Everett Helmut Akam. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Pluralism derives from the Latin plures, meaning “several” or “many,” and it has formed the central concern of various intellectual traditions throughout the history of the West. Applied in philosophy, political theory, religion, and ethnic and racial relations, pluralism challenges the notion that a single authority or group must dominate all others. Rather than accepting the imposition of conformity to either a single standard of truth or a center of power, whether it is moral, political, cultural, or religious, pluralists have defended the right to diversity and difference. At its most promising, pluralism thus forms the basis of tolerance and the essential limitation of power and authority on behalf of human freedom.

Philosophical Pluralism

Philosophical pluralism’s core belief consists of the notion that humans do not simply discover and copy, through the use of reason, a unified reality that exists independently of them. Rather, our view of reality, or that which we take as truth, is always influenced by our cultural and historical context. Truth, accordingly, can never be absolute, static, strictly objective, and monolithic. On the contrary, it always contains elements of subjectivity and change, more of relativism than absolutism. In short, truth, and even reality itself, consist of the many rather than the one.

Absolutism, on the other hand, holds that the human mind acts ideally as a passive mirror that faithfully reflects an independently existing, unified reality without distortion. Universal agreement about the nature of that reality is therefore possible. This notion was most famously articulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428-348 or 347 B.C.E.). In his allegory of the cave, Plato regarded the knowledge of ordinary people to be distorted by the conventions of culture and the flux of change typical of the empirical world of passing phenomena. Plato’s philosopher, on the other hand, abandoned the cave of culture and walked outside into the light. There he apprehended the eternal, the unchanging, the very essence of all being—the pure Idea. Thus Plato’s philosopher rose above myth, deception, and error, above the darkness of the empirical world typical of the cave of ordinary life. He transcended all limitations to achieve objective, transparent, and timeless truth through the exercise of unconditioned reason. With his mind thus unfettered, the philosopher should also assume the political authority of king in the ideal republic because he alone could rule on the basis of truth and reason. Plato thereby introduced the undemocratic view that only those with privileged consciousness should rule.


Future generations of pluralists would challenge absolutism in various ways, but it fell to Plato’s student Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) to criticize the overly abstract quality of the Platonic Idea of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle pointed out that Plato’s disembodied categories of thought proved unhelpful and even irrelevant because they were too disconnected from reality to serve as a useful guide to experience. Even if the Platonic Idea of the Good, for example, could somehow be known by human reason (and Aristotle thought this impossible) “it is not easy to see how knowing that same Ideal Good will help a weaver or carpenter in the practice of his own craft,” Aristotle argued, “or how anybody will be a better physician or general for having contemplated the absolute Idea” (p. 25). For Aristotle, reality consisted rather of the empirical facts as faced by humans in concrete situations. Not even the physician studies the Good in the abstract. Rather, “he studies the health of the human being—or rather of some particular human being, for it is the individual that he has to cure” (p. 25). Like Aristotle, future generations of pluralists would chafe against the arid abstractions of idealist philosophy; they, too, would favor the multiplicity of empirical facts encountered by historically situated subjects in search of truth capable of guiding action in the world shared by men and women. Their universe, unlike Aristotle’s, however, would be open-ended, changing; their truths would be plural rather than singular, monistic, and absolute. Nor would they come to expect universal agreement; for them, Socratic dialogue would be their guide.

German Historicism

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), the founders of German historicism, deepened the rebellion against monism and absolutism. These critics of the great tradition of Western philosophy rejected that tradition’s key assumption that natural laws operated to maintain an independent, objective reality, knowledge of which would yield absolute, foundational truth. Attacking the Enlightenment claim that European culture best exemplified the triumph of reason and science, Vico and Herder surveyed the sweeping panorama of history and cultural variation with deep respect and tenderness. Rather than demanding conformity to some chimerical universal truth, these pluralists cherished a world made vibrant by difference. Each culture, each epoch did not represent a mistake, deviation, or lower stage of development. Like a colorful garden made up of many flowers, the plurality of cultures suggested beauty and completeness in each form, all wondrous manifestations of the creative force of humankind. Vico grounded his defense of pluralism in a rejection of the philosophes’ notion that mathematical laws corresponded to those of an independent reality. Far from offering a paradigm of certainty, mathematics, for Vico, provided at best knowledge of regularity but certainly not authentic understanding of the human world. The utility of mathematics lay in its origin as a human creation, not in its presumed correspondence with reality. And humans could understand mathematics because they had created it. Vico then applied this maker’s theory of knowledge to the realm of culture. We could come to understand other cultures by virtue of our shared humanity and capacities as cocreators of culture. For this to occur, however, we must abandon the fallacious doctrine of absolutism and approach other cultures on their own terms.

Herder too rejected the mechanical method of science and universalism for sympathetic understanding, which he termed Verstehen. In exercising this ability to understand others separated from us by time or cultural difference, we engage the other in a process of dialogue in an encounter between self and other. Through the use of subtlety and imaginative reconstruction, we attempt to understand the different on its own terms rather than attempting to force it into conformity with nonexistent laws. For Herder then, authentic progress consisted not in uniformity but in the acknowledgment that “not a man, not a country, not a people, not a natural history, not a state are like one another. Hence the True, the Good, the Beautiful in man are not similar either” (Berlin, p. 210). Thus by Herder’s lights, “It is terrible arrogance to affirm that, to be happy, everyone should become European” (Berlin, pp. 210, 197). For these defenders of difference, the flowering of spontaneous, natural forms of human self-expression by men and women in cultural groups united by a common language and worldview provided humankind with a flesh-and-blood alternative to the abstract, lifeless citizen of the Enlightenment.


At the dawn of the twentieth century, a new philosophical movement called pragmatism emerged, part of the modernist revolt against nineteenth-century orthodoxy. Influenced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and the French thinker Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941), the movement included such leading figures as Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-1952). Although differences existed within the movement, pragmatists were united in their search for empirical truths capable of guiding action in a changing world. Unlike absolutists therefore, pragmatists conceived of truth as relative and akin to scientific hypotheses verifiable through experience and subject to revision in the light of new conditions. William James captured the reigning view of truth in his critique of absolute theism. Like philosophical idealism, its more secular counterpart, absolute theism insisted that “truth exists per se and absolutely by God’s grace and decree, no matter who of us knows it or is ignorant, and it would continue to exist unaltered, even though we finite knowers were all annihilated” (1909, p. 28). However, the proliferation of contending scientific theories in the late nineteenth century, as well as the profound influence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, called into question the entire notion that truth represents a mere mental copy of a static, independent reality. Pragmatists believed “that even the truest formula may be a human device and not a literal transcript” (James, 1955, p. 233). Indeed James regarded the “very notion of a world complete unto itself, to which thought comes as a passive mirror, adding nothing to fact” as “irrational” (1955, p. 233).

By situating truth and reason inside the empirical flux of experience rather than outside it in some abstract, static transcendental realm, pragmatists abandoned the unhelpful quest for certainty and instead offered reason as an instrument of adaptation and dynamic transformation of the world. “What really exists,” James held, “is not things made but things in the making” (1909, p. 263). Regarding truth as an encounter between subject and object, he looked to “living understanding of the movement of reality” as an alternative. Moreover that flux could only be seen as pluralistic rather than monistic. In the place of monism, James thus offered his pluralistic universe, which he regarded “more like a federal republic than like an empire or kingdom. However much may report itself as present at any effective center of consciousness or action,” he cautioned, “something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity” (1909, pp. 264, 321-322).

Cultural Pluralism

The pluralistic defense of cultural diversity typical of Vico, Herder, and James has grown more powerful in the modern world as ethnic and racial groups within multiethnic societies have increasingly sought to exercise political power and retain their cultural heritage in the face of demands for cultural conformity. In the United States the pragmatists Horace Meyer Kallen (1882-1974) and Randolph Silliman Bourne (1886-1918) supplied a spirited defense of diversity during World War I. Although the American political tradition of classical liberalism championed individual rights, it failed to extend those rights to include the right to be culturally different. Liberal rights had wrongly assumed “that men are men merely, as like as marbles and destined under uniformity of conditions to uniformity of spirit,” Kallen wrote in “Democracy versus the Melting Pot” (p. 193). The right to cultural identity was essential to selfhood, however, and Kallen called for a “Federal republic,” a “democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously in the enterprise of self-realization through the perfection of men according to their kind” (p. 220).

Similarly Bourne’s 1916 essay “Transnational America” reminded dominant Anglo-Saxons that even the early colonists “did not come to be assimilated in an American melting-pot. They did not come to adopt the culture of the American Indian” (p. 249). Bourne also called for a “cosmopolitan federation of national colonies” within which ethnic groups “merge but they do not fuse” (pp. 258, 255). Thus an immigrant would be both a Serb and an American, for example, as difference harmonized with common ground.

Although both men challenged what was taken by most Anglo-Saxons to be the absolute truth regarding what it meant to be an American, Bourne went well beyond Kallen’s demand for freedom defined simply as a private right to be different. Influenced by the Enlightenment, Kallen assigned ethnicity to private life while he placed the public world in the hands of technical experts. Bourne, on the other hand, urged a national collaboration in the construction of a new national culture by all racial and ethnic groups in terms reminiscent of Herder. Contrarily then, Bourne’s freedom meant “a democratic cooperation in determining the ideals and purposes and industrial and social institutions of a country” (p. 252). Thus while Kallen’s vision served to strengthen the dominance of experts in the public sphere of work and politics, Bourne called for a “Beloved Community” that placed democratic participation and a discussion of values at the very center of public life (p. 264).

Animated by these somewhat contradictory ideals, cultural pluralism constituted a protean movement in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States. Particularly important achievements include the efforts of John Collier (1884-1968) as commissioner of Indian Affairs during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt to overturn the U.S. government’s policy of assimilation of the American Indian. Due to Collier’s efforts, Native Americans regained the right to their cultures, lands, and tribal political institutions after decades of denial. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s also reflected the principles of cultural pluralism. Alain Leroy Locke (1886-1954), America’s first African-American Rhodes scholar and a former student of William James, furnished the guiding vision of the Renaissance and helped to achieve Bourne’s “beloved community.” Finding beauty within himself, through a rebirth of black art, the “new Negro” would thereby achieve the moral dignity suited to a “collaborator and participant in American civilization” (Locke, 1925, p. 5). Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude Mackay, Jean Toomer, and others awakened black pride and offered an aesthetically and spiritually barren industrial capitalist America African-American wisdom and beauty instead of the ashes of materialism.

During the second half of the twentieth century, cultural pluralist thought in the United States was increasingly eclipsed by the lingering commitment of liberal intellectuals to the Marxist notion of culture as mere superstructure or as determined by the more fundamental struggle for power. Nevertheless, minority groups continue to struggle to achieve cultural democracy in the early twenty-first century’s multicultural societies. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, following Herder, has argued, being true to oneself requires an acknowledgment by both self and other of the indispensable role of culture in the creation of identity. Because culture imparts those particular aspects—religion, language, traditions—that make an individual or group unique, the forced assimilation of minorities to the hegemonic standard of identity by a majority group constitutes a form of oppression and violence of the spirit. This recognition has led in turn to efforts to expand the political theory of liberalism to include not only a defense of identical universal rights but the right of groups to cultural differences as well. Cultural pluralists therefore seek to supplant cultural monism or absolutism with pluralism by reconciling community with diversity in the modern world.

Critics of cultural pluralism and multiculturalism worry, however, that the twenty-first century’s emphasis on racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity will go too far and erode the common ground necessary to national unity. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., for example, decried the collapse of shared values and traditions under the weight of a dangerous tribalism in The Disuniting of America. Assimilation within the crucible of the melting pot, America’s “brilliant solution for the inherent fragility of a multicultural society,” was being destroyed by the multiculturalists’ “search for roots” and the “cult of ethnicity” (Schlesinger, pp. 13, 15). Thus unity threatened to “give way to the Tower of Babel” (Schlesinger, p. 17).

David Hollinger has similarly pointed out the dangers of diversity. Unlike Schlesinger’s prescription for a conformist unity based on assimilation, however, Hollinger has called for a postethnic America founded upon cosmopolitanism. Drawing a helpful distinction between cosmopolitanism and conformist universalism, he argued that the former “shared with all varieties of universalism a profound suspicion of enclosures, but cosmopolitanism is defined by an additional element not essential to universalism itself: recognition, acceptance, and eager exploration of diversity” (p. 84). At their best, such critics remind us that the claims of diversity and community must be reconciled, a reconciliation achieved by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Political Pluralism

In practice, the political variation on pluralist thought has attempted to disperse political power and authority in modern societies, with varying degrees of success. English political pluralists, for example, grappled with the problem of maintaining political diversity and liberty in the face of the growing power of the modern state in the early twentieth century. Influenced by the Whig tradition, which sought to safeguard the achievements of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 by limiting state power through a system of checks and balances, J. N. Figgis (1866-1919) and Harold J. Laski (1893-1950) feared this centralization of power and sought to disperse it among the various groups and associations within society. They thus opposed the idealist view of the state, typical of T. H. Green (1836-1882) and F. H. Bradley (1846-1924), as the highest expression of social unity. Contrarily, pluralists regarded the state as one group among many, the function of which consisted of maintaining individual liberty and the social order necessary to the pursuit of substantive goods by groups within a flourishing civil society. In their insistence that state power be limited, pluralists therefore followed the lead of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and F. W. Maitland (1850-1906), both of whom sought to strengthen those intermediate groups between the individual and the state as the most effective bulwark against tyranny. The works of Laski and Figgis influenced English guild socialists, such as G. D. H. Cole, S. G. Hobson, and A. R. Orage, who hoped to use the state to establish guilds that would abolish capitalism and reinstitute worker control of industry. That tradition, however, lost influence from 1920 to 1960 to the state socialism of the Labour Party.

Whereas their English counterparts were preoccupied with limiting state power, American pluralists, such as Arthur F. Bentley, Walter Lippmann, David Truman, and Robert Dahl, stressed a notion of pluralism as a system of indirect democracy characterized by interest-group competition and a balance of power. Purportedly open to all citizens and overseen by enlightened elites, these groups engaged in bargaining and compromise over rational, limited ends. With its roots in the works of Roberto Michels, Gaetano Mosca, and Vilfredo Pareto, American political pluralism, especially after World War II, emphasized the necessity of political and economic elites in maintaining democracy. As interpreted by liberal intellectuals during the Cold War, the masses could not be trusted to act rationally out of reasonable self-interest. Instead, they were seen as authoritarian, prone to conspiracy theories, and uncommitted to the values of liberal democracy. Only a system of interest-group competition within a stable, corporate capitalist system overseen by enlightened elites could prevent the mass activism that had led in Europe to the totalitarian regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, it was believed. Thus democracy was redefined to mean not rule by the people but rather rule of the people by elites. Ethnic and racial groups were consequently redefined as organized interest groups vying with each other for a fair share of economic and political power within a responsive, expanding system of corporate capitalism and interest-group pluralism. Rule by the professional managerial class, experts, and intellectuals was therefore both rationalized and justified, a view for which pluralism has often been criticized. Nevertheless, Robert Dahl has called for the establishment of self-governing worker cooperatives in industry as a democratic antidote to the concentration of political power by America’s corporate oligarchy. Likewise some neopluralist thinkers seek to revise conceptions of political power and better account for the political voice and engagement of the diverse groups pluralism aims to protect.


Reinhold Niebuhr captured the spirit of pluralism when he wrote: “Absolutism, in both religious and political idealism, is a splendid incentive to heroic action, but a dangerous guide in immediate concrete situations. In religion it permits absurdities and in politics … unbearable tyrannies and cruelties” (p. 199). As the horrific events of September 11, 2001, demonstrated, religious absolutism too is capable of “unbearable cruelties.” In the aftermath of September 11, pluralism therefore increasingly became synonymous with religious and cultural diversity and secularism as well as the decentralization of political power typical of the modern West. Thus pluralism has come to signify the tolerance and liberalism of the Western tradition as opposed to the closed, totalitarian societies of Islamic fundamentalists. Whatever the sources of absolutism may be, the works of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) and Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) as well as those of the earlier pluralists remain an important guide in troubled times.