Three Views of Philosophy and Multiculturalism:
Carol J. Nicholson
Philosophers have been slow to join the public debate on multiculturalism in spite of the important philosophical issues at stake. Notable exceptions are John Searle and Charles Taylor, who address the philosophical implications of the controversy over the curriculum in several recent essays. (1) Taylor defends multicultural education as a moral imperative of one branch of the liberal tradition, while Searle argues that a victory for multiculturalism would mean the destruction of the Western intellectual heritage. This paper will examine some of the arguments on both sides of the issue and propose an interpretation of multiculturalism as particularly significant for teaching philosophy.
John Searle views the current debate over the curriculum as far more dangerous than past controversies in higher education, because the very philosophical principles which make knowledge and education possible are under attack. The concepts of truth, reality, objectivity, and rationality which have been taken for granted in higher education (as well as in our civilization in general) have been challenged by what he calls the "subculture of postmodernism," a loosely-defined group of left-wing academics which includes multiculturalists, feminists, deconstructionists, and followers of Nietzsche, T.S. Kuhn, and Richard Rorty. I shall not attempt to discuss all of these movements but intend to focus only upon the issue of multicultural education, which I understand to mean teaching students about other cultural traditions in addition to their own.
Searle summarizes the main principles of what he calls "metaphysical realism" or the "Western Rationalistic Tradition" as follows:
All of the above principles, Searle argues, have been challenged for political reasons by those who are attempting to use the university in order to advance leftist causes. The culture of postmodernism debunks the scholarly ideal of the disinterested inquirer in quest of objective and universally valid knowledge and interprets claims to objectivity as disguised forms of power-seeking.
According to Searle, the educational implications of the postmodern subculture have been devastating. The abandonment of traditional standards of truth and objectivity has left room for an educational agenda which aims, for example, to reinforce students' pride in a particular racial or ethnic group, to treat all cultures as intellectually equal and therefore equally deserving of being represented in the curriculum, and to use affirmative action rather than academic excellence as the main criterion for faculty hiring. The denial of the presuppositions of the Western Rationalistic Tradition is not analogous to the denial of ordinary empirical or scientific theses, Searle maintains, because these principles function as the conditions of intelligibility of our linguistic, cultural, and scientific institutions. To reject them is to undermine the practices of teaching and research which are the raison d'etre of the university and to threaten the foundations of Western civilization. Searle writes:
One question that could be raised about this line of argument is, "Does the denial of metaphysical realism actually pose a threat to higher education and civilization?" Richard Rorty does not think so, and he gives a different view of the relationship between the philosophical principles of the Western Rationalistic Tradition and the practices of the university. According to Rorty, objective truth understood as correspondence between our knowledge and an independent reality is a notion without meaningful content. He would prefer to describe objectivity as the search for "the widest possible intersubjective agreement." (4) Challenging traditional views of knowledge and truth poses no threat to educational or any other institutions, he argues, because philosophical principles do not support our practices but merely provide optional ways of describing them to ourselves. Their function is rhetorical rather than presuppositional. If academics stopped thinking about their work in terms of the correspondence theory of truth and adopted a pragmatic view, this would not result in their being less careful and honest in their research or teaching. Rorty thinks that people tend to be more loyal to traditional practices than to the philosophical theories which allegedly justify them. He would like to see us free ourselves from the belief that the ethics of the academy depends on meta-theoretical commitments to Truth and Reality, just as earlier generations gradually freed themselves from the belief that morality depended upon acting in accordance with God's will. To him both beliefs are simply "rhetorical flourishes designed to make practitioners feel that they are being true to something big and strong." (5)
If Rorty is right (and I think he is) that it makes no difference to educational practice whether or not we accept the principles of the Western Rationalistic Tradition, then Searle cannot appeal to these principles to support the traditional canon, nor can the multiculturalists rest their defense on denying them. Searle says that the rejection of metaphysical realism "goes hand in hand with" a belief in multiculturalism, although he sees the relationship between the two as more complex than the "obvious" relation of metaphysical realism to the ideals of the university. He writes,
But from Rorty's point of view, the new conception of education cannot be justified on the basis of the rejection of the Western Rationalistic Tradition, because there is not a presuppositional relation between philosophical principles and educational practices.
Although he denies the traditional conception of truth and rationality, Rorty appears to have no views on multiculturalism or any interest in curricular reform. In the context of a discussion of general education, he writes, "it does not greatly matter what the core curriculum is as long as there is one as long as each community defines itself by adopting one." (7) Consistent with his general position on the relation between theory and practice, he argues that philosophy has no particular relevance to education, at least in the short run; in the long run, he would no doubt argue, it would be better if students learned to describe themselves as "seekers of solidarity with other inquirers" rather than as "seekers of Absolute Truth." Rorty's analysis is helpful as a corrective to theories like Searle's which overestimate the influence of philosophy on ordinary practices, but since he admits that his version of pragmatism has no bearing on education, he cannot give us any help in resolving the dispute about multiculturalism.
Another question that could be asked about Searle's analysis of the crisis in education is, "Does multiculturalism in fact presuppose the denial of the Western Rationalistic Tradition?" Certainly, not all advocates of multiculturalism adopt the presuppositions of the "culture of postmodernism." Charles Taylor, for example, argues explicitly against the kind of "anything goes" subjectivism that Searle criticizes. (8) Taylor treats multiculturalism as a historical and political issue rather than an epistemological one. He distinguishes two traditions in liberal democratic theory on the one hand, the politics of equal dignity, based on the idea that all humans are equally deserving of respect and equal rights; on the other hand, the politics of difference, based on the need for recognition of the unique identity of individuals and groups. These two perspectives appear to be incompatible, because the former requires treating people in a difference-blind manner, while the latter demands differential treatment, but Taylor maintains that both are built on the notion of equal respect.
Human identity is created "dialogically," in relation to others, he argues. Because it is partly shaped by recognition, the withholding of recognition (or misrecognition) can be damaging to a person's dignity. Multiculturalism, according to Taylor, is a logical extension of the politics of equal respect and the politics of recognition. In the context of education, the demand it makes is for equal respect, and therefore equal recognition, for each culture within the curriculum. Taylor regards this claim as valid if it is taken as a starting hypothesis to bring to the study of other cultures, a presumption that "all human cultures that have animated whole societies over some considerable stretch of time have something important to say to all human beings." (9) In order to understand a very different culture and appreciate the value of its contributions, there must be what Gadamer calls a "fusion of horizons," in which we learn new vocabularies of comparison and our standards are transformed by the study of the other.
However, the claim for recognition in the curriculum is often misinterpreted as a definitive conclusion that all cultures are of equal worth. Taylor rejects this interpretation as a "subjectivist, half-baked neo-Nietzschean" theory, according to which all judgments of value are really impositions of power. To designate a culture as worthy based upon this kind subjectivism is an act of condescension rather than respect, which misses the whole point of the politics of recognition. Alternatively, designating a different culture as objectively valuable before the "fusion of horizons" has taken place makes the ethnocentric assumption that the necessary standards of judgment are already available. (10) Taylor thinks that a proper understanding of the politics of recognition demands of us:
He succeeds in showing that we need not lapse into a self-defeating relativism or subjectivism if we are open to comparative cultural study and committed to developing a more inclusive curriculum.
I have argued that there is no necessary connection between multiculturalism and the rejection of the Western Rationalistic Tradition. It is possible to believe the assumptions of the "subculture of postmodernism" without being a multiculturalist (like Rorty) or to be a multiculturalist without believing these assumptions (like Taylor). In other words, contrary to Searle, the denial of metaphysical realism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for multiculturalism. The central issue involved in the debate about the curriculum does not seem to be a contest between rational and irrational epistemologies or left and right wing politics. In the unlikely event that all of the disputes between realists and idealists or conservatives and liberals were resolved tomorrow, college teachers would not suddenly see the light about which courses to offer in their programs and which readings to include in their syllabi.
Epistemological and political controversies have tended to obscure the most important issue at stake in the debate over multiculuralism its educational value, especially in teaching philosophy. The challenge of different points of view has been a stimulus to thought at least since the origins of Western philosophy in ancient Greece. In the 6th century B.C. on the Turkish coast of the Aegean Sea, trade in ideas flourished as well as trade in goods. Thales of Miletus challenged traditional anthropomorphic views of nature, predicted an eclipse of the sun, and is said to be not only the first philosopher but also the father of the natural sciences. Xenophanes of Colophon criticized anthropomorphic views of the gods in sayings such as: "Ethiopians have gods with snub noses and black hair, Thracians have gods with grey eyes and red hair." He could be called the first multiculturalist as well as the father of the social sciences and humanities. Would it be an exaggeration to say that without cross-cultural interaction, borrowing, and debate there would be no liberal arts and sciences and no university today?
Pursuing this interesting historical question is far beyond my scope, and so I would like to focus on the relevance of multiculturalism for teaching philosophy in the present. The paragon of the teacher of philosophy, of course, is Plato's Socrates, and the best teachers emulate him in two respects as midwives and as gadflies. In his role as midwife, Socrates assists in giving birth to the opinions of others, which, after critical scrutiny, invariably turn out to be mere "wind eggs." In his role as gadfly, Socrates pricks people out of their dogmatic slumber and stimulates them to think.
Undergraduate students today, not unlike the characters in Plato's dialogues, are often self-absorbed, arrogantly opinionated, and intellectually lazy. Followers of Socrates recognize that one of the main functions of philosophical education is what I call "the unfixation of belief," with apologies to C.S. Peirce. In Peirce's well-known essay, "The Fixation of Belief," he defends the method of scientific inquiry as opposed to the alternative ways of forming beliefs tenacity, authority, and a priori thought. For philosophy teachers the challenge is not so much to improve students' methods of arriving at their opinions as to get them to loosen their intellectual grip on the opinions they have fixed upon so that they can see other points of view as legitimate.
Some courses work better than others according to the criterion of the "unfixation of belief." I have found that a multicultural approach to teaching philosophy is a very effective way to wake students up to different points of view and give them a sense of intellectual humility. To give some examples, a course in American Philosophy that covers Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, James, and Dewey is good. One that also includes Margaret Fuller, the Seneca Falls Declaration, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and Native American perspectives is much better. Similarly, a course in Metaphysics which includes non-Western systems of thought, a course in Political Philosophy which includes third world perspectives, and a course in Epistemology or Ethics which includes feminist theories is more likely to succeed in the "unfixation of belief" than are those courses which are taught according to the narrow range of issues included in most currently available textbooks.
From a pedagogical point of view, the strongest argument against multicultural philosophy courses is that they are very difficult to teach well, given the present state of graduate training and available resources in philosophy. Most philosophers, even those young enough to have been introduced to the "subculture of postmodernism" as undergraduates, did not themselves receive a multicultural graduate education. Without faculty development opportunities e.g. sabbatical leaves, faculty seminars, guest speakers, special conferences, and summer workshops many philosophy teachers do not have the expertise or the confidence to teach new material in their discipline. Even with such programs, which are expensive enough so that not all colleges and universities can afford them, the lack of appropriate textbooks in most areas of philosophy makes it difficult to develop multicultural philosophy courses without depending upon the regular use of "spontaneous" xeroxing. Perhaps one reason multiculturalism has not caught on in philosophy, as it has in other humanities disciplines and the social sciences, is that most graduate training in philosophy is so narrow that few philosophers are prepared to teach multicultural courses or to write multicultural books.
Searle, Rorty, and Taylor have made important contributions to the debate on multiculturalism by addressing the large, abstract issues of its epistemological and political presuppositions. Concrete pedagogical issues, however, such as the educational benefits of multiculturalism and the obstacles to its implementation, have for the most part been neglected. (12) I have tried to show that from a teacher's point of view, multiculturalism is not a newfangled, "postmodern" movement which is destructive of rationality, nor is it a subversive plot hatched by tenured radicals from the sixties. To paraphrase William James on pragmatism, it is just a new word for an old way of thinking and teaching. A multicultural curriculum works very well in fulfilling the traditional goals of education in philosophy. It can assist the teacher as Socratic "midwife" and "gadfly" in delivering students of their narrow and uncritical opinions and awakening them to a world of intellectual diversity.
(1) John R. Searle, "Rationality and Realism: What is at Stake?" Daedalus, volume 122, no. 4 (Fall 1992), pp. 55-84.p. 69; John Searle, "The Storm over the University," in Debating P.C. Paul Berman, ed. (New York: Dell, 1992), pp. 85-123; Charles Taylor, "The Politics of Recognition," in Multiculturalism. Amy Gutmann, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 25-73.
(2) "Rationality and Realism. . .," p. 69.
(3) "The Storm over the University," p. 112.
(4) Richard Rorty, "Does Academic Freedom Have Philosophical Presuppositions: Academic Freedom and the Future of the University," Academe (Nov.-Dec. 1994), p. 52.
(5) Ibid., p. 61.
(6) "Rationality and Realism . . .," p. 71.
(7) Richard Rorty, "Hermeneutics, General Studies, and Teaching," Selected Papers from the Synergos Seminars, volume 2 (Fall, 1982), p. 112.
(8) "The Politics of Recognition," pp. 69-72.
(9) Ibid., p. 66.
(10) Ibid., p. 70.
(11) Ibid., p. 73.
(12) For an exception see Lawrence Foster and Patricia Herzog, eds. Philosophical Perspectives on Pluralism and Multiculturalism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994).