Charles Taylor’s Multiculturalism

Taylor, Charles, Amy Gutmann, and Charles Taylor. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

This book was initially put together as a means of thinking through Multiculturalism through a single essay, Taylor’s “The Politics of Recognition,” but this new edition synthesizes this monumental essay with separate essays on Multiculturalism by Habermas and Appiah.

Gutmann – Introduction

Amy Gutmann’s (UPenn) introduction serves to begin the volume by noting the impersonality of political institutions and the neutrality of the public sphere. Should this sphere interfere with personal recognition and reflected identities? Her conclusion, with little evidence for the fact (it’s a presupposition, naturally), is that liberal states are obligated to help disadvantaged groups preserve their culture against intrusions, and to be acknowledged rather than ignored.

Good thing Gutmann’s summary isn’t quite as well respected as Taylor’s primary essay, or else we might all be in deep shit. Her belief is that “the less powerful cannot possible hope to have their standards win out” and seems to conclude that common standards must therefore be subject to an overwhelming and somewhat excessive amount of resistance by minority groups (18). I would argue that history is in fact an oscillation of antagonisms fighting for hegemony, and though it may perhaps seem unlikely, the chances of one ideology “winning out” are possible and the consequences of such should be considered before resorting to extremism.

At any rate, Gutmann separates the Particular from the Universal in respect to Multiculturalism, which is good enough for now.

Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition”

I – Identity Crisis

Taylor emphasizes the modern importance of identity and uses Fanon’s argument of colonial identity to drive this point home. Identity is shaped both by recognition and misrecognition (as if you could really separate the two), and this recognition is internalized, yet to be free identities, one must feel obligated “to purge themselves of this imposed and destructive identity” (26). There are two historical changes that lead Taylor to this conclusion, first being the collapse of social hierarchies in modernity, and the notion of dignity rather than honor—we must be recognized as we are in order to carry ourselves as we want to be. Democracy itself has ushered in a politics of equal recognition.
As usual, Taylor takes us through classical writers, this time Rousseau and Herder pop up to show that identity is firstly an individual/moral matter of bringing out a hidden inside, and secondly a “culture-bearing people among other peoples,” the Volk (31). With these combined, perhaps, one maintains authenticity.
“In order to understand the close connection between identity and recognition, we have to take into account a crucial feature of the human condition that has been rendered almost invisible by the overwhelmingly monological bent of mainstream modern philosophy” (32). This philosophy is of course known as French Critical Theory. To establish recognition one must have a concept of the self, which Taylor posits is a self of dialogic interaction. He uses George Herbert Mead’s concept of “significant others” who to examine a struggle in our own identities, that through a dialogue, bring out our true intentions and culture. Identity is first who we are and what we care about, and secondly where we’re from—our ethnicity, gender, culture. Even the artist on the mountain engages in dialogue with the “eternal nature,” or, like Thoreau, must go into the woods to “see what it had to teach me.”
All forms of identity come out of a dialogue, yet a form of dependence will always exist because the very concepts to define ourselves are taken from society and our dialogic partners (this is where the deconstructionists might have a field day). Yet to Taylor, identity doesn’t necessarily succumb to this stymie, but can “win out” among these forces to produce a real authenticity. One means of doing this is through Love Relationships, which are “crucial because they are the crucibles of inwardly generated identity,” as well as a politics of equal recognition that will give the subject agency over the own image, rather than projecting a demeaning image that they must internalize.

II – Politics of Difference (Univ v. Partic)

The Universal v. the Particular comes up in this section as two forms of Liberalism, one which emphasizes the universal individual and grants him/her certain rights, and one that calls for recognition of collective identities. To Taylor, one must recognize the potential of each culture rather than merely the actions that that culture has taken historically. The reasons for this, is that by considering the historical trends of a culture, we’re always dissecting that culture within our own standards of “greatness,” and not considering their own standards.
The Universal argument, which Taylor calls essentialism, posits that each individual be free to choose or not choose an identity through a neutral state and neutral institutions—the counter-argument of course, is that those neutral institutions are in fact cultural institutions that reflect a Western hegemony. Taylor believes these cultural institutions, through Multiculturalism, should be engaging in a dialogue within the Public Sphere (the Politics of difference), yet not to take this dialogue as a “pragmatic contradiction,” a belief that we’re giving cultures their chance, but in the end, we all know which theory is universal. We must first admit that we don’t have certainty yet.

III Politics of Equal Dignity

Identity in Public should in no way influence identity in private, these spheres should be considered separately, or so thought Rousseau. Politics of Equal Dignity focuses on perfect reciprocity (ala Riceour), which is nearly impossible in a society of competition and hierarchical honor (‘Unethical Capitalism’). To Rousseau, amore proper (pride) is the sin that causes people to give unequal dignity to another, and therefore no relationship can be perfectly reciprocal without “equal dignity”.
My commentary on this may be meaningless, but amore proper and equal dignity don’t appear to me as mutually exclusive categories, one’s pride might be, in fact, engendered by their perfect reciprocity with others—that by respecting others as equal to oneself establishes a pride in both giving and receiving recognition from a respectable party. This is Hegel’s point as well, and possibly Taylor’s. Certainly not Rousseau’s.
An equality of self-esteem and dignity requires a unity of purpose. Perfect reciprocity must treat others as the ends, not the means to a selfish ends, and Rousseau’s argument that freedom, non-differentiated roles and purpose must all function together, leave the door wide open for homogenizing tyranny, but it’s a good place to start.

IV – Nation/Exclusion

Collective identities, in every instance, are just as exclusive as they are inclusive, and therefore should only occur within a state that strives for neutrality (ethical) and universalism. Yet such a state might seem impossible, as every constitution is based on a concept of ‘virtue’ and ‘value’. “A liberal society must remain neutral on the good life…citizens deal fairly with each other and the state deals equally with all” (57). Such a state, to Taylor, is possible under the rubric that freedom of choice and common goals be given to each individual, for the liberal system will always sponsor certain privileges for a level of conformity (Capitalism itself does that) yet these privileges are always optional. Such collective goals then may appear to one’s disadvantage, and therefore a uniformity of institutional obligation should be strived for as well (as in, education and canon formation).

V – Multiculturalism

MC firstly, imposes cultures on others (imposes dialogue), which forces questioning and consideration, and secondly, assumes the superiority of the hegemonic culture, since one doesn’t find a “white studies” group in ethnic studies—it is always a reverse implication by pointing out the ethnicity of the other.
MC does attempt to free ethnic subjects from the imposition of the dominant image upon the “subjugated,” (Fanon). MC is instituted first as a “culture for them,” so that minorities may learn their own roots and heritage in a “neutral” setting, and as a way to extract from these cultures their universal “use for us”—such a dynamic of “us and them” already undermines equal dignity and recognition.
We owe all cultures to ‘investigate their worth’ and to, after deep consideration, allow these cultures to cause a transformation of standards, taking each culture on their own terms of what constitutes ‘worth’ (67). Taylor isn’t suggesting an objective ‘worth,’ (he has little patience for Critical theory’s Subjectivism, as I do as well…) but that these standards are expressions of likes and dislikes—endorses or rejects another culture. To enact such an ‘objectivity’, one must ‘presuppose worth’ in these cultures until they can thoroughly be examined in the public sphere.
The ‘packaging’ of these cultures is a different matter, but can lead to an officious respect and a direct patronization. Any favorable judgment or rejection “on demand” is nonsense, says Taylor, and one must be willing to shift our own standards, realizing new judgments through other culture’s heritage.
The story of Multiculturalism, to Taylor, is a means to an end, a comparative cultural study from which the relative worth of different cultures might appear evident.

Comment – Susan Wolf

Wolf emphasizes that Taylor’s main point considers MC as it appears to the normative, while there is still reason to have MC “for the ethnics,” which is how it began anyway, and therefore doesn’t need substantive justification when it is ethnic cultures discovering themselves. Wolf also notes that being a woman has included fighting stereotypes for generations, and proposes that this stereotyping may be one disadvantage of multiculturalism—for not all women want to be identified as such, just as all races don’t feel it necessary to have “cultural pride”.

Comment – Steven C. Rockefeller

The noted philanthropist says: “out universal identity as human begins is our primary identity and is more fundamental than any particular identity” (88). Hey! We could have argued about this Universal and Particularism bullshit for another decade or so, why does Mr. Money-bags get to ruin our fun?
The fact is that a constitutional state, and a democracy, “will always challenge cultures to abandon those intellectual and moral values that are inconsistent with the ideals of freedom, equality, and the ongoing cooperative experimental search for truth and well-being” (92). Rockefeller predicts the ends of Multiculturalism, as a revelation of a harsh truth that “upon close scrutiny some cultures may not be found to be of equal value” (94). This may cause an extremism of fundamental religions and an outbreak of national politics. Rockefeller thus pleads for a framework of mutual respect founded on recognition of the intrinsic worth of all cultures. All cultures must have something of value, and if they don’t, it’s perhaps in our best interest to pretend that they do. That last part was my parody and an implication that I have trouble with.

Comment – Michael Walzer

Walzer insists that these ethnic minorities did come to America for a reason, knowing full well that they are leaving behind their ethnic origins, and that any resurrection of such staple minority stereotypes isn’t in any way going to compensate, and will be completely different from their origins anyways. Yet—fight on!

Habermas – Struggles for Recognition

To Habermas, acquisition of agency is primary as a resolution between the Universal and Particular—one must recognize the other as the agent, the author of their own laws and identities; their personal life project. “A correctly understood theory of rights requires a politics of recognition that protects the integrity of the individual in the life contexts in which his or her identity is formed”, yet the relevance of these differences that are imposed and created by collective identities, must be debated in the public sphere, and this is separate from the rights both to belong to and to reject a culture (113).

The Phenomena

Attempting to be a part of the law is a legal problem, for once a nationality is created, minorities within that nation will appear right along side it. To be a part of a collective identity must first mean that there are restricted cultural definitions for exclusion, though this trend develops as an effort to maintain and develop their identity, there will always be those who do not care for it, even internally to that ethnicity. Therefore, to Habermas, introducing Multiculturalism into the legal sphere would present exclusive minorities with unequal rights.

The Permeation of the State by Ethics
The concept of “the good life” is always inherent in the state, and for MC to penetrate this, it must develop discussion about a shared conception of the good and a desired form of life that is acknowledged to be authentic. Battles between ethnic minorities on the ground of the public sphere are due to the penetration of ethics into the public sphere.

Coexistence and Preservation of the Species
The right to coexist and the right to “preserve culture” should be left as a choice to ethnic subjects as well as normative subjects. Not that the subject must choose between assimilation and tradition, but that they be given agency to act their own way vie Taylor’s notions of identity (dialogic identity), creating complex societies held together “by a consensus on the procedures for the legitimate enactment of laws and the legitimate exercise of power” (135).

Habermas separates assimilation into (1) autonomy and reason, playing by the rules of the nation, and (2) habituated, cultural conditioning. Obviously, the U.S. for now, ascribes to (1) while less democratic societies (including Germany) are somewhere in the middle, though (2) is in effect in places like Poland.

Anthony Appiah – Identity, Authenticity, Survival

Appiah points out an irony in the “ideal subject,” noting that to an African American, resistance to the white order is part of a collective identity, yet at the same time, that very identity is striving for recognition from the “white norm”—how can such an ideal both be so exclusive and yet rely on the outsiders for recognition? This is the flaw of multiculturalism as well, and Appiah sees the split in identity as (1) a Dialogic identity and (2) a structured identity reliant on language and familiar concepts. Multiculturalism seeks to bridge these two by “presuppose[ing] conceptions of collective identity that are remarkably unsubtle in their understandings of the processes by which identities, both individual and collective, develop…collective identities disciplined by historical knowledge and philosophical reflection would be radically unlike the identities that now parade before us for recognition and would raise, as a result, questions different from those he addresses” (156).
In other words, Multiculturalism in practice is a superficial guise, does not cause “philosophical reflection,” but is used as compensation. MC thus bifurcates from its ideal into the superficial practice and its use in education as philosophy and history.
As a black and gay man, Appiah is afraid that MC encourages there to be “a black and gay mode of behavior” that is to be expected of him (160). This imposes a limitation on his autonomy through his own collective identity. Ultimately, Appiah wants agency for all people under a democracy, to be able to choose and to have options, and the skin and the body and the sexuality should not, across the boards, be seen as personal dimensions of the self, unless subjects have the agency to choose to identify meaningfully with those categories. Multiculturalism imposes a “demand that I organize my life around my “race” or sexuality,” and while some might be ok with that, others find it to be a stranglehold on their autonomy (163).


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