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Monday, June 2, 2003

Relativism or pluralism?

More on inhabiting multiple cognitive universes, this time from Isaiah Berlin's riveting essay "The Pursuit of the Ideal" (in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, which I mentioned a while back):

"I prefer coffee, you prefer champagne. We have different tastes. There is no more to be said." That is relativism. But [Johann Gottfried] Herder's view, and [Giambattista] Vico's, is not that: it is what I should describe as pluralism — that is, the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathising and deriving light from each other, as we derive it from reading Plato or from the novels of medieval Japan — worlds, outlooks, very remote from our own. Of course, if we did not have any values in common with these distant figures, each civilisation would be enclosed in its own impenetrable bubble, and we could not understand them at all . . . Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is only possible because what makes men human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them. But our values are ours, and theirs are theirs. We are free to criticise the values of other cultures, to condemn them, but we cannot pretend not to understand them at all, or to regard them simply as subjective, the products of creatures in different circumstances with different tastes from our own, which do not speak to us at all. (11)

There is a world of objective values. By this I mean those ends that men pursue for their own sakes, to which other things are means. I am not blind to what the Greeks valued — their values may not be mine, but I can grasp what it would be like to live by their light, I can admire and respect them, and even imagine myself as pursuing them, although I do not — and do not wish to, and perhaps could not if I wished. Forms of life differ. Ends, moral principles, are many. But not infinitely many: they must be within the human horizon . . .

What is clear is that values can clash — that is why civilizations are incompatible. They can be incompatible between cultures, or groups in the same culture, or between you and me. You believe in always telling the truth, no matter what; I do not, because I believe that it can sometimes be too painful and too destructive. We can discuss each other's point of view, we can try to reach common ground, but in the end what you pursue may not be reconcilable with the ends to which I find that I have dedicated my life. Values may easily clash within the breast of a single individual; and it does not follow that, if they do, some must be true and others false. Justice, rigorous justice, is for some people an absolute value, but it is not compatible with what may be no less ultimate values for them — mercy, compassion — as arises in concrete cases. (11-12)

How does Berlin's thinking about pluralism apply to the Unitarian Universalist search for unity amid our theological diversity? More soon...

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 2 June 2003 at 7:30 PM

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