U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“When the Zulus Produce a Tolstoy We Will Read Him”: Charles Taylor and the Politics of Recognition


In his excellent recent Dædalus article, “Racial Liberalism, the Moynihan Report & the Dædalus Project on ‘The Negro American,’” Daniel Geary (author of Radical Ambition, the superb biography of C. Wright Mills, which I reviewed here) concludes his analysis with a cogent reference to the post-1960s shift in racial liberalism. He writes that “public criticism of the Moynihan Report emerged from an increasing disenchantment with the core assumptions of racial liberalism”—or, at least, racial liberalism as it stood in 1965, the year Moynihan authored his infamous government report on The Negro Family.

Left-leaning critics of that form of racial liberalism, who would go on to pioneer another form, otherwise known as multiculturalism, “came to reject the common sociological view that African American culture was a pathological distortion of white American culture and that blacks should have to conform to white values in order to achieve equality.” In short, the Moynihan Report predated the cultural turn taken by post-60s racial liberalism, anticipated by Ralph Ellison in his critique of liberal sociology circa 1965: “The sociology is loaded… The concepts which are brought to bear are usually based on those of white, middle-class, Protestant values and life style.” Ellison pointed towards a new form of racial liberalism: one that tended to valuate, and even celebrate, minority cultural forms.


For Geary’s purposes (he’s currently writing a book on the Moynihan Report), multiculturalism—or, the post-60s cultural turn taken by racial liberalism—merely serves as a bookend to the sociological liberalism that informed Moynihan and his cohort. But for my purposes—in my efforts to write a book on the culture wars—multiculturalism is that which needs full explanation, historical and epistemological. My research thus leads me to Charles Taylor’s indispensable long essay, “The Politics of Recognition,” the centerpiece of a book edited by Amy Gutmann, entitled, simply, Multiculturalism. (Following the suggestions of several readers, I’m in the midst of a deep engagement with Charles Taylor. Next week I hope to blog on his monumental A Secular Age—as if a blog post can do justice to a 900-page book!)

Taylor locates the source of what he calls “the politics of recognition,” which are more commonly referred to as “identity politics,” in the idea that “nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of living.” Ideas about identity, culture, and history thus take on added political consequence, since it is assumed that oppressed people are conditioned to the view of themselves assigned by their oppressors, such that even when legal and other tangible barriers to equality are removed, psychological inhibitors remain. Although Taylor’s essay is mostly in the realm of abstract ideas—he’s a philosopher, not an intellectual historian—my research confirms his notions: concerns about self-loathing in relation to cultural identity drove the liberation politics of Black Power advocates like Stokely Carmichael and Chicano Power activists such as Corky Gonzales (check out my essay on the latter, in relation to the Arizona anti-ethnic studies law, here).

Taylor recognizes that perhaps the key thinker in this transition to thinking about misrecognition as oppression is Franz Fanon, “whose influential The Wretched of the Earth argued that the major weapon of the colonizers was the imposition of their image of the colonized on the subjugated people. These latter, in order to be free, must first of all purge themselves of these depreciating self-images.” Taylor contends that “the notion that there is a struggle for a changed self-image, which takes place both within the subjugated and against the dominator, has been very widely applied. The idea has become crucial to certain strands of feminism, and is also a very important element in the contemporary debate about multiculturalism.”

Fanon is not always considered a practitioner of identity politics or a theorist of multiculturalism. His revolutionary credentials tend to militate against such labels, since, in an age of multinational capitalism, only deluded multicultural theorists and their caustic conservative critics tend to think of multiculturalism as revolutionary. In a recent New Left Review retrospective (“Reading Fanon in the 21st Century”) Immanuel Wallerstein argues that Franz Fanon’s 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks—recirculated in the 1980s and 1990s as part of the multicultural canon (the irony in coupling these two words together is not lost on me)—was “in no way a call to identity politics.” Wallerstein has a point, since Fanon concluded the book on a universal note, distancing himself from any particular conception of blackness: “The Negro is not. Any more than a white man.”

In his 1963 The Wretched of the Earth, perhaps the seminal anticolonial text, Fanon was critical of black nationalist celebrations of ancient African civilization. But he recognized such racialized expressions of history and culture as necessary first steps in severing ties with colonial power, especially since the representatives of Western Civilization “have never ceased to set up white culture to fill the gap left by the absence of other cultures.” In other words, cultural identity mattered to the larger struggle, and was integral to Fanon’s work, which accentuated “the experience of a black man thrown into a white world.” Fanon’s position resembled Richard Wright’s well-known response to the Bandung Conference, where he called for a “reluctant nationalism” that “need not remain valid for decades to come.” Both Fanon and Wright joined the Second Congress of the Negro Writers and Artists in Rome in 1959, dedicated to the “peoples without a culture,” a mission aligned with one of Fanon’s more famous dictums: “The plunge into the chasm of the past is the condition and the course of freedom.” In any case, it is obviously too easy to separate Fanon from identity politics.

Relating this back to Geary’s stated historical trajectory, it becomes clear that the break from the High Racial Liberalism of mid-century social thought, perhaps most famously represented by Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), to the multicultural liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s, was not so clean. Continuity is an important factor in the sense that thinkers of both eras were conscious of “damage,” the trope documented by Daryl Michael Scott in his important book, Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche: 1880-1996 (which should be read alongside Alice O’Connor’s equally important Poverty Knowledge, which I discuss here). The difference was in how to treat damage. Mid-century social scientists such as Moynihan implied that assimilation to white-middle-class values was the ticket to salvation. Even black sociologist Kenneth Clark assumed as much, evident in his famous “doll study” that informed Brown v. Board, where black children were observed reacting positively to white dolls and negatively to black dolls. Multiculturalists from Fanon onwards believed that damage had to be overcome by acting against the dominant culture. In Fanon’s case, meeting colonial violence with anticolonial violence was the means of atonement. In the case of most American multiculturalists, the key to overcoming damage was in valuating their own culture as apart from the dominant culture. Thus, it became increasingly common in the 1980s and 1990s for predominantly black school districts to implement an Afrocentric curriculum.

Since the boundaries between historical eras of racial liberalism are blurry, it is helpful that Taylor takes a long view on the politics of recognition in relating them to the modern history of democratization. He writes: “What has come about with the modern age is not the need for recognition but the conditions in which the attempt to be recognized can fail. That is why the need is now acknowledged for the first time. In premodern times, people didn’t speak of ‘identity’ and ‘recognition’—not because people didn’t have (what we call) identities, or because these didn’t depend on recognition, but rather because these were then too unproblematic to be thematized as such.” In other words, in feudal times everyone had an identity—lord or peasant, master or slave—but because social mobility didn’t exist, identity (though it wasn’t called such) was static and unproblematic. In modern liberal democracies, where everyone is assumed to have equal status in theory—but, crucially, not in practice—identity matters because it relates to one’s ability or inability to climb social ladders and achieve “equal” status. (This reminds me of Orwell’s famous Animal Farm dictum that “some animals are more equal than others.”) A person’s position is tied up in their identity, especially, multiculturalists argue, in relation to racial and gendered identities. I would argue that identification is one of the most important forms of modern capitalistic classification but that, ironically, as identity politics became the dominant form of racial liberalism, what might be termed postmodern capitalistic classification took hold and, though class polarization grew starker, racial and gendered identities grew less adhesive.

Though Taylor subsumes the politics of recognition under liberalism broadly conceived, he admits that such politics seem illiberal to more traditional liberals who understand politics to be about the defense of universal rights accrued to the individual without relation to group affiliation. Of course, the standard critique of universalism applies here: particular groups, namely, men of European descent, achieve and maintain power in the name of universal rights that supposedly apply to all. Such criticism has been the theoretical backbone of efforts to reform higher education since the 1960s, in terms of actual and symbolic representation, or, affirmative action and multiculturalism. As Taylor writes: “Where the politics of universal dignity fought for forms of nondiscrimination that were quite ‘blind’ to the ways in which citizens differ, the politics of difference often redefines nondiscrimination as requiring that we make these distinctions the basis of preferential treatment.”

Of course, the politics of difference is not grounded in monolithic epistemological positioning. Whereas many multiculturalists challenge the dominant culture by valuing their own minority cultures and histories, some others theorize that there is no such thing as cultural value. These differences are seen in the 1980s and 1990s attempts to revise the traditional canon. Some such attempts, such as the successful revision of the core freshman reading list achieved at Stanford University in 1987-1988, lead by the Stanford Black Student Union, were implicitly based on the notion that all cultures were intrinsically valuable and that judgments to the contrary were based on prejudice or ill-will. But other academic activists, invoking what Taylor calls “half-baked neo-Nietzschean theories,” sought to undermine the very premise of a canon. “Deriving frequently from Foucault or Derrida, they claim that all judgments of worth are based on standards that are ultimately imposed by and further entrench structures of power.”

Taylor thus confirms one of the central points made by Francois Cusset in his provocative French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (which I recently blogged about here): that some American scholars misappropriated French theory in ways useful to American academic politics. “If Derrida or Foucault deconstructed the concept of objectivity,” Cusset writes, “the Americans would draw on those theories not for a reflection on the figural power of language or on discursive constructions, but for a more concrete political conclusion: objectivity is synonymous with ‘subjectivity of the white male.’” But as Taylor correctly points out: such argumentation backs the neo-Nietzscheans into a conceptual corner. The so-called “canon wars” were animated by a demand for respect—a politics of recognition. But if evaluations of cultural worth are mere expressions of power, then there is no objective ground upon which to respect or even recognize a minority culture.

Right-wing culture warriors made similar recognitions in their analyses of a nihilistic academic left. For example, in Telling the Truth, her 1995 summary of all that she had learned about the academy while directing the National Endowment of the Humanities, Lynn Cheney scorned the academic fashion of reading power and hierarchy into everything, including canonical texts. “The humanities are about more than politics, about more than social power,” she argued. “What gives them their abiding worth are truths that, transcending accidents of class, race, and gender, speak to us all.” Similarly, in his 1991 bestseller Illiberal Education, Dinesh D’Souza wrote that the so-called “victim’s revolutionaries” who had taken over college campuses in the wake of the 60s had joined forces with a new literary relativism, schooled in Foucault and Derrida. “Because the old notion of neutral standards corresponded with a white male faculty regime at American universities,” he intoned, “minority and feminist scholars have grown increasingly attached to the au courant scholarship, which promises to dismantle and subvert these old authoritative structures.”

Taylor rejects the neo-Nietzschean form of identity politics in favor of that which values minority cultures. Though he is skeptical that all cultures are objectively equal—morally or aesthetically—he believes that we should approach learning about other cultures as if this were so. He concludes his essay: “There is perhaps a moral issue here. We only need a sense of our own limited part in the whole human story to accept the presumption [that other cultures have merit and value]. It is only arrogance, or some analogous moral failing, that can deprive us of this. But what the presumption requires of us is not the peremptory and inauthentic judgments of equal value, but a willingness to be open to comparative cultural study of the kind that must replace our horizons in the resulting fusions.” In other words, we need to be open to having our ethnocentric views challenged.

Framing humanistic learning as such, Taylor vehemently opposes the racial arrogance of the statement supposedly uttered by Saul Bellow: “When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy we will read him.” Taylor works against Bellow’s supposed stricture not only on the grounds that the Zulus might have produced a Tolstoy that is yet to be discovered, but also from the standpoint that Zulu culture might evaluate merit differently and that we would benefit from learning their evaluative system. This is what he means by replacing our narrow horizons with a vision formed from cultural fusion, what he calls the dialogic process.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post. I can’t help note though that you omitted mention of the two people I write about: Horace Kallen and Alain Locke.

    Kallen supposedly coined the term “cultural pluralism” in conversations with Locke in 1905-1907, thus both men can be considered the “fathers” of cultural pluralism, the ancestor of modern multiculturalism.

    I’m in midst of reading a superb book by Daniel Greene, “The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity” (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011) which has a lot about Kallen, and about how the Menorah movement broadly (with Zionism a key part of it), showed that Jewish culture had value to modern America. This is turn built the foundation for cultural pluralism, namely that all cultures potential had value and deserved to be preserved.

    Of course, there was a lot of cultural chauvinism then too. The Menorah members wanted to promote high Jewish culture. They, and the cultural pluralists, typically ignored African American culture and other cultures of people they deemed less “civilized.”

    That’s where Locke comes in. He too was Eurocentric, but he wanted to build an African American high culture built on the remnants of Black culture in Africa and America and elsewhere. His essay “The New Negro” should I think be included on any “canon” of multiculturalism. So should Horace Kallen’s “Democracy versus the Melting Pot” for that matter.

    Other thoughts: Fanon is an interesting case. He obviously had a healthy dose of Sartrean universalism. In another lifetime, I wanted to write my dissertation on ethnicity and existentialism, looking at Sartre’s “Antisemite and Jew” and Fanon and a great essay by Paul Mendes-Flohr called “Between Zionism and Existentialism” and other similar texts. But Fanon clearly also had some kind of sympathy for Black culture as well. I don’t really know enough about him, but surely he should be understood as multidimensional rather than a simple universalist or particularist.

    As for Ellison: I saw an interesting talk by Arnold Rampersad that said that Ellison was something of a jerk: apparently Locke went to great lengths to help him when he was starting his career and Ellison was rather ungrateful. He also talked about how Ellison made a big effort to distinguish between his “relatives” such as Richard Wright and other Black contemporary writers, and his “ancestors” such as Dostoevsky and other European literary giants to whom he felt a greater debt and affinity. So it’s interesting to have him stand in as a figure in support of minority cultures, when he may have seen himself as more of a universalist. But I don’t really know enough about him either.

    Also, Canadians all seem to love Charles Taylor. I think he’s ok, though I prefer Hollinger.

    Still, really great, thought-provoking post.

  2. Yes, great post. in and of itself a great bibliography. some time ago on this blog there was a discussion of nancy fraser’s arguments about capitalism and third wave feminism. might not one make a similar argument about the transition from a certain kind of universalism–or even the revolutionary moment of black nationalism–to a multiculturalism that is, in fact, entirely compatible with capital (or, Capital)? following that vocabulary, what about the redistributive moment? multiculturalism has a bite, it seems to me, when it ties redistributive claims to ones about recognition. that might be, in vulgar terms: since you recognize such-and-such as a minority, there should be affirmative action in favor of those who belong to it. this redistribution could even take the form of cultural space: there is only so much room on the syllabus, and to make a claim for recognition is also to make a claim for space on that syllabus…

    maybe that doesn’t make too much sense. at any rate, i’m interested in how Taylor thinks about the redistributive implications of recognition, or if he does.

    Weiner: it seems to me that it would be easy to find ‘cultural pluralist’ ideas in 19th century Europe. Once you had the idea of the national culture, there was immediately also the idea that there were many cultures, that they all had their own particular value, that perhaps the highest value came precisely in the diversity of many cultures (for instance, supposedly possessed by Europe and not by other places…) Isn’t this kind of in Herder already, at least in part?

  3. Let me join the chorus of voices praising this post! There’s a ton of interesting stuff going on in it.

    I just wanted to mention two more names that contribute in important ways to the genealogy of some of the ideas you discuss.

    First, behind the idea of recognition–especially in late 20C Francophone thought–lies Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, though I don’t know enough about the world of French letters to draw the lines of influence between Kojève and Fanon with any sense of assurance. Perhaps the link is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who attended Kojève’s lectures on Hegel in Paris in the 1930s and with whom Fanon later studied at Lyon? Or maybe Fanon read Kojève himself?

    Secondly, I wonder how much Stanley Elkins’s understanding of slavery and its legacy (and, through it, Bruno Bettelheim’s understanding of the concentration camp experience) framed the damage trope at the time of the Moynihan Report. I haven’t read Scott’s Contempt and Pity (though I should). I assume he has a lot to say about Elkins (and perhaps Bettelheim). (FWIW, I write a fair bit about Bettelheim in the last chapter of Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture).

  4. Thanks so much for the comments and suggestions.

    Weiner: Of course Kallen and Locke are crucial to understanding the intellectual history of multiculturalism (and on that note I can’t wait to read your dissertation). As far as I can tell, the main difference between the early 20th century cultural pluralism espoused by Kallen, Locke, and others and multiculturalism is that the latter was much more likely to frame cultural valuation as a way to indict white supremacy. In this sense it needs to be understood post-civil rights movement, post-Black Power, post-Chicano power, etc…

    I think Taylor and Hollinger make very similar cases for a sort of post-multicultural cosmopolitanism, though Taylor’s arguments are more philosophical than historical, so whereas Taylor invokes Kant and Hegel to make his cases, Hollinger invokes, well, Kallen and Locke. That said, Eric is correct to point to Herder, whom Taylor also argues originated some of the early “politics of recognition” conceptions.

    Eric: I wrote the post you speak of on Nancy Fraser: here. And yes, I think you’re exactly right to think about multiculturalism getting sopped up by capitalism similarly to feminism. I also write about that the links between neoliberalism and multiculturalism herek and herek.

    In fact, we had a month-long discussion of neoliberalism at this blog that is worth revisiting.

  5. Ben: Great point about Kojève’s reading of Hegel, which was certainly influential to American post-structuralists like Judith Butler and others, though like you, I’m not sure about Kojève’s influence over Fanon. As far as I know, Fanon doesn’t cite Kojève in either “Black Skin, White Mask,” or “The Wretched of the Earth.” But I could be wrong. Like Weiner said, Fanon was most influenced by existentialists like Sartre, but also by psychoanalysts like Lacan (who would become part of the post-structuralist canon in the US), and by Caribbean liberation thinkers like Aimé Caesar.

  6. Greetings from a fellow blogger and new reader. I have not fully engaged with your post yet, but before I forget, I want to point out a recent talk given by Pheng Cheah of UC Berkeley this April at Duke. I found its critique of the Taylor model — that recognition tends to sidestep the question of economics. His route was more through Hegel’s famous lord/bondsman dialectic than through Taylor, though I think he did mention Taylor. I don’t think the talk has yet been published, but there was some blogging about it: http://www.fhi.duke.edu/blog/reconsidering-human-2011-feminist-theory-workshop .

    There is also Marlon Ross’s excellent rejoinder that cultural survival is, ultimately, about the survival of groups of people targeted for extermination or allowed to go to waste. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/new_literary_history/v031/31.4ross.html

    I look forward to reading this article more carefully as well as the others you mention.

  7. I would be interested to pursue the lines of thought Ben and eric propose. Ben mentioned Elkins’ contribution to the “damage” hypothesis. I would never deny damage, but I would rather focus on its more quantifiable aspects — such as health outcomes, the wealth gap, unequal salaries — than on psychology. As Antonio Viego points out in his excellent _Dead Subjects_ the model of psychological wholeness that prevails in the “damage” school presumes that straight middle-class white men are models of positive self-regard. Since we know that to be otherwise, why should we assume that people who have been colonized (in Fanon’s term) necessarily internalize only the voice of the colonizer? Psyches are conflicted and vacillating. That seems to be the universal truth. Both James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston talked in different ways about resilient self-regard and even a sense of superiority that flourished among black folks in Jim Crow America.

    The ‘damage’ hypothesis overstates the omnipresence and omnipotence of colonizers’ contempt while ignoring that it also bespeaks of envy and insecurity. This is why I find it, ultimately, too simple a read of imperial arrogance.

    One final note: I don’t think it’s that feminism or multiculturalism have been ‘captured’ by Capital. Rather, they were never quite outside of it, and this is not a failing. If, as Marx said, the laborer has the freedom to starve rather than enter into the wage contract, then I do not blame anyone (salaried academics included) for making shrewd engagements with a system that they may recognize as both corrupt and absurd but is also the best extant route to avoiding starvation while other dreams and guerilla tactics remain in the quiver.

  8. Andrew: I recall that you were doing some work on the topic of cosmopolitanism. How does that fit into this discussion? Or, I wonder how (or if) you related cosmopolitanism to universalism (moral) and multiculturalism? [Aside: Ferris Bueller would shoot me for writing that sentence, yes?].

    Put more concretely, how do Taylor and, say, Kwame Anthony Appiah talk about multiculturalism in relation to human rights advocates (considered philosophically), like Jacques Maritain—or even human rights critics like Marx, Alisdair MacIntyre, or Slavoj Žižek? I expect a full, detailed answer. 🙂

    But seriously, I do wonder how cosmopolitanism and universalism (conceived in the post-WWII period) fit into this long arc of the history of multiculturalism. – TL

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