Challenges to Cultural Diversity
Absolutism, Democracy and Alain Locke's Value Relativism

 A Discussion Paper for SAAP 2005


This essay explores Alain Locke's aesthetics and his claim that the cross-cultural communication of aesthetic values is essential for a viable, culturally diverse democratic society.  It focuses on the fact that while Locke offers various arguments on behalf of cultural diversity, he does not sufficiently address the problem posed by cultural or ideological absolutism. This omission is of course not just a problem for our appreciation of Locke's considerable and underestimated legacy. The problems of absolutism and intolerance are quandaries that vex all engaged thinkers who are unwilling to idly watch our slide into an increasingly intolerant "Blue State/Red State" polity. Pragmatist philosophers are especially called to align Locke's writings with current crises in order to fully realize the meliorist and emmancipatory potential of what Leonard Harris calls Locke's "critical pragmatism."[1] Towards this end of reengaging the critical force of Locke's work, this essay suggests a methodology drawn from, but not explicitly stated in, Locke's essays that is designed to address the problems that absolutist ideologies pose for democracies. Focusing on his treatment of cooperation, education and the role of diversity within democracy, it suggests three ways that members of democratic societies might respond to members of the community that are intolerant of other values.


Alain Locke left an indelible mark on American culture as one of the leading writers and critics of the Harlem Renaissance. However, beyond his famous contributions like The New Negro, Locke produced a less known body of philosophical reflections on art, culture, and democracy.[2] Locke's philosophy which was reimmersed in the larger stream of American philosophy in 1989 with the publication of Leonard Harris' The Philosophy of Alain Locke and further recovered with Johnny Washington's 1994 A Journey into the Philosophy of Alain Locke – addressesthe problem of cultural conflict with a naturalized epistemology of human values.[3] He strives to illuminate a path towards the gradual elimination of inter-cultural conflict by digging under the differences that distinguish particular cultures to unearth a set of common values. His hope is that this new axiology might enable all people to communicate their notions of the "beautiful," "good" and "true" without resorting to culturally specific jargon. This hope that we might develop a common aesthetics reveals an ecumenism similar to Emerson's transcendentalism, Royce's loyalty to loyalty, and Dewey's hope for a common, non-dogmatic faith. Locke argues that a trans-cultural communication of aesthetic values is vital for culturally diverse democratic societies for whom cross-cultural exchange and understanding is necessary in order to avoid conflict among different cultural groups.

While Locke offers cogent arguments on behalf of cultural diversity, even a most charitable reading of this axiology shows that he does not sufficiently address the problem posed by cultural or ideological absolutists.  As Rudolph Cain says in his essay "Andragogy for African American Adults,"

[a]bsolutism posed a series of problems for Locke, who was concerned with the diabolical social predicaments of African Americans and the resulting insidiousness of their plight in American society.... [A]bsolutism was clearly anathema to Locke's vision of a world that respected and tolerated the plethora of cultural entities and perspectives, a community that would value the imperatives of different groups. [4]

Locke is, to a certain degree, preaching to the choir when he tells us that democracy has little or no hope unless we accept that no one culture or doctrine can legitimately claim authority over any other. While this is reasonable to most tolerant people, the very crux of the problem is that the religious, national or racial absolutist thinks his or her views are authoritative and thus has no reason to accept diversity. Unfortunately, Locke's theory does not offer enough explicit guidance on how to deal with the sort of people most likely to threaten a culturally diverse democracy. The absolutist would see the entire project of cultural pluralism as question begging: "why should I engage in an attempt to articulate values that are meaningful to all people when my values are the ones that all people should be following?" They see the give-and-take of dialogue and reciprocity as undermining whatever absolute truth they held.

The absence of a full engagement with absolutism in Locke's work can be traced, in part, to his faith in human progress. While he felt that we urgently needed to engage in the implementation of cultural pluralism, he also thought of himself as living in the age where bigotry and provincialism would inevitably give way to tolerance and scientific inquiry. Unfortunately, it is not the case the case that, as Locke wrote in 1944, "[a]ll these provincialisms survive considerably, however, but more and more precariously as time goes on."[5] Instead they seem to ebb and flow depending on changes in cultural, economic and societal tides. We now face biases and provincialisms that would have been hard to imagine in the mid 20th century. Therefore, we need to re-evaluate Locke's insights into democracy, axiology and cultural pluralism and use them to construct a methodology for addressing the problems that absolutist ideologies pose for democracies. Locke has offered us the tools for solving the problem of fanaticism, if he has not addressed the problem in sufficient detail. We who face these problems and also see the great ameliorative and critical force of his work need to apply his philosophy of cultural relativism and naturalized axiology to the problem of cultural absolutism that lamentably long outlived Locke. In so doing, we will only be following his advice, when he said in "Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy" that,

What intellectuals can do for the extension of the democratic way of life is to discipline our thinking critically into some sort of realistic world-mindedness. Broadening our cultural values and tempering our orthodoxies is of infinitely more service to enlarged democracy than direct praise and advocacy of democracy itself. For until broadened by relativism and reconstructed accordingly, our current democratic traditions and practice are not ready for world-wide application. Considerable political and cultural dogmatism, in the form of culture bias, nation worship, and racism, still stands in the way and must first be invalidated and abandoned. [6]

Focusing on his treatment of cooperation, education and the role of diversity within democracy, this essay suggests three ways that members of democratic societies might respond to members of the community that are intolerant of other values. The first is based on his emphasis on cooperation, the second hangs on cultural education, while the third is an appeal to the necessity of a pluralistic outlook within democracy. However, before suggesting how we might use Locke's philosophy today, we need to briefly revisit why he thinks that axiology can and should be naturalized.

Locke's Naturalized Axiology

Locke's most substantial defense of cultural relativism and diversity appears in his 1944 essay "Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace." Locke offers two related reasons for cultural diversity. The first addresses the uncritical desire for conformity.

One can readily recognize, in the first place, without needing to assume any direct logical connection between cultural relativity and pacifism or any demonstrable correlation between attitudes of tolerance and a predisposition to peace, that the relativistic philosophy nips in the psychological bud the passion for arbitrary unity and conformity.[7]

A people that ascribes to the disposition of cultural relativism avoids the dangers of unthinking ideological unity that Locke rightly sees at the root of countless wars. This passage reveals that for Locke "[t]he belief in a value relativism was of course a rejection of all absolutes, theological as well as metaphysical."[8] Johnny Washington points out in A Journey into the Philosophy of Alain Locke that Locke realized "[a]bsolutes were not tolerant of competing ones. Hence, absolutes were primary sources of social conflicts and tensions."[9] Second, relativism serves as an arbiter between competing cultural values in diverse societies. By respecting all values not expressed in absolutist terms, relativism encourages the flourishing of cultural diversity as an "impartial interpreter of human values, and sometimes even a referee and moderator among conflicting values."[10] Thus Washington writes that for Locke "the comparative study of cultures involved tracing the parallels among the cultural constants and equivalences, so as to allow each culture to reveal its own process logic and intrinsic values."[11] In order to see how his relativism might encourage cultural diversity we need to look to Locke's naturalized axiology.

Locke's axiology is naturalized in that he refuses to look outside the process of valuation for the criterion that will ultimately direct his theory. He eschews formal theories of value in favor of an axiology of "flesh and bone values" rooted in "the primary processes of valuation."[12]  Where Plato's axiology asserted that values begin in the absolute realm of ideas and trickled down imperfectly to the realm of appearances, Locke argues for an axiology that ascends from the small and particular; values originate in moments of individual appraisal and eventually drift upwards, blend with appraisals of other individuals, and eventually coalesce into cultural values.

Since valuation for Locke is primarily an emotive and psychological phenomenon, he turns to the basic "form-qualities" that our value judgments make in order to evaluate them.[13] Form-qualities (such as the feelings of exaltation, tension and coherence) are basic modalities that mark our valuational feelings from the moment we form them. As "values are thus normatively stamped by form-qualities of feeling in the original value experience" we can, through a systematic analysis of these feelings, begin to construct a system for schematizing our values according to the initial psychological responses that they come out of, rather than through doctrinal criteria.[14]

Consider the doctrinal rift between members of two different religions (say Sunni Islam and Roman Catholicism). Fundamentalist readings of these doctrines lamentably frame the other's devotion in a pejorative light. The Muslim is heretical according to the Catholic for denying the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth and the authority of the Pope, where the Catholic is an idolater in the Muslim's eyes for worshipping the Nazarene as a God, instead of respecting him as a prophet. Locke would have these devotees set aside their doctrinal differences and focus instead on the deep similarities between their experiences. Both strive to commune with God. Both seek consummation and repose in the Divine. Both make themselves small that they might better understand their Creator's will. By focusing on the nearly identical feelings involved in their worship (humility, submission and exhalation), perhaps these two people could learn to tolerate each other's doctrinal differences and recognize the beauty of the other's religion. As value attribution is a matter of emotional response and has little to do with the content of the thing valued per se, Locke argues that "there is no fixity of content in values" which in turn means that various kinds of values are in fact interchangeable.[15] Thus, each worshiper might begin their life finding value in only their religion, but could eventually see the value in completely different forms of religious expression.

Locke's Conception of Culture

Locke's move to ground axiology in a naturalized account of the psychological aspects of valuation is promising for two reasons. First, this unifies the forms of valuation across disciplines. Such an erasure of academic boundaries is beneficial according to Locke because it would engender a more cooperative spirit in universities. However, we shall focus here on his second reason for naturalizing axiology, namely his hope that the development of "cultural cognates" would unify valuation across cultures.

Culture is an expansive term for Locke. We can identify at least two ways in which he uses the term. The first is the fairly traditional one, where culture is a set of inherited disciplines, modes of expression and practices particular to a group of people. We see this familiar use of the term in Harris' statement that "Locke's conception of culture is a set of idioms, styles, forms and temperaments that are open to adoption but are likely to be developed and sustained by a given group."[16] Locke shared with fellow cultural pluralists Randolph Bourne, John Dewey and Franz Boas the idea that culture is "an ever-emerging phenomenon and not pre-given before socialization nor an inalterable set of habits necessarily manifest in each member of an ethnic group."[17] Culture is fixed, in that all values are at first inherited by each individual, and fluid in that people change and let go of certain values as they mature. Thus, individuals receive their basic language of values from their culture, but individuals are capable of modifying their culture's axiological lexicon over time. Locke defines culture widely, ranging from manners and conversation to applied science and the fine arts.[18]

However, Locke also sees culture as the development of faculties, as when we say that a person is "cultured." In "The Ethics of Culture" Locke defines culture as "the capacity for understanding the best and most representative forms of human expression, and of expressing oneself."[19] Where the familiar sense of culture is something that is external to you (in the sense that the ways, idioms and arts my cultural group will exist regardless of my participation), this second sense of culture is wholly internal. In this regard, culture depends on my continued efforts to develop my senses, abilities and personality.

Just as we realized that culture was not a question of one set of subjects, but an attitude to be carried into all, so also we must realize that it is not a matter of certain moments and situations, but the characteristic and constant reaction of a developed personality.

Locke believes that cultural relativism is not just one approach of many towards culture. Instead, part of becoming cultures (in the second sense of cultured) is to learn to see your own culture in the relative light of all cultures.  This cultural relativism, far from being a betrayal of cultural ideals, is essential for the establishment of a just peace in any democratic society.

Cultural Relativism

"Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace" is motivated by the insight that since ideological and cultural dogmatism leads to violence, a pluralistic acceptance of diversity is normative for a democracy.[20] Locke argues that cultural orthodoxy is dangerous because it leads to sectarianism and reliance on naked authority. Locke offers cultural relativism as a practical response to the excesses of cultural absolutism. "Once we fully realize the divisive general effect of fundamentalist ideas [...] we reach a position where we can recognize relativism as a safer and saner approach to the objectives of practical unity."[21]

Cultural relativism is directed at forging practical alliances across different cultural groups for the sake of establishing a peaceful coexistence. In order to accomplish this task, Locke directs us to the three principles of cultural relativism that derive from his analysis of human cultures. The three principles are those of cultural equivalence, cultural reciprocity and cultural convertibility.

The principle of cultural equivalence directs us to look past the differences between cultures to emphasize the "culture-cognates" or "culture-correlates" that are the common denominators across cultures.[22] The principle of cultural reciprocity urges us to refrain from ranking cultures as superior or inferior and instead recognize "the reciprocal nature of all contacts between cultures."[23] Finally, the principle of limited cultural convertibility councils that cultural exchanges proceed gradually so that the values of one culture may smoothly assimilate to the structures of another. On the one hand this principle reminds us that values are separable from particular cultural institutions, yet on the other hand it urges patience when engaging in exchange. The cultural absolutist posses a problem to a Lockean project of cultural relativism precisely because he or she recoils from these principles and their attempt at mutuality. Yet before we examine these problems in detail, we need to look lastly at his development of the relation between democracy and cultural pluralism.

Cultural Pluralism and Democracy

Locke orients his essay "Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy" with a reference to what he calls William James' "all-out campaign against intellectual absolutism."[24] Locke sees himself as carrying on James' fight by concretizing the "vital connection between pluralism and democracy" that is hinted at in the older pragmatist's work.[25] Showing his pragmatist roots, Locke argues value pluralism is necessary for the survival of democracy. He concedes that while

[s]uch value pluralism, with its corollary of relativity, admittedly entails the initial losses for the traditional claims and prestige of our value systems[,]... it also holds out to them an effective pax romana of values, with greater and more permanent eventual gains.[26]

Locke does not ask anyone to relinquish their values, but merely to cherish their values in a tolerant and reciprocal fashion. According to Locke, once we adopt these principles of pluralism "[v]alue assertion would thus be a tolerant assertion of preference, not an intolerant insistence on agreement or finality."[27]

Gesturing to his work on cultural cognates, Locke believes that our culturally diverse democracy will only flourish if we are familiar enough with each other's cultural systems to note the overlaps between cultures and ideologies. Democracy's success depends on "the extent we can disengage the objectives of democracy from the particular institutional forms by which we practice it, and can pierce through to common denominators of equivalent objectives."[28]

A Lockean Response to the Absolutist

Locke directs us to recognize the cultural absolutist as a problem for any diverse democracy. Taking his first use of the term "culture" (a set of inherited norms), absolutism leads almost inevitably to cultural strife. If members of different cultural groups cleave to the idea that their culture is supreme, then there will be conflict until one dominates the rest. Further, the absolutist is simply uncultured according to the second use of the term. If culture is the ability to become sensitive to the myriad forms of human expression, then the absolutist  who lets their creed dictate what they finds praiseworthy has put the cart before the horse. Yet despite the fact that the absolutist is so problematic for Locke's system, he does not offer a clear method for addressing the absolutist. We can use his insights into axiology to construct three separate strategies for bringing the absolutist into the fold of a culturally pluralistic democracy. The first is based on his emphasis on cooperation, the second hangs on cultural education, while the third is an appeal to the necessity of a pluralistic outlook within democracy. These three methods can adapt the Locke's critical pragmatism to the current political and cultural crises that we face.

In "Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace" Locke suggests that we treat the search for cultural cognates as a "collaborative undertaking" of supreme importance for all peoples.[29] This indicates the necessity of treating the absolutist as a partner in a collaborative project, rather than as an obstacle to be avoided. If the search for cultural cognates is essential for democratic development, then it would be foolish to exclude the very people who are most in need of recognizing the connections across cultures. Locke leaves us the Herculean, though hopefully not Sisyphean, task of dialoguing with cultural absolutists in order to show them the overlaps between their values and those of other groups. Returning to Locke's two uses of "culture," such a dialogue would help them see their inherited culture as one among many that deserve respect, and would invite them to become cultured by learning the forms of expression practiced by other peoples. Of course, some common sense is called for, as in many cases it is impossible to safely discuss certain issues. While any sane person in 1939 would have had second thoughts about arguing with a Nazi official about race, such dialogue might offer a second chance to a teenage neo-Nazi in 2005 and possibly keep him from a life of hatred and confusion. Judith Butler, in her essay "Alain Locke's Multicultural Philosophy of Value," points to underground meetings of Catholic and Protestant leaders in North Irish city of Belfast that were directed at exactly this sort of radical dialogue.[30] Lest we lose faith in the power of dialogue, we now witness a level of peace and cooperation in Northern Ireland that would have been inconceivable twenty years ago. And this comes after nearly five hundred years of strife.

The immediate purpose of cultural exchange is the discovery of culture cognates that are meaningful to the widest range of people. Thus, treating the absolutist with respect is not only brings them to the table of discussion, but begins the work of cultural pluralism. By appealing to the values that you hopefully share (perhaps the importance of honesty and treating people with respect) you can appeal to the intransigent person's higher nature and show that you do share a great deal. By treating the absolutist as a partner in a crucial project, rather than as an enemy in a culture war, we not only make it harder for him or her to diminish our humanity but we can begin to forge bonds from the ore of common values. The impulse to debate the absolutist with an attitude of cooperation is not only a valuable tool for the advancement of cultural diversity, but also supports the other two methods.

Education is the second tool Locke would have the cultural pluralist use to respond to an absolutist in her midst. An education which thematizes the values, norms and beliefs held by different cultures would inoculate the student against the illness of cultural arrogance. Such an education undermines cultural absolutism in at least two ways. First, it corrects the stereotypical images of other cultures that undergird absolutist creeds. For example, a systematic exploration of the thoughts and achievements of African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latin-Americans would simply render the creed of white supremacism untenable for even the most misguided person. Second, a thorough cultural education would draw out the various commonalties shared by all cultures. When we see what our distinct musics, religions and languages share, we begin to see members of other cultures as relatives in one, extended, human family. By introducing students to comparative cultural studies we make them cultured in Locke's second sense. They can begin to refine their assessments of beauty, artistry and expression. Locke urges us to walk a difficult line regarding education; on the one hand fostering in a deep love of her cultural heritage while at the same time making her see that while her culture is the most meaningful for her, it is still only one of many that deserves respect.

The third method of addressing the absolutist's resistance to cultural pluralism emerges from Locke's critical pragmatism. By showing the incompatibility between dogmatism and democracy, Locke makes the pragmatic argument that unless the absolutist at least tolerates other cultures, democracy has little hope for survival. An absolutist attitude towards values is completely at odds with the reciprocation and tolerance democratic government requires. Of course this third method of showing the incompatibility of cultural absolutism and democracy carries an especially powerful bite here in the United States as a multi-cultural and democratic nation. While a more homogeneous nation might be able to forcibly enact a policy of cultural absolutism, though still at great loss, ours is simply too heterogeneous for such an attitude to be anything but quixotic. Further, the United States was designed with an eye on avoiding the excesses of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation by allowing all religions and creeds to take root here, so long as they respect the rights of other groups. While these points might not curb an absolutist's zeal for whatever doctrine dictates his behavior, it would at least engender some reflection by revealing the incompatibility between their creed and their involvement in a democracy.

In sum, if we refuse to orient ourselves courageously and intelligently to a universe of peoples and cultures, and continue to base our prime values on fractional segments of nations, race, sect, or particular types of institutional culture, there is indeed little or no hope for a stable world order of any kind- democratic or otherwise.[31]

Lamentably, there is no fail-safe argument that will necessarily enable an absolutist to contextualize his doctrine among others and learn to tolerate other creeds. However, using Locke's examination of the incompatibility between absolutism and democracy, we can cast the beliefs of absolutists in a light that helps them see the precariousness of their situation. Not only does his work help draw attention to the foolish flirtation with violence involved in absolutist doctrines, but would also reveal their antagonism towards democratic values deeply cherished by many absolutists.


The absolutist is a person whose conception of the good is ossified within the walls of cultural, racial or religious doctrine. They are unable to grasp the interconnections between different kinds of goods. Most specifically, they are unable to see the commonalties between their values, and the ones of other groups. Once a person has decided that their doctrine encapsulates absolute truth, there is no guarantee that they will ever treat people of other doctrines with respect. For this reason, Locke urges us to use the preventative medicine of education instead of intervention when responding to cultural absolutism. The best form of prevention is to engender a genuine and reciprocal dialogue that follows the principles of cultural relativism, to keep them from withdrawing into a cultural shell. Cultural relativism would enable the absolutist to see their culture in its proper context. Their culture would still be the most valuable and praiseworthy to them, but is would also appear as one of many that are all valuable to the members of each cultural group. Further, the attitude of relativism would initiate cultural growth by showing the myriad ways in which people express the same values and feelings that we all hold dear.

However, all this assumes that the illness of absolutism has not progressed too far for this medicine to have an effect. All three of the strategies suggested in this essay – cultural dialogue and cooperation, pluralistic education and the emphasis of the natural symbiosis between pluralism and democracy— face obdurate obstacles. We can call for dialogue between the different cultural, political and religious groups all we want, but such entireties seem out of sorts in a nation where insult and invective pass for conversation in our media. The most easily achievable strategy – the one which relies on the idea that while we might not be able to unmake old prejudices and bigotries, we can at least inoculate children against them through education – seems in jeopardy in light of the fact that more and more people are turning away from the idea that public education is unifying tool that improves the young and towards the idea that public education (especially when it touches on topics like sex education, cultural diversity, and evolution) is dangerous and needs to be replaced with a far more provincial approach that merely reproduces the mindset of the parents. Finally, even the once-obvious idea that being a part of a democracy entails defending and cherishing a plurality of opinions, cultures and religions—an idea that is literally inscribed on every piece of currency with the phrase e pluribus unum— is now under assault by self-anointed arbiters of patriotism who rigidly define the love of country as the unquestioning support for their party, and the unthinking attack on any sort of cultural pluralism beyond the food court or the music store.

The sad truth is that there is no guaranteed way to make an absolutist peacefully accept diversity. Of course, the sort of fruitful dialogue in Northern Ireland mentioned by Judith Butler, as well as similar projects like the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South African, give us hope that the cultural pluralism advocated by Locke can supplant absolutism and yield a viable and diverse democracy.

Terrance MacMullan, PhD
Eastern Washington University
258 Patterson Hall
Cheney, WA 99004

[1] Leonard Harris, Preface to The Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke, edited by Leonard Harris,(Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 1999), xi.

[2] Alain Locke, ed. The New Negro, (New York: Albert and Charles Boni. Inc., 1925).

[3] Alain Locke, The Philosophy of Alain Locke, edited by Leonard Harris, (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989), Johnny Washington, A Journey into the Philosophy of Alain Locke, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994).

[4] Rudolph Cain, "Andragogy for African American Adults," in The Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke, 258.

[5] Alain Locke, "Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace," in  The Philosophy of Alain Locke, edited by Leonard Harris, (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989),72.

[6] Alain Locke, "Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy," in The Philosophy of Alain Locke, 63.

[7] Alain Locke, "Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace," in The Philosophy of Alain Locke, 69.

[8] Eugene Holmes, "Alain Locke- Philosopher, Critic, Spokesman," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. VIL, (1957), No. 5, 116.

[9] Johnny Washington, A Journey into the Philosophy of John Locke, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 179.

[10] Locke, "Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace," 70.

[11] Washington, 161.

[12] Locke, "Values and Imperatives," in The Philosophy of Alain Locke, 38.

[13] Ibid., 39.

[14] Ibid., 39.

[15] Ibid., 39.

[16] Leonard Harris, The Philosophy of Alain Locke, 229.

[17] Harris, The Philosophy of Alain Locke, 14.

[18] Locke, "The Ethics of Culture," in The Philosophy of Alain Locke, 181.

[19] Ibid., 177.

[20] Locke, "Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace," in The Philosophy of Alain Locke, 75.

[21] Ibid., 71.

[22] Ibid., 73.

[23] Ibid., 73.

[24] Locke, "Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy," in The Philosophy of Alain Locke, 53.

[25] Ibid., 53.

[26] Ibid., 56.

[27] Ibid., 57.

[28] Ibid., 56.

[29] Ibid., 76.

[30] Judith Butler, "Alain Locke's Multicultural Philosophy of Value" in The Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke, 91.

[31] Locke, "Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy," 63.