In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of pluralism, something that is important to hold in Systems Thinking. I am relying on the ideas of the British philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin is most famous for his ideas on freedom. He coined the terms negative and positive freedom. Loosely put, negative freedom is the freedom from constraints or interference from others. And positive freedom is the freedom to act upon one’s own desires and ambitions.
My favorite lesson from Berlin is pluralism – his take on anti-monism. Monism is the idea that there is only one true answer to questions. As J. Cherniss explains:
Berlin’s development and definition of pluralism both began negatively, with the identification of the opposing position, which he usually referred to as ‘monism’, and sometimes as ‘the Ionian fallacy’ or ‘the Platonic ideal’. His definition of monism may be summarized as follows:
- All genuine questions must have a true answer, and one only; all other responses are errors.
- There must be a dependable path to discovering the true answer to a question, which is in principle knowable, even if currently unknown.
- The true answers, when found, will be compatible with one another, forming a single whole; for one truth cannot be incompatible with another. (This, in turn, is based on the assumption that the universe is harmonious and coherent.)
Berlin’s view on pluralism is that we create multiple value systems, even if they may appear to contradict each other. These value systems are incommensurable, that is, we cannot measure one against the other on the same scale. To paraphrase Berlin’s friend and biographer, Henry Hardy:
Berlin’s essential starting point is that ultimate human values – those values we adhere to for our own sakes, not as means to an end – are plural. That is to say, there are many of them, all perfectly genuine, and their distinctness – their plurality – is irreducible: they cannot be redefined or translated in such a way that they all turn out to be different manifestations of one super-value such as happiness or utility or obedience to some alleged supernatural dispensation.
I think that the idea of pluralism is most important when it comes to systems thinking. I have written about the ideas of Alfred Korzybski before. His famous quote is that the word is not the thing. Perhaps, the greatest idea to lead from this is that language itself is a metaphor. As I have noted many times on my blog, all we have are abstractions. Our language is very limited in that it lacks the variety to encapsulate the complexity of the external world, what we call as “reality.” In a similar fashion, our language also lacks the variety to encapsulate the complexity of our internal concepts. We sometimes struggle with our inability to properly explain why something is moral or just to others. This neatly aligns with Michael Polanyi’s idea that we know more than what we can tell. Language itself is contingent as I discussed in my last post. Meaning is an emergent property from the various language games we play.
The greatest struggle when it comes to human systems is that we are forced to view humans as parts while at the same time recognizing that they are autonomous and purposeful. We sometimes fail to recognize that we construct systems to make sense of a phenomenon, and we assign or stipulate purposes to the parts in order to neatly draw out a system as a jigsaw puzzle. By doing this, we may not remember that the parts themselves are constructing systems as we are with their own purposes in mind. A healthcare system can mean many things and can have many functions or purposes depending on who you talk to. Reality becomes multidimensional when we consider our coparticipants of the social realm. A really good way to understand this is to consider the idea of pluralism. Our perspectives are always going to be imperfect given that our language and self are both contingent. This was very well described by J. Cherniss – The idea of a perfect whole or ultimate solution is not only unattainable in practice, but also conceptually incoherent. We believe that we reached our belief system through a rational process. Others have done the same and have reached varying and sometimes opposing belief systems. We don’t have access to the single truth. This would be the idea of monism. A false dichotomy presents itself when we fall into the traps of monism – we might say things like “you are either with us or against us.”
The enemy of pluralism is monism — the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit. The consequence of this belief (which is something different from, but akin to, what Karl Popper called essentialism — to him the root of all evil) is that those who know should command those who do not. Those who know the answers to some of the great problems of mankind must be obeyed, for they alone know how society should be organized, how individual lives should be lived, how culture should be developed. This is the old Platonic belief in the philosopher-kings, who were entitled to give orders to others. There have always been thinkers who hold that if only scientists, or scientifically trained persons, could be put in charge of things, the world would be vastly improved. To this I have to say that no better excuse, or even reason, has ever been propounded for unlimited despotism on the part of an elite which robs the majority of its essential liberties.
Pluralism offers a view that our belief systems are contingent, and thus incomplete. In a Cybernetic Explanatory way, we are trying to be less wrong; not more right. The main criticism that one might face as a pluralist is the wrong label of relativist. Loosely put, a relativist tends to agree that everything is relative, and thus everything is true in a relative manner. Any cruel and unjust act might be explained away with this approach. Pluralism is not relativism. Pluralism does not agree that all belief systems are equally valid. In a cybernetic explanatory manner, a pluralist believes that what is more important is to be less wrong. At the same time, the pluralist is open to seeking understanding other people’s belief systems. This does not cause an issue since he or she is not a monist. If one is a monist, they believe that they have access to the only true reality, and thus there is no need to seek understanding.
Berlin responds strongly against the criticism of relativism:
I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps” — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite — let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. And the difference it makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding… If pluralism is a valid view, and respect between systems of values which are not necessarily hostile to each other is possible, then toleration and liberal consequences follow, as they do not either from monism (only one set of values is true, all the others are false) or from relativism (my values are mine, yours are yours, and if we clash, too bad, neither of us can claim to be right).
In his work, Four Essays of Liberty, Berlin quoted Joseph Schumpeter, – ”To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” To this Berlin added – To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.
I will finish first with a quote from Berlin and then a quote from Bruce Lee:
“Someone once remarked that in the old days men and women were brought as sacrifices to a variety of gods; for these, the modern age has substituted the new idols: isms. To cause pain, to kill, to torture are in general rightly condemned; but if these things are done not for my personal benefit but for an ism — socialism, nationalism, fascism, communism, fanatically held religious belief, or progress, or the fulfillment of the laws of history — then they are in order. Most revolutionaries believe, covertly or overtly, that in order to create the ideal world eggs must be broken, otherwise one cannot obtain an omelette. Eggs are certainly broken — never more violently than in our times — but the omelette is far to seek, it recedes into an infinite distance. That is one of the corollaries of unbridled monism, as I call it — some call it fanaticism, but monism is at the root of every extremism.”
“Many people are still bound by tradition; when the elder generation says ‘no’ to something, then these other people will strongly disapprove of it as well. If the elders say that something is wrong, then they will believe that it is wrong. They seldom use their mind to find out the truth and seldom express sincerely their real feeling. The simple truth is that these opinions on such things as racism and traditions, which are nothing more than a ‘formula’ laid down by these elder people’s experience. As we progress and time changes, it is necessary to reform this formula.”
Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was The Contingency and Irony of Systems and Cybernetics Thinking: