We sat there waiting for the great man, the room a jumbled matrix of hair and skin, eyes and clothes of every color under the sun. We were his cosmopolitan audience, he the spokesman for a new global community we hope to see realized. Yes, we want to believe in this possibility. We want to live in a world of “universality plus difference,” as he calls it, where care for the other and care for one’s own are merged in a single thought. But how will we get there, one wonders? How to embrace something called “human values” while remembering ethical intuitions closer to home?
Officially, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s talk was on “Islam and the West.” But when he took the podium he told us he would proceed in his “characteristically peculiar” way. Before we heard him speak, several things about Mr. Appiah suggested that he might be peculiar. According to our event program, he “grew up between England and Ghana, in a multi-national family that now includes cousins, nephews, nieces and in-laws on every continent (except Antarctica).” Now he’s the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton. Funny how that works. “When he’s not on the road—traveling to discuss his ideas and keeping up with his widely-dispersed family—or busy with his teaching and research at Princeton, Professor Appiah likes to relax at his home in New Jersey, where he and his partner tend small flocks of sheep and ducks.” A good cosmopolitan and a good shepherd. Who could ask for more?
Appiah writes books with titles like The Ethics of Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, so we had every reason to expect a solemn lecture on the present dilemmas of Islam and the West—on the obvious incompatibility/incommensurability that everyone living in either culture in the early twenty-first century recognizes at the drop of a hat. But this solemn lecture never came. First we got a history lesson. In his comfortable Cambridge diction, Appiah began recounting the intimate details of European/Muslim relations over the course of several centuries. “History is philosophy by example,” he quoted Dionysus. And about thirty minutes into his talk, a pattern began to emerge. “East and West have always been intertwined, wherever you draw the line,” he intoned. “By and large, we do not live in mono-cultural, mono-lingual societies, and by and large we never did…. Literature, sports, religion and philosophy are all much more transatlantic than we think.”
According to Appiah (and as he later mentioned, Benedict Anderson), there are no such things as “Islam” and “the West.” These mental fictions illustrate the basic human tendency to associate essential qualities with small sets of data. Because we evolved to draw consistent conclusions about the complex features of our natural environments, this trait is hard-wired in us. During the Q and A, Appiah gave a good example about mosquitoes and West Nile Virus. “Only about 1% of mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus,” he explained, “but if I tell you that mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus, you’ll likely be afraid of all mosquitoes.”
Thinking this way is an inextricable part of our nature; in Appiah’s words, it is “part of what makes us human.” Yet it is also the germ of much of what ails us this far down the evolutionary continuum. Thus Appiah’s dilemma: the challenge of living in the early twenty-first century boils down to the conflict between parochialism and cosmopolitanism. Do we maintain the fiction that essential qualities bond us together as a “nation” and a “people”? Or do we embrace the fact that “Franz Kafka probably had more in common with Miles Davis than he did with his fellow central European, Johann Strauss”?
In the foyer outside the lecture hall, the mood was ebullient after Appiah’s talk. We the audience had been illuminated, even if the light we saw was not particularly new or original. In places like the liberal universities of the northeastern United States, Appiah’s cosmopolitanism has become a kind of ethical intuition unto itself. Few of us doubt his history or the validity of his critique of nationalism. And we yearn for the political implications of this critique to become real and binding throughout the world. “If only they could see…” we whispered to ourselves, forgetting that the “they” we imagine has ceased to exist.
This densely packed foyer was a microcosm of the cosmopolitan worldview for which Appiah stood. Yet its limits begged the question of how far it can spread.