Modern Pluralism: Anglo-American Debates Since 1880, Edited by Mark Bevir

| March 2014
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9781107017672_p0_v1_s260x420Modern Pluralism: Anglo-American Debates Since 1880, Mark Bevir, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 255 pp., $85 cloth.

Talk of “pluralism” has become ubiquitous in political theory, but it is often vague. In this edited collection Mark Bevir aims to improve our understanding of this tricky area by clarifying different senses and theories of pluralism and tracking the development of these during the twentieth century. In particular, Bevir wants to acquaint readers with significant versions of pluralism that have been submerged by other ideas, yet may still provide useful resources for us now.

The basic idea of bringing together various dimensions, periods, and traditions of pluralism is immediately intriguing. The obvious critical question is, do they really have anything in common, or are there sufficient local overlaps to justify their organization under the unitary category of “pluralism”? This in itself seems to be a problem of plurality. On the whole, Bevir meets this challenge successfully.

The structure that Bevir sets out first distinguishes between cultural and governance pluralisms, then follows the liberal, radical, and empirical approaches to these through three historical periods from 1880 to the present. Another general theme is that of the differences and connections between British and American approaches to pluralism.

Within this framework a range of topics is tackled, including neglected pluralist themes in nineteenth-century liberalism (Jacob Levy); the British Guild Socialism of John Neville Figgis, G. D. H. Cole, and others (Marc Stears); links between pluralism and empirical method in the thought of Harold Laski and John Dewey (Avigail Eisenberg); the value pluralism of Isaiah Berlin and others (Jan-Werner Müller); trade unions as pluralist institutions (Ben Jackson); empirical democratic theory (John Gunnell); the “radical” pluralism of thinkers such as Iris Young and Paul Hirst (Bevir and Toby Reiner); the cultural pluralism involved in recent multiculturalist theory (Ruth Abbey); and the interest-group pluralism prominent in American political science (Robert Adcock and Mark Vail).

One could easily quibble with Bevir’s framework. It leaves out more philosophical or conceptual forms of pluralism, although Bevir could reply that these have been addressed in other collections—for example, Maria Baghramian and Attracta Ingram’s Pluralism: The Philosophy and Politics of Diversity (2000), and David Archard’s Philosophy and Pluralism (1996). On the whole, however, the structure of the book is clear and helpful, and even those who want to argue with it will do so because it is an interesting proposal.

The selection of the particular topics and their place within the overall structure might also be questioned. For example, the discussion of value pluralism is located within the period 1930–1970, even though the author of that chapter notes correctly that the subject has been more prominently discussed only since the 1990s. Selection is always a bone of contention, but again Bevir’s choices are highly defensible. The collection is not comprehensive, but it does not pretend to be. It does make several important strands of pluralism accessible; and by juxtaposing them, it raises interesting issues for more detailed consideration.

Moreover, the quality of the individual chapters is generally excellent, although in some cases exposition could be supplemented by more critical discussion. Marc Stears, for example, acknowledges a need to reevaluate the Guild Socialists, but leaves this for another occasion. Elsewhere, critical questions are raised in the case of some arguments and thinkers but not for others. In the chapter on the recent “radical” pluralists, the work of Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers is questioned seriously, that of Chantal Mouffe considerably less so, while the thought of Hirst, Young, and Michael Walzer is helpfully explained but not challenged at all.

It may be that some of the authors are reluctant to criticize thinkers with whom they are sympathetic. The one chapter where such sympathy seems to be lacking is the piece on value pluralism. Müller’s piece is useful, with stimulating discussions of Sterling Lamprecht and Stuart Hampshire, in addition to his more orthodox attention to Isaiah Berlin. But it is dampening to hear that, for Müller, value pluralism is no more than a “minor strand” in liberal theory, easily dominated by Rawlsian political liberalism (p. 85). This assumes, among various things, that political liberalism has decisively won the argument against its “comprehensive” cousin, which would seem far from obvious to many. The chapter also gives the impression that liberal pluralists have nothing to say in reply to their Rawlsian critics, since the criticisms are set out but not the replies. So much for Müller’s attraction to Hampshire’s formula for minimal morality: “balanced adversarial reasoning” (p. 90). Valuable space that might have been devoted to a more balanced debate on this issue is taken up by irrelevant discussions of Michael Oakeshott and Richard Rorty, who are not value pluralists.

Müller does eventually allow that value pluralist thinking may have something of current interest to say in the field of multiculturalism, but his judgment that John Gray has gone furthest in this regard deserves to be met with a large dose of skepticism. Multiculturalism is not systematically addressed by Gray, nor is it strongly supported by the underlying logic of his general position. For Gray, the normative lesson of value pluralism is that public policy should be determined either by local tradition or by a vaguely articulated notion of “modus vivendi” (within what limits?), depending on which of Gray’s texts you read. In either case, multiculturalism (in what form?) may be endorsed or it may not, depending on what tradition or modus vivendi happens to favor locally. Fortunately, this is not the best that value pluralists can do when it comes to multiculturalist thinking, as shown for example by Joseph Raz (who is not mentioned by Müller).

Overall, however, Bevir’s collection is a refreshing and stimulating contribution that recovers significant but often neglected lines of pluralist thought, and brings them together in a way that will encourage further exploration. The collection does an excellent job not only of teaching us about pluralism but also of whetting one’s appetite to find out more.


George Crowder is professor in the School of Social and Policy Studies, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. His books include Liberalism and Value Pluralism (2002), Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism (2004), The One and the Many: Reading Isaiah Berlin (coedited with Henry Hardy, 2007), and Theories of Multiculturalism (2013).



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Category: Book Review, Issue 28.1

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