William James proclaimed in 1909 that the ‘‘prestige of the absolute has rather crumbled in our hands’’ (1977, 63). A century later, political theory sees moral, ethical, and cultural pluralism as endemic—an undeniable, empirical, political reality. Generations of pluralists have theorized ways to undermine universalism and monism in both political practice and theory; while unsuccessful in a political realm that has seen a revitalized focus on universalism, pluralist theory has imagined numerous paths toward the development of an acceptance of varied values, cultures, and ways of life. Further, in its focus on developing ways to engage authentically across differences, the pluralist imagination has permeated the recent history of political theory. White (2002, 475) sees the field as ‘‘constrained to an ever deeper and more extensive engagement with pluralism. And we must become, accordingly, increasingly involved with exploring the ethos and strategies that should animate and guide this adventure.’’ Likewise, Gunnell argues that the pluralist bias is deeply infused and diffused in political theory; it is, in fact, ‘‘home’’ the discursive heritage of the field (Gunnell 2004, 249).

Central to this school of thought is both an acknowledgment of the empirical and experiential basis of moral and cultural plurality and the design of political engagement across that difference. This chapter will examine the development of these aspects of pluralist theory, in order to illustrate both the longevity of pluralist thought in the discipline and the resurrection of earlier pluralist themes in recent theory. Monism, however, has not been pluralism’s only challenge. The other major discourse of political theory—liberalism— has often overshadowed the pluralist impulse, and much recent pluralist theory has examined the interplay of the two schools of thought. Central to both of these discussions is the problematic nature of acknowledging difference, and the imaginative ways pluralists have proposed to engage that dilemma.


Pluralism in political science began both as a case for value pluralism and incommensurability and as a way to implement that knowledge in innovative political designs. Centrally, theorists focused on awareness, consideration, and institutionalization of difference and group life below the level of the state. The pluralist universe has always been based on one key empirical and philosophical claim: the acceptance of the legitimacy of differences in perspectives. Here, the original influence was the pluralist and anti-absolutist philosophy of William James.

James saw the methodology of ‘‘radical empiricism’’ as the basis of pluralist philosophy. Here, ‘‘all we are required to admit as the constitution of reality is what we ourselves find empirically realized in every minimum of finite life’’ (James 1977 [1909], 145). James argued that as both what is experienced and the consciousness of that experience varies for people, a pluralist universe is empirically and objectively grounded. His pluralist approach was not just a validation of the empirical reality of difference, but an insistence on understanding that difference will never come together into a single coherent unity, as the philosophical absolutists desired. According to James, the pluralist view ‘‘is willing to believe that there may ultimately never be an all-format all, that the substance of reality may never get totally collected, that some of it may remain outside of the largest combination of it ever made, and that a disruptive form of reality, the each-form is logical as acceptable and empirically as probable as the all-form commonly acquiesced in as so obviously the self-evident thing’’ (James 1976 [1912], 14–15). Incommensurability—of values, visions, and reality itself—was central to James’ explication of pluralism; he simply wanted philosophy to recognize and embrace the real world of difference and disunity.

Early political pluralists such as Arthur Bentley (1908), Ernest Barker (1957 [1915]), Harold Laski (1917, 1921), and Mary Parker Follett (1918) were united against absolutist unity on both philosophical and political grounds. While often basing their philosophical justification for pluralist concerns on James, their target was the overriding concern of political theorists with the singular sovereignty and unity of the state. ‘‘What the Absolute is to metaphysics, that is the state to political theory’’ (Laski 1917, 6). While Laski insisted that political theory come to grips with the ‘‘plurality of reals’’ and accepts that ‘‘the parts are as real and as self-sufficient as the whole’’ (1917, 9), Follett (1918, 291) insisted that ‘‘[l]ife is a recognition of multitudinous multiplicity. Politics must be shaped for that.’’ A focus on unity, in particular the unified state, they argued, came only at the expense of the diversity of individual and group experiences. These early pluralists argued for this plurality of experiences, manifest in groups in civil society, as the center of political life—and they used that diversity of group experiences to break the monopoly of the state in political theorizing.

The acknowledgment of plurality, difference, and incommensurability in values and experiences led directly to pluralist attempts to redesign political institutions that recognized differences in civil society and avoided unified singularity at the level of the state. As Hirst (1989, 3) has written, pluralism was about a ‘‘critique of state structure and of the basis of the authority of the state.’’ It challenged the idea of unlimited sovereignty and the unitary centralized state and argued that it was unrealistic and intolerable to have no layer of autonomy, authority, and sovereignty between individual citizens and the singular state.1 While this early generation of pluralists may have been

1 Hirst attributes this position only to the English pluralists, but he unfairly compares the early English pluralists with the later, postwar Americans. There were, however, American pluralists, such as Follett, making similar claims at the time. motivated by the same recognition of plurality, both philosophically and in civil society, there was never agreement on state design. Cole was a supporter of guild socialism, Laski of a federal structure with plural authority, and Figgis argued for the state as an association of associations, charged with the task of helping citizens establish and maintain such groups (Hirst 1989, 25–7). Follett’s design for a new state was closest to Laski’s federalism, though she was constantly trying to balance James’ plurality with a Hegelian (rather than a monist or uniform) unity. Ultimately, neither this first generation of pluralists nor those that follow make for a coherent academic school—by definition, their discourse and institutional suggestions are open-ended, variable, and unending. Such is the nature of radical empiricism wed to an imaginative rethinking of political forms.

Pluralist concerns were never given a welcome reception by the discipline of political science; given the attacks on the statist focus of political theory, there were harsh critiques of pluralism and pluralist authors in the American Political Science Review in the 1920s (Coker 1921; Elliot 1924; Ellis 1920). Not surprisingly, the focus of political theorizing moved back toward the state and a growing concern with liberalism in the 1930s and 1940s (covered admirably by Gunnell 2004). Still, the pluralist discourse reappeared in the post-Second World War period, although in a way that ignored the writings and frameworks of the earlier generation. While articulated as an argument against a unitary explanation of power politics, for example in Dahl’s (1961) direct response to the elite power theory of Mills (1956), there was little in it resembling the earlier generation’s concerns.

The underpinning of radical empiricism and value incommensurability was ignored, replaced with an elevation of liberal institutions as universally applicable to solving the problem of the group (more particularly, interest) difference. Dahl’s (1961, 1967) version of pluralism argued that power was divided into multiple centers, with different actors having more power in different sectors. The ideal, which just so happened to be what these pluralists empirically found, was a system of balanced power, shared among overlapping groups. Truman’s classic work (1960) embodied the institutional focus of the post-war pluralists, focusing on the pressure of interest groups (almost entirely based on economic identity and interest) in the political realm. Individual freedoms were to be defended and protected by such pressure groups, and the stability of the system would be enforced by the incrementalism bred by ‘‘mutual adjustment’’ (Lindblom 1965). This was a purely political and institutional pluralism, uninformed by the philosophical or empirical grounding in the difference that was the foundation of earlier pluralists. This form of pluralism failed as both an explanation of the political reality of difference and as a framework for politically embodying and enfranchising real and growing diVerences in the postwar landscape.

It did not take long before this school of pluralism was attacked for these limitations, as well as its explicit, uncritical support of the American political system. Kariel (1961) argued that while pluralism posed as a positive science, it was based on an unconscious adoption of ‘‘the functional system,’’ and simply stopped being analytical (Kariel 1961, 139, 145). Kariel noted how the particular power of the corporation was ignored in this group approach; Shattschneider was much more direct with his famous line, that the ‘‘flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent’’ (Shattschneider 1960, 35). Connolly, who would later become a major figure in rethinking the pluralist imagination, challenged a ‘‘biased pluralism in which some concerns, aspirations, and interests are privileged while others are placed at a serious disadvantage’’ (Connolly 1969, 16). While a generation of pluralist authors tried to explain the American system as one of shared power among groups, its critics saw one where some groups were privileged due to their economic status, while groups based on other identities were at a distinct disadvantage (Wolfe 1969, 41). This criticism of the pluralist school continued for over two decades (see Manly 1983).

Connolly (1969: 26) argued that pluralists needed to extend the conventional limits of politics and contestation if pluralism was to approach its own ideal. But the focus of the postwar pluralists was the defense of the discourse of liberalism against that of a unitary elitism; this overrode the original set of pluralist philosophies, critiques, and its imaginative rethinking of the state. In essence, pluralism lost its focus on plurality and instead celebrated a singular institutional form. With criticisms plentiful and growing, pluralism took on a shameful and haunted connotation in political thought, signifying the lack of political critique and imagination in the discipline of political science and the field of political theory specifically.

In the meantime, British political theory had its own second generation of pluralism, mostly in the expansive thought of Isaiah Berlin. Berlin eschewed the institutional focus of the postwar American school and focused on the epistemological foundation of pluralism. While he never acknowledged a specific debt to earlier pluralist thinkers on either continent, the tenets of value pluralism and incommensurability were central to his examination of the relationship between liberalism and pluralism.

While Berlin is most well-known for his work on liberty, he premises the need for such a focus with an acknowledgment of the monist view. ‘‘[S]ince some values may conflict intrinsically, the very notion that a pattern must in principle be discoverable in which they are all rendered harmonious is founded on a false a priori view of what the world is like’’ (Berlin 1969, li). Universalism, he argued, reduces every value to the lowest common denominator, and ‘‘drained both lives and ideals of the specific content which alone gave them point’’ (Berlin 1990, 245). The belief that there is a final, single unity ‘‘rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another . . . [but] not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind’’ (Berlin 1969, 167). A singular, harmonious, unitary, and unified state was neither possible nor desirable within a context of liberty.

Again, while not explicitly acknowledged by Berlin, his work followed the work of earlier pluralists in two additional ways. First, he argued that recognition of the validity of multiple points of view and the incommensurability of values is not relativistic. ‘‘Relativism is not the only alternative to universalism . . . nor does incommensurability entail relativism. There are many worlds, some of which overlap’’ (Berlin 1990, 85). Berlin defined pluralism as ‘‘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 sympathizing and deriving light from each other’’ (Berlin 1990, 11). Second, Berlin also recognized the importance of groups and social context in the development of our values; the understanding we get from one’s own group gives us ‘‘the sense of being someone in the world’’ (Berlin 1969, 157). Unfortunately, Berlin’s concern with these elements of plurality was a minority view in the postwar era dominated by the Americans’ institutional focus.


By the 1980s, a number of authors began to both resurrect important aspects of pluralism’s first-generation and imagine new paths for pluralist theory. The epistemological foundation of pluralism, born in James’ radical empiricism although ignored by seemingly everyone but Berlin in the postwar years, came back to the forefront of pluralist thought in order to justify and validate different ways of seeing and knowing the world. Key to this, as McClure (1992) argues, was the revitalization of feminist epistemology and the radical pluralist potential in the multiple subjectivities suggested by Haraway and other feminist theorists. Critiquing the singular identity required by the modern state, McClure’s focus is specifically on the relationship between pluralist understandings of identity and the important political possibilities inherent in the recognition and validation of multiple subjectivities. Here, she is one of the very few to use the recent focus on philosophical pluralism while explicitly echoing and expanding upon the earlier generation. Others resurrect the core of pluralism’s first-generation without such explicit recognition.

Haraway’s (1988) descriptions of situated knowledge and embodied objectivity were based on a metaphor of vision—that depend- ing on one’s experience, context, or view from one’s body we can see and understand the same object in multiple ways. In this sense, as with James, only partial perspectives can be considered objective. Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari (1983) inspired postmodern pluralists with their argument to return to a focus on multiplicity. Empirically, they argued, we live in an age of partiality, where we are defined by the many and varied states, situations, and groups through which we pass. These arguments, in particular, their focus on the way identity is constructed, resurrected James’ radical empiricism in the postmodern context, and reawakened the pluralist political response to the reality of difference. Politically, although again without reference to past pluralists, MouVe explicitly claims a pluralist intent—starting political analysis with the recognition of difference, and refusing ‘‘the objective of unanimity and homogeneity which is . . . based on acts of exclusion’’ (MouVe 1996, 246). These theorists illustrate that at the end of the twentieth century, plurality again became the basis of a radical and critical political theorizing, focusing on the meaning of identity, citizenship, and relations across differences rather than on the unitary state or a singular identity of the citizen.


Pluralism, from its origins, has always gone beyond recognition of plurality, to a central concern with how much difference is to be communicated and engaged. Values and identities can be comparable, even if incommensurable; incommensurability does not mean that values cannot be shared, or at least understood, across diVerences. Bohman (2001, 89–90) argues that the engagement of pluralist perspectives is the central issue for contemporary critical social theory. As pluralism indicates that no one perspective may lay claim to epistemic, moral, or rational authority, the task of theory is to examine what each perspective provides, how to adjudicate among them, and how to reconcile conflicting perspectives in democratic practice. The job of the pluralist critic is ‘‘to relate various perspectives to each other in acts of criticism within reflective practices that articulate and adjudicate such conflicts’’ (Bohman 2001, 90). Importantly, conflicts are not to be resolved by the critic, ‘‘but practically in ongoing and reflective practices.’’ Simply put, pluralism demands engagement.

Both Berlin and Raz note the importance of what we learn from others across differences. Berlin calls on us to try to understand ‘‘the standards of others . . . to grasp what we are told’’ by them. Their difference does not preclude us from ‘‘sharing common assumptions, sufficient for some communication with them, for some degree of understanding and being understood’’ (Berlin 1969, 103). Galston (2002, 90–1) argues that, ideally, pluralist participants see others not as ignorant, short-sighted, or blinded by passion, but rather as fellow citizens who happen to see things differently, and whose positions might be right, add to the larger picture, or at least have some value. Tully (1995, 25) notes that the ‘‘ability to change perspectives—to see and understand especially—is acquired through participation in the intercultural dialogue itself.’’ This focus on active pluralist engagement and inter-subjectivity is especially necessary as cultures mix and individuals find themselves in more than one cultural world simultaneously—Muslim youth in Western schools, Anglo university students learning about indigenous cosmologies, urban dwellers coming to know and interact with new immigrants (and vice versa).

Central to pluralist engagement is the attitude that conflict across differences is to be welcomed, and certainly not avoided. The key claim of those supporting agonistic encounters is that moral conflict and engagement across diVerences is a valuable and indispensable part of social and political life. Such conflict is good for the body politic, and both groups and individuals within it. Honig (1993) points out that too much political theory has been about avoiding conflict and eliminating dissonance, resistance, and struggle—the displacement of politics. While she looks to Nietzsche and Arendt as examples of those who do not displace rivalrous encounters, both first-generation and more recent pluralist theorists embrace such agonistic engagement.

James embraced the need to see alternatives and imagine other states of mind (1978, 4). Follett called for an inclusive, integrative resolution of diVerences, brought about ‘‘by the reciprocal adapting of the reactions of individuals, and this reciprocal adapting is based on both agreement and difference’’ (1918, 35). She was concerned that addressing conflict not lead to the dismissal of diversity. ‘‘What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same’’ (Follett 1924, 300). Key to both James and Follett was a process open to difference and yet focused on making connections across that difference.

A number of contemporary pluralist theorists pick up on this process and the need for an ethic of agonistic respect across differences. For Tully, the inter-cultural dialog is the central task of pluralist politics, and in order for negotiation to occur across differences, an ethic of mutual respect and recognition will ‘‘enhance a critical attitude to one’s own culture and a tolerant and critical attitude towards others’’ (Tully 1995, 207). Taylor (1995, 34) notes that identity is never worked out in isolation; ‘‘but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others. . . . My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others.’’ Connolly, however, is the key theorist who espouses such an ethos within a critical pluralist frame. The response to a pluralizing society that is continually and agonistically overlapping, interacting, and negotiating needs to be an ethos of what Connolly calls critical responsiveness, the ‘‘indispensable lubricant of political pluralization’’ (1995, xvi). Such an ‘‘ethical connection . . . flowing across fugitive experiences of intrasubjective and intersubjective difference opens up relational possibilities of agonistic respect, studied indifference, critical responsiveness, and selective collaboration between interdependent, contending identities’’ (Connolly 1995, xvii). Connolly’s ethos is crucial to a viable process of engagement across differences.

There are, however, pluralist critics of such imaginative dreams of agon- ism. Connolly claims that an agonistic model of pluralist and democratic engagement could foster greater inclusion of diverse citizens and more mutual respect; Honig also thinks agonism can disrupt hegemonic political ideas and spaces. Deveaux (1999) thinks not, and argues that the claim that agonism ‘‘could more readily foster the inclusion of citizens’ moral, cultural, and ethical diVerences is simply unfounded’’ (1999, 3). Agonism, on the contrary, could lead to the entrenchment of existing identities and ‘‘make it more diYcult for diverse cultural communities to see that they do share at least some social and moral views, norms, and interests in common with others’’ (1999, 15). Likewise, Raz (1986, 401) notes that ‘‘pluralism has an inherent tendency to generate intolerance, a tendency which ought to be guarded against.’’ It is not just agonism that comes out of pluralism, but the very real danger of intolerance.

The political fact is that such intolerant agonism is already entrenched, especially in American politics, without the lubricants of critical responsiveness, recognition, and respect for the positions of others. Such agonism, unattached to any formal or informal institutions of engagement, is certainly laced with the vile and disrespectful Deveaux fears, rather than the optimistic vision of Connolly. Deveaux (1999, 16) argues that ‘‘proponents of agonistic democracy typically fail to acknowledge the key role played by institutions in making citizens agree, or in finding solutions to common problems.’’ While there seems to be agreement among agonists on the value of engagement and conflict itself, Deveaux argues that some liberals, and certainly those focused on forms of deliberative democracy, are better in terms of giving that agonism somewhere to play out. We should, she argues, focus on developing specific political practices which will facilitate the expression and engagement of citizens’ disagreements.

The issue here is the move from the theoretical argument regarding the fact and ethos of pluralism to the much more practical and political issue of how to bring that existing plurality into a political and institutional engagement. In other words, the contemporary pluralist theory is faced with not only theorizing difference but also bridging the divide between epistemological and institutional forms of pluralism. This is the point where contemporary pluralism meets institutional democratic design, in particular deliberative democracy, for pragmatically addressing the real practice of agonistic engagement. Here, inclusive forms of deliberation are indispensable in the development of a politics that oVers respect and recognition to diverse citizens. MouVe (1999) is the only pluralist theorist who explicitly challenges the link between pluralism and deliberative democracy, but she mistakenly insists that all deliberation aims at erasing antagonism and creating perfect, permanent harmony. On the contrary, most pluralist models of deliberation transform political discourse from antagonism between enemies to a more civil agonism between adversaries—just what MouVe desires.

While this is not the place to go into any detail regarding the institutionalization of democratic forms of discourse amenable to pluralist engagement, there are some important aspects that others in deliberative or discursive democracy might not address. First, institutions of engagement could not exist solely at the state level; the focus must be at both macro and micro levels, or both the state political realm and the cultural sub-political realm. Deveaux (2000) thoroughly addresses this interface of pluralism and deliberative democracy, and she notes that macro-level democracy alone cannot secure adequate respect and recognition for cultural minorities; this requires more democracy down to the micro-level of society. Second, any agonistic institutions must pay attention to the interplay of identities, both individual and in groups. Pluralists encourage a move away from thinking of diversity in terms of individual beliefs; the difference is both socially constructed and collective.

Recognizing the role of groups as a font of the values that form the basis of agonism moves engagement away from that solely between citizens and the state. Finally, pluralists eschew the idea that any result of an agonistic engagement is ever permanent. Institutionally, this means ever-adaptive management—policies are developed and implemented, but constantly revised with input from feedback, additional knowledge, and ongoing discourse. Pluralism—the engagement, the agonism,  the understanding, and the resolution—is always in the making. James (1976 [1912], xxii) argued that ‘‘knowledge of sensible realities thus comes to life inside the tissue of experience. It is made, and made by relations that unroll themselves in time.’’ From James to Connolly, pluralists have cited the influence of Bergson’s notion of creative evolution and the continuously creative nature of our engagements; the process is one of becoming, rather than finishing. It gives us a permanent and always contingent politics, warming the importance of on- going engagement.



While much of the pluralist imagination has been focused on radical empiricism, engagement, and the development of plural and agonistic institutions and processes, a good portion has been engaged with the question of whether or not pluralism is compatible with the other central theoretical discourse of political theory—liberalism. Pluralists diVer on the point, with some arguing compatibility, others vehemently denying the link, and still, others proposing imaginative redesigns to build compatibility.

At the heart of the argument that liberalism and pluralism are compatible is the claim that value pluralism—multiple and incommensurable conceptions of the good—is the starting point of liberalism. As Crowder (1999, 9) notes, there are really two steps in laying out this compatibility: ‘‘first, the claim that pluralism gives us a reason to value diversity; second, the claim that diversity is best accommodated by liberalism.’’ For liberal pluralists or pluralist liberals, liberal principles serve the empirical reality of value pluralism. Ideally, a liberal pluralist society ‘‘will organize itself around the principle of maximum feasible accommodation of diverse legitimate ways of life’’ (Galston 2002, 119).

Raz (1986) argues that valuing the liberal staple of autonomy commits one to a weak value of pluralism. The connection is simple: if life does not have diverse choices, then that life is not autonomous, as ‘‘autonomy presupposes a variety of conflicting considerations’’ (1986, 398). The liberal value of autonomy, then, can only be realized in a pluralistic society, and so valuing autonomy leads to the endorsement of moral pluralism. Likewise, Galston’s main concern is with the way that monist or unitary states deny liberty. Moral pluralism, he argues, ‘‘supports the importance of expressive liberty in a way monist theories do not’’ (Galston 2002, 37–8). Berlin is perhaps the premier theorist of this argument. For Berlin, freedom is the central liberal value. As Gray (1996, 142) argues in his comprehensive examination of Berlin’s thought, Berlin privileges ‘‘choice-making as the embodiment of human self-creation. We make ourselves what we are . . . through our choices.’’ Pluralism is the best context for this choice-making because it recognizes both incommensurability and rivalry across values (Berlin 1969, 171). ‘‘It may be,’’ Berlin argues, ‘‘that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilization’’ (1969, 172).


For Berlin, this freedom and recognition for self-definition in a plural society is not solely for individuals, but for groups as well. As with individuals, what oppressed classes or nationalities want ‘‘is simply recognition (of their class or nation, color, or race) as an independent source of human activity, as an entity with a will of its own, intending to act in accordance with it . . . and not to be ruled, educated, guided, with however light a hand, as being not quite fully human, and therefore not quite fully free’’ (Berlin 1969, 156). This focus on group autonomy has been taken up by multicultural pluralists looking for a liberal justification for group difference and self-rule. Both Galston (2002, 124) and Tully note the relationship between demands for recognition and demands for forms of group autonomy. Tully (1995, 6) argues that multicultural demands for recognition ‘‘share a traditional political motif: the injustice of an alien form of rule and the aspiration to self-rule in accord with one’s own customs and ways.’’ Similarly, for Raz, multiculturalism ‘‘emphasizes the role of cultures as a precondition for and a factor which give shape and content to, individual freedom’’ (Raz 1994, 163). Such struggles are struggles for liberty, autonomy, and self-rule—certainly enduring characteristics of liberalism.

Berlin would have agreed. As Gray (1996, 62) points out, while freedom is the central liberal value for both individuals and groups in Berlin’s theory, the claims of freedom can never be absolute; it is reasonable, within a pluralist framework, to the trade of liberty for other values, or to trade oV some types of liberty for others. This is what makes Berlin’s form of the liberal–plural interface so unique and imaginative. The acknowledgment of, and the real space for, the incommensurability and the diversity of various goods draws a strong contrast to other liberal theories (such as in Rawls and his followers) based on universal theories of justice or fundamental rights (Gray 1996, 145). The point of Berlin’s pluralism is that we need to make choices in liberal systems without the kind of overarching, singular, universal rules at the heart of the most liberal theories. He is unwilling to lay out a theory with such a universal right to liberty, given the pluralist context liberalism finds itself within. Berlin, then, expands both the pluralist and liberal imagination in arguing for a politics with room for the underlying support for a difference in each. He embodies the argument for tense compatibility between liberalism and pluralism.

But not all pluralists agree with this happy marriage, and Gray is perhaps the harshest critic. As much as he admires the attempts of Berlin and Raz to bridge liberalism and pluralism, Gray (1996, 142, 146) argues the connection does not hold, and he criticizes both Berlin and Raz for believing that a value pluralism based in incommensurability can live compatibly with liberalism. ‘‘The central flaw in this common reasoning is in the assumption that principles of liberty or justice can be insulated from the force of value- incommensurability’’ (1996, 147). In practice in liberal societies, liberty trumps diversity, and if you are a value pluralist, there can be no justification for that norm (1996, 152).

Gray is an unrelenting pluralist critic of modern liberalism, and his complaints go further than this difference with Berlin and Raz; they generally fall within two categories: the individualist nature of contemporary liberalism and the attempt to universalize its applicability. At the first, Gray follows com- unitarian critics in noting the lack of the social in liberal understandings, but his focus is on the lack of attention to the meaning of specific group memberships. In essence, Gray’s critique is that liberalism in contemporary practice is too individualist to fit in the group-centered world of pluralism; American liberalism, in particular, trivializes value pluralism as ‘‘alternative lifestyles.’’

Here Gray resurrects one of the long-standing pluralist critiques of liberalism—the lack of a middle ground between individuals and the state, which is in essence a lack of recognition of the difference and autonomy of group life. move (1992, 231) also explains the pluralist challenge in exactly these terms: ‘‘Our only choice is not one between an aggregate of individuals without common public concern and a pre-modern community organized around a single substantive idea of the common good. Envisaging the modern democratic political community outside of this dichotomy is the crucial challenge.’’ The key to pluralism through its generations is the understanding that our identity comes through cultural groups and our social interactions within and among them. While some pluralists believe that liberalism oVers recognition and autonomy to groups, the more thorough pluralist critique is that liberalism is simply not accommodating to that group focus. Deveaux (2000), for example, disparages Raz’s and Berlin’s attempts to bridge the liberal/ pluralist divide by explaining group life as the context for personal autonomy. The approach is both too individualist in its focus—groups as the context for personal autonomy—and is in conflict with groups that simply may not value individual autonomy as much as liberals. Illiberal groups, especially, make pluralist/liberal compatibility tenuous, at best.

Gray’s second major worry regarding the relationship between liberalism and pluralism concerns the singularity of liberalism itself. His key critique of both Berlin’s and Raz’s attempts to reconcile liberalism and pluralism is that the liberal way of life has no special or universal claim in a pluralist universe. ‘‘[I]f value pluralism is true, the range of forms of genuine human flourishing is considerably larger than can be accommodated within liberal forms of life. As a matter of logic alone, it is safe to say that value pluralism cannot mandate liberalism, where that is taken to be a theory or set of principles claiming universal authority’’ (Gray 1995, 133). Gray (1995, 126) argues that we need to reject the idea that liberalism can be the singular response to a plural world, the single regime ideally best for all humankind, applicable to all cultures; he insists that there may be other, non-liberal ways of adopting plurality that exist in other cultures and ways of life. We should look for those first, in context, in arguing for pluralistic systems outside of the historically liberal societies of the USA and Europe.

For other pluralists, liberalism is pluralistically redeemable with more attention to the diVerences and particularities of social and cultural groups. These theorists examine the potential of expanding liberalism in pluralist directions, or of resolving the various critiques or limitations of liberalism with a thorough dose of pluralistic understanding. The point is not to reject liberalism or limit plurality, but to focus on particular potential-laden aspects of liberalism—respect, consent, democratic participation—that can serve a pluralistic society. Deveaux (2000), for example, argues that liberalism can be expanded to encompass a broadly defined, group-based, cultural pluralism with three broad conceptual shifts. First, liberalism’s understanding of diversity would be reconceived, from an individualist to a social and collective conception (Deveaux 2000, 32). Second, although clearly related, liberalism must move from accepting solely moral or value pluralism to an understand- ing of cultural pluralism. Individual moral and value diVerences simply do not cover all of the crucial features of social and cultural diversity in contemporary states. Third, Deveaux argues for a more thorough recognition of the value of diversity. Too often in liberal societies difference is seen as a problem or hindrance. Pluralism, on the contrary, understands the self-respect and dignity diversity brings to group members and recognizes the enrichment it brings to larger cultures. Deveaux criticizes pluralistic liberals like Raz and Kymlicka for only recognizing the liberal value of religious, ethnic, and cultural identities, as opposed to their greater pluralistic value (2000, 110).

Multicultural pluralists attempt to broaden liberalism’s understanding and recognition of group difference, but there is one key lesson from the first generation of pluralists lost—an increased role for group sovereignty. In the attempt to reconcile liberalism and pluralism, the focus is often solely on the institutional tasks and responsibilities of the state. While groups are discussed as a central place where individuals get meaning, and so should be protected as such, they are not, as they were for earlier pluralists, a place where we should have not just autonomy, but sovereignty as well. Such a step is necessary if we take individual liberty and autonomy seriously as liberals, and respect group life as pluralists. There is a danger that such a step which would make pluralism illiberal—multicultural pluralists are concerned that offering limited sovereignty to groups might create illiberal pockets in plural societies. But no pluralist argues that we replace the liberal state with group sovereignty writ large; states are necessary, at the very least, for the protection of individual rights and autonomy and the protection of group contexts, if not for the promotion of their specific values. Still, a cultural pluralism based in expanded liberalism and a resurrection of respect for groups requires shared sovereignty between groups and the state.

Some pluralists more directly address the importance of this interface. Many go as far as Galston (2002) in insisting that a pluralized liberalism calls for the maximum feasible accommodation of groups, even where there are internal practices many disagree with. Tully (1995), perhaps, goes further, insisting that the politics of cultural recognition is about liberty in the most enduring sense of the term—the demand for some level of self-rule. Pluralism in a liberal context, then, means at a minimum the political liberty and autonomy for groups to practice diverse moral beliefs, and the limited sovereignty to make that liberty meaningful. In essence, it means integration of pluralism’s epistemological grounding and ontological valuing of difference with the variety of institutions necessary to express that difference in the social and political realms.


The most important outcome of this encounter between pluralism and liberalism has been a general move to the acceptance of numerous underlying pluralist assumptions. The reality and value of difference and diversity, and their group origins, have been widely accepted in the theoretical realm. The argument is not, as it was earlier, between monism and unitary political theory on the one hand and pluralist theory on the other; rather, the focus is on how to accommodate pluralist reality in contemporary societies. This has brought a need for flexibility to liberal politics, and while it makes liberals interested in universal rules uncomfortable, that flexibility has been a central tenet of pluralism from the first generation to the present. While some may not be happy with the resulting uncertainties, conflicts, and endlessly unfinished business, such uncertainty is the stuff of everyday, pragmatic pluralist politics. Dilemmas of difference, group autonomy, inclusion, engagement, and agonistic relations remain just that: dilemmas.

Is this progress? James may have been prescient when he noted the crumbling of the absolute—in the realm of theory. He imagined the pluralist universe with which political theory is now fully engaged. For Tully (1995, 186), pluralist progress is about ‘‘learning to recognize, converse with and be mutually accommodating to the culturally diverse neighbors in the city we inhabit here and now.’’ The argument here is that pluralist theory has indeed imagined such progress. The larger problem, of course, is that the political realm itself suffers from a much larger failure of imagination.

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