Philosophical Foundations of Pluralism
The recent critique of pluralistic therapy by Ong et al. (2020) has made me think that it might be useful to try and unpack further the philosophical roots of the approach, at least as I see it. John (McLeod) always used to say that one of the (relatively) unique things about the pluralistic approach is that it is founded in a philosophical standpoint, and I think it is really difficult to understand where pluralism is trying to come from without grasping those foundations.
For me, the fundamental grounds for the pluralistic approach lie in an ethics of care. This is particularly informed by the work of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, the fundamental philosophical question is not ‘What is truth?’ or ‘What is existence?’ but how can we relate to each other in caring and respectful ways: open and welcoming to the otherness of the Other. That’s, in many ways, an incredibly radical position. So Levinas is saying that we need to start questioning by asking how can we do good to the Other. Even before we ask about right or wrong or truth or falsities.
I love that. Why? Because I think that question of how we act towards each other in caring ways is the most important question, and should be where thinking starts. What good are truths, for instance, if they lead to hurt or destruction of others–like the atomic bomb, or like the way that the Nazis mechanised the death process at Auschwitz. Do we want to develop knowledge and understanding regardless of the social consequences? That sense of care, for me, needs to guide everything, to always underpin our questioning.
Out of that foundation of care, for me, emerges a pluralistic ‘epistemology’. This is a respect for the many different ways in which the world can be seen. To not foreclose on the question of ‘What is true?’ but to value and attend to multiple understandings. This is about prizing diversity and differences, to not fall into the arrogance of thinking we have the right answer. To treasure and welcome multiple views. But, note, this pluralistic perspective is not simply an epistemic uncertainty or a failure to commit to any one perspective. It’s there as a way of actualising that value of care. For me, it means nothing without that foundation. Note, also, that this isn’t a pluralism ‘all the way down’, a foundational pluralism. Rather, it’s a pluralism which is based on a specific value: a valuing of others and how they see the world and a desire to engage with others in respectful and empowering ways.
What is the nature of a human being, or human being? From this pluralistic standpoint, there is a desire to hold open that ‘ontological’ question and not to come to any one fixed answer. Perhaps we can see human being as a seed which grows and actualises its potential. Perhaps we can see human being as a flow of existence in the face of limitations. Perhaps we can see human being as ridden in conflict with itself. A pluralistic perspective strives to understand and respect these different perspectives, it may align or favour particular interpretations, it may even passionately advocate one understanding–but its ultimate commitment is always to leaving open room for otherness: to other understandings, perspectives, possibilities. It comes back to ethics. Close on understandings and you shut a door on the Other. You exclude them.
I’m sure there are other perspectives on this, other answers to the question of pluralism’s philosophical basis. It’s something that, like many other areas, it would be great to explore further. And clarifying these foundations may help us in dialogue with other approaches. For instance, it would be interesting to compare these foundations with those that Ong et al.’s (2020) see as the basis for person-centred therapy. Maybe that is where we can find both differences and similarities.