Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus

Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus

Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus

Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus


Nicholas Rescher presents a critical reaction against two currently influential tendencies of thought. On the one hand, he rejects the facile relativism that pervades contemporary social and academic life. On the other hand, he opposes the rationalism inherent in neo-contractarian theory--both in the idealized communicative-contract version promoted in continental European political philosophy by Jurgen Habermas, and in the idealized social contract version of the theory of political justice promoted in the Anglo-American context by John Rawls. Against such tendencies, Rescher's pluralist approach takes a more realistic and pragmatic line, eschewing the convenient recourse of idealization in cognitive and practical matters. Instead of a utopianism that looks to a uniquely perfect order that would prevail under ideal conditions, he advocates incremental improvements within the framework of arrangements that none of us will deem perfect but that all of us "can live with." Such an approach replaces the yearning for an unattainable consensus with the institution of pragmatic arrangements in which the community will acquiesce--not through agreeing on their optimality, but through a shared recognition among the dissonant parties that the available options are even worse.


This book was conceived in early 1990 and sketched out during the summer of that year while I was visiting Oxford. It was then written in Pittsburgh during the ensuing academic year and polished in Oxford in the summer of 1991. However despite the Anglo-American setting of its production, the themes it deals with are primarily Continental, seeing that its primary target is the consensualism of Jürgen Habermas. the appeal of his canonization of consensus is strong but nevertheless so fraught with negative potential that it seems to me to deserve a forceful contradiction.

I am very grateful to Marian Kowatch and Annamarie Morrow for their patience in seeing the project take form on the word-processor through the course of numerous revisions. Jon Mandle read an early version of the manuscript and offered useful comments and suggestions. I am also indebted to Beth Preston for stimulating discussions of the issues, and for constructive criticism to L. Jonathan Cohen, John Kekes, and Tom Rockmore, as well as to an anonymous reader for the oup.

N. R.

Pittsburgh, pa September, 1992 . . .

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