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Cosmopolitanism: How To Be a Citizen of the World

A philosopher issues a call for a pragmatic, humane stance toward difference in a world of strangers.

| Thu Feb. 23, 2006 4:00 AM EST

At a time when talk of a "clash of civilizations" looks increasingly like a self-fulfilling prophecy, when bin Laden-ites seek to reshape the world in the image of universal Islam, when our own leaders blithely hive off the good from the evil, us from them, Anthony Appiah issues a call for a more helpful posture toward a world of stubborn difference, an approach he calls, reaching back to the 4th Century Greece, "cosmopolitanism."


The cosmopolitan ethic starts from the thought that human knowledge is fallible—that no culture or individual has a lock on truth—and upholds "conversation," broadly defined as the respectful and candid exchange of views among individuals and cultures—as a good in its own right; agreement is not its ultimate goal. It understands individuals in the context of their cultures but tends, where the two clash, to give primacy to the former. What cosmopolitanism does not permit, however, is a kind of flaccid relativism; it insists that there are some universals—basic human rights, for instance—which are non-negotiable. Otherwise, it says, difference and disagreement are so much grist for mutually enriching dialogue.

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Cosmopolitanism is a title in the "Issues of Our Time" series from W.W. Norton, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., in which big-name intellectuals tackle important contemporary themes. (The series launched with, in addition to Appiah's, books by Amartya Sen and Alan Dershowitz.)

Kwame Anthony Appiah, who was raised in Ghana and educated in England, is professor of philosophy at Princeton University. His books include In My Father's House, Thinking It Through, and The Ethics of Identity. He's the editor, with Henry Louis Gates Jr., of Africana.

Mother Jones: "Cosmopolitan" is a word with a certain pedigree, a certain amount of baggage, so let's start by defining terms.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: Sure. The word comes from a Greek phrase, which means "citizen of the world." The first person we know to have used the word about himself was Diogenes the Cynic in the 4th Century BC. It was a metaphor then and still is. It's been attacked from both the left and the right. From the right, as you know, it was used as a term of anti-Semitic abuse, and their point was that people who had a sense of responsibility to the human community as a whole were going to be bad nationalists, bad patriots. The other direction of attack, from the left, was that cosmopolitanism was something very elitist. It came to mean a kind of free-floating attitude of the rich person who can afford to travel all over the world tasting a little bit of this culture and that one and not being very responsible about any of it.

I don't think that cosmopolitanism has to be either elitist or unpatriotic; I think it's perfectly possible to combine a sense of real responsibility for other human beings as human beings with a deeper sense of commitment to a political community. As far as I'm concerned, the key things in cosmopolitanism are, first, that global concern--the acceptance that we're all responsible for the human community, which is the fundamental idea of morality. What's distinctive about the cosmopolitan attitude is that it comes with a recognition that encounters with other people aren't about making them like us. Cosmopolitans accept and indeed like the fact that people live in different ways; that free human beings will choose to live in different ways and will choose to express themselves in different ways. And that openness to difference comes, I think, from a kind of toleration combined with a recognition of human fallibility. One of the reasons why we're glad there are people out there who aren't like us is that we're pretty certain that there are a lot of things we're wrong about.

MJ: So the goal isn't to have everybody agree.

KAA: Absolutely not. It's not evangelical. You enter a conversation, and conversation is about listening as well as talking; it's about being open to being changed yourself, but it's not about expecting consensus or seeking agreement. You can seek understanding without seeking agreement.

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