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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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
The author of this enthralling book - Kwame Anthony Appiah - challenges this kind of separative thinking by resurrecting the ancient philosophy of "cosmopolitanism." This school of thought that dates back almost 2500 years to the Cynics of Ancient Greece. They first articulated the cosmopolitan ideal that all human beings were citizens of the world. Later on, these ideas were elaborated by another group of philosophers: the Stoics.
According to Appiah, the influence of cosmopolitanism has stretched down the ages and through to the Enlightenment. He takes Immanuel Kant's notion of a League of Nations and the Declaration of the Rights of Man to be two manifestations of this ancient idea.
Appiah sees cosmopolitanism as a dynamic concept based on two fundamental ideas. First is the idea that we have responsibilities to others that are beyond those based on kinship or citizenship. Second is something often forgotten: just because other people have different customs and beliefs from ours, they will likely still have meaning and value. We may not agree with someone else, but mutual understanding should be a first goal.
The book is full of personal experiences. I doubt that anyone else could have written it: His mother was an English author and daughter of the statesman Sir Stafford Cripps, and his father a Ghanaian barrister and politician, who reminded his children to remember that they were "citizens of the world."
Appiah was educated in Ghana and England and has taught in both countries. He now holds a chair of Philosophy at Princeton. He is no starry eyed idealist, and he knows that differences between groups and nations cannot be wished away or ignored. But he contends, rightly, I think, that differences can be accepted without being allowed to become barriers.
As he says, "Cosmopolitans suppose that all cultures have enough overlap in their vocabulary of values to begin a conversation. But they don't suppose, like some Universalists, that we could all come to agreement if only we had the same vocabulary." The reason is simply this: most of us arrive at our values not on the basis of careful reasoning, but by lifelong conditioning and subjective beliefs and attitudes.
In parts of Europe, there have recently been misgivings about the growing diversity and multiculturalism of countries like the United Kingdom, with people asking whether it is doing no more than fracturing society. Appiah tackles this question head on. He has this to say, "If we want to preserve a wide range of human conditions because it allows free people the best chance to make their own lives, there is no place for the enforcement of diversity by trapping people within a kind of difference that they long to escape. There simply is no decent way to sustain those communities of difference that will not survive without the free allegiance of their members."
Cosmopolitanism, balances our "obligations to others" with the "value not just of human life but of particular human lives," what Appiah calls "universality plus difference." He remains skeptical about simple maxims for ethical behavior such as the Golden Rule. He swiftly demonstrates its failings as a moral precept. He argues that cosmopolitanism is the name not "of the solution but of the challenge."
This is an important book that will inevitably be controversial. In a world that is becoming more interconnected and shrinking by the day, and where the "clash of cultures" threatens our existence, Appiah has many new perspectives as he articulates a precise yet flexible ethical manifesto. He does not claim to have all the answers, but this book should be of interest to all of us as we try to make sense of the turmoil, challenges and opportunities of our globalizing world.
His argument is lucid and in the best humanist tradition. He is able to talk of the faults of the West without descending into reflexive anti-Western dogma. He is at his most powerful,when he gently but firmly exhorts against trapping people from indigenous cultures (or non-industrialized cultures generally) in bottles in the name of preserving culture and he shows the emptiness of critiques of cultural appropriation because people borrow from cultures all the time. He reminds us that non-industrialized people are not just ciphers or blank slates onto which global capitalism stamps its preferences.
I have another of his books and I am starting in on it as soon as I submit this review. Yes, the man is that good.
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.
In some respects, what I like most about this book aren't the author's specific ideas on cosmopolitanism, but something else. What I like most is learning how the author himself came to cosmopolitanism. Seeing how he came to be cosmopolitan helped teach me how I could make some progress towards that goal.
Don't think that you're going to come away from this book with a thorough understanding of cosmopolitanism. This is just one, good piece of the puzzle. You're going to have to fill in some of the gaps with Kant, Nussbaum, Held, Rawls, an others.
However, this is a terrific book that accomplishes its task. It's good enough that I've bought and gifted copies for friends. That's about the highest recommendation that I can give.