The Historical Materialist Solution to Isaiah Berlin’s Value Pluralism

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.11, 2013


The Historical Materialist Solution to Isaiah Berlin’s Value Pluralism



Ma Depu


Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism was proposed largely as a response to the monism in mainstream Western cultural traditions, with a view to providing new universal evidence for liberalism. And yet, some variations in Berlin’s statements in different periods placed him in an awkward situation between absolutism and relativism, triggering heated disputes. Berlin’s awkwardness can be chiefly ascribed to a lack of historical materialist perspective in the understanding of value phenomena. Marx and Engels led historicism onto the way of materialism. Historical materialism not only provides a more effective approach to understanding social and historical phenomena, but also points the direction for value analysis to avoid the paradoxical situation between absolutism (universalism) and relativism. In the historical materialist view, contextuality and appropriateness, pluralism and holism, and conflict and coordination are three fundamental pairs of notions used in analyzing and understanding value phenomena and in guiding value options. The analysis of value pluralism from the historical materialist perspective leaves little room for the existence of absolutism or universalism, thereby avoiding the indiscriminate theoretical trap of relativism.