[Paleopsych] TLS: (John Gray) Steven Lukes: Pluralism is not enough

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Steven Lukes: Pluralism is not enough
The Times Literary Supplement, 96.2.10

    John Gray, Isaiah Berlin, 224pp. HarperCollins. £18. - 0 00 255582 4

    It has become fashionable in certain quarters to declare the so-called
    "Enlightenment Project" dead. Countless books and articles that
    proclaim or are influenced by post-modernist ideas attack the
    Enlightenment almost as a routine invocation. Other thinkers of widely
    different dispositions do the same, some praising it only to bury it,
    others attacking its central tenets and ambitions as misconceived.
    Among their number is Alasdair MacIntyre, who thinks that the
    Enlightenment Project "had to fail". Another is John Gray, whose
    quarters (like MacIntyre's) have been singularly mobile, across
    successive battlegrounds: once a Millian liberal, then a Hayekian,
    then a "post-liberal", Gray has most recently been dubbed (by The
    Economist) "an anti-liberal high-communitarian" with a policy agenda
    (a standpoint that has infuriated Conservatives of all stripes and
    seems to be interesting some opinion-formers in Tony Blair's Labour
    Party). Gray is a forceful writer, an engaged political theorist with
    a serious interest in philosophical fundamentals. The trouble is that
    he has written a forceful and serious study of the thought of Sir
    Isaiah Berlin which seeks to enlist Berlin in the anti-Enlightenment

    Gray claims to resolve a conflict he sees in Berlin's thought between
    "his doctrine of value pluralism and the historicist conception of
    human nature to which he holds on the one hand" and "the universalist
    claims of any species of traditional liberalism on the other". With
    characteristic honesty, he concedes that his proposed resolution takes
    "a step for which there is no clear authority in Berlin's writings,
    and which he might well be reluctant to follow". Gray's proposed
    resolution is to reconceive liberalism as "a particular form of life
    with no universal claim on reason, foundation in human nature or
    privileged place in history". Liberal institutions have "no universal
    authority": the commitment to the liberal form of life is "a
    groundless one which nothing in reason compels us to make". Citing
    Richard Rorty with approval, Gray insists that liberal values, like
    all other values, are "embedded in particular forms of life", that
    "their authority is local, not universal, in that it derives from a
    specific form of life".

    One question is whether, in proposing this resolution, Gray has taken
    a step in a direction towards which Berlin's thought tends. Another is
    whether the step should, in any case, be taken. If, as he suspects,
    Berlin "might well be reluctant to follow", may there not be excellent
    reasons for that presumed reluctance?

    Gray praises Berlin's liberalism in extravagant terms. It is, he
    writes, "the most profoundly deliberated, and most powerfully
    defended, in our time, or, perhaps, in any time", diverging "radically
    from those that have dominated polit-ical philosophy in the post-war
    world, and indeed since J. S. Mill, in many respects". What, above
    all, he values in it is its "acknowledgement of an irreducible
    diversity of rivalrous goods, including negative and positive
    liberties", claiming that this "distinguishes it from all those recent
    liberalisms that engage themselves in 'theories of justice', or of
    'fundamental rights'". Those liberalisms, Gray claims, are "destroyed
    by Berlin's insight that, not only is any sort of liberty only one
    among many incommensurable values, but the different liberties, are
    themselves rivalrous and uncombinable and sometimes incommensurable,
    such that choices must be made among them, without the aid of any
    overarching standard or synoptic theory".

    In short, Gray's interest in philosophical fundamentals leads him to
    see in Berlin's "value pluralism" the supposedly deep truth that, in
    respect of values, there are none. Value pluralism is "true all the
    way down". It is, he writes, "the idea of radical choice choice
    without criteria, grounds or principles that is the heart of Berlin's
    liberalism". There is, moreover, "in Berlin no account of a common
    human nature": "the propensity to diversity, to difference, is itself
    implied by the human capacity for choice". In opposition to the
    anthropology of the Enlightenment (and following Vico and Herder),
    Berlin, according to Gray, claims that what is "most essentially
    human" is "the propensity to cultural difference". From this
    interpretation, unsurprisingly, we must draw the consequence that
    liberal society is "only one form of human flourishing, one to which
    Berlin himself is steadfastly committed". Moreover, "since different
    forms of life embody values, that are often radically
    in-commensurable, philosophy will not seek to privilege any one form
    of life". So much for the Enlightenment.

    Is this indeed the moral to be drawn from Berlin's writings? One
    difficulty in answering that question is that those writings are, for
    the most part, themselves extremely rich interpretations of other
    thinkers. Berlin is a master of empathy, of what Vico called fantasia:
    he makes ideas come alive by capturing from within the animating
    vision of the thinkers he discusses. Often, as you read him, you can
    be unsure just whose voice you are hearing: that of the thinker in
    question, those of his contemporaries as they responded to him, or
    that of Berlin himself as interlocutor and critic, marshalling the
    interpretation at hand in the service of a larger argument.
    Furthermore, the thinkers he chooses to treat are those he finds
    uncomfortable: those who put to the test the beliefs and assumptions
    he holds dear but does not take for granted. Hence, for example, the
    magisterial studies of de Maistre, of Hamann, of the German Romantics,
    of Dostoevsky and of Sorel (why did he never tackle Nietzsche?) His
    interest in discussing these anti-Enlightenment and anti-liberal
    thinkers is precisely to see what damage they can do to Western
    rationalism and liberalism. Sometimes his interpretations are so vivid
    that you can mistake exegesis for endorsement.

    To do so would be a serious mistake. It is true that Gray quotes
    Berlin's statement that the Enlightenment was "one of the best and
    most hopeful episodes in the life of mankind" and his claim that he
    remains himself a rationalist. He also concedes that "of Berlin's
    endorsement of central aspects of the Enlightenment Project there can
    be no doubt". These are "the values of toleration, liberty and human
    emancipation". Yet, according to Gray, it is his "agonistic pluralism"
    of values, deriving from "the Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment
    claims as to the incommensurability of cultures and the role of will
    in individual and collective self-creation" that constitutes "the
    deepest truth in Berlin's thought". Its consequences are, it appears,
    devastating. It "undercuts the . . . creed of the Enlightenment" and
    it "undermines liberalism as a political ideal with a universal claim
    on reason". Hence the need to reconceive his liberalism as groundless,
    merely local and having no foundation in a common human nature.

    What Berlin says, speaking in his own voice, and in his central texts,
    is the very opposite of this. Take, for example, his celebrated
    lecture Two Concepts of Liberty. Here the preservation of an area of
    non-interference is defended, not as compelling only to "us" because
    internal to "our" local culture, in which the activity of unfettered
    choice is central. Its authority does not derive from our "specific
    form of life". Rather, it is defended on the ground that "some portion
    of human existence must remain independent of the sphere of social
    control". "We must", he argues, "preserve a minimum core of personal
    freedom if we are not to 'degrade or deny our nature'", the minimum
    being that "which a man cannot give up without offending against the
    essence of his human nature". Berlin goes on to ask what this essence
    is and what standards it entails, and he answers that this "has always
    been, and perhaps always will be, a matter of infinite debate". What
    is important is that he does not reject the question. Moreover, he
    remarks, in the introduction to his Four Essays on Liberty, that "to
    contract the area of human choice is to do harm to men in an
    intrinsic, Kantian, not merely utilitarian, sense". Elsewhere, Berlin
    has argued that an unchanging human nature is, indeed, a
    presupposition of mutual intelligibility across human cultures.
    "Incompatible their ends may be," he has written, "but their variety
    cannot be unlimited, for the nature of men, however various and
    subject to change, must possess some generic character if it is to be
    called human at all." Such passages (and there are many others)
    suggest that something far more robust than reluctance would prevent
    Berlin from following Gray down his Rortian path.

    Despite Gray's careful attempt to distinguish what he calls "objective
    pluralism" from relativism, there is no doubt that that path leads to
    relativism. For if, as Gray argues, "rivalrous" values are often
    rationally incomparable, and if, as he argues in the latter part of
    this book, they come "embedded" in distinct cultures, seen as wholes,
    then considerations that tell in favour of a value choice at home
    (which are not, it seems, grounds or reasons) will be weightless
    abroad. Cross-cultural evaluation and criticism become illegitimate,
    both abroad and presumably at home, in a multicultural society. Such a
    doctrine, as Berlin himself argues, renders mutual intelligibility
    both across and within cultures itself unintelligible. It also robs
    moral and political value conflicts of their reality, since it allots
    each set of values a cultural home. It also falsely portrays cultures
    as integrated and cohesive unities rather than heterogeneous and
    interpenetrating conglomerations.

    In one of his less well-known essays ("Alleged Relativism in
    Eighteenth-Century European Thought"), Berlin has argued that such
    relativism was unknown in the eighteenth century; it was invented in
    the nineteenth and has flourished in the twentieth. It is perhaps best
    appreciated as the distinctively modern and now postmodern form of
    scepticism. Of course, the great value of scepticism lies in the deep
    challenge it poses to what we are inclined to believe. Gray's book
    illustrates just how corrosive this form of scepticism can be, both to
    the Enlightenment assumption that public deliberation and debate are
    not incompatible with polit-ical life and to the ideas of contemporary
    liberals such as John Rawls, who argue for principles of justice and
    systems of rights by offering reasons that could be acceptable to
    those holding different comprehensive conceptions of what is valuable
    in life, without depending on any one of them. In denouncing the
    "universalism" of all such arguments, it implies, in the end, that all
    that is left is to appeal to "our" local traditions, or to resort to

    Those inclined to follow Gray should consider just how much of the
    so-called "Enlightenment Project" they are prepared to abandon. (The
    appellation, used mainly by the Enlightenment's enemies, artfully
    conceals all its multiplicity, tensions and contradictions.) In doing
    so, they should find reading the writings of Sir Isaiah Berlin of
    particular help. They will learn much, as Gray shows here, about how
    assumptions about the uniformity of human nature, the law-governed
    nature of human history, the appropriate methods for the study of
    society and the prospects for convergence in a cosmopolitan future
    came to be questioned, above all by the German critics of French
    rationalism, about the invention of culture and hermeneutic inquiry by
    Herder and Vico, about the critique of abstract system-building in
    Herzen, and much else besides. They will also come to reflect on
    Berlin's extraordinarily paradoxical argument that the "monism" of the
    Enlightenment encouraged ways of thinking that led to the horrors of
    twentieth-century totalitarianism and that it was the "pluralism" of
    its Romantic and reactionary critics that fed the streams of modern
    liberalism. They may also learn something else: that the very best way
    to defend the ideas of the Enlightenment is to confront them with
    those of its most forceful and serious critics.

    Steven Lukes is Professor of Political and Social Theory at the
    European University Institute, Florence. His books include Marxism and
    Morality, 1985, and Moral Conflict and Politics, 1991.

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