Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity

Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity

Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity

Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity


How can we order the world while accepting its enduring ambiguities? Rethinking Pluralism suggests a new approach to the problem of ambiguity and social order, which goes beyond the default modern position of 'notation' (resort to rules and categories to disambiguate). The book argues that alternative, more particularistic modes of dealing with ambiguity through ritual and shared experience better attune to contemporary problems of living with difference. It retrieves key aspects of earlier discussions of ambiguity evident in rabbinic commentaries, Chinese texts, and Greek philosophical and dramatic works, and applies those texts to modern problems. The book is a work of recuperation that challenges contemporary constructions of tradition and modernity. In this, it draws on the tradition of pragmatism in American philosophy, especially John Dewey's injunctions to heed the particular, the contingent and experienced as opposed to the abstract, general and disembodied. Only in this way can new forms of empathy emerge congruent with the deeply plural nature of our present experience. While we cannot avoid the ambiguities inherent to the categories through which we construct our world, the book urges us to reconceptualize the ways in which we think about boundaries - not just the solid line of notation, but also the permeable membrane of ritualization and the fractal complexity of shared experience.


One of us had a friend in graduate school, Cathy, who was a very fine cook, but her grandmother was even better. Cathy would rave about her grandmother’s wonderful cakes, with their perfect taste and texture every time—the best cakes in the world. Like a good modern cook, she asked her grandmother for the recipe. This turned out to be in vain, because her grandmother cooked in a different way. There had never been a recipe; the grandmother simply combined the ingredients by look, touch, sight, and smell. Thinking like the psychology graduate student she was, Cathy constructed a recipe by carefully observing her grandmother in the kitchen, measuring each ingredient before it went into the batter and writing down every action: this many cups of flour, that many tablespoons of butter. Armed with her newly notated knowledge, she returned to her own kitchen and baked the cake, only to be sadly disappointed. The cake was fine, but nothing like the original.

Thinking she had made an error, Cathy went back to her grandmother, carefully measuring, observing, and noting things once more. She did not find the simple notational error that she was looking for, however. Instead, every single ingredient measured out differently. She tried again with a third cake: different again, even though the result was as delicious as ever. The lesson she finally learned is that the perfect cake cannot be notated, but appears only in context. It is not the product of a recipe, but of unique interactions involving the cook’s senses (how she packs her cup measure, how she stirs her batter), the temperature and humidity at the moment, the specific cooking utensils, and the particular histories of the ingredients (the fat content of the butter, how long the flour had been sitting on the shelf, and so on).

Cathy gave up on the recipe. Recipes let anyone bake a cake, but they let no one bake a perfect cake.

This is not a book about cooking, but it is about how we can deal with the intractable and untidy realities that make recipes and other instructive . . .

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