Kwame Anthony Akroma-Ampim Kusi Appiah was born in London (where his Ghanaian father was a law student) but moved as an infant 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 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.” In 1970, Appiah’s great-uncle, Otumfuo Sir Osei Agyeman Prempeh II, was succeeded by his uncle, Otumfuo Nana Poku Ware II, as king of Ashanti.
Kwame Anthony Appiah’s three younger sisters Isobel, Adwoa and Abena, were born in Ghana. As a child, he also 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 Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Minister of Finance, and was also involved in negotiating the terms for Indian independence. 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.)
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 both B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in the philosophy department.
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 dealt with 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 centers.
Professor Appiah has also published widely in African and African-American literary and cultural studies. 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 and the Herskovitz 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 and philosophy of mind and language; and he has also taught regularly about African traditional religions; but his major current work has to do (a) with the social and psychological presuppositions of democracy, (b) with questions of method in arriving at knowledge about values and c) with the connection between theory and practice in moral life. He is also working 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 Bé: 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 Clare College, Cambridge, and he reviews regulalry 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 books have been translated into many other languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Indonesian, Italian, Korean, Portuguese 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 (2015) was published by the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong. He is finishing a new book on idealization, the topic of his Carus lectures at the Eastern Division annual meetings of the American Philosophical Association in December 2013, which will called True Enough, and will discuss the role of idealization and ideals in science, philosophy, ethics and political philosophy. He has also begun work on a short book on the idea of the West and a larger project on the concept of religion. Professor Appiah is 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.
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 are all members of the Global Citizenship Commission, which held its first meeting in Edinburgh the same weekend.
In December 2013, Professor Appiah had the honor of being elected to be the second vice-president of the Modern Language Association for 2014, so that in 2015 he will be its first vice-president and in 2016 its president. 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 November 2015, the Spinoza Prize Foundation announced that Kwame Anthony Appiah would be the 2016 Spinozalens laureate. 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. He will visit Amsterdam to receive the prize in November 2016.
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 on 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.
Home and Family
Kwame Anthony Appiah has homes in New York city and near Pennington, in New Jersey, which he shares with his partner, 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 families are scattered across the globe. Professor Appiah’s three sisters live in Namibia, Nigeria and England; Isobel has a Norwegian husband and Adwoa’s is Nigerian. Mr. 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 currently live in Ghana, Namibia, Nigeria, Hong Kong, England and the United States.