The One, the Some and the Many: Isaiah Berlin’s Notions of Belonging and Recognition Within His Conception of Pluralism

  • Abstract:

    Diversity is not just the consequence of liberal societies. It has become a value that is pursued to the extent of justifying inclusive policies that prevent discrimination as well as protective policies that ensure that different cultural inheritances are preserved. These two divergent trends reflect a deeper problem to which the attention of several political thinkers has been drawn: how can one respect diversity while assuring there is enough common ground to enable coexistence within a plural society? Among such thinkers is Isaiah Berlin, who is well known for setting forth a conception of pluralism whereby there are multiple equally valid ends to life that will inevitably conflict, therefore rendering choice an inescapable feature of human life. This description of the human moral makeup precludes the possibility of a universal hierarchy of values while reckoning that values are universal nonetheless. Moreover, it stresses the existence of a moral minimum that is itself universal. This is to say that there is a set of core values that pervades people of all times, places and ways of life. In other words, while seeking to legitimise moral diversity, Berlin also strives to find a moral common ground within kaleidoscopic humanity. There are two other not so well known notions Berlin also advances: the ‘need to belong’ and the ‘desire for recognition’, which he regards as possibly the most powerful forces in the political domain. These notions are linked to what Berlin considered necessary conditions for human flourishing, although he clearly saw the danger of them becoming malignant forces that could lead to violent conflict between collective identities such as nation or class. The purpose of this paper is to analyse the concept and relevance Isaiah Berlin attributes to collective identity — expressed in notions such as the “need to belong” or the “desire for recognition” — within his conception of pluralism, especially amid its universalising and diversifying tensions.