Philosophy and Multiculturalism: Searle, Rorty, and Taylor
ABSTRACT: John Searle opposes multiculturalism because he views it as part of a movement to undermine the concepts of truth and objectivity in the Western tradition. Richard Rorty disagrees with Searle about the relation between philosophical theories of truth and academic practices, but he is neutral on the issue of multiculturalism. Charles Taylor approaches the issue historically, defending multiculturalism as emerging from one branch of liberal political theory. I argue that the debate over epistemological and political issues has tended to obscure the educational benefits of multiculturalism. A multicultural curriculum works very well in fulfilling the traditional goals of education in philosophy. It can assist the teacher as Socratic "midwife" and "gadfly" in delivering students from their narrow and uncritical opinions and awakening them to a world of intellectual diversity. Thus, multiculturalism is not so much a recent movement as a new name for an old method of teaching.
Philosophers have been slow to join the public debate on multiculturalism in spite of the important philosophical issues at stake. Notable exceptions are John Searle and Charles Taylor, who address the philosophical implications of the controversy over the curriculum in several recent essays. (1) Taylor defends multicultural education as a moral imperative of one branch of the liberal tradition, while Searle argues that a victory for multiculturalism would mean the destruction of the Western intellectual heritage. This paper will examine some of the arguments on both sides of the issue and propose an interpretation of multiculturalism as particularly significant for teaching philosophy.
John Searle views the current debate over the curriculum as far more dangerous than past controversies in higher education, because the very philosophical principles which make knowledge and education possible are under attack. The concepts of truth, reality, objectivity, and rationality which have been taken for granted in higher education (as well as in our civilization in general) have been challenged by what he calls the "subculture of postmodernism," a loosely-defined group of left-wing academics which includes multiculturalists, feminists, deconstructionists, and followers of Nietzsche, T.S. Kuhn, and Richard Rorty. I shall not attempt to discuss all of these movements but intend to focus only upon the issue of multicultural education, which I understand to mean teaching students about other cultural traditions in addition to their own.
Searle summarizes the main principles of what he calls "metaphysical realism" or the "Western Rationalistic Tradition" as follows:
Knowledge is typically of a mind-independent reality. It is expressed in a public language, it contains true propositions — these propositions are true because they accurately represent that reality — and knowledge is arrived at by applying, and...