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In Search of the Good LifeA Pedogogy for Troubled Times$

Fred Dallmayr

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780813124575

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813124575.001.0001

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(p.237) Appendix A Multiculturalism and the Good Life

(p.237) Appendix A Multiculturalism and the Good Life

Comments on Bhikhu Parekh

In Search of the Good Life
University Press of Kentucky

There was a time, not too long ago, when multiculturalism was largely a matter of taste or aesthetic sensibility. Despite occasional skirmishes, the issue was generally one of personal preference for either the comforts of one’s familiar culture or the benefits of cultural variety—the proverbial “spice of life.” With his talent for the felicitous turn of phrase, Stanley Fish aptly described the latter option as “boutique multiculturalism,” or a delight in folkloric entertainment and exotic knickknacks.1 In many schools and colleges throughout the United States (including my own), it is customary to celebrate Cultural Diversity Week, a period highlighted by the display of stunning traditional costumes and the consumption of Asian food. Today, under the impact of globalizing pressures, many such practices appear quaint. Samuel Huntington’s prognosis of a looming “clash of civilizations” has injected harsh conflictual accents into multicultural debates, underscored by the grim events of September 11 and its aftermath. In light of the dark shadows over the global scenario, multiculturalism acquires new ethical and existential connotations, beyond the range of private whim. These connotations have to do with war and peace, that is, with the possibility or impossibility of the peaceful survival of humankind.

To discuss the topic under contemporary circumstances requires a combination of talents that is rare among academic intellectuals: broad erudition, sharp theoretical acumen, and practical real-life (p.238) experience (especially exposure to both the joys and the agonies of cross-cultural interactions). Bhikhu Parekh belongs to a small group of writers equipped to undertake the task. Renowned as one of the leading political thinkers of our time, Parekh has devoted much of his life to the exploration of the history of Western political thought, while simultaneously gaining a solid reputation as an expert on Gandhi, colonialism, and postcolonialism. Broad erudition of this kind is undergirded by his own cross-cultural background. A native of India, he has charted his professional career both on the subcontinent (where he served for a time as vice-chancellor of the University of Baroda) and in England (first at the University of Hull and later at the London School of Economics and the University of Westminster). Academic learning has always been accompanied by practical, real-life involvement in the day-to-day problems of interethnic and cross-cultural relations in contemporary society. Among other positions, Parekh has served as acting chair of the Commission for Racial Equality in the United Kingdom and as chair of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, as well as being a member of the House of Lords. Such concrete experience gives added weight and substance to his theoretical reflections, lending them a quality of seasoned judgment that is uncommon among academics. It is principally this quality of reflective judgment—the intimate correlation of theory and praxis—that makes his book Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory a genuine milestone in this field.2

Heeding Fish’s admonition, Parekh’s book does not deal with matters of private taste or personal idiosyncrasies; nor does he dwell on individual lifestyles or partisan preferences. As he observes (2–4), social diversity comes in many shapes and forms, not all of which should be termed “multicultural.” Thus, whereas “subcultural” differences revolve around unconventional practices within an overarching cultural framework, and “perspectival” differences reflect partisan viewpoints ignored by that framework, “multicultural” diversity is anchored in a plurality of distinct cultural communities and hence is more “robust and tenacious” than other types. In Parekh’s treatment, multiculturalism is not about any and all kinds of differences, but only about those “that are embedded in and sustained by culture,” by “a body of beliefs and practices in terms of which a group of people understand themselves and the world and organize their individual (p.239) and collective lives.” Unlike individual tastes or preferences, culturally derived differences “carry a measure of authority” growing out of a “shared and historically inherited system of meaning and significance.” Given their communal or collective structure, cultural differences often have political implications that are not usually associated with personal preferences. Basically, they carry the ominous potential of culture clashes while underscoring the difficult labor of peaceful negotiation. Parekh in this connection makes an important distinction between two different meanings of multicultural: empirical and normative (6). On an empirical level, multicultural simply refers “to the fact of cultural diversity”; on a different level, the same term (or the modified expression multiculturalist) points to “a normative response to that fact,” that is, to the acceptance or rejection, the repression or celebration, of cultural plurality. Without ignoring empirical descriptions, Parekh focuses on normative evaluation; to this extent, his book is a treatise on political ethics, on a multicultural conception of the good life.3

In developing his perspective, Parekh immediately draws attention to the gravity of contemporary circumstances. Without ignoring instances of cultural plurality in the past, he finds present-day multiculturalism besieged by four distinguishing features (7–8). First, in premodern societies, minority communities usually accepted their subordinate or ghettoized status; today, such acceptance can no longer be assumed, as evidenced by intensified struggles for recognition. Second, the experiences of colonial oppression and totalitarian domination have deepened social awareness of the “sources and subtle forms of violence,” leading to the insight that “just as groups of people can be oppressed economically and politically, they can also be oppressed and humiliated culturally.” Hence, the concern for social justice needs to include not just economic but “also cultural rights and well-being.” Third, contemporary multiculturalism is intimately bound with “the immensely complex process of economic and cultural globalization,” with the increasingly rapid transfer of goods, ideas, and technological gadgets across boundaries. Hence, questions regarding the prospect of global homogenization and the preservation of cultural integrity impose themselves “inexorably” on societies everywhere. Fourth, major strands of present-day multiculturalism have emerged from, and are intelligible only against, the background of (p.240) several centuries of the “culturally homogenizing nation-state,” that is, the imposition of political unity on premodern life-forms by the territorially administered state. The confrontation between the modern state and multiculturalism is inescapable, pointing (once again) to the intricate linkage between politics and culture—to the pervasive impact of politics on culture, and vice versa.

In light of these dramatic accents, the opening chapters of the book are somewhat disappointing. Parekh sees his text as falling roughly into three parts—“the historical, the theoretical, and the practical” (11)—among which the last two are clearly more interesting. Given this sequence, I reverse the usual practice of reviewers, offering some of my critical reservations first, before highlighting what I consider to be some of the book’s outstanding accomplishments. In an effort to differentiate the approach chosen, the book starts with two chapters titled “Moral Monism” and “Forms of Pluralism,” headings meant to capture two dominant traditions of Western thought from antiquity to the recent past. Whereas monism seeks to reduce all forms of diversity or plurality to a higher unity or unitary principle, traditional pluralism relinquishes moral coherence and lapses into an amorphous relativism devoid of criteria of significance. Although the aim of the opening chapters is plausible—to profile multiculturalism against competing formulas—the execution is unconvincing, lacking the nuanced discernment one has come to expect from Parekh. When diverse thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Saint Augustine, Aquinas, and beyond are all neatly tucked away as “moral monists,” one gets the impression of a summary “deconstruction” along postmodern lines. Likewise, when the “pluralist” label is attached to thinkers such as Vico, Montesquieu, and Herder, the impression is one of cardboard figures with little or no relevance to posterity.4 The most worthwhile and intriguing aspect of these chapters is the discussion of modern liberalism as a form of moral monism—something that seems counterintuitive at first blush, given liberals’ ostensible hospitality to diversity. As Parekh shows with considerable persuasiveness (33–49), however, modern liberals from Locke forward have always preferred to occupy a superior “rational” stance, while relegating cultural differences to private idiosyncrasies (or else to the immaturity of “backward” peoples).

The opening chapters give rise to an additional reservation. Basically, the discussion is restricted to prominent figures in Western (p.241) political thought, which seems odd, given the global reach of multiculturalism. This point is connected with a broader issue involving the book as a whole: the question of the perspective from which its entire argument is presented. On this issue, Parekh sometimes waivers between a superior liberal standpoint above culture (a “view from nowhere”) and a more situated dialogical or hermeneutical perspective in the interstices of diverse cultures, although his preference is clearly in the latter direction. As he writes, distancing himself from cultural self-enclosure (13): “By definition multicultural society consists of several cultural communities with their own distinct systems of meaning and significance and views of man and the world. It cannot therefore be adequately theorized from within the conceptual framework of any particular political doctrine” or any “particular cultural perspective.” This statement is followed by a passage indicative of both oscillation and its final overcoming (14–15): “We need to rise to a higher level of philosophical abstraction,” Parekh notes (seemingly endorsing the view from nowhere). “And since we cannot transcend and locate ourselves in a realm beyond liberal and nonliberal cultures, such a basis is to be found in an institutionalized dialogue between them.” Invoking the legacy of Hans-Georg Gadamer and others, he concludes by characterizing his own approach as “dialogically constituted” and by stressing “the centrality of a dialogue between cultures and ethical norms, principles, and institutional structures.” Hence, although containing some “strong liberal” features, his approach departs from canonical liberalism by shunning the pretense of a superior neutrality.

As the remainder of the book demonstrates, the chosen perspective is well suited to its topic and prone to reap ample benefits. Having performed my role as critic, I now want to cite some of the genuine merits of the study, focusing briefly on three areas: the issue of “human nature” or the “human condition,” the political dimensions of multiculturalism, and the modes of deliberation and practical judgment suitable for cross-cultural encounters. Following a chapter exposing the monist remnants in recent liberal thought (John Rawls, Joseph Raz, and Will Kymlicka), Parekh turns to the problem of appropriate ontological or anthropological premises of multiculturalism. This is a notoriously difficult problem that philosophers have wrestled with through the ages. Congruent with his hermeneutical and dialogical (p.242) preferences, Parekh nimbly steers a course through the nature-nurture conundrum, seeking to avoid the pitfalls of both reductive “naturalism” and “culturalism.” Proceeding in this manner, he challenges the assumptions of both a rigid determinism and an infinite indeterminacy, where the former reduces human existence to physiology or to a few a priori categories, and the latter champions protean variety. As he writes sensibly (117), human beings are not simply exiled from nature but share certain common features that may be termed “natural,” such as “to have a potency for action, a tendency to behave in a certain way, and to be subject to certain constitutional limitations.” What guards against monistic temptations is attentiveness to historical, social, and cultural contexts and to processes of “individuation” not subsumable under general categories. For Parekh, the proper way to arrive at a comprehensive view of the human is neither to adopt a top-down universal formula nor to succumb to relativist despair, but to pursue universalism in and through cross-cultural encounters (127): “It would seem that a dialectical and pluralist form of universalism offers the most coherent response to moral and cultural diversity.”

The last comment has a direct bearing on the relation between culture and politics, particularly on the nexus between cultural diversity and the political structure of the state. In a remarkably trenchant chapter, Rethinking Multiculturalism lays bare the dominant features of the modern state as differentiated from earlier political regimes. In most earlier polities, Parekh observes (181–184), people had multiple identities—ethnic, religious, social, and other; in contrast, the modern state is “unique in privileging territorial identity” to such an extent that the latter becomes “overarching, dominant” and exclusive. Unlike premodern political systems, which were “embedded in and composed of such communities as castes, clans, tribes, and ethnic groups,” the modern state is basically defined as “an association of individuals,” a definition that “abstracts away their class, ethnicity, religion, social status, and so forth,” while uniting them “in terms of their subscription to a common system of authority which is similarly abstracted from the wider structure of social relations.” Akin to liberal-monist preferences, the modern state elevates itself to a superior position (a “view from nowhere”) vis-à-vis cultural and other differences, professing to treat the latter with neutral indifference. This does not mean, of course, that the state is entirely non- or (p.243) transcultural. On the contrary: precisely by either assimilating or expurgating existing differences, the liberal state fosters its own political solidarity, called “national identity,” which explains the intimate linkage of “state” and “nation-state.” In Parekh’s words: “Since the state presupposes and seeks to secure homogeneity [among its members], it has a tendency to become a nation,” which is not an aberration but a supplement to its “neutrality.” Given the state’s overarching structure, membership has the character of uniform “citizenship,” a status involving “a unitary, unmediated and homogeneous relation between the individual and that state.”5

Contemporary multiculturalism clearly presents a major challenge to the modern state. A central merit of Parekh’s book is its circumspect treatment of this challenge. Bypassing fashionable modernist-postmodernist debates, Parekh is unwilling either to discard the modern state or to celebrate uncritically its blessings. His preferred path is to “reconceptualize the nature and role” of the state, which means “loosening the traditionally close ties between territory, sovereignty, and [national] culture” and “liberating political imagination from the spell of the dominant theory” (194–195). A major task of political imagination today, in his view, is to “rethink” the relation between cultural diversity and the polis in such a way that the former is neither simply assimilated or homogenized by the state nor expelled into the netherworld of alien disturbances or private idiosyncrasies. What this means is that justice or fairness in a multicultural society cannot be legislated from the top down in monistic style nor be left to societal power plays; it needs to be interactively cultivated on a broad basis. In this context, Parekh distinguishes three models of “political integration” (199–206)—the proceduralist, the civic assimilationist (or civic republican), and the “millet” models—none of which is satisfactory. While, as a premodern arrangement, the millet system ignores the modern state, the proceduralist model erects the state into a transcultural and neutral shibboleth that, claiming to be “equally hospitable to all cultures,” is “logically impossible.” Although civic republicanism acknowledges a “public” political culture (of a nationalist kind), it relegates all other differences to private whims, thus reifying the public-private divide. The failing of all three models is their unwillingness to take cultural differences seriously and to make them the basis of a shared or continuously renegotiated public space. In Parekh’s words (p.244) (219): “A multicultural society needs a broadly shared culture to sustain it. Since it involves several cultures, the shared culture can only grow out of their interactions and should both respect and nurture their diversity and unite them around a common way of life.”6

The notion of a shared culture and its interactive negotiation is closely related to the issue of what mode of deliberation and evaluative judgment is appropriate in a multicultural setting. A crucial feature of Parekh’s book is his proposal for the creation of a “public forum” where pending issues could be discussed and negotiated by different groups. Given the fact that neither parliaments (divided along party lines) nor courts are suitable for the purpose, he argues (306–309) that new institutional platforms must be invented, “where representatives of different communities can meet regularly to explore contentious issues [and] acquire a better understanding of each other’s ways of thinking and living.” The proposal clearly has some similarity with recent theories of the “public sphere” and “deliberative democracy” (associated with such thinkers as John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, and Joshua Cohen). However, in keeping with his antimonist and contextualist stance, Parekh distances himself from the one-sidedly “rationalist” and argumentative overtones of these theories. “Contra Rawls [and Habermas],” he writes, rationality is not an a priori premise but rather a “product of political debate” and is “constantly reconstituted and pluralized by it.”7 In a multicultural society, moreover, political deliberation cannot be merely cognitive or epistemic; it has multidimensional functions, including “deepening mutual understanding between different groups, sensitizing each to the concerns and anxieties of others,” and performing “a vital community-building role.” Political deliberation cannot simply revolve around an “exchange of arguments” or validity claims, “with victory going to those advancing the most compelling ones.” What is neglected in this view is the role of practical judgment and persuasion, which—without shunning reason—also appeal to “emotions, self-understanding, moral values, and sense of identity.” As Parekh adds, in an Aristotelian vein: “Persuasion relates to an area of life lying between personal taste and logical demonstration. In the former, persuasion is impossible, in the latter unnecessary…. Persuasion is possible and necessary when an activity is based on interpersonally sharable reasons and leaves room for judgment.”8

(p.245) The virtue of reflective judgment (or phronesis) is abundantly displayed in the “practical” portions of Parekh’s book devoted to a discussion of concrete problems besetting contemporary multiculturalism. Readers from diverse backgrounds are bound to be struck by the sensitivity, fair-mindedness, and critical acumen evident in the treatment of contentious issues such as polygamy, female circumcision, arranged marriages, the wearing of head scarfs by Muslim schoolgirls, and the refusal of Sikhs to wear helmets in lieu of traditional turbans when driving motorcycles or working on building sites. In the discussion of all these cases, reflective judgment involves the weighing of particular cultural traditions against the values of the larger multicultural society, that is, the balancing of diverse forms of “thick” and “thin” considerations. Because of its special virulence, a chapter titled “Politics, Religion and Free Speech” gives broad room to the aftermath of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, with Parekh suggesting (304) that much of the acrimony could have been avoided if the parties had had access to a public forum where perceptions and emotions could have been aired and mutually tested.

His conclusion eloquently stresses the contribution of multiculturalism to the “good life” and to the cultivating of a “good society” attentive to present-day needs. “The common good and the collective will that are vital to any political society,” he states (341), “are generated not by transcending cultural and other particularities, but through their interplay in the cut and thrust of a dialogue.” Constituted and sustained in this manner, multicultural society has “a strong notion of common good,” consisting in “respect for a consensually grounded civil authority and basic rights, maintenance of justice, institutional and moral conditions of deliberative democracy, a vibrant and plural composite culture, and an expansive sense of community.”9 All one can hope, after reading Rethinking Multiculturalism, is that Parekh’s vision of ethical pluralism will be given a chance. The odds, one has to admit, are not very good. With the resurgence of a cold war mentality and “clashes of civilizations” breaking out around the globe, Parekh’s vision urgently requires practical commitment, probably along the Gandhian lines Parekh has championed so persuasively before.


(1) . Stanley Fish, “Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech,” Critical Inquiry 23 (Winter 1997): 378–396.

(2) . Bhikhu Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory (London: Macmillan, 2000). Subsequent page numbers in parentheses refer to this edition.

(3) . Parekh’s distinction between multicultural and multiculturalist corresponds to the difference between factual plurality and ethical pluralism, as outlined by Kenneth L. Schmitz in “The Unity of Human Nature and the Diversity of Cultures,” in Relations between Cultures, ed. George F. McLean and John Kromkowski (Washington, D.C.: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1991), 305–322.

(4) . To give an example, here are some statements about Herder: “Like Vico, Montesquieu, Burke and many other writers on the subject, [Herder] makes the all too familiar mistake of seeing culture as a tightly knit and ten-sionless whole informed and held together by a single overreaching principle or spirit…. Despite his intentions to the contrary, Herder’s theory teeters over the edge of cultural relativism” (73, 75).

(p.308) (5) . As Parekh elaborates perceptively, since citizenship “involves abstracting away cultural, ethnic and other identities and seeing oneself solely as a member of the state, all citizens are directly and identically related to the state, not differentially and through their membership in intermediate communities.” To this extent, the modern state “represents the triumph of human will [and artifact] over natural and social circumstances” (183). On this issue, see chapter 10 in this volume.

(6) . Growing out of complex interactions, the shared culture cannot aspire to the “thickness” of one of the traditional cultures; nor can it be satisfied with the “thinness” of proceduralism (or with the unitary “publicness” of civic republicanism). Instead, multiculturalism requires a dialectical balance between thinness and thickness, as well as between public and private domains. As Parekh adds: “The spirit of multiculturality flows freely through all areas of life…. In such a society unity and diversity are not confined to public and private realms respectively, but interpenetrate and permeate all areas of life. Its unity therefore is not formal and abstract but embedded in and nurtured by its diversity; and the latter, being grounded in and regulated by the shared interactive framework, does not lead to fragmentation and ghettoization.” National identity in such a society “cannot and should not be culturally neutral as it then satisfies nobody and lacks the power to evoke deep historical memories, nor biased towards a particular community as it then delegitimizes and alienates others, nor culturally so eclectic as to lack coherence and focus” (224, 235).

(7) . Although he is aware of some of the differences between Rawls and Habermas, Parekh finds important parallels: “All arguments are articulated and conducted in a particular language which, contra Habermas and Rawls, cannot be ‘purified’ or purged of its deep cultural and evocative associations either…. Rawls’s theory of public reason does not seem to appreciate these basic features of it. It has a rationalist bias, homogenizes and takes a one-dimensional view of public reason, assimilates political to judicial reason, and unwittingly universalizes the American practice, and that too in its highly idealized version. In spite of all its strength, even Habermas’s discourse ethics is vulnerable on all three counts” (310, 312).

(8) . In its Aristotelian mode, Parekh adds, persuasion is “neither like Plato’s dialectic with its concern for truth, nor like his rhetoric with its manipulative thrust, but belongs to a wholly different genre” (309).

(9) . In light of the book’s subtitle, “Cultural Diversity and Political Theory,” the conclusion also has an important lesson for political theorists. Lacking an “Archimedean standpoint or a God’s-eye view,” Parekh notes, the theorist has “several coigns of vantage in the form of other cultures. He can set up a dialogue between them, use each to illuminate the insights and expose the limitations of others, and create for himself a vital in-between space, a kind of immanent transcendentalism, from which to arrive at a less (p.309) culture-bound vision of human life and a radically critical perspective on his society” (339).