Monday, August 22, 2011

Philosophical Pluralism is Not Cosmopolitanism

I have previously argued (here) for a particular model of philosophical pluralism based on the metaphor of being "multilingual."  That is, we should speak different traditions natively, or at least as well as we can, as native fluency is the ideal.  Previously, I have argued for the positive side of this form of philosophical pluralism, and now I wish to levy a critique against what I will name "philosophical cosmopolitanism."

"Cosmopolitanism" simpliciter invokes the idea of the "cosmos within a city," where all differences meet and work together in unity, at least ideally.  The metaphor of the "cosmopolitan city" is apt to make my critique.  The problem of such a city is that the cosmopolitans are fundamentally appropriators and synthesizers; the city exists only because true difference that is not appropriated exists and flourishes.  Because not everyone is cosmopolitan and strives to be so.  In real cities, this means that the various social and ethnic groups have relatively homogeneous home locales and resist assimilation.  Cosmopolitanism is only sustainable insomuch as its appropriation is not total, else it annihilates the cultural cosmos for the sake of the polis.

If we become "philosophical cosmopolitans," a view that I think apt to describe certain "post-tradition" thinking, then we face the same problem.  If we read "that old wacky guy Nietzsche" without the history of philosophy and historic context--if we just mine the text for ideas--then we have annihilated the cosmos for the sake of the polis, or historic communities of meaning for the present dominant one.  We have narrowed our horizons for thought and meaning.

I write this because there is a strong push for eliminating the "continental vs. analytic divide," and some argue for what looks like philosophical cosmopolitanism.  I think that this is terribly mistaken for a number of reasons, some of which should be obvious given the prior discussion.  Eliminating different traditions annihilates the hermeneutic communities upon which cosmopolitanism subsists.  The move also presumes that it is even possible, let alone possible without violent coercion.  As a pragmatist, and thereby not on either side, I expect to be relegated to an ideological internment camp no matter which side of the Great War "wins."  Thus, I plead for a third way, learning multiple traditions natively and thereby respecting their differences, which also requires that we not annihilate either.


  1. I have a lot of sympathy for the view you are expressing here, Jason. It seems to correspond to the difference Levinas sets out to make between "totality" and "infinity," which would correspond, at least in general aim, to what you are calling "cosmopolitanism" and "multilingualism," respectively. Levinas urges us to consider the infinity of the other, our inability to totalize her into any pre-existing schema, such that appropriation, synthesis, and homogenization are impossible. I think you would find his work on these issues compelling, if you haven't encountered them already.

    Also, we could make a distinction between what you are calling "cosmopolitanism" and what Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour call "cosmopolitics." Despite the similarity in terms, the Stengers/Latour practice of cosmopolitics reads much closer to what you are calling multilingualism. On this note, Latour's "The Politics of Nature" highlights the importance of composing a common world in terms of "collectives" and not "unities," again, striking a chord with the move you are making above.

    I am skeptical, however, that we can ever "speak different traditions natively." You point out that this is an ideal to strive towards, yet I would push this notion even farther and suggest that "native speaking" is an impossibility, perhaps even for the "native" themselves. Again, I follow Latour here in that all utterances must always be translations or mediations, never pure, unmediated articulations of a precise language. We are always, in my opinion, constructing a new view when we speak, never simply re-presenting an already existing one.

  2. Adam,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

    I think "cosmopolitanism" is a fine word, and my tilting against it is to provoke some thoughtfulness about positions that claim to be such. Your discussion of Levinas, with whom I am acquainted, is good and on point.

    I agree about the "native speaking" point, although there is a very, very large theoretical and practical difference between communities with that living commitment and those without, and that was my point. Call it a "practical ideal," an ideal that one holds not because it is a North Star to guide us, but because it should lead to a norming of behaviors. I am just making basic points about hermeneutics, historicity, etc., and nothing new or fancy.

  3. From the standpoint of comparative philosophy, I always like Roger Ames' argument that philosophical incommensurability is only a problem when culture and language are viewed as static system. But language and culture aren't fixed, nor are language and culture merely symbolic representations.

    In the context of your discussion here, I think it's really important to remember that speaking across traditions requires recognition that our traditions are not fixed systems, but rather evolving practices within social and environmental contexts.

    To refer back to your original post, true pluralism requires admitting that there will be groups and or cultures that simply aren't interested in your participation, or in being part of a singular polity. While not strictly philosophical, I always thought this point was made really well by Daniel Quinn in "The Story of B."