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