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On the Nature of the Concept of Tolerance

On the Nature of the Concept of Tolerance Essay on three conferences delivered by Andrei Pleșu, Mircea Dumitru and Horia-Roman Patapievici

[Note for Romanian readers: the three conferences are reunited in the volume Pleșu, A.; Dumitru, M. & Patapievici, H.R. (2005). Toleranţa şi intolerabilul. Criza unui concept. București:, available here:

  1. Issues to be discussed 

I would like to discuss the following issues related to the concept of tolerance (the concept of intolerance can be derived, relatively un-problematically, from that of tolerance):

  1. the nature (source) of the concept of tolerance
  2. the definition (based on sufficient predicates) of the concept of tolerance
  3. the conceptual typology of tolerance
  4. semiotic (semantic, syntactic and pragmatic) correlations of the concept of tolerance
  5. the phenomenology of tolerance (the logical history of the concept of tolerance)

In this sequence I will only discuss the first issue, related to the nature of the concept of tolerance. In next interventions the other four issues will be approached. 

  1. The nature of the concept of tolerance 

The interventions from which I start appeal to almost all the possibilities of the concept of tolerance origination: from the epistemological approach, going through utilitarianism to the moral one.

Firstly, the question of the source of the concept is to be discussed: is it of individual nature or, as the three preopinents (less explicitly H.R. Patapievici) think, it is a relational concept that appears conditionally when at least two individuals interact. In fact, this question is secondary, since the primitive question is the following: is the human being, by its nature, a social individual or not? The question can be put in still more general terms regarding the cognoscible existence in general: it seems that nature has not created any individual, of any species, as a singular individual[1]. The unanswerable proof here is the way chosen by nature to ensure intergenerational perpetuation of species: sexual reproduction[2], involving at least two individuals of the same species[3]. This observation leads us to the conclusion that the “gene” of the social is immanent to the human individual. If so, human sociality does not need any transcendence (such as, for example, relationship with another individual) to be “awakened” or activated. It therefore appears that tolerance (which is a species of sociality) must be considered to be the contingent effect of a necessary constitutive parameter of human’s mental structure, that is to say, the human nature. If we accept the view according to which tolerance can only be expressed in inter-actions, then it would not depend on human nature, but on human culture (in fact, this is the implicit point of view – but it is explicitly in the case of A. Pleşu – of all three contributions to the debate). However (either the possibility of tolerance is of human nature or of human condition[4]), tolerance (or intolerance) is only identifiable in the shipwake of the act (either affirmative: to do, or negative: to abstain). In this sense, indeed, the operationalization of the concept of tolerance implies alterity, as A. Pleşu argues. However, this alterity is not necessary, but contingent, because, as we have said, sociality is already inside the individual before its activation through the pressure of alterity (or the pressure of transcendence).

Secondly, the idea is whether tolerance is an epistemological concept. None of the interventions demonstrates this aspect. As far as we are concerned, we believe that, ultimately, the concept of tolerance is not part of epistemology. If so, tolerance would not simply exist. In other words, it would not be necessary in the logical sense of the term of necessity. Thus, if an individual agrees to an epistemological opinion expressed by another individual (which means that he/she accepts the value of the truth expressed by that opinion solely based on the content of that opinion[5]), then tolerance is devoid of purpose. If, on the contrary, that individual does not appeal to that opinion, tolerance is also devoid of object[6]. Therefore, if we look at tolerance in an epistemological key, then it does not find its reason to exist. Consequently, in our opinion, the examples (especially in the case of A. Pleşu) with the manifestation of tolerance in relation to the truth of opinions would be appropriate for the examination of other concepts (truth as an inter-individual consensus, cultural filters in communication, etc.) but not for the concept of tolerance.

Thirdly, we recall that in the economics of the discussion that we are glossing here, there is a point expressed by H.R. Patapievici, according to which the truth of an opinion is guaranteed by the correctness of the syntactic calculation of the sentence presented as a vehicle (i.e., as a sign or, more precisely, as a macro sign) of that opinion. In our opinion, here we are dealing with replacing a criterion of truth (factual correspondence) with a criterion of coherence (syntactic correctness). Syntactic correctness leads exclusively to well-constructed (or “legally” built) sentences but not necessarily to true sentences (although contingently, these sentences may also be true). Until now, we do not have a criterion of truth in general, we have only a criterion of “regional” truth, namely a criterion for scientific truth: it is the factual falsifiability introduced by K. Popper. H.R. Patapievici simply extrapolates the criterion of factual falsification to a criterion of logical (or syntactic) falsification. The questioning of Gödel’s contribution through his famous theory of indecisiveness[7] refers only to the aspect of logical coherence and has nothing to do with the question of truth.

Fourthly, tolerance cannot, in our view, be than merely a practical concept. This point of view is expressed in the clearest way by A. Pleşu. However, here are a series of very tricky issues that must be at least mentioned (though, further discussions should probably be provoked in an attempt to elucidate them):

  • Tolerance is always a “lactation” of behaviour. It is inappropriate to use the term of tolerance per se. In fact, only behaviour is (or is not) tolerant (or intolerant). By extension (somewhat scientifically “unlawful”), it is also said about a person that he/she is (or is not) tolerant (or intolerant), but also in this case it must be taken into consideration the behaviour that is associated with that person. In this context, it must therefore be stated that tolerance is always assigned to a behaviour or to a person manifesting itself in a behaviour (of course, the behaviour in question may be potential[8] not just actual). Therefore, tolerance, although grounded in individual nature, has a vehicle that targets it, namely the behaviour[9]. No individual can be qualified as tolerant (or intolerant) outside the framework of a behaviour that is assigned to it. Just examining the structure of that behaviour can qualify it from the perspective of tolerance. So discussing tolerance in the case of an individual who cannot interact[10] with another individual (i.e., who cannot exteriorize himself towards other individual) is meaningless[11].
  • Tolerance is not a concept inside the universe of utilitarian rationality. All three contributors to the debate consider (more or less implicitly) the idea that tolerance (more precisely, as above, tolerant behaviour) is the result of a utilitarian[12] Of course, if we accept the most widespread definition of the concept of rationality (that is, the permanent suitability of means to purpose), then tolerance simply disappears as a logical, epistemological and practical necessity. Therefore, the concept of tolerance, as a fruit of utilitarian rationality, does not exist. The behaviour based on utilitarian calculation is justified whatever it is (including a crime can be justified on the basis of this type of rationality[13]). If, on the other hand, we accept or formulate a more general definition of rationality (or rational), for example as representing the formulation of a decision (or outward-looking behaviour) based on a founding principle, then the discussion may continue for a while (see lower).
  • Tolerance could be a concept in the universe of non-utilitarian rationality. As we know, the theory of knowledge requires, in order to establish the truth of an opinion (verbally expressed), the cumulative verification of two conditions: a) the propositional content of the opinion corresponds to the corroboration[14] of a factual accessible to the experience; b) the opinion should be based on a primitive principle (logically previous to the opinion in question). This second condition could “save” the conception of rationalistic (or rational) tolerance: thus, tolerance could be considered a rational concept, but this kind of rationality is not utilitarian, but non-utilitarian. According to Schopenhauer’s proposal[15], a calculation is not enough to understand (so for comprehension), that is why intuition is needed. Intuition can only be guided by a grounding principle (by definition, the grounding principle does not need explanation for itself). The logical consequence of this ideas chain is that tolerance must be a moral, non-utilitarian concept. Again, we come to the suggestion of the same Schopenhauer[16], which shows that there are only two types of moral behaviour[17]: a) redeeming behaviour: which requires acts that are capable of avoiding making the evil; b) charitable behaviour: which requires acts of nature to produce the good. Both types of behaviours can be manifested both as “do” and “do not” (or abstain) acts. Therefore, tolerance can only be manifested in two hypostases: the redeeming hypostasis, and the charitable hypostasis, respectively.
  • Eliminating of the consequentiality from the evaluation of the concept of tolerance (which is especially discussed by M. Dumitru in the conference referred to here) avoids the application, on the concept of tolerance, of the Kantian maxim on the moral behaviour. Applying the Kantian maxim (behave according to a norm regarding which you would agree to be generalized to the behaviour of all) would confer tolerance to a consequential character (or hypothetical character in Kantian terminology or utilitarian character in the terminology used in this paper). So, tolerance, as a moral concept (subject to at most a non-utilitarian rationality), is categorical, that is, unconditional[18]. Therefore, I cannot agree with the three contributors about the calculation of tolerant or intolerant behaviour: tolerant behaviour is not generated by a consequential calculation, but by a non-utilitarian[19]

Fifthly, tolerance does not involve ontological levels. H.R. Patapievici attempts to introduce the idea that tolerance would mean, in fact, the recognition that the person who “tolerates” is on an ontological level that transcends the ontological level in which the object of tolerance is actualized. The idea of ​​reality levels is extracted from Basarab Nicolescu’s ideational[20]. In fact, by the concept of reality level, B. Nicolescu wanted to offer a more general paradigm for accepting a logic of the included third party (generally allowing trivalent or, more generally, multi-valent logic). However, these levels of reality are not ontological, but only epistemological (or, more generally, gnoseological). Hence, H.R. Patapievici’s suggestion seems to me irrelevant, though attractive in metaphysical terms. In our opinion, there may be levels of analysis of the concept of tolerance, but these levels are neither ontological (because they do not transcend order levels) nor epistemological (because, as we have already shown, the truth has no relevance for the concept of tolerance), but possibly of a practical type (introducing possible levels of behaviour; here we would note the correct insistence of A. Pleşu, for the practical key to defining the concept of tolerance). These new openings go beyond the accepted issue for the first issue dealt with here: that of the nature of the concept of tolerance. They will be addressed in developments that will address the other four issues announced to be debated. 

  • Some conclusions on the nature of the concept of the tolerance 
  1. tolerance is an attribute of human nature; it subsist, in historically conditioned forms, in the human condition;
  2. tolerance is not an epistemic (or epistemological) concept, but a practical one;
  3. tolerance is a mark of behaviour, it does not exist per se;
  4. tolerance implies alterity (transcendence), because its form of existence is the inter-action;
  5. tolerance subsists in the universe of the consciousness, of the rationality; it is not an irrational feeling, but a rational artefact;
  6. tolerance does not imply utilitarian rationality, it is not a consequential concept, but a categorical (non-conditioned) [21] one;
  7. tolerance is a rational concept of a moral type – it can only be of two categories: of a redeeming or a charitable type;
  8. tolerance does not imply the ontological, but the practical (not even the praxiological) [22].


[1] The only case that we know for sure so far is that it is of the singular type is God’s (with regard to Jesus Christ, things can be further nuanced).

[2] Cases of asexual reproduction also necessarily imply the existence of more than one individual for objective reasons of reproduction probability (even if we assume that there were species of one individual, he could not perpetuate or, according to the statistical calculation, could not perpetuate).

[3] Moreover, as is known from the theory of evolution, the very definition of the species is based on the concept of reproduction: two individuals belong to the same species if and only if they can physically mate and the result of mating is viable, that is, in turn, capable of physical mating.

[4] Human condition is the result of the action of human culture (for example, the ensemble of institutions) on human nature. Practically, in today’s societies, human nature is under a thick, often opaque, “sleep” of the human condition. Only very subtle steps (such as the case of psychoanalysis) can see, under this “curtain”, the canvas of human nature. Most attempts to “see” human nature are, unfortunately, rather of a metaphysical nature, which lacks the control of the scientific validity of the results obtained.

[5] If the acceptance of the truth value of an external view is made outside the demonstration contained in that opinion (for example, outside a demonstration based on factual correspondence), we are dealing with accepting a value of truth based on faith. In our opinion, the faith is not part of the “territory” of epistemology, although it can be accepted in the wider “territory” of gnoseology. From another perspective, accepting the truth based on faith lies on the territory of mysticism, defined as an intuitive, non-discursive knowledge (not only about divinity, of course, but in general).

[6] Of course, otherwise it would be if we had a deontological opinion.

[7] The question of in-decidability refers to the impossibility, of necessary type, to show the truth or falsity of all possible propositions to be (correctly, “legally”) built into an axiomatic epistemological system within that system. In other words, in an axiomatic logical system (which includes at least the arithmetic) there will be at least one syntactically correct sentence that cannot be demonstrated in that system either as being true or as being false, so there will be at least a correctly constructed sentence that is in-decidable about its truth. Let us say that there is no question here about a correspondence truth, but simply about a “truth” of consistency. Correspondence truth is a truth that involves the transcendent (the factual that lies outside the sentence in question), while the “truth” of consistency does not imply the transcendent. The solution to the in-decidability of Gödel is, as we know, the construction of a logical meta-system of axiomatic type, including the first, and in which the in-decidable proposition in the initial system becomes decidable in the expanded system. Unfortunately, this new system will contain at least one in-decidable proposition inside it and so on, ad infinitum. Let us observe that the mentioned solution (the shift to another axiomatic logical system of higher order as a scope) simply signifies the appeal to transcendence in relation to the first system.

[8] Here the attribute of potential has the significance given to it by Aristotle.

[9] Behaviour is (according to cybernetic theory) the manifestations of a system that is formed by the outputs to the environment of that system (there may be other systems of the same type or of a different type in relation to the system in question). In other words, behaviour is the objectification of an intentionality (we find here exactly the definition of the act – either in the positive meaning of „doing" or in the negative meaning of “abstaining”).

[10] Of course, inter-action does not necessarily means contemporaneity: we inter-act with both Jürgen Habermas and Plato.

[11] For example, an individual who listens to an opinion expressed verbally in a language he/she does not understand will not have a reaction to that opinion. If he/she has no reaction, that does not mean that he/she is tolerant or intolerant, but simply that the issue of tolerance is meaningless in this case (by language abuse, we may say he/she is tolerant). What can be said about the case, although it does not understood anything from the expressed opinion, does an individual have a reaction (whatever it is) to the individual of that opinion, obscure for him? Probably anything can be said, but nothing like tolerance/intolerance.

[12] From J. Bentham to C.S. Peirce, we have a whole phenomenology (in the Hegelian sense of the term) of the concept of truth as a utility. The anchoring of the concept of tolerance to the utilitarian trailer (or, more generally, to the trailer of pragmatism) has the effect, in our opinion, of completely emptying the content of the concept in question. In fact, in this context, tolerance is nothing more than another term (unnecessary) for the concept of computational utility.

[13] Let’s recall the unhealthy enthusiasm that Nobel Laureate for Economics (in 1992), American economist Gary Becker, has “calculated” economic behaviour in non-economic areas simply applying cost-benefit calculations. There are also political philosophers (or politicians) who do the same (in a way equally wrong, in our opinion), for example A. Downs (see An Economic Theory of Democracy, translated into Romanian at the European Institute Publishing House in 2009), which applies the cost-benefit calculation to the decision on the vote of political parties in the elections.

[14] As it is well-known, an opinion cannot be factually verified, bit only corroborated of refuted.

[15] See his work On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, translated into Romanian by Humanitas Publishing House in 2008.

[16] See his book The Fundamentals of Morals, published by Antet Publishing House in 2011.

[17] By moral behaviour, we will understand that behaviour that is not assigned to any calculation, without thereby becoming i-rational. Moral behaviour remains within the rational or, in any case, in the universe of consciousness, but apart from a utilitarian, i.e. computational rationality.

[18] It is obvious that subordination to a principle of grounding does not give, eo ipso, a hypothetical character to the subordinated concept. The degradation of categorical character to the hypothetical character is caused only by subordination related to a utility principle.

[19] However, the calculation (i.e., the result of the operation of a certain rationality model) must not be ruled out, because in this case we will remain exclusively in the territory of freedom where the free will ends (according to J. Derrida, liberty begins there or when finishes the calculation)

[20] Especially in his works (books and articles) that refer to the concept of trans-disciplinarity.

[21] Here the categorical predicate is Kantian, well-known.

[22] The praxiological is interested in the individual-nature relationship (even if it involves inter-individual relationships, which are only means for the purpose of the action on the nature), while the practical is interested in the individual-individual relationships.



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