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Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (Issues of Our Time) Paperback – February 17, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
In a world more interconnected than ever, the responsibilities and obligations we share remain matters of volatile debate. Weighing in on a discourse that includes both visions of "clashing civilizations" and often equally misguided cultural relativism, Ghana-born Princeton philosopher Appiah (In My Father's House) reclaims a tradition of creative exchange and imaginative engagement across lines of difference. This cosmopolitan ethic, which he traces from the Greek Cynics and through to the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must inevitably balance universals with respect for particulars. 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, since living together mostly entails just getting used to one another. 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. A stimulating read, leavened by cheerful, fluid prose, the book will challenge fashionable theories of irreconcilable divides with a practical and pragmatic worldview that revels in difference and the adventure of a shared humanity. This is an excellent start to Norton's new Issues of Our Time series. (Jan.)
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From The New Yorker
Appiah, a Princeton philosophy professor, articulates a precise yet flexible ethical manifesto for a world characterized by heretofore unthinkable interconnection but riven by escalating fractiousness. Drawing on his Ghanaian roots and on examples from philosophy and literature, he attempts to steer a course between the extremes of liberal universalism, with its tendency to impose our values on others, and cultural relativism, with its implicit conviction that gulfs in understanding cannot be bridged. Cosmopolitanism, in Appiah's formulation, balances our "obligations to others" with the "value not just of human life but of particular human lives"what he calls "universality plus difference." Appiah remains skeptical of simple maxims for ethical behaviorlike the Golden Rule, whose failings as a moral precept he swiftly demonstratesand argues that cosmopolitanism is the name not "of the solution but of the challenge."
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker
Top customer reviews
Interestingly, I had watched a TED talk by Appiah not too long back in which he had drawn a comparison between the Asante community and the Western world to note that in case of the former, there were a set of assumptions dictated by religion, which any explanation of either the physical or the spiritual had to satisfy before possibly gaining widespread acceptance. In this regard, Appiah’s example of the virus being the basis of some of the diseases and the parallel explanation for that through witchcraft as understood in his Asante community, was pretty insightful.
In chapter 7, Appiah speaks approvingly of the exchange (or contamination) that comes about as a result of globalization. While the benefits he attributes to this process are significant, he fails to properly identify the associated harms. An example of such a harm can be drawn from Equiano’s description of how slave traders who brought European goods to exchange for slaves, essentially incited the natives to indulge in slave trade and consequently, disrupted the previously established economic equilibrium of the native community.
While I enjoyed reading Cosmopolitanism, I couldn’t help but sense its utopian nature, which we can attempt to approximate but are not very likely to attain.
If you can handle reading many ideas at once without needing a clear, direct path to any particular conclusion, you will be able to appreciate Appiah. Though he wants you to see something particular, he's unable to express it without giving you numerous anecdotes in a haphazard, avuncular way. I love hearing interesting stories from well-traveled people, so I enjoyed the book, especially its two main points:
"What is reasonable for you to think...depends on what ideas you already have."
Talk, discuss, and be curious--it will help us "get used to one another," and in this prosaic method, bring peace and tolerance.
These are seemingly simple concepts, but Appiah--with his diverse background--is able to express them in ways a less-traveled person cannot. Pick up the book, and enjoy the journey.
Thought provoking. Definitely recommend.
This book tackles some of the ethical issues involved as the global perspective is taking shape. Most of his prescriptions are pragmatic (Chap. 4: "Primacy of Practice"), rather than doctrinaire, evidenced most clearly in his chapter on pluralistic cultures and how best to "manage" their differences (Chap. 8: "Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?"). He clearly disdains the positivist approach ("Escape from Positivism"), yet in spite of this disdain, he keeps to the empirical side of most questions (Chap. 3: "Evidence on the Ground"). Aristotlean common-sense is offered where it's needed.
That we are all neighbors should by now be obvious (Chap. 5: "Imaginary Strangers" and passim), and while capitalism is accepted, not without its fetters. Islamic and Christian fundamentalism are reproved appropriately (Chap. 9: "The Counter-Cosmopolitans"), while the Anglican-type of latitudinarianism is espoused (without the religious particulars). "Pluralism" is our global credo, to which I heartily reply, "Amen." I often wish we recognized it as our national credo as well.
He forthrightly repudiates Singer's and Unger's utilitarian "moral calculi," and extols a person-centered ethic in their stead. He also insists that the "stranger" is no longer an alien, and we still need to heed the New Testament's advice (Rom. 12:11: "Contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers"). Indeed, we all come "at" our situations with different assumptions and histories, and, with some obvious exceptions, we owe each other respect as we "converse" in hopes of appreciating our differences and understanding our common ground.
Multiculturalism, besides being incoherent, is not the solution, because "original cultures" are a myth, and not all cultures are "equal." He takes issue with cultural "contamination" and its typical reaction of "disgust," offering examples of inappropriate stigmitization (e.g., homosexuality, unusual religious beliefs, etc.). Only when we recognize each other as "fellow citizens," and respect everyone enough to engage them seriously, then we're on the course to mutual respect, pluralistic tolerance, and genuine concern. And the Golden Rule, while not perfect, isn't a bad place to start. Ultimately, there is no "us" vs. "them," for we're all citizens of the same world.