The Great Mosque of Córdoba/the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. (Credit: SeanPavonePhoto/Bigstock)
The Great Mosque of Córdoba/the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. (Credit: SeanPavonePhoto/Bigstock) (via:

Chronic and acute crises, generated respectively by immigration since the Second World War and more spectacularly by the influx of refugees in the aftermath of recent violent dislocations in the Middle East, have raised deep anxieties in Europe. These anxieties have been expressed on all sides of the political spectrum, even by the radical Left in Europe. What is at stake is a matter of the utmost significance: a threat to the ideals of pluralism that had seemed so important to the nations of that continent for many decades. A vast amount has been written in recent months by a wide range of pundits and commentators on questions of politics and policy that are thrown up by these crises. Though I have some strong opinions on those questions, I will not add to that commentary. I think what might be useful instead is to step back and reflect – very briefly, of course, since this is a very restricted form of ‘expert comment’ – on what pluralism is, what it means, how it is to be distinguished from other familiar ideals from European history and intellectual history, and what its historical pedigree has been, so that we may then bring to bear these more underlying reflections to the more topical issues at stake. This last task I will leave to a sequel to this paper on a future occasion.

  1. Some Philosophical Distinctions

Pluralism would be beside the point in a time or place – if such a time or place ever existed – when societies did not consist of plural points of view, when there was uniformity of opinion on all important matters, when there was, in a word, cultural homogeneity. But in the modern period plural points of view are present in virtually all societies we know of, generated initially by conquest or migration from outside a society, and later often due to increasing consciousness of new forms of identity emerging from within a society, such as, to take just one relatively recent example, gender identity in the last half century or more.

Pluralism, however, is not to be conflated with the fact of such plurality of cultures in a given society. It is a normative doctrine; an ideal not a fact. It is an ideal of respect relevant in societies that contain plural cultures and points of view.

How shall we understand the special kind of respect that defines the pluralist ideal?

Every person knows someone (perhaps many) whom she recognises to be as wise and good and knowledgeable as she is herself, but with whom she deeply differs on one or another matter of importance, whether it be moral or religious or political. Despite the depth of difference, however, she may have great respect for their wisdom, goodness, and knowledge, and therefore, in turn, for the point of view on which they differ. Respect of this kind can define not just relations between individual persons but relations between whole cultures. When it does so, it is properly called ‘pluralism’.

Thus understood, as a form of respect, the ideal of pluralism is to be distinguished from the liberal ideal of toleration. The very term ‘toleration’ suggests that one is putting up with something for which one might not have any respect. If toleration entails respect it is only of a very abstract kind – respect for a citizen’s autonomy to hold whatever views she wishes, even if one does not specifically respect her for her views. Pluralism, by contrast, respects difference, not merely the autonomy of citizens to be different.

At the same time, as a doctrine about cultural difference, it is to be distinguished along different lines from cultural relativism. Relativism holds that there are values that are true (or false) only relative to particular cultures and so the truth (or falsity) they have does not speak at all to other cultures. They are incommensurate with the values of other cultures. One culture may recognise that another culture adheres to certain values, but that recognition is purely detached and disengaged; it is merely an academic or ethnographic comprehension of another. There is no engagement of one culture by another.  At best, one can go to another culture and get converted by ‘going native’, a form of defection, rather than transformation via influence or dialogue or persuasion. By contrast, pluralism, despite acknowledging genuine difference between the values of different cultures, does not consider values across cultures to be incommensurate in this way. That is to say, difference does not engender detachment and indifference; rather, it leaves it completely open so that one may learn from other cultures and, in turn, seek to influence other cultures through mutual engagement.

This distinction from cultural relativism makes it clear that nothing in pluralism requires one to stamp every commitment of every culture as true or right, simply because of the fact that it is avowed by a given culture. Respect for cultures does not concede to them that automatic form of self-validation. One may certainly find some values of another culture (as indeed of one’s own culture) to be wrong, and indeed that is precisely why one, unlike with relativism, often seeks to engage with that culture – seeking to change its mind and thereby overcome the disagreement over values and practices. So long as such engagement is done with the respect that defines the pluralist ideal, as I have expounded it, pluralism may insist that differing cultures are commensurate and can find each other to be wrong without giving up on pluralism itself. So a question then arises: what is it to engage with respect with a culture with which one disagrees, and moreover, crucially, to do so with a more specific form of respect than merely the general and abstract form of respect that liberalism grants, the respect for all persons’ autonomy and right to an opinion, however false? This is the hard question. Hard because without a good answer to it, we cannot firmly claim to have established what I have insisted on – that pluralism is distinct both from liberal toleration and from cultural relativism.

The specific form of respect that is the hallmark of pluralism bestows a very specific quality on the engagement with another culture with which one disagrees. The engagement must take the form of attempting to persuade another culture by appealing to some grounds or reasons that are internal to the commitments of the other culture. That displays a respect for the other culture that goes beyond, and is more specific than, the respect owed to the abstract recognition of all to have their opinions, however wrong. It respects their substantive moral and psychological economies rather than merely their autonomy, and seeks to reason with them within the detail of their world-view, taking its particular substantive values seriously and engaging with them so as to persuade it to change its mind or practice on the matter on which there is disagreement. Equally, of course, the persuasion can be of one’s own views as a result of such engagement, since both sides of the disagreement will be engaging and will be seeking to enter the other’s world view to seek revision of the other’s viewpoint in a disagreement. Thus, it is a form of reciprocal engagement. Without such substantive and specific engagement, the pluralist ideal would be indistinguishable from liberal toleration.

It is really because the unique and specific form of respect that defines pluralism allows engagements of this sort – engagements, which may result in the overcoming of disagreements and the converging upon certain values and practices – that pluralism often takes a syncretic cultural form where two or more cultures may blend to form common ways of life, even as they remain distinct in genealogical pedigree and leave distinct communities within the society intact. In the realm of religion in particular, syncretic forms of pluralism are far more frequent in popular and folk religiosity than in orthodox and institutionalised religion, where the mutual engagement that characterises pluralism is discouraged.


  1. Some Historical Distinctions


Wherever pluralism withers, two starkly opposed cultural attitudes, each in its own different way, dangerous or repugnant, prevail: one of saying “You must be my brother!”, the other of saying “You can never be my brother!”. The former is familiar from the religious intolerance of proselytising religions, the latter is familiar from exclusionary forms of hierarchy such as, for instance, the Hindu caste system.

In some ways the former attitude is morally more attractive than the latter because it wishes to share the truth (as it conceives it) with others, thereby showing that it cares enough for others to want them to partake in the truth. But it may often be the more dangerous attitude because it is susceptible to the use of force and violence to enforce the ‘must’ in “You must be my brother”.

There are, however, distinctions and points of historical qualification to be observed about this. For centuries, the relations between two proselytising religious cultures, Christendom and Islam, were characterised by extreme vilification and violence towards one another, both in word and deed. This was partly at least because of the doctrinal proximity of the two religions. Islam posed a threat to Christianity not because it was vastly different – in fact it is hard to imagine such internecine relations between Christianity and Buddhism, say, or Hinduism, which were not only more geographically distant, but remote in concept and outlook. In fact, it may be said, with only the merest exaggeration, that the crusades were fought not because Islam seemed to Christianity to be some wholesale alien world-view to be destroyed, but rather to put down a heresy that had emerged in the Arabian lands. The point of immediate relevance, however, is that throughout this period of the crusades, these two civilisations, for all the violence they perpetrated against each other, learnt from and influenced each other in the sciences, art, literature, and philosophy, and they traded with each other in a wide variety of goods. Indeed, Islamic thought and culture often became a hospice for heterodox ideas within Christianity that were threatened with internal persecution. There was, it might be said – perverse as this may sound – health in the hostility. It was the health of contradictory relations that often exist between two robustly equal foes. Pluralism, even a syncretic coalescence, existed in the world of ideas and culture and commerce, while there was a protracted conflict on the military and propaganda battleground. To put it in Huntington’s term, this was a genuine clash of civilisations, proving that clash – however undesirable in its own terms – is not always incompatible with mutual engagement and the respect that characterises pluralism. I have been careful above to make qualifying remarks in parentheses such as ‘perverse as it may sound’ and ‘however undesirable in its own terms’. The idea is obviously not to approve of hostility or violence, but rather to stress that when there are robustly equal foes, the entire nature of the human relations between them may, despite the hostility and violence that enters into relations of that kind, be characterised by a kind of mutual engagement that can, in the sphere of ideas, science, and culture, be rich and complex, and above all, mutually respectful and even generous.

All of this changed with Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and the British conquest of India, which gave rise to a quite different set of relations between Christendom and Islam, now no longer a conflict between equal sides, but rather defined by feelings of superiority and condescension on the one side, and felt to be so by the other, breeding resentment and alienation and dehumanisation rather than a robust sense of conflict. Huntington was not talking of the period of the crusades so much as this modern period. He was thus really insidiously passing off a conquest as a clash. There is real significance in this distinction. Pluralism as I have defined it is almost entirely missing in the ‘clash’ of civilisations of our time, proving that pluralism is only compatible with a clash, that is to say with hostility, even violence, so long as the hostility and violence does not take the form of conquests that define the colonialism of the modern period and the indirect imperialisms of our own day. Huntington’s omnibus term ‘clash’ glosses over this distinction and the history within which pluralism first flourished, and then withered.

A good further question to ask is how the concept of ‘pluralism’ relates to the recent currency of the term ‘multiculturalism’. There is no answering this question without looking again to history, in particular to the political history of European modernity and its evolving doctrines in the passage from pluralism, through nationalism and secularism, to multiculturalism.

In the seventeenth century, power, which was hitherto relatively scattered, first began to be integrated in increasingly centralised states and, as a result of ideas that had emerged with new science, it was thought that this state power could no longer rest on a legitimacy that appealed to the divine right of the monarch who personified the state. It now required a quite different justification and this was sought no longer in theology, but in political psychology. What do I mean by psychology? A feeling had to be created in the populace. But it was not a feeling directly for the state. It was rather to be a feeling for a new kind of entity that had emerged around then after the Westphalian peace, an entity with which the state was indissolubly fused. Later this fusion would come to be described with a hyphen: the nation-state. The idea was to create a feeling for the first half of the hyphenated conjunction, which because it was inseparable from the second half (an inseparability expressed by the hyphen) would legitimise the state and its exercise of power over the territory that was the ‘nation’. ‘Nationalism’ was subsequently the term used to describe this feeling, this political psychology.

In many parts of the main belt of Europe such a feeling was generated by a standard ploy: by identifying an ‘external’ enemy within the territory (the Jews, the Irish, the Catholics in Protestant countries, the Protestants in Catholic countries…), and despising it, subjugating it as the ‘Other’, declaring that the nation was ‘ours’ not theirs. Later, when numerical and statistical forms of discourse were introduced in the study of politics, such categories as majorities and minorities were introduced and this ploy would be called ‘majoritarianism’.  And so it was that these European nation-building exercises destroyed the relatively unself-conscious pluralism that prevailed prior to modern nationalism, creating entrenched divisions – often the basis of the majoritarianism was religious. Naturally, there were (often violent) religious minoritarian backlashes against this form of majoritarian nationalism, and the damage done by the civil strife that followed gave rise to the conviction that religion itself was responsible for the damage, and that the damage could only be repaired if religion was kept out of the orbit of the polity. And thus, a new doctrine called ‘secularism’ emerged – basically to correct the politically divisive fallout of these nationalisms – and was extensively consolidated as the frame-working form of governance of the European modern.

It was only in the last quarter of the twentieth century that it began to be felt that this entrenched secularism was insufficient as a political framework. In the decades after 1945, European economies were reconstructing their war-torn economies, which had suffered serious loss of manpower during the war. To deal with this, they permitted large-scale immigration from erstwhile colonies for the first time, more often than not to do the most menial forms of labour. Over the next decades these migrant populations grew to be substantial minorities, often alienated in their new setting, coping with racialist attitudes that they faced with uneasy assimilation and, as a result, they frequently turned to their own religions as a source of dignity and autonomy. Ironically, secularism, which as the narrative above makes clear, was introduced to repair damage that had started first with religious majoritarianism, seemed to them quite inadequate as a way of addressing their feelings of helplessness as dislocated minorities. Secularism, because it opposes both religious majorities and minorities did not speak concessively enough to them as minorities with their own religion and culture. It came off as secular majoritarianism, an improvement perhaps on religious majoritarianism, but irrelevant to their predicament. It was to address this dissatisfaction with secularism that the ideal of multiculturalism was formulated, essentially a post-migratory phenomenon in Europe and other countries with increasing immigrant populations, such as Canada and Australia. Multiculturalism, unlike secularism, was intended not simply to lay down the law with indifference to majorities and minorities; it would treat all cultures as minorities, acknowledging each of their customs and their protocols for living and local self-governance.

What this potted intellectual and social history reveals is that ‘multiculturalism’ is a self-conscious revivalist version of a pluralism that was a widely pervasive and unselfconscious phenomenon prior to its being undermined by nationalisms based on majoritarianism and the secularism that was brought in later to repair that. Multiculturalism restores pluralism in a more explicitly articulated ideal because the initial pluralist ideal could not be taken for granted in the centuries-long trajectory that followed upon the rise of modern nations along with the political psychology on which they were based.  And to this day, multiculturalism, our own contemporary self-conscious version of an earlier pluralism, is constantly harassed, not only by the sinister right wing majoritarian nationalisms that have re-surfaced, but also to some extent by liberal secularists who resent the pressures put on their abstract universalist claims about citizenship by the particularist demands of diversity coming from minorities after a half century of migration.

What is most needed today is a way of integrating secularist ideals with the sort of yearnings for religion, culture, and community, and even family, that can be so basic to human beings and to which multiculturalism speaks, but without letting those yearnings get articulated in terms of a cultural relativism that discourages the forms of mutual engagement that I have tried to present as defining of pluralism.  Such an integration remains a pressing task, both theoretically and politically.



Akeel Bilgrami

Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy; Professor, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the original author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, its co-founders, or its staff members.
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Akeel Bilgrami

Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University, NY, USA, IN

Akeel Bilgrami is the Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy, faculty member of the Committee of Global Thought and director of South Asian Institute (Columbia University). He teaches courses and seminars regularly in the department on philosophy of mind and language of Columbian University and also in the Committee on Global Thought and Political Science on issues in politics and rationality as well as religion and politics in a global context. Prof. Bilgrami is also the director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University.He is author of various articles and books. The most famous are «Belief and Meaning», «Self Knowledge and Resentment» and «Politics and the Moral Psychology of Identity» as well as over fifty articles in philosophy and in theoretical issues in politics and culture.