Nearly 35 years ago I came to this country to teach at a small college down the road in New Haven. Less than a year later, the first university to which I was invited to give a public lecture was this one. Professor Gene Golob invited me to speak at the College of Social Studies, of which he was one of the founding spirits, and I gave a talk on “Other People’s Gods.” It was about understanding the traditional religions of West Africa. I thought it was a pretty good talk … but I was less and less sure as I waited to see if I’d be invited back to lecture here again. Well, just thirty-three years later, I got a message from President Roth asking me if I’d come back once more and join you today to receive an honorary degree. And my first thought was, “Finally, they’ve asked me back. Maybe, that talk wasn’t so bad after all.”
But actually it was all fated from the start. You see, I was baptized in the Wesley Methodist Cathedral in the center of Kumasi, capital of the Asante region of Ghana. And it was named, like this University, for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. So I guess that I had an inside track to this day.
My father and grandfather were elders of that church. I grew up with a great respect for the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. In my father’s language, we have a proverb that runs:
Ösaman pa na yéto no badin.
It’s a great departed spirit after whom we name a child.
Same, of course, for a university. So, for me, as a child of Kumasi Wesleyan, today is an especial joy. And now that I’m going to be a proud member of the class of 2016, I guess I won’t need to wait 33 years for the next invitation.
So, thank you so much, for this great honor … and I’d like to leave you with one more of our wonderful Akan proverbs.
Abé se: wannya opuro dwonsö a, anka öremmere da.
The palm tree says: if it had not received the urine of the squirrel, it would never have ripened.
Pity. If I had more time, I could have told you what it means. But I guess I don’t need to. Everybody knows that Wesleyan grads are among the smartest people on the planet. May your curiosity advance with your knowledge, and may adversity only speed your ripening.
May 13 2016 Graduate Hooding, NYU
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Perstare et Praestare.
Our university’s motto is perstare et praestare: to persevere and to excel. Nobody lives up to that motto more fully than you who are gathered here to receive your degrees today. You have persevered, you have excelled. This is an exciting moment. Exciting for you, obviously. You are stepping over the threshold into a new life. Exciting for your families, who must be enormously proud of your achievements. And exciting for me, because I have the honor of speaking to you on behalf of the graduate faculty of this great university. I am, in fact, the last professor who will lecture you before you get your degree… and since you’ve been waiting years for this moment, I will not keep you too long.
I am a humanist—a philosopher and a literary scholar—but also an admirer of the work of the natural and social sciences, and I even once wrote a book defending the relevance of science to ethics. But as a philosopher, I’d like this last little lecture, to be a chance to reflect with you on the meaning of the achievement we celebrate today. And so let me begin by asking you to cast your mind back a few years to when you applied to our graduate school.
If you’d ask me, when I applied to graduate school, why I was going on to do a doctoral degree, I would have told you that I couldn’t imagine doing anything more interesting than studying philosophy for the next few years, expanding my knowledge of the subject through reading and writing and discussion, identifying questions for which I might be able to find new and (of course) better answers. I wanted, above all, to deepen my understanding and to continue my education. With more philosophy under my belt, I was sure I’d be better placed to do whatever I was going to do next. In the meantime, I was planning to enjoy the intellectual feast.
I don’t think I was atypical: surely, the main reason most people get doctoral degrees in the humanities and the social and natural sciences is that they love their subject and they want to do more of it. Given the unpredictability of the job market five or six or seven years down the road, it wouldn’t be rational to get a doctoral degree because you had a particular career in mind—in this commercial research lab, that business, or the other magazine or website—let alone at one specific university or college. Even people who plan to be independent researchers, making a living through writing about their doctoral field—or, for that matter, novelists inspired by it—can’t be sure that there will be publishers willing to pay them to do so. Certainly, I didn’t know, when I entered the graduate program at Cambridge, that Mrs. Thatcher was about to cut back support for Britain’s universities, so that there weren’t going to be teaching jobs aplenty waiting for me when I stood where you stand today, the dissertation accepted, looking for a way to make a living in the years ahead. In short, when I started my graduate education I didn’t think of myself as entering a profession but as pursuing a subject.
Of course, I knew, as you did, that I would need a job. But I also knew that, having pursued my love of my subject for those five years, I would think for the rest of my life in ways that would be enriched by my graduate education, whatever I ended up doing. The philosophy PhDs who work in Silicon Valley today, or in the world of finance, or in foundations and corporations and magazines, large and small, do what they do, both at work and in the rest of their lives, in ways inflected by their graduate education. And the people who hired them recognized in them the distinctive intellectual skills of a philosopher and were smart enough to see that they could use their talents.
Why do I say all this? Because as I look out on this diverse crowd of newly minted PhDs, I know that you are as diverse as your disciplines and as your backgrounds, and that you will have futures that are unpredictable, multifarious, and—so this is my hope for you—brilliant and exciting. But I know too that you won’t all be using the doctoral degree as a preparation for college teaching, even though the very word doctor comes from the Latin, and means teacher. Indeed, PhD is an abbreviation of philosophiae doctor, which means, strictly speaking, teacher of philosophy, which describes me precisely, but actually applies to very, very few of those with the doctoral degree.
I am supposed to be speaking for my colleagues on the graduate faculty today, but unlike some of them, I believe that those of you who take this degree out into the world beyond the university with energy, intelligence, and vision, will be among our great successes: as representatives of our disciplines, you will take what we have taught you and what you have learned on your own and from each other and from the traditions of our fields, and use it to enrich your own lives and the lives of those with whom you live and work.
A PhD with a profound command of the sexual politics of the Albigensian Crusade in the early thirteenth century was propelled by an avidity for reading documents closely and carefully and, sometimes, against the cultural grain. The point isn’t that the same skill set will enable her to discern the intricate trickeries in an Enron annual report. Your doctorate in number theory won’t give you command of a business budget; your PhD in chemistry won’t teach you how to run a university. (Well, maybe it will!) But the skills, the habits of mind, the thirst for discovery, and—every beginning scholar’s specialty, the zeal for overturning the inherited wisdom of a previous generation—these things have a use outside the classroom and the laboratory.
The sense of education as a preparation for life and not just for work is the vision that guides undergraduate liberal education. It should guide graduate education, too, I believe. Not because your graduate teachers did not prepare you for professional life, but because they weren’t preparing you just for our profession. Rather, we have left you richly intellectually endowed for whatever professions you find your way into and for the multifarious lives you will lead.
So, unlike some speakers at a graduate hooding, I am not going to welcome you to the professoriate … though, if you do plan to become a professor, NYU has certainly prepared you for that as well. Instead, I am going, first, to urge you to keep in touch with us as you make your way in the world, whatever you do. As a humanities professor, I can’t resist pointing out that gradus, from which the word graduation comes, is just the Latin for step. This higher degree takes you a step further, then, into whatever life you will make. But there are many more steps ahead because education and self-development are life long projects. Welcome, therefore, not to the professoriate but to the next stage of your life. May you flourish and bring us honor. Or, as the classicists among you might say: Perstate et praestate. Persevere and excel.
The Western articulation of the idea of world-citizenship begins with Diogenes’s idea of the κόσμου πολίτης. Since, for fourth-century Greeks, a πολίτης came from a πολίς, the Cynic philosopher must have meant the idea to be paradoxical, since the thought was that you could have the universe as your hometown. A modern oxymoron that does a similar job, I suppose, is the idea of the global village. But that doesn’t quite get it, since the πολίς, unlike a village, was the highest unit of government … a “city-state,” we would now say. Πόλεις could join in alliances, leagues—as Homer’s Achaeans did—but they were constitutionally independent. Because Diogenes’ phrase was an oxymoron, we have to assume that he took it figuratively: he knew there was no world-state of which he could be a citizen. So ancient cosmopolitans, like modern ones in the world since the Enlightenment, have mostly not aimed at the construction of a world government, or at becoming literal citizens of one cosmic society. This makes these Western traditions somewhat different from ancient Chinese ideals: Confucians thought all those under heaven—tianxia (天下)—should properly be ruled by the Emperor who had the mandate of heaven, so their “cosmopolitanism” did imply a universal empire. Western cosmopolitans, in contrast, have thought of the whole human community as bound together by an ethical bond rather than a political one, with each human being having a call on the moral concern of every other. Furthermore, far from supposing that everyone should live in the same way, joining a uniform universal civilization, they’ve tended to favor the recognition that human beings live best in many diverse ways in disparate societies, each with languages and literatures, laws, arts and traditions of its own. That’s why a modern cosmopolitan is likely to display an interest in literature and arts from many places, to be keen on visiting the Great Wall, the Pyramids, Pompeii and Machu Picchu, and to be in the audience for world music and a great variety of global cinema. A unified world with a uniform culture wouldn’t produce the range of cultural artifacts that a cosmopolitan aesthetics admires. So too, in politics, the cosmopolitan favors a world of alliances among societies, operating at many levels, not the accumulation of political authority into a single state. Or, at any rate, those are the ideals of this cosmopolitan.
What are we thinking Capri Talk << Click to read the talk I gave in Capri.
An Arabic edition of The Honor Code is now available online via Kalima, an online publication project. I’ll post a message when the hardback is available.
The brilliant Sarah-Jane Leslie has a series of fascinating Philosophical Conversations on the Marc Sanders Foundation website, one of which, so far, is with me! (Like all such material on the web, you can also find it by going to Audio and Video under Press on this site.)
You can now listen to my lecture on culture, identity and human rights in the lecture series Fragile Freedoms: the Global Struggle for Human Rights at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. (The lecture’s also available under “Audio and Video” on the Press tab.) The series is co-curated with the University of Manitoba‘s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics.
I got to tour the building, which is going to open next September: it’s a splendid piece of architecture.
Earlier speakers in the series were Martha Nussbaum and A. C. Grayling; future speakers are listed here.
NYU announced yesterday that I would be moving there in January to start a new job as Professor of Philosophy and Law. I am sad to be leaving Princeton, which has been a wonderful place to teach and to think; but the new job will involve exciting challenges in another great philosophy department and in a terrific law school, where I have taught before. What’s distinctive about the job is the idea of trying to bring together students across the global network of NYU’s campuses to think together about global ethics. I am a long-time proponent of conversations across societies; now I would like to see how to build this into my teaching as well as my research. I’m spending the spring thinking about this with colleagues in New York–including those who are expert in using digital technologies for teaching–as well as with some in other parts of our global network university with whom I would like to co-teach. Collaboration will begin with conversation and with learning–much of it on my part–about the people and the resources in New York, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Accra, Buenos Aires …. there are so many thrilling possibilities. (Here is the piece in today’s New York Times about the move. Click here to read. And one in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And one in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. Opinions as well as facts, as they say, “on them”!) Both Princeton and NYU have given me much to be thankful for over this Thanksgiving holiday.