Kwame Anthony Appiah on Cosmopolitanism

The fear is that the values and images of western mass culture, like some invasive weed, are threatening to choke out the world’s native flora.

The right approach, I think, starts by taking individuals – not nations, tribes or ‘people’ – as the proper object of moral concern. It doesn’t much matter what we call such a creed, but in homage to Diogenes, the fourth-century Greek Cynic and the first philosopher to call himself a ‘citizen of the world’, we could call it cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitans take cultural difference seriously, because they take choices individuals make seriously. But because difference is not the only thing that concerns them, they suspect that many of globalisation’s cultural critics are aiming at the wrong targets....

Yes, globalisation can produce homogeneity. But globalisation is also a threat to homogeneity.That prospect is unsettling for some people (just as it is exciting for others)....

Urbanity: the big, polyglot, diverse world of the city.

Human variety matters, cosmopolitans think, because people are entitled to options. What John Stuart Mill said over a century ago in On Liberty about diversity within a society serves just as well as an argument for variety across the globe: “If it were only that people have diversities of taste, that is reason enough for not attempting to shape them all after one model. But different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral, than all the variety of plants can exist in the same physical, atmosphere and climate. The same things which are helps to one person towards the cultivation of his higher nature, are hindrances to another… Unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.”

The textiles most people think of as traditional West African cloths are known as Java prints; they arrived in the 19th century with the Javanese batiks sold, and often milled, by the Dutch. The traditional garb of Herero women in Nambia derives from the attire of 19th-century German missionaries, though it is still unmistakably Herero, not least because the fabrics used have a distinctly un-Lutheran range of colours. And so with our [Ghanan] kente cloth: the silk was always imported, traded by Europeans, produced in Asia. This tradition was once an innovation. Should we reject it for that reason as untraditional? How far back must one go? Should we condemn the young men and women of the University of Science and Technology, a few miles outside Kumasi, who wear European-style gowns for graduation, lined with strips? Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.

From Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers W.W. Norton Jan 2006

Comment from Izaak Van Gaalen: "Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah attempts to articulate an ethical theory that applies to our current age of globalization. Taking as his starting point the writings of Diogenes, the 4th century Greek Cynic philosopher, Appiah develops a philosophy of cosmopolitanism modeled on Diogenes' "citizen of the world." A citizen of the world regards the individual rather than family, tribe, or nation as the primary focus of ethical agency. And that it is important to recognize that individuals are bound by belief systems and cultures that are not only different but may also be opposed to their own. Cosmopolitanism is an ethics somewhere between relativism and universalism that can build a working relationship between adherents of different belief systems enabling coexistance but not necessarily agreement.

This is not as easy as it sounds; in fact, it doesn't even sound easy. Cosmopolitanism is, in addition to Diogenes legacy, a product of the Enlightenment in that it celebrates diversity and multiculturalism; it is tolerant of diverse moralities. However, it is intolerant of those who would deny tolerance of this diversity or plurality. This is the central dilemma of cosmopolitanism. It attempts to reconcile liberal universal values with the values of those who disagree with them. Cosmopolitanism believes in the basic freedoms, including freedom of speech but it will curb any speech that calls for restricting that freedom.

'Cosmopolitans don't insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don't have all the answers. They're humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can't learn from them.'"

Comment from David E. McClean: "There is, so far, no better or more mature book on moral cosmopolitanism than Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. In it, Appiah makes plain, by well-crafted appeals to the reader's good sense that are replete with ethnographic examples and real-world insights, what romantics and theologians have been telling us for ages: There is but a hair's breadth of difference between us; a tiny space that we can fill with causes for consternation and hatred, or with salutary joy at considering that difference. This Appiah does without in any way suggesting that there can ever be an end to the moral and cultural tensions that those differences do and must invite. He sketches the tenable cosmopolitanism we have been waiting for, and he parts company with the sentimentalist versions that remain - and should remain - in the shallow end of the pool.

Appiah, here as elsewhere (The Ethics of Identity), marvels that so many intellectuals have distorted the truth about the key insights of cosmopolitans, and he takes them to task. These have argued that cosmopolitanism contains an incredible and/or dangerous set of normative proposals and disregards the "facts" of human nature (that we are an insular species, with a territoriality that is red in tooth and claw). Appiah deftly replies that it is the cultural conservative, the jejune jingoist or nationalist, the duped hyper-contextualist, whose view of the world and of human nature is distorted, for the history of human social, cultural and even sexual intercourse is replete with cross-pollinations of language, religion, art, dress, rites, metaphysical outlooks, and progeny, all bespeaking an enormous aptitude for cooperation, bonding and friendship. We are an inter-cultural, intertwined, and interdependent species, just like every other on the planet. The view of ourselves as culturally isolated is the view that bears the burden of proof. It is, in fact, demonstrably false.

Appiah laments that so many philosophers and intellectuals, adopting a bad historicism, have argued, falsely, that we humans can only see the world up to the point of our own contextual "walls." He joins many - George Lakoff, Martha Nussbaum, William Sloane Coffin, Mohandis K. Gandhi, R.W. Emerson - in arguing that the greater truth of our humanity is our ability to imaginatively think new thoughts, to reconsider plans of life, to fashion new worlds of possibility, while acknowledging that each of us has a home that we should cherish, improve, perfect, and defend.


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