Greg Moses
American Pluralisms
c 1995
Words: 4,049
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We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy--Peirce

Within the wide-ranging literature on pluralism, which has proliferated since the late 1960s, I will focus attention on a genealogy of pluralism centered around the work of Alain Locke. Since Locke made frequent references to the tradition of American pragmatism, both as a legacy and point of departure, I shall gloss the main pragmatist precursors, Peirce, James, and Dewey. Then, after outlining a scheme for Locke's pluralistic theory of value, I will appeal to the work of Harold Cruse, where the problems of life beg attention from the problems of theory. What emerges from this exercise is a kind of system of pluralism, with roots in pragmatism's metaphysics and epistemology, giving rise to the main trunk of Locke's axiology, and then branching into applications of social and political philosophy. If the lessons of the pragmatists have been widely shared, then the main contribution of this essay will be the focus on Locke's pluralism and its extension into contemporary affairs via Cruse. Given the plethora of pluralisms, if you will, which have inundated the shores of philosophy, the James-Locke-Cruse continuum establishes a school of theory to which other pluralisms may be fruitfully compared.


1868 is one starting point available for American pluralism, as the year when Charles Saunders Peirce inaugurated certain anti-Cartesian declarations in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Against Cartesian individualism, Peirce declared that the ultimate test of certainty was to be found in the shared consciousness of a "COMMUNITY"; that reality is never grasped with certainty in any special case, but only generally; and that we do not even know ourselves directly, but only by mediation of "outward" signs (Peirce "Some Incapacities", esp. Wiener, p. 69, 30). Although Peirce could not legislate against the common declaration, "I know this," his analysis of that speech act suggested an infinity of dependencies upon others, the forms of our general ideas, and the selections we take from the possibilities which surround us. The ensuing history of American philosophical pragmatism, with its pluralist tendencies, is but an infinite series of footnotes to the Peirce of '68. (If Peirce provided the Torah of pragmatist scholasticism, then William James and John Dewey rendered the Mishnah, to which other commentators have added their Talmud. Of course, every such gloss depends upon the kindness of strangers.)

James caused a sensation at Oxford when he imported pragmatism to England, smuggled into a series of lectures on religion, in the Spring of 1908. Before unprecedented crowds, James declared that God himself must be a little less certain than previously supposed--"finite, either in power or knowledge, or in both at once" (James 1908:141). The monistic notion of "the absolute" was for James the fetishized substitution of a concept for the real thing--a tendency which James in general called "vicious intellectualism." Moreover, the very concept of the "the absolute" was logically untenable. No doubt God is whole, but the one and only whole? Where would that leave you and me? No, the nature of God was not defined by the "absolute idealists"; they could not appreciate the personality apparent in the God of Abraham, who ceaselessly adjusts to changing human conditions, who negotiates covenants in time. "Compromise and mediation are inseparable from the pluralistic philosophy," said James (James 1908:141).

The Copernican revolution of pragmatism's pluralism was extended along another front in 1929 when Dewey delivered a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh:

The meaning of a Copernican reversal is that we do not have to go to knowledge to obtain an exclusive hold on reality. The world as we experience it is a real world. But it is not in its primary phases a world that is known, a world that is understood, and is intellectually coherent and secure. (Dewey 1929:295)
Dewey was appealing to a kind of empiricism that challenged the rationalist trend in modern philosophy from Descartes through absolute idealism. This gloss of pragmatism is intended to remind the reader only that some features of Locke's pluralism are foreshadowed, and that pragmatism is a worthy philosophical assistant to pluralism. Once truth is thrown to the community by Peirce, and each member of a community receives her independent wholeness via James, we are only in need of Dewey's admonition that our quest in this world is hardly dominated by reflection. Locke's pluralistic theory of value takes off from roots such as these as he grapples with theory in the context of grim conflicts apparent to any student of Jim Crow America.


What does it mean to live in a world of uncertainty, where the common declaration, "I believe this," is tangled in webs of contingency? Even if we do not conceive of God as "the absolute," dare we dispute her when she says, "thou shalt"? Even were we rigorous enough to know the limits of knowledge, would we want to suspend our commitments? For all the limits suggested by pragmatism and pluralism, we are nevertheless reminded that these philosophies were adopted to make better sense of our lived situation, not to dissolve it. As Locke writes, "In de-throning our absolutes, we must take care not to exile our imperatives, for after all, we live by them" (Harris 1989:35).

When Peirce declared that truth was dependent upon community, he confirmed something important about science, but we might guess that it has always been easier for white thinkers in America to imagine an ideal convergence where all opinions come together as one. Black thinkers, on the other hand, if not altogether despairing of a single, "beloved community," have been witness to powerful realities which systematically frustrate the actualization of unifying ideals. Thus for Locke, community would be important, but not in a singular sense. The human world is made up of "psychological tribes," between which there shall always be found some irreducible difference, thus conflict. The ideal limit of Peircean convergence has an internal dynamic of secondness, or differentiation, some part of which shall always, as it were, remain outside one's own fold.

James, of course, understood the consequence of psychological tribes, and was quick to tease out the pluralistic tendencies of pragmatism. He sorted philosophers by dispositional types, and explored religious experience for its varieties. Locke, in turn, appreciated James for the pluralistic turn: "When William James inaugurated his all-out campaign against intellectual absolutism, though radical empiricism and pragmatism were his shield and buckler, his trusty right-arm sword, we should remember, was pluralism" (Harris 1989: 53). Locke's appreciation for James, however, had a limit. Locke declared the need to craft a more systematic pluralism that avoided the blooming, buzzing confusion of Jamesian chaos.

Locke's systematic approach to pluralism came by way of axiology, or value theory, in the form of "value pluralism." Taking a cue from Brentano, "father of modern value-theory," Locke attempted to,

derive a functional theory of value from a descriptive and empirical psychology of valuation and to discover in value-experience itself the source of those normative and categorical elements construed for centuries so arbitrarily and so artificially in the realm of rational absolutes. (Harris 1989:38)
To this end, Locke insisted that, "basic qualities of values . . . pertain to psychological categories . . . rooted in modes or kinds of valuing" (Harris 1989: 38). Locke's distinctive contribution lies in his own version of radical empiricism, where he pursues value to its source in value experience. Values are thus not to be confused with "goods" that we pursue from a distance, but rather should be located more subjectively in the difficult-to-describe but distinctly-felt yearnings which reach out for, select, create, or consume the "goods" of the world:

In fact, the value-mode establishes for itself, directly through feeling, a qualitative category which, as discriminated by its appropriate feeling-quality, constitutes an emotionally mediated form of experience. (Harris 1989:38-39)
For example, our reverence for divine or noble objects is to be approached by way of reverent feelings and the methods by which such feelings are socialized or perpetuated through cultural paradigms.

To understand the "value" of ancient Greek reverence for Zeus or Hermes, for example, we would ask fewer questions about the worthiness of the object than about the qualities of feelings. To understand our own values in relation to the ancient Greeks, we would compare what evidence is available about our own feelings of reverence to the evidence available from Greek life. We would not begin with abstract comparisons of Zeus to Jehovah, or Hermes to Jesus, but with experiential investigations into what it means, in either case, to be a believer. By such a method, we are less prone to ask what gods one believes in, more interested to inquire after the motive impulse of believing, what Locke calls form-feelings. In short, we want to know the functional attitudes of reverence. What is satisfied by the experience of faith?--Awareness of sin or inadequacy? Fear and trembling? Happy mindedness? A sense of order or love within a chaos of succeeding events? When we "look up", what is the form of that desire which impels us?

The Jamesian foundations of Locke's pluralism are apparent and openly acknowledged: "our varied absolutes are revealed as largely the rationalizations of our preferred values" (Harris 1989:46). But what is Locke suggesting in addition to, or against James? It is the systematic nature of his own investigation which Locke prizes, especially as it moves beyond description of interesting modes and varieties.

Two normative corollaries provide the fruit of Locke's systematic approach--"the principles of reciprocity and tolerance" (Harris 1989:47). In other words, Locke encourages these two principles as ordering criteria for any system of values. At first, these corollaries work to reduce false conflicts between rival modes of value within the individual believer. For instance, goodness, truth, and beauty have each their contributions, and there is no good reason to play them off as contradictory:

As derivative aspects of the same basic reality, value orders cannot reasonably become competitive and rival realities. As creatures of a mode of experience, they should not construe themselves in any concrete embodiment so as to contradict or stultify the mode of which they are a particularized expression. (Harris 1989:48)
In other words, values may be multiplied and intensified without limit so long as we do not confuse their unlimited nurture with their limited, objectified expressions. As these normative corollaries may negotiate peace within individual experience, they also have beneficial service to render at the social level. As value modes create collective forms of satisfaction, we may enhance a proliferation of expressions, again, so long as we eschew logics of contradiction:

In such a frame of reference, for example, romanticism and classicism could not reasonably think of themselves as monopolizing the field of art, nor Protestantism, Catholicism or even Christianity conceive themselves the only way to salvation. In such a perspective, Nordicism and other rampant racialisms might achieve historical sanity or at least prudential common-sense to halt at the natural frontiers of genuinely shared loyalties and not sow their own eventual downfall through forced loyalties and the counter-reactions which they inevitably breed. (Harris 1989:48) For instance, if white folks tend to flock together in natural affiliations, based upon shared habits of valuation, indeed if they tend to hire and promote each other, and feel at times obligated to help each other out, why turn this into an exclusive principle of white power?

From the legitimate goods which may be derived from shared attitudes, the inference should not be made that such a community is determined by any of its exclusive objectifications, least of all skin color. Otherwise, ideology of white skin becomes an onerous but suggestive model for ideology of black skin. Our ability to proliferate shared attitudes, regardless of skin color, is thus frustrated by an irreconcilable feud of objectified signs. As Juliet cannot have her Romeo, white institutions cannot hire, promote, or help out those who are not white. In either case, false objectifications bring death, not life, to the common reality of human value. Both toleration and reciprocity have been violated, and the deeper yearnings of value experience are thrown into chaos without connection.

Locke's student, Zora Neale Hurston, in one of her novels, paraphrases the ontological contour of the view here expressed:

There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought. (Hurston 1937: 23)
Above, we find an indication of the individual predicament. Below, we see how the operation of this ontology may be socialized in a vicious way:

Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking together like harmony in a song. (Hurston 1937:2)
To have a mood is not always to share it, but what is had and shared is a form-feeling which makes its peculiar demands, not infrequently with tyrannical results.

Dewey also, it seems to me, expressed a Lockean sensibility when he talked about the esthetic quality of experience:

An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts. This unity is neither emotional, practical, nor intellectual, for these terms name distinctions that reflection can make within it. (Dewey 1934:37)

When Locke emphasized the emotional character of the phenomenon he was trying to describe, he was usually trying to show how it could not be reduced to a logical, evaluative, intellectual, or positivistic entity. Although Locke at times spoke in disparagement of Deweyan sensibilities, it seems to me that the two philosophers shared many basic values. For Dewey, an experience is pervaded by a quality, and that quality is just what it is, before it is named or known. For Locke, that very quality is the ground of value, and we may sort values by differentiating among experiential qualities.

If the varieties of value experience are offsprings of moods or form-feelings, appetites if you will, then Locke's normative corollaries establish principles for keeping peace among competing human activities. By attending to tolerance and reciprocity, we affirm the legitimacy of value proliferation, but resist monopoly. The more moods shared the better.

Of course, the student of philosophy's history will recall that another Locke spoke in favor of toleration as he, too, battled against Cartesian rationalism. It may even be productive to investigate the later Locke in relation to the "moral sense" philosophers of Edinburgh. The general sweep of our remarks may even be said to recuperate an epicurean outlook, against the stoic tendencies of an imperial age. All these speculations I note for the record, but I do not want to get tangled in a web of filiations wider than what is needed for this exposition.

What interests me about the new Locke is the principle of reciprocity and its importance to contemporary affairs:

What the contemporary mind stands greatly in need of is the divorce of the association of uniformity with the notion of the universal, and the substitution of the notion of equivalence. Sameness in difference may be a difficult concept for us,--it is. But the difficulty is historical and traditional, and is the specific blight of the modern and Western mind. (Harris 1989:135)
How much of the contemporary mind is still preoccupied with uniformity as the best fulfillment of unity? Note the continuing complaint that diversity is less important than universal human values. As an early advocate, and bureaucratic casualty, of what today is called multicultural education, Locke fought valiantly for cultural approaches which embrace difference, because of the deeper unity that is signified:

What we need to learn most is how to discover unity and spiritual equivalence underneath the differences which at present so disunite and sunder us, and how to establish some basic spiritual reciprocity on the principle of unity in diversity. (Harris 1989:135)
If for instance, one difference that divides us is racial, then it will be important to select representative expressions from across race lines in order to discover spiritual equivalences between them. Having investigated such equivalences, we would be better equipped to unify ongoing differences and mediate against further conflicts.

It is no great surprise to find out that Locke's approach to pluralism is a project imbued with democratic aspirations. Indeed, pluralism is one of the philosophical responses which arise when democracy is deeply desired. If all humans are created equal, then Locke's principle of reciprocity seeks the equivalences that hide behind superficial differences of human capacities and expressions. Continuing resistance to pluralism and reciprocity indicates how tenuous is the fascination for democratic ideals, and how volatile the quest remains for various prosperous institutions of church and state. Also problematic is the proliferation of pluralisms which have nothing explicit to say about democracy.


The logic of pluralism's approach to democracy receives explicit political treatment from Harold Cruse, in his much-neglected American classic, Plural but Equal. Here the metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological speculation of Locke and the American Pragmatists extends toward concrete social and political form. Here Cruse presses against the American color line between black and white in order to argue for pluralistic leadership. Not unity in uniformity, but unity in difference. Not abstract respect for spiritual equivalences, but concrete economic justice. These are the motives which Cruse declares.

Cruse's "critical study" sweeps with panoramic scope across a century of race relations. In the tradition of "thick description" Cruse apprehends a mosaic of fact, but the quest is ultimately normative and speculative. For Cruse, what might have happened is as important as what did, or did not, happen. In sum, Cruse finds that the civil rights goal of integration became a rigid ideology of uniformity which neglected, even eschewed, important features of pluralist logic. With credit to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for its work in abolishing legal segregation, Cruse nevertheless finds grave fault in the NAACP's refusal to support pluralistic strategies of empowerment. This is where white influence upon the NAACP perhaps betrays a conflict of interest which hinders the advancement of black citizens.

Locke receives favorable notice from Cruse because of the part the former played in attempts to organize a, "Negro Sanhedrin." Modeled after a Jewish institution, the Sanhedrin was to provide a national black caucus for promulgation and development of strategies for black empowerment. Locke reported on the project in 1924:

there was determination to transform the liabilities of the enforced separatism of race life into group assets of spiritual, social and cultural autonomy. Overtopping the sense of limited resources and restricted opportunity, there was a prevailing practical optimism that in these aspects the assets of the Negro, well administered, were equal to the task of meeting the heavy liabilities of his status in this democracy and the grave responsibility of maintaining a life necessarily separate in some respects from that of the older elements in the population. (Cruse 1987:130-31)
The Sanhedrin provides practical context for The New Negro and Locke's later efforts to work out a philosophy of pluralism.

As Cruse remarks, the tension between integration's uniformity and pluralism's diversity caused the crisis which precipitated the troublesome split between the NAACP and W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1934, as Du Bois looked back over sixty years of agitation, he was confronted with the prospects of a 19-year-old African American just entering upon an adult career. Du Bois could not honestly envision a future for such a person unless black institutions re-doubled their efforts. In other words, given the excruciating, slow pace of black integration into white institutions, Du Bois could not honestly prescribe such integration as sole moral recourse for a young black person in America. Even today, white folks are quick to argue that change must come slowly, too slowly, indeed, for today's 19-year-old.

One recurring theme for Cruse is the way that black agitation in America has energized liberation movements along other fronts. And so the "black pride" movement in the later years of the 1960s instigated ethnic militancy in surprising ways:

Thus, it was not unexpected that during the Seventies the descendants of those old European immigrants opened up with a chorus of profound complaints. Michael Novak's "unmeltable ethnics" rose up in concerted indignation. The black civil rights thrust produced the loudest public reaction ever heard from the white ethnics in this century, while inspiring a new wave of ethnic self-assertion. For decades the vast American mosaic, the nation of nations, the quiescent communal ingredients of the melting pot of Horace Kallen's pluralist vision had lain dormant; in response to the impact of the blacks it began to simmer and then fretfully to bubble up. White ethnics issued a series of demands for special dispensations from the federal power, demands for recognition and for what they saw as long-deferred rewards from the total society. (Cruse 1987: 274)
As the new pluralists imitated the attitudes and strategies of black empowerment, they nevertheless failed to reflect on the special circumstances which historically had produced a black movement worth imitating.

For Cruse, there is a false tone in the collective gripe of the new pluralists when they rush to imitate black grievances before reflecting on the historical differences:

Their right to vote has never been violated. Their right to work has never been restricted. Their right to acquire and own property has never been violated. Their right as naturalized citizens to equal protection in every political, economic, cultural, and social sphere of advancement has never been hindered by adverse state action. Which is to say that whatever citizenship restrictions have been levied against European white ethnics have been the result, not of legal or extralegal penalties imposed or upheld by the state, but of the operative folklore of class and minority-group prejudices that conflicted, competed, clashed, or compromised or cooperated in the ultimate self-interest of social advancement in pursuit of the American Dream. (Cruse 1987:276)
In this regard, Cruse is able to cite the authority of new pluralist Novak who himself admits that the white ethnic pluralists, "rarely have confronted the issue of how blacks would fit into the pluralist schema"; the new pluralism is thus, "encapsulated in white ethnocentrism" (Cruse 1987:278). Indeed, pluralism may be the ardent battle cry of disputants in contexts which are habitually white. Truly a tragic turn for a theory with deep roots in the black predicament.

From the outset, American pluralism has been bound up with the general problem of democracy. James talked about, "the rising tide of social democratic ideals" which must undermine "monarchial theism" (James 1908:18). Locke also spoke about the importance of democratic values: "That is why we presume to suggest pluralism as a more appropriate and effective democratic rationale" (Harris 1989:59). Peirce's insistence upon the communal path to truth and Dewey's affirmation that knowledge is socially mediated also reinforce the judgment that the drift of these American theories is not to be separated from their democratic yearnings. The myth of Athens notwithstanding, theoretical democracy is but a fledgling in the world of philosophy, "modeled . . . too closely to authoritarian patterns" (Harris 1989:59) Ongoing celebrations of pluralistic ideals must reckon not only with hierarchy in general, but with racism in particular.

I have recuperated the above genealogy of pluralism in order to show how such a tradition combines practical flight with speculative perch. This species of American pluralism is explicitly engaged with a democratic problematic, vividly demarcated by a color line. Not only liberal tolerance, but reciprocity too, is demanded. And that leads to concrete considerations of distributive justice, as well as a quest for "spiritual equivalence." Moreover, here is a wheel which is not in need of endless re-invention. If it is to be reconstructed for ever new purposes, we need not ignore, each time out, that some fair principles have long been established for further consideration.


Cruse, Harold. Plural but Equal: A Critical Study of Blacks and Minorities and America's Plural Society. NY: Quill, 1987.

Dewey, John. The Quest for Certainty. NY: Perigree, 1980. 1929.

-----. Art as Experience. NY: Perigree, 1980. 1934.

Harris, Leonard. The Philosophy of Alain Locke. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. NY: Harper & Row, 1990. 1937.

James, William. A Pluralistic Universe. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977. 1908.

Peirce, Charles S. Selected Writings: Values in a Universe of Chance. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. NY: Dover, 1958.

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