Princeton University Class of 2023 Baccalaureate remarks by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah addresses Princeton's Class of 2023 at the Baccalaureate service on Sunday, May 28, 2023.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York University Professor of Philosophy and Law and Princeton's Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values, Emeritus, ​addressed Princeton University’s Class of 2023 at their Baccalaureate service on Sunday, May 28, 2023.

—Remarks as prepared—

Members of the Class of 2023. I’m so, so honored to be with you, your family and friends, to help mark your emergence from this great institution of higher learning. Your Princeton diploma isn’t just a fancy way of saying: Meeting Ended by Host. Surviving the rigors of your undergraduate education establishes that you’ve gained expertise in paying attention — to your classmates, to yourselves, to the realm of scholarship, to the wider world, to the minuscule worlds within that world, to the human tragedy and the human comedy. This afternoon, though, I want to encourage you to pay attention, for a moment, to attention itself.

Sometimes you arrive at a table in a dining hall where an animated conversation is under way. You’re trying to figure out what it’s about, what’s been said, what’s agreed on and what’s disputed. You’re quiet for a beat. You must pay attention. Well, that acute sense that you’ve entered the conversation late? That’s what it is to be born. A conversation has been going on, after all, since the dawn of our species, and we all enter that conversation late.

And paying attention, so you can catch up, isn’t easy.

That’s one place our teachers and our peers come in.

Pay attention, they tell us, to how Zora Neale Hurston uses voice and structure; pay attention to this drummer’s use of polyrhythm; pay attention to the connection between elliptic curves and modular form. You put in the work, and the nature of your consciousness is altered; you experience the same thing differently. A poem or a painting or a proof had been cryptic, silent, devoid of meaning. Now it speaks to you. Attention transforms experience.

Iris Murdoch, the British novelist and philosopher, thought that attention could bring us out of ourselves and closer to reality. Here’s a lovely passage of hers, about how nature had that power in her life, about what happened when, say, her eyes settled upon a kestrel, a marvelous bird with reddish brown and gray colors.

I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.[1]

That’s what Murdoch called “unselfing.” It’s important. And yet coming of age also means learning to pay a certain kind of attention to yourself, too — learning what you’re good at, what excites you, what stirs you. For some of you, the answer may have come as a surprise. It did for me.

Ever since I was seven or eight, I had wanted to be a doctor, and in time, I duly enrolled at university as a medical student. OMG. I drowsed through gross anatomy class, struggling to pay attention as we learned the names of the 200-some bones in the human body. I discovered I couldn’t stand the sight of blood; I still can’t. I should have paid attention to that. Instead, I found myself sneaking into lectures on philosophy of science and of language and there I was riveted. I couldn’t not pay attention.

Then came the day when an examiner from Oxford arrived to assess my grasp of anatomy. He held up a bone and asked me to identify it. “I think it might be from the shoulder,” I ventured tentatively. He gave me a mournful look: “Try the other end of the body,” he said. I think it was a distal phalanx from a small toe.

So, I did try the other end. I switched my course of studies: instead of just dipping my toe — sorry, my distal phalanx — into philosophy, I plunged right in. I finally paid attention to what grabbed and rewarded my attention.

It’s helpful, sometimes, to think of the mind as itself an attention device; and to recognize that attention can take forms as various as our minds. John James Audubon painting a bird: a supreme act of attention. Ocean Vuong or Lorrie Moore writing a poem or a story about a bird: another act of attention.[2] A composer writing a musical romance about a lark: crafting it is an act of attention, and so is listening to it.[3]

And what about the engineer using aerodynamic modeling to analyze how kestrels adjust their wings to respond to wind gusts? Science is a powerful form of attention, too. Chemistry, physics, biology: these are all disciplines of attention. If a song is the product of attention, so is a theorem.

That kind of attention, as you’ll all have learned here, can be hard work. The word comes from the Latin, tendere, to stretch: it means “to stretch toward something.”[4] Attention involves choice. Peers and pedagogues can serve as guides by alerting us to choices we hadn’t focused on.

Back when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, a boisterous and brilliant American graduate student arrived and promptly befriended me. What would happen, a 20-something named Henry Louis Gates, Jr., asked me, if I directed some of my philosophical training toward things that had no place in our course of study: things like race and social identity? I was thinking about probabilistic semantics. But he persuaded me that other things were worth my attention, too. Recalling that campus friendship, a proverb comes to mind, a proverb in my father’s language, Twi: “’Hu m’ani so ma me’: nti na atwe nam mmienu-mmienu.” “It’s in order to blow the dust out of each other’s eyes that two antelopes walk in pairs.” You need companions to blow the dust out of your eyes. We can be more attentive together than alone.

It seems to me increasingly that an ethical life can almost be defined in terms of habits of attention. Murdoch said something else I cherish: “love is the extremely difficult realization that someone other than oneself is real.” To come to grips with what we owe to each other, we have to see each other. We have to recognize that a person sleeping on the street is, first and foremost, a person. When you don’t see poor people, when you don’t see refugees, when you don’t see abuse, when you don’t see discrimination, what’s happening can be described, morally, as an attention deficit.

The great social movements of our day often ask us to tune into what we’ve been tuning out: to pay attention. The commonplace currencies of moral critique — think of phrases like “mansplaining” or “gaslighting” — are ways of saying: c’mon, pay attention. Did you notice what just happened here? “Listen to yourself,” people say. Meaning: pay attention to the language you used, experience it differently. It isn’t only that injustice can arise from inattention; inattention can itself be a form of injustice. That’s why so many of the most powerful political movements of our time have been focused, for better or worse, less on redistribution than on recognition.[5] A politics of recognition is a demand to be seen; it’s a request that attention be paid.

And that attention is owed to our planet, too, not just to its people. Remember James Hansen, the astrophysicist who spoke to Congress about climate change 35 years ago. Excuse me, he said: the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere have been rising along with average global temperatures. Everyone had better pay attention. Would that we had.

People often say that the information economy has given way to the attention economy: your apps are wildly signaling for your attention. “Attention merchants” seek to monetize our eyeballs on social media; algorithms seek to entrance us, to tether us, to keep our attention captive.

By contrast, trained attention is about selectivity. About priority. Everything, everywhere, all at once: that’s distraction, the opposition of attention. For Murdoch — Iris, not Rupert — attending to that charismatic kestrel meant transcending the narrow, enclosed cyclings of the injured ego. Attention can shrink the self and it can nourish the self. It makes us more acutely aware of other selves, not as obstacles but as people with their own desires and beliefs and aspirations. Which is why attention — the kind that your time at Princeton has cultivated — gives us access to love, to truth, and to justice.

Yes, all of you came late to the conversation. But all of you, in one way or another, will be changing that conversation.

And you’ll need to, because the world itself keeps changing.

In 2017, what may turn out to have been one of the most influential and consequential papers of our day started to circulate. It was a technical report, entitled “Attention is All You Need.”[6]

The computer scientists who wrote “Attention is All You Need” proposed an innovative approach toward machine learning — a new network architecture, “Transformer,” that relied fully on “attention mechanisms,” mechanisms that had previously been merely used as an add-on to other systems. No longer: the new architecture of attention proved to be as much as an order of magnitude more powerful than what had preceded it. The attention mechanisms allowed the model to focus on what mattered most in the input sequence, in the way that human readers attended most closely to the words that were most relevant to the meaning of a passage. Today, large-language-model bots like ChatGPT and Bard, along with image generators like DALL-E2 and MidJourney, are based on this architecture. They are attention machines.

Many people talk about the new image generators and chatbots as if they represent some alien form of intelligence. In fact, they represent a human-crafted dialogue with human creativity. They’re trained on words and images human beings produced. We built them paying attention to human forms of attention. When you ask DALL-E2 to show you an oil painting of the Venus of Willendorf (a sculpture 25,000 years old)[7] as painted by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (yes, British-Ghanaian, like me, and making wonderful art right now), you’ll get something that’s ultimately a decoction of styles and observations made by human beings.[8] The power of these services comes from having attended to our own practices of attention.

Of course, we now know that these attention machines can replicate bias as well as beauty. Or that large-language models can soft-serve falsehoods as well as truths. These are actually among their most human-seeming traits. As is the way they build on existing commonplaces.

By contrast, every one of you has been trained to challenge received wisdom, to create and assess new forms of culture and inquiry, new architectures of information, new structures of knowing, new ways to know. New ways of stretching toward. New decisions about what to stretch toward. These models will get better only because some of you make them better. If they help mend our world, rather than end our world, it’ll be because of the measures that some of you will take.

So, yes, I do urge you to follow Murdoch’s suggestion, and, as she put it, “take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees.”[9] But that’s because I know you’ll also take measures to secure the continued existence of those animals, those birds, those trees. In recent decades, the kestrel population in Murdoch’s Britain has declined by half, and the population of kestrels in New England has declined by ninety percent.[10] We need to pay attention to that.

Murdoch teaches us that attention is a form of loving consideration that helps us stretch toward a world beyond ourselves. In a new digital era, collaboration with previous centuries of human creativity is a keyboard — or a voice command — away. But we also must nourish the worlds that sustain us now: the social world, the political world, the natural world.

On this day, I know you’ll pay attention to those whose love and support have brought you to this august occasion. Be grateful to them, because gratitude is also an act of attention. But I know you’ll go out from this place able to see things that we, your elders, see right past. And in those moments when you feel anxious or resentful, brooding on an injury to your sense of self, lift up your eyes and let something alien from our fragile world into your lives. Let it capture your attention.

Maybe it will be a person. A portrait. A proof. A play. A poem. Maybe some feathered creature. A hovering kestrel, perhaps. Notice the reddish brown back, the gray brow, the angular spots upon its rippling feathers.

Take flight with it.

Take care of it.

Above all, my brilliantly promising Princetonians, pay attention. I can promise you this: pay attention, and attention will pay you back.


[1] Iris Murdoch “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts,” The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge, 1970) p. 82.

[2]My thrashing beneath you/like a sparrow stunned/with falling.” From “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” Poetry (December 2014). Lorrie Moore Birds of America (Vintage, 2010).

[3] Ralph Vaughan Williams “Lark Ascending.”

[4] Latin Dictionary "Tendere." Online Etymology Dictionary "Attend." 

[5] Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange. Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth. (Verso, 2003).

[6] Ashish Vaswani, Llion Jones, Noam Shazeer, Niki Parmar, Jakob Uszkoreit, Aidan N. Gomez, Łukasz Kaiser, Illia Polosukhin "Attention is All You Need," 1st Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS 2017), Long Beach, CA, USA. 

[7]  W. Antl-Weiser The time of the Willendorf figurines and new results of Palaeolithic research in Lower AustriaAnthropologie (Brno 2009) 47, 1-2: 131-141.

[8] Tate, "An Introduction to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

[9] The Sovereignty of Good op. cit. p. 83.

[10] UK: Joe Eaton "ARs a Culprit in British Kestrel Decline," Raptors are the Solution, May 2021. New England: Chad Witko "As American Kestrels Mysteriously Decline, Researchers Look to Their Migration for Clues," Audubon Society, November 2020. 

Commencement 2023