Marginalization and Multiculturalism, and Taylor's Politics of Recognition

Introductory Remarks by Thomas Wren

In our next class (February 27th) I would like to relate the theme of marginalization to another much-discussed topic, that of multiculturalism. What we have done over the last two or three weeks was most relevant to marginalized individuals, but it is now time to return to the issue of marginalized groups, whose paradigm case (for me at least) is that of a cultural group, using that term in the broad anthropological sense introduced at the beginning our the semester. When we meet I would also like to set the discussion within the context of another much-discussed topic, the liberal-communitarian debate, and so for your convenience I am also posting on the web a little encyclopedia article I've written about it. The issues of that debate, as well as the many related controversies over multiculturalism, are diabolically complex and vexing, full of tortures and tortuosities, and seem to be never-ending. In short, they are almost literally infernal -- and so we might be forgiven for thinking at this point of Dante's famous line at the beginning of The Inferno: "Lasciata ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" ("Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" -- or in the more forceful if less mellifluous Dutch translation that a friend found for me: "Laat af van alle hoop gij die hier binnentreedt").

Fortunately, there is someone who many be able to lead us through this conceptual and political hell, as Virgil led Dante, although I am afraid he has a few more critics than Virgil does -- though probably in his own day Virgil was not universally admired either. This someone is the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, author of numerous works at various levels of philosophical technicality. His most recent long work is Sources of the Self, published by Harvard University Press in 1989, from which the things he has written over the last five or six years have derived. I don't want to get into that book at all, but I should alert anyone not familiar with Taylor that this work, like his equally long book on Hegel written a few years before that, is based on an interactive view of human consciousness, according to which the structures of selfhoood are inherently social and dialogic.

The book I want to focus on in our forthcoming class is shorter and somewhat less technical. It is his groundbreaking book, the so-called Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, published in 1994. I say "groundbreaking" because it forced the issue of recognition (which until then was purely political) onto a philosophical plane, where it only now getting the analytical attention it deserves. And I say "so-called" because this edition is an expanded version of a book with a slightly different title, "Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition," itself an expansion of an inaugural lecture delivered by Taylor at Princeton in 1990. The first edition, which was edited by Amy Gutmann and included comments by Susan Wolf, Michael Walzer, and Steven Rockefeller, was immediately translated into several languages, and in 1994 was reissued in the expanded version that also contains essays by K. Anthony Appiah and Jurgen Habermas. All these commentators, as well as others such as Amelie Rorty, Terry Hoy, Daniel Bell, Nick Smith, M.B. Poirer, Will Kimlicka, David Ingram, and yours truly, have recognized the complexity of Taylor's thoughts on multiculturalism and made more or less friendly suggestions or criticisms. When we next meet I will try to interweave exposition and critique, all for the sake, not of Taylorian exegesis, but rather of finding a way through the multicultural inferno whose hallmark is marginalization. Perhaps, then, the title of the next class, should be something like: What in the hell [of multiculturalism] is marginalization, anyway?...


Taylor's essay, like Dante's Divine Comedy, has several unnamed sections or cantos, each relatively self-contained although preliminary to the later ones. In the spirit of Dante's commentators, I have developed a synopsis of each chapter, which is posted separately on the web. (However, I hasten to add that, like Dante's commentators, I would be very distressed if I thought you read the synopsis instead of the original text!) For analytical purposes, I have given Taylor's five "cantos" the following titles: I call the first section, "The Historical Emergence of the Discourse of Identity, Authenticity, and Recognition," and am especially charmed by the fact that, like Dante, Taylor has chosen to begin with a genetic account of the political issues he will subsequently analyze. My title for his second section is "The Two Kinds of Politics of Recognition," and for the third it is "The Politics of Equal Dignity." I have entitled Section 4, which moves from a Rousseauan framework to a Kantian one and then beyond both, "The Politics of Difference." The final section, which is the crown of the whole essay, has been entitled "Liberalism as a Fighting Creed." Like most of Taylor's critics and commentators, I am most intersted in the last two sections, where multiculturalism as such is discussed most extensively. However, we need to begin at the beginning, in order to see what is new in Taylor's approach to multiculturalism. Here is a quick preview.

First of all, as Taylor announces at the beginning of Section 1, the book's basic thesis is that our identity, as individuals or groups, is partly shaped -- or misshaped -- by the recognition or nonrecgniton we receive from others. Hence he throws down the gauntlet on the first page or so by asserting: "Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need." (26) This is, I think, the thesis of the whole book.

As I said above, Section 1 is mainly historical. Taylor sketches in broad strokes the way the concept of recognition evolved from the notion of social status (in the French sense of preference) to that of political equality. In the following chapters he works out the political implications of this evolution. Thus Section 2 discusses the two kinds of recognition found in today's political scene, which he calls the Politics of Universalism, whose emphasis is on equal dignity of all citizens, and the Politics of Difference, whose emphasis is on uniqueness of their identities (Taylor is most concerned with specifically cultural identities, but his point can be extended to the other sorts of identities that are also associated with marginalization).

The next two sections focus in turn on these two kinds of recognition. Section 3 uses the historical figure of Rousseau to illustrate the politics of universalism (equal dignity), and Section 4 uses Kant and some more recent philosophers such as Ronald Dworkin to illustrate the politics of difference (identity). He also uses some interesting examples from his own political back yard, viz., Canadian separatist movements, to show how different these two sorts of politics really are.

The final chapter culminates in what I have called (following Taylor) "Liberalism as a Fighting Creed." However, there is much more going on in this chapter than a defense of liberalism. Taylor makes several pointed comments, subsequently criticized by a number of scholars (see Susan Wolf's contribution to the volume), concerning the "worth" of cultures. However, what is most important in the chapter is, I think, the way it situates his book within the larger context of the liberal-communitarian debate. Taylor rejects the idea that these are mutually exclusive "isms." Communitarians are right to insist that there are many different cultural/political traditions and that each has a valid claim to be recognized and respected. But, he continues, his own liberal heritage is one of these traditions, and so by the very logic of communitarianism he has a right to fight for liberalism just as zealously as any member of a tradition-based group does.

What do you think? Tell us about it in your reports and then when we come together next week.