Kwame Anthony Appiah
Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values
“I do not think of myself as crossing boundaries,” says Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor in the Department of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values.
It is a surprising statement. Born in London, Appiah grew up in Ghana and earned his doctorate at Cambridge University. Since graduation he's taught in the United States, Germany, France and South Africa.
He's bridged similar boundaries in his scholarly work. Originally trained in linguistic philosophy, Appiah has published widely about ethics, African and black cultural studies, racial identity, political theory and philosophy of the mind. He's even written several novels, "Avenging Angel," "Nobody Likes Letitia" and "Another Death in Venice."
But in describing his forays into fields ranging from evolutionary biology to political history, Appiah is less interested in the disciplinary lines he has traversed than in the search for truth. “When you come across an interesting question, you assemble what you need to answer it,” Appiah explains. “If what you need is in a colleague’s office, then you go there and read about it. You go where the question takes you.”
It's in these exchanges that Appiah sees the true essence of intellectual life. “There's a traditional image of the philosopher as someone locked away in her study, attending to her own mental life,” he explains. “But that's not a great way to pursue philosophy, and that's not really how it's been done in the past.” Instead, he says, work in the humanities grows out of conversations, whether with students in the classroom or with colleagues at conferences, or even with an ancient text in a library carrel.
Take, for instance, his 2006 book "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers," which explores how individuals in a rapidly globalized world must balance the demands of cultural identity and shared humanity. The study, which introduces the metaphor of conversation as a way to negotiate cosmopolitan life, was itself begun as a sort of conversation. The book grew from an essay Appiah wrote in the mid-1990s in response to an article about patriotism published in the Boston Review. Out of that response, he developed his own view that we're all citizens of the world who must carry on a cultural exchange that balances the needs of the many with the needs of the individual.
According to Appiah, Princeton is an unusually good place for students to learn how to take part in their own cosmopolitan conversations. Through his introductory courses in the Department of Philosophy and his freshman seminar on the topic of identity, Appiah trains students in the idea that true learning is about participating and sharing ideas. “I tell them the seminar is theirs,” he says. “They must listen, respond and contribute.”
He says that getting students involved in that conversation is not hard. “These are smart, engaged people,” he says of his freshmen. “I am lucky to be part of a university with great students and wonderful colleagues. I continue to learn through conversation.”