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The controversy in the United States over multiculturalism in and beyond education has now faded”perhaps because Nathan Glazer is right that “we’re all multiculturalists now.” Yet that controversy was merely the leading edge of an intellectual movement exalting ethnic culture and affiliation, oftentimes as the core of the self and its identity. Against liberal neo“Kantian proponents of epistemological “veils” and other devices for abstracting us from our ordinary entanglements, communitarians insist that each of us must do his thinking from within, and as a member of, a particular community and tradition. Sometimes they embrace the strong ethnic ties that undergird many of the most familiar communities and traditions.

This phenomenon has percolated down from the university to the public schools. Anyone with a child in school has probably heard of one or another ethnic festival in which children are urged to “celebrate diversity” by interviewing a grandparent about the customs of the old country, dressing up in their ethnic group’s costume, or bringing in a dish distinctive of their ancestral homeland’s native cuisine. A number of curmudgeons (conservative and liberal) have decried this de“emphasis on what unites us trans“ethnically as Americans, but while they have gained some sympathetic notice, pluralism remains the order of the day.

Onto this scene enters Jorge J. E. Gracia’s magisterial new book, Hispanic/Latino Identity . Gracia is an expert in medieval metaphysics and a noted metaphysical theorist himself, blending scholastic with analytic techniques and arguments. Where others chatter about “identity politics,” with scant understanding of either term, Gracia undertakes a careful, metaphysically nuanced, and informed discussion of ethnic identity.

He tips us off to his painstaking, systematizing mind in the book’s opening, where he scrupulously distinguishes and marshals arguments in defending and explaining the need for a book of this sort (a “social ontology” rather than more traditional sociology), his writing it in English (rather than Spanish), the propriety of authorship by a Cuban“born American (rather than someone residing in a Spanish“speaking country), the work’s timeliness, and so on. When even the boilerplate questions of the preface (why this book? why this author? why now?) win such painstaking seriousness, we know we are in for something special. Gracia is thorough and always fair“minded in his examination of what group(s) should be bunched, why, and under what labels, and his Thomistic style of responding separately to each of many objections to his own views brings a new level of rigor, sophistication, intelligence, and intellectual creativity to a field mired in the confusions of second“rate social scientists and the ideological posturing of muddled activists.

That is not to say that Gracia’s position is necessarily convincing or that his argumentation”while careful, historically informed, and methodical”is always cogent. Gracia argues that there is a Hispanic ethnicity in addition to the Mexican, Mexican“American, Spanish, Puerto Rican, etc. particular ethnicities. (Perhaps it is a trans“ethnic category.) Moreover, he thinks there is Hispanic identity , involving some level of unity, though not homogeneity. He defines “Hispanic identity” in the following fashion:

Hispanics are the group of people comprised by the inhabitants of the countries of the Iberian peninsula after 1492 and what were to become the colonies of those countries after the encounter between Iberia and America took place, and by descendants of these people who live in other countries . . . but preserve some link to [them].

Gracia advances this complex, disjunctive account in service of his claim, often repeated here, that there need be no quality or property that all Hispanics share. Many different things can count as being Hispanic.

In contrast to essentialist and other conceptions of ethnicity, Gracia calls his a “Familial“Historical View,” invoking Wittgenstein’s famous discussion in Philosophical Investigations of “family resemblance.” Wittgenstein’s idea was that there need be no facial feature that, say, all the Kennedys share, though we can say that John and John Jr. had a distinctive mouth, and John and Bobby very similar eyes, so that John Jr. and Bobby were linked through each’s similarity to John, even if neither looked much like the other. In the same way, Gracia thinks, not all Hispanics share one common feature, but they are linked by a web of smaller“scale connections, especially historical ones. This is plausible, and promising in its rejection of any transhistorical Hispanic “essence,” but it gets Gracia into difficulties.

First, Gracia here flirts with the fashionable idea that ethnicity is a “social construct,” insisting that families are conventional and legal realities where Wittgenstein thought his ideas applied chiefly to biological families. But Wittgenstein was right”family resemblance makes sense only in biological terms, not constructed ones. When Carolyn Bessette joined the Kennedys through her marriage to John Jr., she could have no real family resemblance to them, however similar she looked to some of them. The resemblance could only have been chance. In contrast, had one of John Sr.’s assignations yielded an illegitimate son who was never acknowledged and never bore the name of Kennedy, the child could well have shared the Kennedy family resemblance, inheriting, say, his father’s smile. Gracia’s rejection of Wittgenstein’s emphasis on biology undermines his appeal to family resemblance theory as a model for understanding Hispanic identity. It removes a necessary element.

More importantly, family resemblance would preclude any real unity among Hispanics, since part of Wittgenstein’s point seems to have been to explain how family members, such as the Kennedys, could be connected indirectly without each sharing some trait with everyone else. It is difficult to see how there could be what Gracia wants: a Hispanic identity that all Hispanics can share without having any common property. If the only thing all Hispanics have in common is a legal status and the term “Hispanic,” then there is no real, substantive, extra“conventional unity or identity to Hispanics.

On the other hand, if Gracia is correct that all Hispanics share an identity and constitute a unity, then this itself is something they would all have in common, contrary to Gracia’s denials. I think much of the difficulty here stems from Gracia’s failure to distinguish the commonplace and unexceptionable notion of ethnic affiliation from the much fishier idea of ethnic identity. Gracia’s mastery of metaphysics should have enabled him to see that ethnicity has nothing to do with the sameness ( idem ) that makes talk of identity meaningful.

After its first few chapters”on why Latinos need any name, on why “Hispanic” is the best one available, on the nature of ethnicity, on the meaning and ontology of identity”the book’s interest to general readers fades considerably. Gracia’s discussion of mestizos and the wider phenomenon of ethnic “mixing” is illuminating, but a later chapter on Hispanic philosophy, and a still later one on Latin American philosophy, do not make good on Gracia’s promise that they will illustrate and provide insight into the wider situation of Hispanics.

The last chapter, on philosophy in the United States and the place of both Hispanic philosophers and Hispanic philosophy within it, contains much that is amusing, but is decidedly “in“house.” Perhaps Gracia is correct that Spanish and Latin American philosophy are neglected in the U.S. because they are seen as “foreign” in ways that French and German philosophy are not. Yet Gracia himself suggests alternative explanations, among them, that narrowly Catholic and scholastic concerns preoccupied Spanish thought well after northern Europe’s secularization, that Iberian philosophy had a different focus than that elsewhere, or that the decline in Spain’s influence in intellectual matters followed from its political and military decline.

Though Gracia’s philosophical care usually serves him well, sometimes it gets out of hand. His tendency to make distinctions and find some truth on all sides makes his discussion of whether there is such a thing as Hispanic philosophy, for example, maddeningly inconclusive. On the other hand, he slips once or twice and makes fashionable claims that aren’t careful enough. He maintains, for example, that “evangelization presupposes inequality between those who give and those who receive, those who ‘have the truth’ and those who are ‘deprived of the truth.’” This is facile. Evangelization assumes only the inequality inherent in any effort to teach: that one has some valuable knowledge another lacks. Those who have brought their faith to others at great cost and risk to themselves acted with virtue, not vice, regardless of whether we accept their creed. Similarly, Gracia allows himself to pontificate that only those Hispanic intellectuals who study Hispanic cultures are being “true to [them]selves.” This merely presupposes, without any adequate support, that someone’s ethnicity contains some deep truth about his self.

Ethnicity matters to us, in a way and to an extent it shouldn’t. My children’s African ancestry is evident on their skin; their Hispanic ancestry in their names. Nothing would please their public school teachers more than for my wife and me to send them to school on “diversity” days with some forebear’s tales of exotic folkways, wearing dashikis, carrying bowls of rice and beans. We don’t oblige. In contrast, their affirmation of serious divergence from the intellectual milieu”defending the Bible’s accuracy or Christ’s historicity against a teacher’s debunking, upholding the good name of Christianity or its history against a schoolbook’s ignorant detraction, condemning homosexual acts as perverse and immoral, even just asking that the existence of moral or medical or social reservations about such sex be acknowledged alongside the celebration of all things “gay””any of this is embarrassing, awkward, and problematic, deemed out of place in the schoolroom.

Herein lies a lesson. What is deepest and most valuable in culture (even if it is also erroneous), what is normally worth maintaining and most honorable within culture, is what also transcends it. If we are to take seriously diversity and the multicultural, then we must get beyond the trivializing shopping“mall “international food court” model, wherein “The Wok Stop” harmoniously nestles down between a (faux) Jewish deli and a croissant shop, across from Samurai Sushi. The differences that matter are the challenging differences, the ones about the things that matter most.

This spring I heard a lecturer from Princeton blithely argue that school vouchers ought to have strings attached requiring all eligible schools to eliminate religious preferences in admitting students and make worship services optional”all in the name of affirming common values and building a common culture. Today “assimilation” is a bugaboo, while we celebrate a diversity that glorifies variety in cuisine but is somehow consistent with programs of secular homogenization.

To negotiate this Looking Glass world, we’ll need a better understanding of ethnicity, with its quite limited importance, and of ethnic culture, whose culture“transcending elements and core are more important than anything else. Right now, our society has these matters upside down. Books like Gracia’s may be an invaluable aid in the necessary project of clarifying our thinking, and ultimately overturning it.

J. L. A. Garcia is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University and a Research Fellow in Boston University’s Institute on Race and Social Division.