Richard McKeon was a one-time Chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy. An exponent of the comparative method in the history of philosophy he supported the Great Books approach to Western Culture and had a major role in the United Nations Declaration On Human Rights. He wrote many books including the standard partly-abridged translation of Aristotle into English.
McKeon set his face against Leo Strauss joining the Philosophy Department. Strauss is better known that McKeon today – because he founded intellectual neo-conservatism. McKeon felt that neo-conservatism was an unstable mixture of exoteric authoritarianism layered over esoteric relativism. Strauss joined the Politics Department at Chicago for the rest of his career.
McKeon’s pluralism has its best expression in his essay ‘Philosophical Semantics and Philosophical Enquiry’ in his Freedom and History and Other Essays: an introduction to the work of Richard McKeon. He sees the works of the great European philosophers falling into four categories, four great traditions. We can describe them as traditions of Matter, Mind, Media and a Mixture of the first three. Matter is represented by the tradition of the Eleatic materialists, Democritus and Epicurus – and modern science. Mind by Pythagoras, Plato, the Neo-Platonists – and the central traditions of Christianity and Islam. Media by the Sophists such as the benign Protagoras, the malign Gorgias, modern existentialist and pomo thinkers – and the persuasion professions such as public relations, marketing and journalism. The Mixture of these three is represented by Aristotle and the Scholastic tradition.
His work was then developed by Walter Watson from the State University of New York at Stoney Brook. His book The Architectonics of Meaning: foundations of the new pluralism has a more Aristotelian take on pluralism and support for the diversity of thought and enquiry. ‘Architectonics’ is the Aristotelian’s term for their own eclectic method of interpreting all aspects of human life and of the natural world.
You may think: so far, so Eurocentric, so outdated! That would be very incorrect. The work of McKeon and Watson was taken further by David A. Dilworth, a Columbia University philosopher and orientalist. In his great extension of the work of McKeon and Watson, titled Philosophy in World Perspective: a comparative hermeneutic of the major theories, Dilworth applies the pluralist method worked out for 2,400 years of European thought to the thought of East Asia over a similar period. His interpretation of the interpretations of the cosmos and the world shared by the great thinkers of the two civilizations is a dazzling success. Matter is Taoism, Mind is Buddhism, Media is Confucianism/Legalism. Media is Neoconfucianism, the ideology of the Imperial bureaucracy, the examination syllabus of Max Weber’s ‘Chinese Literati’ from 605 CE down to 1912. Once we see that China kept its equivalent of Aristotelianism, its own Scholasticism, for 300 years longer than Europe, we can see why Chinese science and civilization did not develop from an early high. There were no Chinese equivalents of Bacon and Hobbes, Leibniz, Montaigne and many others who overthrew the Scholastics and their descendants in Europe.
Dilworth shows in detail the commonality of humanity’s high culture. A pluralism and a diversity in both East and West. He is a life-changing read. Once you’ve read his book you won’t ever again think from a biassed Orientalist or Occidentalist viewpoint.