Ontologically and metaphysically the idea of realist pluralism is no longer an issue. There are (appropriately) numerous variants but the basic idea that reality is itself pluralistic is well established. The question is political-discursive. It’s what Stengers and Latour are getting at with their concepts of diplomacy and cosmopolitics.
They grant, first, that all entities exist and, second, that to say that someone’s cherished idol (or whatever disputed entity they hold dear) is non-existent is a ‘declaration of war’ – ‘this means war,’ as Stengers often says. They thus shunt onto-political discourse off of the terrain of knowledge/belief in the sense of existence/non-existence. Their basic claim seems to be that ‘respect for otherness,’ i.e. political pluralism, can only come from granting the entities that others hold dear an ontology, even if you don’t ‘believe’ in them. You are thus permitted to say ‘I do not follow that god, he has no hold over me’ but you are not permitted to say ‘your god is an inane, infantile, non-existent fantasy, grow up.’ And it’s not just a question of politeness (although there’s that too). The point is to grant others’ idols and deities an existence – one needn’t agree over what that existence entails, over what capacities that entity has or what obligations it impresses upon you as someone in its partial presence but to deny it existence entirely is to ‘declare war’ – to deny the possibility of civil discourse, of pluralistic co-existence.
I believe that it was Richard Rorty who once quipped something like claims to reconcile realism and idealism always seem to end with a triumph of idealism. We don’t, in fact, get a realism through such approaches, but rather just get a pervasive anti-realism.
I think this is also the problem with the “non-controversial pluralism” advocated by Stengers and Latour that Phillip defends here. Such a pluralism is not a realism but is, in fact, a thoroughgoing social constructivism. I think this is the central problem with Latour’s argument in Irreductions (these days I regret having ever defended it). In rejecting both Enlightenment critique and what he calls “reduction” he wants to say something like “The Pentacostal really is filled with the Holy Spirit”, that for the 19th working scientist heat really is a fluid and phlogiston really is what allows things to burn, and that for the Greek lightning really is an expression of Zeus’s anger. Latour tells us that we aren’t to reduce or explain away the entities posited by another group’s “ontology” but are to develop explanations from within that ontology.
This is indeed a pluralism and it is a pluralism that makes good sense for the working ethnographer or anthropologist. When we’re doing cultural anthropology one of the things we’re trying to understand is how another group of people thinks about the world. However, this is entirely different than a discourse about how the world is. It’s the latter that the philosopher– at least of a realist stripe –is interested in. For the realist there’s a way being is, there’s a way that it is independent of different “theories” the Pentacostal, 19th century scientist, Greek, modern day naturalist, etc., have of the world and part of the work of realist philosophy is to figure out how the world is. This will necessarily entail that some of these pictures are mistaken. Arguing that pictures of the world are mistaken doesn’t entail that people should be imprisoned or muzzled or executed, but it does entail that we shouldn’t mince words in saying that these positions are wrong or false. The materialist realist can readily maintain that something profound and meaningful is going on with the Pentacostal that’s speaking in tongues while also maintaining that what’s going on has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit.
I get the feeling that realism that dares to say that a particular world-picture is mistaken is seen as somehow being intolerant or totalitarian or oppressive. In other words, there’s a model of leftist thought that seems to see “ontological” pluralism as progressive insofar as it tolerates the “other”, and that sees belief that some pictures of being and ethics are just mistaken or wrong as a rightwing instance of oppressive intolerance, xenophobia, and so on. This seemed to be a particularly dominant framework in social and political theory during the rise of neo-pragmatism in forms such as that advocated by Critchley. During this period politics took the form of how to promote tolerance. We were told that we must recognize the Other, the contingency of our own views, and that they are narrative constructions of the world (and I think that unquestionably some version of these things are good, but I also think they have a dark side… I’ll get to that in a second). Within this framework the mere enunciation of the word “truth” was seen as oppressive because it was considered exclusionary.
I think this form of philosophy and political theory might aptly be called “First World Philosophy” and that this way of thinking the political was reflective of a particular class position (notice how I’m using the very resources of this neo-pragmatist pluralism to develop my critique here). The 90s were a period of relative prosperity for a particular segment of the population (at least in the United States). As a result, economic issues fell off the radar (economic Marxism was all but invisible during this period, which is why OWS was such a shock to many when it unfolded). For this reason, politics took the form of semiotics, of culturally formed identities. The leftist project shifted from one particular form of emancipation (economic emancipation) to another form of emancipation: the recognition of Otherness, different identities, different cultural practices. This recognition would, in its turn, generate tolerance and prevent horrific crimes of hatred directed at the marginalized. Accomplishing this, however, required– so the argument went –recognizing the socially constructed nature of all identities, i.e., pluralism. Here I hasten to add that this political project has been incredibly valuable and still has a long way to go. I am pained when I hear others that share my own Marxist commitments dismissing “identity politics” as if emancipation of women, people of various sexual orientations, race, various religious positions, etc., were not also important struggles on behalf of justice. Nonetheless, it’s worth recognizing that the primacy of this style of politics might require rather privileged socio-economic conditions.
However, there’s a dark side to all of this. In arguing that everything is a social construction, the pluralist undermines the possibility of public deliberation about truth. Everything becomes an optional narrative or story about the world, an optional picture of reality, where we are free to choose among the various options that most suit our taste. It’s not a surprise that so much of the philosophy during the 90s in both phenomenology and post-structuralism culminated in a theological turn. For where everything, including science, is just a narrative or story about what being is, why not just go ahead and take a leap of faith?
The theological turn, I think, is fairly harmless (I enjoy my theologian friends); however, I do think the left was caught with its pants down following 9-11. In the lead up to the Iraq war it will be recalled that one prominent Bush administration official reportedly said “we don’t need to heed reality because we make reality.” He was basically defending the position of an ontological pluralist. If reality is just a simulacrum, if it’s just a construction, then why not just narratively construct whatever reality you find most amenable to your aims? There are facts, you say? Yet those facts are themselves just narrative constructions. Doesn’t that follow directly from Latour’s irreductionism? Something similar occurs with climate change denialism. Where we treat reality as being nothing but a discursive construction, the words of the climate scientist no longer have any greater claim to truth than any other claim. Why heed them at all? Or finally what about economics? If it’s all just a construction, why should we heed the majority of economists who repeatedly point out that trickle down economics doesn’t work, that austerity kills economies, etc., etc., etc. Their words too are just a construction, one “reality” among others.
In recent years, in relation to economics, climate change, and global war I think we’ve increasingly had what Lacan called “an encounter with the Real”. What we’ve encountered, I think, are the limits of pluralism or the view that everything is just a story or narrative. What we’re encountering, I think, is the truth that at a certain point one must choose, that in some matters there is a truth of the matter that isn’t simply a “point of view”, and that this will involve rejecting other accounts of being. Someone might ardently believe in faith healing, but their child still dies from meningitis. In a smooth space where world-pictures floated free of existence, such pictures would be of no consequence. But they have very real consequences (and I do wonder how serious people are when they claim to advocate the sort of pluralism Phillip describes above; is their “ontology” reflected in their actual practices such as what doctor they choose?). Is this exclusionary and oppressive? I don’t know. When I talk to my friend Tony the Catholic Bishop (who throws great dinners and who is a wonderful drinking partner) I don’t think I’m oppressing him by disagreeing with him, nor do I think he feels oppressed by our debates. He seems to like me well enough having honored me by inviting me to a number of family dinners on holidays over the years.
Perhaps the premise of pluralism is that we are our beliefs. However, as thinkers such as Zizek, Johnston, and Sartre argue (and even the Buddhists?), perhaps we are instead a void, a sort of excess over any predicates that might be attributed to us, that we might attribute to ourselves, that always makes us minimally distant from our own beliefs, that we can never be our beliefs. If you advocated a sort of crude psycho-ethnographicological thesis that the person and the belief system are identical, then it would follow that some sort of violence occurs when we question another’s beliefs. We would literally be stealing their essence, their being, divesting them of who they are. However, as Lacan suggested, subject is itself inherently hysterical. By this he meant that subject never knows what it is and finds itself minimally at odds with any predicates or descriptions that might be attached to it. As Zizek likes to say, following Hegel, “the mysteries of the Egyptians are mysteries to the Egyptians.” By this he means that Egyptians do not themselves know what it means to be Egyptians and are themselves perplexed by Egyptian culture. This perplexity, he argues, is precisely what makes understanding of otherness possible for the reason that everyone’s relation to culture is “void” or hysterical; no one ever quite fits. This is also what makes transhistorical and cross-cultural universality possible. There are universals of justice and whatnot not because of a “substantial content” but precisely because of the absence of content. In disagreeing with an-other do we not, in fact, recognize their dignity as subject by attributing to them the capacity to both decide their own being and act according to reasons? Isn’t there a sort of denigration of otherness in pluralism insofar as it thinks of people as mere products of their cultural horizon or world-picture?