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Rethinking Liberal Multiculturalism: Culture, Meaning and Pluralism


The modern world is complex. The challenges we face as human beings are profound and wide-ranging, from climate change affecting the entire planet, through the forces of globalization that are altering relationships within and between nation-states, to the politics of group and individual identity that challenge traditional forms of liberal-democratic governance. It is also paradoxical, pulling us in different directions. Scientific advancements have given us greater knowledge of the physical world than at any previous time in history, but the pace of technological change is increasing exponentially, as are its effects on both the natural and social worlds. We are more interdependent than ever before, but the technologies that connect us—particularly new kinds of media, but also forms of economic exchange and political practice—potentially isolate us from each other as well. Liberal democracy is the dominant form of governance worldwide, and widespread belief in its normative justification has made its hegemony seem unshakeable. Yet despite this broad consensus, precisely what is required—or permitted—by liberal-democratic principles is highly controversial within different domestic and international contexts. In addition, the spread of political and economic liberalism has impacted traditional forms of life, leading to social experimentation and transformation, but also to reactionary movements. Far from being the “end of history,” competition between ideologies has, if anything, intensified in recent decades.

The modern world is therefore both large and small. The prominence of the global has never been higher, but at the same time the local appears to be gaining, rather than receding, in strength. We value difference, particularly as it relates to culture and identity, to a greater extent than ever before, but the very process of coming to this knowledge has made us increasingly conscious of the issues that divide us. While we now have a deeper understanding of how our different identities—political, economic, cultural, racial, religious, gender, sexual—have been constructed, this has done little to mitigate their social effects. Our identities thus seem both more fluid and entrenched than ever before, depending on the context. The world is surely more cosmopolitan than it has ever been but, even so, we are all multiculturalists now, and many of us remain staunch nationalists, or true believers in other doctrines. Modern life is marked by both commonality and difference, connection and separation, understanding and confusion, and tensions between the local and the global. This dissertation examines these crisscrossing and overlapping aspects of the modern world, and the competing beliefs, practices, and values that flow from them, attempting to find a way past their apparent contradictions. It will examine the dilemmas raised by modern diversity, explain how they came about, and unpack their wider ramifications. It does so primarily through exploring the relationship between multiculturalism, liberal democracy and cosmopolitanism, which lie at the root of our current political confusion.

The primary focus of my analysis is the political theory of multiculturalism, which centers on how liberal democracies should respond to minority cultural groups. The work of Will Kymlicka rightly stands atop this debate in political theory. His liberal defense of multicultural rights broke new ground by responding directly to the social reality of modern cultural diversity. His attempt to mediate the debate between Rawls and the communitarians was innovative in both its analysis of the philosophical positions, and in the way it adapted the Rawlsian framework to accommodate the claims of culture. His work is rigorous, insightful, important and influential. Nevertheless, his theory was colored by his interpretation of his intellectual context in such a way as to open him to accusations that he reified and essentialized culture. Critics allege that Kymlicka’s theory—and liberal multiculturalism more broadly—is incapable of dealing with the fluid and contested nature of culture, and so is fatally flawed. Unfortunately, these criticisms have been more trenchant than fruitful and, despite myriad attempts, political theorists have failed to articulate a convincing response to cultural diversity that is both philosophically coherent and normatively persuasive. Perhaps this indicates we should turn to political and contextual approaches to cultural diversity within and across liberal-democratic states, as many thinkers (the later Kymlicka included) have done. Yet, while much of this theorizing is extremely valuable, a narrow focus on historical context and political procedure arguably render then unable to address the fundamental normative problem of how to manage social diversity.

Rather than following the contextual and political turn in Anglophone political theory, this dissertation attempts to form a general theory of “multiculturalism” from an analysis of the problems with the dominant liberal form of it. It examines the central debates in political theory, demonstrating that both liberal multiculturalism and its cosmopolitan critics misunderstand the key philosophical issues. Through a combination of intellectual history and philosophical argument it shows that the luck-egalitarian framework employed by Kymlicka means that he, and prominent variants of his liberal multiculturalism, cannot avoid reifying and essentializing culture. Yet it also shows that a cosmopolitan account of culture is mishandled by its advocates, often leading to the outright rejection of “multiculturalism” instead of its reformulation. By drawing on meaning holism and postfoundationalism this dissertation can—unlike both liberal multiculturalists and their cosmopolitan critics—offer a philosophically coherent account of culture and identity that still has still clear normative and practical implications. My critique of liberal multiculturalism also extends to other prominent forms of liberal-democratic theory, such as liberal nationalism and political liberalism, ultimately taking us beyond liberalism and turning instead to overlooked strands of the socialist tradition for inspiration. I conclude that cultural differences do not require special rights allocated to minority groups or individuals, but rather flexible governance that facilitates local political, economic and social experimentation. Ultimately, this dissertation sketches a novel theory of “cosmopolitan multiculturalism” based in the value of diversity.

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