Kwame Anthony Appiah

By Ellen Gilbert 

Scholar/Critic Kwame AnthonyAkroma-Ampim Kusi Appiah recently left Princeton University, where he was a member of both the Department of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values, to assume a position as Professor of Law and Philosophy at New York University.  He received both a B.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy at Clare College, Cambridge University.  His most recent book is Lines of Descent: W.E.B.du Bois and the Emergence of Identity.  His other titles include The Honor Code; Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers; The Ethics of Identity; and In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.  Appiah’s many honors include a National Humanities Medal awarded to him by President Obama in 2012.  In 2013, then-recently appointed Princeton University President Chris Eisgruber asked the incoming freshmen class to read The Honor Code.  Describing it as a “splendid” book, drawing on history and philosophy from different areas of the world,” Eisgruber said that he particularly appreciated “the questions it asks about what it means to live a good life, and which ideas about honor can promote a good life.”

The interview with you in the 2008 film Examined Life followed you on the move in an Air Canada terminal.  You have described yourself as “a rootless cosmopolitan” who has had “the privilege of growing up in a couple of different places.” Talk about the significance of place and travel in your life.

I was born in London, but grew up in Kumasi, the capital of the Asante kingdom in Ghana. Because of this my first real memories of England are from when I first went to school there when I was eight or so. But our English grandmother came to visit us in Ghana, and I already knew her well, and so I had the family connection, which made the transition from one place to the other much easier. I am conscious, too, of the fact that in these two places we lived lives of great privilege: my Ghanaian grandfather was the Chief Secretary of the Asante king, Prempeh II, whose first wife was my great-aunt and who was succeeded by my uncle; and my mother’s father had been Chancellor of the Exchequer at the end of his life, and his father was a member of the British House of Lords. So our families were very much rooted in the elites of these two places I knew. We could point to the graves of English ancestors back to the seventeenth century and my father told us about his ancestors back to the beginning of the Asante kingdom. All of which is to say that I think my cosmopolitanism was both the natural result of my upbringing and my family—I literally have cousins or in-laws in every inhabited continent (some Christian, some Muslim, some Jewish, some none of the above)—and that it is also based in a sense of being well-rooted in a couple of places … now including New York. Nowadays I travel a fair amount both for my job, giving talks in Auckland or Hong Kong or Edinburgh or Bonn, and to keep up with my family: the eldest of my nephews, whose father is Norwegian, but who lives in Namibia, just got married to a (gorgeous!) Namibian woman, so we’ve just come back from a wedding in a small village in Namibia, up near the Angolan border, where our party included my sisters from Nigeria and England, my Nigerian and Norwegian brothers-in-law and their sons, and English and Ghanaian cousins of mine. Gertrude Stein—that great American Parisian—said once that there was no point in roots if you couldn’t take them with you. I like that formulation.

There is so much strife in the world today, yet you still hope that people will engage in “global conversations” about “what’s right and wrong.”  Talk about how the idea of honor might be used to appeal to people’s better instincts.

This is a large topic: I’ve just written a book about it, which, appropriately enough, will be published in Hong Kong. But I suppose my key thought is that patriotism—real patriotism—is about caring for the honor of your country, which means caring that it deserves the respect of everyone, both at home and abroad. So when your country does something creditable, you feel pride in this thing that we have done, or that has been done in our name; and likewise, when we do something discreditable, we feel shame. Those sentiments can be appealed to in the conversation of people across nations, though this process can backfire—leading to a nationalist backlash against the foreign critics and their local allies—so it needs to carefully be done.
I wrote a book about how such appeals played a role in the Chinese abandonment of foot-binding and in 19th-century British anti-slavery, among other places. And if we had the right background of relationships with Pakistan, we could mobilize this mechanism in support of the Pakistanis who are working to end honor-murder in their country. Unfortunately, I think we don’t have the right relationships, mostly, since they don’t think of us as people who address them as equals, eye to eye, as it were. They think we condescend to them … and, with important exceptions, they’re right. So the cosmopolitan in me wants us to repair our relationships with Pakistan and with the Muslim world more generally so that we can help each other deal with our many problems. That will take work from both directions, of course. But I know that I’m not alone in wanting to do that work from the side of what we call “the West,” and I know, too, that the Muslim world is full of people and places open for conversation.

You have been described as “our postmodern Socrates.”  How do you feel about that? What are your thoughts on public intellectuals? 

One of the problems of the World Wide Web is that you can’t escape epithets like that! I’m not sure that I’m terribly post-modern, and I don’t think the comparison with Socrates is one you could possibly live up to. My father (who loved philosophy, especially Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, for some reason) proposed Socrates as one of my names and my mother rightly and presciently responded, “But what if he wants to be a philosopher!”

I am often told I’m a public intellectual: but my “public,” if measured by people who could name one idea of mine, is, at most, in the thousands. So the way you can exercise influence isn’t by changing the mind of something called “the public,” but by providing ideas that are useful to people in public life: journalists, public officials (including politicians and judges) and so on. I would like to provide that service at least some of the time as a citizen of my country and as a citizen of the world.

You have described yourself as  “a philosopher by trade,” while noting that “philosophers rarely write useful books.” Please explain.

The distinctive impulse of modern professional philosophy is to go slowly where other people want to go, in our view, too fast. We like to break down arguments into their smallest steps, to distinguish different conceptions hiding under a single word or concept; since most people have other things to be doing, they mostly don’t have the patience for this work. But there are many topics where the results of this philosophical care—for example with concepts like race and identity and meaning, on which I have worked—can usefully be shared with others. And if we don’t do this some of the time I don’t see why we should deserve the respect of our society. But those contributions are made possible by all the difficult, less accessible work: so there’s an important division of labor within the profession between the moments (and the people) that address a wider world and the people (and the moments) that are part of our internal conversations.

Talk about the move from Princeton University to NYU.  What prompted it?  What are you looking forward to in New York City, and what will you miss about Princeton?

I will miss everything about Princeton: the marvelous students and colleagues, the thoughtful administration, the beautiful public spaces, the resources to support research and conferences … all of it. But there are two important reasons, for me, for thinking this move a good idea. One is personal. My spouse, Henry, and I haven’t had jobs in the same town since he left Boston twenty years ago to work at the New Yorker, when I was teaching at Harvard. Princeton was much nearer to his life in New York; but NYU means we can be together even more of the time and without the regular exposure to New Jersey Transit … which I will miss rather less. And the second reason is professional: I’m interested, as I said, in doing some service to the conversation of this nation and of the global community, and my new job, both as a professor of law, and as a member of the global faculty of the university, will allow me to do that in new ways. First by talking to young lawyers; and second by making it possible to teach in many of our global sites, starting with Abu Dhabi, but eventually, I hope, including Accra, Buenos Aires and Shanghai, not so much by being there but through the miraculous new technologies that allow you to be virtually present thousands of miles away from your physical location. Part of the excitement of the new job is figuring out how to use these technologies in effective teaching in a genuinely multi-national classroom. Without these technologies I couldn’t both see more of Henry and work with students around the world! It doesn’t hurt, by the way, that NYU’s philosophy department is terrific and the Law School is one of the world’s great legal powerhouses; both are wonderful intellectual communities.

 

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