Sunday, June 24, 2012

Background to Pluralism

I have been interested in pluralist ideas for some time, though have never attempted to develop them in a systematic way, nor do I have any immediate plans to do so. But, in anticipation of the 2013 publication of the English translation of Latour’s An Inquiry Into Modes of Being (I can't read French), I DO intend to devote more casual effort to the matter. Latour brought the subject to my attention through his use of the term “pluriverse” in Politics of Nature, a term he attributed to William James. Then, only a week or two ago when Terence Blake introduced me to some papers by Paul Feyerabend, papers that seemed very Latourian to me.

This post, however, does not propose any arguments. I just lay out some material. First I list some excerpts from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

As Latour had referenced William James, I begin with excerpts from the William James article. I follow with excerpts form the articles on Pluralist Theories of Truth and concluding with the article on The Unity of Science. The SEP also had articles on Value Pluralism and Religious Diversity, but they didn’t seem to bear very directly on the metaphysical issues that capture my attention. In the last section I list the abstracts of two of my papers from the 1990s. While neither paper uses the term “pluralism,” but the abstracts should give a useful indication of my own intellectual commitments on the matter.

Retuning to the SEP, I note that when I searched the SEP on pluralism it returned 211 articles. I assume that most of them were for articles that simply used the word rather than having significant focal discussion of pluralism in some form or another. Still, 211 struck me as a healthy number. So healthy that I considered suggesting that the publication of An Inquiry Into Modes of Being would make Latour the philosopher of the decade. Instead, I searched on several other terms as follows:
being - 1653
mind - 1287
language - 1201
logic - 1067
metaphysics - 908
ethics - 797
ontology - 781
Aristotle - 703
realism - 474
analytic - 430
idealism - 229
dialectic - 220
aesthetics - 183
ecology - 66
deconstruction - 40
vitalism - 23
Latour - 12
 Pluralism (211) falls between aesthetics (183) and dialectic (220).

Of course, it’s hard to know what to make of these counts. At beat it’s a crude index of what’s of philosophical interest, much less of intellectual value, and I rather suspect that the SEP is biased toward the analytic tradition. Still, if the pluralism count were to rise from 211 to, say, 500 by the end of the decade and the SEP would have a full article devoted to Latour (it doesn't have one now)...

Stanford Encyclopedia of Science. Final paragraph of the introduction:
James made some of his most important philosophical contributions in the last decade of his life. In a burst of writing in 1904–5 (collected in Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912)) he set out the metaphysical view most commonly known as “neutral monism,” according to which there is one fundamental “stuff” that is neither material nor mental. In “A Pluralistic Universe” he defends the mystical and anti-pragmatic view that concepts distort rather than reveal reality, and in his influential Pragmatism (1907), he presents systematically a set of views about truth, knowledge, reality, religion, and philosophy that permeate his writings from the late 1870s onwards.
From the section, A Pluralistic Universe (1909):
James passes from critical discussions of Josiah Royce's idealism and the “vicious intellectualism” of Hegel to philosophers whose visions he admires: Gustav Fechner and Henri Bergson. He praises Fechner for holding that “the whole universe in its different spans and wave-lengths, exclusions and developments, is everywhere alive and conscious” (PU, 70), and he seeks to refine and justify Fechner's idea that separate human, animal and vegetable consciousnesses meet or merge in a “consciousness of still wider scope” (72). James employs Henri Bergson's critique of “intellectualism” to argue that the “concrete pulses of experience appear pent in by no such definite limits as our conceptual substitutes are confined by. They run into one another continuously and seem to interpenetrate” (PU 127). James concludes by embracing a position that he had more tentatively set forth in The Varieties of Religious Experience: that religious experiences “point with reasonable probability to the continuity of our consciousness with a wider spiritual environment from which the ordinary prudential man (who is the only man that scientific psychology, so called, takes cognizance of) is shut off” (PU, 135). Whereas in Pragmatism James subsumes the religious within the pragmatic (as yet another way of successfully making one's way through the world), in A Pluralistic Universe he suggests that the religious offers a superior relation to the universe.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Science. The opening paragraph:
The plausibility of theories of truth has often been observed to vary, sometimes extensively, across different domains or regions of discourse. Because of this variance, the problems internal to each such theory become salient as they overgeneralize. A natural suggestion is therefore that not all (declarative) sentences in all domains are true in exactly the same way. Sentences in mathematics, morals, comedy, chemistry, politics, and gastronomy may be true in different ways, if and when they are ever true. ‘Pluralism about truth’ names the thesis that there is more than one way of being true.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Science. The opening paragraph:
The topic of the unity of science includes the following questions: Is there one privileged, most basic kind of stuff, and if not, how are the different kinds of material in the universe related? Can the various physical sciences (physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology) be unified into a single overarching theory, and can theories within a single science (e.g., general relativity and quantum theory in physics) be unified? Does the unification of these parts of science involve only matters of fact or are matters of value involved as well? Moreover, what kinds of unity in the sciences are there: is unification a relation between concepts or terms (i.e., a matter of semantics), or about theories they make up? And is the relation one of reduction, translation, explanation, or logical inference?
From section 1.5 Unity and reduction in logical empiricism in America: Postwar orthodoxy in philosophy of science:
Philosophy of science consolidated itself in the 1950s around a positivist orthodoxy roughly characterized as follows: a syntactic formal approach to theories, logical deductions and axiomatic systems, with distinction between theoretical and observational vocabularies, and empirical generalizations. Unity and reduction may be introduced in terms of the following distinctions: epistemological and ontological, synchronic and diachronic. The specific elements of the dominating accounts will stand and fall with the attitudes towards the elements of the orthodoxy mentioned above.
From section 2.1 Antireductionism in the 1960s:
Feyerabend, for instance, promptly rebelled and rejected the adequacy of the conditions for Nagelian reductionism. In particular, he challenged the demand of extensional equivalence as an inadequate demand of ‘meaning invariance’ and approximation, and with it the possibility of deductive connections. Mocking the positivist legacy of progress through unity, empiricism and anti-dogmatism, he decried these constraints famously as intellectually dogmatic, conceptually weak and methodologically overly restrictive. He extolled, instead, the merits of the new theses of incommensurability and methodological pluralism.

Shaffner argued that the deductive connection would be guaranteed provided that the old, reduced theory was “corrected” beforehand (Shaffner 1964). The evolution and the structure of scientific knowledge could be neatly captured, using Schaffner's expression, by “layer-cake reduction.”

But the likes of Feyerabend were not persuaded. The terms ‘length’ and ‘mass’—or the symbols l and m—,for instance, may be the same in Newtonian and Relativistic mechanics, or the term ‘electron’ the same in classical physics and quantum mechanics, or the term ‘atom’ the same in quantum mechanics and in chemistry, or ‘gene’ in Mendelian genetics and molecular genetics. But the corresponding concepts, they argued, are not. Concepts or words are to be understood as getting their content or meaning within a holistic or organic structure, even if the organized wholes are the theories that include them. From this point of view, different wholes, whether theories or Kuhnian paradigms, manifest conceptual incommensurability. Therefore, the derived, reducing theories typically are not the allegedly reduced, old ones; and their derivation sheds no relevant insight into the relation between the original old one and the new (Feyerabend 1964; Sklar 1967).
Complexity and Fecundity

William Benzon and David G. Hays. Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 13: 33-40, 1990.
Abstract: While science has accepted biological evolution through natural selection, there is no generally agreed explanation for why evolution leads to ever more complex organisms. Evolution yields organismic complexity because the universe is, in its very fabric, inherently complex, as suggested by Ilya Prigogine's work on dissipative structures. Because the universe is complex, increments in organismic complexity yield survival benefits: (1) more efficient extraction of energy and matter, (2) more flexible response to vicissitudes, (3) more effective search. J.J. Gibson's ecological psychology provides a clue to the advantages of sophisticated information processing while the lore of computational theory suggests that a complex computer is needed efficiently to perform complex computations (i.e. sophisticated information processing).
William Benzon. Pursued by Knowledge in a Fecund Universe. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 20(1): 93-100, 1997.
Abstract: In The End of Science John Horgan, himself a devotee of science, argues that the stock of fundamental scientific truths is limited and that we have discovered most of them. What has come to an end, I argue, is a certain view of the world which sees reality as reducible to simple laws about simple systems underpinning the superficial complexity of phenomenal experience. On the contrary, reality is fundamentally complex and reductionism is doomed. The universe is fecund in that it has evolved multiple Realms of Being, with the later ones being implemented in the former.


  1. I think it is here that the university I trained in fell down badly.

    It seemed to be ruled by a series of Ming's decidedly merciless and hell bent on inter planetary warfare and eventual domination.

    I don't think this is a good way to teach or think. O.O.O causes me concern on this front (although its just a name and seems somewhat diverse rather than a horde or swarm).

    But a number of individuals using the label to replicate and attract do seem to be using the usual methods; expressions of sheer surprise that different positions may be maintained form held, under the weight and scale of this movement etc.

    But I think it is how you treat out-group's and those marginal to the in-group that are often most telling.

    Anglocentric, Eurocentric, Anthropocentrisim.
    The creatures that populate the wastelands beyond this ripe, fruitful and fragrant oasis of contemplation and reflection seem to be the standard hordes or swarms, tapped in some imagined and projected Chinese box view of culture.

    I suspect old habits die hard, this is is a very human endeavour.

    I find it odd that Latour an ethnographer and not unsophisticated in this regard (the role of non-human objects and the replication and construction of such mental objects is central to such thought) is cited so often as a central inspiration.

    But then people read and learn very differently.

    1. Yes, I do think there's something a bit 'off' in the use of Latour. In his book on Latour Harman has noted that Latour is unusual among philosophers in that he's devoted some much time and energy to empirical research. And Latour emphasizes the importance of description, which, as a practice, doesn't seem to interest any of these philosophers. I'm wondering if they're not claiming the prize - a flat ontology in which all are equal in being - without having actually run the race.

  2. Perhaps just a case that its philosophy and those more inclined to theory that are the ones shouting the most at the moment. May just be a case of over inflection.

    First past the post seems important here but it would seem to suggest a strong element of gaming playing, same old cultural attitudes and institutional positioning at work.

    I don't read Harman other than glance at his blog from time to time but he does not seem unsophisticated here and can be rather amusing.

    Lots of the folk using the label seem a bit too much in the vein of John Knox for my taste.

    But I think that's a 21st century trait lots of diverse groups seem to share.