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In Defense of Pluralism

July 20, 2009

Katerina rightly rejects a pluralism that leaves “everybody to believe in whatever they believe is true,” that levels all beliefs and erases any real difference between truth and falsehood. Such a pluralism reduces every belief to the same, closes the door on difference, and makes persuasive dialogue rather pointless. There’s nothing really plural about this pluralism. It’s quite boring, actually.

The pluralism I would defend might be defined as the acknowledgement and celebration that while truth may ultimately be one, the pursuit of it in this life never reaches the possession of it in a unified, totalizing whole. Therefore, there may be many true philosophies, true histories, true interpretations, true paradigms, true scientific theories, true ethics or true theologies. According to this pluralism, the sum of our collective knowledge cannot be made into a coherent body in which all the pieces perfectly fit.

Why is it that our various expressions of truth cannot be made into one whole and coherent body? Is truth not the correspondence of our ideas to reality? And isn’t reality one thing? It would seem that the truth is one, not many. The reality is not quite that simple.

We are subjects situated in time and place. Our pursuit of truth cannot escape that situation. We construct all of our philosophies, histories, interpretations, ethics, and other bodies of knowledge in a particular time and place; these multiple constructs of ours are comprised of temporal building blocks. We use language to express the truth, for example, and language is wedded to time and place, to culture and history. We may use language to express timeless truths, but no language of ours is timeless. We may speak of universals, but our statements are particular things. We might walk upon the road to truth, but we also build the road on which we walk, selecting and incorporating earthly materials into our construction.

We can no more harmoniously synthesize the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle than we can neatly combine the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. I may be informed by both the spiritualities of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Teresa of Avila, but each one’s spiritual literature guides me in unique ways, using different images. The history of Thucydides doesn’t stack nicely on the history of Herodotus, as if each were like my son’s Lego blocks. Every speaker and writer has a unique voice, a voice that is her own, that composes words in ways unlike any other. Many may speak the truth, but each speaks it in a special way. What each says cannot, in the end, be divorced from the person who says it. What each person says comes from who he is and is informed by his experiences.

I defend this pluralism because I want there to be many roads, made of many different materials, coming from and going in many different directions. I want there to be many travelers, many voices, each with a new story to tell. Not all roads lead to where they seek, of course, and some may lead to false destinations. Not all travelers seek the same place. Not all of them even seek a good place. Some roads may lead to ruin, a fact which should motivate debate, and sometimes the use of corrective tools. What I oppose is taking the sledgehammer to every road that differs from one’s own, or worse, taking a sledgehammer to other travelers who speak differently or of different things. The plurality of roads and wayfarers calls for hospitality. We may have something to contribute to another’s journey, and she may have much to contribute to ours.

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14 Comments
  1. July 20, 2009 9:52 am

    Kyle,

    Do you think all non-Catholic Christians should become Catholics?

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

    • July 20, 2009 1:21 pm

      I knew it was only a matter of time before I was asked how my defense of pluralism fits with my Catholic faith. In answer to your question, Bryan, let me quote the Catechism, paragraph 836: “All men are called to this catholic unity of the People of God…. and to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation.” We’re all called to unity, but, in different ways, we are ordered or belong to that unity. So I think it’s important to strive for that unity, but also to respect the free search for truth in all persons. The pluralism I defend doesn’t contradict the unity of the Church, but recognizes where people are in their pilgrimage. It allows for difference and variation and also recognizes that the Catholic faith can be enlightened and vivified by the faiths of others.

  2. July 20, 2009 2:30 pm

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say “there may be many true philosophies, true histories, true interpretations, true paradigms, true scientific theories, true ethics or true theologies.”

    If a philosophy contradicts another (and each philosophy disagrees with the others), then they both can’t be true. Now, that doesn’t mean the Thomists should ignore the Phenomenologists, but it means both can’t be true. Instead, they should learn from one another and see if they can both develop towards the One Truth: God.

    Ultimately it has to be understood that much of the problems we see in this area are a result of God being a single unity as well as being infinite. This is why we see so many different spiritualities, as God cannot be exhausted, yet ultimately there is one truth.

    • July 20, 2009 6:23 pm

      Michael D.,

      I’d say both Thomism and Phenomenology can be true because each approaches reality from a different standpoint, uses a different method, asks different questions, and speaks a different language. In those instances where one’s conclusion logically contradicts the other, I agree that both conclusions cannot be true.

      A point I tried to get at in this posts is that there is no one true philosophy (or history, or ethics, etc.), nor can we combine all true bodies of knowledge into a complete system. Reality itself cannot be expressed in a pure, unmediated manner. Each philosophy is rooted in time and place and in the author’s subjectivity. However objectively true a philosophy is, it nevertheless has subjective aspects.

  3. July 20, 2009 2:32 pm

    Sounds like Ricouer’s idea of a “detour through culture” in order to arrive at Truth, which I’ve always liked.

    • July 20, 2009 6:24 pm

      Yes. Ricoeur’s hermeneutic detour is definitely at play in this post. In fact, it’s a safe bet that Ricoeur has some influence on just about anything I write.

  4. July 20, 2009 3:23 pm

    Now, that doesn’t mean the Thomists should ignore the Phenomenologists, but it means both can’t be true.

    I do not find philosophy to be about “truth” but a groping after understanding reality. So I tend to see the merit in major movements, like Thomism, Empiricism, Phenomenology, etc. I agree that there can be several true “paradigms” of philosophy, if by true we mean viable ways of understanding reality. This is not to deny objective truth but to deny that humans have yet discovered how to grasp it fully or comprehensively (hence, there are several tradtions of Thomism, just as neo-Thomism, existential Thomism, and analytic Thomism). Similar to science, the product of philosophy is largely determined by which questions are asked and how they are asked. This is how I think we can account for philosophical paradigms that are more fruitful than others in aiding us in getting a handle on objective truth. We see, for instance, John Paul II’s philosophy as a Thomistic-Phenomenological hybrid, while Benedict XVI tends to follow Augustinian and Bonaventurian trajectories. This rarely leads to contradiction (in the logical sense), but of differing perspective and unique elucidation. So I never ask which philosophical paradigm is “true” while assuming others must be false. Rather, I ask which philosophical paradigms have elucidated well aspects of objectivity.

    • July 20, 2009 6:25 pm

      We see, for instance, John Paul II’s philosophy as a Thomistic-Phenomenological hybrid, while Benedict XVI tends to follow Augustinian and Bonaventurian trajectories. This rarely leads to contradiction (in the logical sense), but of differing perspective and unique elucidation.

      Yes. And I think this plurality of trajectories and elucidations is a good thing.

  5. Mark DeFrancisis permalink
    July 20, 2009 4:02 pm

    Rather, I ask which philosophical paradigms have elucidated well aspects of objectivity.

    And what notion of objectivity does your view hold?

  6. July 22, 2009 2:32 pm

    Kyle,

    Interesting post.

    How do temporal, and therefore contingent, “encrustrations” (language, culture, politics) affect the proclamation and definition of dogma. Do they make dogma true but not True? Do they obfuscate or mitigate that Truth?

    Keith

    • July 22, 2009 8:49 pm

      Good question, Keith. When the Church defines a dogma, it expresses a truth using language in all its limitations, but the dogma nevertheless obliges “the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith.” I think the important thing to note is that dogmas do not mark the end of the discussion, but serve as a light to guide us on the way. The linguistic expression is important, adequate, and true, but not as important as what it points to. We shouldn’t mistake the formula for the reality itself. No formula, not even dogma, encapsulates, contains, or exhausts the fullness of reality. As the catechism states, “we do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch.”

      • July 22, 2009 11:23 pm

        Kyle,

        Thanks for your response. Your explanation pretty much matches what I meant by a dogmatic definition being true but not True. This is one of those areas where I feel postmodernism can be helpful to theological and philosophical understanding. I will admit, however, to being inherently suspicious regarding postmodern theory. I think I view it somewhat like the One Ring. As a critical approach it is powerful, but one can easily become ‘enslaved” and the tool becomes the Master, so to speak.

        Postmodernism in that sense can wreak havoc “on the ground,” where contingency slides into relativism, making the task of evangelization and the process of forming disciples difficult.

        In any event, I am loving this blog, and will make it a regular stop in my daily reading.

        In Christ,

        Keith

  7. July 23, 2009 7:50 am

    Thank you, Keith.

    I tend to be pretty open to postmodernism, though I agree it has its dangers. In its defense, I would say that all philosophy has its dangers. Postmodernism might tempt one down the path toward relativism. Realism might tempt one to a false sense of certainty. The pursuit of knowledge isn’t safe.

  8. July 23, 2009 11:44 am

    Kyle,

    You make a good point about the dangers of any philosophy. Foucault said, “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous.”

    I guess I’m hyper vigilant about post-modernism as I see it as the dominant mode of thought in much of contemporary culture, and it has had a powerful influence on the growth of relativism, a worldview which has done real damage to the emotional and spiritual health of men and women living today.

    Anyway, thanks for the great discussion!

    Keith

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