April 5, 2006: Features
of the World
By Merrell Noden ’78
Shortly before his death, in 1990, the Ghanaian statesman Joe Appiah composed a sort of spiritual testament, much as his English mother-in-law had done toward the end of her life. Part autobiography and part meditation on the nature of civic responsibility, it included some pointed advice for his son and three daughters: “Remember,” he told them, “you are citizens of the world.”
All four children have lived up to that lofty ideal, but none more than his son, Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values. Indeed, Appiah has seemed at times to take his father’s advice a bit too literally: He came to Princeton in 2002, after an 11-year stint at Harvard and shorter stays at Duke, Cornell, Yale, and the universities of Sussex and Ghana.
But it is Appiah’s travels in the world of ideas that make him such a compelling figure. Though he began his career as a straightforward analytical philosopher — his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge was a page-turner called “Conditions for Conditionals” — he has moved steadily toward addressing broader questions of ethics and cultural theory that touch us all daily. In recent books like The Ethics of Identity: A Rooted Cosmopolitanism and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which was published earlier this year, he has explored what it means to be a “citizen” of a world that seems to get smaller by the day, blurring old identities and spinning off new ones at a dizzying pace. “What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?” he asks in Cosmopolitanism, his newest book. His answer is a direct challenge to the popular view of a “clash of civilizations,” and to us all: He urges us to find the proper balance between celebrating the things we have in common by virtue of our shared humanity while respecting and learning from the obvious differences between us. He does not pretend this will be easy, just essential.
In many ways — not least his own identity as a biracial, bicultural, gay man — Appiah is the perfect philosopher for our fractured, fearful, post 9-11 world. Last winter he seemed to be turning up all over the place to discuss cosmopolitanism. In January he had a cover story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine called “The Case for Contamination,” which argued that protecting one culture from “contamination” by more dominant ones isn’t just impossible, it’s also misguided and condescending. Contamination — or, to put a positive spin on it, cross-pollination — is not only inevitable, but exhilarating. In February he was in The New York Review of Books with a piece called “Whose Culture Is It?” which considers a number of ongoing cases in which countries have demanded the return of “their” art in order to pose a broader question: Who “owns” a people’s art? What, indeed, does it mean to speak of a “people?”
He is a wonderfully witty, supple, and staggeringly prolific writer — the Joyce Carol Oates of the philosophy department. His résumé runs to 33 pages, most of it taken up with publications not only in philosophy, but also in many areas of cultural and literary criticism. Cosmopolitanism is his 10th scholarly book, and he has edited classics of African and African-American literature and many collections, including Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. His book In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture is considered a classic of African memoir and philosophy. He is effortlessly erudite, as likely to cite literary sources like Balzac or George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda as he is to cite philosophical ones like John Stuart Mill or W.E.B. Du Bois. He also finds the energy to do many other things: This spring, along with teaching “Introduction to Metaphysics and Epistemology,” he has been heading up a committee charged with rethinking Princeton’s Program in African-American Studies. Its work was not complete by early March, but Appiah expected the committee to recommend, among other things, increasing the number of faculty and promoting an understanding that the place of race in American history is a key part of a modern liberal education.
“He’s got this public persona that it’s fair to say none of us [in the Princeton philosophy department] has,” says Daniel Garber, the department’s chairman. “He’s a kind of philosopher that’s very, very rare: On the one hand, people within the profession take him very seriously. On the other, he has a large audience outside as well, which is unusual. He is a public intellectual in the best sense of the word, but you wouldn’t know it because he’s so delightful and unpretentious. ... He’s a great teacher and a wonderful citizen of our department.”
Appiah’s life suggests that there must be a gene for such effortless grace. He is the scion of two truly remarkable families, one Ghanaian, one English, both deeply involved in the intellectual and political life of their countries. His mother, Peggy Cripps, met Joe Appiah while he was studying law in London and she was working for an organization called Racial Unity. “She practiced what she preached,” says Appiah with a chuckle. Their marriage caused an international sensation and has been cited as the basis for the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
She was, by any standard, an extraordinary young woman. The youngest daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps, who had been chancellor of the exchequer in Clement Atlee’s postwar Labour Government, she could trace her ancestry back to William the Conqueror. When her father died, she observed the English custom of waiting a year after a funeral to get married, but used that time to heed her mother’s advice and explore her future husband’s homeland. She spent the year in Ghana and fell in love with the place, making it her home until her death in February, at age 84.
To countless Ghanaians who loved her, she was simply “Auntie Peggy.” After her husband’s death, people kept asking her when she was going to go home. She told them she was home and, when they kept on asking that question, she bought the plot next to her husband’s grave in order to have tangible proof that Africa really was her home. She became an expert on Ghana’s art, collecting Ghanaian sculpture and the stories that traditionally are passed on with them; in the end, she collected some 7,000 stories. Because her command of Twi, the local language, was not as strong as her son’s, she enlisted his help to edit them in a book, Bu Me Bé: The Proverbs of the Akan.
Joseph Appiah was also royalty, though his progressive politics surely would have led him to eschew that term. According to Gates, director of Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research, he was the John Adams of his country. He was related to Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, but that did not stop him from speaking out as a member of the opposition in Parliament, nor did it save him when Nkrumah decided to throw him in prison for more than a year without trial or formal charges. Among the many projects he undertook on behalf of his beloved continent was to help negotiate the deal between Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo that led to an independent Zimbabwe in 1980.
All along, the family had been planning to send young Anthony back to school in England, but Ghana’s political uncertainty made him go earlier than planned.
At age 8, he was placed in the care of his fiercely protective maternal grandmother, who packed him off to Port Regis, a prep school in Thomas Hardy country. There, he joined a small army of his English cousins and became head boy, an honor whose real significance he says he only began to appreciate quite recently, when he went back and introduced himself to his old headmaster, saying, modestly, that he doubted if he’d remember him. “Of course I remember you,” said the old man. “You were our first colored head boy.”
“I realize, looking back, that a great deal of work went into making things fine for us,” says Appiah. “I’ve discovered letters from my grandmother to the headmaster of my school saying, basically, ‘I will kill you if anything bad happens to my grandson,’ but putting it in the nicest possible way.”
She probably needn’t have worried. Everyone knew the Cripps family, and in England class was even more important than race. “We were very much protected by the class system,” says Appiah. “When I was with my grandmother, people called her ‘Your Ladyship,’ which was her title. In England, that sort of thing trumped other things.”
For years he lived a cosmopolitan existence, spending the school year in England and vacations back home in Ghana. Such was his father’s standing in African political circles that Anthony might come home to find houseguests like writer Richard Wright or Marxist theorist C.L.R. James or Nan Pandit, Nehru’s sister. The Appiahs amused themselves with Scrabble and reading and listening to Joe’s fantastic stories, which were so wonderful that his wife wisely turned them into children’s books.
It was during these trips home that Appiah developed a fondness for mysteries. He would finish one of the classics his mother demanded he read, then race down to his father’s office to treat himself to one of the ever-so-English mysteries stacked there in a tall pile. Appiah has now written three mysteries himself, all featuring a Cambridge barrister, Sir Patrick Scott. The books, he says, touch on one of his favorite themes, identity: “As much as they are about anything, I think of them as explorations of what it means to be English.”
He went to Clare College, Cambridge, where, he says, it was “extremely easy” to be gay, at least in the circles he traveled in. “Maybe I found my identity more straightforward than I would have if I’d spent those years here in the United States,” muses Appiah, who now splits his time between Princeton and New York. But he tends not to explore homosexuality in his work — not, he says, to preserve his privacy but because it doesn’t seem as likely to yield rewarding arguments the way other forms of identity do. “It seemed to me that much of what there is to be said about homosexuality consists in responding to incredibly bad arguments as to why it’s wrong,” he says. “In the case of nationality and race, I found the opposition more interesting.”
He spent his first year at Cambridge as a medical student before admitting to himself that he greatly missed the discussions he’d had as a member of his school philosophy club. Once he had taken up philosophy again, there was no turning back. He seems now to have come full circle, returning to explore the meaning of his father’s words so long ago. “What he meant, I think, was that you should be interested in the fate of the planet,” says Appiah. “Everybody on the planet matters, [and so does] the fate of human beings generally. I think he also meant you should be a good citizen of somewhere, which didn’t have to be Ghana. But it didn’t have to be England, either.”
That, in a nutshell, is cosmopolitanism, the philosophy Appiah has spent the last few years formulating. More an approach than a firm answer, cosmopolitanism values our shared humanity over what Virginia Woolf called “unreal loyalties.” Appiah borrowed the word “cosmopolitanism” from a philosophical school in 4th-century B.C. Greece whose members liked to think of themselves as citizens of the world. Appiah is not entirely comfortable with the word’s current connotation of sophistication, since humility and fallibilism — the philosophical belief that no one has “the answer” and when you think you do, it’s time to think again — are cornerstones of cosmopolitanism.
“What’s distinctive about the cosmopolitan, I think, is that [he or she] thinks that everybody matters, but also that it’s just fine that people are very different and if they want to stay different, that’s fine. We’re not interested in uniformity. [We argue for] universalism without uniformity.”
Cosmopolitanism, he says, is quite different from earlier schools of thought that might have had universalist features: “Their universalism consisted in trying to get everybody to be like them,” he says. “Everybody had to be Marxist or Catholic or Mormon. And if you really believe that what matters is that everybody gets to make their own decisions, then one of those decisions might be not to be very cosmopolitan.”
You may be thinking that cosmopolitanism really isn’t very specific: Just talk and listen honestly. But as Appiah notes, we live in a country where at the moment half the people tend to think the other half are crazy. In our world today, just talking and listening surely would represent huge strides forward.
In the end, there is tremendous optimism and generosity in Appiah’s “rooted cosmopolitanism,” the notion that we can, and should, be citizens both of the world and of many smaller communities, such as our families, schools, and countries. At the end of “Whose Culture Is It?” he dismisses Woolf’s “unreal loyalties” in favor of a deeply moving acknowledgment of brotherhood:
“My people — human beings — made the Great Wall of China, the Sistine Chapel, the Chrysler Building: these things were made by creatures like me, through the exercise of skill and imagination. ... The Nigerian’s link to the Benin bronze, like mine, is a connection made in the imagination; but to say this isn’t to pronounce either of them unreal. They are surely among the realest connections we have.”
Merrell Noden ’78, a freelance writer, is a frequent PAW contributor.
Anthony Appiah on living with multiple loyalties
I grew up in Ashanti, the region of Ghana that is the residuum of the great Asante empire that dominated our region of West Africa before its conquest by the British. Growing up with a Ghanaian father and an English mother, who was both deeply connected to our family in England and fully rooted in Ghana, where she has now lived for nearly half a century, it has never seemed to me hard to live with many such loyalties. Our community was Asante, was Ghana, was Africa, but it was also (in no particular order) Gloucestershire, England, the Methodist church, the Third World.
My sisters and I have homes in four distinct countries — I in America, and they in Namibia, Nigeria, and Ghana — but wherever we live we are connected to Ghana and to England, our family roots, and to other places by love and friendship and experience. Each of us has lived for a time in at least one other country outside Ghana and England. And what strikes me about our experience — apart from the fact that it is one that is reproduced in many, many families today — is not the difficulty of these relocations but how easy they have largely been. I gather from many responses in many places over the years, that it is tempting to think of experiences such as ours as somehow especially modern, and, therefore, as raising new and special difficulties. But in trying to think about why living with these many overlapping loyalties has been so natural and so easy,
I have been reassured by the reflection that our little family experiment actually belongs to one of the oldest patterns of the species.
Excerpt from “The Cosmopolitan Scholar,” an essay by Kwame Anthony Appiah. The entire essay is available online, click here to read.