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Tully's Strange Multiplicity

I give a summary of what I consider to be one of the greatest works of contemporary political philosophy.

Tully, in his book Strange Multiplicity (1995) gives an account of what a just constitution would look like. In a just constitution he tells us ‘each speaker is given her or his due, and this is exactly the initial question raised by the politics of cultural recognition’ (p. 6). A just constitution arises through deliberation among equals; people who mutually recognise each other for what they are without reducing them to familiar and convenient images that distort and misrepresent them. This requirement (of diversity) has been ignored in the discussion of multiculturalism, since ‘cultures are conceived as analogous to the more familiar constitutional concept of nations’ (p. 8). Moreover, multiculturalism has been a victim of essentialism; cultures are discussed as if they are internally homogenous entities, even though in reality they are ‘continuously contested, imagined and reimagined, transformed and negotiated, both by their members and through their interactions with others’ (p. 11).

Tully suggests that we need to listen to the stories that other people have to tell us through intercultural dialogue that will facilitate our understanding of other peoples’ diverse perspectives. This intercultural discussion has not taken place at the constitutional level, and therefore the modern constitution remains undemocratic (p. 28-9).

That being said, Tully does not reject the fact that indigenous populations or other minority cultures have been granted constitutional recognition in many countries. His argument is that the language in which the demands of these populations are articulated are in the language of contemporary constitutionalism, whose assumptions often come into conflict with the nature and ‘political traditions of interpretation’ that these cultures have. The traditions of interpretations of these cultures are ignored in favour of the traditions of modern constitutionalism, the most important of which are liberalism, nationalism and communitarianism (p. 35-37).

When claims for recognition are expressed, a two-track process takes place. Initially, the demands are ‘redescribed’ in the language of each of the three prevailing traditions. For example, aboriginal peoples are redescribed as ‘nations’, with ‘sovereignty’ or a ‘right of self determination’ (p. 39). Then, their claims are put under examination based on the critical norms of each of the three traditions. Therefore, both the language and the assessment take place within the modern authoritative framework of constitutionalism. As Tully argues, ‘the language of modern constitutionalism is seen as an imperial meta-narrative which needs to be thoroughly deconstructed’ (p. 45).

Modern constitutionalism has received three set of criticisms: the first comes from post-modern critiques who argue that identity as perceived in the authoritative framework of interpretation ‘is always different from itself, as well as from others’ (p. 45-46); the second originates in cultural feminism whose proponents maintain that it is not possible to address feminist claims for recognition in the language of modern constitutionalism since it entails a ‘masculine partiality which discriminates in some ways against feminine ways of speaking, thinking and acting’ (p. 47); and finally, the last criticism is that of intercultural citizens like aboriginal peoples, dual-nationals or linguistic minorities, who claim that the language of the existing institutions ‘distorts their voice’ (p. 53-54). Therefore the language of modern constitutionalism according to Tully has been used as a suppressor of diversity and as a defender of uniformity. Tully suggests that we need to ‘retrace our steps’ and question the underlying assumptions, along with the transition from ancient to modern constitutionalism.

We need to question our understanding of popular sovereignty as opposite to cultural diversity. This assumption rests upon the perception that people are ‘taken to be a society of equal individuals in a state of nature, behind a veil of ignorance… with the aim of constituting one uniform political association’ (p. 63-4).

Another assumption is the modern perception of cultures as independent and homogeneous entities which are ranked hierarchically, starting from the earlier and primitive associations like those of Aboriginals and evolving to the socio-economically advanced ‘universal European’ cultures (p. 64).

A further assumption is the perception of cultures as centralised associations. This is a misrepresentation of many cultures, especially ancient ones of Aboriginal peoples whose organisation is based on ‘the plurality of ancient customs’ rather than on a centralised, structured and consistent sense of cultural association (p. 67).

Finally, the most problematic principle that underpins modern constitutionalism regards its own self-understanding; modern constitutionalism rests upon the assumption that it is universal and pan-historical and hence a product of historical and universal agreement. This faulty premise makes modern constitutionalism ‘the precondition of democracy, rather than a part of democracy’ (p. 69).

The undemocratic nature of modern constitutionalism is evident in the history of liberal political though. A representative example of the appropriation of the language of modern constitutionalism for the purposes of European and Western imperialism is found in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, where he portrays aboriginal peoples as primitive associations living in the state of nature. In doing so, Locke legitimised the killing of indigenous people by placing them in the state of nature where the Hobbesian rule of war applies. Moreover, he legitimised the appropriation of their land, since according to the law of the state of nature, property rights apply only with labour, hence any uncultivated land, could be claimed as their own since aboriginals were occupied with hunter gathering rather than agriculture (like the Europeans did) and therefore their ‘uncultivated’ land could be appropriated by the imperialists since by Locke’s definition it was ‘vacant’. Kant has also followed the same pattern, issuing in the name of European commerce what he described as ‘the right to hospitality’, which became the preface for attacking Aboriginal people who refused that ‘right’.

As Tully concludes, the language of modern constitutionalism, ‘while masquerading as universal it is imperial in three respects: in serving to justify European imperialism, imperial rule of former colonies over Indigenous people, and cultural imperialism over the diverse citizens of contemporary societies’ (p. 96).

Tully’s overall argument is based on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The latter uses the analogy between language and an ancient city where the uses of general terms, like ‘practices’, or ‘customs’, or the ‘practice’ of law are situated within the norms of that city, and there is no universal definition of a general term. As Tully notes, ‘to understand a general term, and so know your way around its maze of uses, it is always necessary to enter into a dialogue with further descriptions and come to recognize the aspects of the phenomenon in question that they bring to light, aspects which go unnoticed from one’s own familiar set of examples’ (p. 110).

For Tully, constitutional dialogue has no telos; it is an on going process that must include the participants as equal interlocutors who deliberate in terms of equal recognition. In modern political philosophy on the other hand, constitutional agreement is seen as ‘comprehensive and exclusive’, as ‘universal’ with ‘a fixed background to democracy’ (p. 135). ‘Constitutions are not fixed and unchangeable agreements reached at some foundational moment, but chains of continual intercultural negotiations and agreements in accord with, and violation of the conventions of mutual recognition, continuity and consent’ (p. 183-84).

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