Facing the failure of the models used so far to tackle the problem of multiculturalism, the way out lies in the adoption of a relational anthropology. There is a need to rethink the figure of the other in relational terms that allow identity and difference to be reconciled

This article was published in Oasis 28. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:42

The question of multiculturalism does not come from outside Western culture, like a contestation that in principle undermines its survival. Nevertheless, today it is complicated by an unprecedented form of globalization. Faced with the failure of the models used hitherto to deal with the phenomenon, the way out can be seen in the prospect of a relational anthropology. Namely, the figure of the other needs to be rethought in terms of relationships in which identity and difference can find conciliation.


Multiculturalism, meant as the problem of the cohabitation of different ethnic and cultural components, is an issue to which Western culture is particularly sensitive. I am not referring to the forced creation of multicultural conditions by European nations who throughout the Middle Ages and the modern era practised the terrible trafficking of Africans to countries where they would be harshly exploited and then for a long time discriminated and subordinated. Nor am I referring to the effects of late-modern and early twentieth-century European colonialism which created forms of coexistence between unequals. Instead, I am thinking of forms of acceptance and care for the cohabitation between different races, religions and cultures dotted around the centuries from the Hellenic Age onwards, increasingly seen in the contemporary era as a possibility for society as well as a moral duty. I am talking about cohabitation meant in light of the dual dimension of irreducible cultural difference and at the same time fundamental juridical equality.



The Multicultural Problem and its Models


It is thanks to the West’s complex political and religious tradition that the idea that different cultures and/or peoples can usefully live together has gained ground and importance. Only due to a certain universalistic culture of law does the ideal of a “free” cohabitation of differences take shape. This is the case in the great forms of Western ethical-juridical conscience, which are tellingly dialectically connected to each other: the Latin tradition of ius gentium, the medieval tradition of the “Holy Roman Empire,” the enlightenment-liberal conception of subjective rights and the liberal conception of human rights.[1] This premise needs to be made to prevent the thought that the multiculturalism issue supervenes from outside Western culture, as if to contest the latter and, in principle, jeopardize its survival. What this means, instead, is that a critical attitude towards the multicultural problem can only be dealt with within the perspective of the West’s universalistic culture, since it is pointless to go in search of an alternative principle of cohabitation.


The greatest difficulty rather lies in the fact that the multicultural problem appears in the context of an unprecedented form of globalization. Although the multicultural and the global are immediately antithetical phenomena, “the first linked to identity logics,” writes Elena Pariotti, “the second describable on the basis of the strategic agency model; the first referring to the past and tradition, the second wholly centred on the present; the first consisting of differences, the second tending towards homogeneity,”[2] the two phenomena nevertheless refer back to and support each other. The current globalization is a “new” historical fact owing to its eminently technical origin (information technology, military technology, economic and financial market, etc.), with a practical and operational basis which in itself does not lead to an effective universal culture. Hence it cannot rise up to the role of cultural universality or constitute a principle for the unification of a whole life form. Indeed, a totally technological culture is only possible as a technocratic ideology, that is, as the universalization (unfounded and therefore violent) of technological power.


But, if globalization without cultural universality is not able to unify the different anthropological traditions that it meets on its way and that itself removes from isolation and puts into communication, the technical and practical unification of the world risks being accompanied by a whole new cultural fragmentation, which, depending on the moments and the circumstances, may be experienced with resigned passivity or angry revendication. Indeed, since it promotes an “abstract” universalism, globalization arouses more or less reactive processes of cultural identification which can tend towards a symmetrical “abstract” localism. In these conditions, what shape might the multicultural situation that now characterizes the present and future contemporary world take on? What possibilities are there for the regulated cohabitation of a variety of substantive conceptions of good?


Thus far I have spoken of the multicultural “problem” or “situation” because it does not seem that multiculturalism in itself is a solution, but just the name of a problem.


1) Multicultural pluralism hypothesis. A project for the coexistence of various ethnic, religious and cultural traditions simply based on the recognition of their right to existence, it does not seem a fitting answer in order to transform de facto coexistence into social and political cohabitation. In confirmation of this, it can be observed that such multicultural policies lead to the result—by now sociologically proven—not of integration but of the juxtaposition of communities, a passive coexistence that slides towards alienation among communities, marginalization of the weakest communities, the self-segregation of the most cohesive ones, the exaltation of community leaders’ authoritarian power and the formation of uncontrollable hidden powers, forms of protected illegality, etc.


2) Integrationist hypothesis. The opposite model of cohabitation according to the principle of maximum possible assimilation with one of the traditions at play, principally with the culture of the country of immigration, is not a valid alternative to the multiculturalist project. In this paradigm, contrary to the previous one, the cultural identities are supposed to be fully communicable and assimilable so that, as a principle, upon certain social conditions, it is hoped for a resolution through the integration of the minority or weakest cultures into the majority and strongest one. In substance, monoculturalism is the guiding criterion behind this paradigm.


3) Secular universality hypothesis. To prevent the lack of unity of the purely multiculturalist hypothesis or the respect for the strongest identity of the integrationist hypothesis, the maximum of regulated ethnic-cultural pluralism is thought viable on condition that the public significance of the cultures is neutralized as far as possible, such as in the French paradigm of “secular” citizenship. The laïcité model appears to be a good example of the use of an abstract, theoretically weak universality, with quite problematic outcomes with regard to cultures’ historical expectations.


4) Neoliberal interculturality hypothesis. The neoliberal debate around the multicultural issue concerns the capability of the tradition of individual rights to also absorb the collectivity’s rights. Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka aim to go past an individualistic interpretation of rights, despite critically noting the problems of restricting individual rights within the community or even of the primacy of collective rights. But it seems clear that the only way out of the debate is to call back into question the dimension of anthropological and cultural identity and the correlated dimension of difference and differences. This only seems possible in the prospect of a relational anthropology.


Hence it is a matter of thinking the relationship between identity and differences according to a constructive perspective that we can define as interculturality, in order to indicate the process of interaction and coaction in which differences can realize the dynamicity and effectiveness of their identity and unity.


This comes with the warning of the necessity to distinguish two levels of consideration, which are connected but irreducible. Indeed, intercultural association implies the engagement of strong “comprehensive” conceptions (according to the terminology of John Rawls), while the political space of intercultural understanding is by nature not substantive but institutional. There is a strong relationship between the two levels because it is not possible to effectively imagine an institutional form of political cohabitation according to an aprioristic project independent from real exchange between cultures. Besides, a passage from de facto coexistence to intercultural cohabitation is not thinkable without a political form to regulate the exchanges.



Anthropological Conditions


The modern paradigm of the human and political relationship as a conflict, in line with the homo oeconomicus model of mercantile competition and with the model of the centralizing state clashes with the new world configuration of globalization in which technological power and the universal interrelation make conflict an increasingly catastrophic reality.


The new situation needs to undergo a far-reaching anthropological and ethical review, as, for that matter, contemporary thought began to do some time ago. The key to a viable solution lies in elaborating on the topic of intersubjectivity and the recognitional relationship so that otherness is no longer equated with the alien and is reinterpreted in light of a relationship. Indeed, the most fruitful idea seems to be to rethink the figure of the other in terms of a relationship in which identity and difference can find conciliation.


A way to approach the topic of relational identity is to reflect on the phenomenon of narration and the narrative construction of identity. Indeed, self-narration always expresses a distinct identity which also refers to the narrative tradition from which it originates and is part. Indeed, there is a strong link between narrating oneself and being narrated: I become capable of narrating because I have been and in turn I am the subject of narration (in the family, in society, etc.). Besides, in order to self-narrate it is necessary to be able to self-represent, but also to self-transcend, that is, to relate to another and different representation of oneself.


This relational and narrative structure helps us to understand that man and cultures are moved by the need to be recognized; to exist not as a pure, dull fact, but to be present to others and to be held to account, in the immediate experience of social forms, in juridical and institutional forms. Not because as such recognition grants identity, but because it shows it, activates and continually renews it. Indeed, an identity that escapes from the law of (active and passive) recognition necessarily ends up in integralist universalistic tautology, or in localistic communitarian self-containment, or in the merely contracted, conventional-procedural relationship with others, or in some confused combination of all of these. Instead, the recognitional relationship is an act that, as such, engages the subjects and their consciousness, self-esteem, cultural awareness and freedom.


From this point of view, it must be said that in principle the (anthropological and political) fact of multiculturalism lays down the need for a relationship between narratives that need to recognize each other in their identity-diversity and in their freedom.



Power, Interpretation, Interaction


The good thing about modern reflection was that it highlighted how powerful the recognitional relationship is in human existence; or rather, that it is itself power in existence. If in relationships we expect a confirmation and a revelation of ourselves, a significant interpretation of ourselves, a growth of our narrative story; if, in short, to some extent recognition means to receive an identity from others and to assign an identity to others, it is necessarily an exercise of power by others and over others. And it is a highly effective power, which somehow possesses the other from the inside. As Michel Foucault wrote on pages that have become famous, it is not the institutions that hold the real power, it “circulates” in human relationships.[3]


It can be understood why the power of recognition can, as Hegel had it, constitute the field for a fight to the death between men. Indeed, it is through recognition that for some we become “others,” our identity thus being confirmed and accepted. Hence, the positive ethical and social figure of recognition is the ancient and sacred form of “hospitality.”[4] But insofar as the power of recognition is not exercised, or it is exercised as dominion, it transforms from hospitality into expropriation or appropriation. So, it comes as no surprise that after Hegel the question of recognition returned to the centre of political theories by thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas,[5] Charles Taylor[6] and Axel Honneth,[7] which also paid attention to the problem of multiculturalism.


The power of recognition is exercised as interpretation by and of others. Indeed, otherness never exists in a circumstance of neutral objectivity because a relationship implies mutual conditioning and a situation of insurmountable mutual particularity: inevitably each one perceives the other within his or her perspective and cannot establish any recognition except by interpreting its sense, also in relation to him or herself.


From this it is incorrect to draw a subjectivistic and relativistic consequence, because the fact that an interpretation is always from a particular perspective does not mean that truths and authentically universal values cannot be grasped. On the contrary, it must be maintained that the universal and absolute can only be grasped through mediation by a particular perspective and that interpretation and truth are therefore not alternatives, but reciprocal. This does not clash with the fact that, to the other, one person’s truth appears and cannot but appear a biased and hence particularistic interpretation, from both the cognitive and the practical points of view of the interests pertaining to each one in the relationship.


Hence, the “hermeneutic situation” of every culture does not contradict the fact that each one can be the bearer of universals, that the lines of argument with which each one intends to uphold and defend its universals have value, and so the axiological judgements by which each one measures other cultures are valid (by accepting and excluding some of their aspects and dimensions) and that the persuasion of each culture that it is relatively superior, etc. can be legitimate. Awareness of the “hermeneutical situation” simply prevents one from forgetting that it is not enough to be convinced of one’s own universality in order to make it true. Rather, the hermeneutical dimension of interaction evidences the indispensable ethical component of the relationship. Indeed, it is evident that openness to interpretative interaction must be accompanied by openness to debate, or more precisely by a certain moral and civil virtue.


As a consequence, a culture is acritical and authoritarian, as well as tendentially fundamentalist if it has not achieved awareness of the universal “hermeneutical situation” which it nevertheless finds itself in; if it has not recognized that the basic communicative condition (also between cultures) is freedom and the respect for freedom and that in an interpretative relationship a lack of freedom is violence. Hence, every culture’s legitimate claim for truth must first of all present itself in the form of self-testimony and the testimony of its reasons.


Indeed, far from causing separation and hindrance, the hermeneutic universal (which everyone lives by interpreting the others as well as themselves) is as unifying as can be; and hence it requires and encourages the passage from testimony to dialogue, from critical discussion of the lines of argument to their acceptance or rejection, from approval or disapproval of other people’s customs to the merging/contamination or the separation of cultural forms, etc.


As such, shared acceptance of the relationship as interpretation (according to freedom and testimony) leads to a vital interest in the interactive process, whose outcome is always open. In short, it is the shared hermeneutical situation that makes it possible and necessary to establish an interactive process, essential for the lives of the different cultural identities, which Alasdair MacIntyre calls the “dialectic of traditions.”



Political Conditions: Universality and (non) Neutrality


From the anthropological premises traced, multiculturalism appears a historical event and a social fact that has to be transformed into a new ethical-political condition. As such, Giovanni Sartori quite rightly fears that if left to itself, multiculturalism constitutes a socially disaggregating factor.[8] Indeed, it can only assume a political physiognomy insofar as it becomes a dynamic and regulated form of interculturality, as it is the task of the political public institutions to do.


To this end, as already hinted, two political solutions are to be excluded: the solution of assimilating differences with the majority and/or traditional social identity (monoculturalism) and that of the permission of all cultural physiognomies in private, within the framework of a rule of law in itself blind to differences (liberal multiculturalism). In both perspectives, universalism and particularism would find themselves opposed and mutually exclusive, preventing the interactive and interpretative process I was talking about. Therefore, the institutional dimension of politics needs to be rethought so that its task—to create and guarantee the “public space” for discussion—can come into being as an authentic politics of otherness, that is, enabling a correct intercultural dialectic of identities.


It is an issue that only goes to revive the never quelled debate on the state’s so-called “secularity” and on the equation of the public space with cultural and axiological neutrality, which, however, does not seem to be an appropriate response. If, in order to be universal, the public space were to be neutral, the exercise of citizenship—in general—would be possible in inverse proportion to the characteristics identifying and separating the interlocutors. In other words, participation in the public space should require the neutralization of the differentiating characteristics and their removal to the private sphere (see privatization of cultures of origin, beliefs, traditions, elimination of strictly identifying religious symbols, etc. in the French regime of laïcité).


For cohabitation to be guaranteed by procedures of argumentation and consensus does not mean that such processes are neutral, that in turn they do not explain a particular conception of humans and cohabitation. The limit of liberal neutralism lies precisely in not thinking of its hermeneutic perspective (that is, in thinking itself beyond all biased interpretation) and therefore imagining that it can propose itself as open ground insofar as it has no distinct qualifications.


The two things together are true: both that the liberal tradition is the only one that logically and historically is able to structure a “politics of otherness,” and that this policy is not without its presuppositions, amongst which individualistic and privatistic ones which require critical assessment.



Political Conditions: Civil Society and Political Communication


In conclusion, within the liberal tradition we need to find a dual space, for the social presence of multicultural ethnic groups and for their political communication.

The first question corresponds to the new significance that the multicultural situation gives to civil society. The classic pattern in modernity, centred on the polarity of state (public and universal) and mercantile society (private and particular), has to give way to the three poles centred around civil society (public and particular), composed of many real subjectivities under constant pluralistic reorganization and hopefully engaged in a neat and productive interculturality. Indeed, the multicultural question is not suitably answered either by the foreign person’s simple inclusion in employment on the free market (also because the contemporary immigrant is not simple foreign labour in search of employment, but he/she presents him/herself and mainly remains a subject belonging to particular ethnic and cultural community), or through pure state citizenship, but first of all can take the outlook of a real civil dialectic. However, this is truly possible insofar as it builds a civil conscience that does not accept the traditional separation between the public state and private mercantile spheres. Instead by playing a role in society, it claims the substance, or rather the primacy, of the non-state civil public sphere as the foremost aspect of history and politics.


This also means that the public civil role of the religions[9] has to be rethought so as to overcome the modern gap between religion and the political (obsolete after the crisis of ideologies, that is, the substitute political religions), not in the integralist sense, but as cultural agents of a fundamental civil dialectic.


The second issue takes us to social communication as a fundamental fact and common heritage, which significantly comes into play prior to all reflex agreements and regulations. The point of departure is a complex event that precedes every decision, an asset that has always been shared, that is, the fact of being included in a complex network of common agency, interlocution, in short, social communication. It could be objected that in a multicultural situation, collaboration and cooperation are a circumstance to strive for rather than a point of departure. This is true for the augured ways of communication, but not for the fact of communication in itself, since it has to exist right from the first contact between those belonging to different ethnic-cultural traditions. However occasional, fragmentary, suspicious or insecure it may be, a minimum of communicative exchange between different people already exists; except the situation has already degenerated into marginalization or conflict. In other words, there must be a positive choice in favour of non-communication, so that the fundamental and factual presupposition is removed and therefore no further mode of operation is possible.


The fundamental social event, then, becomes political insofar as it is consciously and voluntarily assumed as a “common good.” Communication between traditions and groups is the interface between the social and the political. It is the original social fact that also becomes the primary political fact since it is recognized as an event that nevertheless unifies and that it is a good thing (or at least the lesser evil) to assume and voluntarily promote. The passage to the political only entails the shared realization of what already unifies, that is, that shared state of being in a communicative relationship, assumed to be heritage that it is worth (worth the hard work and the commitment too) preserving and increasing.


In short, the political body is born when the “relational fact” of which one is part is assumed as a “common good;” when, by assuming spontaneous or historically established social communication in a conscious and orchestrated manner, the shared end becomes the pursuit of social communication itself. As such, the political appears as the conscious self-finalization of human society.


First of all, this means that the asset of communication traces the boundary of political participation and the overall sense of citizenship, setting those who recognize the restriction apart from those who instead, by not recognizing it, exclude themselves from it (fundamentalism, anarchism, terrorism, separatism, sectarianism, etc. are instantly excluded because they contradict the fundamental criterion of political cohabitation). As such, it becomes immediately evident that a multicultural society which allows the cohabitation of any cultural component whatsoever is politically weak.


Then in itself the asset of communication contains further conditions which come to constitute as many normative restrictions. By its nature it is unlimitedly open and therefore in principle includes every possible participant, without any prior discrimination; as a consequence, it requires all forms of freedom of participation to be guaranteed. Therefore, justice has to be guaranteed in the access to and distribution of the means necessary to exercise the exchange, the collaboration, the debate; in the same way, the conditions for the communication to be realized need to be preserved against violent violations and sly falsification.


Besides, this prospect of practical establishment of the political does not end with its formal constitutional outline, because on the inside it is open to taking in all those values that the different traditions, according to their own history, might find themselves sharing. Indeed, if sharing restrictions on communication as such is the absolute instituting political cohabitation, the encounter-clash between the different traditions and comprehensive conceptions outlines a relative field of shared elements and exclusions which is defined and redefined following the negotiations through history.


At this level, the common good is no longer only formally social communication, but it is filled with contents (economic goods, institutions, social practices, values, morals and spiritual heritage) which vary according to the different cultural contexts, the changing historical circumstances and the specific political contracts. This way, on the stable background of the shared and regulated communication project, room can be found for pluralism in its countless variations, without being forced into impossible homogeneity, but also without dangerously destroying the space of its political existence.


Applying this theoretical perspective to the problem of multiculturalism has many advantages. First of all, it responds to the main problem driving the reflection on the subject, namely, the question of a unifying criterion, which cannot simply be a procedure (so as not to be inefficient), but nor can it be a “comprehensive” conception or a “substantive” identity of existence which should be imposed as a condition of belonging to the whole political society. Social communication as a “common good” is in the concrete “interest” of the parties in question; it is not a mere procedure. Besides, despite being a good that sums up all the other social goods, it does not imply some particular conception of the world nor specific life plans (nor certain theoretical justifications of “common good” itself).


As such, the political place of communication does not claim to absorb every form of relation, but instead aims to guarantee the historical exchanges of cultures, the free play between their diversities, regulated conflict, negotiations and ordered implementation. This also enables the resolution of the problem of the so-called “cultural rights” of traditions. It avoids the excess of deeming them an aprioristic right to survival (according to the “deep ecology” model—one might say—of preservation of the natural species). Cultures are historical and therefore they have life cycles that are not, nor can be, preset (as to their survival and development, but also their decline).


Belonging to a political society guarantees the equal right to organization, expression and defence, but it also leaves the forces at play the freedom to play. This includes the prevalence of the component of a society that holds the cultural majority, which is normally also the protagonist of the history of a society and its nation state and which, therefore, has the duty to permit all those who so request, and are in the condition to do so, to enter the political communication. What is more, it also has the right to protect and propose its historical and cultural heritage, traditions, customs, etc. in a fair discussion and a frank negotiation with the new arrivals. It will be the social and cultural dialectic—in conditions of fair interlocution—to decide what will prevail and/or the mixes that will come forth in the long term. Hence, in general, it is not a matter of preserving or promoting differences because they are different, but of providing the political conditions so that they can preserve themselves, promote themselves and reckoning with each other according to their actual capabilities.


In short, by tackling the problem of multiculturalism according to the criterion of intercultural “political communication” both the value of difference and the principle of equal dignity can be saved, in a formula such as: guaranteeing rights and restrictions of cultural differences in the equal dignity of their political participation. This is why it is probably not a matter of choosing between a pluralist society inspired by the limitative criterion of passive tolerance and a multiculturalist society inspired by the criterion of the aprioristic enhancement of the cultural differences, but of guaranteeing political participation in social communication in which an intercultural process can freely take place.


In concrete terms, the historical phenomenon of interculturality results from the coaction of two factors: free civil dialectic between the real social, cultural and religious subjects and state public intervention which has to make decisions regarding the cohabitation of differences, while making reference to the heritage of values which it expresses. From this point of view, it seems justified—according to the suggestion of Stefano Zamagni[10]—with relation to the juridical and economic interventions that it has to make, for the public institution to constantly update its judgements in order to discern what in a given cultural identity is only “tolerable,” what is also “respectable” and what is instead fully “embraceable.”[11]


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] René Girard highlighted the distinctive Western trait of being able to portray oneself in a self-critical manner by staging an “other,” a sort of contrasting double, as happens for example in the eighteenth-century doctrine-myth of the “good savage” (see “L’Altro. Occidentali contro l’Occidente,” Il Sole 24 Ore, 30 December 2001, p. 29). Robert Spaemann also speaks of “self-relativization” as a self-reflective capability typical of Western culture (see Das Natürliche und das Vernünftige. Munich: Piper, 1987, p. 8).

[2] Elena Pariotti, “Multiculturalismo, globalizzazione e universalità dei diritti umani,” Ragion pratica, no. 16 (2001), p. 63.

[3] Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76. New York: Picador, 2003, p. 29.

[4] See Jacques Derrida, Of hospitality. Anne Dufourmantelle invites Jacques Derrida to respond. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

[5] Jürgen Habermas, “Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State” in Amy Gutmann (ed.), Multiculturalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 107–148.

[6] Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

[7] Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995 and Honneth, “Integrity and Disrespect. Principles of a Conception of Morality Based on the Theory of Recognition,” Political Theory, vol. 20, no. 2 (May 1992), pp. 187–201.

[8] See Giovanni Sartori, Pluralismo, multiculturalismo ed estranei. Saggio sulla società multietnica. Milan: Rizzoli, 2000.

[9] See in particular Pierpaolo Donati, “Pensare la società civile come sfera pubblica religiosamente qualificata,” in Carmelo Vigna and Stefano Zamagni (eds), Multiculturalismo e identità. Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2002, pp. 51–106.

[10] Stefano Zamagni, “Migrations, multiculturality and politics of identity,” The European Union Review, no. 2 (2002) pp. 7–42.

[11] For a further investigation on the theoretical problem dealt with in this essay see Francesco Botturi, Universale, plurale, comune. Percorsi di filosofia sociale. Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2018, in particular ch. IV “Pluralismo e multiculturalismo.”

To cite this article

Printed version:
Francesco Botturi, “The Conditions for Multicultural Cohabitation”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 96-107.

Online version:
Francesco Botturi, “The Conditions for Multicultural Cohabitation”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/conditions-for-multicultural-cohabitation.