Philosophical Implications of Multiculturalism Essay

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Historically, multiculturalism is a forty-year movement for social equality of subcultural groups based on race or ethnicity, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and physical disability. Beginning in the educational sector in the 1970s and expanding to the social and political arenas, multiculturalism has progressively challenged the dominance of racially White, Anglo-Saxon culture and raised questions about the meaning and significance of pluralism in American society. Questions raised by multiculturalism about equality and parity of culture have strong implications in philosophical areas of political philosophy and epistemology. In political philosophy, justly accommodating culture within liberal, democratic theories of government is the vexing puzzle that multiculturalism poses. For epistemology, multiculturalism calls into question the privileging of the Enlightenment epistemic norms of truth and universality of reason. This entry briefly describes the concept and its implications for politics and epistemology.

An Evolving Concept

Throughout its history, multiculturalism has been an evolving social phenomenon. At its earliest arrival into the American lexicon in the early 1970s, the term multicultural was typically used in conjunction with, or related to, education. Multicultural education began the 1970s as a series of ethnic/cultural pedagogical and curricular reforms in K–12 education. In addition to its presentation in the context of education, initially, multiculturalism was also a label for sociopolitical policies, practices, and initiatives foregrounding racial equality. In the next decades, multiculturalism underwent a series of adaptations.

In the 1980s, promoting diversity among subcultures rather than solely racial and ethnic groups was the focus of multiculturalism. This technical use of the word diversity refers to any group consisting of members different from the mainstream, defined as White, male, fully able-bodied, Anglo-Saxon people.

Multiculturalism as a movement became the voice of those arguing for a more inclusive society. Throughout the decade of the 1990s, multiculturalism promoted empowerment of members of society who were socially and economically disadvantaged. Social justice principles were generally the basis on which such demands were made.

Most recently, multiculturalism has come of age as constitutive of a series of guiding considerations in rethinking the foundations of American life and society for the broadest possible inclusion. Additionally, there are now clearly formal, academic, and theoretical strands of multiculturalism and informal, populist, and practical ones.

Multiculturalism is used here as the umbrella concept for policies, practices, and initiatives not only in education but also in various domains of civic and political life. It is the academic discourse of multiculturalism that is addressed here and within which one may identify clear theoretical implications of multiculturalism for both political philosophy and epistemology.

Implications For Political Philosophy

In political philosophy, there have been two definitive assertions of multiculturalism that are significant. One is that membership in a given subcultural group is salient to political relations in a way that merits recognition and support of identity beliefs and practices. This assertion conflicts with the dominant liberal political tradition of Western political philosophy. Premised upon the social contract as the inception of civil society, liberalism holds that political associations and the authority that attends them are legitimate to the extent that they allow a range of common liberties to which all citizens tacitly consent. The bases of the contract are conclusions implied by reason.

Because putatively neutral, socially naked persons enter into the contract, liberalism privileges the range of rights and duties accruing to persons in virtue of shared universal qualities. On the principled grounds of universal rationality, liberalism subsumes group practices and beliefs within the realm of individual rights, consigning expressions of cultural difference to the private realm. Within the political framework of individual rights, there are mutual constraints upon persons’ rights to freedom of expression. However, the rights of the others are not the only basis for limiting recognition of cultural beliefs or practices in liberalism; also salient are the interests of the cultural group member for whom the individual right of exit always supersedes the right of the cultural group to impose its tenets. Amy Gutmann, in Identity and Democracy, defends this conception of the relationship between group membership and democracy.

Multiculturalism challenges the specifications of liberalism in general and the nature of democracy in particular by questioning the firm separation between an individual and his or her cultural group membership in the realization of the social contract. This problem is one of pluralism, which raises questions about how difference should be treated in democratic society. Members of some cultural groups argue that an equal and inclusive society mitigates for the burdens of minority status.

In Politics in the Vernacular, Will Kymlicka offers a liberal defense of minority rights and also appeals to a valued liberal concept of human flourishing as the basis for special recognition of minorities. Multiculturalism maintains that educational institutions should accommodate cultural beliefs in some way. One specific example of such an accommodation is making allowances for more local religious influence in schools where the minority population so warrants. William Galston, in Liberal Pluralism, argues that liberal democratic society can allow a greater range of freedoms with regard to the public expressions of religious beliefs.

Whereas the first assertion questions the specifications of liberalism, the second definitive assertion of multiculturalism calls into question rationality discourse as the primary basis for the political. This challenge frames political claims within binary oppositions such as the oppressed versus the oppressor, the dominant versus victimized, and so on. Influenced by neo-Marxist critical political theory, these oppositions foreground well-entrenched social patterns of injustice that perpetually consign minority cultural groups to the social and economic periphery. Only by empowering the marginalized can a just state of affairs ensue. The implications of multiculturalism for epistemology are along similar lines of contesting well-established norms and meta-standards.

Implications For Epistemology

The philosophical discipline of epistemology concerns the criteria for knowledge and related concepts such as justification and belief. Epistemology, traditionally conceived, rests upon foundational premises of modernity. These premises include the knower as an objective, neutral enquirer reasoning from basic beliefs of perception, memory, or reasoning. Basic beliefs, which can be infallible, certain, or self-evident, logically support derived ones. Multiculturalism’s thesis of inclusivity raises the issue of the significance of groups and group membership for standards of belief and truth.

One proposal of multiculturalist scholars is that inclusivity is a critique of traditional epistemological standards and suggests that there are multiple ways of knowing. If multiculturalism is correct, there would be culture-specific epistemologies. However, this proposal faces two disjunctive options. Either standards of belief and truth are relative to culture, in which case there could not be universal truth, or claims to epistemological plurality are actually moral claims couched in traditional epistemological discourse.

In the first case, multiculturalism would be subject to self-refutation of the general assertion that there are multiple ways of knowing. In the case of the latter, multiculturalism claims for equality, respect, and liberation from the hegemonic Western tradition are actually framed within liberal and modernist presuppositions about truth and the equality of all human beings. Harvey Siegel makes this argument in a seminal article, “‘Radical Pedagogy’ Requires ‘Conservative’ Epistemology.”

Although multiculturalism claims were given further credibility as the movement incorporated postmodernist theories, in the later work of James Banks, a leading multiculturalism theorist, its scholarship has recently began to distance itself from the logically refutable position on epistemological relativism. In contrast, at the level of practice of education, cultural relativistic presuppositions are still being made. One example is in the work of Donna Gollnick and Phillip Chin, Multicultural Education in a Pluralistic Society.

The discourse surrounding the epistemological implications of inclusivity has had several offshoots into emerging disciplines. For example, women’s studies and feminist epistemology have addressed the gender-specific aspects of inclusion. There has also been an ongoing discussion about the implications of race in particular as well as the nexus of race and gender. Also, the field of social epistemology explores the bearing of social phenomena on epistemology.

The advent of multiculturalism has fundamentally advanced the promotion of equality across American society, transforming social and political norms. Its transformative role is exemplified in its impact on political philosophy and epistemology.


  1. Fraser-Burgess, S. (2005). How should a multicultural society educate its children for pluralism? Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Miami.
  2. Gallston, W. (2002). Liberal pluralism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Gollnick, D., & Chin, P. (2005). Multicultural education in a pluralistic society (7th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  4. Gutmann, A. (2003). Identity and democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  5. Kymlicka, W. (2001). Politics in the vernacular: Nationalism, multiculturalism and citizenship. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Siegel, H. (1995). “Radical” pedagogy requires “conservative” epistemology. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 29(1), 33–46.

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