Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers Essay

An essay on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers:


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The pages of human history daubed in bloodshed relating to wars, cultural, ethnic and religious conflicts, color and race prejudices, amassing wealth and annexing territories, ask the crying question. How to make this Planet Earth heaven-like? The answer is simple and direct. Eyes full of understanding, hearts full of love and the life that refuses conflicts—enough! These alone are enough to march towards the attainable reality-the world is one family! Human society today is confronted with grave and dangerous challenges. An individual is the basic unit of the family; family is the basic unit of the society.

One needs to sharpen one’s insight into the essence of situations one is in and to comprehend better, the root causes of current crises and imbalances, if one is to set correctly a new goal and vision. In the processes of industrialization, urbanization, information technology and globalization, the human communities have lost sight of common values in forming a cohesive whole and, as a result, all sorts of social contradictions and conflicts manifest themselves. A sense of collectivity is disappearing; ethical norms are tattered; and such social ills as environmental decay, poverty, racial and social discrimination, and violence, which threaten co-prosperity of humanity, are all the more prevalent. Therefore, the questions like cosmopolitan contamination and whose culture is it anyway have assumed importance and merit serious consideration.

Strictly speaking the contents of Appiah’s book is old wine in a new bottle. This is, however, not to belittle the importance of his well-crafted ideas. Ethnographic examples and real-world insights add grandeur to the book. He tells us in style what our theologians have been telling for ages. Why human being should worry about the moral and cultural tensions? They were there, they are there and they will be there. One should not emulate an individual standing at the seashore, waiting for the waves to subside to take bath in the sea. Such a possibility is ruled out. The waves shall be there. Having decided to take bath, one need not be afraid of the oncoming waves. If the waves are powerful duck them; if the waves are friendly dance with them and swim towards the intended destination. Appiah, thus, gives the sketch of workable cosmopolitanism.

If we want to do something about it and about the conflicts and divisiveness rampant in all areas of human activities, we are in dire need to establish a new vision for humanity that is consonant with the demand of time.  New thinking, new goals, new norms, new institutions, and new organizations! That is, instead of treating each other like enemies, the members of world community have to learn to conceive of the global society as a single family; a society which is spiritually beautiful, materially affluent, and humanly rewarding; a society that establishes a new set of cultural norms based on the cultural view of history, not the kind of norms that are found in the naked natural identity.  People must enjoy the feeling that the art objects were created by their ancestors. The world community likewise has to develop universal democratic institutions in which the freedom and equality of every man and woman on Earth and the equality and prosperity of all countries, big or small, are guaranteed and respected. It has to institute new international organizations which pursue global common society embracing the regional cooperative organizations which exist today merely as exclusionist regional integrations.

In chapter 8 of his book, “Whose culture is it anyway?” Appaih tenders his view emphatically that objects of cultural value “belong in the deepest sense to all of us and “are of potential value to al human beings.” He reminds us of our common humanity. Human beings possess cosmopolitan claims to a universal connection to art (which he called “the connection despite difference”). Such an ownership beats the political and economic inequalities in the present world.  People in the metropolitan centers have access to public museums and art galleries. The wealthiest can own such art objects and enjoy them on a daily basis.  In chapter 7, Appaih talks about cosmopolitan contamination. Today, the greatest danger to the society is not through atomic bombs but the intellectual bombs. There are many, who, intoxicated by their intellectual achievements, disregard the reality of the Cosmic Supreme. Such intellectuals have distorted the truth about the key insights of cosmopolitans. Appaih sees a great aptitude for cooperation, bonding and friendship in the practical world. There is nothing like absolute independence to anyone. Human beings are inter-cultural, and inter-dependent species, just like any other species on the planet. Cultural isolation is a false concept. There are enough examples in history that such isolationists have paid heavy price for their adventurous convictions. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t fracture the society.  It makes it more colorful and purposeful. It creates the competitive spirit. Nonetheless, human beings possess the wisdom to learn lessons from history and past experiences. Human history vividly demonstrates that if we truly unite together and pool our wisdom, we can accomplish tasks which seemed humanly impossible. The success of the European Union is a case in point. Appiah clears the last hurdle of reason (intellectualism) and knocks the portals of spirituality, while defending cosmopolitanism but fails to enter it. When he says that the fundamental values held by all human beings will usher in a new era of global understanding, he needs to clearly identify how such a change can be brought about in the world. Unless the thought processes of the individuals change, their action process will not change. When the thoughts are changed, the mind is changed; when the mind is changed, the man is changed; when the man is changed, the society is changed; when the society is changed the Nation is changed; such changed Nations make globalization and global peace an attainable reality. This is the state of true cosmopolitanism.

“Let noble thoughts come to us from every side,” goes the ancient saying. Appiah rightly traces the ethical legacies of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in defense of his cosmopolitanism. If plants and animals can live together according to the laws of Nature, why can’t the human beings? Roses with different hues and colors add to the beauty of the rose garden.  Cosmopolitism is a philosophy of open conversation, and continuous dialogue. It is not tolerating the customs and traditions of others; it is rather acceptance of them. Appaih defends “cosmopolitan contamination” in his unique style. He says that such contamination is inevitable. He tenders historical examples to say that local cultures have always changed, in response to commercial or military adventures. This is natural cultural evolution, according to him. Then he discusses about “cultural property.” Works of ancient and historical significance belong to all; he argues .He is scientifically right when he says that it is illogical for a country which is less than a century old to claim all ancient artifacts unearthed within their borders are national property. His question is, “Whose culture is it anyway?”


The world has become a “space of simultaneous life,” and humankind a “single community of common fate.” That is, the world has turned into a transnational, cross-cultural and virtually borderless society, where the meanings of national boundaries are rapidly fading and different cultures are blending into one another. This apart, the world is also experiencing tremendous transformations through such phenomena as democratization, globalization, humanization, scientific advancement and welfare of humanity.


Appiah, Kwame Anthony: Book: Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers

(Issues of Our Time Series)

Paperback: 224 pages

Publisher: W. W. Norton (February 26, 2007)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 039332933X

ISBN-13: 978-0393329339