Charles Taylor's classic essay "The Politics of Recognition" that constitutes the heart of this book along with the several excellent responses to it remains at the center of the philosophical and political discussions of multiculturalism. Taylor's main contribution to the debate was to link the debate to the concept of authenticity, arguing that an individual's sense of self requires not merely a social context but respect that affirms them. Because group identity is a crucial aspect of one's sense of self, to have one's tradition or group recognized and respected becomes crucial. Taylor therefore concludes that under certain circumstances the state may intervene with prejudice to protect a group or provide it with special benefits. He situates this very contemporary position in the context of the history of the notion of authenticity as it has developed in Western culture.
Taylor's essay comprises, along with editor Amy Gutman's introduction, around half the book. The bulk of the volume consists of a number responses that were contained in the original publication of the book as well as two subsequent essays that were added to a later addition. All of these are, to speak truthfully, absolutely first rate, though they are of varying usefulness. Most of the first edition essays merely amend Taylor's original arguments. Why I think they make important alterations to his essay, none of them reach the heart of it. To be frank, Taylor is a wonderfully engaging, persuasive writer. Even if one has troubles with many of his core ideas, nonetheless even the most disengaged reader will agree with a host of his insights. If he errs, he does not err wildly.
The final two essays do take issue with Taylor on a deeper level. The Habermas essay is not, in my view, especially helpful. He is unquestionably one of the premiere philosophers of his age, but although he has been influenced by Anglo-American philosophy to a degree that is unusual in a German philosopher, his essays seems alien to every other essay in the collection. One first has to understand Habermas and then engage in the difficult work of fitting it to the discussion as initiated by Taylor. I simply did not find it to be terribly helpful. The essay by Kwame Anthony Appiah, on the other hand, is a different matter. Appiah is the lone writer to respond to Taylor's challenge and lay bare many of the shortcomings of his argument. He has gone on to do this additionally in his exceptionally fine THE ETHICS OF IDENTITY. Most of the ideas contained in his essays in this volume show up in expanded form in that book. Essentially, Appiah wants to question Taylor's assumption that political rights attach to groups as they do to individuals. More to the point, he wants to deny that groups are the basic unit of political consideration. Taylor believes that groups can be extended rights to such a degree that lesser rights of individuals can be impinged. For instance, in French Canada children of French-speaking parents can have access to English-language schools banned so as to guarantee the continued existence of a French-speaking population to keep Quebec French-speaking. Appiah is suspicious of the limitations on individuals that such considerations place on them, of the kinds of scripts and expectations imposed upon them. Appiah can hardly be accused of parochialism. As the child of a Ghanese father and white English mother--and therefore in the algebra of our society considered black--who was raised in Ghana, educated in England, and lives in America, and who is also gay, he falls into a number of groups that could be considered collectivities deserving of special consideration. But he finds such thinking in the long run harmful to the individuals in such groups. He is acutely aware of how a culture is essential in providing the raw material for any person to be a person, but he insists in the end that the individual and not groups--that may be impossible to define clearly in addition to all else--is the fundamental political unit.