In Defense of Pluralism
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.