Values and Pluralism in International Cultural Relations: A Return to Wittgenstein

Stuart MacDonald FRSA
SYM Consulting
doi: 10.18278/aia.3.1.6

The philosopher Wittgenstein is highly relevant today to thinking about how words such as “values” are being used today, or whether such discourses have any meaning. Wittgenstein starts by asserting that we are permanently incapable of ascertaining the adequacy or ultimate “truth” of our descriptions and claims (Moore 2010). This is because there is no Archimedean point, no position from which we can evaluate how well our ideas map onto the real world that we presume to exist independent of our concepts. Rather, whatever evaluations we make of meaning or meaninglessness, of truth or falsehood, of utility or uselessness, are made from within our cultural context.

An example of an area, where “values” are discussed, is that of the nature of the power of the European Union (Damro 2012; Rosamond 2014), where the question is whether the EU’s approach to its external action is driven by norms or values, or by interests, or indeed whether it makes any sense, to draw a sharp analytical distinction between interest-driven and norm (or value)-driven action.

An excellent example of this is the speech by the EU’s High Representative, Federica Mogherini, at the Culture Forum in Brussels in 2016, which is worth quoting at length: “Probably no other place in the world has the same cultural ‘density’ as Europe… We should not be afraid to say we are a cultural super-power.” She concluded her speech by saying “Cultural diplomacy is not just a hobby for intellectuals. It is a cornerstone in our relationship with today’s world. It is vital for Europe, to promote our interests and advance our values.”

Mogherini’s final sentence could hardly be clearer, or more confusing. Can we really serve our own interests and advance our values at the same time? Given this, I started to look into what philosophy could tell us that might help. The answer might be “not much,” but there are grounds if not for optimism, then certainly for keeping up the good work.

This paper owes everything to (in fact is largely a paraphrase of) an excellent paper by Matthew J. Moore, in which he considers Wittgenstein, value pluralism, and politics. Why Wittgenstein? The answer is partly personal interest—I have been fascinated by Wittgenstein’s writing, especially Culture and Value for many years. Wittgenstein provides a way for us to evaluate seemingly incompatible forms of life. However, I suggest below that these incompatibilities can be the basis of social policy that increases cooperation rather than conflict in plural societies.

The paper starts by considering Wittgenstein’s account of difference, whether people can have different values, and whether they have a common vocabulary to discuss these values. The paper then considers the implications of this plurality, and of the potential for relativism to, in effect, destroy any possibility of making valid judgments about the values of others. It concludes by returning to Wittgenstein’s view that we can live our lives neither without our values, nor without understanding that our values are relative to those of others.


Wittgenstein argues that people exist and acquire meaning through their participation in different “Forms of Life.”[1] He intended both a singular and a plural use of the concept, with “a single human form of life characterised by innumerable forms of human life” (Moyal-Sharrock 2015:21). The concept pre-dates Wittgenstein, and it was not central to his work, but it can indicate a way of living (a culture) (see Hacker 2015).

If we extend this analysis to include normative as well as descriptive language, we can argue that people from different “forms of life” may have radically different values or moral beliefs, and that they may lack a common vocabulary with which to argue and attempt to persuade each other.

On this reading, moral values can be plural, precisely because they float free of any objective, universal standard, or criterion against which to evaluate and rank them. If that is truly the case, political cooperation appears to become much more difficult, since we have no reasonable expectation that all the citizens of a polity will (or can be brought to) endorse the same values or institutions. That kind of plurality among citizens threatens either chaos (the inability to achieve stable social cooperation) or oppression (the achievement of cooperation only by the suppression of principled dissent).

Words (such as “values”) get their meaning from how they are used, from their place in a form of life. In that sense, they are “conventional.” A good example of this tendency is the Russian approach to “soft power.” On the one hand, there is no doubt that Russian culture has made a profound contribution to the world and that on the face of it, there should be no difficulty for Russia to achieve a prominent standing through soft power. Russian foreign policy, however, is shaped by Russia’s specific experience, and by the often-negative aspects of Russian history. Soft power means something different to Russia than it means in the West. Of course, the term soft power is highly contested everywhere, but it is clear that for Russia, it has come to be seen as part of “hybrid war” or economic counter-sanctions, which would align it more with Western ideas of “hard power” or “smart power” (Rutland and Kazantsev 2016).

Moral language gets its meaning, and moral claims their truth or falsity, by reference to one’s form of life. If a form of life is internally complex or fragmented—if, for example, it contains conflicting religious traditions—then it may well contain values that conflict. To the extent that an individual participates in multiple such traditions, she or he may personally hold values that, upon reflection, are both incompatible and incommensurable with one another.

For the same reasons, it is possible that different groups of human beings will have different forms of life. Groups may disagree not only on the content of moral values, but perhaps even on the grammar of expressing them. If we find ourselves confronted with apparent value plurality, it is possible that the only possible basis of eventual agreement is if we find that we share enough of a form of life to ground a common meaning or understanding. There is no reason to believe that such agreement must always be available, and persistent disagreement is itself evidence that we do not share enough of a form of life to agree on these questions. To the extent that our value terms have conflicting meanings—or that our value systems rank shared meanings in different ways—value will indeed be plural among us.


Precisely because we lack a metaphysical vantage point, we have only the way words are used as evidence of their meaning. This gives rise to two ideas: (1) that a plurality of values and interests appears to be inevitable; and (2) that this plurality gives rise to a normative obligation to toleration. Grappling with the strange and difficult ways of other forms of life suggests an implicit commitment to toleration. We can hear competing perspectives, and we can still make choices. Our lives with others do not have to amount to a zero-sum game; our choices do not have to reduce the other to unintelligibility. We can live by values other than the principle of agreement with oneself (Zerilli 2012). Similarly, Lawrence Hinman argues: “There is no absolute form of life in relation to which the validity of particular forms of life may be determined, yet the task which confronts us is the creation of a form of life in which contemporary competing forms of life can find their true expression” (1983:351).

If values really are conventional, and therefore relative to particular forms of life, there is no reason to think that all forms of life will hold liberal or tolerant values. There is no reason to think that all forms of life will see these views as positive—it seems perfectly plausible that there will be forms of life that reject liberal and tolerant views, and of course we know from experience that that is so, one has only to think of ISIS, but the list is long.

Nor is there any reason to think that all forms of life will respond to the fact of pluralism, including increased forms of pluralism in liberal societies themselves, by adopting an accommodating or tolerant attitude. Whatever response people make will inevitably be grounded in their form of life, and there is no reason to think that all forms of life will respond to value conflict in the same way (or even, as discussed below, that all individuals within a single form of life will do so). If we are going to take the contextual relativity of values seriously, we will have to recognise that there is no reason to believe that such value systems must overlap, though, of course, they may do so empirically.

Moreover, as social scientists and political theorists have long pointed out, we cannot assume that forms of life are internally consistent and homogeneous, so that every member will always respond to the same problem in the same way. Nor can we assume that forms of life are hermetically sealed off from one another, such that there can be no meaningful cross-cultural influence or exchange. Both assumptions are implausible as factual claims.

On the first point, if a form of life is a loose assemblage of language-games and social practices that are related in a variety of ways, it seems not only possible, but likely, that there will be internal contradictions within a form of life, language-games whose implications contradict other language-games, institutions that conflict with institutions, and so on. Even if it were true that there is a conservative tendency inherent in rooting meaning and knowledge in language-games and social practices, it seems that the very same process is likely to give rise to conflicts and competing interpretations within a single form of life.

Similarly, the porosity and complexity of a form of life suggest that it will be likely to have multiple lines of connection and interaction with other forms of life, which will also be internally complex and fragmented. Catholicism is part of the forms of life of both Mexico and the United States, and though it plays very different roles in the two countries, and despite the fact that the Catholic community is internally fragmented and conflictual, this commonality of faith clearly creates lines of communication across the national border. Just as forms of life are not internally monolithic, they are not externally sealed.


As we cannot know whether our words or our ideas are true in the deep sense of being necessary or connected to some external reality, debates about moral truth (like other kinds of truth) simply become pointless—they are irresolvable, and thus neither the dogmatist nor the skeptic can win. Rorty (1979, 1982) suggests, therefore, that we change the topic and talk about something else that we can talk about (like social policy).

This, of course, raises the problem of relativism. Since a commitment to one’s own form of life appears to be a condition of making meaning, and since the same must be true of those in other forms of life, there is apparently no way to evaluate forms of life from the outside—“my form of life, right or wrong.” Instead, we are condemned to saying that every form of life is correct in its own terms, and that no meaningful criticism of a form of life can be made from outside that form of life itself. As Ernest Gellner puts the point: “When, however, this levelling out, this relativism, is articulated in terms of entire cultures, it then places a cognitively cumulative culture on the very same level as stagnant and self-revering ones” (1984:251).

So, does the idea that acknowledging the relativity of one’s beliefs makes judgement logically impossible or incoherent? On this view, if I accept that my normative beliefs are the product of my culture, and if I accept that other, different beliefs are the products of other, different cultures, then I have no logical basis for claiming that my beliefs are either superior (or inferior) to anyone else’s. The lack of a universal standard of evaluation makes judgement impossible. This is a nihilistic position.

So is the idea of Nietzsche and others that recognising the relativity of our moral beliefs will slowly sap our willingness to act in accordance with them. If that is true, once we lose the idea that certain moral duties are universal obligations, and instead come to believe that they are merely contingent and context-relative ways of life, some combination of selfishness, ignorance, and apathy will lead us either into brutality or into a numb mediocrity. Discouraging.

Practical Cooperation

Practically, I have no choice but to proceed with my existing normative beliefs, whatever they are. However, the recognition that our beliefs are relative, does not do away with the human and social needs that those beliefs addressed. Forms of life are never logically consistent systems, but are accretions of habits, practices, games, mistakes, misunderstandings, and so on. Just as recognising our inability to know whether our perceptions are accurate, or our knowledge true, does not make it either necessary or possible for us to do away with them, so, too, recognising that our beliefs are contingent does not make it necessary or possible for us to discard them. I cannot pursue what I recognise as a decent life without having some beliefs about the subjects of morality, and I am not free to jettison or replace wholesale my existing conception of a decent human life.

My acknowledgement of the relativity of my beliefs or values may inspire me to reflect on their content, but it may not. What it will not, and cannot, do is to cast me loose from all beliefs. And since judgement is comparing my beliefs against my experience, if I have beliefs, I will continue to make judgements, including moral judgements.

Wittgenstein called upon us to be awake to the normative dimensions of our forms of life, to pay attention to the language-games that we actually play, to refuse to be unconsciously captured by any particular picture of how things “must be.” The goal is to strike the difficult balance between the inescapable necessity of having and acting on values and beliefs, and the intellectual rigour and flexibility that come from never believing that things must be as we currently think they are. Wittgenstein calls upon us to actually live our ethical and political lives, whatever their content, and to do so with our eyes open.


So, in terms of cultural relations, I may come across (or be forced by circumstance to live with) people with a very different form of life. The attitudes and actions I take towards these people are determined by my form of life, and to some extent by theirs. There may be a great deal of room for discussion and negotiation between our forms of life, or relatively little. Whatever efforts we make towards solving the problems of plurality will necessarily be determined by the substances and interactions of our forms of life. This is a real problem, in that it can tell me nothing about how I am to approach others. Each time I wonder what to do, I am directed back to my form of life, to the practices and beliefs of my community, in all their tangled glory.

How does all of this now relate back to pluralism? The concern is how we can live together despite the fact that we appear to have value systems that are incompatible, in the sense that they cannot be put into place simultaneously, and incommensurable, in the sense that we have no way to decide which system is the best. If we are committed to avoiding chaos (the inability to make laws and policies due to disagreement) and also to avoiding oppression (a situation in which someone is forced to obey laws that he or she rejects as immoral and unjust), the plurality of value judgments appears to pose a grave problem for social cooperation. We are merely left to make our way as best we can, using our existing normative and political resources.

It seems obvious, however, that pluralism does leave open some avenues of cooperation. To the extent that individuals or ways of life contingently share some (or many) values, they will be able to cooperate on the basis of moral principle. Societies and individuals who do not find themselves in such substantive agreement would be able to pursue a Hobbesian modus vivendi—cooperation inspired by each participant’s self-interest. Some societies would probably combine these two strategies, seeking principled agreement in some areas and a cooperation born of enlightened self-interest in others. That sounds like the practice of international relations. With luck, perhaps those thin bases of cooperation could be modified or strengthened over time, by the creation of interpersonal and cultural ties, the emergence of institutions that many people value for different reasons, or a change in people’s views due to a gradual convergence born of mutual respect.

Thus, instead of the traditional philosophical goal of political cooperation bounded by moral obligations, and instead of a mere Hobbesian ceasefire among mutually hostile parties, we could achieve a kind of layered pluralism, in which individuals and societies cooperate in a wide variety of ways, for a variety of reasons, some resting on moral duties, others on support for institutions, and yet others on various kinds of self-interest. We should also, whether we wish to find common ground or identify common interest, refrain from making claims about our values that undermine these goals. We should not, for example, proclaim that we will take action to force others to accept them as they are universally valid. There may be much to be dissatisfied with in such a vision, but that may be the world in which we find ourselves.


Stuart MacDonald FRSA is an experienced senior policy and academic expert with more than 20 years’ experience in international, educational/academic, cultural, social and public-sector reform roles. Stuart is currently the Director of SYM Consulting. Prior to that, in 2012, he founded and led the work of the Centre for Cultural Relations (CCR) at the University of Edinburgh. The CCR established itself as a leading focal point for interdisciplinary research, consultancy, and innovative professional development in international cultural relations in the digital age, producing a range of publications and events, and contributing to policy at UK and EU levels. Before 2012, Stuart worked in a wide range of leadership roles for the UK and Scottish Governments, specialising in cultural, educational and digital policy. 



[1] Form of life (German: Lebensform) is a technical term used by Ludwig Wittgenstein and others in the continental philosophy and philosophy of science traditions. Wittgenstein used the term consistently in his works Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty. It can be summarised as: “We do what we do because we assume a given form of life, which gives our actions, ourselves, and the world meaning. Form of life is what makes meaning itself possible.”



Damro, Chad. (2012) Market Power Europe, Journal of European Public Policy 19 (5): 682–699.

Gellner, Ernest. (1984) The Gospel According to Ludwig. The American Scholar 53: 243–263.

Hacker, Peter M.S. (2015) Forms of Life. Nordic Wittgenstein Review 4 (0): 1–20.

Hinman, Lawrence M. (1983) Can a Form of Life be Wrong?. Philosophy 58: 339–351.

Mogherini, Federica. (2016) Speech of the HR/VP Federica Mogherini at the Culture Forum in Brussels. <> (Accessed 7 May 2018).

Moore, Matthew J. (2010) Wittgenstein, Value Pluralism and Politics. Philosophy & Social Criticism 36 (9): 1113–1136.

Moyal-Sharrock, Daniele. (2015) Wittgenstein on Forms of Life, Patterns of Life, and Ways of Living, Nordic Wittgenstein Review 4 (0): 21–42.

Rorty, Richard. (1979) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Rorty, Richard. (1982) Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays 1972–1980. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rosamond, Ben. (2014) Three Ways of Speaking Europe to the World: Markets, Peace, Cosmopolitan Duty and the EU’s Normative Power. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 16 (1): 133–148.

Rutland, Peter, and Andrei Kazantsev. (2016) The Limits of Russia’s ‘Soft Power’. The Journal of Political Power 9 (3): 395–413.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1984) Culture and Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zerilli, Linda M.G. (2001). Wittgenstein: Between Pragmatism and Deconstruction. In The Legacy of Wittgenstein: Pragmatism or Deconstruction, eds. Ludwig Nagl and Chantal Mouffe, 25–41. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.