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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .


Peoples, Cultures and Nations in Political Philosophy
Paul Gilbert

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000
223pp. Index. Pb.: 14.95; ISBN 0-7486-1091-X.



Who is entitled to citizenship? How can we justly restrict immigration? How can people of different cultures live in the same state? When are people entitled to secede from the state?

In Peoples, Cultures and Nations in Political Philosophy Paul Gilbert has set upon the difficult task of equipping us with the philosophical tools to answer these challenging questions. In outlining the philosophical context of contemporary debates on issues of culture, ethnicity and nationality, Gilbert focuses on the primary question as to how cultural, ethnic and national groups can be accommodated into political arrangements of states.

The first section aims to clarify concepts of identity such as race, ethnicity, cultural identity and nationality and evaluates the relevance of these concepts to the state and citizenship. The second section examines rival political theories of citizenship and political organisation. Gilbert is critical of the functionalist assumptions and cultural arrogance of Anglo-American political philosophy. Quoting Fredrik Barthes, he argues that it is a mistake to assume "a world of separate peoples, each with their own culture and each organised in a society which can legitimately be isolated for description as an island to itself"(211).

Gilbert then explores continental Marxist and Postmodernist ideas as a challenge to Anglo-American dominance. However, he concludes that postmodernism, particularly the work of J Kristeva, which develops aspects of the French republican tradition, may not be applicable outside of that tradition (142). The final section aims to combine aspects of the previous sections to evaluate their application to critical contemporary issues - multiculturalism, immigration, citizenship and indigenous peoples, secession and self-determination.

Gilbert concludes with the assertion that while " the moral claims if territorial groups to political recognition can be strong, ethnicity in itself has no moral standing, its necessary exclusivity is morally repugnant, a source of conflict and a bar to co-operation in facing up to a common fate" (211). This is at odds with David Miller for example, who argues that 'nationality' in fact facilitates co-operation and a sense of ethical duty towards others (see Miller, 1995: 49-81). Using the Balkans as an example, he argues that great caution should be exercised in recognising the political demands of various groups and that each case needs to be evaluated on its own merits mindful of objective facts about human needs and social harmony (214).

A key and welcomed feature of this work is Gilbert's criticism of the underlying cultural and political assumptions that shape western political philosophy and his scepticism as to whether it can provide us with answers to contemporary dilemmas. While no comprehensive theoretical alternative is offered, Gilbert deliberately avoids the postmodernist trap of uncritical relativism and pessimism and calls for a focus on people rather than peoples. Whether such a reorientation would successfully address our list of questions is the subject of another debate.

Grainne Walsh, The Queen's University of Belfast


Grainne Walsh, The Queen's University of Belfast



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