Pluralism and Relativism

There are two other terms that many of us have heard which are good to look at more closely, because they are often misused – or only used partially for what they are. The terms are pluralism and relativism. Often they are used interchangeably as if they mean the same thing, but they do not.

Pluralism is a belief that reality is made up of more than one fundamental element. This is in opposition to Monism which is the belief that reality is made up of only one fundamental element. A strict Spiritualist is a monist who believes that reality is made up only of spirit. A strict Idealist is a monist who believes that reality is made up of only mind. And a strict materialist is a monist who believes that reality is made up only of matter. Pluralism is also opposed to Dualism which is the belief that reality is made up of exactly two things, usually mind and matter.

At first glance William James might seem like a monist because of his conviction that reality was made up of pure experience.  But James did not really believe that reality was made up of pure experience, but rather that reality was made up on individual instances of experience. If we use the analogy of a beach, you might say that the beach was made up of sand. Someone with pluralistic tendencies would argue that the beach is not made up of sand, but rather of individual grains of sand. The word sand is an abstract category that refers to the collection of individual grains. Similarly James would say that the word experience is an abstract name for the collection of all individual instances of experience and that reality is made up of all of these individual instances.

So much for pluralism, now on to relativism; relativism is the conviction that judgments about things are always dependent on external factors – or more simply the meaning of things is dependent on the context in which the thing is being considered. Things do not have inherent meaning, significance and value. Meaning, significance and value is always relative to context. A glass of water means one thing after you have just drank a liter of it, and it means  another  thing after three days without water in a hot desert.  Meaning is not fixed, it is relative.

Relativism stands in opposition to Absolutism. Absolutism is the belief that at least some things have a meaning and significance that is inherently part of the thing itself and not bestowed upon it relative to context. Traditional God is seen as being absolute in the sense that God has meaning and significance that exists independent from any context and holds true in all contexts.

You could say that prior to The Enlightenment most people were absolute monists. They believed that everything came from God and that God was good. A big part of The Enlightenment was the introduction of pluralism. The universe was now made of fundamental elements that interacted according to natural laws. As modernism gave way to post-modernism relativism increased. Truth was now seen as relative to context, circumstance and cultural interpretation.

I often hear the words relativism and pluralism used to denote nihilism. The implied logic goes like this. “If you believe that reality is made up of many things and that things do not have inherent meaning, then you are heading down the slippery slope toward the conviction that nothing matters and all of the apathy, despair and callousness that goes along with that conviction.” There is a fear in this that all value will be lost, all hierarchy reduced to a flat mush, and all  markers rendered useless. This might be a valid concern, but it is not a necessary outcome of either pluralism or relativism.

I believe that to move forward to the next stage of human development we have to embrace pluralism and relativism as well as meaning, significance and context. This will demand that we find a higher way of determining value. I don’t believe that we will go back to absolutist beliefs about things having value in and of themselves. Rather we will move forward toward a deeper embrace of the reality of context. The hierarchy of the future will not be a hierarchy based in things but based in contexts. We will stop asking questions like which things are the most meaningful?and start asking questions like which are the most valuable contexts to look at everything through.