LAUDATIO KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH
Spinozalens 24 November 2016
Some people remember the exact moment they perceived themselves for the first time as a separate person, an ‘I’. The dawn of identity. Suddenly a bright light makes the world visible. From that moment on there is a perspective. It opens up the world, but at the same time creates a division: here am I, there is the world, there are the others. I have to take a step, cross the border between me here with my thoughts, my feelings, my experiences, my past and my future and the others there, on the other side. There are stories to tell and decisions to make. How to relate to the world, to the other I’s. How are they different from me? What do we have in common, what do I have in common with you and you and you? Who is ‘we’ all of a sudden, where does this plural ‘I’ come from? Where do I belong and with whom? Am I an outsider? What does it mean to be an outsider? Is it good, is it bad? The dawn of identity creates a plethora of questions. The world of fairy tales the small child lived in has ended; in that world anything could happen. I could be a queen, a dog, a dragon, a landscape. Reality kicks in. Responsibility is waiting around the corner. The heart is heavier.
There you go, suddenly aware of the burdens that you start your journey with: the colour of your skin, your gender, the love of your parents or lack of it, the talents you were born with, the country you were born in, the language you speak, the moment in history you step into. These are the tools. You become a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn or a king, as Frank Sinatra sings in That’s Life.
Or you become a philosopher and try to find answers to the questions that life whispers in our ear. And so Kwame Anthony Appiah became a philosopher. The moment in history he stepped into was the moment that colonialism ended, even though mainly in name. His parents, of Ghanaian and British ancestry, heralded a new world and raised their children with a mixture of backgrounds that doubtlessly shaped their future.
Both in In my father’s house and in his Du Bois lectures Appiah concerns himself with questions of race, seen by Du Bois as the most important issue of the century. And yes, it does have a propensity to rear its head time and again in new forms. Being black, being white, being Jew, being Arab, being Asian, being of mixed blood, it all has its consequences. Pride and prejudice are words that come to mind. How can we be proud of race in the face of prejudice and abuse of power. How can we find a true and genuine voice after a long silence. African writers and philosophers have to reinvent African culture. Appiah writes about the process with a deep understanding of the challenges they meet.
Place and space are opposites . ‘Place’ is where we have our roots, where we are home, where we know the stories. ‘Place’ offers safety. ‘Space’ is the world outside, where we seek adventure and take risks. ‘Space’ gives us freedom. Without place, without home, without a sense of belonging, space is threatening. Without space, place is suffocating.
In his work Appiah covers both space and place. He writes about the different cultures he belongs to with an exquisite feeling for language and style. And he covers subjects with an old-fashioned ring to them. What about honour? Is it a concept that we still can use, or is it tainted by the revenge code that kills women and makes murderers of fathers and brothers? Is it old fashioned, relating to men fighting duels over honour centuries ago? What kind of honour are we talking about? Appiah argues that honour still is a useful and worthy concept that should be reshaped, not abandoned. Honour is, was, and should always be rooted in morality. Extreme manifestations of honour without that moral base are merely primitive customs and empty rituals that cause unnecessary suffering. In the right interpretation, honour is a high form of decency. It is honourable to not only avoid doing wrong, but to stimulate doing right. This is of importance for every society.
Philosophy is about living the good and just life. This broad vision is the mark of a true cosmopolite. Being a trait d’union between cultures, being able to adjust to or to respect different cultures without losing identity is the hallmark of cosmopolitism. Being both outsider and insider, changing roles. The heated debate on cultural appropriation in the United States and in Europe would profit immensely from Appiah’s work.
Kwame Anthony Appiah and his work are the best the human race and the human mind has to offer. Spinoza – if I may speak for him, although I am not a seventeenth century Portuguese Dutch Jew – would have been keen on a spirited conversation with Appiah. Generous, subtle, complex, surprising: Kwame Anthony Appiah is a most worthy laureate of the Spinozalens.
Nelleke Noordervliet (chair), dr. Tinneke Beeckman, prof. dr. Beate Roessler, Stephan Sanders, prof. dr. Paul van Tongeren
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.