Thursday 28 January 2010

Secularism and Multiculturalism: an encounter with Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor, University of Westminster, 15 January 2010

Few intellectuals have ever successfully bridged the divide between analytical and Continental philosophy. Charles Taylor has been doing it for decades, and what’s more, has taken the best from both traditions; combining the conceptual clarity and intellectual rigour that characterises analytical philosophy at its most refined with the profound scope and social engagement that’s found in the highest exemplars of Continental philosophy. His work encompasses a wide range of subjects: subjectivity, identity, morality, culture, politics, religion, secularisation and intellectual history. Unusually for a contemporary philosopher, he has also been a committed political figure. He has been a candidate for the New Democratic Party in his native Canada on three separate occasions, and in 2007 he co-headed the Bouchard-Taylor commission which was created by the Quebec government to advise on how far society should go to accommodate requests for cultural adjustment from minority groups.

Taylor was in London this month for a series of events exploring the substantial contribution his work has made to contemporary thought. While Taylor has produced influential work in a wide range of areas, the event at Westminster University was focused on his contribution to social thinking: particularly debates about political theory, multiculturalism and secularisation. It took the form of two roundtables over the course of the day, each involving a series of speakers before a dialogue between them and Taylor himself, followed by a lecture by Taylor in the evening and a wine reception after this.

The first of the roundtables focused on Taylor’s contribution to political theory. Chaired by Chantal Mouffe of the University of Westminster, it included Taylor himself and four other speakers: Stephen Mulhall, Steven Lukes, Paulina Tambakaki and Raymond Plant. The second of the roundtables focused on Taylor’s contribution to the debate on religion, politics and culture. Chaired by Bhikhu Parekh of the University of Westminster, it included Taylor himself and four other speakers: Tariq Modood, Grace Davie, Sanjay Seth and Abdelwahab El Affendi. Discussion in these roundtables include theoretical conceptions of society, conceptualising liberty and the relation between science and modernity.

In the evening lecture Taylor addressed the question: ‘secularism and multiculturalism – are they compatible?’ As such he was addressing two of the major themes of his work: the recognition of difference and the meaning of secularism. His initial answer as to their compatibility was ‘yes and no’ and the aim of the lecture was to philosophically and politically unpack this ambivalent statement. As might be expected of an analytically trained philosopher, his starting point was to ask what we actually mean when talk about ‘secularism’. Taylor identified two different understandings of secularism.

The first, which he called secularism (a), attempts to fix religion in a particular place in society. It defines itself through a certain stance towards religion, which is more often than not oppositional. In contrast the second understanding, which he called secularism (b), is a process of managing social diversity through a stance of neutrality. Whereas (a) treats religion as an object of suspicion to be kept out of the public sphere, (b) treats religion as a doctrine like any other, which should not be privileged in public life because of a need for neutrality rooted in an ideal of fairness (as well as the pragmatic need to manage diversity in increasingly heterogeneous societies). Similarly (a) believes that the dilemmas endemic to modern political life – those points at which rational processes breaks down and moral decision is necessary – can be overcome through adherence to specific principles (eg, separation of church and state) which may be contingently difficult to resolve in practice. In contrast (b) holds such dilemmas to be partly constitutive of modern politics and thus places questions of managing diversity fairly at the heart of its conception of the political.

Taylor argues that (a) gained ground historically because of the struggle, at times, between religious influences and state power. As such there are, or at last were, good historical reasons for conceiving of religion as a ‘problem’. However times have changed and a focus on these historical tensions diverts attention from what Taylor sees as the key predicament facing modern societies: how to preserve democratic values in light of the fact of contemporary cultural pluralism? Taylor suggests that most people who subscribe to (a) do so because they see this sense of secularism being part of the ‘package’ that ought to govern a democratic society (alongside eg, human rights, democratic constitutions, the rule of law). He calls this the ‘civil doctrine’. However, contra such a ‘package’ view, he argues that this civil doctrine can be related to and invoked by varying deeper justifications (along the lines of the ‘overlapping consensus’ in the later work of John Rawls). As a striking example of this, Taylor recounted his encounter with a movement of Buddhist democratic activists in Thailand who argued passionately for liberal democracy but rooted this understanding in Buddhist principles of non-violence rather than the Western liberal heritage following from Locke.

Taylor anticipates two basic forms of objection to his argument. The first rests on what Taylor suggests is a deep seated belief in our culture that we need to agree on the fundamental reasons underlying the civic doctrine. The second rests on a similar belief that democratic societies do require a very strong sense of common identity: we have to trust each other, we have to believe public debate is honest, we have to be willing to sacrifice for each other etc. Both objections rest on a similar substantive claim that some sense of common belonging is needed. This, argues Taylor, is where multiculturalism and secularism meet: both attempt to address the question ‘how will we stick together?’ and, as he puts it, the anguish of secularism is the anguish of multiculturalism.

Taylor argues that multiculturalism isn’t just a necessity born of international migration but is a socio-political consequence of shifts in the tacit cultural understandings of Western modernity.  As he puts it in his magnum opus A Secular Age, this is the transition from a society in which ‘it was virtually impossible not to believe in God’ to one in which religious faith is just ‘one human possibility among others’. Under such conditions, argues Taylor, it becomes imperative for democratic politics that we rethink and rearticulate of the political identities which have historically emerged in Western societies: this is the political challenge posed by both secularism and multiculturalism.

As compelling a speaker and thinker as Taylor is, there seemed to be something rather muted and unsatisfying about his account (not least of all the obvious similarities between his account and that of John Rawls in Political Liberalism). One was left with the impression that his experience on the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which spent a year holding public hearings on matters of cultural integration throughout Quebec, had left him slightly fazed by what the anthropologist Robin Fox called ‘ethnographic dazzle’ (the tendency to be preoccupied by cultural difference ) and, with it, a movement towards an understanding of social integration which over-estimates the need for social unity and under-estimates the real tensions which stand as obstacles to it. In her subsequent questioning Chantal Mouffe pursued such a line of argument and, in fairness to Taylor, his response was both plausible and convincing: he recognised the irreducibility of social tensions but argued that the task of a democratic politics was to find ways to ensure these tensions manifest themselves in disagreement and dialogue rather than conflict and violence (a point which someone in the audience later intriguingly described as the ‘dialogical imperative’).

In this sense his account seemed not dissimilar from that of Mouffe’s own work, which stresses the need for what she calls a ‘conflictual consensus’ based around the plural interpretations of shared principles (which presupposes the sort democratic polity which allows conflict to be aired as political disagreement between adversaries rather than political battle between enemies). However the sheer occlusion of conflict from his main lecture itself points to a worrying tendency for real and unavoidable tensions to be glossed over in the theorisation of cultural integration – unless, as is the case in Mouffe’s work, such tensions are placed at the heart of the understanding of the political – which can persist in spite of the reflective realism of the theorist when asked to consider the actual nature of such tensions. This is problematic because it undermines the ability of such theoretical accounts to shine a light on actually existing politics and, given the decaying state of rational political discourse in the Anglo-American world, the insight these accounts might offer is needed more than ever.

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