Relativism vs. Pluralism

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"It is only thanks to God that I'm an atheist"

--Gianni Vattimo

Br. Trevor's excellent post the other day (An Irishman in Bordeaux: A Response to Postmodern Relativism) generated some interesting responses in the comments thread.

Trevor wrote in clarification of his piece (echoing a comment by Scott):

My concern is not so much at the level of argument or theory, but more with how the relativism of postmodernity (which comes out of anthropology and other disciplines as much as philosophy) has become received wisdom and social code in our time.

And on that front (i.e. the social meme/code), I'm in total agreement with Trevor regarding the problems of relativism.

In my comment I had suggested a distinction between pluralism (as a form of thought) and relativism.  To which Trevor responded:

In that regard, Chris I appreciate the distinction between relativism and pluralism but I still feel there's a lot of tension in a pluralist perspective. There might be a plurality of views on how to treat women, but how do we choose which one is better? I'm not sure sheer pluralism is a foundation on which to build an ethics or politics either. Captured within an integral framework the move to pluralism makes great sense, but that's a different story. Pluralism alone is a slippery slope. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on that.

The following is a response to Trevor's question.

As a way to begin my answer, I'll start with some very very rough definitions.

By pluralism I mean the idea that there are multiple avenues to truth, multiple forms of truth, and multiple diverse (and potentially radically different) cultural lifeworld expressions operative at the same time.

Relativism is the further related though distinct belief that all of these various expressions are in some sense "equally true" and/or the notion that even if there were one right final truth to the universe we humans would never be able to ascertain it.

The two views are not always in practice totally separate but they are separable nonetheless.  Generally I would say relativism is a sub-set of pluralism.

My contention is that pluralism--which I take to be the enduring hallmark of postmodernism--is an absolute necessity in order to develop into post-postmodernism (integral worldview) but that relativism is not.  I argue relativism is (in most of its forms, particularly base level cultural expression) an immature form of pluralism.

As a very simple (and hopefully not simplistic) way of putting it:  pluralism does not necessarily need to hold that all views are equal, as does relativism.  Relativism takes the existence of plurality and then makes a decision that we cannot know how to judge between these various expressions of life and says (without much grounds I would argue) that they are all equal.

The statement that all views are equal is an absolute (not relativist) position, undermining relativism.  The statement that all views are relative (to one another) is in fact I believe correct.  The idea that all views are related to other views and that no view springs out of the ether completely on its own does not mean all those views are equally valid.

In other words, post-postmodernism or integral is, in my understanding, integrated pluralism; integral accepts and takes the pluralism that is already there in the postmodern world and then seeks ways to integrate it.  This approach is different than any attempt to reinforce a single narrative (i.e. the modern world) upon the various diverse forms of expression in existence.  Integral is post-pluralism not pre-pluralism.  But more on that in a second—for now more on the distinction between pluralism and relativism.

I'll use an example to show pluralism without relativism.

A (self-identified) postmodern philosopher that comes to my mind is Gianni Vattimo.  It just happens I'm reading quite a bit of Vattimo spurred by a friend's need for some paper-writing assistance.  Vattimo's thought is distinctly his own and other postmodern philosophers would disagree with him on certain points, but I find him a helpful thinker in the pluralism/relativism debate.

Vattimo's work is built around what he calls "weak thought".  Weak thought refers to the station of thought and philosophy in the context of life after modernity--that is after the death of European colonialism, the 20th century's horrors, the rise of globalization, and the end of the Cold War.  In weak thought the opinions, views, and commitments we hold must necessarily be "weakened" in this age.

As Vattimo says, "I believe that I believe." We cannot, according to Vattimo, hold to strong thought and belief anymore, given what strong beliefs brought us in the 20th century:  genocide, Two World Wars, communist and fascist totalitarianism, The Shoah, ecological destruction, and so on and so forth.

Weak thought has its roots in the insights of the godfather of postmodernism: Friedrich Nietzsche.  Vattimo continually quotes the following famous saying of Nietzsche's:

There are no facts only interpretations and this itself is an interpretation.

Nietzsche called this dissolution of modernity, the "fabling of the world."  The world has become a fable.  The postmodern world is a fable; or in Vattimo's terms, weak thought, which is to say the kind of logic one sees in fables, is now the “weak” reality of life.

According to Nietzsche, modernity consisted of the notion that there were only facts. According to modern thought life followed an objective system of progress, rationality, and "Enlightenment."  For Nietzsche the modern world's self-view was not fact but interpretation and in so arguing, Nietzsche revealed the underlying drives, passions, and illusions of modernity (hence the godfather of postmodernism).

Vattimo says it is very important to keep both halves of that Nietzschean aphorism in mind:  1. There are no facts only interpretations and 2. #1 is itself an interpretation.

The first point undercuts the modern view of pure objectivity.  The second point prevents the postmodern insight concerning interpretation to become its own "fact" (and therefore self-contradictory).

The first half of Nietzsche's comment constitutes the "thought" in Vattimo's weak thought.  It is a "thought" insofar as it makes claims--"there are no facts only interpretations"--but weak insofar as the claims made are not put forward as pure fact ("this is itself an interpretation").

The study of meaning and interpretation is known as hermeneutics.  Vattimo follows in a philosophical line extending from Nietzsche through Martin Heidegger to Hans Georg Gadamer (student of Heidegger's) to Vattimo (a student of Gadamer's).  Vattimo in a real sense can be said to be the philosophical great-grandson of Nietzsche.  Hermeneutics came to have an immense importance in 20th century philosophy, particularly in the so-called "turn to language" that Western philosophy underwent during that time period.  For Vattimo hermeneutics isn't simple one branch of philosophy out of many, it is the constitutive element of philosophy itself.

For Vattimo, what hermeneutics has revealed is a thoroughly pluralized world.  Vattimo uses the term nihilism to describe this state of affairs.  By nihilism he does not mean the “we believe in nothing" school of thought (as in the nihilists from The Big Lebowski) but that we can no longer believe in a final objective metaphysical view of the universe—that is some universe picture that perfectly describes the way things actually are.

In this sense Vattimo states that nihilism is paradoxically a great liberation of thought.  Heidegger (Vattimo's "grandfather") argued that the attempt by metaphysics to describe rationally all of life under a single heading (God, Being, Truth, etc.) had destroyed our ability to actually live in the world.  The most common manifestation of this trend in our day is science.  For Heidegger this tendency to describe, control, and frame existence under the term of metaphysics led to the "Oblivion of Being".   I understand the Oblivion of Being is the human inability to live graciously in the world.  Instead of first living in the mystery of existence, we seek to control, describe, and explain life.  Heidegger pushes us to question whether there is something always “more” about life, something always beyond our mental grasp to existence, and how to relate to that “more”.  For Heidegger, the best way to relate was through deep contemplation and gratitude, a kind of mystical poetic-like relationship to the world.  We let it arise and speak to us in its mysterious language instead of trying to impose upon life our categories of thought.

This contemplative response to life is one we could call post-metaphysical.  Post-metaphysics or post-modernism is therefore a liberation because it allows beings and Being itself to return without our need to overly analyze and frame it with the desire to control life (or at least so argued Heidegger).

I would argue the western world lives in a truly post-metaphysical age.  The post-metaphysical world is one in which we realize we are (to some degree) telling stories, creating narratives and worldviews to give guidance as to how to live.

As a side note, Vattimo (rather uniquely) argues that this trajectory of nihilism arises from the early foundations of Christianity, that Christianity in the end destroys metaphysics.  This view opens up Vattimo's paradoxical saying quoted at the beginning that only due to God is he an atheist.  By atheist he means someone who no longer holds to a metaphysical objective view of the universe (whether with a metaphysical God or without one).  He does mean atheist in the more usual sense of someone who is convinced that there is (objectively) no god(s) in the universe.  For Vattimo that form of atheism (e.g. Richard Dawkins) is simply another form of metaphysics that can no longer be credibly believed.

The post-metaphysical world, the post-modern world, the world that is an interpreted fable, is one in which there are a plurality of cultures, languages, and lifeworlds enacted by various beings on the planet.  No one of them can ever be final.  That genie is out of the bottle and cannot (nor should not) be put back in.

But how to deal with such plurality?

Vattimo nowhere (that I've found) says that all views arising in this fabled world of no final views are equal.  He never, I find, becomes relativist.  Vattimo's position is overall (I find) quite coherent.  The ethical implication for Vattimo of weak thought is charity.  Love, says Vattimo, is the consequence of living in the postmodern world.  Love is better than the rejection of love and therefore for Vattimo not all views are equal.  We must love each other in our difference (according to Vattimo).

The criterion for postmodernity (at least for Vattimo's version of postmodernism) is that worldviews that deny or repress plurality, which forego charity and forgiveness, are deemed invalid.  For Vattimo these views judged and found wanting would include elements like religious fundamentalism, scientific materialism, and even cultural relativism.

Vattimo (similar in this regard to another great postmodern thinker Jacques Derrida) is concerned with bringing views, languages, and peoples formerly held in the periphery into the middle of our discourse.  He wants the "weak power" of love to be a guiding ethical construct of our plural world.

So having taken the country road, I think I've answered (or at least given an answer) to Trevor's question.  How can pluralism be pluralism and still hold to ethical values that have force, have meaning, and not lose orientation?  Vattimo offers an answer.

I think love is certainly a good start as an ethical way in our pluralistic world, but I don't think it goes far enough.  Vattimo does not seek in any way to integrate the plurality that arises.  His plea is rather for love (even more than tolerance/acceptance, normal postmodern buzzwords) and for forgiveness in a world of violence.  I hear his plea but I think it needs a cognitive backup, a way to more subtly integrate and evaluate various ways of thinking and being.  Vattimo’s system is not relativist in the sense that there are no better and worse views.  At base, his view can be said to basically consist of only two views: 1. Views that acknowledge pluralism and practice love and forgiveness across difference (and therefore right to some degree)  2. Those that don’t acknowledge such pluralism or practice love & forgiveness (and therefore are judged wrong in certain ways).

This view of things is not relativist but does suffer from what Ken Wilber has called the Single Boundary Fallacy (SBF).  The SBF states that there is only one boundary, one level of transformation that needs to occur: in Vattimo’s case from non-pluralistic to pluralistic.  In contrast, in the integral (or post-postmodern) understanding there are a multitude of levels across multiple lines of development both individually and socially.  Integral I would therefore argue is more pluralistic than pluralism itself (which tends to create a black/white plural vs. non-plural world) because integral seeks to incorporate both pluralistic and non-pluralistic elements into its way of thinking.  It acknowledges the value of both pluralistic (postmodern) currents as well as modern scientific and premodern mystical traditions of thought.

The largest weakness I think with Vattimo’s thought is the way he tends to fudge (in my opinion) the meaning of science.  For Vattimo hermeneutics is everything (“there are no facts only interpretations”) and therefore he says science has come to realize that it takes place in the realm of social and cultural practice (cf Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyeraband).  But that doesn’t make science “weak thought” or a fable.  I still think (as did Kuhn in his work on paradigm shifts) that science can still come to objective knowledge but objective knowledge only within the context of certain shared forms of practice.

Vattimo’s thought is the best of postmodernism I would say—and therefore reveals its greatest weaknesses, driving the need for a post-postmodern way of thinking and being.

That is why I think we need to move into an integrated pluralism (or post-postmodernism), incorporating the best elements of postmodernity (as seen in Vattimo) but also moving to a deeper articulation.  Nevertheless compared to Vattimo's rather subtle postmodernism, the general street-level, if you like, postmodernism of cultural relativism is not nearly postmodern enough.  Psychologists tell us the definition of maturity is the ability to live with ambiguity. The greater one's ability to live with more and more ambiguity, the more mature one is.  By that definition, Vattimo's weak thought as a form of pluralism is very mature, and cultural relativism is not.  Cultural relativism recoils from the ambiguity of pluralism, of post-metaphysics, and seeks instead a safe easy position of everything being equally right and no views able to be judged.

Vattimo, instead (for me) points towards a healthy skepticism as a necessary element of postmodernity.  As I said I think we want to go beyond Vattimo's weak thought to an integral thought but one tempered by his central insights.

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  • Comment Link michael~ Tuesday, 18 May 2010 22:58 posted by michael~

    FYI integral lads, anthropology offically move beyond mere relativism over a decade ago. reproducing Wilber's tired characterizations of academic culture is not exactly critical thinking. the international academic culture is much richer and way too sophisticated to lumps into generalizaing and stereotypical value memes/clusters...

    Check out the work of Bruno Latour or Bourdieu's refexive sociology for an update...

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 20 May 2010 03:01 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Michael, while reading your blog (which I’m quite enjoying) I noticed a rather fascinating passage by you in the comments. It reads:

    “As I will argue in a future post, I think there is a way we can move the whole issue of speculative thinking and engagement forward: we can consciously develop what I would call “post-metaphysical ontology”. In brief, such a practice/discourse would anchor its speculative activities in a rigorous multi-methodological orientation.

    How is this different than science someone might ask? Well, science, for the most part, deals with material properties (or what I am calling ‘tangible’), whereas the more symbolic (and ‘intangible’) aspects of the world call for a more hermeneutical or interpretive science.

    Well then how is this different than the social science or humanities the critic might rejoin? And I would respond by saying that it’s not a matter of differentiating where or how a post-metaphysical ontological project is different than the sciences or the humanities, it is about recognizing how all those different disciplines and programmes have something important to say and then weaving their respective data and insights into a series or multiplicity of mutually approachable narratives with which to debate, refine and apply viz. institutional efforts towards planetary sustainability.

    Post-Metaphysical Ontologies (PMOs?) are synthetic projects grounded in a multi-methodological praxis and oriented towards more practical, creative and adaptive conversations”.

    What you’ve presented here (which I applaud) has uncanny affinities with Integral Theory as it now stands in its most developed forms. For the most sophisticated and academically rigorous expression of integral theory, I’d suggest the text 'Integral Ecology' written by Sean Hargens and former Tulane philosophy department chair Michael Zimmerman. It presents one version of the type of vision you outline above. You might be particularly interested in IMP, or Integral Methodological Pluralism.

    Generally speaking, none of us here are particularly slavish about any one thing, the least of which being the letter of Ken Wilber’s views. I’m attracted to integral theory and practice because it presents a robust version of precisely the type of way forward you describe above. But any current views/maps are for myself constantly open to revision, criticism, transformation, and/or rejection as new data/experience etc. demands. If you see problems with views being presented here, by all means, let’s get a discussion going. In the end, I’d offer back to you the exact words you offered to a commenter a couple of days ago on your site- “I hope to learn more about how our positions might differ, and look forward to seeing how we can mutate any such disagreements in some form of mutual understanding”.

  • Comment Link michael~ Friday, 21 May 2010 17:47 posted by michael~

    Hey Trevor,

    first of all, thanks for considered response. And I’m really honored you took the time to read through my blog – hopefully you will return often and maybe share your thoughts.

    next, i am very familiar with Integral Theory, and I obviously, as you point out, agree with many of its core insights. I would even go so far as to say that my orientation can be considered ‘post-integral’. However, I have major problems with how the ‘integral community’ has evolved and I’m not at all impressed with what Wilber’s legacy seems to attract at this point. (although I would not want to include Sean and Michael, or integral ecology among those I am overly skeptical of)

    some of my major theoretical concerns would be with 1) the lack of critical awareness with regards to global capitalism, and 2) the seeming inability of Wilber’s model to adequately address the contingent nature of current social formations – rather than its supposed teleological necessity – and thereby under-theorizing ‘power’ as such. Civilization could have led (in a very bottom-up way) to the emergence of very different ‘integrations’ and value (memetic) expressions. What might be required to would be for Integral Theory to take the non-linear dynamics of developmental accumulation more seriously.

    You write,

    “I’m attracted to integral theory and practice because it presents a robust version of precisely the type of way forward you describe above. But any current views/maps are for myself constantly open to revision, criticism, transformation, and/or rejection as new data/experience etc. demands.”

    I like that. If we drop the signifier “integral” and get serious about real-world immanent dynamics I there is a lot of opportunities for more effective (and approachable) synoptic visions of reality.

    Regardless, thanks for the response and I hope to feel your presence on my own site in the future..


  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Sunday, 23 May 2010 23:03 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Right on Michael, thanks for your response. You bring up many important points and I look forward to working through them over time, on both this site and yours. I'm particularly sympathetic to the question of power, and would very much agree that this is a blind spot in integral writing generally. At any rate, I'll certainly be over at Archive Fire for some engagement, and look forward to your voice here too.

  • Comment Link Edwyrd Monday, 21 June 2010 17:02 posted by Edwyrd

    How exactly does Wilber's integral view "integrate" the various perspectives? It seems to merely posit a hierarchical scale to compare them and such categorization doesn't strike me as integration.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 22 June 2010 17:36 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Thanks for the comment.

    I recommend checking out Excerpt B to vol. 2 by Wilber on this point.

    Ken says there that integral theory is set of practices. So the map works as an integration of various practices (technically called integral methodological pluralism). It's methodologically plural in that it calls for (method-wise) plurality of practices. in fact I would say it's perhaps more plural and therefore more integrating than what we typically call pluralism.

    To me that's a kind of first layer or first round of integration. Just at least getting them on the same page and recognizing the validity and existence of other discourses. To me this isn't done either in science-dominated modernism or hermeneutics-dominated postmodernism.

    In other words his form of integration occurs by first taking what already works (a conservative impulse in the best sense I would say). Just putting them side by side and recognizing the validity of each and (by being putting next to others) the limitation of each. Cycle through the various perspectives.

    The second layer--what I think you mean by integration--would be where the ideas start to blend and influence each other deeply from across disciplines. In essence this is what we are aiming for at this site. It's still early but I think we are making some headway. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts (if you have any) on how the kind of integration you're looking for could happen.

    And in terms of the hiearchical question, I think the hierarchy element of (Wilber's anyway) integral is over-emphasized both by supporters and detractors. It's there but it's only one element of a number of various elements. I'm much more taken with Wilber's work on perspectives.

    Hope that helps.

  • Comment Link Edwyrd Wednesday, 23 June 2010 15:56 posted by Edwyrd

    I am familiar with Wilber's work, having written on it and the integral movement extensively at Open Integral ( Rather than going into a lengthy conversation at the moment perhaps a link to an ongoing discussion along similar lines? At Balder's Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality Ning forum we are right now discussing pluralism along with inclusivism and exclusivism base on Balder's ITC paper. Please check it out at this link:

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