Keynote lecture by Kwame Anthony Appiah – KNHG Annual Conference 2021

On 12 November 2021, KNHG held its Annual Conference titled World Citizenship in Motion. The conference was held at the National Archives in The Hague. Below you find the text of the keynote lecture as delivered digitally by professor Kwame Anthony Appiah (New York University).

Kwame Anthony Appiah

My mother was born in the West of England to a family that traced its ancestry within a fifty-kilometer radius back to the Norman period, some seven hundred years earlier. My father was born in the capital of the Ashanti region of Ghana, in a city where he could trace his ancestry back to before the beginnings of the Asante kingdom at the turn of the 18th century. So, when these two people, born so far apart, married in the 1950s, in England, many people warned them that a mixed marriage was going to be difficult. My parents agreed. You see my father was a member of the Methodist church and my mother belonged to the Church of England. And that was a real challenge. After all, John Wesley, founding father of Methodism, said: “If the Methodists leave the Church of England, I fear that God will leave the Methodists.”

At all events, therefore, I am the product of a mixed marriage. Baptized a Methodist, educated at Anglican schools; I went to Sunday school at a non-denominational church in Ghana, of which my mother was a member. St George’s was my mother’s church: she was a member and an elder of it for more than fifty years. But her funeral was celebrated at the Methodist Cathedral, of which my father and grandfather were elders, though the minister of St George’s was one of the officiating clergy. This was my mother’s choice. If you had asked her what denomination she belonged to all those years, she would have told you that she belonged to the church of Christ, and that the rest was so many indifferent details. So much for the challenge of mixed marriages, at least in Ghana.

I am a child of my mother and of St. George’s. I learned Christianity first from them. But I also learned something else from both my parents: something they exemplified when they decided to become man and wife. It was a kind of openness to people and cultures beyond the ones they were raised in. My mother learned this, I think, from her parents, who had friends in many continents at a time when many English people were extremely provincial. My father learned it, at least in part, from Kumasi, which, like many old capital cities is a polyglot, multi-cultural place, open to the world. But he learned it, too, from his schooling. Because, like many of those who had the rare opportunity to get a secondary school education in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire, he was educated in the classics. He loved Latin. By his bedside he kept not only his Bible but the works of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, followers both of the sort of Stoicism that was central to the intellectual and moral life of the Roman elite by the first century, when Christianity was beginning to spread through the Hellenistic world of the Eastern empire. In his spiritual testament to us, his children, he told us that we should always remember that we were “citizens of the world”—he used those exact words; words that Marcus Aurelius would have recognized and agreed with. Marcus Aurelius, after all, wrote:

“How close is the kinship between a man and the whole human race, for it is a community, not of a little blood or seed, but of the spirit.”

Now, the first person we know of who said he was a citizen of the world—a kosmoupolites in Greek, which is where our word “cosmopolitan” comes from—was a man called Diogenes. Diogenes was born sometime in the late 5th century in Sinope, on the Southern coast of the Black Sea, in what is now Turkey. He rejected tradition and local loyalty and generally opposed what everybody else thought of as “civilized” behavior. He lived, in fact, tradition reports, in a large terracotta pot. And he was called a Cynic—kynikos in Greek means “doggy”—presumably because he lived like a dog: the Cynics are just the doggy philosophers. You won’t be surprised to hear that they kicked him out of Sinope, his hometown.

It was Diogenes, then, who first said he was a “citizen of the world.” Now this is a metaphor, of course. Because citizens share a state and there was no world-state for Diogenes to be a citizen of. So, like anyone who adopts this metaphor, he had to decide what to mean by it.

One thing that Diogenes didn’t mean was that he favored a single world government. He once met someone who did: Alexander the Great, who favored, as you know, government of the world by Alexander the Great. The story goes that Alexander came across Diogenes one sunny day, this time not in his terracotta pot but in a hole in the ground. The world conqueror, who, as Aristotle’s student, had been brought up to respect philosophers, asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him. “Sure,” Diogenes said, “you can get out of my light.” Diogenes was clearly not a fan of Alexander or, we may suppose, of his project of global domination. (This must have upset Alexander, who is supposed to have said: “If I had not been Alexander, I should have liked to have been Diogenes.)

That is the first thing I’d like to take from Diogenes in interpreting the metaphor of global citizenship: no world government, not even by a student of Aristotle’s. We can think of ourselves, Diogenes wanted to say, as fellow citizens, even if we aren’t—and don’t want to be—members of a single political community, subject to a single government.

A second idea we can take from Diogenes is that we should care about the fate of all our fellow human beings, not just the ones in our own political community. Just as within your community, you should care about every one of your fellow citizens, so in the world as a whole you should care for your fellow world-citizens, your fellow humans. Furthermore—this is a third idea from Diogenes—we can borrow good ideas from all over the world, not just from within our own society. It’s worth listening to others because they may have something to teach us; it’s worth their listening to us, because they may have something to learn.

That’s a final thing I want to borrow from him: the value of dialogue, conversation as a fundamental mode of human communication. These three ideas, then, I, a twenty-first American citizen of Anglo-Ghanaian ancestry, want to borrow from citizen of Sinope who dreamed of global citizenship twenty-four centuries ago: (1) we don’t need a single world government, but (2) we must care for the fate of all human beings, inside and outside our own societies, and (3) we have much to gain from conversation with one another across differences.

Cosmopolitanism then is universalistic: it believes that every human being matters and that we have a shared obligation to care for one another. But it also accepts the wide range of legitimate human diversity. That respect for diversity comes with something that also goes back to Diogenes: tolerance for other people’s choices of how to live and humility about what we ourselves know. Conversation across identities—across religions, races, ethnicities, and nationalities—is worthwhile because through conversation you can learn from people with different, even incompatible ideas from your own. It is worthwhile, too, because 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.

Globalization has made this ancient ideal relevant, which it wasn’t really in Diogenes or Marcus’s day. You see, there are two obvious conditions on making citizenship real: knowledge about the lives of other citizens, on the one hand, and the power to affect them, on the other. Diogenes didn’t know about most people—in China and Japan, in South America, in equatorial Africa, even in Western or Northern Europe—and nothing he did was likely to have much impact on them (at least as far as he knew) either. The fact is, you can’t give real meaning to the idea that we’re all fellow citizens if you can’t affect each other and you don’t know about each other.

But, as I say, we don’t live in Diogenes’ world. Only in the last few centuries, as every human community has gradually been drawn into a single web of trade and a global network of information, have we come to a point where each of us can realistically imagine contacting any other of our six billion fellow humans and sending that person something worth having: a radio, an antibiotic, a good idea. Unfortunately, we can now also send, through negligence as easily as malice, things that will cause harm: a virus, an airborne pollutant, a bad idea. The possibilities of good and of ill are multiplied beyond all measure when it comes to policies carried out by governments in our name. Together, we can ruin poor farmers by dumping our subsidized grain into their markets; cripple industries by punitive tariffs; deliver weapons that will kill thousands upon thousands. Together, we can raise standards of living by adopting new policies on trade and aid, prevent or treat diseases with vaccines and pharmaceuticals, take measures against global climate change, encourage resistance to tyranny and a concern for the worth of each human life.

The worldwide web of information too, of course, —radio, television, telephones, the Internet—means not only that we can affect lives everywhere but that we can learn about life anywhere, too. Each person you know about and can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities: to say this is just to affirm the very idea of morality. The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.

For now, we really need a cosmopolitan spirit. That spirit thinks of us all as bound together through conversation across the species but also accepts that we will make different choices—within and across nations—about how to make our lives.

Focusing, however, on the argument that we need a global perspective, risks encouraging two standard misunderstandings of cosmopolitanism that we need to get out of our way. One is that in the love of humanity, the cosmopolitan must lose track of the love of home. That leads to a second misunderstanding, which sees the cosmopolitan as committed to world government, the political integration of humanity into a single state. These misunderstandings are, I think, connected. But let me take them one by one.

The attitude of the cosmopolitans to the places they come from are exemplified in two remarks of Gertrude Stein’s. What’s the point, she once said, in roots if you can’t take them with you. And she also said, ”America is my country and Paris is my hometown.” I know what she means. I love visiting the museums in Kumasi, town where I grew up, which are largely, in some sense, about us, the people of Asante, whose capital Kumasi is, and contain some of the magnificent things we have made. But I have taken great pleasure as well in the experience of going to the great museums on the Museuminsel in Berlin and around Trafalgar Square in London or to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the MOMA, and the Louvre, or the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. I wish I could be with you to visit some of the great museums of the Netherlands this weekend.

All of these are places where I can appreciate and learn about and bask in the beauty or the power of the arts of civilizations with which I don’t have that kind of connection of a local identity. But in many museums, in the Netherlands as elsewhere, people visit objects that they think of, as I think of Asante artefacts, as theirs. Many of those people think of Dutch culture, in the sense of the cultural artefacts we collect as national heritage, as one of the defining elements of a national identity.

That idea is one with a reputable philosophical heritage behind it. For the great German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder—godfather of German Romanticism and of the Sturm und Drang movement that created the literature in which modern German culture finds its origins—the German nation is not essentially a political institution, it’s not defined by geography, it’s not a group defined biologically by shared descent: it’s essentially a spiritual thing. A nation is defined by its Geist, its spirit. The Geist of a nation, the Volksgeist, is the core meaning of the nation and the Geist of the nation is found most profoundly expressed in the national language and in the arts, in culture. So, the genius of Goethe and Hölderlin, for example, but also the genius of the common folk whose stories the Brothers Grimm collected as expressions of German folk culture, all of these are expressions of the national spirit; a spirit which in the case of the literary arts is not just a Volksgeist, but a Sprachgeist, a spirit embedded not just in the nation’s intellectual life but more particularly in its language.

For the modern romantic nationalists, this is what a nation really is: the embodiment and expression of a Geist, something spiritual, intellectual, mental. That’s why nations matter, and that’s why individual creativity matters: because individual creativity is the means through which the national creativity is expressed. Now I’ve made it sound so far as though Herder and his Romantic friends thought that all that mattered about art was its contribution to the nation. So, you might think I’m going to assign to them the responsibility not just for the theory that all art is national—which I do—but also for the idea that we should focus only on art that is from our own nation. But that is far from the truth.

Because at the very same moment, and alongside this way of understanding art and culture as the expression of the national spirit, at the very same time is developed modern cosmopolitanism. Take, for example, George Gordon, Lord Byron one of the geniuses of romanticism: he died fighting for the freedom of the Greeks from Ottoman domination. Some of you will recall his verse about his adopted home:

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!

Where burning Sappho loved and sung,

Where grew the arts of war and peace,—

Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!

Eternal summer gilds them yet,

But all, except their sun, is set.

But Lord Byron wasn’t a Greek: he was a Scot. And the poetry of Sappho mattered to him not because he was Greek, like Sappho, but because it was great poetry. Expressive, it is true, of the genius of Hellas, but speaking to anyone who could understand the words and had ever felt the slightest twinge of romantic emotion.

Romantics like Byron, like Herder, not only celebrated their own Volksgeist, but they also celebrated the spirits of other Folks. Herder’s nationalism, in short, is deeply cosmopolitan. The very idea of cosmopolitan nationalism, which strikes the modern ear as a contradiction in terms, is crucial to understanding what’s good about this tradition, I think. That, of course, is the thought that even if you think of art as the product of nations rather than of individuals, you also value the art that’s produced by nations other than your own. Herder and Byron shared the sentiment that I feel in the great cosmopolitan museums, which is: Here I am responding to these objects, which are mine as human … not as Ghanaian or American or whatever.

That excitement about the variety of human cultural artifacts is one of the two key elements of the tradition of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism starts with that metaphor of universal citizenship. “We are members one of another,” as St. Paul says. But a second, equally important, element, offers a sort of commentary on what it takes to be a moral community. Because cosmopolitans think that we can accept responsibility for one another while still living very different lives. In fact, cosmopolitans revel in the range and variety of the ways people live and the things they make and do. So, unlike many people who think of the world as a moral community, cosmopolitans don’t want to change everyone else to fit our own mold. We are interested in human social, cultural, and individual variety.

National identity matters, then, in our responses to art. But Herder would have insisted we need to keep hold as well of the other side of the cosmopolitan package: which says, every object is indeed an expression of the Geist, but human beings need to share the product of their communities across boundaries. Now I’ve been discussing his thought without questioning it, as if I agree with it. Let me now insist that this strikes me as one of the great philosophical misunderstandings about the arts.

Art is not made by nations or cultures; it’s made by people. It may take a lot of people to make a work of art, as it does to make each performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It takes a lot of people singing the right notes and musicians playing the right instruments in the right order and blending their sounds together. But still, it’s made by them and the work that they’re making, the work that they’re expressing was itself made by a person, one person in that case. A person who operated in an environment, shaped by a local culture, but also shaped of course profoundly, since that person was Beethoven, by a musical culture that was not in any natural sense, national alone.

More than this, the way in which the national context informs art is not the way that talk of the Geist suggests: it is not because each artwork belongs together organically with the other products of its Geist. The name for that view is organicism, and the right picture is not organicist. Every element of culture—from philosophy or cuisine to the style of bodily movement—is separable in principle from the others; you really can walk and talk like a black American and think with Matthew Arnold and Kant as well as with Martin Luther King and Miles Davis. Kafka and Miles Davis can live together as easily as Kafka and Strauss. What is true in high culture is true in cuisine: Britons have swapped rice and curry for fish and chips. You will find the style of hip-hop in the streets of Tokyo. Spain—in the heart of the West—resisted liberal democracy for two generations after it took off in India and Japan—in the East, the home of Oriental despotism. Jefferson’s Western inheritance—Athenian liberty, Anglo-Saxon freedom—did not preserve the United States from creating a slave republic.

This truth has become more easily visible in the last century or so, since much of the art that we now most value, especially much of the art that we have seen produced in the last 100 years, is just profoundly not national. Consider Picasso, a Spanish artist who took inspiration from a Vili figurine from the Congo, shown to him in Paris by a Frenchman, Henri Matisse, at a party at the home of an American, Gertrude Stein; and inspired by it, he helps create a new form of art which then travels the world, both in the sense that his painting is admired and appreciated in many countries and travels to those places, but also in the sense of course that he provides inspiration to many people including many contemporary African painters, out of African art academies.

But this is not a new phenomenon. Terence, the greatest of the Roman comedy writers, made his plays through a process that was called contaminatio, in which material from Greek originals was brought together to make new works in Latin. Shakespeare got sonnets from Italy and stories from Denmark and Rome. Basho, the great 17th century Japanese poet, took his religion from India—he was a Buddhist—and his script from China, where Japanese ideographs originated. Goethe’s West-Östliche divan pays homage to a Persian poet, Hafez. My English mother, influenced by her reading of Basho, wrote haiku in Ghana. You will not be able to persuade me that literature in Dutch borrows or steals nothing from outside the national territory: and if you made that claim about your traditions of painting, I would simply have to ask you to open your eyes in one of those great art galleries I mentioned at the start—in London, Vienna, Paris, Berlin—and look at Dutch paintings alongside so many others from elsewhere.

The cosmopolitan values these encounters across borders. But not because she wants to escape her home. She wants, rather, like Stein, to take her roots with her: to bring the stuff she loves and values as hers, as connected with her place and her people, into encounter with the stuff produced by other people, who also value and love what is theirs. That is why she cannot favor a single world state. For each state is its own experiment in human life, producing its own distinctive products; and these are the materials of the cosmopolitan encounter.

Cosmopolitan, then, is not rootless, it is rooted. But it takes its roots along. That’s because the universality of its concern presupposes a recognition of the value of different human ways of going on. The point of encounter is what we have to bring as well as what we’ll find. Our slogan is universality plus difference, because cosmopolitanism is about treating each other as fellow citizens without wanting to be fellow citizens of a single state. We know that because the arts of the world were produced by artists whose eyes were open to the world, the elsewhere is already present in many ways right here at home.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University


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