Appiahn Way

Ancient_Appian_Way(Not to be confused with the old Roman Road, though both– for better or worse– facilitate human connection…)

One of my favorite reads last summer was K. Anthony Appiah’s Cosmpolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. (He’s on my mind this morning because he has a gray box blurb in our next Intro chapter on sex, race, and multiculturalism.)

Appiah is another non-caucasian philosopher (like his former Princeton colleague Cornel West) everyone should read, especially in the Age of Obama. He too is a multi-cultural hybrid– I really wish Obama had not called himself a “mutt”– with an African Dad.  Like West, he’s also conversant with and congenial to the classic American philosophical tradition of James and Dewey. The spotlight in Cosmpolitanism is on the perennial pragmatic theme of pluralism. Lately, Appiah has been pushing the incipient “experimental philosophy” (or X-phi) movement.

Cosmopolitanism (which Appiah traces to the Cynics, though Socrates may have beat them to it)  means being a citizen of the world, not just of your neighborhood, community, tribe, nation, or gender, ethnicity, race, religion et al. It’s about transcending those particular personal markers without denying their importance in creating your identity. (Maybe that’s what John Rawls was really after, with his “original position” and “veil of ignorance.”)

Appiah’s “Way” is conversation:

Your conception of cosmopolitanism — being “citizens of the world” — emphasizes conversation. How do we learn to have such conversations and how do they happen?

I think that, for educated people, the beginnings of conversations across boundaries of identity — whether it be national,cosmopolitanism-kwame-anthony-appiah-paperback-cover-artreligious or something else — come with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you read a novel or watch a movie or attend to a work of art that speaks from some place other than your own. So I’m using the word “conversation” not only for literal talk, but also as a metaphor for engagement with the experience and ideas of others. And I stress the role of the imagination here — and the role of the sorts of encounters that are central to the humanities — because it’s crucial, I think, that these encounters be undertaken not just because they make it more likely that we can live together in peace, but because the encounters, properly conducted, are valuable in themselves.

And that’s another element of the metaphor of conversation: Conversation allows us to understand others, teaches us things, but it’s also a pleasure. If you try to persuade people to engage in conversation across societies as a kind of necessary drudgery, they won’t take it up in the right spirit — they probably won’t take it up at all. So cosmopolitanism, in short, has to be defended as a delight, not as a duty.

In this excellent talk, listen for the references to Adam Smith and the invidious comparison between a pained finger and the large-scale loss of human life– that’s where his pal David Hume got it– and to Balzac’s”Box” prequel. Also, interesting thoughts on utilitarianism and Peter Singer.


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