The pluralist path to unknowing

Who doesn’t support pluralism? Who would deny themselves the right to live peaceably in their own way with their own views, without interference or coercion to be other than they are?

Nobody that I can think of. Yet, we live at a time when pluralism is under threat and the pressure to conform to somebody’s view of right thinking is never far away.

Pluralism is an onerous discipline that makes demands of tolerance that are not always recognised by those who insist on its privileges.

Unknowing is necessarily an orientation that embraces pluralism. It is not possible to hold one’s knowing lightly unless one admits – even cultivates – alternative points of view. I’m referring not just to the pluralism that recognises diversity of perspective beyond oneself. Unknowing also implies a commitment to pluralism in one’s own worldview(s) and a recognition of a plurality of selves within one individual.

Pluralism as the political ground of unknowing

Pluralism underlines an inescapable political dimension of unknowing. It affirms the value of diversity in the development of knowledge and so allows the coexistence of contrasting or even conflicting views. As Helen Pluckrose argues, this is beneficial for moral progress. Since societies are complex and diverse, pluralism is more humanistic than thought systems that try to make reality fit preconceived categories.

This realisation was developed by Hannah Arendt in her reflections on the nature of totalitarianism. She noted that people have to live on Earth together in all their diversity. In her account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, she reasoned that his crime against humanity flowed from his denial of this fact – through his denial of the right of certain people to exist.

She later extrapolated that this highlights a broader problem with politics – that it is prone to attempts to erase factual truth:

Factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with greater hostility than ever before

Leaders and activists who mobilise power in the denial of factual truth incubate totalitarianism because they create jeopardy for those who represent – through their existence or through their thoughts and actions – the inconvenient facts that are trying to be denied. Arendt maintained that the deniers of factual truth damage humanity since factual truth is “the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us”.

Paradoxically, an insistence on the reality of factual truth is a condition for the flourishing of pluralism. The boundaries established by factual truth create a container within which diverse existences and worldviews may coexist or compete. Scientific discovery or political contestation might shift the boundaries over time. We no longer understand pandemics to be caused by miasma and we (mostly) accept the reality of climate change and its human causes. But it is desirable that discursive reality be informed by contemporary understanding of material reality.

Respect for pluralism is threatened by a number of contemporary discourses. Denial of truth led to the insurrection at the US Capitol building on 6th January 2021, fuelled by an outgoing president making baseless denials of the legitimacy of election results. The UK Government’s brazen contradiction of factual truth is a such a running sore in the body politic that Boris Johnson’s Tory predecessor as Prime Minister, John Major, has warned of the frailty of British democracy. Around the world, populist demagoguery is a growing threat to democracy – not just in power in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Russia and Brazil but in contention in the forthcoming presidential election in France.

Threats to pluralism are not confined to the right. Emancipatory movements of the left demonstrate an inability to tolerate pluralism when they attempt to shut down critical opinions rather than debate them. This is signalled by the readiness by which denigratory language – terf, privileged, Tory scum – and even threats of violence are directed at critics who mostly share the objectives of emancipatory movements but question the means of achieving them.

My concern here is not so much with the inner theology of these different movements. It is with how a climate of ostracism has a chilling effect on our freedom to think, discuss and form knowledge without fear. Even to live without fear. The disregard of pluralism tends to bring forth harsh and cruel reflexes exemplified by activists who, pumped up by their own sense of virtue, publicly shame people, demand sackings and issue rape and death threats. Indulging their moral certainties, they become disconnected from their human compassion towards people who have the effrontery merely to disagree with them.

Most of us alive today in western democracies have known nothing other than liberty and the rule of law. Perhaps we are desensitised to how fragile it can be. It is ironic that when views that are challenging to leftist movements are marginalised from public forums or institutions, the language of psychological safety is used to justify this. There are genuine reasons why people who experience oppression must be attentive to conditions which promote their sense of safety. But, equally, the intolerance of a plurality of views that characterises some current political discourses contributes to a pervasive lack of safety among those who may wish to raise or to hear legitimate and necessary questions.

When campaigners deem critical scrutiny as hostile, they are often conflating their preferred means of achieving emancipation with the end itself. A politically astute campaign would recognise the value of expanding its knowing. It would eschew intimidation and try to address the concerns of critics (at least, those critics who are sympathetic to its cause). It would aim to build the widest possible coalition in support of its emancipatory objectives. Pluralism is good for moral progress because it enables a society to engage with an issue in all its nuance and complexity. This usually results in better tested and more widely supported outcomes. Denying the legitimacy of diverse views is a form of violence not just to those who are made pariahs but to society itself.

While pluralism welcomes diversity of perspective, and hears people with respect, it does not require that all views be respected. When people demand respect for their perspectives or beliefs, this signifies a tight clinging to their knowing and is usually a sign that pluralism is under threat. This is exemplified by the demand by religious adherents that their (sometimes outlandish views) be shown respect or by progressives that one educate oneself to ensure that one’s thought conforms to their worldview – as if education can lead only to the complainant’s perspective. It is also evident when self-appointed warriors against woke demand, for example (£), that people sit and listen to deliberately provocative views, when their audience has a perfect right to walk away.

A commitment to pluralism means that we accept that we might hear opinions that offend us. We may want to challenge such opinions. But offence should rarely be a reason for suppressing an idea. The point of pluralism is to contest our views in the public realm while, at the same time, avoiding making outcasts of those who hold inconvenient perspectives.

No individual or ideology holds all the answers. But the tribalism of certainty holds a demonstrable allure in fractured times. Fortunately, there are practices that can help us to develop a pluralist frame of mind.

Cultivating pluralism

Pluralism demands of us a flexibility of mind as individuals if it is to have any purchase at the societal level. We have to be able to step back from our experiences and perceptions and evaluate them. Otherwise, we merely inhabit our prejudices. Arendt referred to this as maintaining a two-in-one dialogue. An individual becomes one’s own interlocutor, creating a plurality within oneself the better to apprehend and interpret the plural world. Having considered the world through an internal dialogue, the interpretation that we form as a singular individual can then take its place in the external plurality. Arendt argued that conducting an internal debate in this way would make one less inclined towards oppressive or totalitarian positions. Pluralism invites us to make up our own minds, eschewing off-the-shelf straitjackets of thought.

Plurality itself – the reality of our diversity – is a factual truth that should not be denied. The recognition of plurality creates space for conversations in which we encounter difference and, in so doing, preserve diverse experience. This principle extends beyond the diversity of humanity to the respect we owe to other life forms and ecosystems with which we share the Earth.

Pluralism is also an orientation that we can apply to psychology. We perceive our minds and actions as emanating from a single, cohesive self. But our psyche can be construed as a multiplicity of patterns of responses that are activated according to given circumstances. Tatiana Bachkirova, a scholar of coaching psychology, calls these our mini-selves:

In the involvement of the whole organism with various tasks we could say that various mini-selves become formed in each particular moment of time and reappear consistently in the long run. For example it could be a mini-self that serves the organism when it is thirsty or mini-self that is responsible for driving. Some mini-selves are responsible of a single action and are comparatively simple, but some could be more complex, for example, the one that operates when I am in the company of certain people, the one that works when I am critical of myself, and so on. Some are very complex and reflect a particular type of behaviour or even a manifestation of personality traits of the individual.

The pluralistic self makes it hard to know ourselves (as we imagine that we can) as a consistent, narrated being. But, according to Bachkirova, we can, at least, recognise different patterns of behaviour or activation of the mind associated with particular circumstances and say, “Yes, I know this mini-self.” Some of our mini-selves may, at times, be in conflict with each other. Still, we recognise each of them as part of who we are.

We might go further and say that the idea of mini-selves is a metaphor for the fluidity of the self. If we have no fixed single self, does it make sense to speak of “the” self at all. We are always in a process of becoming. Who we are is brought forth by our interactions and behaviours in any given moment. Sometimes we may like who we emerge as being – if we do something with a positive impact in the world, or if we resist a tempting chocolate. Other times, we might feel frustrated that we don’t emerge as we might wish – if, for example, we disrespect someone, or we take a long-haul flight when we’re trying to minimise our carbon footprint.

This encourages us to be compassionate with ourselves about who we are and how we may or may not live up to our own expectations of ourself. And also to recognise the complexities in our own worldview. It is possible – for example – to be hostile to antisemitism, critical of Israel, unequivocally supportive of its right to exist and equally so of Palestinian aspirations. It is also possible, apparently, to imagine oneself to be antiracist while participating in antisemitic tropes.

Reality is more complex and our responses to it more contradictory than is imagined by some activists or believers who feel that they’ve found the one true way. We should not be hard on ourselves if we do not live up to binary moral constructs. And perhaps it is possible to view compassionately other people who do not. The art of living is to hold the plurality of mini-selves in some kind of harmony – and to recognise that others may be struggling to do the same. In the performance of identity politics, perhaps all we are doing is privileging those mini-selves which give us social validation in our tribes, while suppressing those that put that validation at risk.

Seeing things from diverse perspectives is a practice that can be cultivated. This is implied by Arendt’s two-in-one dialogue but there are traditions of pluralistic unknowing stretching back millennia. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius demonstrate a mind that was disciplined in releasing his grip on his own perspectives and seeing things through different eyes.

One of the reasons why our discursive culture is descending into polarisation is because advocates of a particular position do not make nearly enough effort to understand the opposing points of view. Instead of seeking real political change, they are often content to recite their axiomatic beliefs as a form of badge wearing. An unknowing approach to politics would project less ego and focus more on the endgame. It would adopt rigorous ways to take seriously the views of opponents – such as Daniel Dennett’s four steps to successful critique or Chris Dillow’s imaginative reconstruction.

Unknowing would also eschew the conformist language that directs thought down normative channels. Vaclav Havel, in his essay The Power of the Powerless argued that when we adopt – without really believing – the glib slogans and jargon prescribed by the powerful, we enable totalitarianism. Havel, like Arendt, was analysing the oppressive power of the one-party state. In contemporary democracies, while governments give cause for concern, the risk also comes from cultural forces who impose normative rules about how things should and should not be said and elicit compliance by creating jeopardy in free expression. Timothy Snyder, in his short book on how to avoid the present threat of tyranny, counsels us:

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying.

Workplaces could do with more pluralism too. Not just because most organisations are pretty totalitarian places, and not just because the threat of losing one’s job because of one’s opinion is currently one of the frontline threats to pluralism. Expertise at work is more distributed than the conventional, hierarchical view of organisations recognises. Effective teams synthesise the diversity of insight among their members. As a participant, it pays to strike a healthy balance between making sure one’s own contribution is heard and giving space for those of other people to be received.

Complex reality is not amenable to singular solutions. It’s not plausible for one ideology to chart the way through the urgent challenges we face, such as systemic racism or climate change. We need diverse perspectives, drawing on diverse expertise, to devise emergent approaches.

If we take take the trouble to understand from the inside what others think and feel, there is more likelihood of addressing their concerns and synthesising multiple insights into workable strategies. Pluralism creates a platform for solidarity. Whereas, equating one’s own way of knowing with what is good and right fosters tribalism and division. A rationale for pluralism is that it leads to better outcomes. But it is also more congruent with the factual reality that we are plural beings.

3 thoughts on “The pluralist path to unknowing

  1. Excellent piece Martin. I am a fan of Bachkirova’s work however her concept of mini-selves derives from the pioneering work done by Roberto Assagioli in the 1920s in breaking away from Freud’s triumvirate of id, ego, super-ego as too limited and also as privileging the primitive and the punitive, and proposing his theory of human multiplicity with his model of sub-personalities. This eminently practical model is foundational to the teachings of Psychosynthesis (vs the fracturing tendency of analysis) and to transpersonal coaching. Practitioners and clients alike find it helpful, relieving, insightful and a path to growth that has a profound but light touch.


    • Thank you, Hetty. Bachkirova cites a number of sources for her work including Assagioli as well as more recent scholars, including contemporary philosophers and neuroscience researchers. She also reaches much further back in time to the Buddha and David Hume. Standing on the shoulders of many giants.


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