Thursday, November 03, 2005

Precursor to Multiculturalism

Tibor R. Machan

Multiculturalism is the position that all cultures past and present are legitimate, valid ways to understand and cope with the world. Indeed, it is sometimes put that different cultures live in different worlds and in some circles there is speculation that this may be a very basic, even metaphysical and scientific (cosmological) fact, namely, that there is an infinite number of universes, not just one.

This last point is often put in terms that at least the logical possibility of infinite number of universes has to be admitted. Whether this means that those universes actually exist is left untreated for now. What is interesting is that the underlying rationale for the multi-universe/multi-culture idea had its origins in a philosophical movement that was spawned right here in the good old USA.

Now and then we hear that such strange ideas have come to us from Europe or the far East. Deconstruction and post-modernism are frequently said to have originated abroad but have seduced many American intellectuals and academics. But, in fact, the history is different from this.

In the late 1800s the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) made a big splash with his philosophy of pragmatism—or pragmaticism—which argues, in essence, that a belief is true if it works when one puts it into practice. Later William James (1842--1910), who is known for his important contributions to both psychology and philosophy, developed the pragmatic theory of truth. Applying it to, say, belief in God, he had maintained—putting it a bit simply—that if that belief worked our for someone, produced results in one’s life that were satisfactory, made one happy, then it counts as a true belief.

Now at first this appears odd but the pragmatists put forth these ideas once they became convinced that alternative views on how to tell if an idea is true didn’t succeed. Especially views such as those of the highly influential French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), which held that truth is a matter of deducing conclusions from undeniable, axiomatic first principles—“I think, so I exist”—could not be sustained.

Even logic was thought by some influential pragmatists to be unrelated to reality and thus didn’t serve as a starting point for knowledge. C. I. Lewis (1883-1964), another pragmatist, argued that we choose to enact logic as a device for thinking straight. It is not the world itself that requires logic from us but we impose it on the world. From this idea grew the view that there could be alternate logics and that even the law of non-contradiction—certainly its corollary, the law of the excluded middle (either A or not-A, not both)—is optional. Logic is a convention, was the claim, not a necessary tool for thinking straight.

Back in ancient Greek, when Aristotle developed the system we call logic, the view was that this system is required by reality itself. It isn’t just that people want to be logical but that reality makes being logical necessary for sound thinking. So over the centuries logic served as a basic critical device. Once a viewpoint or idea or theory was found illogical—as well as a witness’s testimony in court—it was immediately discredited.

There had always been some dissidents who thought there is too much emphasis on reason or logic, in the Western tradition. The dissidents tended to come from the humanities, not the sciences, but even in science there were some influential ones in the twentieth century—for example, Niels Bohr (1885-1962). In literature such people were more numerous and today we have Nobel Laureate in Literature, J. M. Coetzee, from South Africa (now living in Australia), author of the highly acclaimed novel Disgrace, who champions the idea that logic shouldn’t matter so much and that human reasoning doesn’t amount to much—feelings are far more significant.

But the most influential detractors from the view that logic is vital were the alternative logic advocates and those who held that logic is a mere convention, something we have accepted over centuries, a little like slowly adopting a language—we could have adopted quite another. By the latter part of the 20th century this notion spawned multiculturalism—no culture is superior to any other, no practices are worse then others, it’s all the same, however one conducts oneself, whatever regime a society has. Logic itself is seen by such people as merely what European culture bought into and it cannot serve as an arbiter of sound thinking and action. And truth, according to radical pragmatist Richard Rorty of Stanford University, is what one’s community determines. There is no objectivity at all, we all think from a point of view and no one can escape some point of view.

And you thought philosophers never bake any bread! Think again. They do but, sadly, quite often its stale and rancid.

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