A perspective on world citizenship from a Global Thought Leader

Published on
Wednesday 1 June 2016
College & Community
Wolfson People

What is your academic background and what are your current research interests?

My academic training is mostly in philosophy, though I began as a medical student at Cambridge and only switched into philosophy in my second year. I went back to Cambridge, after a year at home in Ghana, and wrote a dissertation at the interface of the philosophy of language and of mind.

My interest was in using one technical proposal in the theory of meaning, which involved making use of subjective probabilities to defining the states of minds that assertions express, to explore ways of characterizing the contents of thoughts. While I was working on the dissertation I spent a year at Yale and got interested in African-American and African Studies: there was a new graduate programme in African-American Studies and I sat in on a fascinating seminar on American slavery, by the great American historian John Blassingame.

In order to earn my keep I offered a course on the history of Pan-Africanism, which until that point I knew about mostly through my father, who had been at the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, and who knew people like Richard Wright, C. L. R. James, W. E. B. Du Bois and Nkrumah. But I dug into the history and into some of the primary sources and developed an interest in the writings of the nineteenth and early twentieth century African, Afro-Caribbean and African-American intellectuals.

So when my dissertation was done, I applied for and got a job back at Yale, teaching both African-American and African Studies and Philosophy. So I taught conditional logic and semantics, on the one hand, and African and African-American intellectual history and political philosophy, on the other. And it was the latter that led me to a greater and greater engagement with questions in ethics and political philosophy, which is where much of my work now lies. 

How did you respond to being listed as a Global Thought Leader?

One advantage of my basic medical education was that I was able to think about why race as it was normally thought of in the United States (and to a certain extent in Europe) was not, as many people seemed to think, a scientific concept; but as I started to think about social identities generally, I saw that the presence of fiction or untruth in the conceptual presuppositions of social identities was far from unique to the case of race. And over the next couple of decades I worked on trying to think about the major social identities together and to think about their ethical significance: what role did they play in the ways people made their lives? Because social identities often divide as well as unite, I got interested in the project of understanding what it would be to have a cosmopolitan identity as a citizen of the world while still recognizing whatever is good in more particular identities.

I think it's the work on race and the work on cosmopolitanism that have had the most impact, and why I was named a Global Thought Leader. I guess I was mostly surprised by this, since, though I write in the newspapers and public places like the New York Review of Books and the New York Times, none of my books has been a best-seller. So I think such influence as I've had has been by way of the uptake of my work by scholars, intellectuals and the occasional activist around the world. I guess the way you “lead” global thought is by influencing a few influential people, not by being widely known or read by a general public. But, as an academic, that strikes me as the right hope to have for your work.

Can you offer us a taster of your presentation ‘Cosmopolitan Contamination - learning world citizenship'? 

In the talk I want to urge people, whatever places they think of as home, to recognize the ways in which much of what we care about most deeply is profoundly etched with influences from elsewhere. Shakespeare's leading characters, outside the history plays, are Romans, Danes, Greeks. He learns about them from Roman authors; he absorbs the sonnet, an Italian poetic form. Goethe writes the West-östlicher Divan, inspired by a Persian poet. Some of Grimms' fairy tales derive from Sanskrit sources.

“I am writing to you from Italy: can one imagine pasta now without the tomatoes that came from the New World?”

I want to explore some of these questions in part through thinking about Herder, about whom Isaiah Berlin wrote so persuasively, but also in a more practical way by reflecting on how a cosmopolitan perspective can be encouraged in higher education.

Professor Appiah's talk is on Thursday 9 June at 6pm in the Hall.