Pluralism, Plurality, and the Generation of Collective Wisdom

The New Pluralists and Plurality activists are rising to meet the challenges of rapidly increasing social division.  They aspire to enhance the ability of people to be civil, to communicate, and to work across their differences.  To these laudable aims, the co-intelligence framework suggests that diversity is a precious resource when it is appreciated and utilized for the generation of collective wisdom and resourcefulness. This is especially urgent now when we need to generate fundamental transformation in the face of the global metacrisis,

In the middle of all the culture wars, polarization, and hunger for unity – all natural during this stage of our societies’ evolution – pluralism itself is getting a new look from a number of players.  We find major philanthropies coalescing around the moniker “the new pluralists” and several groups – notably RadicalXChange and the Taiwanese digital ministry – exploring “plurality” as “collaboration across difference” (with major tech dimensions). 

Traditionally, pluralism is a political philosophy that values “diversity within a political body” and seeks to enable “the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions, and lifestyles.” Most pluralists advocate 
(1) listening to each other with “mutual respect, understanding or tolerance” to “understand them and their lives and their needs”, 
(2) “avoiding extremism” and 
(3) building “social institutions in order to reflect and balance competing principles”, especially “political structure most likely to harmonize” a diversity of views and interests using processes of “conflict and dialogue” to produce “a quasi-common good.”

While most pluralists focus on the co-existence of existing diversity, a related concept, pluralization, highlights the need for – and consideration of – “the emergence of new interests, identities, values, and differences” in evolving societies and to ensure social arrangements to accommodate that emergence.


This renewed interest in pluralism is a natural response to our current challenge of increasing social division.

The last century has seen major liberation struggles across a wide range of demographic categories and social identities – race, gender, culture, age, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, class, and more – and a consequent conservative backlash against these movements from those who sense threats to traditional identities, relationships and values. The resulting social turmoil has been variously framed in terms of oppression and privilege, culture wars, paradigm shifts, polarization, and more, but the disruption has become increasingly obvious and manipulated by special interests and power-seekers, both domestic and foreign.

All this has been augmented by disruptive forces of technological development, climate change, the Covid pandemic, ecological degradation, increasing income disparities, geopolitical challenges and other major disturbances that might in other circumstances have offered opportunities for unifying society but instead have been harnessed to the divisive dynamics of the demographic conflicts. Often this has produced “strange bedfellows” that defy the usual left-right orientation, adding to the chaos and sociopolitical dysfunction.

The big picture of all of this feeds into a growing Zeigeist of social collapse, against which the pluralist/plurality movement is rising.

One of the parallel developments in this Zeigeist is that the liberation and identity politics movements have claimed the word “diversity” to refer to the demographic identity differences they highlight, and “diversity work” to refer to efforts to address the power differentials that resulted in the early and ongoing oppression of those with marginalized identities in the first place. Use of these terms to apply more generally risks misunderstandings. 


The co-intelligence worldview – based on wholeness, interconnectedness and co-creativity – suggests a somewhat different take on these developments. For example, from that perspective, we might ask interesting questions like, “What would pluralism look like if we took wholeness, interconnectedness and co-creativity seriously?” or “What could pluralism ALSO be?” Among our responses might be the following:

First of all, we’d likely reclaim the full meaning of the word diversity to include not only contested demographics but the full ecosystem of human (and natural) differences, while honoring the role of individual uniqueness in generating collective diversity.

Secondly, we’d likely start viewing diversity more as a resource than as a problem or source of disturbance. We’d value differences instead as a source of greater understanding, possibility, relationship and quality of life generally. Towards these ends, we’d seek to maximize – or at least optimize within particular purposes – the levels and types of diversity we’d welcome, nurture and recruit.

Thirdly, we’d likely recognize that diversity can stretch beyond our tolerance level, at which point it tends to be a challenge to the extent that we aren’t thoroughly grounded in its value (which is true for the vast majority of us, most of the time). So we’d also value potent interactive engagement settings and processes that help us tolerate and creatively utilize diversity that might otherwise challenge our capacities.


Within the co-intelligence worldview, we value the framings of pluralism and plurality as tools to serve a larger goal: the generation of wholeness and of collective wisdom based on wholeness.  In fact, we value ALL tools that serve those ends.

Wholeness, in this case, can embrace the full community, the whole situation, the full range of facts and perspectives, the wholeness of the people and entities involved, the larger picture of context, history, future, and so on.  We see these as both resources to help us understand how to promote long-term broad benefits (wisdom) AND to call forth collective resources for furthering the positive possibilities implied by that wisdom.

So co-intelligence theory, like pluralism, centers diversity (in the fullest sense of that word), but only in the context of wholeness.  From a polarities (yin-yang) perspective, wholeness can be understood as a harmonious, dynamic marriage between unity and diversity. This profound framing includes – and also reaches far beyond – the usual aims of pluralism described above.

We consider this aspect of our work to be one facet of the emerging edge of pluralism’s evolution. Most importantly, we see its potential for generating interactions among significantly diverse entities and perspectives that could produce actionable collective wisdom that fosters life-serving transformational engagement with our planetary metacrisis.


So I sense an opportunity here for strategic conversations among systems thinkers, public engagement professionals, stakeholder collaboration consultants, technologists, group process innovators, philanthropists, and others to explore the strategic use of diversity and pluralism to promote the collective wisdom and systemic and cultural transformations needed for creatively meeting the metacrisis that is even now shaping the fate of our planet.

Into such a conversation we would bring the wise democracy “Sources of Wisdom” paper, which features the idea that diversity plus quality dialogue equals collective wisdom.  An ideal example of this would be convening a random selection of citizens AND a full spectrum of key stakeholders and helping them talk together until “there’s nothing left but the obvious truth” (thanks to Indigenous spokesman Oren Lyons for that phrase).  Given that the stakeholders would already be players in the issue domain being addressed, their collective realizations would simply go into effect through their usual networks and activities.

All the subsequent sources of wisdom listed in the above document – e.g., holistic and system sciences, spiritual/wisdom traditions, multiple intelligences, etc. – can be enhanced by seeing them as forms of diversity whose nascent wisdom can be tapped with proper dialogic and deliberative practices.

In addition, I see useful guidance in the wise democracy Prime Directive – appreciating, evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole – where “the whole” is understood to involve the interactive diversity envisioned by the ambitions of pluralism.

Likewise, I see potential guidance in salient wise democracy patterns, such as

I think the new pluralist visions could be greatly enhanced by the perspectives and technologies of plurality change agents and oriented towards vital transformation using the perspectives and technologies offered by the co-intelligence paradigm described above.


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Appreciating, evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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