Kwame Anthony Akroma-Ampim Kusi Appiah was born in London, where his Ghanaian father was a law student, but moved as an infant with his parents to Ghana, where he grew up. His father, Joseph Emmanuel Appiah, a lawyer and politician, was also, at various times, a Member of Parliament, an Ambassador and a President of the Ghana Bar Association; his mother, the novelist, Akan art collector and scholar, and children’s writer, Peggy Appiah, whose family was English, was active in the social, philanthropic and cultural life of Kumasi. Their marriage, in 1953, was widely covered in the international press, because it was one of the first “inter-racial society weddings” in Britain; and is said to have been one of the inspirations for the film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Kwame Anthony Appiah’s grandfather, J. W. K. Appiah was the Chief Secretary of the Asanteman Council, the ruling body of the Asante kingdom; in 1970, his great-uncle by marriage, Otumfuo Sir Osei Agyeman Prempeh II, was succeeded by his uncle by marriage, Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II, as Asantehene or king of Ashanti.
Kwame Anthony Appiah’s three younger sisters Isobel, Adwoa and Abena, were born in Ghana. As a child, he spent a good deal of time in England, living with his grandmother, Dame Isobel Cripps, widow of the English statesman Sir Stafford Cripps. Cripps was the British Ambassador in Moscow during the Second World War, and served after the war as Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Minister of Finance. He was also involved in negotiating the terms for Indian independence. Stafford’s father, Lord Parmoor, was the first Labour leader of the house of Lords, and a major supporter, with his wife, Marian, of the League of Nations and Save the Children. (Parmoor’s sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, were the founders, with George Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallace, of the London School of Economics, and were central figures in the Fabian Society.) Isobel Cripps traveled widely, including on an extended visit to China in 1947, where she met Chairman Mao and Generalissimo and Madam Chiang Kai Shek as President of the British United Aid to China Fund, which she went on to chair for many years.
Professor Appiah was educated at the University Primary School at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi; at Ullenwood Manor, in Gloucestershire, and Port Regis and Bryanston Schools, in Dorset; and, finally, at Clare College, Cambridge University, in England, where he took the B.A. in the philosophy department in 1975. He also learned a great deal by being a member of the informal group known as the Epiphany Philosophers. After his undergraduate career at Cambridge, he taught at the University of Ghana, Legon, an experience which encouraged him to go back for graduate study. He received a PhD from Cambridge in Philosophy in 1982.
His Cambridge dissertation explored the foundations of probabilistic semantics, bringing together issues in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind; once revised, these arguments were published by Cambridge University Press as Assertion and Conditionals. Out of that first monograph grew a second book, For Truth in Semantics, which explored critically Michael Dummett’s defenses of semantic anti-realism.
Since Cambridge, he has taught at Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard universities and lectured at many other institutions in the United States, Germany, Ghana and South Africa, as well as at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris; and from 2002 to 2013 he was a member of the Princeton University faculty, where he had appointments in the Philosophy Department and the University Center for Human Values, as well as being associated with the Center for African American Studies, the Programs in African Studies and Translation Studies, and the Departments of Comparative Literature and Politics. In January 2014 he took up an appointment as Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he teaches both in New York and in Abu Dhabi and at other NYU global sites.
Professor Appiah has also published widely in literary and cultural studies, with a focus on African and African-American culture. In 1992, Oxford University Press published In My Father’s House, which explores the role of African and African-American intellectuals in shaping contemporary African cultural life. This book won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award as well as the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association for “the most important scholarly work in African studies published in English.” His current interests range over African and African-American intellectual history and literary studies, ethics, political philosophy and the philosophy of the social sciences; and he has also taught regularly about African traditional religions. He has a continuing interest in literary criticism and theory as well and a 2018 issue of the journal New Literary History was devoted to his work; but his major current work has to do with the connection between theory and practice in moral life. He is working at the same time on a larger project exploring some of the many ways in which we now think about religion.
Since his first two books in the philosophy of language and In My Father’s House, Professor Appiah’s publications have covered a wide range of topics. In 1996, he published Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race with Amy Gutmann; in 1997 the Dictionary of Global Culture, co‑edited with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Along with Professor Gates he has also edited the Encarta Africana CD-ROM encyclopedia, published by Microsoft, which became the Perseus Africana encyclopedia in book form. This is now available in a revised multi-volume edition from Oxford University Press. In 2003, he coauthored Bu Me Bε: Proverbs of the Akan (of which his mother, the writer Peggy Appiah, was the major author), an annotated edition of 7,500 proverbs in Twi, the language of Asante. He is also the author of three novels, of which the first, Avenging Angel, was largely set at his alma mater, Clare College, Cambridge, and he has written and reviewed regularly for the New York Review of Books.
In 2004, Oxford University Press published his introduction to contemporary philosophy entitled Thinking It Through. In January 2005, Princeton University Press published The Ethics of Identity and in February 2006 Norton published Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which won the 2007 Arthur Ross Award of the Council on Foreign Relations. In January 2008, Harvard University Press published his Experiments in Ethics, based on his 2005 Flexner lectures at Bryn Mawr. In November 2009, Forbes Magazine put Professor Appiah on a list of the world’s seven most powerful thinkers, selected by Princeton’s President. Norton published The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen in October 2010. His work has been translated into many languages, including Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Georgian, Hebrew, Indonesian, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. In the Spring of 2014, Harvard University Press published his Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity. A Decent Respect: Honor in the Lives of People and of Nations was published the next year by the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong.
A book based on his Carus lectures at the Eastern Division annual meetings of the American Philosophical Association in December 2013, was published in 2017 by Harvard University Press. Entitled As If: Idealization and Ideals, it discusses the role of idealization and ideals in science, philosophy, ethics and political philosophy. The Lies that Bind, based on his 2016 BBC Reith Lectures on “Mistaken Identities,” was published by Profile in the United Kingdom and W. W. Norton in the United States in 2018. He is working on a book tentatively entitled On the Very Idea of Religion for Yale University Press, which is based on his 2016 Terry lectures at Yale.
Professor Appiah was the general editor of the Global Ethics Series, published by W. W. Norton. In October 2015, he began to write the weekly Ethicist column for the New York Times magazine, answering readers’ questions about their ethical quandaries. His preparation for this task was a few months as one of three “Ethicists”—the other two being the novelist Amy Bloom and the legal scholar Kenji Yoshino—who recorded a weekly podcast discussion in response to readers’ questions. In 2019, he will contribute an artist’s interview to the catalogue for Ghana’s installation at the Venice Biennale.
Over the years, Appiah has written in the press and spoken on the radio about issues of public importance, from the role of honor in political life to the challenges raised by many forms of identity, including partisan identity, for democratic politics.
The website for the Institute of Arts and Ideas published his poem on Why Philosophy Matters on World Philosophy Day, 2017.
Professor Appiah travels widely lecturing on the topics he writes about: in the summer of 2012, for example, he gave lectures in Oslo (on multiculturalism), Melbourne (on global citizenship), and Sao Paulo (on identity), and then spoke in the fall in the United States on honor in Knoxville, Youngstown, Schenectady, Cambridge and New York, and on cosmopolitanism at the Century Club, in New York, and in Edison, New Jersey. After a discussion of courage in Paris, organized by the Villa Gillet, in November 2012, he gave lectures in 2013 in Hong Kong, Brazil, Israel and New Zealand, as well as in a number of places in the United States. In January 2015, he gave a course in the January term in NYU Abu Dhabi entitled “What is a religion?” In March 2015, over NYU’s Spring Break, he gave a series of seminars at the Centre For Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University, along with a public conversation on cosmopolitanism with the distinguished geographer, Professor Ash Amin.
In July 2015 he discussed moral revolutions at Le Conversazione in Capri. In September 2016, he spoke about ethics and the humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and equality at Ohio State University. In October and November 2016, his Reith Lectures, discussing ways in which people’s thinking about religion, nation, race and culture often reflects misunderstandings about identity, were broadcast on the BBC. They were recorded in London, Glasgow, Accra and New York. In the summer of 2017, he gave a seminar on W. E. B. Dubois at the New School’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry. He gave a plenary address entitled “Two Cheers for Equality” at the meeting of the European Society for Analytic Philosophy in Munich in August, 2017. In December 2018 he gave the George W. Gay Lecture at Harvard’s Medical School on “The Politics of Identity, the Injuries of Class,” the first Gay lecture in the second century of the prize’s existence.
Home and Family
Kwame Anthony Appiah has homes in New York city and near Pennington, in New Jersey, which he shares with his husband, Henry Finder, Editorial Director of the New Yorker magazine. (In Pennington, they have a small sheep farm, with a few ducks and geese and some fish to round out the menagerie.) On August 8, 2011, after more than a quarter century of partnership, they were married in New York city, about two weeks after same-sex marriage was recognized by the state, with their friend Skip Gates as the sole witness.
Their family is scattered across the globe. Professor Appiah’s three sisters live in Namibia, Nigeria and England; Isobel has a Norwegian husband, Klaus Endresen, and Adwoa’s husband, Olawale Edun, is Nigerian. Henry Finder has two sisters and two brothers, Susan, Joe, Jonathan and Lisa. His elder sister has a Chinese husband, and his two brothers have American wives. Their 14 nephews and nieces, Kristian, Anthony and Kojo Endresen, Tomiwa, Lamide and Tobi Edun, Maame Yaa, Mimi and Joseph Appiah, Emma Finder, Zack and Ben Finder, and Hannah and Aaron Lu, currently live in Ghana, Namibia, Nigeria, Hong Kong, England and the United States. Olanitan Edun, their first great-nephew, was born in London in April 2017, and now lives in Lagos; Alexandra Endresen, their first great-niece, and Erik Endresen, her first cousin, were born in January and February 2018. They live in Windhoek and London.
Honors and Awards
Kwame Anthony Appiah has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and was inducted in 2008 into the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and he has served on the boards of the PEN American Center, the National Humanities Center and the American Academy in Berlin. Until the fall of 2009, he served as a trustee of Ashesi University College in Accra, Ghana, and now serves on its Academic Advisory Board. He has also been a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF). He has honorary degrees from the University of Richmond, (2000), Colgate University (2003) Bard College (2004), Fairleigh Dickinson University (2006) and Swarthmore College(2006), and received the degree of Honorary Doctor of Philosophy in May 2008 from Dickinson College, where he gave the Commencement Address in the pouring rain. In the fall of 2008, he was awarded the first Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize by Brandeis University for “outstanding and lasting scholarly contributions to racial, ethnic and/or religious relations.” In May 2009, in the course of a busy week, he received honorary degrees from Columbia University and the New School, and presented the Sue Kaufman award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters to Charles Bock. Colby College honored him with a Doctorate of Laws at their 189th commencement in 2010. In September 2010, he was granted an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters at a Convocation Lecture at Berea College.
In 2007, Professor Appiah was the President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association (APA) and he then served from 2008 to 2011 as Chair of the APA’s Executive Board. For six years, ending in 2012, he was Chair of the Board of the American Council of Learned Societies. In March 2009, he succeeded Francine Prose as President of the PEN American Center, a position he held for three years. In December 2010, Foreign Policy named him one of the top 100 global thinkers. President Obama presented him (and eight others, including his friends Andrew Delbanco, Amartya Sen, Ramón Saldívar and Teo Ruiz) with the National Humanities Medal on February 13, 2012. On April 30 2012, he was appointed by the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian to the Advisory Board of the National Museum for African Art. On May 20 2012, he gave the Commencement Address at President Obama’s alma mater, Occidental College, on its 125th anniversary; and a few days later he traveled to Boston to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at Harvard’s 361st Commencement, which brought to an end the celebrations for Harvard’s 375th anniversary. (With his Columbia honorary degree of 2009, he now has honorary degrees from each of the colleges or universities at which President Obama earned his degrees!)
On October 18 2013, Kwame Anthony Appiah received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Edinburgh, in recognition of his “global influence on philosophy and politics,” alongside his friends John Kufuor, former President of Ghana, the historian Emma Rothschild, and the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron. They were all members of the Global Citizenship Commission, which held its first meeting in Edinburgh the same weekend.
On May 21 2015, he spoke at the NYU Law School Commencement ceremonies for the graduating class of LLM students; and then gave a commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College the next day. Also in May of 2015, he was elected to an Honorary Fellowship at Clare College, Cambridge. In January 2016, Professor Appiah had the honor of becoming the president of the Modern Language Association. In May 2016, he spoke to the doctoral degree recipients in the College of Arts and Sciences at NYU and received an honorary degree from Wesleyan University.
The World Post listed Professor Appiah as #95 on its Global Thought Leaders Index in December 2015, which was led by Pope Francis (#1), Paul Coehlo (#2) and Muhammad Yunus (#3), and included philosophers such as Peter Singer (#16), Daniel Dennett (#22) and Martha Nussbaum (#23).
In August 2016, Professor Appiah was enstoloed as Nana Gyamfi Akroma-Ampim Nkosuahene of Nyaduom, in Adanse, pledging allegiance to his paternal uncle, the Nyaduomhene, traditional ruler of the town which was founded by their ancestor, the early eighteenth century Asante general, Akroma-Ampim.
In November 24 2016, Professor Appiah received the Spinozalens Prize, given by the Spinoza Prize Foundation, from the mayor of Amsterdam. (His prize lecture was published in De Groene Amsterdammer.) The prize, which is awarded biennially, pairs a living thinker with a dead one, and is “for thinkers who concern themselves with ethics and society.” Professor Appiah was paired with Hannah Arendt. On the same day the Dutch translation of The Honor Code was published. While in the Low Countries to receive the prize, he gave lectures on “The Challenges of Identity” at Leuven University and Radboud University in Nijmegen, and discussed questions of honor with a prize-winning group of high-school students in philosophy, who had produced videos asking questions about honor.
In the Spring of 2017, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. On the 4th of July 2017, the Carnegie Corporation of New York honored Professor Appiah as one of their 2017 Great Immigrants.
In May 2018, he received an honorary doctorate of letters from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, where he gave a commencement address.
Professor Appiah serves on the Boards of Facing History and Ourselves, the New York Public Library, the Public Theater, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and on the Advisory Board of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum for African Art and the Visiting Committee for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum; and he serves on the International Team of Experts for the Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss. He is also a founding member of the Society for Progress, which aims to advance the integration of ethical considerations into the conduct of business.
He chaired the jury for the first Berggruen Philosophy Prize in October 2016, which was won by Charles Taylor; and for the second, which was won by Onora O’Neil. In 2018, he chaired the committee of judges for the Man Booker Prize, in London, and continued to serve as chair of the judges for the Berggruen Prize. Anna Burns won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her novel Milkman. Martha Nussbaum, the winner of the 2018 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture was celebrated at a gala event in December 2018 in New York. In 2019 he will be on the Jury for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.