Lost in the interpretation : the American idea in Horace M. Kallen's cultural pluralism
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For over six decades, social philosopher Horace Meyer Fallen (1882-1974) developed two interrelated concepts, cultural pluralism and the American Idea. Cultural pluralism as a philosophy that grants paramount value to maintaining cultural diversity has been acknowledged as the precursor to multiculturalism. In educational discussions today, multiculturalists often identify cultural pluralism as the philosophical wellspring for their own commitments while opponents identify it as a misguided basis for current practice. While advocates and opponents alike have analyzed Fallen's commitment to cultural pluralism, his commitment to what he labeled the American Idea has attracted less attention. To trace the development of cultural pluralism and the American Idea as integral parts of a single, overarching vision, this study examines the following works: "Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot" (1915), Culture and Democracy in the United States (1924), Individualism: An American Way of Life (1933), The Liberal Spirit (1948), Cultural Pluralism and the American Idea (1956), Philosophical Issues in Adult Education (1962), and What I Believe and Why - Maybe (1971). In these works Kallen reconceptualizes liberty, union, democracy, and freedom according to their functions within the constructs of cultural pluralism and the American Idea. Within these constructs, areas of ambiguity remain including the ontological status assigned to individuals and groups, the distinction between "internal" cultural and "external" political spheres, and the ancestral and contractual potentialities constitutive of freedom. Kallen's relevance to the current debate is most evident in the creative appropriations of his ideas. Since Kallen's philosophy is characterized by a narrative sweep that supports shifting metaphysical and ontological claims, his work has been used selectively in support of competing ideologies. Taken as a whole, Kallen's message is more subtle than either his critics or supporters imply. Tensions in the American Idea, still unresolved, point to the complexities involved in embracing an ideal that encompasses the energies and hopes of a culturally plural nation.