenance radical pluralism has ever had from philosophers. Whether materialistically or spiritualistically minded, philosophers have always aimed at cleaning up the litter with which the world apparently is filled. They have substituted economical and orderly conceptions for the first sensible tangle: and whether these were morally elevated or only intellectually neat, they were at any rate always aesthetically pure and definite, and aimed at ascribing to the world something clean and intellectual in the way of inner structure. As compared with all these rationalizing pictures, the pluralistic empiricism which I profess offers but a sorry appearance. It is a turbid, muddled, gothic sort of affair without a sweeping outline and with little pictorial nobility.”

We will see that James’ radical pluralism has some strong ethical and political consequences. When James’ delivered his lectures at Oxford, two former Harvard students were present, Horace Kallen and Alain Locke—both of whom were to have a significant influence on what has been called “cultural pluralism.” Indeed the expression “cultural pluralism” was coined by Kallen. Kallen came from on orthodox Jewish immigrant family—and although he was a student of James’ pluralism throughout his life he took his Jewish heritage seriously. Alain Locke was the first African-American awarded the prestigious Rhodes scholarship to attend Oxford University. There was so much racial prejudice at the time in America that when Locke went to Oxford he was ostracized by his fellow Americans. Locke later became a leader of what is known as the Harlem Renaissance—an important Black cultural movement in the arts. But before addressing the contributions of Kallen, Locke (and others) to cultural pluralism I want to say something about the cultural context of life in the United States just prior and after the First World War.

Between 1870 and 1920 more than 27 million immigrants were admitted to the United States. The vast majority came from Southern and Eastern Europe. By 1910, 40 percent of the population of New York City was foreign-born. (By the way in 2014 the foreign born population in New York is once again almost 40 percent—although the immigrants now come from very different countries.) But it is a myth to believe that this vast immigration was a smooth and welcoming process. There was widespread discrimination and fear of the “pernicious” influence of foreigners. Even our universities set strict religious quotas to exclude and limit immigrant groups. Throughout the United States (not just in the American south) there were hotels, resorts, and restaurants that would not accept Jews, Catholics, and, of course Blacks.—and this lasted in many places well into the 1970s. Despite the great waves of immigrants—America, in the first decades of the twentieth century was primarily a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) country—and many wanted to keep it that way. The most popular metaphor for assimilating “foreigners” was that of the “melting pot.” But in reality what the “melting pot” really meant is that foreign immigrants should give up their ethnic and religious distinctiveness and “assimilate” to the dominant White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.

In 1915 Horace Kallen published his classic article “Democracy versus the Melting Pot” in the progressive journal, The Nation. He objected to the idea of the “melting pot” because it suggests that all elements are put into a pot to become a single homogenous mass. In contrast he hoped that different religious and ethnic groups would take pride in their cultural heritage. He envisioned the United States as a nation of cultural differences where these differences would be respected and enrich a vital democracy. “What will we make of the United States—a unison, singing the old Anglo-Saxon theme ‘the America,’ of the New England school, or a harmony, in which the themes shall be dominant perhaps, among others, but one, nay, not the only one?” For Kallen “unison” is the symbol of leveling and homogeneity: it means the triumph of cultural monism. Harmony, in contrast, only exists if there are different voices—without drowning out or obliterating any of these distinctive voices. Kallen was attracted to musical metaphors and he likened his vision of a culturally pluralistic society to a symphony orchestra in which the different instruments achieve a harmony. When Kallen sent his article to John Dewey, Dewey responded that he agreed with the orchestra idea but on the condition that we get a symphony and not a lot of instruments playing simultaneously. He wrote: “I never did care for the melting pot metaphor, but genuine assimilation to one another—not to Anglo-Saxonism—seems to me essential to America. That each cultural section should maintain its distinctive literary and artistic traditions seems to me most desirable, but in order that it might have the more to contribute to others.” Some criticized Kallen for thinking of cultural pluralism in a static and rigid manner. But in his book entitled Cultural Pluralism Kallen made it clear that, like James, he thought of different groups as fluid and changing and containing many different types of individuals.

Before passing on to the contributions of Alain Locke I want to mention another major contributor to this early discussion, Randolph Bourne. Bourne had studied with John Dewey at Columbia and he was a great admirer of William James. Bourne developed Kallen’s idea in an even more radical and nuanced manner. In 1916, Bourne published his famous essay, “Trans-National America.” He wrote: “We are all foreign-born or the descendants of foreign-born.” Like Kallen, Bourne was interested in what America might yet become—not clinging to an imagined past. He advocated a new cosmopolitan ideal for the United States—a transnational America. This would fulfill the democratic vision embodied in the spirit of Emerson, Whitman, James and Dewey. “It is not what we are that concerns us, but what the plastic next generation may become in the light of this cosmopolitan ideal.” “If freedom means democratic cooperation in determining the ideals and purposes and the industrial and social institutions of a country, then the immigrant has not been free, and the Anglo-Saxon element is guilty of just what every dominant race is guilty of in every European country: the imposition of its own culture upon the minority peoples.” Despite the different emphases of James, Dewey, Kallen and Borne they shared a common pluralistic vision of what America might and ought to become –a country that respects (but doesn’t reify) cultural differences; a democratic society that will be more democratic because it is constantly vitalized by cultural differences. These pragmatic thinkers were not naïve optimists. They were well aware of how much resistance there was to this pluralistic cosmopolitan ideal, but each was dedicated to making it a concrete reality.

Despite their advocacy of cultural pluralism, these thinkers dealt primarily with ethnic, religious, and cultural differences, they did not focus what has always been the serious problem of race –especially the issue of Blacks in America. Here we have to turn to W. E.B. Bois (another student of William James) and Alain Locke –who were both outstanding African-Americans. And we also need to mention the great anthropologist, Franz Boas who is known as the father of American anthropology. Boas was born in 1858 in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1887. So he himself was an immigrant. And in 1899 he was appointed to the faculty of Columbia University where he was joined a few years later by John Dewey. Throughout his life (he died in 1942) he was the leading anthropologist to debunk biological racism. Basing his claims on empirical evidence he forcefully argued that that the primary factor is distinguishing various groups was cultural—not biological. And like John Dewey he was also a progressive activist who debunked the pseudo-science of eugenics. He argued against the pseudo-scientific attempts to establish a hierarchy of races. Boas shared the same pluralistic spirit of the pragmatic thinkers.

I mentioned that Alain Locke became a leader of the Harlem Renaissance but he was also a professor at Howard University. Locke first addressed the issue of race in a remarkable series of lectures that he gave in 1915—at about the same time that Kallen’s “Democracy and the Melting Pot” appeared. Howard University was founded by white Christian ministers to educate Black professionals. Ironically, the white administrators of Howard were opposed to Locke’s proposal to teach a course on race because they did not want Howard to be associated with such controversial subjects. But under the sponsorship of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Locke gave his lectures. Drawing on the work of Franz Boas Locke argues that there are no fixed factors—biological, sociological, or anthropological that determine race. Racism is a pernicious ideology that has no scientific credibility. The concept of human plasticity is fundamental for all the pragmatic thinkers. In effect Locke was deconstructing the concept of race. Nevertheless he shared with W.E.B. Dubois the conviction that African-Americans need a positive idea of race in order to achieve a sense of self-esteem, self-respect and dignity. Locke, in short, sought to advance the ideal of cultural pluralism that would include African-American culture.

Cultural pluralism in America has been a dynamic movement in which there have been different voices and different emphases. The conversation itself has been pluralistic. But these thinkers rejected a politics of fixed identity and they also rejected the idea that different cultures are like self-contained monads that are incommensurable with each other. They advocated an engaged pluralism where there would be serious attempts to enlarge one’s horizons without assimilating to a “dominant” culture. They were not naïve about the practical and obstacles that stand in the way of achieving a culturally pluralistic cosmopolitan society. But the ideal of cultural diversity that emerges from their conversations is still a powerful ideal for our time. Their ideas—worked out in the context of American bigotry and racism—now have a universal and urgent significance. Societies throughout the world –including the United States –are facing new problems of how to deal with immigrants (legal and illegal) as well as native minorities. There is still fear, anxiety, and deep prejudices about those who are different and alien. The same extremes that the cultural pluralists were facing—assimilation to a “dominant” culture or exclusion and segregation—still threaten us. Their vision of what might America might become—a dynamic democratic society that respects and is enriched by differences—is now a genuinely international and cosmopolitan ideal—a vision that can and ought to be a powerful motivating ideal in the twenty-first century.



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