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  • On the Intellectual Histories and Political Theories of the “Multiculturalist Perspective”
  • Sankar Muthu (bio)

Lord Bhikhu Parekh brings to the issues concerning what has come to be known as "multiculturalism" a distinctive and valuable expertise. His view is grounded in [a deep knowledge of] political philosophy and informed by the empirical dimensions of policy debates in the UK and elsewhere about the rights of ethnic communities and the definition of national identity. His role as the Chair of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain and as a longtime participant in British political debates and government-sponsored inquiries testifies to his experience and authority in these matters.1 Parekh notes that his primary arguments in Rethinking Multiculturalism (hereafter RM) are of three kinds. He begins the book with a selective examination of intellectual history in order to investigate the philosophical insights as well as the errors of previous thinkers' accounts of cultural difference. He then investigates the theoretical underpinnings of his approach toward multiculturalism, especially the concepts of "human nature" and "culture." Finally, he applies these historical and conceptual insights to a variety of social, legal, and policy debates about whether and how to accommodate cultural pluralism within the framework of a just democratic society. Given the wide-ranging nature of Parekh's thoughtful and provocative arguments, I will focus here upon (i) his interpretations of the history of modern political thought and (ii) the relationship between his account of a multicultural perspective and the broader political theories that are presupposed, or that follow, from it.

On the Intellectual History of Theorizing Diversity

In the opening chapters of RM, Parekh discusses two ideal-types of philosophical accounts of society: monism (or naturalism) and pluralism (or culturalism). Parekh contends that while both capture something important about the human condition, each account is partial; moreover, he maintains that what is left out or even denigrated by such partial perspectives generates significant moral and political pathologies. Parekh treats Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, and J.S. Mill as examples of monistic thinkers, and Vico, Montesquieu, and Herder as exemplars of pluralistic thinkers. Not surprisingly, Parekh's theory of multiculturalism is meant precisely to combine the insights of each of these approaches without taking on any of their shortcomings. His general claim about European intellectual history is that it leaves us bereft of the conceptual resources that we need today in order to address cultural diversity. Parekh emphasizes at the outset of RM that the intellectual history he outlines, while necessarily brief, is not a scholarly tangent to an otherwise theoretical and policy-oriented account of contemporary societies, but rather is "integral" to the theory of multiculturalism. (11) Given the importance that he himself attaches to the intellectual history section of the book, one is compelled to note that alternative and equally plausible interpretations can be given about many of the historical traditions and thinkers that he discusses.

A detailed counter-narrative to what Parekh provides cannot, of course, be given here, but a brief discussion of his treatments of John Locke and Johann Gottfried Herder can serve to illustrate that there may be more robust sources of theorizing diversity in the history of political thought than what Parekh implies in RM. I do not mean to suggest, of course, that contemporary political thinkers should engage in the absurd anachronism of treating an eighteenth-century text, for example, as a source of answers to our most pressing contemporary concerns. There may, however, be a set of intellectual dispositions that one can discern in a variety of historical thinkers and texts that enriches our own sensibilities; to be sure, in order to cull such resources, one would have to do the philosophical work of retheorizing many of the elements of such accounts in order to make them the bases for our own responses to current dilemmas. Notwithstanding Parekh's contentions that earlier accounts of politics and society are not without their insights, his arguments in RM run the risk of foreclosing the above possibilities with regard to cultural diversity. In his introductory comments about European intellectual traditions of theorizing humanity and diversity, for instance, he writes that "[m]uch of traditional political theory...


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pp. 45-49
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