Cultural pluralism

HT 3 Quarks: Perhaps rather apposite in view of some recent controversies and debates.

Bhikhu Parekh in The Philosopher’s Magazine:

Western thought has long been dominated by the view that while error is plural, truth is singular. We can be wrong in many different ways but can be right in only one way. According to this view, which we might call monism or singularism, there is only one correct way of understanding the world, only one true system of morality, only one true way of leading the good life, only one true religion, only one correct way of organising society, and so on. We are supposed to arrive at truth, be it cognitive, moral or religious, by means of reason, which is understood as a transcendental and quasi-divine faculty rising above the psychological, social, cultural and other constraints. This view has had both good and bad consequences. It has inspired most rigorous intellectual inquiries, rules of rational debate, and a determination to expose and fight errors. It has also however led to arrogance, intolerance, failure to appreciate differences, tendency to equate diversity with deviation, and much violence.

Cultural pluralism challenges this view of truth and goodness. It sees reason as a human rather than a quasi-divine or transcendental with all that it implies. Since it takes the view that human beings are culturally embedded, it argues that reason is shaped and structured by culture. This does not mean that they cannot criticise and revise their culture, but rather that they cannot transcend all its subtle and deepest influences and view it from a nonexistent Archimedean standpoint. They may replace one culture with another but cannot stand outside the realm of culture altogether. For cultural pluralism the world can be understood in several different ways depending on our conceptual apparatus, language, interests, purposes, the questions we ask and the kind of knowledge we seek and value. Like truth in general, moral truth or good too is also plural. Human capacities and moral values conflict and cannot all be integrated into a harmonious system without loss. Different cultural communities organise themselves on the basis of different visions of the good life, and foster different human capacities, dispositions and virtues. Every cultural community represents a particular form of human excellence with all its characteristic strengths and limitations. No culture is perfect or exhaustively embodies goodness, and none is wholly devoid of at least some degree of goodness.

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13 years ago

I had been led to believe that truth is not derived by reason but rather by revelation, which is fundamental to the Western Judeo-Christian tradition. Or perhaps that, should reason and revelation conflict, revelation necessarily prevails. Which suggests to me a primary dualism in Western thought, at the very least in relation to the truth, although I have reminded myself now of Descartes, and so on and so forth.

Therein lies a reason why cultural pluralism threatens those demagogues who are promoting these ‘recent controversies and debates’. They can be identified by their use of the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian’. Note that my own use should be viewed as ironic.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

I think this dead wrong. All societies know they are right and all others are in error. This situation has dominated human society since it began. If there is one society that is not quite so dominated, it is the West. I cannot think of any society that displays more cultural pluralism than the West.

I find the second paragraph to be fatuous and sanctimonious.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

What I find “dead wrong” is that Western culture has the view that there is only one correct way to understand the world. I say exactly the contrary: no culture is more free of cultural monism than the West.

Where’s this critique of the West’s lack of cultural pluralism published? Not in North Korea, or the PRC or Turkey or Saudi Arabia or Russia. It’s in the West. Self-flagellation.

As for the ponderous second para… the most egregious bits are:

“…reason is shaped and structured by culture.” Gosh! Who’d have thought it?

“…they cannot transcend all its subtle and deepest influences…” Can’t they? And what could conceivably show this to be false?

“…the world can be understood in several different ways depending on our conceptual apparatus…” Blah, blah blah.

“…moral truth or good too is also plural…” Another devastating insight.

“Every cultural community represents a particular form of human excellence with all its characteristic strengths and limitations.” It’s hard to credit that anyone would seriously write such pap. A politician perhaps, but a philosopher?

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “Nomad” 2010, page 66.

The author has a job, contemptible in her clan’s view, as a Somali translator for the Dutch welfare infidels.

“I saw many Somali mothers with babies who looked just like [my brother] Mahad’s son, who had been abandoned by men just like my brother. They were tormented by mothers-in-law just like my mother, and like my family they were all focused backward, to a mythical past of life as nomads in the Somali desert. They would tell their little children about Somali’s heroes, about milking camels, and to hate other clans. They would emotionally blackmail their children not to become ‘too Dutch,’ to speak Somali instead of Dutch and not give up their culture.

“These children performed poorly at school… [the authorities test them] … all the Somali children I translated for, who in their homes certainly ate on the floor, with their hands, flatly failed these tests… they would go to a ‘special school’ for ‘remedial learning.’

“…not just Somalis, but also families from Morocco, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia. I was amazed that officials in so many different institutions – social workers, schoolteachers, the police, child protection services, domestic violence agencies – all assumed there was some deep cultural puzzle… …then proceeded to protect these puzzling cultural norms. This was the advice they received from anthropologists, Arabists, Islamologists, cultural experts, and ethnic organizations, all of whom insisted that these behaviors were something special and unique and worth preserving in these homes.”

Note that the anthropologists et al are Western. Now, who are the monists, who the cultural pluralists?