Tag Archives: Worldviews

Living Cooperatively in a World of Values Pluralism


One of the core ideas of Isaiah Berlin is the concept of “values pluralism.” Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. A fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he was the author of many books, including Against the Current, The Roots of Romanticism, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and the Hedgehog and the Fox.

By “values pluralism” Berlin meant that open societies are characterized by different value constellations that are in competition and conflict with each other, and that not all human values can be fully realized and integrated at any given time and place in a single culture. Choices must be made between them within the body-politic, and so there is an “agonic” element in the struggle to realize multiple values. Four examples he gives of competing and divergent values include liberty and equality, spontaneity and security, happiness and knowledge, mercy and justice.

Certainly when any of these values is made exclusive and absolute an ideological monism results, and that monism enters into lethal conflict with opposing values. We see this in the ideological extremes of our American political landscape today between the right-wing libertarian Tea Party Movement and the left-wing communitarian Occupy Movement. Both sides share in common a sense of being alienated independent outsiders to the forces of concentrated institutional power. The right-wing distrusts the public sector of state power, while the left-wing distrusts the private sector of corporate power. But they also diverge sharply from each other in fundamental ways. There is a vast chasm between the right-wing ideals of an independent warrior culture and the left-wing ideals of an independent artisan culture. The difference is as great as between the values of ancient Sparta and Athens. They co-mingle no better than oil and water, which is to say not at all.

However, it also needs to be said that not all cultural values necessarily need to be made absolute, ideological, dogmatic and totalizing. Rather, they can come to live in a dialectical tension, a perpetual “push-pull” that, while agonic at times, may also create a more dynamic and adaptive, pluralistic and pragmatic society.

In his book, Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind: International Cooperation and its Importance for Survival, Geert Hofstede outlines a set of core cultural value polarities that can enter into lethal conflict but that if moderated and qualified can live together in dialectical tension. Those value dualities include excellence and equality, the individual and the collective, assertiveness and modesty, certitude and ambiguity, short-term goals and long-term goals. Values exist within a large complex that includes rituals, heroes, symbols, and traditions, all of which are subsumed under practices. As children we learn our values not so much consciously and explicitly as unconsciously and implicitly. As Hofstede puts it, “Values are broad tendencies to prefer contain states of affairs over others. Values are feelings with an arrow to it: they have a plus and a minus died. They deal with good vs. evil, dirty vs. clean, ugly vs. beautiful, natural vs. natural, abnormal vs. normal, paradoxical vs. logical, irrational vs. rational.”

Closed ideological and totalitarian societies, whether religious or secular, tend to set up a values monism in which only one set of values is allowed freedom of expression, while opposing and counter-balancing values are viewed evil, regressive, perverse and false. Open, inclusive pluralistic societies allow divergent and counter-balancing values to co-exist in a perpetual relationship of dynamic tension. In such societies everyone must make compromises because no one gets everything they want. When the irreducible differences in visions, values, beliefs and practices significantly outweigh the commonalities, those societies fall into lethal conflict and civil war. When the exclusive values and interests of the few, usually the rich and powerful, eclipse the values and interests of the many, usually the poor and oppressed, than that society will begin to collapse into violence and anarchy. We see this today in numerous countries, including Iraq and Syria.

An absolutely dualistic “winner-takes-all” approach to values will always produce a conflict orientated individual or culture. For example, if one regards the various temperament types as either good or bad, right or wrong, then one must set up a conflict between such polarities as Introversion and Extraversion, Intuition and Sensation, Feeling and Thinking, Perception and Judgment. The mentality is, “If you are of an “opposite” temperament type from me then you are creepy, alien, strange, weird. Indeed, you are probably the Enemy.”

The same polarizing drama plays out in various areas of life. In higher education it plays out in the polarizing attitudes that often characterize those who are exclusively committed to the study of the sciences or the arts, philosophy or literature, sociology or psychology, history and mythology. Temperamental preferences become idealized and hardened into competing kinds of intelligence, as competing epistemological methods, and even as competing metaphysical assumptions.

It is in the realms of metaphysical assumptions that we see the full power of the polarizing human tendency played out. For some years now I’ve been fascinated to watch the competing worldviews of dualism, idealism, materialism and panpsychism play out their drama of competition and conflict. Each worldview tradition has established its own self-validating network of values, rituals, heroes, symbols, narrative, myths, metaphors and practices. Each demonizes and stereotypes the competing worldviews. A non-ideological ironic pragmatist, or for that matter a post-enlightenment romantic or existentialist might find each of these worldview visions and its associated values persuasive and appealing on its own terms, but falling short of anything like an absolute truth that excludes all other partial and qualified truth-claims. Rather, the pragmatic and pluralistic attitude will be, “We have met the enemy, and he/they may be partly right.”

The shift from a dualistic, polarizing absolute ideological approach to political philosophy would mean that the conservative and liberal, the libertarian and communitarian, or at least some of them, might be able to transcend their ideological dogma to the extent that they could see at least some value in the other social, economic and political camps. When narrow, dogmatic, sectarian ideologies run either the executive, judicial or legislative branches of government, the voices of passionate moderates and radical centrists, of principled pragmatists and consensus builders is silenced. Such a condition is toxic and destructive to an open democratic society.

Returning to Isaiah Berlin’s idea of value pluralism, it is not hard to recognize that different societies and cultures, like different individuals and families we meet, express their own unique sets of dominant values and practices. Some individuals and collectives prefer what I call the “left-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of rationality, logic, objectivity, detachment, the external third-person account of the world. They love math, science and technology. Other individuals and collectives prefer the “right-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of passion, paradox, subjectivity, participation, the internal first-person account of the world. They love music, art and literature. Many “left-brain” types are drawn to business, finance and politics, and to all things mechanical, strategic and military. “Right-brain” types are drawn the sensuous, aesthetic and ecstatic. The left-brain rational types seek the Stoic, Utilitarian, Productive, Quantitative, Dutiful and Heroic Life, while the right-brain types seek the Epicurean, Romantic, Creative, Qualitative, Desirous and Picturesque Life.

These are two casts of mind, two ways of life. This, then, is the society and world of value pluralism in which we live. Perhaps some values are complementary, while others are contradictory, and still others are so remote and dissimilar from each other as to be incommensurable. Whether we choose relate to different values as primarily complementary, competitive or incomparable is yet another tacit value commitment. My own temperamental preference is to follow the counsel of E.M. Forester wherever possible, who famously said, “Only connect.”


Prepositional Language & Worldview Orientations



Behind       Inside  –  Between  –  Outside       Ahead


Everywhere   –   Somewhere  –  Nowhere  –  Ambiguous  

Who Knows?  –  What Ever?

“Tell me your prefered prepositional language for locating “Prime Reality” and I’ll tell you your basic worldview orientation.”

The Transcendent Idealist “locates” the Prime Reality as being figuratively and metaphorically above us as the Universal (Platonic) Forms of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. It may also point to the Prime Reality as consisting of Eternal Being, Mind, Spirit or Essence that  dwells within, among, through and between us.

The Scientific Materialist “locates” the Prime Reality as being figuratively and metaphorically below us in the material and natural world as discovered by physics and biology, not in the “epiphenomenal” world of consciousness and mind.

The Metaphysical Dualist “locates” the Prime Reality as figuratively and metaphorically both Above and Below in two separate orders of reality — the Spiritual and Physical, Invisible and Visible, Heavenly and Earthly, Mental and Physical, Eternal and Temporal, Infinite and Finite, Necessary and Contingent, Essential and Existential. The Metaphysical Dualist is “a citizen of two worlds,” and has two different ways of knowing — one numinous, intuitive and affective, the other sensory, rational and empirical.

The Process Panpsychist (and Pan-en-theist) “locates” the Prime Reality as figuratively and metaphorically in the dynamic co-arising synthesis of Mind (above) and Matter (below), and as dynamically ahead of us in the emergent historical and eschatological future where “Matter is becoming Spiritualized” through the evolutionary lure of creative novelty .

The Post-Modern Eclectic Ironist “locates” the Prime Reality as “sort of here, there, everywhere, and nowhere” since we live in an irreducibly fragmented, ambiguous and “polyphrenic” world of multiple “local narratives” that defy pluralistic integration through any Grand Theory of Everything, whether naturalistic or metaphysical.

The Trans-Modern Integral Pluralist “locates” the Prime Reality as being present in all epistemological quadrants, including the internal intentional and cultural, and the external behavioral and social quadrants; and in all the metaphysical levels, including the material, organic, mental, soulful and spiritual levels of being and existence. Ken Wilber calls this approach AQAL: All Quadrants, All Levels.

Of course one problem with our employment of language is that it is easy to “conflate” figurative and factual language and to “reify” metaphorical language into metaphysical language, thus claiming to know more than we really do, and claiming it with ideological authority and dogmatic certitude. We forget that “the map is not the territory,” and that our “useful paradigms” are not necessarily “reality itself” in all its plenitude and diversity, but rather our best attempts to make connections and correlations beween the concepts of our finite, conditioned and situated mind on the one hand and the expansive, unbounded and encompassing reality of “what is” on the other.

The Metaphysical “Agnostic” and “Ignostic” do not try to use figurative and metaphorical language to locate the Prime Reality “anywhere”. The Agnostic may decide that the question of the nature of Prime Reality is simply unknowable and undecidable. He may decide that it is even more than a “Hard Problem” that science or philosophy will eventually “Solve”. He may decide that it is an Ineffable Mystery in which we dwell but that we cannot ever fully comprehend or capture with our finite, conditioned and situated minds.

Of course there are different kinds of agnostics. Some insist that because they do not not claim to know the nature of Prime Reality that therefore no one else can know much about it, and that therefore their mission in life is to shoot down anyone who makes metaphysical claims. Some agnostics may lean toward one worldview or another, whether toward dualism, idealism, materialism or panpsychism, but are not ready to commit and go public, only to “weigh and consider.” Thomas Nagel (Mind and Cosmos) and David Chalmers (The Conscious Mind) are two examples of philosophical and scientific thinkers who reject physicalist reductionism and to remain “agnostic” but with strong panpsychist sympathies. But neither are they “true believers.”

The “Ignostic” will say, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” The question of the nature of Prime Reality and our relationship to that Reality is simply not a question that interests me. Metaphysical questions are a waste of time. Epistemological questions are a waste of time. The main thing is to live each day as fully and freely as you can, to emerse and lose yourself in the stream of experience, to enjoy the ride and have a good time.

So there you have it. We use prepositional language to express our worldview orientations. We use spatial and temporal language to locate what we consider to be Prime Reality? We may even decide that Prime Reality exists at least partly if not entirely outside of the constrants of space and time, in which case all our prepositional language which is spatially and temporally oriented is fundamentally problematic.

It is possible to ask questions about that nature of Prime Reality as if it were exclusively “Out There” in the so-called objective empirical  world of “Matter and Energy” and not “In Here” in the so-called subjective world of “Mind and Consciousness.” Quantum mechanics tells us that “the subject influences that which is observed.” The possible implications for this shocking claim are still being thrashed out by scientists and philosophers who are interpreting the meaning of Quantum Mechanics in different ways.

One implication may be that rather than think of the Prime Reality as something exclusively autonomous and separate from mind and subjectivity we may have to consider the possibility that mind and matter, subjectivity and objectivity may be “entangled” as two sides of the implicit and explicit order. A “Relativity and Quantum Universe” in which both Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr are both “partly right” is a wild and weird universe indeed. We appear to be on the threshold of a new era in both science and philosophy in which the “propositions” we use to figuratively and metaphorically “locate” Prime Reality must undergo yet another radical and profound “paradigm shift.”

What if Prime Reality includes not only the properties of matter and energy in space and time, but also mind and consciousness outside of space and time? And what if matter and energy, mind and consciousness are “quantum entangled” with each other in a non-local relationship? Then we would have to ask not only the question, “What is the nature of Prime Reality” but “Who is asking the question and from what viewpoint?” What if the external, objectivist, third person account of reality that “excludes the participation of the subject” is itself an illusion? What if the “subject” knowingly or unknowingly participates in and influences that which is observed? What if there is no “view from nowhere?” What if all viewpoints are irreducibly partial and perspectival? What if more than one perspective and viewpoint could be partly right? Wouldn’t that be a game-changer? Would that not give us a richer and fuller account of the nature of reality than one that only looks at things dualistically from either inside or outside, above or below, behind or before? Could it be that “we have met the enemy and he is partly right?”