A Philosophical Basis for Diversity

 A Philosophical Basis for Diversity


John Bremer

Elizabeth J. McCormack Professor of Humanities

Cambridge College

Cambridge, MA


A paper delivered at the Round Table Conference

Lincoln College

Oxford, UK

on Monday, 26 March 2007


A Philosophical Basis for Diversity 

            In one of the seminal human books, the Lord God asks his servant, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if thou hast understanding.”

            The servant is silent—dumbfounded—for, not even existing at the creation, he has no ‘understanding’ of the origins of the earth to declare. And he knows it.

            No more do we have understanding of the origins of our own humanity. Nor do we have understanding of the origins of our conception of our humanity. And nor do we understand that there might be a difference, a diversity, between our humanity and our conception of it.

            We cannot say where we were when the foundations of our humanity were laid, what may be called our nature, and what in an ancient philosophical tradition was named our soul. Neither can we say where the foundations of our conception of our humanity were laid.

            If we could recover an understanding of our nature we would have a firm basis for living together, in which diversity, all diversity, could be accepted and comprehended. The search for our nature, however, is exceedingly difficult for a very simple reason; it is almost totally obscured by opinions about it.  These opinions—usually incomplete, inchoate, often self-contradictory—may be characterized as conventional or customary, with a foundation that exists not in nature but in the partial beliefs and often incoherent opinions of our society. Our view of human nature is largely inherited and prejudiced because it comes from authoritative forebears and not from a direct consideration of human nature itself. Its foundation is nothing but shifting sand which has the paradoxical property of being almost immoveable. Consider how long it has taken to begin to think of the equality of men and women, or of racial equality; and I mean just thinking about it, not even implementing it. Thinking it may have taken a very long time, but implementing it may take, is taking a lot longer.

            We—and I mean ourselves and all human beings, in all times and in all places—inherit a view of human nature which is not natural, but primarily conventional. That conventional view is deeply embedded in the very structure of our societies and cultures, unspoken and powerful simply because it is unspoken. It is difficult, probably impossible, to examine something, anything, unless we put a name to it and then think about what is named. So that, for example, the term “equality” has a long history, being found in both Greek and Latin as well as other languages, and yet it was not until the eighteenth century that it became a term that was deemed relevant to social and political affairs in Europe. As it became fashionable it lost logical meaning and became an almost purely rhetorical term which seemed to have an irresistible power of persuasion; and if not persuasion, then compliance. It became politically correct, much as “democracy” has become in our own day. We may not understand what “democracy” means, but we are in favor of it. Virtually every nation state, in this day and age, has adopted the convention of describing itself as democratic. But do they all mean the same thing?  Do they mean anything other than that they can use the right word? And the same is probably true of all important words, such as equal, just, free, decent, love, beauty and so on.

            To say that a word or a principle is conventional says nothing about the truth or falsity of it, says nothing about its utility, or about its beauty or justice; it only means that it is accepted without any examination of the grounds upon which it rests. When we hold something by convention it means that we cannot say “when its foundations were laid” and what those foundations are.  It may well be true, but we cannot say what makes it true. It may give us a guide to action, but we cannot say why that action is just, although it may be.

            It may be wondered why we need to consider the grounds for the truth or falsity, for the justice or injustice of conventional opinions, if, in fact, they are true or just. Our actions, we might argue, will be the same whether we know them to be right or not. There are two good reasons for considering their rightness or truth.

            One is that although the action might look the same in both cases, this is only an appearance and it leaves out of account the person performing the action. If an action is performed because we know it to be just, that is not the same as performing it because our parents told us to do it. The difference may not be in the appearance of the action, but the difference is in US—which is much more important. The actions could only be regarded as the same if we treat them as disembodied events, totally abstracted and divorced from any human content. To do this in its extreme form is to subscribe to the pseudo-science of behaviorism.

            The other, second reason for examining the rightness or truth of what we do or think or say, is that unless we know the grounds for them it is very difficult to maintain their purity, as it were, especially when they are applied in different circumstances. Thus, it might be just to give a homeless person money but unjust to do the same to a capitalist banker (who would probably take it anyway). And vice versa. Words lose value and, as in the English-speaking world of today, the degeneration of words betokens the degeneration of the moral order. In the ancient world, Thucydides knew it when he wrote of the revolution in Corcyra.

            In the ordinary, conventional way of speaking, we all would like to live peacefully in a loving world, in harmony with other people. At the individual level this could mean living amicably and tolerantly with parents, or with a spouse, or with children, or with neighbors, or, on a larger scale, with other nations, other countries, other linguistic groups: in short with those who are different from ourselves, with diverse peoples, with diversity.

            This wish—which, incidentally, is quite recent in its formulation and popularity, although not universally so—this wish to live harmoniously with diversity, with those who are different from ourselves, presupposes something rather surprising, namely, it presupposes unity. If we are asked whether we like apples or oranges or dates or olives or kumquats, it is implicitly understood that we are being asked which fruit we prefer. The unstated unity is named by the word “fruit.” And so, in considering diversity, there is an implicit presupposition that in considering difference there must be an underlying sameness. Whatever they are, that sameness may turn out to be nothing more than the fact that I am considering them together; their togetherness is only in my mind and not, as we might say, in nature.

            But the diversity which most concerns us is the diversity among human beings and so we must consider the unity of human beings. More simply stated, any serious thinking about diversity presupposes community. Without togetherness separateness is meaningless; without community diversity is senseless. Thus, our problem, as I see it, is to understand the two terms that inevitably go together, namely, community and diversity.

            This is a variant of an age-old philosophical problem, identified by the ancient Greeks, as the problem of the One in the Many. We give the same name to many different things; what justifies us in doing that?

            My suggestion is that in order to tackle the problem of diversity—since for us, it is a problem, although not for everybody, not for all peoples—we need to understand the unity of humankind. If we understood human community, we would then have a basis for defining, identifying, and accepting diversity, the differences amongst us.

            It is, I think, obvious that the unity of humankind must be sought in the nature of the individuals who compose it. It cannot be sought in any collective. This nature of the kind (or species) we call human I refer to as the soul. As I have already mentioned, the word soul has a long and honored history, but for reasons that I will try to indicate, it has been decried and vilified, as well as glorified and sanctified, until it is often worse than useless as a serious word in our vocabulary.

            Sometimes, the soul has been thought of as “the ghost in the machine” or as some magical, mystical, mythical unreality which is imagined or supposed to account for the motion, for the actions of human beings. The only kind of reality, according to this view, is observable and physical action; any explanation of human action must be in terms of other physical phenomena. This is a purely mechanistic notion of human life, and common-sense rejects it. But in this view the word soul does not stand for or signify anything; strictly speaking it is meaningless, it has no meaning, unless, rather perversely, it could be said to stand for our ignorance, our superstitious not-knowing.

            At the other extreme of opinion, the word soul has been commandeered by various religious groups who have used it to give some seeming substance to their own views, especially of immortality—it being obvious that the body decays and so cannot be everlasting—and to help explain the fact that bad things happen to good people (and, incidentally, vice versa). Good people will get rewarded (and not-so-good people punished) in the next world—which is where their respective souls will be.  Without a soul such justice could not be meted out.

            It is not necessary to dwell on the fact that in both cases the real question at issue is one of power and control.  In the former view, behaviorism, given the appropriate stimulus, a person can be made to respond in any way we choose.  All of our actions are simply the result of the stimuli to which we have been subject.  In fact, it is rather hard to say what would be meant by “we” or “I,” for these familiar words are only short-hand expressions for a bundle of responses, a repertoire of effects. In a world of such cause and effect, stimulus and response, we may wonder whatever happened to human freedom, to the freedom of the will.  With the disappearance of freedom responsibility cannot survive.  Morality will have disappeared.

            In the latter case, the imputed religious one, the immortal soul can be used as a means of manipulation and control; warnings are issued that unpleasant not to say disastrous consequences will follow if we do not obey instructions, the commandments promulgated from ‘on high’. Or so we are told.  I recall the amiable Anglican divine who, when asked whether he believed in the infallibility of the Pope, replied that he didn’t believe in infallibility.

            In parentheses, it might be observed that one of the greatest barriers to living in harmony with those different from ourselves, in diversity, is the unshakeable belief on the part of some people that they have THE TRUTH, and that everybody else is wrong. Not only are they exclusively infallible, but they sometimes suppose that they should insist on everybody else agreeing with them. And if they cannot be made to agree, they should be harassed, cast into outer darkness, or eliminated. I have not heard of any recent instances of Christians burning heretics in the town square, but they can certainly consign them to hell-fire in the next world.  It is difficult, but not impossible, for a religion to be tolerant. Fanaticism is always a danger, but stills and quietens many doubts.

            In the ancient world, the wisdom of the Delphic Oracle (and, it was asserted, of the god Apollo) was contained in the answer to the frequently-asked question “How should I worship?” That answer was novmw/ povlew” – according to the custom of the city. People with strong, perhaps fundamentalist, religious views or with strong irreligious views need not surrender them; they merely need to exercise and enjoy them privately.

            If we reject these extreme views of the soul, of human nature, how are we to understand it?

            My answer depends upon a simple fact which we seldom, if ever, think of and yet when stated is so obvious to us, just by the light of our own understanding.  It is simply that words and actions do not carry intrinsically, within themselves, their own meaning.  Meaning is something which is imposed upon them by us, by our souls. Words and actions can, of course, bear or carry meaning, but the meaning is what a human being gives them.

            You may object that words do have meaning in themselves and if we want to know that meaning we can go to a dictionary and look it up. But a dictionary does not tell us what we mean when we use a word; it only gives us a bunch of other words which purport to tell us the minimum meaning that conventionally the word usually carries. The words are lifeless things until we put them to use, which means that we frame them into sentences that carry meaning. If the letters making up the spelling of a word are its body, then the meaning is its soul. That is what makes it live. And it is the function of our soul to give the words we use their souls.

            Our way of bringing up the young—I hesitate to say our way of educating—hides this from us. We learn, well and ill, a vocabulary and a syntax, but it is usually based on the unstated assumption that the language is somehow fixed and that all we have to do, all students have to do, is to repeat the old static, dead words. When we speak, somewhat wistfully perhaps, of learning to express ourselves, or of using our imagination, we are somewhat distantly alluding to this creative ability that we all have—the power to MEAN or INTEND. You can look at a word until the cows come home, and even if you can spell it, pronounce it, put it in a sentence and parse it, you will never see or observe its meaning. The meaning is not a physical or sensible thing, but belongs in an unseen world, a world that we all inhabit, albeit unknowingly, of what may best be called a world of ideas, of values, of purposes.  Ideas take on sensible form when we put them into words or into actions, but they are not themselves visible.

            It should not be thought that we or our children have no need to learn the vocabulary and grammar of the language as it is usually spoken, for it is in that material of language that the living part of ourselves and of our world will be embodied. To deny them language would be like telling a potter that he has no need to understand his clay, or to tell the sculptor that he didn’t need to understand his marble; but just having clay does not make a potter, any more than just having marble makes a sculptor. We need the clay, the marble, or most generally, the language, but we need to appreciate why we need it. We do not need it for what it is, but for what it can be, for what it can do. Its potentiality. What can it be?  It can be our principle of community. What can it do?  It can carry meaning.  It is the prime vehicle for sharing.

            Human nature, then, the soul, is the source of all meaning in the world and it is our function to give meaning to that world. This means, as Plato observed long ago, that the work of the soul is to look after, to take care of everything else. It is sad to reflect that the modern preconception is that we can USE everything in the world, but for our own supposed immediate and narrow advantage; we do not care for it, we do not look after it, we look after our conception of ourselves (no matter how mistakenly). We are not stewards, we think, but owners. Global warming and the degradation of the environment are obvious examples of the results of our possessiveness.

            I have spoken thus far of the soul, of human nature, and I must emphasize the universality of what I claim. While different languages, different cultures, will speak of human creativity in different ways, using different images, it is the human soul that provides the unity which is the necessary precursor of understanding diversity. The human soul is human, it is not European, or Indian, or Asiatic, or English, or Spanish, or American, or Chinese. It is HUMAN.

            In the Biblical tradition, Man is made in the image of God, and God is pre-eminently the Creator. It may well be, as the ancient Greek Xenophanes of Colophon wrote, that the Ethiopians have gods with snub noses and black hair, and Thracians have gods with grey eyes and red hair; that is, that humans make gods in their own image rather than gods making men in their image. I have no wish to offend anybody and will only say that, in either view, gods and men are images of each other.  Creators.

            It is this human ability to create meaning that provides the unity within which diversity can be understood and accepted. I must un-learn what I have been taught, and I share the lament (quite remarkable in 1949) of Lieutenant Joseph Cable in South Pacific (Rodgers & Hammerstein):

                        You’ve got to be taught/ To be afraid/Of people whose eyes/Are oddly made,

                        And people whose skin/Is a different shade,/You’ve got to be carefully taught.

                         You’ve got to be taught,/Before it’s too late,/Before you are six, or seven, or eight,

                        To hate all the people/Your relatives hate,/You’ve got to be carefully taught. 

            It is the respect for the power to create meaning, embodied in the nature of every human being, without regard to age, status, race, religion, language, or circumstance that forms the basis for our acceptance of each other and the acceptance of the differences between us.  Of course, our soul, our human nature, is conditioned or affected by the cultural circumstances into which we are born, but it would be more proper to say not that the soul is affected, but rather that the manifestations of the soul are affected. Socrates spoke Greek, Confucius spoke Chinese, Gautama Siddhartha (I assume) spoke Sanskrit or Pali, Cervantes spoke Spanish, and Shakespeare spoke English. Clearly, these souls manifested themselves in different languages, in different cultures, but in their ability to create meaning they are one and the same.

            Cultures modify the possibilities of creativity, but they cannot abolish it, although they usually try. The attempts to abolish—or at least, curtail—creativity is readily understood, for the essence of creativity is new-ness, is novelty, and novelty is disturbing. It threatens the status quo, the established order, and those who hold power do not like that. And yet it is worth considering the truth of Shelley’s dictum that poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.

            A conventional objection to this view is that the existence of the soul has not been proved. Such an objection is futile simply because the finding of a proof, of establishing the truth of something, is the function of the soul itself. This means that the soul is that which moves itself—that is, there is not something, some power outside of the soul that makes it move in its natural mode. But if it cannot be proved—for what would prove mean?—it can certainly be shown. And the supreme examples are the poets and philosophers – the creators in every culture of the world.

            There is a traditional recognition that poets need to be inspired, as we say. What this means is that the poet—male or female—sings or speaks but cannot explain, does not need to explain, where the words come from. In the western tradition, the opening line of Homer is:

                         “Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles . . .”

The goddess or Muse is invoked as a way of speaking about the origin of the wondrous awe-inspiring words that come forth from the poet’s mouth, for he does not claim them for his own, they are hers. He is not possessive. But they do come from him. From his creativity, from his soul (which, incidentally, is feminine in both Greek and Latin). Similarly, in the eastern tradition, the epic counterpart to the Iliad is the Mahabharata, which begins with Ganapati writing down the words of Bhagavan Vyasa, words conceived, created, in his mind, in his soul.

            These are pre-eminent poets, but in a smaller measure perhaps we are like them. All humans are like them, we all have souls, but the creative power of the soul is systematically hidden from us, especially when young. Instead of education being a discovery, a recognition—a knowing-again—of our own nature, an invitation to creation, it has become a process of overlaying the soul with conventional so-called values, mainly connected with authority, with money, and with the body.

            I do not imagine that the commitment to a creative view of the soul is easy, but our awareness of it and our adherence to it over a long period of time is the only hope we have of achieving peace and harmony. It is the only unity, or community, within which diversity can exist and flourish without being destructive. The extent to which it can ever be accomplished, and it is a direction in which to move, not a destination to be reached, would mean the transformation of existing cultures and a major re-distribution of energies. To re-discover our souls, to tend them, to share them with others and enjoy the diversity that comes from original creativity, to respect that diversity-in-unity, will take much of our time and energy—time now spent on grabbing power, outdoing our fellows, making money, and pandering to the body.  There is no magic formula, no as-yet-undiscovered technology or technique, no methodology, by which the necessary major shift in our understanding of human nature, of our souls can be accomplished.

            The necessary learning belongs to all of us. There is no privileged group, people, or nation which does not need to understand the creative freedom in the nature of every individual. The leadership in this learning process belongs permanently to no one; we can all learn from others and, on occasion, we can all help others learn, but the understanding of teaching and learning needs to be continually reviewed to ensure that they do not become aspects of a new cultural imperialism, a new form of colonialism.

            These thoughts have been instituted in a program called Humanities and Freedom. It is based on the principle that the true study of the Humanities is human freedom. The Humanities do not have a subject-matter in the ordinary sense of the term; they are a way of studying and understanding any and every subject-matter, for they are all manifestations of the soul. And in studying them, we are studying ourselves, and, since it is a self-reflexive process, as we study our creative freedom we become more free, more like ourselves, more natural. As creators we are all the same; in what we create we are diverse.