Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy



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Conclusions: This inventory of the dimensions of democracy in the philosophy of Alain Locke does not exhaust his expansive use of the concept. Perhaps they are summed up in Locke’s felicitous expression, “equalitarian democracy.”838 But the evolutionary, developmental view of democracy remains consistent. “All of these enlargements of democratic thought and practise in the perspective of one trained to expect democracy to evolve,” reflects Locke, “are viewed and accepted in a natural and meaningful way as part of a necessary process.839 Doubtless, there is a great deal of overlap in the various terms of this Lockean nomenclature. Yet there is a certain degree of consistency in it.

It is not taxonomy in the political scientific sense. Rather, it is an accentuation of the various dimensions of society itself, with its attendant spheres of human activity. In every one of these spheres, democracy is tested, contested, and, ideally, will at some point pass the test. The real test of a democracy, in Locke’s conception of it, is its treatment of minorities. Democracy hangs in the balance of equality. Locke had other concepts of democracy as well, which are noted below.



Natural democracy: On 28 May 1946, in his commencement address at the University of Wisconsin High School, Locke spoke of “the gallant natural democracy of youth.”840 What is “natural democracy”? And what did Locke mean by this? The answer is to be found in Locke’s analysis of race. Taking a cue from Franz Boas, the “father of American anthropology,” race is a social and cultural phenomenon. At most, it has only a superficial basis in biological fact. Racism (which may simply be thought of as “anti-race”) is likewise a social construct, but with a contrary outlook and objective. Racism has to be taught. It does not belong to the natural repertoire of a child’s attitudes. Children learn racism from their parents and other role models. It perpetuates itself until it is transformed into what the early Bahá’ís, including Locke himself, called “race amity.” Youth, generally speaking, are typically the most free of deeply ingrained prejudice.

Practical democracy: Locke used the term “practical democracy” in a variety of contexts. For instance, in reporting on a Bahá’í-sponsored race amity convention, Locke wrote: “Washington, which the penetrating vision of Abdul Baha in 1912 saw as the crux of the race problem and therefore of practical democracy in America, was for that reason selected as the place for the first convention under Bahai auspices for amity in inter-racial relations.”841

Creative democracy: Democracy has come a long way since Athens. Were it not for the social evolution that forced it to expand, democracy would remain little more than a fraternity, as Locke pointed out in his discussion of “local democracy.” In Locke’s view, democracy has always been a creative human project, subject to radical transformations in its historical process of adaptation to changing circumstances and expansion to include wider social networks:
One most effective way of assuring that we are both rational and realistic in any consideration of democracy, and thus free from the dogmatism and cant of professional patriotism and word-worship, is to keep constantly in mind how indisputably democracy has historically changed and enlarged its meaning, acquiring from generation to generation new scope, added objectives, fresh sanctions.842
Democracy has not always been democratic. In fact, it has often failed to live up to its ideals. Locke shows the dissonance between the ideal and the real in the inherent contractions of democracy as practiced by the Founding Fathers, whose vision of democracy defines America, yet eludes it. Democracy was partial, insular. It was a social paradigm that they themselves were unable to fulfill except to a limited degree:
We can scarcely make a fetish of our own or even our generation’s version of democracy if we recall that once in the minds of all but a few radical democrats like Jefferson, democracy was compatible with such obvious contradictions as slavery and has even much later seemed adequate in spite of such limitations equally obvious to us now as the disenfranchisement of women, complete disregard of public responsibility for education, no provision for social security and the like. Such sobering facts forestall, or should, any tendency, however traditional and unpopular, to put democracy above realistic analysis or beyond objective and constructive criticism.843
Was Jefferson the exception to the prevailing norm which held, as Locke asserts, “in the minds of all but a few radical democrats like Jefferson, democracy was compatible with such obvious contradictions as slavery”? Is Locke being too generous to Jefferson here? In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson had written: “In reason [blacks are] much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”844 Is Locke’s valorization of Jefferson purely rhetorical?

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are American scriptures. Yet, to state the obvious, there are glaring contradictions between these two texts. The Declaration espoused equality, while the Constitution, until amended, accommodated slavery. As primary author of the former and an architect of the latter, Jefferson championed freedom while owning slaves. That Jefferson fathered five children by his mulatto slave mistress Sally Hemings has become a matter of general notoriety. It has been the subject of novels, films, and even of fairly recent DNA testing. But it seems that, in principle at least, Jefferson saw it as the task of a true democracy to strive towards racial equality. African American mathematician, inventor, writer and social critic, Benjamin Banker, wrote to Jefferson in 1791 to indirectly test the integrity of Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence:


This sir, was a time which you clearly saw into the injustice of a state of slavery and in which you had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition, that you publickly held forth this true and valuable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”845
Jefferson did not take issue with this interpretation. Quite the contrary. In a letter dated 30 Aug. 1791 penned in Philadelphia during his tenure as Secretary of State under George Washington, Jefferson responded:
Sir […] Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of other colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing only to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add that with truth no one wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition of both their body and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit.846
Although Jefferson was instrumental in creating American democracy, that democracy itself have to undergo radical transformations in order to be a democracy for all Americans. To remain alive and viable, democracy must become more democratic in its outreach and inclusiveness. To be more inclusive, American democracy had to reinvent itself. This is what Locke means when he says that democracy must remain “creative”:
If democracy hasn’t always meant the same thing, how can we be so sure that its present compass of meaning is so permanent or so fully adequate? It seems absolutely essential, then, to treat democracy as a dynamic, changing and developing concept, to consider it always in terms of an expanding context, and to realize that like any embodiment of human values, it must grow in order to keep alive. Except as progressive and creative, democracy both institutionally and ideologically stagnates.847
“Creative democracy” is Locke’s euphemism for visionary and revisionary efforts to further align principle with practice. He spoke of “the successive maturing of the democratic tradition in America” and of the “enlargements of democratic thought and practise.”848 He appeals to the youth of his day to rededicate themselves to America’s democratic ideals—to put that faith into practice. To make America more democratic, youth need to do something above and beyond whet others had done before. While this is perfectly obvious, it is sermon still worth preaching. Democracy, for Locke, signified equality and justice.

Locke was gifted with a universal perspective. His vision was world-embracing. He saw the American racial crisis as a problem of world-historical proportions. Democracy’s egalitarian principles can all too easily atrophy into platitudes, and dissolve into empty rhetoric. Far worse when those very principles oppress rather than liberate, to create “victims of democracy.” When the dominant group excludes minorities from the equality and enfranchisement enshrined in democratic ideals, democracy is in crisis. It ceases to be. All this is perfectly obvious, but only in retrospect. Locke used historical retrospect to create new future prospects for democracy. And what, in interracial terms, did Locke wish for democracy in America? In The Negro in America (1933), Locke wrote:


If they will but see it, because of their complementary qualities, the two racial groups have great spiritual need, one of the other. It would truly be significant in the history of human culture, if two races so diverse should so happily collaborate, and the one return for the gift of a great civilization the reciprocal gift of the spiritual cross-fertilization of a great and distinctive national culture.849
Locke inwardly felt that what America really needed was to embrace Bahá’í principles (and not necessarily the Bahá’í Faith itself). “Dr. Alain Locke of Washington, D.C., speaking on the subject, ‘America’s Part in World Peace’,” according to a news report, “pointed out the priceless value and the great necessity of a good example if America is to perform a real service to the world. He said:
America’s democracy must begin at home with a spiritual fusion of all her constituent peoples in brotherhood, and in an actual mutuality of life. Until democracy is worked out in the vital small scale of practical human relations, it can never, except as an empty formula, prevail on the national or international basis. Until it establishes itself in human hearts, it can never institutionally flourish. Moreover, America’s reputation and moral influence in the world depends on the successful achievement of this vital spiritual democracy within the lifetime of the present generation. (Material civilization alone does not safeguard the progress of a nation.) Bahá’í Principles and the leavening of our national life with their power, is to be regarded as the salvation of democracy. In this way only can the fine professions of American ideals be realized.850

Alain LeRoy Locke thought more deeply about democracy than most of his contemporaries. Locke was America’s ambassador of democracy to America itself. His theory of democracy was both evolutionary and multi-dimensional. It would only be a matter of time until the various aspects of that theory would fall into focus and be articulated in a more coherent form. As theoretically elegant as it was, Locke’s philosophy of democracy always had a practical emphasis and application. And for that reason, it can never be said that his philosophy began and ended in mere words. “[B]ut now, it seems to me,” Locke told an audience of social workers in 1938, “the soundest, wisest and most appropriate slogan,—if we must have a slogan,[—] is to [A]mericanize Americans in their social attitudes and behavior, to establish democracy in the heart of our social relations.”851 Once that happens, America could have the requisite moral authority to adopt its “world role.”852 Locke’s philosophy of democracy, in essence, was to “Americanize Americans”—to realize America’s ideals in all its dimensions—locally, morally, politically, economically, culturally, interracially and socially, spiritually, globally, naturally, practically, and creatively.

Chapter Eleven
Concluding Observations

In the context of today, accordingly, world citizenship means more than enlightened citizenship transforming narrow nationalism into enlightened political nationalism, although it does mean that importantly. It also means an equally important crusade for world culture with its enlarged tolerances and understandings and[,] on the moral plane, at least a world-wide truce, if not eventually a world-scale alliance of the major religions.853
In terms of his impact on American history, Alain Locke is arguably the most important Western Bahá’í to date. While his place in the history of the Bahá’í Faith in America is not insignificant, as this book demonstrates, Locke is generally not well known within the Bahá’í community itself and has, to a certain extent, remained little more than a footnote until now. In the introduction, we noted that, in The Black 100, author Columbus Salley ranks Alain Locke as the 36th most influential African American, past or present.854 Probably the same claim could not be made for Locke in American Bahá’í history. However, as several Locke scholars have explained, part of the historical difficulty in providing a proper assessment of Locke’s importance is the fact that so much of his writing was unpublished, and still remains so. To illuminate his roles as a Bahá’í race relations activist, leading African American intellectual and philosopher of democracy, this study has relied on a wealth of archival data to supply some of the missing pieces. This book has stressed Locke’s contributions both as a Bahá’í and as a cultural pluralist. Hence the title: Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy.

Commenting on W. E. B. Du Bois’ famous dictum, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,”855 Locke added: “[T]he race question has become the number one problem of the world.”856 Largely through his Bahá’í orientation, which this book has sought to illuminate, Locke brought both his faith and philosophy to bear on what he saw as the most challenging issue of the day.

This book was not intended as simply an historical exercise in demonstration of the fact that Locke was a Bahá’í. While a full exploration of this “missing” dimension of his life is a contribution in itself, the overarching purpose in writing this book is to show how Locke’s Bahá’í ideals were integrated into his philosophy, and vice versa. This “synergy” between Locke’s religious profession as a Bahá’í and his vocation as a philosopher is critical to the whole thrust of this book. The argument succeeds or fails on that very issue. That synergy is best demonstrated through a comparison of Locke’s confessional (Bahá’í) and professional essays.

Locke as a Bahá’í: For more than three decades, Locke would work within the Bahá’í community to foster ideal race relations, which Bahá’ís first referred to as “race amity” and later as “race unity.” This fact will come as a surprise to many. One may ask: Why did most historians either ignore or, at best, make just passing mention of Locke’s Bahá’í affiliation, or even express doubt that Locke was ever an enrolled Bahá’í? One reason is that, outside of Bahá’í venues, Locke made practically no mention of the fact that he was a Bahá’í. He seemed to explain this by saying that Bahá’ís needed to export their principles and, in effect, secularize them. Only in this way could the Bahá’ís ever hope to exert any real social influence. This was the pragmatist in Locke, which constrained and disciplined his idealism. There were doubtless other issues as well.

That Locke was a committed Bahá’í over a long period of time—for over half his life—is not to say that he was an ideal Bahá’í for all this time, or that he always had an idealized view of the Faith. No, Locke had his share of tests and difficulties, with alternating periods of affinity and estrangement, friends and “personality clashes,” time and lack of it, and so on. Consider the issue of time. Locke was famous; so there were a lot of demands on his time. At home, he was often overcommitted and overbooked. He also traveled abroad as often as he could, which obviously would take him out of the country. So long as he could afford to, he traveled abroad annually, usually during the summer.

Another reason why Locke’s Bahá’í identity has either been overlooked, marginalized or even denied by historians is that Locke himself was so reticent about it. In this regard, he was a strict professional in his role as a public intellectual. There were also moments—considerable stretches of time, actually—when Locke seemed to give up on the Faith. While he was deeply committed at the level of principle, Locke experienced crises of faith, owing to what he perceived to be stagnation in the race amity work. The fact that Locke continued to render valuable services to the “Bahá’í Cause” (or the Bahá’í movement”), as it was then known, is a testament to the depth of his convictions, and to his enduring, although chequered, loyalty to the Faith that his beloved mother so importantly encouraged him to maintain.

And so Locke’s universalism included social demonstrations of interracial unity, as exemplified by his participation in a “Convention for Amity Between the Colored and White Races” which took place in Washington, D.C., 19–21 May 1921. As the nation’s capital, Washington was the logical place to start for launching a historic series of initiatives to promote racial harmony. Accordingly, the Washington Bahá’í community became the point of effective origin for the Bahá’í race unity initiatives across America. While his activity as a Bahá’í was intensively sporadic, Locke’s role in planning and executing the Race Amity conferences was as central as it was sustained over the duration of years of committee service. Almost certainly his role was critical.

Indeed, there were moments when, for various personal reasons,857 Locke later withdrew from active involvement in the Washington Bahá’í community. For one thing, Locke much preferred New York to Washington. In a letter to Countee Cullen, Locke opines: “I hope if you ever come to Washington to teach, it won[’]t be the same Washington which is at my throat or rather weighing down on my spirit,—for it is almost impossible to find bouyancy [buoyancy] and inspiration in the place. New York is infinitely better, even Harlem.”858

But there were moments of courage and grandeur, when Locke did publicly identify himself as a Bahá’í. As late in life as 1952, it must have been with Locke’s permission that his photograph appeared (alongside a picture of a fellow Bahá’í, Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender) in an Ebony magazine article entitled, “Bahá’í Faith: Only Church in World that Does Not Discriminate” (October 1952).859 Of Locke, Shoghi Effendi reportedly said that: “People as you, Mr Gregory, Dr Esslemont and some other dear souls are as rare as diamond.”860



Locke as a Philosopher of Religion: American pragmatism dethroned epistemology and reconceptualized knowledge as intersubjective, social and communal. Locke anchored philosophy in human values and formulated his own theory of relativity with regard to their philosophical and social implications. The title of one of Locke’s lectures in later life captures the essence of his philosophy: “Cultural Pluralism: A New Americanism.” Locke gave this lecture on 8 Nov. 1950, in the faculty lounge, Douglass Hall, on campus at Howard University, the event sponsored by the Department of Philosophy.861 We should hasten to add that Locke’s integrationism was not assimilationism. To the end of his life, he held to the Bahá’í principle of unity in diversity, which he reformulated as “unity through diversity.”

Locke’s bread and butter remained philosophy. Besides presiding as chair of the Department of Philosophy at Howard University, Locke served as visiting professor of philosophy at Fisk University (1927–28) in Nashville, the University of Wisconsin (1945–46), The New School for Social Research, City College, New York (1947), the College of the City of New York (1948), and the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies. As previously mentioned, Locke was also an inter-American exchange professor to Haiti in 1943 for three months. There has recently been a revival of interest in Locke’s philosophy, much of which remains unpublished. Scholarship, moreover, has largely glossed over Locke’s perspective on religion. Yet there are references to religion throughout both his published and unpublished writings. According to Locke, philosophy ought to be mindful of the importance of religion:

It is of the utmost importance to supplement the many secular trends toward world order by religious movements and moral perspectives of similar scope and outlook. Although there has been considerable organizational initiative and effort in world-wide religious rapprochement, there still is little internal renouncing on the part of religious bodies of their sectarian parochialisms and their mutually conflicting claims.

Yet here obviously is the crux of the whole issue: if the brotherhood of man is an inescapable corollary of the ‘fatherhood of God’ principle, so also is the confraternity of religions. The enlightened religion must learn,— that the realistic way to become a world religion is not through world pretensions and world rivalry, but through promoting world-wide peace and understanding and moral cooperation of all sorts on a world-scale.

On that outcome hangs a goodly part of any real ideological peace, since religion, for all its universalistic claims, instead of being a universalizer has so often been the prime weapon in the rationalization of partisan strife and limited attitudes and loyalties.862
As early as his dissertation, Locke himself recognized the integral place religion has in human society. Religion figures prominently in Locke’s paradigm of values, as first set out in his dissertation. Locke’s model can be represented by the acronym HEALER: (1) Hedonic; (2) Economic; (3) Artistic; (4) Logical; (5) Ethical; (6) Religious. In his 1935 essay, “Values and Imperatives,” however, Locke reduces his taxonomy to four types of values, which I will represent with the acronym, REAL: (1) Religious; (2) Ethical/Moral; (3) Aesthetic/Artistic; (4) Logical/Scientific. In addition to this, Locke’s Bahá’í World essays not only furnish his most complete statement as a professing Bahá’í. These essays are his most complete statements on religion itself.

Locke as Bahá’í philosopher: What relationship, if any, exists between Locke’s religion and his philosophy? Philosophy has traditionally served as the great systematizer of religious thinking. Locke’s religious works (his Bahá’í World essays) were certainly informed by his philosophy, which served—as philosophy was supposed to in medieval times—as the “handmaid of theology.” Indeed, the presence of key philosophical concepts in Locke’s Bahá’í World essays accentuates the religio-philosophical (Bahá’í-cultural relativist) synergy. “What we need to learn most,” writes Locke, “is how to discover unity and spiritual equivalence underneath the differences which at present so disunite and sunder us, and how to establish some basic spiritual reciprocity on the principle of unity in diversity” (PAL 135). “The purity of Bahá’í principles,” Locke argues, “must be gauged by their universality on this practical plane” (PAL 136). Locke then poses a challenge in the form of a test of authenticity: “Do they [Bahá’í principles] fraternize and fuse with all their kindred expressions? Are they happy in their collaborations that advocate other sanctions but advance toward the same spiritual goal? Can they reduce themselves to the vital common denominators necessary to mediate between other partisan loyalties?” (PAL 136, emphasis added). This is classic Lockean philosophy, transposed within a Bahá’í value system.

The reverse also held true, in that religion served as Locke’s handmaid of philosophy. Bahá’í values suffuse Locke’s philosophical thought. Judith Green observes that “Locke’s work shows the influence of serious engagements with Marxism, with diverse religious and spiritual traditions including, among others, Christianity, Buddhism, and Bahá’í.”863 This appears to underestimate the relative importance of the Bahá’í influence on Locke. As Johnny Washington notes: “During the latter part of his career, he accepted the Bahá’í faith and attempted to integrate it into his own philosophy of values.”864 This statement suggests that Locke himself transposed Bahá’í principles of unity into his philosophy.

It should also be borne is mind that, despite his intense commitment to Bahá’í principles, only rarely did Locke directly cite the Bahá’í writings. Although he acknowledged that “there is no escaping the historical evidences of its [unity through diversity’s] early advocacy and its uncompromising adoption by the Bahá’í prophets and teachers,” Locke followed his own advice to Bahá’ís in that “the intelligent, loyal Bahá’í should stress not the source, but the importance of the idea, and rejoice not in the originality and uniqueness of the principle but rather in its prevalence and practicality” (PAL 135).

Locke stressed Bahá’í universality as its primary mission for the present: “But it is not the time for insisting on this side of the claim; the intelligent, loyal Bahá’í should stress not the source, but the importance of the idea, and rejoice not in the originality and uniqueness of the principle but rather in its prevalence and practicality” (PAL 135). Locke continues: “The idea has to be translated into every important province of modern life and thought, and in many of these must seem to be independently derived and justified” (PAL 135). Assuming that he practised what he preached, this statement signals Locke’s intention and method: namely, that he would apply Bahá’í principles to his own “province of modern life and thought”—philosophy.

A closer comparison of Locke’s essays reveals a synergy between the two. “For Locke, cultural pluralism and cultural relativism,” Ernest Mason claims, “both have their foundation in the Bahá’í principle of unity in diversity.”865 In demonstrating a thematic simultaneity in Locke’s religious and philosophical writings, Mason declares: “In the following examination of Locke’s social philosophy I hope to demonstrate fully that Locke was, theoretically and practically, concerned with the very social issues stressed in the Bahá’í Faith: justice, equality, nonviolence, tolerance, and racial and ideological peace.”866 Mason was not alone in making this assertion. Kenneth Stikkers observes:
The Bahá’í religion provided Locke the concrete experience of unity in diversity, for a central teaching of that faith is that the Word of God is essentially one but is spoken differently through the prophets of the various religions of the world, in ways relative to unique sociohistorical conditions. Locke expressed the Bahá’í principle with this metaphor: “think of reality as a central fact and a white light broken up by the prism of human nature into a spectrum of values.”867
This has implications for future Lockean studies in particular, and for African American and for mainstream American philosophy in general. In general terms, Locke regarded the Bahá’í Faith as a “movement for human brotherhood.”868 This is not to say that he reduced the religion to an amorphous universalism, for, in “The Orientation of Hope,” Locke calls the Bahá’í Faith “a virile and truly prophetic spiritual revelation” (PAL 130).

Unity in diversity is a Bahá’í principle that Locke transposed into his philosophy: “It is just at this juncture that the idea of unity in diversity seems to me to become relevant, and to offer a spiritual common denominator of both ideal and practical efficacy” (PAL 135). Locke wanted to replace absolutes with universalisms: “Even though it is not yet accepted as a general principle, as a general desire and an ideal goal, the demand for universality is beyond doubt the most characteristic modern thing in the realm of spiritual values, and in the world of the mind that reflects this realm” (PAL 134). Through the vehicle of philosophy, Locke replaced “identity” with “equivalence” and “difference” with “unity in diversity.”869 In so doing, Locke offered “a solution reconciling nationalism with internationalism, racialism with universalism” (PAL 203).

Both as a philosopher and as a Bahá’í, Locke, as a matter of principle, envisioned a series of “progressive integrations” that would take place “in due course” and “step by step, from an initial stage of cultural tolerance, mutual respect, reciprocal exchange, some specific communities of agreement and, finally, commonality of purpose and action” (PAL 70–71). But since he was not a thoroughly systematic thinker, we cannot read this statement with full confidence in its sequence. Green calls this a “peacemaking democratic transformation […] by stage-wise progression.”870

It is clear that Locke wanted to make a contribution to world peace as well. If intellectuals were inspired with the same vision and could agree on a common paradigm, their leadership had the potential to further that aim. In his essay, “Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace,”871 Locke states: “Cultural relativism may become an important source for ideological peace” and, indeed, may serve “as a possible ideological peacemaker” (PAL 70). “Cultural relativism” Locke believed, “can become a very constructive philosophy by way of integrating values and value systems” (PAL 70). “In looking for cultural agreements on a world scale,” Locke further explained, “we shall probably have to content ourselves with agreement of the common-denominator type and with ‘unity in diversity’ discovered in the search for unities of a functional rather than a content character, and therefore of a pragmatic rather than an ideological sort” (PAL 75). In other words, Locke has proposed a formula for promoting cultural relativism as a “realistic instrument of social reorientation and cultural enlightenment” (PAL 72).

Locke gave specific reasons as to why this program might work. For Locke, cultural relativism had “constructive potentialities” (PAL 72) and offered new hope for ideological peace. For relativism to work, it first had to be implemented. Just how would one begin to carry out a program of cultural relativity? Locke had such a plan. Its rationale is developed alongside its strategy. There were three stages in his plan, each of which was intended to have a calculated, cumulative result. The three stages were: (1) cultural equivalence; (2) reciprocity; and (3) limited cultural convertibility. An explanation of these three stages is as follows:

Equivalence”: In his efforts to universalize philosophy, Locke sought to promote intercultural understanding, and thought that scholars (especially “cultural anthropologists”) ought to lead the way—through a systematic process of conceptual translation based on formal comparison:


The principle of cultural equivalence, under which we would more widely press the search for functional similarities in our analyses and comparisons of human cultures; thus offsetting our traditional and excessive emphasis upon cultural difference. Such functional equivalences, which we might term ‘culture-cognates’ or ‘culture-correlates,’ discovered underneath deceptive but superficial institutional divergence, would provide objective but soundly neutral common denominators for intercultural understanding and cooperation. (PAL 73)
The search for cultural counterparts is, for Locke, a sound way of trying to make sense of the bewildering diversity of societal norms and mores that, upon investigation, reveal a recognizable logic. “Functional equivalence” for Locke, seems to be synonymous with “real basic similarity” in values (PAL 60). Similarities are seen in function rather than form.

Reciprocity”: Beyond tolerance, but assuming notions of equivalence based on “loyalty to loyalty,” is a second concept: reciprocity. Reciprocity approaches cross-cultural dialogue and cooperation. “Social reciprocity for value loyalties,” writes Locke, “is but a new name for the old virtue of tolerance, yet it does bring the question of tolerance down from the lofty thin air of idealism and chivalry to the plane of enlightened self-interest and the practical possibilities of value-sharing” (PAL 48). This is an understatement, for reciprocity is something much more than mere toleration for the purpose of reducing intercommunal conflict:


The principle of cultural reciprocity, which, by a general recognition of the reciprocal character of all contacts between cultures and the fact that all modern cultures are highly composite ones, would invalidate the lump estimating of cultures in terms of generalized, en bloc assumptions of superiority and inferiority, substituting scientific, point-by-point comparisons with their correspondingly limited, specific, and objectively verifiable superiorities or inferiorities. (PAL 73)
This is both a historical as well as procedural statement. Cultures are syncretistic. A simple realization of this fact should suffice to dispel pretensions of cultural superiority. This new virtue—reciprocity—is tolerance transformed into a real exchange of values. As Moses observes: “Locke’s principle of reciprocity first emerges as a historical law that may be discerned through careful consideration of what has contributed to civilized progress in many an age.”872 Locke translates this historical law into a present-day ethic. In this part of Locke’s plan, comparisons would become very specific. The “culture-correlates” would then be weighed, and even judged as to their relative superiority or inferiority. There would be particular cultural values that could be exported and taken up within other modern cultures, which are themselves composite anyway.

Cultural convertibility”: As a student of history, Locke foresaw the strong possibility that culture might selectively adopt a foreign cultural value. In assimilating that value to itself, the transplanted value would take root and become part of the new cultural landscape. An example of this might be seen in the import, popularization and eventual westernization of the eastern practice of meditation. Locke sees a third concept coming into play:


The principle of limited cultural convertibility, that, since culture elements, though widely interchangeable, are so separable, the institutional forms from their values and the values from their institutional forms, the organic selectivity and assimilative capacity of a borrowing culture becomes a limiting criterion for cultural exchange. Conversely, pressure acculturation and the mass transplanting of culture, the stock procedure of groups with traditions of culture “superiority” and dominance, are counterindicated as against both the interests of cultural efficiency and the natural trends of cultural selectivity. (PAL 73)
Locke claims that these “three objectively grounded principles of culture relations” might, if properly implemented, “correct some of our basic culture dogmatism and progressively cure many of our most intolerant and prejudicial cultural attitudes and practices” (PAL 73). How? Discovery of cultural equivalences was supposed to result in an agenda for intercultural understanding, which would, in turn, provide a common foundation for intercultural cooperation.

Whom did Locke expect or hope to carry out this plan? Quite possibly his peers. He states: “There has never been a new age without a new scholarship or, to put it more accurately, without a profound realignment of scholarship” (PAL 70). “It is for this reason that one can so heartily concur in the suggestions of Professor Northrop’s paper that a value analysis of our basic cultures in broadscale comparison is the philosophical, or rather the scholarly, task of the hour” (PAL 75).

In my own reading, there is a progression in Locke’s social philosophy in which tolerance leads to reciprocity which, in turn, culminates in “unity in diversity.” Locke describes his own universalism as a “fluid and functional unity that begins in a basic progression of value pluralism, converts itself to value relativism, and then passes over into a ready and willing admission of both cultural relativism and pluralism” (PAL 97–98). Locke’s hierarchy of loyalty, tolerance, reciprocity, and cultural relativism and pluralism (the philosophical equivalent of “unity in diversity”) was a pragmatic application of quintessentially Bahá’í values. In its practical application, this hierarchy is formulaic:

“Loyalty” expresses group solidarity. Loyalty is related to the idea of tolerance. Loyalty is love of one’s own race, ethnicity, culture. The concept of loyalty is connected with the notion of community. “Indeed,” as Stikkers corroborates, “it was Royce’s theories of loyalty and community and Locke’s experience in the Bahá’í faith […] that provided the main intellectual influences on Locke’s pluralism.”873 As mentioned, Josiah Royce was one of Locke’s professors in Harvard’s philosophy department.874 Locke’s attraction to Royce’s ideas owes a great deal to the fact that Royce was “the only major American philosopher during the early 1900s to publish a book condemning racism.”875 Locke’s cultural relativism was grounded in Royce’s social ethic of “loyalty to loyalty,” which values a people’s loyalty to their own particular culture and value system, so long as respect is maintained for broadly humane values as well.876

“Tolerance” has both individual and social dimensions. Locke’s concept of “tolerance” has its roots in the philosophy of John Locke (individualism), but goes far beyond. In his essay, “Two Lockes, Two Keys, Tolerance and Reciprocity in a Culture of Democracy,” Greg Moses compares the philosophies of Alain Locke and John Locke. If not in theory then in practice, John Locke’s ethic of toleration has been “poorly applied by liberal civilizations.”877 While John Locke stressed mutual tolerance in an exchange of ideas between individuals, Alain Locke advocated such tolerance between groups.878 All too often, however, tolerance has proven to be little more than a thin veneer of acceptance, with an air of condescension and paternalism by the dominant group. As Locke stated in a lecture on 10 Dec. 1947 in his Philosophy of Democracy course, “[P]eople want respect, not tolerance.”879

“Reciprocity”—as mentioned in the previous section—is really an extension of democracy in that it constrains group dominance through promoting the equality of groups, each having a place at the table, so to speak. Moses sums this up eloquently when he concludes his essay by saying: “Reciprocity—to shift figures in function and form—would be key to the new Locke [Alain Locke], as tolerance had been key to the old [the philosopher John Locke].”880

“Cultural relativism and pluralism” are Locke’s philosophical equivalents of the Bahá’í principle of “unity in diversity.” The most recent and sophisticated treatment of Locke’s philosophy of unity in diversity is that of Judith M. Green. In her book, Deep Democracy: Community, Diversity, and Transformation (1999), Green devotes an entire chapter to Locke.881 Green observes that a great deal of Locke’s work remains unpublished, and that his contribution has been largely forgotten until recently. Due to the sudden and vigorous explosion of scholarly interest in Locke, his philosophical thought will no longer suffer a death by silence.

Green identifies two streams of thought and experience in Locke’s life and work. One stream is an African American historical, cultural, and intellectual tradition—the specific loyalty that “links Locke with forebears in struggle like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, with older contemporaries like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois (who assisted his early career), with younger contemporaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm (X) Shabazz, and with our living generations of African American public intellectuals.”882 Speaking of America, Locke stated that “this ominous rainbow […] shows a wide diffusion of bias and prejudice in our social atmosphere and, unfortunately, presages not the passing, but the coming of a storm […] and unless America solves these minority issues constructively and achieves minority peace or minority tolerance, in less than half a generation she will be in the flaming predicament of Europe.”883

The other stream is his cosmopolitan outlook, particularly his commitment to “cultural pluralism” (now known as multiculturalism). Locke’s pluralism compensated for some of the deficiencies of liberalism. As Segun Gbadegesin rhetorically asks: “How, if at all, does liberalism differ from pluralism? Liberalism’s emphasis is freedom: freedom is its battle cry. But there are other values, including justice […] and community.”884 Locke’s cosmopolitan paradigm of unity is a “theoretical and praxical transformation of classical American pragmatism.”885 According to Green, Locke had precociously conceptualized “deep democracy” as “cosmopolitan unity amidst valued diversity.”886

Education would play a transformative role in helping to bring about this world culture—one characterized by a “race-transcending”887 consciousness. Locke also spoke of the role of education in cultivating “international-mindedness.”888 Art, education, as well as philosophy were venues through which Locke sought to move the world.


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