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  • A Response
  • Bhikhu Parekh (bio)

I am grateful to Professors Dallmayr, Muthu and Beiner for their thoughtful comments on my Rethinking Multiculturalism. Since I cannot deal with them all in a brief response, I shall concentrate on those I take to be the most important.

Fred Dallmayr's paper is characteristically thorough, comprehensive and generous, and no author could hope for a better commentator. While agreeing with much of the book, he makes three criticisms. He is unhappy with parts of the historical section, regrets the absence of non-western political thought, and wonders about the perspective from which I analyse multiculturalism.

The historical section is bound to be "disorienting and disappointing" if one approaches it with wrong expectations. Its purpose is threefold: to identify what seems to me to be the two dominant trends in the traditional western discussion of cultural diversity, to analyse their internal logic and changing historical forms, and to show how they influence and structure contemporary discussion of the subject. Such an exercise is important because it uncovers the unconscious assumptions and deep structure of contemporary writings on multiculturalism, teases out the important insights of our tradition, and forms an inescapable background to the rest of the book. Thus approached I do not see why my historical section should disorient the reader.

Since my purpose is not to discuss individual thinkers in great detail but to elucidate their basic approaches to cultural diversity, I am necessarily selective in who I discuss, how I classify them, and what aspects of their thought I concentrate on. Although Plato, Aristotle and Augustine are otherwise quite different, they display what I call a monistic tendency in their own different ways, and belong together well enough to be grouped together. Vico, Montesquieu and Herder are grouped together because of the pluralist cast of their thought. Since I analyse these thinkers from a particular angle, the analysis might appear one-sided and static. In a close historical study of them, this would be inexcusable. In the philosophical study of a trend, this has the advantage of revealing the inner structure and organising principles of their thought without the distracting complications. Cardboard figures have a useful heuristic role so long as we do not claim more for them than they are worth.

Western political thought is a large enough area of inquiry. To include a serious discussion of its non-western counterparts, of which the west knows so little, would have involved either expanding the book to an unmanageable size or reducing the treatment of western thought even further, not to mention the complexity of comparing and contrasting very different traditions of thought.1 Non-western thought does, however, find its place in the book in the form of examples, experiences and comparative references. This is not to question Dallmayr's general point that we need to break out of the narrow western frameworks of thought, especially in the context of an increasingly interdependent world. He has himself done excellent work in this area. Several non-western writers too are bringing their distinct perspectives and experiences to bear on the subject. As we build up a critical mass of insights, it should be possible over time to construct a genuinely global political theory in which the narrow divisions of west and non-west are transcended, in broadly the same way that much of the western political theory today cuts across the earlier preoccupation with national traditions and is genuinely western in its orientation and mode of theorising political life.

As for the perspective from which the book is written, Dallmayr thinks that at times I give the impression of taking a "view from nowhere." I have difficulty understanding such spatial metaphors as a "view from somewhere" and a "view from nowhere." The latter is an incoherent concept, because we can see nothing (or rather we cannot see anything) from nowhere. The former generally refers to a view from a recognisable perspective, such as the liberal, the conservative and the religious, indicating in each case where the author is coming from. As I argue in the book, all such doctrines and ideologies are defined by and trapped within a specific body of assumptions...


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