Cultural Theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah


Cultural Theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah


Was your family very nurturing in terms of pushing you to learn about different cultures?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Oh yeah. My mother had a very good library, especially for Ghana at the day…because a lot of people didn’t have a lot of books.  We had the Koran, we had the Bagada Ghita, we had the Epic of Gilgamesh. We had all those things and we were encouraged to read them. We went to Sunday school. My mother was a sort of Episcopalian. That’s what she grew up in but the church was not Episcopalian, just a sort of generic Protestant Church.  We spoke some of my father’s language, and we spoke our language. Some of the people who worked for us spoke another language and I didn’t learn that but my father knew it.

Tell us about your run-in with the Queen of England

I was seven—I was ill with Toxoplasmosis. While I was in the last week or two in hospital before i was about to go home for good; this was in 1961 or 1962. I can’t remember, so I was either 7 or 8. Ghana had became a republic. It had been like Canada, it was like a dominion and it became a republic. So the Queen came to visit for the first time as a foreigner, not as the Queen of Ghana but as the Queen of England. The President of Ghana was taking her around the country, and as it happened he took her by my bedside. My father knew the President pretty well, but the president locked him up so my father was in prison at the time. I remember looking at the President and he wouldn’t look at me. He just stood there looking at the ceiling and tapping his foot. And the Queen said “How are you?” and i said “Oh fine, thank you very much.” And as they were walking away, the Queen’s husband turned around to me and said, “Give my regards to your mother.” He had met my mother, which meant the president had realized who I was, and so they knew that my father was in prison. It was embarrassing for him. So they fired my doctor, and it was a big fuss. Because of that I went to England to be with my grandmother just to get out of the way while, to get out of the political trouble. That’s why I started going to boarding school in England. My father was in prison, my mother had a lot to deal with. The sickness and the Queen and everything sort of led to my going to England quite young.

Wow. That’s very interesting, and…

Bizarre. Even though my father was in prison and there were secret police coming through the house and all that, my mother was able to keep things cool and keep calm herself. I don’t know how she did it. Amnesty International had just started and my father was among the first cases that they took. My mother’s father was a British cabinet member so my mother’s mother was very well connected; she knew the prime minister, she knew people in Parliament. So, she was kind of able to lobby and put pressure on the government. But Amnesty did too. My mother knew that there were people who were supporting us from many countries around the world; they were writing letters to her, and my father’s family was very supportive. But still, it was very hard for her, and I know from talking to her about it later, but she was able to keep our childhood fairly natural. She was a great mother, a great parent.

Can you explain to me the basics of Cosmopolitanism Philosophy?

There are basically two ideas. One idea that cosmopolitans have is shared with a lot of other people. It’s basically the idea that humanity is a moral community; everybody matters, it isn’t just Americans who matter. It isn’t just my family who matters. Everybody matters. But lots of people teach that; the Catholic church teaches that. The humanist association teaches that, it’s not very controversial. The second part of it, which is different from other views, is that cosmopolitanism thinks that everybody not only matters, but that its fine that people live in other ways and different societies. It’s both concern for everybody, but not enough concern to make everybody the same. You don’t want everybody to be exactly the same. Those are the two basic ideas. You can’t on the one hand withdrawal from being concerned about other people, but on the other hand you shouldn’t tell other people how to live their lives. It’s a very old idea.   The word cosmopolitanism comes from a Greek phrase, kosmopolitês, which means citizen of the world . It’s the idea that we are all one community. It’s the ideas that were citizens of the world.   But from the beginning cosmopolitans understood that we could be one community without being the same. And cosmopolitans say if you want to live like this, in New York, that’s fine, but if you want to live in a village in the Andes, go ahead. We don’t care; respect your choices and we hope that you do well with them.

Did I read it was also kind of based on some German Philosophy?

Well there’s the old Greek thing which is a very old tradition and that tradition kind of faded into Christianity. There’s a lot of cosmopolitanism in Christianity and in some Judaism which got resurrected by German philosophers in the 18th century. I mean, there’s a version in between, there’s a medieval version, but the modern version starts. Kant wrote an essay called “Perpetual Peace” which is a great cosmopolitan kind of manifesto, and that’s where the essential concept of the United Nations was first proposed. So the idea of United Nations really grows out of cosmopolitanism. We all get together, we respect each other but we don’t force everybody to all be the same.

So you mention in one of your books that in a post 9/11 world, we have obligations that are more than just sharing citizenship. What are those obligations?
If you think that what is best for people lays in part in what they want, then you’ve got to know what they’re like before you know what is best for them. And if they matter, you have to care about what is best for them. So if there are some kids starving in Bangladesh, you can’t say “none of my business.” On the other hand, you can’t say “you should do it like this.” You have to figure out a way to help them in a way that is best for them. There is an obligation to understand. You must take other lives seriously, not to bully them, or meddle, but to make sure that we create a world where everyone can have a dignified human existence.

One piece of advice you give to today’s youth is to see one movie with subtitles a month.

Take Africa. There are more than 800 languages in Africa. We can’t learn 800 languages. You obviously can’t learn every culture because there’s too much to learn, even just in Africa alone. And learning a culture, even your own culture in its entirety is a lot of work. But you can get a good feel for life in other places; and I think literature, movies, art and television from other places is a great place to start. You get some kind of understanding, not the deepest, but you can get a sense of it.

To what degree should you take on learning about other cultures? What is appropriate?

I’m not recommending it to the degree that parents would recommend broccoli. I think it should be fun. I’m trying to persuade people that it is fun to watch movies from Iraq and Iran. It’s fun to go to art shows. Each of us can’t know about every culture, but I do think that people do have the right to not be cosmopolitan; to hide away from the rest of the world; live their own life under their own rules. As long as they don’t imprison people. I don’t mind that. But every one person has obligations to the rest of us. They are not allowed to pollute their environment so that it damages other people. I think they have obligation of concern for other people. But they don’t have to be interested in other places. Cosmopolitanism urges people to be interested in other places because it’s fun, not because it’s mandatory. It’s caviar, not broccoli.

Do you feel that current cultural philosophy needs to be watered down for people to become interested?

No. In my book on Cosmopolitanism, I tried to write a book that the normal educated person, not necessarily someone that has done any sort of philosophy, could read and think “Yeah I agree with that” or “I don’t agree with that.” I think there are some technical ideas, but I try to explain them. I think that anybody who can read a novel should be able to read this. Not all philosophy is like that. There is a lot that you need to be trained in order to read, just like I don’t expect to understand what economists are talking about without some training. But I also expect the economists to give us some us advice as well. I respect those who can take economic ideas and make them accessible to me. I try to do the same with philosophy. I do think that philosophers have things to say to the culture, and there is no way for the culture to listen unless we say them in a way that people can understand.

Read Anthony’s essay in the New York Review of Books here