44 / 2016
Will Kymlicka

Liberalism, Community and Culture Twenty-Five Years On: Philosophical Inquiries and Political Claims

As Mitja Sardoč notes in his introduction essay to this symposium, 1989 was “year one” (Sardoc, 2016) for the explosion of interest in the governing of ethnic diversity, triggered by what Daniel Moynihan called “ethnic pandemonium” in world affairs (Moynihan 1993). Confronted by this pandemonium, both policy-makers and academics desperately looked around to see what had been written about the relationship between liberal democracy and ethnic diversity, and my just-published doctoral dissertation - Liberalism, Community and Culture - was one of the few academic publications that addressed the topic. As a result, I quickly went from being a typical philosophy graduate student to being an “expert” on ethnic diversity, initiating a string of invitations to write and advise on the governing of ethnic diversity that has continued unbroken for almost 30 years now.

I would like to say that I had presciently foreseen the growing political salience of ethnic diversity, and selected my dissertation topic in order to better prepare societies for this emerging political challenge. But in fact, I was as surprised as everyone else by the explosion of ethnic conflict after the fall of Communism – or by the rise of regionalist and indigenist movements in other parts of the world. Indeed, I did not set out with the intention of becoming an expert on ethnic diversity.  What began as a purely philosophical inquiry into the conceptual underpinnings of liberal views of individual freedom gradually morphed into a more policy-oriented inquiry into the governing of ethnic diversity and the evaluation of the political claims of minorities. This process took many years, and I think of Liberalism, Community and Culture (hereafter LCC) as reflecting a fairly early stage in it: mainly still focused on the philosophical inquiry into liberalism, with just a hint of the more policy-oriented inquiry that would take up much of my time over the subsequent 25 years.

I mention this because I think it helps situate the excellent reflections of my five commentators. As I read them, they all, in different ways, suggest that LCC falls between two stools: it is not precise enough to stand as a philosophical account of the underpinnings of liberalism, yet it is seriously underdeveloped as a framework for diagnosing or evaluating the political claims-making of minorities and indigenous peoples. And my basic response, across the board, is to simply agree: I think LCC is flawed in exactly the ways they identify. I could hardly have asked for more fair-minded commentators, and their criticisms are, indeed, fair.

However, since abject concession does not make for an interesting reply, let me say something, not so much in defense of LCC, but in defense of the two projects that are unsatisfactorily spliced together in that book. If we separate out more carefully than I did in LCC the philosophical inquiry into the foundations of liberalism from the more applied theory of minority rights claims, I think we can identify what is of enduring value in LCC. It may also suggest some ways in which the commentators’ objections can be blunted.

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