At the beginning of the week, when I was thinking through my writing schedule—which had, once again, been perturbed by this and that, such as the dance competition I’d been to over the weekend—it seemed possible that I’d wrap-up the main line of my pluralism series today, Friday December 7. I picked the day because it was my birthday, one of those milestone birthdays, and so a good one on which to more or less (but not completely) wrap-up such a project.
And that goal seemed well within reach when I posted the penultimate installment, Facing up to Relativism: Negotiating the Commons, on Wednesday. However, I’ve decided not to do it. Oh, sure, I could jam it on through. I’ve got a fairly robust outline done and I know more or less what I want to say. But I’ve decided to hold off a day or two.
For one thing, Fridays have become a casual sort-through-things-and-see-where-we-are kind of day. Such sorting-out and stock-taking is essential to keeping several lines of activity in motion, but it’s antithetical to concentrating on any one of them. And writing that last post will require concentration.
After all, it WILL Be a summing-up of a line of thinking that’s occupied me for the past year and a half, a line of thinking that’s touched base with just about everything I’ve studied and written about over the years: literature, music, cognition, the brain, culture and cultural evolution, film (cartoons in particular), and graffiti. That’s a stew that would best simmer a bit before I deliver it to the table.
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Here’s what I want to hammer home in that final post: the connection between pluralist ontology and the ethics and aesthetics of multiculturalism. Now that I’ve made the connection (in Wednesday’s) post it seems obvious to me. But I didn’t see it coming, and that despite the fact that I have spent a great deal of time sorting out matters of culture, identity, and nation.
Now that I’ve nosed around a bit I have the impression that it’s not something that’s been well-developed philosophically. There has been some work, most of it fairly recent. Of course, there has been a great deal of thinking and writing about multicultralism and related topics, such as cultural, moral, and religious relativism, and pluralism; some of the philosophical work I have in mind has been done under those headings. But most of that work has been done in anthropology, sociology, political science, and practical politics (what to do about headscarves, peyote ceremonies, polygamy, etc.). It doesn’t seem to have risen to pressing philosophical significance.
I suspect that’s because, when philosophers deal with ethics (and aesthetics) they’re doing so on behalf of everyone everywhere for all time, if only by default. That is, philosophy is a monocultural discipline.
But is that how the world is? Not just here and now, but deeply, in its nature? Are the cultural differences we see in the world today, along with the manifold practical problems they present, are they mere accidents of human history, or are they inherent in Being?
The default philosophical position seems to be that they are accidents. If that position is correct, then, in time, those differences will disappear and we’ll live in a monocultural world, all 10 billion or 40 billion or however many of us there are by that time.
I think that default position is wrong. History’s arrow does not point in the direction of monoculture. The Walt Disney Company is not in the vanguard of history.
I am, after all, a pluralist. I believe that it is in the nature of Being to be abundant and overflowing.
I can’t make an empirical argument on that, of course, nor can I see how anyone could. The position is inherently and irreducibly a philosophical one. It is a metaphysical position that has strong ethical and aesthetic implications, namely, that we need to figure out how to live amicably, even fruitfully, in a world where other people have Life Ways that are different from ours.
But if no empirical argument is possible, one can offer observations. The basic observation is that right now we DO live in a multi-cultural world and it’s not going to disappear anytime soon. In 1983 the ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl published The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-Nine Issues and Concepts. The penultimate chapter is “The Cultural Grey-Out,” which refers to the fear voiced by some ethnomusicologists that Western music would swamp the world and reduce the world’s musical diversity to Westernized musical sludge. Nettl pointed out that it hadn’t happened so for, nor is there any prospect of it happening in the foreseeable future.
That was three decades ago. Guess what? It still hasn’t happened. In those 30 years hip-hop’s taken the standard trip around the world, but it hasn’t managed to swamp any indigenous traditions. Nor has country-and-western nor, for that matter, neither J-pop nor Indi-pop nor anything else has taken over. Meanwhile Japanese comics (manga) and cartoons (anime) are watched and imitated around the globe.
THAT does not, of course, amount to an empirical argument on the issue. It’s just a few indicators. And, I suppose that the popularity of Disney products, McDonald’s burgers, and blue jeans could be counted as indicators in the opposite direction. The real problem, of course, is that we can’t predict the future. There’s no reason that current trends in human Life Ways will continue into the indefinite future. Beyond that, just what ARE current trends anyhow? How far back in time are we going to set out baseline, what things are we going to measure, and how?
No, there’s lots of evidence to be gathered. But the fundamental issue, abundance and its implications for human life, is a philosophical one, and a metaphysical one at that. The argument is unavoidably a philosophical one.
Who among current philosophers is reasoning to that issue? Some, here and there. But very few. Very few.