requiem for certainty

Pluralism via Williams

with 6 comments

The first few draft paragraphs of a piece on Bernard Williams I am working on are below.  Also (just to self-advertise) my piece “Bernard Williams on Philosophy’s Need for History” just came out in the last issue of Review of Metaphysics (v64n1, Sept. 2010).

On pluralism and liberalism.  One of the most important, and indeed also most interesting, features of twentieth-century philosophical thinking about politics and morals concerns the increasing centrality of value pluralism for political philosophers working across a range of traditions: analytical, phenomenological, pragmatist, genealogical.  It is not entirely clear why value pluralism should have emerged as a topic of such concern at this time.  Of course, concern over pluralism had always been a feature of modern political philosophy.  But whereas canonical political philosophy in past centuries tends to sublimate pluralism in favor of a given philosophical conception of order or justice, the problem of pluralism itself became canonical over the course of the twentieth century, such that no serious political philosopher can today afford to ignore the problem, brush it aside, or dismiss it as either trivial or easily addressed as a purely practical matter.  But pluralism itself, deep conflict over values or ideals or interests as characteristic of both intercultural political life and intrapersonal moral life, has always been a feature of modern moral life.

If political philosophers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth century were confident about the possibilities of justice in the context of pluralistic conflict, then political philosophers of the twentieth century have been more hesitant, and even those who remain sanguine are extraordinarily careful in their mode of presentation of their result.  As said, it is not entirely clear why philosophy has changed its approach to pluralism in this way.  Probably it is because pluralistic conflict is felt more widely in the culture.  And in conjunction with this, it happens that political philosophy is today more attentive to culture, and especially mass culture, than it was in previous centuries, when a certain amount of (overt) elitism seemed characteristic of philosophy, no doubt a function at least in part of the privilege required for one to even consider becoming a philosopher.  But that is only a (possibly) rational hypothesis, and nothing yet near a (probable) historical explanation of the matter.

It is one of Bernard Williams’s signal contributions to twentieth century philosophy to have urged a more historical perspective on the way in which we conduct our inquiries and forward our arguments.  In the case of pluralism, and its relation to liberalism both as a political theory and as a set of moral ideas, Williams’s contribution is in large part due to his having shown how we can resituate the project of political philosophy as a historical, or more precisely genealogical, effort in understanding ourselves as pluralistic, and also as liberal.


Written by Colin Koopman

November 7, 2010 at 4:00 am

6 Responses

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  1. “Explaining rationality and epistemic authority by reference to what society lets us say, rather than the latter by the former, is the essence of what I shall call ‘epistemological behaviorism,’ an attitude common to Dewey and Wittgenstein.” Rorty(PMN 174)


    November 10, 2010 at 2:32 pm

  2. Williams spent to much time distinguishing his view from Rorty’s that one can’t help but think that he recognized how close he was treading to neopragmatism.

    Colin Koopman

    November 10, 2010 at 6:31 pm

  3. sure, it seems to me that in addition to the political pressures of globalization there was this anthropological/ethnographic/practice turn in philosophy, which to my mind has not yet been fully absorbed (except perhaps in individual cases like rabinow’s new pragmatism) and was given a rough shape by St.Fish’s take on how socialization/institutionalization shapes interpretations/norms. I tried once to free Rorty from his own self-defeating habit of trying to theorize justifications, a hold-over from his analytic days, and while he could see that there where questions better left behind he couldn’t quite get out of that flyjar.


    November 11, 2010 at 1:48 pm

  4. I see what you mean, but as a historical point, I don’t see that there ever was a ‘practice’ turn in philosophy, at least not in the United States. But I do agree that all the pieces were in place for that. I think they still are. The practice turn is coming! The practice turn is coming!

    I would like to think that Rabinow would be cheered by your volunteering the label ‘new pragmatism’ for his work.

    Colin Koopman

    November 11, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    • fair enough, my sense is that folks walked right up to it, even called for it, but then balked when it came to turning from theorizing to strategizing, from commenting on to intervening. Shades perhaps of the old prejudices against homo rhetoricus. Tho across the Atlantic as I have been mentioning things are not so conservative…


      November 12, 2010 at 2:51 pm

      • ps, I appreciate your note on Rabinow, I would be cheered if academic pragmatism would organize in response to the call for experimental disciplines of anthropologies of the contemporary. Perhaps there could be some therapeutic work/interventions on book fetishes, archive fever, and theory hope.


        November 12, 2010 at 3:06 pm

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