In a recent Damn the Absolute! episode, host Jeffrey Howard asks philosopher Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm a question I had proposed in a tweet. Storm answers it thoughtfully, but I want to push back on his reply a bit, and hope he’ll offer a clarifying response.
While I support his vision for a pluralistic society built on compassion, I believe he goes too far to suggest that a flourishing society doesn’t need antagonism. Pluralism is always tragic, whether or not conflicts are violent.
Here’s a transcript of the segment.
Jeffrey Howard: I’ve one more pragmatist question for you and this actually comes from Nick Gall, whose Twitter handle is ironick and he’s also contributed to Erraticus. (Big Rorty fan, heads up.) But he has a question for you about tragic pluralism. And as I understand what he’s mentioning here in tragic pluralism is this notion that we have all these values, that they tend to conflict, that there’s no way in which, as I pursue, perhaps, the value of equality, that I can pursue equality in a way that’s not going to either undermine or create some type of contradiction or conflict with a bunch of other values that I may have, or that my community may have. And so this question that he has is:
“There are many mentions of pluralism in the book Metamodernism, but I couldn’t find any discussion of tragic pluralism. I don’t see how metamodernism deals with value pluralism in a way that acknowledges perpetual conflict of values. One almost gets the impression that metamodernism will eliminate tragic pluralism.”
And I think he is also talking here about how there’s not a utopia. There’s always gonna be disagreements. So I was wondering if you could address Nick’s questions here.
Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm: So one of the things I haven’t talked much about in this conversation so far is that the ethical structure that I posit out the other side of postmodern critique (scornful ethics, basically), is I argue for a kind of critical theory plus virtue ethics. Which, I’ll admit, is the least innovative part of the book, i.e., that particular project. But I think it’s important. What I draw from virtue ethics, and not merely in its Greek formulation, but also drawing on influences from other world philosophical figures like Confucius and Śāntideva, etc., is an emphasis on the utility, the fundamental value of living a life worth having lived. And the idea that a better world is possible, that we can work together to produce communities that contribute to human flourishing and not just human but multi-species flourishing.
One of the things that I depart from in terms of many contemporary virtue ethicists is that many virtue ethicists end up with a kind of selfish account of human flourishing. Where, basically, you flourish on your own. But I argue that we come to ourselves in a world and in a community in relationship to other people. And for that reason, I follow a particular thread in virtue ethics that emphasizes compassion as central to the project of human flourishing. You can’t flourish fully in an unjust community.
And this is how this relates to what ironick is calling tragic pluralism (although that phrase is not one that I had heard before). So I think that what I’m aspiring toward, what I’m arguing for is, as I make fairly explicitly, a pluralistic landscape, because we have many different possible ways that we might flourish. There are many different kinds of values that we might have in our society. But as long as we have some commitment to a notion of compassion, we can produce agonism without antagonism, if I had to put a phrase on this.
What I mean to say is: disagreement of itself is not a bad thing. Actually, I’m probably much more friendly to disagreement than other people with my larger left-leaning politics are, perhaps. And hell, just to get biographical, my family loves to argue. We just argue with each other constantly. But we know that at the end of the day, we care about and respect each other, even if we don’t ultimately converge on a particular view or set of views.
So, what we need to avoid as communities is violence; when that agonism spills over to a kind of antagonism that comes to produce active forms of violent conflict in different ways. (And we can talk about the limits of what counts and should be understood as systematic violence perhaps in more detail.)
But in that respect, the end position that I’m describing is one in which pluralism isn’t tragic. Pluralism is actually part of how we flourish, is coming to have our views challenged. Part of how we grow as intellectuals, as thinkers, is precisely through argument and disagreement. It’s part of the way that we resolve and grow our values. We have some idea that if you argue with people about values, you’re just gonna end up hating each other. Sometimes you actually do persuade each other. It’s not necessarily by rationalization. As far as the sociological evidence suggests, it’s more by telling empathetic stories. But we can produce some convergence of values. And in other cases we can agree to disagree.
And I think it’s actually OK to agree to disagree, as long as we recognize that certain kinds of violence, certain kinds of antagonism, are off the table in some way or another. Then what we end up with is not some naive utopia where everybody has the same views and it produces a kind of homogenization, but rather a utopia that continues to change and grow. And that unfolds precisely because it is a heterotopia, a utopia of difference, a utopia of diversity, and a utopia of change.
Though the terms agonism and antagonism (popularized by Chantal Mouffe, see below) are somewhat jargony, they succinctly label two ends of the spectrum of conflicting values.
Agonism refers to non-violent conflicts in which deliberation and persuasion are the sole means used to resolve the conflict. You are in agonistic conflict with an adversary who in most ways you respect. The paradigm of such conflict is the scientific process in which you persuade your adversary of the superiority of your theory to theirs.
Antagonism, on the other hand, refers to violent conflicts in which coercion is the sole means used to resolve the disagreement. In other words, you are in antagonist conflict with an enemy, one who in most ways you despise (or they despise you). The paradigm of such conflict is the ideal of a just war to coerce despised enemies, such as the Nazis, for instance, and your goal is getting them to reject their values and embrace yours. Historically speaking, that involved violent means.
Somewhat earlier in the episode, Storm frames the issue of convergence: “Peirce and Rorty have opposite problems about convergence. Peirce famously argues for truth as the ultimate product of convergence. And I think that’s wrong. It presumes way too much of a unity of science that I want to argue against.”
A similar issue of convergence is at play concerning value pluralism, as Storm suggests when he says, we can produce some convergence of values. The question then becomes how much convergence? Storm seems to believe values can converge sufficiently that we may hope for a heterotopia in which violent antagonism is completely off the table, and only non-violent agonism remains.
I am one hundred percent in agreement with Storm’s vision of a flourishing pluralistic community based on compassion. Where I part ways with him is his hope that such pluralism converges to the point where only agonistic conflict remains. I feel that such a hope is as unfruitful as Peirce’s hope that inquiry will converge on truth, as I’ve tweeted and written.
While I’m all in favor of maximizing merely contentious agonism and minimizing violent antagonism, as a tragic pluralist, I think the hope of eliminating the latter would be unfruitful because it would limit too severely the bounds of our flourishing. As both Dewey and Rorty point out, sometimes flourishing requires breaking the crust of convention in violent ways.
Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe also dismisses the possibility of a purely agonistic utopia:
This category of the ‘adversary’ does not eliminate antagonism, though, and it should be distinguished from the liberal notion of the competitor with which it is sometimes identified. An adversary is an enemy, but a legitimate enemy, one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality. But we disagree concerning the meaning and implementation of those principles, and such a disagreement is not one that could be resolved through deliberation and rational discussion. Indeed, given the ineradicable pluralism of value, there is no rational resolution of the conflict, hence its antagonistic dimension. This does not mean, of course, that adversaries can never cease to disagree, but that does not prove that antagonism has been eradicated. To accept the view of the adversary is to undergo a radical change in political identity. It is more a sort of conversion than a process of rational persuasion (in the same way as Thomas Kuhn has argued that adherence to a new scientific paradigm is a conversion). Compromises are, of course, also possible; they are part and parcel of politics; but they should be seen as temporary respites in an ongoing confrontation. -The Democratic Paradox (2000) [Bold added.]
Instead of a heterotopia, I hope for what I call xenotopia: societies in the far future that are so different from our own that they seem both utopian and dystopian.
For example, to citizens of the earliest civilizations, the twentieth century would have been viewed as xenotopian: people grappling with agonistic and antagonistic conflicts they never imagined. A vision of a future in which our distant descendants no longer faced even the possibility of tragic conflicts of value would fill me with despair because it would mean that the crust of convention has become unbreakable.
If metamodernism is convergence towards such a future, I’ll go with beta-modernism, instead: a future that never converges, that is in perpetual beta—boundlessly messy, tragic, and flourishing.
Nick received his BA in Philosophy at Yale University in the heyday of deconstruction and his MS in Computer Science at WPI in the heyday of AI expert systems. He didn’t recover until encountering the work of Richard Rorty at NYU Law School, where he received his JD.
His careers have spanned software engineering, intellectual property litigation, IT research and analysis, and design thinking. Nick is currently developing a post-pragmatist philosophy he calls Fruitionism. You can find him on Twitter and read more of his writing on Medium.