Princeton Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah Espouses Cosmopolitanism as Antidote to Cross-Cultural Strife

Professor Appiah was the Center for Ethics' third Scholar-in-Residence.

Mar 12, 2009 — To live as a “citizen of the world,“ as the eminent philosopher and Princeton University Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah urges us to do as best we may, is to heed an ancient prescription from Diogenes, the 5th-century Greek philosopher, that could heal the violence of our own time. Appiah is the YU Center for Ethics’ Third Annual Scholar-in-Residence.

Diogenes’ notions of what he first termed “cosmopolitanism,” Appiah said in his lecture to 200 at the Yeshiva University Museum, are “particularly useful when we are faced with the sorts of conflicts grounded in religious, ethnic, racial and national identities, which pervade our world.”

He added, “If you accept that you live in a world with many different kinds of people, and you’re going to try to live in respectful peace with them, then you need to understand each other, even if you don’t agree.”

Such tolerance and humility might have been easy for Diogenes to espouse, the professor noted in his lecture, titled “Cosmopolitanism and the Ethics of Identity.” In his time, after all, Diogenes “didn’t know about most people” beyond the Hellenic world, and “nothing he did was likely to have much impact on them.”

But in today’s global society, said Appiah, cosmopolitanism is the crucial antidote to cross-cultural strife, leading so often to genocide and war.

“We have come to a point where each of us can realistically imagine contacting any other of our six billion fellow human beings” for either noble or malicious purpose, said Appiah. “And the possibilities of good or ill are multiplied beyond all measure when it comes to policies carried out by governments in our name.”

It falls to us individually, therefore, to embrace another ancient concept: eudaimonia, Greek for “flourishing,” as articulated by Aristotle.

The cosmopolitan quest for universality of humankind amidst the irony of endlessly human difference, Appiah said, is an ongoing negotiation “among [our] many identities—race, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation, profession—using them in [a] search for eudaimonia.”

But the “enemies of cosmopolitanism” likewise flourish, he said, namely those who “deny the legitimacy of universality and those who deny the legitimacy of difference.”

Himself a Protestant Christian of British and Ghanian parentage reared in the polyglot West African city of Kumasi, population 1.5 million, Appiah chose the words of a Muslim academician—Ahmed al-Tayeb, president of the Cairo university Al-Azhar—to underscore the point of his lecture sponsored by a Jewish institution: “God created diverse peoples. Had He wanted to create a single ummah [community of faith], He would have, but He chose to make them different…Every Muslim must fully understand this principle. A relationship based on conflict is futile.”

Appiah also spoke about “Religious Identity as a Challenge to Modern Politics” at Yeshiva’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law on March 12 and met with Yeshiva College students at a small roundtable event to address the question, “Is There Room for a Religious State in a Global World?”

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