Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”
an essay by charles taylor
with commentary by amy gutmann (editor),
steven c. rockefeller, michael walzer, and susan wolf
princeton university press, 112 pages, $14.95

Last summer a man was arrested in Germany for walking down the street wearing nothing except a cap, a wrist watch, and sneakers. After his arrest he said in his defense, “I’m struggling for my recognition.” And so it goes. This is perhaps but the most extreme example of what Charles Taylor in this fascinating book calls “the politics of recognition,” but so pervasive is this need of people to feel “recognized” by total strangers that recent immigrants to the West from other cultures notice it immediately. I can still remember the time an emigrant from Romania told me how strange she found interpersonal relationships here. In Romania, because of the ubiquity of the security police, one could never afford to say what one truly thoughtexcept to a few carefully chosen people, numbering no more than ten or fifteen, whom one absolutely trusted. Outside of that tight circle, total conformity reigned. But when she got to the United States, she could not help but notice how any public expression of outrage or nonconformity was toleratedbut interpersonal relationships, on the other hand, seemed hollow and uncommunicative, rather like that dining room scene in the movie Ordinary People , with a mother, father, and son sitting around a vast table in a large suburban house and having nothing to say to one another. 

It is almost as if recognition has become a public commodity, to be traded like soybean futures on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Charles Taylor, the noted Canadian philosopher and author of a famous book on Hegel, has taken for his theme this peculiar emotional economy, whereby the public forum has become the national cry room and catharsis center for all sorts of hurts and grievances that would, at first glance anyway, seem to be private issues. The book is brief; it originated as a lecture (with responses which are included) to inaugurate the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. But there can be no contemporary philosopher better attuned than Taylor to the vagaries of the career of the Self in Western culture, and in this lucid essay he has brought both his considerable learning and his gentle wisdom to bear on a topic that is becoming increasingly neuralgic and even enervating.

What makes the politics of recognition so difficult of resolution begins with the semantic shift from “honor” to “recognition.” Premodern societies valued honor, an inherently aristocratic and limited concept, bestowed only on the titled (serfs need not apply); whereas today every ecdysiast strolling the street can demand “recognition” for his or her “art” of self-expression. But as Taylor well realizes, the transmutation of honor into recognition first requires the collapse of social hierarchies, which used to be the basis for honor. And thus honor, as he says, “is intrinsically linked to inequalities. For some to have honor in this sense, it is essential that not everyone have it.” (In the Iliad , it is only the warlords who take umbrage at insults to their honor: just one commoner appears by name in Homer’s first epic, and he is thrashed by Odysseus for speaking up in the lords’ council.)

But the Enlightenment view of human nature stresses the inherent, and thus abstract, equality of every human person. It is therefore responsible for the abolition not just of social hierarchies but of the very concept of honor itself. Theoretically, then, every citizen of a society based on the proposition that “all men are created equal” should feel equally recognized in his or her innate (inalienable) dignity as a human person. What muddies the picture is the Romantic gloss on the Enlightenment view of human nature: that each human being is not just equal but also unique :

There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s life. But this notion gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me . . . . Each of our voices has something unique to say. Not only should I not mold my life to the demands of external conformity; I can’t even find the model by which to live outside myself. I can only find it within.

It is the intersection of these two views of human natureone stressing the abstract equality of all men, and the other the inimitable uniqueness of each personalitythat according to Taylor accounts for the peculiarly desperate hunger that modern people bring to their interpersonal relationships, both idealizing those relationships beyond anything they can reasonably bear and yet turning away from them and toward the public square when the other person or persons cannot meet those impossible demands:

On the intimate level, we can see how much an original identity needs and is vulnerable to the recognition given or withheld by significant others. It is not surprising that in the culture of authenticity, relationships are seen as the key loci of self-discovery and self-affirmation. Love relationships are not just important because of the general emphasis in modern culture on the fulfillments of ordinary needs. They are also crucial because they are the crucibles of inwardly generated identity.

Matthew Arnold, as great poets often do, brilliantly anticipated this sad dynamic at the end of his poem “Dover Beach,” when the voice of the lover concludes with the exhortation: “Ah, love, let us be true/ to one another! for the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams,/ . . . hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;/ And here we are as on a darkling plain/ swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

There is, then, an intense vulnerability to personal relationships that has arisen from the collapse of honor and from the conflicting notions of what its substitute, recognition, can bestow. A new note has been struck in the history of friendship and marriage: that of desperation.

For Taylor, this desperation comes from the inherently irresolvable tensions between conflicting views of human nature, each of which forms an indispensable foundation stone to contemporary liberal society:

With the politics of equal dignity, what is established is meant to be universally the same, an identical basket of rights and immunities; with the politics of difference, what we are asked to recognize is the unique identity of this individual or group, their distinctness from everything else. The idea is that it is precisely this distinctness that has been ignored, glossed over, assimilated to a dominant or majority identity. And this assimilation is the cardinal sin against the ideal of authenticity.

In all the debates about multiculturalismabout Afro-centered curricula, for example, or affirmative action, or perhaps above all, feminismit is not sufficiently noted how inherently irresolvable this issue is when taken on its own terms. Society is being asked to provide two mutually contradictory supports to each individual: one based on his abstract humanity and the other on his unique particularity, and the two simply cannot be made to parse in the same political syntax, a point that Taylor, an Anglophone from Quebec, notes with rare acuity:

These two modes of politics, then, both based on the notion of equal respect, come into conflict. For one, the principle of equal respect requires that we treat people in a difference-blind fashion. The fundamental intuition that humans command this respect focuses on what is the same in all. For the other, we have to recognize and even foster particularity. The reproach the first makes to the second is just that it violates the principle of nondiscrimination. The reproach the second makes to the first is that it negates identity by forcing people into a homogeneous mold that is untrue to them.

Among the responses to Taylor’s lecture, Michael Walzer’s (the shortest) does remark on the hypocrisy behind Enlightenment liberalism (“no doubt state neutrality is often hypocritical, always incomplete”). Taylor, of course, does not characterize the Enlightenment/Romantic program as hypocrisy but rather as inherently contradictory, a point brought out, seemingly unconsciously, by Steven Rockefeller, another respondent, who juxtaposes these two sentences without appearing to notice how the one unravels the other:

From the democratic perspective, particular cultures are critically evaluated in the light of the way they give distinct concrete expression to universal capacities and values. [Yet] the objective of a liberal democratic culture is to respectnot to repressethnic identities and to encourage different cultural traditions to develop fully their potential for expression of the democratic ideals of freedom and equality, leading in most cases to major cultural transformations [emphasis added].

But these transformations don’t come cheap, which is precisely why the issue is so neuralgic. The contradiction lurking in all this rhetoric is the quite unspoken presupposition that governs this debate: that some culture has to be the chump and play the role of the fall guy, an admission that perhaps only comes to light in this telling line from respondent Susan Wolf: “And the problems of those who have been urged to ignore or suppress or remove their differences from white Christian heterosexuals can remind us of the dangers of trying to deny the significance, say, of gender differences that may run very deep.” A nice touch there, that glancing reference to “Christian.”

But what goes unrecognized in the book is how a Christian perspective on human nature might actually not only illuminate these difficulties but point a way, if not to their resolution, at least to an identification of their source. For example, one odd feature of the book is Taylor’s assertion that the trend toward a politics of recognition can be seen as “just a continuation and development inaugurated by Saint Augustine, who saw the road to God as passing through our own self-awareness.” What is insufficiently noted is how diametrically opposed are St. Augustine’s view of human nature and that of Rousseau. Taylor at one point even quotes Rousseau to the effect that “with liberty, wherever abundance reigns, well-being also reigns”scarcely, to say the least, a continuation of Augustine’s pessimistic view of human nature. This Rousseauian optimism is perhaps the root of the modern pathos, for nothing could be so obviously self-refuting. In fact, it is out of the Rousseauian view of human nature that the politics of recognition first grew, and nothing more characterizes that politics than its sheer insatiability, as the German sidewalk streaker amply demonstrates.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches in the Religious Studies Program at New York University.

Image by Snow Minister via Creative Commons. Image cropped