Kwame Anthony Appiah

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conflict, Cosmopolitanism, human rights, humanity, multi-culturalism
Written and spoken word (debate)
Europe, Western, Africa, Western, America, North
England (UK), Ghana, United States of America
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September 11, 2009
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Cosmopolitanism, closely considered

Kwame Anthony Appiah is himself the best embodiment of the cosmopolitanism he champions. The moral philosopher of Ghanaian-British background is at home on three continents: He was born and educated in Europe, grew up in Africa, and lives in the United States. Cultural difference and the coexistence of diverse cultures are also a personal concern of his: ‘Don’t forget that you’re citizens of the world!’ was the message that Appiah’s father, the Ghanaian politician and lawyer Joseph Emmanuel Appiah, gave to his children shortly before passing away.
Appiah developed his concept of cosmopolitanism in his book ‘Cosmopolitanism. Ethics in a World of Strangers.’ As his point of departure he takes universal values and Huntington’s scenario of a ‘clash of civilizations’, which he forcefully criticizes. Appiah assumes that there are at least a small number of values that all people share, such as the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong – and, independent of these, other values of more local significance. His concept in no way aims to level cultural differences. He speaks of a ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ based on the formula ‘universality plus difference.’ The cosmopolitan individual is conscious of his duty to other people. He respects the local differences between cultures – which indeed are always due in part to the influence of other cultures – and he has no reason to renounce his own culture.

For understanding to come about between people, conversation is critically important. Not, however, in the form of professionally organized and institutionalized dialogue: ‘One of the things I really don’t like about things like the Parliament of World Religions is that they are really about making difference disappear. Their statements are all about the things they agree about, and the things they agree about as a result are very, very abstract, because concretely they disagree about all kinds of things.’ In contrast, the dialogue that Appiah has in mind is the more casual everyday talk: ‘I think of cosmopolitan conversation as conversation. It has no agenda.’

That is, it is about exchanging ideas with the people around us, conversing across cultural and religious lines and across borders. In doing so, it is important to be open to one’s conversation partner, listen to his experiences, take note of his views, ask questions, take interest. When different standpoints come into dialogue with one another, it gradually becomes clear where differences disappear and where they remain. The aim of the dialogue is not a great, unachievable consensus. As Appiah says, ‘Conversation is not about agreement.’ Rather, it is about ‘people getting comfortable with one another. Once they’re in conversation with each other, they can gradually touch on sensitive topics and call certain practices into question.’

For Appiah, conversation means not only personal exchange between people, but also the encounter with the literature and art of foreign cultures: ‘The cosmopolitan life is one in which you relate weakly to some kinds of differences and strongly to others. You do that sometimes by literal conversation, but more often by movies, and novels and newspapers and the internet.’ It comes down to one’s disposition: ‘In the end cosmopolitanism requires a certain temperament and it’s a temperament that is randomly distributed among human beings.’

While an individual’s preparedness to think and act in a cosmopolitan manner does not in principle depend on his economic situation, Appiah sees drastically worsening economic conditions as the greatest threat to cosmopolitanism: ‘Human beings are very prone to a kind of xenophobic, chauvinistic response, especially when they feel threatened materially.’

Appiah is well aware that he speaks from a position of privilege: ‘Sometimes people complain that my image of cosmopolitanism is very bourgeois. And I think it is very bourgeois, but I’m not ashamed of that. I would like everybody in the world to be able to live like a middle-income person. I want everybody to have the opportunity to sit back and talk and not to worry about where their next meal is coming from. I want everybody to live in a society where they can trust that their government isn’t going to lock them up because they have said something that the government doesn’t like.’

Parallel to his philosophical works, Appiah also writes fiction. To date he has published three novels, in which he grapples primarily with questions of identity: ‘There is almost no connection between my work as a fiction writer and my work as a philosopher. I think of them as both worthwhile things to be doing. I haven’t had a chance to write a novel for a long time, because I have been writing other kinds of things.’ With so much on the agenda in our era that he finds more pressing, it is small wonder that Appiah finds little time for his work as a novelist.

From an interview of the author with Kwame Anthony Appiah on September 2, 2009 in Berlin.

Author: Petra Stegmann


Kwame Anthony Akroma-Ampim Kusi Appiah was born 1954 in London.
He lives in New York City and Pennington, New Jersey.


The Life of Honor: Incidents in the Genealogy of Morals

Published Written,
To be published soon.

The Politics of Culture, the Politics of Identity

Published Written,
Eva Holtby Lecture on Contemporary Culture No. 2. Toronto: Institute for Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum

Che cos’è l’Occidente?

Modena: paginette festivalfilosofia, Fondazione San Carlo di Modena

Che cos’è l’Occidente?

Modena: paginette festivalfilosofia, Fondazione San Carlo di Modena

Mi Cosmopolitismo

Published Written,
Buenos Aires/Madrid: Katz Editores

El meu cosmopolitisme/My cosmopolitanism

Published Written,
Barcelona: Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

Experiments in Ethics

Published Written,
The Mary Flexner Lectures Series of Bryn Mawr College. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers

Published Written,
New York: W. W. Norton, 2006; London: Allen Lane

The Ethics of Identity

Published Written,
Princeton: Princeton University Press

Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy

New York: Oxford University Press

Bu Me Bé: The Proverbs of the Akan

Published Written,
With Peggy Appiah, and with the assistance of Ivor Agyeman-Duah. Accra: The Center for Intellectual Renewal, 2002

Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race

Published Written,
With Amy Gutmann. Introduction by David Wilkins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Another Death in Venice

Published Written,
London: Constable

Nobody Likes Letitia

Published Written,
London: Constable

In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture

London: Methuen; New York: Oxford University Press

Avenging Angel

Novel. London: Constable, 1990; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991

Necessary Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy

New York: Prentice­-Hall/Calmann & King

For Truth in Semantics

Published Written,
Oxford: Blackwell’s

Assertion and Conditionals

Published Written,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985; digitally printed version 2008


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

The Spirit of the Haus (deutsch)

20 Jahre Haus der Kulturen der Welt

(02 September 09 - 30 September 09)


Appiah Net