Anthropocene Research Collective for Human, Animal and Interspecies Collaborations

“James’ Pluriverse”, The Many Worlds of the Anthropocene

The Many Worlds of the Anthropocene were presented on Wednesday 24th of March 2021 by several members of the ARCHAIC Reading Group.

Emma Hissink Muller discusses The Pluriverse from William James.

This very meeting on “worlds” or “worldings” is already witness to the fact that the idea of multiple worlds has become common, but how many of us would think of William James when discussing multiplicity? The pluriverse is a concept coined in 1907 by William James, an American philosopher who is known for developing the field of psychology and who founded the philosophical strand pragmatism.
                The pluriverse has however popped up in diverse discourses of which the two most known are decolonial thought and cosmopolitics. In the first, the pluriverse is defined as a “world of worlds”[1], directly making clear how it opposes the notion of the universe. It is affirmative of other world-making practices outside Western sciences. The second discourse is where I came across the pluriverse for the first time a year ago (in 2021). It was in an essay about several cosmograms by Tresch in the catalogues Critical Zones (2020) edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel.[2] While Tresch refers to James in discussion the pluriverse, in decolonial thought James is not often mentioned.[3] Bruno Latour has been deploying the concept of the pluriverse since his work Politics of Nature .[4] For him it is an alternative notion for the usual concept of “world” that is prompted by what he calls, modern thinking. Instead of modern worldview, the pluriverse refers to the heterogenous associations of humans and nonhumans that are not yet united in a specific political-metaphysical collective.
                However, for this session of “The Many Worlds of the Anthropocene”, the pluriverse as presented by William James it the subject of discussion.

Pluralism is a central theme in James’s book The Pluralistic Universe from 1909.[5] In a nutshell, the question that occupied James was why philosophers and scientists have been obsessed with the idea of one, single, unified reality. Indeed, “why is ‘one’ more excellent than ‘forty-three,’ or than ‘two million and ten’?”[6] This issue relates directly to the classical philosophical problem of One and the Many. Simply putted, the “problem” is that within many cultures, religions, and/or worldviews there is a search towards that one concept, master principle, grand idea that explains the whole of the universe. That one thing behind everything. In modern physics the pursuit of a “theory of everything” is exemplary of this search, it implies a there must be one theory that explains the universe.
                James advances in A Pluralistic Universe the notion of a pluriverse, in opposition to a universe which he calls an “idealized monadism”, in contrast, the pluriverse is a world that will “ultimately never be an all-form at all, that the substance of reality may never get entirely collected, that some of it may remain outside of the largest combination of it ever made”[7] What is vital in this description is James’ speculation of a metaphysical surplus. On this bases, there can per definition not be an exhaustive or total perspective.
                But, if the universe does not have an all-form, what form does it have then? The pluriverse is an proposal of what James calls a distributive form of reality. According to this distributive form, the wild universe can be understood as “manipulated by a variety of schemes and techniques. From each of these schemes and events, however, something always escapes”[8].There cannot be spoken of a totality, because there always escapes something. Over against the all-form, James states that pluralistic thought starts with the each: the particular experience and its context of relations, rather than an absolute whole or totalizing system.

In a recent article, Savransky highlights the intrinsically problematic character of James’ concept of the pluriverse.[9] The one world is not replaced by the many worlds that fit cosily into one cosmos together. In that reading, pluralism would be only be a symmetrical opposite to monism. The discussion would become an either/or issue, while unity and chaos are both part of the cosmos. Pluralism for James involves the affirmation of difference and relation, but also possibility of a world: “the world is neither oneness through-and-through, nor manyness through-and-through, but a problematic multiplicity”[10] The pluriverse does not solve the problem of one and the many, it points to the togetherness of one and the many, that is why Savranksy states that its nature is problematic. The one refers to point of interlacing, the many refers to constant struggle, conflicts and problems. However, this conflictual diversity is also generative and creative. This point becomes more clear when looking into politics. Even though William James did not wrote a lot about political philosophy, Ferguson develops, in his book William James: Politics in the Pluriverse[11], a useful interpretation of the pluriverse in relation to political science.



James’s view on politics of the pluriverse can be quickly demonstrated by his visit to the Utopian community – Chautauqua Assembly. This was a social and education community, spread out in rural America from the end of the 19th century, with permanent residences but also summer camps. There were many activities organised, sports such as hiking and swimming. No alcohol was (allowed to be) drunk, and there was almost no crime.
                This might sound ideal, James thought so at first too. In an essay What Makes Life Significant (1907) James describes his experience in this community. While his plan was to visit just for one day out of curiosity, he ended up staying a week being enthralled! It shows what a future human society could be like. However, after initial praise, a feeling crept in that everything was a little bit too perfect and stable. He wrote it was the “atrocious harmlessness of all things”, which made him leave the community. It was “the completely unproblematic communion of a community”[12] with which James could not abide.
                This perfectly smooth community was in a sense too flat. It lacked the steepness of life, that is, as the cliché has it, the ups and downs. The bumpy road of life. Only then there is room (or reason) for creativity and diversity. What James found important was the possibility of “human striving and its characteristics frictions”[13]. Without frictions, no striving.
                This does not mean James cherishes the conflicts, dangers and injustices, romanticizing or promoting suffering. He advocates for divergent struggles against all these things, though the nuance is that this should not be done under the banner of an end goal: a peaceful world. His critique seems to be that aiming for a peaceful world entails overcoming pluralism. An unproblematic community would then be merely an attempt to transcend the problematic structure of the pluriverse. Pluralism is not something that should be overcome, but harnessed.

The pluriverse means for politics that a society should do justice to difference and diversity. Diversity is thus seen as intrinsically valuable. Though, societies grow and develop through it as well because diversity constantly helps to reorientate the social order. In this view, processes of improving and striving, without an end goal in mind, are what matter. Universalistic solutions are not aimed for.
                The concept of the pluriverse and James’s understanding of pluralism can also be taken as a critique to nowadays pluralism in liberal politics and Western political theory. According to Ferguson, pluralism today is often reduced in formal/institutional instruments: the pluralist model is a structure to minimize conflict, but it fits within a statist model of government. The “pluriform society”, a term used in my high school course on society to characterize the Dutch one, is said to be merely a term for “achieving social equilibrium, not celebrating difference”[14]. In rediscussing the metaphysical notion of the pluriverse in a political context, Ferguson aims “to encourage contemporary liberalism to reconnect itself to the authentic version of pluralism of its forgotten father, William James”[15].

While the pluriverse is used in many different contexts (in discourses more at odds with liberalism as well), and its definition shifts thereby, it remains interesting to learn about early accounts of pluralism. 


[1] de la Cadena, M., Blaser, M. (2018). A World of Many Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

[2] Tresch, J. (2020). Around the Pluriverse in Eight Objects: Cosmograms for the Critical Zone. In B. Latour, P. Weibel (eds.), Critical Zones. The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth (pp. 58-69). The MIT Press: London.

[3] Hutchings, K. (2019). Decolonizing Global Ethics: Thinking with the Pluriverse. Ethics & International Affairs, 33(2), pp. 115-125.

[4] Latour, B. ([1999], 2004). Politics of Nature: how to bring the sciences into democracy (C. Porter,trans.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press

[5] James. W. ([1909], 1977). A Pluralistic Universe. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

[6] Tresch, 2020, p. 58

[7] James, 1975, p. 20.

[8] Goodman, R.B. (2012). William James’s Pluralisms. Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 260 (2), p. 155-176

[9] Savransky, M. (2019). The Pluralistic Problematic: William James and the Pragmatics of the Pluriverse. Theory, Culture and Society, 38(2), pp. 141-159.

[10] James, 1975, p 71

[11] Ferguson, K. (2007). William James: Politics in the Pluriverse. Rowman and Littllefield: Lanham.

[12] Savranksy, 2019, p. 149.

[13] Boffetti, J. (2008). Pluralism’s Forgotten Father. The Review of Politics, 70(3), pp. 492-495. Boffetti, 2008, p. 494

[14] Boffetti, 2008, p. 494

[15] Boffetti, 2008, p. 495

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