Free to universalize or bound by culture? Multicultural and public philosophy

Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther*

Santa-cruz, March 25, 2014 (Alochonaa): The accelerating flow of people (e.g., migration, whether voluntary and benign, or caused by violence and desperation) and information (e.g., the Internet) makes multiculturalism increasingly relevant. We find ourselves exposed to an ever-broader variety of smells, languages, behaviors, and attire in our daily schedules. Some of us seem impervious to this diversity. Others find core identities challenged, or interpret core identities in general as being questioned, and may react with anger, fear or brutality. Yet others experience multiculturalism as a source of exhilaration, as a testament to life’s endless and beautiful variety. To complicate things, these feelings and behaviors may also be inextricably mixed within the same person or group. Here I set aside the direct phenomenology of sentiments in favor of metacognitive reflection on individual and social reactions to multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism requires sustained philosophical reflection, which in turn requires public outreach and communication, as promoted by Scientia Salon. This piece briefly outlines concerns raised by the philosophy of multiculturalism and, conversely, multiculturalism in philosophy. In thinking about philosophy in a multicultural context, we are forced, I believe, to reconsider the role and responsibility of the philosopher. I conclude with a provocative suggestion of philosophy as public diplomacy. (As this is intended to be a piece for a general audience, secondary literature is only referred to in the conclusion. References gladly provided upon request.)

First, let us consider the philosophy of multiculturalism. Second, let us turn to the feedback effects of multiculturalism on philosophy.

Philosophy permits critical thinking about thinking. Philosophical tools can be brought to bear on a number of questions raised by multiculturalism. Why are certain culturally conditioned opinions justified, while others are (considered) merely biased and “subjective”? Which sorts of assumptions must be made for a social, judicial or political structure to be considered appropriate? How could or should cultural disagreements about the nature and role of knowledge and science be adjudicated? How do, could, and should, for instance, Western societies and institutions arbitrate competing claims to religious truth, or conflicting moral injunctions? Philosophy provides ways of interpreting and addressing these cognitive, linguistic, social, political, and normative complexities. Consider the following questions regarding the impact of philosophy on multiculturalism:

  1. How can Kantian, Feminist, Marxist, Philosophical Anthropological, Psychoanalytic, Analytical Metaethical, and Existentialist philosophical frameworks provide explanations and interpretations of, and recommendations for, multicultural realities such as blasphemy laws, calls to prayers, “group rights,” treatment of women in different cultural groups, and territorial rights of first nations indigenous people? Can a single philosophical framework assist in making explicit the assumptions, concepts, and power involved in social and political matters?
  2. How can philosophical investigation provide a glimpse into the way language is used in the constitute social (and natural?) worlds? How do humans, in general and in specific cultures, use metaphor, concepts, and classifications to build and justify social reality? What effects might mistranslation and poor translation have in inter-cultural communication? How does language affect thought and society?
  3. How can philosophical reflection shed light on how the mind itself (e.g., rationality, actual reasoning, and deep narrative mythological/religious structures) is conditioned by culture? Which sorts of data and theories would be required to show, or at least suggest, that feelings, inferences, memories, and perceptions are altered by cultural context, and how can philosophy’s meta-scientific reflection help us evaluate the relevance and weight of such data and theories?
  4. How can philosophical analysis provide insight into the very existence of groups? That is, although it may seem absurd to some, one can ask whether cultural groups even exist. Might there be sufficient intragroup variation, and intergroup similarity, to deflate claims about group identity, or at least to see that such claims might be made primarily for political or economic benefit? Put succinctly, are cultural groups themselves products of exoticization and reification (e.g., orientalism) both from “within” and “without”?

By providing overarching meta-scientific and philosophical frameworks, different philosophical schools can assist scholarly, activist, and diplomatic (see below) work on (1) social and political questions, (2) language, (3) mind, and (4) cultures. Analytical, clarificatory, and critical philosophical work could be done in light of social relevance, and thereby complement ongoing technical work in analytical philosophy. Viewed in this way, philosophy is relevant across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences; indeed, philosophy becomes a family of dynamic tools, not a static systemic end in itself.

Let us now consider the converse effect of multiculturalism on philosophy. Is philosophy impervious to social, political, and economic — i.e., cultural — context? Should it be? Academic philosophy is often criticized for inhabiting an Ivory Tower. As philosophers, we sometimes seem to forget that it is, after all, people who are philosophizing. We are embedded in a body and culture, and live in a tangle of feelings, desires, and dreams. Multiculturalism reminds us that all of this needs to be taken into account in philosophizing about the human condition. We might consider leaving the Ivory Tower, at least sometimes, and also letting others up into it, whether we invite them or they (justifiably, and perhaps forcefully) demand entry. Consider the following questions about the ways multiculturalism feeds back on philosophy:

  1. How does multiculturalism force the philosopher to consider cultural context in her potentially universalizing pronouncements and principles about “the human condition”? How can we develop a philosophy sensitive both to cultural context and to what might be universal about our condition?
  2. How might changes in power and context of the philosophical inquirer her- or himself change the questions and answers on the table? How could shifts in the cultural context (e.g., language, norms, political system) of the inquirer change what is at stake, and which tools are used, in on-the-ground philosophical inquiry? How might a multicultural autobiography affect the work of the single philosopher?
  3. How does multiculturalism invite philosophy to be a broader cultural enterprise, by engaging in comparative philosophy? Philosophy is perhaps no longer a strictly universalist enterprise, exploring the nature, conditions, and dynamics of knowledge, values, and reality sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”). Rather, Philosophy is, and perhaps should be, carried on in different contexts, and with “cultural qualifiers”: Latin American, Indian, Chinese, Amerindian, Islamic, etc. Multiculturalism suggests that studying the history of Western philosophy is no longer sufficient for contextualizing philosophy. Synchronic (i.e., geographic, cultural) comparison, in addition to diachronic (i.e., historical) comparison are both necessary for a richer understanding of human philosophy and thought.
  4. How does multiculturalism invite us to reflect on the direct responsibility philosophy has to the public, and on the importance of playing the role of public intellectual? Philosophy can — and perhaps should — contribute to reflective, nuanced, and informed public discussion of the realities and consequences of multiculturalism. Multicultural realities urge the philosopher to engage in public debate. Or at least, so it seems, and so I hope. Some, if not all, philosophers are affected by “globalization” and multiculture. Some are even themselves the direct, autobiographical product of multiculturalism. Again, as multicultural citizens, professional philosophers are reminded of the importance of public outreach.

Thus, philosophy influences thinking and doing about multiculturalism, and vice-versa. We might want to consider cultural context in our philosophical analyses, and be metacognitive about our own biases and presuppositions. Furthermore, the increasing movement of people and information invites professional philosophers (even at elite American institutions) to engage in comparative philosophy and in public outreach. Again, philosophy can do much work in the world.

This essay serves to briefly motivate what is at stake in the philosophy of multiculturalism and the multiculturalism of philosophy.

I conclude with an admittedly contentious suggestion for the role of the (multicultural) philosopher as public diplomat. In his essay, “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie observes:

It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being “elsewhere.” This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal. (1992, 12)

I would like to suggest that here we can replace, mutatis mutandi, “writer” with “philosopher.” Indeed, alienation from time and country, history and culture, via comparison and reflection, allows us to see “potentially every culture as all cultures” (Paul Feyerabend, 1994). The 12th century mystical monk, Hugo of St. Victor suggested that rather than find our homeland sweet (“patria dulcis est”), perfect is he to whom the entire world is an exile (“mundus totus exilium est”). Rushdie, Feyerabend, and Hugo of St. Victor teach that systemic comparison through exile — metaphorical and literal — allows the philosopher to make presuppositions and purposes explicit. By learning which philosophical tools (e.g., logic, feminist critique) are pertinent to which aims, we avoid reifying our philosophical culture, and are then precisely able to “speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal.” Multiculturalism thus shatters monoculture’s arrogance, via estrangement and self-examination. It makes us stronger.

Once we become stronger, what shall we do in a multicultural world? Circumstances (and desire?) urge us, as philosophers, to become public diplomats. Diplomacy is a worthy task for reason (Western or otherwise), as Bruno Latour (2002) argues. Reason may yet lose in the ongoing “wars of the world” conflict once the dust settles (and when will that be?), but it is only by directly facing the momentous task and violence ahead of us, that multinaturalism (many alternative ontologies, multiple philosophies of nature; Viveiros de Castro 2004) as well as multiculturalism can be negotiated, and a true peace achieved. The view here advocated on philosophy’s function as public diplomacy is perhaps less cynical, and more optimistic, than seeing philosophy as a foundational general or judge, imposing its will to power and adjudicating knowledge and morals, either through (implicit) combat or through detached and abstract rulings (e.g., interpreting philosophical political liberalism as the handmaiden of neo-liberal Western imperialism). The stakes are certainly high. Philosophy could be a commendable diplomat in the public endeavor of learning to live courageously and ethically, perhaps even peacefully, in a multicultural world.


*Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther is a professor of philosophy at the University of California-Santa Cruz. He investigates the structure, dynamics, and functions of scientific theories and models and is currently working on a book (to be published by the University of Chicago Press) entitled When Maps Become the World: Abstraction and Analogy in Philosophy of Science. You can find out more about the Philosophy in a Multicultural Context research cluster here. Cross-posted via Scienta Salon under a mutual agreement.

Acknowledgments. Thanks to Lisa Clark, Joseph Hendry, Jonathan Kaplan, Helen Longino, Lucas McGranahan, Fabrizzio Guerrero McManus, Ann Lipson, Jan Mihal, Amir Najmi, Richard Otte, Irena Polic, and Mette Smølz Skau.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Suggested Readings:

General suggested readings on multicultural philosophy.

Feyerabend, P. (1994). Potentially Every Culture is All Cultures. Common Knowledge 3: 16-22.

Fraenkel, C. In Praise of the Clash of Cultures. The New York Times on the Web 2 September 2012.

Latour, B. (2002). War of the Worlds: What about Peace? (Translated from the French by C. Bigg). Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Lloyd, G E R. (2010) “History and Human Nature: Cross-cultural Universals and Cultural Relativities.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 35 (3-4): 201-214.

Nicholson, CJ. (August, 1998). Three Views of Philosophy and Multiculturalism: Searle, Rorty, and Taylor. Unpublished paper presented at 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, Massachusetts.

Rushdie, S. (1992). Imaginary Homelands, in Imaginary Homelands. Essays and Criticism. 1981-1991. New York, Granta Books and Penguin, pp. 9-21.

Smith, J. Philosophy’s Western Bias. The New York Times on the Web 3 June 2012.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2004). Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation. Tipití. Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2(1): 3-22.

Categories: Academia, philosophy

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