THR Web Features   /   November 24, 2020

Ten Theses on Monism and Pluralism, Plus a Quotation

All monisms strive for hegemony.

Alan Jacobs

( Isaiah Berlin. Arturo Espinosa via Wikimedia Commons.)
  1. We are living in a moment of political monism, in which the most vocal competitors for political power and allegiance are rival monisms.
  2. All monisms strive for hegemony.
  3. All monisms are binary in structure, that is, one is presented with a right way or a wrong way, a decisive fork in the intellectual and/or political road. Charge the cockpit or you die.” We’re either being racist, or we’re being anti-racist.
  4. It is the nature of monism to accrue entailments, and in the process to become less monistic—but without ever acknowledging that shift (e.g., support for American workers is seen by many to entail support for Donald Trump, in such a way that to refuse the latter is also necessarily to refuse the former).
  5. Eventually some entailment of the monism tends to replace the original single commitment (e.g., support for Donald Trump comes to be the One Thing Needful, and the original justifications for supporting Trump fade into insignificance or disappear altogether).
  6. This tendency to accrue entailments means that every monism distrusts, and usually rejects, the distinction between ends and means. To accept (putatively) the end but reject the means is to reject the end.
  7. Monisms are tweetable and retweetable, compressible into soundbites; pluralisms are not. Therefore in our current media environment, all versions of pluralism are structurally disadvantaged.
  8. In evaluating any critique of a dominant or influential monism, it is necessary first to understand whether the critique is being conducted in the name of pluralism or of a rival monism.
  9. There are two general senses of the word “pluralism” in common use. The first is simply an acknowledgment that human beings will exhibit a diversity of goals, preferences, and priorities. The second and stronger meaning of pluralism is that it is good that this should be so.
  10. No commitment to pluralism is absolute—e.g., even the most enthusiastic advocate of a diversity of sexual preferences will typically say that this diversity is to be valued only within the context of consent—but still, given that some such constraints are inevitable, within them the pluralist either cheerfully accepts or delights in a wide range of emphases and preferences.


There is little need to stress the fact that monism, and faith in a single criterion, has always proved a deep source of satisfaction both to the intellect and to the emotions. Whether the standard of judgement derives from the vision of some future perfection, as in the minds of the philosophes in the eighteenth century and their technocratic successors in our own day, or is rooted in the past—la terre et les morts—as maintained by German historicists or French theocrats, or neo-Conservatives in English-speaking countries, it is bound, provided it is inflexible enough, to encounter some unforeseen and unforeseeable human development, which it will not fit; and will then be used to justify the a priori barbarities of Procrustes—the vivisection of actual human societies into some fixed pattern dictated by our fallible understanding of a largely imaginary past or a wholly imaginary future. To preserve our absolute categories or ideals at the expense of human lives offends equally against the principles of science and of history; it is an attitude found in equal measure on the right and left wings in our days, and is not reconcilable with the principles accepted by those who respect the facts.

— Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958)