Kwame Anthony Appiah
Friday, February 10, 2006; 12:00 PM

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton and a noted scholar of African and African-American identity, was online to discuss his challenge to the concept of a 'clash of civilizations.'

We have grown accustomed in this anxious, post-9/11 era to constructing a world fissured by warring creeds and cultures. Much of humanity now seems separated by chasms of incomprehension. Kwame Anthony Appiah's new work challenges the separatist doctrines espoused in books such as Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations.

Reviving the ancient philosophy of "Cosmopolitanism," a school of thought that dates to the Cynics of the fourth century BCE, Appiah traces its influence on the ethical legacies of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Kant's dream of a "league of nations," and the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In so doing, Appiah shows how Western intellectuals and leaders, on both the left and the right, have wildly exaggerated the power of difference - and neglected the power of one. One world. One species.

This balance comes through "conversation," a term Appiah uses literally and metaphorically to signal the depth of encounters across national, religious and other forms of identity. At the same time, Appiah stresses conversation needn't involve consensus. Amid the good and bad of globalization, the author parses some basic cultural-philosophical beliefs - drawing frequent examples from his own far-flung multicultural family as well as from impersonal relationships of exchange and power - to focus due attention on widespread and unexamined assumptions about identity, difference and morality.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He has written extensively on the philosophy of mind and language, African and African-American intellectual history, and political philosophy.

A transcript follows.


Kwame Anthony Appiah: Hi, everyone. I'm ready for questions.


Dallas, Ga.: Even though I agree with Mr. Appiah regarding the one-ness of all humanity, (i.e. one world, one species) I would like to know how this idea can be balanced with the reality of significant differences regarding basic rights as defined by different cultures. Mores regarding gender and sexual orientation come immediatly to mind.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: The version of cosmopolitanism that I favor is exactly about balancing universality and difference. Many people who believe (rightly) in universality, as you do, want (wrongly, I think) to impose their vision of the world on others. They think not just that there are universal truths but that they already know what they are. And they don't think they have anything to learn, as a result, from others. They don't converse, they try to convert. Cosmopolitans begin, I think, with a sense of one thing we all certainly share, which is our fallibility. Nobody has reason to be confident that they're right about everything. That's one of the motivations for conversation across differences. It's in my interest to converse with people who are wrong about different things from the ones I'm wrong about! I completely agree with you that one of the central challenges for global conversation today is to find ways of getting to understand very different views about gender and sexuality. But we should start, I think by recognizing that these issues are subjct to disputation within every society as well as across societies. We need a global conversation that recognizes that we have these very different views and that seeks, first, simple understanding of each others positions. Next, I think, come attempts to try to agree on fundamental rights: things we think every person, male or female, gay or straight, etc. is entitled to. Finally, if we're convinced that what a government or a society elsewhere is doing to some people is badly wrong and the conversation gets nowhere, it seems to me that sometimes we just have to try and help the victims--especially if they ask for our help--whether or not we can get the agreement of the perpetrators. But often we won't be able to help (at reasonable cost) unless we do it through dialogue.


Madison, Wisc.: In a time when cartoons, or mere suggested offenses against religious symbols can cause riots and terrorist threats, how can "The West" with it's freedom of speech, possibly interact peacefully with many in the Arab world? How can one avoid offenses to religion with free speech?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: As you can imagine, there are many questions in the queue about this! I'll try to say some things about it that address several of them. First, I have actually looked at the cartoons. (This seems to distinguish me from quite a lot of people who have talked about them!) Taken as a whole, they strike me as not having been intended to insult anybody. Indeed several are "about" Islamophobia. The one that has most upset many Moslems represents the Prophet with a bomb in his turban, which I think we can reasonably take to imply an association of the Prophet with terrorism. (There's lots more to be said about the interpretation of the pictures, of course.) But it seems to me we have to make a distinction here between two different objections. One objection--and it was this issue that led to the invitation to draw the cartoons in the first place--is to representing the Prophet at all. This is held to be forbidden in normative Islam. I don't think it's reasonable to ask Danes not to draw the Prophet--let alone to have the government punish people for doing so--on this basis, because Danes (including probably some Moslem Danes) mostly don't believe it's wrong. This makes no more sense than asking Danes to stop eating bacon because pork is proscribed by Islam. The second basis of objection is that the cartoon is offensive to Muslim sensibilities. Offensive, presumably, in part, because they think not just that you shouldn't picture the Prophet, but also that it's particularly wrong to do so in a way that identifies him with terrorists. I have a couple of thoughts about this basis of objection.

First, I don't think that one Danish cartoonist should take all the blame for the association of Islam--if not of the Prophet--with terrorism.

Second, while I think it's reasonable to ask people to be aware of such sensitivities, the objectors would be in a stronger position if cartoons in the Moslem world seemed to reflect a concern not to offend others. But, as everyone now has been reminded, horribly offensive anti-Jewish cartoons are to be found routinely in many newspapers in the Arab world, for example. There are many Moslems in Denmark. A paper published for Danish consumption should worry about not offending its readers, some of whom will be Muslim. But in a broadly secular society it's not surprising that this didn't concern them very much: one of the cartoons has a representation of Jesus as well, in a way that some Christians might find offensive, but I don't suppose that even occurred to the editors.

Third, I think the most interesting thing about the situation is that it suggests that some Moslems are particularly sensitive to the thought that Westerners don't respect them. (The vast majority of the world's Moslems, we might as well recall, haven't been out on the streets protesting, and only a very few have engaged in rioting.) This is, I think, a reflection of a kind of cultural insecurity. How many readers of this paper, for example, care about whether Moslems in other places think of us with respect or without contempt? One thing that's desperately needed--and it will take a long time, I think--is dialogue between many groups in Europe and North America and counterparts in the many parts of the Moslem world that will establish a basis of mutual respect that will undermine this sense of cultural inferiority.

I have written an answer here that is addressed to readers who are not Muslim, assuming that that is a reasonable belief about most of you. I know some Moslems will be upset that I suggest this diagnosis. But one thing that I believe in strongly is that respectfully dialogue requires honesty. And it's what I honestly think.


Washington, D.C.: Have you considered alternatives to the term "cosmopolitanism"? The concept makes sense to me, but the term itself does not because it has negative connotations: elitism and urban sophistry as opposed to simple honesty. Look forward to your thoughts.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: In the preface to my book I say that I have indeed considered many possible words! All of the ones that I know of have some negative connotations. But, as I insist in the book, there are many people of cosmopolitan temperament who are not from the elites of their societies or the world; and while, for a variety of reasons, I think a cosmopolitan spirit does naturally go with city life, that's the life of a very large proportion of human beings today. (And I don't think rural people can't be cosmopolitan, in my sense.) Thanks for the question!


Washington, D.C.: My son's name is also Kwame. I was wondering about your family background, please provide your readers with more information. Also how or what positively influenced you to be a humanist, to consider the various "races", religions, ONE? I hold a Masters in International Peace and Conflict Resolution, have traveled extensively, was briefly married to someone from another culture and hold many of your views. I have always said that people, especially those in power use the various "ism" (racism, sexism, classism) to divide the human race and keep the status quo.

Though I find myself to be a "minority" when expressing these views unless I'm interacting with people from a specific academic field or background, I would like to instill these same values into my son. Provide me with information on your background please.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I'm called Kwame because I was born to an Asante father and in Twi, our language, Kwame is the name for boys born, like me, on Saturday. My mother was bron in England (though she's lives in Ghana for more than 50 years). And, for the record, I can think of relatives with ancestry in Lebanon, Kenya, Thailand, Norway, Nigeria, England, and France. So, no doubt lke you, I think my cosmopolitanism may have something to do with my background!


Arlington, Va.: More people should be familiar with your work. What do you recommend as a guide for a clearer and more enlightened examination of cross cultural assumptions about identity and morality? Are your writings available?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: Yes. The book that I'd recommend to start with is Cosmpolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, in bookshops now!


Bethesda, Md.: Mr. Appiah,

With all due respect, you can challenge the concept of a "clash of civilizations" all you want, and couch that challenge in all the academic jargon you like, but that won't change the obvious fact that a significant percentage of the Islamic world is openly and willfully clashing with Western civilizations. One only need turn on the television or read the newspaper to see obvious manifestations of this--whether it be the current cartoon protests, the vicious slaying of filmmaker Van Gogh in Amsterdam, the recent riots in France, the beheadings in Iraq, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the 1993 WTC bombing, the Madrid train bombing, the 7/7 London terrorist attacks...I could go on and on. I'm not even sure what the point of your whole argument is, but I will keep an open mind and listen to what you have to say.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: The idea that I'm challenging isn't that there's lots of clash in the world. Of course, there is. It's the idea that what's classhing are civilizations. Plenty of people within the Moslem world are not engaged in a clash with te West and don't want to do so; and none of the terrorist acts you mention was an attack by the Moslem world on the West. They were attacks by particular groups of Moslems on particular Western individuals or nations. If we allow ourselves to de driven to thinking of every Moslem as an enemy (or every Westerner as a friend, for that matter) in these circumstances, we'll have no basis for moving forward. (And I will try to follow your example and, like a good cosmopolitan, keep an open mind!)


Washington D.C./Los Angeles, Calif.: Cosmopolitanism sometimes threaten to destabilize citizenship--making people "citizens of the world," or at least giving multiple and flexible citizenships a positive valence. How do you reconcile some of cosmopolitanism's state-transcendent connotations with more nefarious manifestations of statelessness today: refugee crises, terrorism, Guantanamo, the perils of being "a man without a country"? In other words, what is the role of citizenship and sovereignty in your vision of cosmopolitanism?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I favor a form of cosmopolitanism that takes nations very seriously, particularly because of the role of national law in sustaining (or, unfortunately, undermining) human rights. Some cosmopolitans take the metaphor of global citizenship--the etymology of the word, after all, just comes from a Greek phrase meaning citizen of the world--to rule out taking national citizenship seriously. I think that's a big mistake. Why can't I be loyal to America and to humanity? After all, I can be loyal to America and to New York city! (And, for that matter, to Ghana as well.)


Princeton, N.J.: Cosmopolitanism seems to be more an attitude, a readiness to listen honestly and openly, than a plan of action. Do you really think "conversation" can offer us hope in a world that feels quite dangerous, or will cosmopolitanism work only with folks who are already cosmopolitan in their openness to the world? Is it, in effect, a philosophy that can only reach the already converted?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: The short answer to your first question is: Yes, I think it can offer hope, though no one would want to rely solely on converstion. Conversation is, of course, like cosmpolitanism, a metaphor. We can't literally talk with everybody else on the planet or even with representatives of every group. But we can be in favor of the respectful exchange of ideas in ways that don't presuppose that all the right answers are on our own side. Still, we should all have moral bottom lines. Once genocide or torture begins the priority shifts from understanding to stopping it. One hope I have for the global conversation as instantiated in human rights treaties is that we are slowly coming to consensus on certain moral baselines.


Sterling, Va.: Professor,

There seems to be a dangerously fine line between cosmopolitanism (taken, as I believe you mean, as conversation arriving at mutual respect as a basis for plurality) and relativism, that is, the stance that normative moral claims can only be evaluated within the culture that they appear in. This line seems to be apparent particularly in your earlier reply about the cartoons. Does cosmopolitanism then rely on a kind of "weak" relativism, or is it possible within its bounds to maintain the possibility for at least a degree of normative morality outside of the bounds of an individual culture?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I don't have a short answer to this question, except that several chapters of my book on Cosmopolitanism are devoted to avoiding relativism! I believe there are universal moral values--some of which are very well served by a cosmopolitan attitude. You can think that there are universal values without supposing that everyone agrees as to what they are (and without supposing that you have got them all right either).


Frederick, Md.: Do we really have a choice? Tom Friedman is pretty persuasive in reminding us, the world is flat? Will Americans ever "get it" -- part of our identity is interdependence, not just independence.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I think the only choice we have is between responding intelligently to our shared global situation or responding unintelligently. One thing I stress towards the end of my book on Cosmopolitanism is the centrality of trying to think smartly about our situation. And, just to be a bit hopeful, I've been traveling the country these last few weeks and, you know, America is full of poeple who get it!


Fairfax, Va.: I think a one world, one vision could work as long as everyone understands that ethics and morality are relative to the geographic location/culture of each area. When people hear "one world government" they get confused and think of something like starship troopers or star trek where everyone wears a bland, pastel uniform and lives in a cookie cutter housing project.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I agree with you that world government is--for many reasons--not something to aim for. But we do need cross-national institutions as well as nations, just as we need sub-national institutions, too. WHO, UNESCO, the IMF all have things to do, as does the city government of New York or Nairobi. One central argument of my book is that cosmopolitanism does not equal world government.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I have observed that most religions agree on basic moral beliefs. Do you belief that are underlying moral conditions for all humans and, if so, what do you believe they are?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: There are indeed many agreements across the so-called "world religions," I think, at a certain level of abstraction. But when it comes to applying them in concrete situations they may lead to incompatible decisions. Just to give an example from within the "West," some people think that Christian ideas of sexual modesty suggest that homosexuals should be locked up, some people think that they mean that the churches should recongize gay marriages. But everyone believes in sexual modesty. As I said earlier, I think there are universal moral truths, whether or not everyone accepts them. Here's one very low level but important one: it's very bad to torture people. (But, as you know, some people who agree with this also think that there are worse things than torturing people: e.g. letting terrorists keep secrets whose discovery could save lives.)


Arlington, Va: I just want to thank you for a refreshing discussion - I'm a bit tired with the clash of civilizations talk that everyone seems to be buying into. I think it is an easy way to mask that there are very significant insecurities that the West has about Muslims in their midst, and Muslims have about Western culture. I guess - I think this debate is about a lot of things - but its not really about some sort of inherent civilizational difference. Thanks

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I agree!


Mountain View, Hawaii: I agree that it isn't "cultures" in conflict, technically speaking. it is individuals who hold certain values, and act upon those values and associated beliefs. when the majority of people in a "culture" hold those values, a lot of people act a certain way according to certain commonly held beliefs. now, have you ever had a "conversation" with someone who "knows" that 12-year-old girls must have a cliterectomy? or that homosexuals must be punished severely? the list goes on... "conversation" is useless. these people "know" what is right, be it by revelation, scripture, history, tradition, holy man, or whatever. there can be no dialogue. i don't see a way around this.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: There's a genuinely difficult challenge to understand how we can come to the right shared conclusion about these important moral issues. But, unless you have the power to stop the government of Iran beheading teenagers for homosexual acts, there's not much to be done except deplore it unless you are willing to converse with people about why they thinking this is okay. I had a conversation last year with a devout Moslem woman from Turkey who thought--to my surprise--that hostility to gay people was inconsistent with the true meaning of Islam. My guess is that part of the reason she thinks this is in part the result of her openness to a global conversation on gay rights. The issue of clitoral excision is too complicated to get into in a satisfactory way in a brief conversation. But I do say a fair amount about it in my book. Thanks for this important question.


Kwame Anthony Appiah: By the way, on the cartoons question, I thought the analusis of the images by HILLEL HALKIN in the NY Sun on February 7, 2006 was very good; as was a Knight Ridder/Tribune piece "Prophet often depicted in Islamic, Western worlds" by Andrew Maykuth on Thursday.


Columbia, Md.: Much of what I read from you here (and, I am sorry to say, I have not read your works yet) seems to be very congruent with what I know about the Baha'i Faith. I apologize in advance for asking such a personal question, but by any chance are you a member of the Baha'i Faith, or have you studied it? It seems to speak to many of the same values that you are putting before us. Thanks!

Kwame Anthony Appiah: My mother brought us up to know about other faiths, so I certainly read some Baha'i writings as a young man, though I haven't, I'm sorry to say, done so recently. But I believe that much of what I have to say is congruent with traditions within all the world religions. It's just that there are some pretty anti-cosmopolitan traditions in most of them as well. Maybe the Baha'i have escaped this curse!

_______________________ Apologizing Makes It Worse


Christiansted, USVI: Mr. Appiah-- a questioner above wrote: "I have always said that people, especially those in power use the various "ism" (racism, sexism, classism) to divide the human race and keep the status quo."

Do you think that's true? I don't-- I think insularity and suspicion of the Other is a natural instinct, or at least is quickly learned in almost every culture.

That doesn't mean that we don't need to work hard to fight chauvinism, but I do think it's a misdiagnosis to claim that it's all a plot by the powerful.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I think I'm with you on this one. It's a deep tendency of our natures to organize in-groups and out-groups. (I discuss this a good deal in my book The Ethics of Identity.) Thanks for the question.


Bethesda, Md.: Thank you for taking questions. I have been an admirer since reading In My Father's House in my university days. I look forward to reading your new book, as you always offer a reasonable voice in heated debates.

Though I agree with your thesis, I must admit though that I am becoming more cynical of late. Reasonable voices throughout history have been drowned out by the drumbeats of extreme ideology from both ends of the spectrum. Certainly these drums are as loud today as they have ever been. Are you truly confident that we are better equipped or prepared today carry on this "conversation" than in earlier eras?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: When philosophers talk about reason they often have in mind Having been in the business of philosophy more than half my life, I have learned that reason in that sense doesn't change many minds. But there's a more ordinary sense of resonableness, which I think involves not just logic but a sensitivity to other peoples real concerns, a willingness to look for compromise, a desire to understand, even when you don't agree, and a willingness to get along without insisting on agreement. Many people are reasonable in this way. But, alas, as you're pointing out, many aren't. I'm willing to think that the world will be made better by the conversations of reasonable people, even if there are unreasonable people and people who don't want to converse as well. (As you will gather, hope is one of my temperamental dispositions!)


UGH!: "The issue of clitoral excision is too complicated to get into in a satisfactory way in a brief conversation." "Too complicated" - that is absurd. In what case you could ever fathom that that would be okay?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: What's complicated isn't figuring out whether it's wrong, it's figuring out how to get it stopped. And saying "UGH" and "absurd"to strangers isn't a great start!


Alexandria, Va.: I like your idea that there is ". . . one thing we all share, which is our fallibility." I've long had the idea that the factors that are most important in determining what we believe, how we live, and what we accomplish are matters of accident. That is, we did not choose where to be born, who our parents would be, what sex we would be, or what we would look like. Yet those four factors play an enormous role in almost everything about is. W/regard to issues of cosmopolitanism, the most obvious point is that how we identify ourselves in terms of nationality, cultural subgroups, and religion are all pretty much a function of where we were born. I think many people would agree w/this assertion, but they don't seem to make the connection between those facts and the fallibility that follows.

That is, if the primary determinants of how and what we are in the world are a matter of accident and if an infant shipped to a different culture immediately following birth would, as we surely believe, acquire the characteristics and values of that culture, then why is it so difficult for people to accept the fallibility of their worldview---that is, to see that it cannot be that historical accidents have produced truth in one part of the world and error in another?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I agree!


Need for Open-Mindedness: I really applaud the kind of thinking you're advocating here. I recently watch the documentary "Control Room" about the work of Al-Jazeera covering the Iraq War. It was so enlightening, not only about Al-Jazeera but the prosecution of the war itself. And yet I know many people would say to me that the film is propaganda, that you can't trust anything from Al-Jazeera (the film is told from the point of view of Al-Jazeera producers and reporters).

My answer to that is: Just watch it and make up your own mind. But don't refuse to watch. Being open-minded doesn't mean being scatter-brained, as some say. You can have your own independent opinion and make your own value judgments; being open-minded doesn't mean rubber-stamping everything. But it does mean you have to -listen.- And lack of listening is killing this country.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: This seems basically right to me. Not least because listening to propaganda, if that is what it is, is one way of learning why and how other people think differently.


Kwame Anthony Appiah: I'm so sorry that I could respond to only a very few of your many great questions. Thanks for joining this forum! And you will find more on many of them in my book

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers



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