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Kwame Anthony Appiah

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Kwame Anthony Appiah
Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah is our postmodern Socrates. He asks what it means to be African and African-American, but his answers immediately raise issues that encompass us all. His principal and abiding concern is how we individually construct ourselves in dialogue with social circumstance, both private and public, past and present. He probes the complexity of this process of personal formation, emphasizing the opportunities as well as the dangers for self-creation in today’s ethnically fluid and culturally hybrid world. No less importantly, he provides standards to measure the moral valences of the lives we make and then charges us with the responsibility to examine and revise them constantly.

Appiah conducts his Socratic interrogations in the language and style of analytical philosophy. The questions he poses and the conclusions to which he leads us are, like those of his ancient predecessor, often deeply disturbing, since they expose the “false presuppositions” and outright “errors and inaccuracies” of our most cherished forms of selfhood. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, religion, nationhood, and the multiculturalism such categories promote—each of these he scrutinizes, finding some to be empirically unsound, many conceptually incoherent, and all ethically ambivalent.

Appiah’s critique of these large collective identities is not designed to deny their legitimacy but to expose their threat to freedom and community. Whenever such identities claim obsessive loyalty and script our lives too tightly, they risk contributing to the injustice and violence of the present social order. Today’s contrary—and urgent—need, Appiah argues, is for an “ethical universal” that transcends social fragmentation and bridges our differences. Its foundation he locates in “reasonableness” that accommodates competing beliefs and behaviors without polarizing the differences among them. Pluralism liberated from ideology—it is this disposition that will enable an inclusive “humanism,” which is “provisional, historically contingent, anti-essentialist (in other words postmodern),” yet still vital enough to animate our “concern to avoid cruelty and pain while nevertheless recognizing the contingency of that concern.”[1]

Kwame Anthony Appiah is, perhaps, uniquely qualified to articulate this aspiration, since he has successfully crossed so many of the borders that divide and alienate us from each other. A child of mixed ancestry, his mother from the English landed gentry, his father a Ghanaian barrister and statesman—both from families socially prominent and politically active—Appiah is a veteran at migrating between alien cultures. Born in London in 1954, his youngest years were spent in Kumasi. There he attended primary school, until Nkrumah, then Ghana’s ruler, imprisoned his father. This event precipitated Appiah’s return to England, where he completed his secondary education in a British boarding school. He entered Clare College, Cambridge in 1972, receiving his bachelor’s degree with First Class honors in 1975 and earning his doctorate in 1982. It was during his undergraduate years that he met the African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who later became his collaborator on numerous projects, including the Amistad Series of critical anthologies on major African-American writers, as well as The Dictionary of Global Culture (1996) and Africana: The Encyclopedia of African and African-American Experience (1999). After his graduation from Cambridge, Appiah crossed the Atlantic, assuming a series of academic appointments at elite American institutions—Yale (1982-86), Cornell (1986-90), Duke (1990-91), Harvard (1991-2002), and now Princeton, where he is the Lawrence Rockefeller Professor in Philosophy and at the University Center of Human Values. Appiah is also a person of multiple nationalities—Ghana and the United Kingdom by birth, a citizen of the United States by choice—as well, a gay man, who shares a Chelsea loft with his long-time companion, an editor at the New Yorker.

Intellectually, Appiah inhabits no less diverse worlds. Trained in the rigors of Cambridge’s legendary school of analytical philosophy, he wrote his first two books on specialized topics in the field of language and logic, Assertion and Conditionals (1985) and For Truth in Semantics (1986). Three years later Necessary Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (1989) appeared. It is a textbook that revolutionizes the genre: it divides the field into eight central topics and then explains the discipline’s approach to mind, knowledge, language, science, morality, politics, law, and metaphysics. In its newly revised version, Thinking It Through (2003), the book remains the benchmark for initiating students into the complexities of contemporary philosophical thought.

But even as Appiah was establishing his credentials as a professional philosopher, he was also developing a separate reputation as an African and African-American scholar-critic. As early as 1979 he wrote “How Not to Do African Philosophy” and in 1985 he completed the first of the essays that would later form the core of In My Father’s House (1992), his book on Africa’s struggle for self-definition in a world dominated by Western values.

In My Father’s House became an instant classic and placed Appiah at the forefront of contemporary African studies. The volume begins and ends with autobiography, opening with an account of his childhood in Asante and closing with his father’s funeral in Ghana. These personal sections frame a set of widely ranging essays, on Alexander Crummell and W. E. B. Du Bois, the African-American intellectuals instrumental in founding Pan-Africanism, on Nobel laureate in literature Wole Soyinka and the Francophone novelist Yambo Ouologuem, on traditional African religion, on the problems of postcolonial African statehood, and on African art in the commodified Euro-American museum world.

But it is less the essays’ topics than their arguments that make In My Father’s House such an original work. By subjecting cultural issues to the methods of technical philosophy, Appiah is able to reach extraordinarily unorthodox results. Typical is the chapter on Du Bois. It examines his work through the prism of “the increasingly racialized thought of nineteenth-century Europe and America” and arrives at the conclusion that Du Bois’s “idea of the Negro, the idea of an African race” unwittingly replicates the white society’s “bad biological—and worse ethical—ideas.”[2] Appiah’s summary of this point reverberates through this book as well as in his later writings:

The truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world we can ask race to do for us. As we have seen, even the biologist’s notion has only limited uses, and the notion that Du Bois required, and that underlies the more hateful racisms of the modern era, refers to nothing in the world at all.[3]

“Old Gods, New Gods,” another pivotal chapter of In My Father’s House, offers an entirely different perspective. Here Appiah foregrounds traditional Africa and analyzes the cognitive features of its orally transmitted religions. He argues that their assimilative modes of reason provide a constructive correction to the rigidities of Euro-American rationality. Appiah ends the essay with a startling transvaluation of the “double standard,” which Western thinkers routinely condemn as morally unacceptable and conceptually contradictory. But in African practice, Appiah shows, the “double standard” often acts as a benign and thoughtful alternative to the irrationality produced by logic’s application to daily life.

These pieces capture the two principal movements of In My Father’s House. On the one hand, Appiah traces the toxicities that flow from Africans’ absorbing Euro-American concepts, whether Du Bois’s lapse into racialism, Soyinka’s promotion of “Otherness,” or postcolonial politicians’ imposition of western nationhood on disparate tribes. On the other hand, he expresses an interest in pre-colonial African values that speak across the historical divide and suggest ways to resolve the conflicts that rend postmodern society.

This double movement projects a hope for Africa’s future—and for the world’s—that Appiah eloquently expresses in the preface to In My Father’s House:

If my sisters and I were “children of two worlds” no one bothered to tell us this; we lived in one world, in two “extended” families divided by several thousand miles and an allegedly insuperable cultural difference that never, so far as I can recall, puzzled or perplexed us much. As I grew older, and went to English boarding-school, I learned that not everybody had family in Africa and in Europe; not everyone had a Lebanese uncle, American and French and Kenyan and Tai cousins. And by now, now that my sisters have married a Norwegian and a Nigerian and a Ghanaian, now that I live in America, I am used to seeing the world as a network of points of affinity.[4]

Appiah concentrates his affinity on a different node of the global network in his next book, Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race (1996). It focuses primarily on African-Americans and is a collaborative project with Amy Gutmann, the eminent political scientist who is now President of the University of Pennsylvania.

Appiah’s contribution is in two parts. An initial section provides an “ideational account of race,” analyzing the history of the concept, first in the philosophical reflections of Thomas Jefferson and Matthew Arnold, then in biology, from Darwin to current research. Appiah here elaborates the theme of In My Father’s House that “there are no races,” concluding that the “race concept” is intellectually empty and that scientific data reveal no correspondence “to the social groups we call ‘races’ in America.”[5]

But logic and fact do not prevent people’s routinely applying racial labels to each other, nor can they eradicate the past and present practice of racism. Appiah addresses this gap between cognitive truth and the reality of the American state in the second section of his contribution to Color Conscious.

He first returns to Du Bois and acknowledges the justness of his claim that the essence of African-American kinship lies in the “social heritage of slavery” and its legacy of “discrimination and insult.” But Appiah then differentiates between “racial identity,” which Du Bois designates as his people’s “badge of color,” and “racial identification.”[6] The former is a historical and social construct created by others and ascribed to African-Americans. In contrast, “racial identification” is a collective, multi-generational act, in which African-Americans deliberately adopt the alien label, then self-consciously develop an ethnic culture to transform the badge from a sign of weakness and shame to one of power and pride.

Appiah carefully registers the movement’s progress through the decades, “from ‘African’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘colored race’ to ‘black’ to ‘Afro-American’ to ‘African-American,’” and declares: “I am sympathetic. I see how the story goes. It may even be historically, strategically necessary for the story to go this way.” But he also fundamentally objects to the politics of “racial identification” because it constricts personal freedom by designating “proper ways of being black.” Between “Uncle Tom and Black Power” he would, of course, choose the latter, but “I would like not to have to choose.” We must, Appiah emphasizes, avoid replacing “one tyranny with another.” He encourages us, instead, to shun prescriptive codes of “identification” and “live with fractured identities; engage in identity play; find solidarity, yes, but recognize contingency, and, above all, practice irony.”[7]

Appiah is sensitive to the risks of this advice, and his more recent work refines the position he takes in Color Conscious. Characteristic is his essay, “Liberalism, Individuality, and Identity” (2001), which examines John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), perhaps the classic defense of autonomy from social constraint. Mill’s insistence on self-invention is close to Appiah’s own, but the personal freedom both philosophers advocate poses a pair of ethical dangers: “arbitrariness” in choosing our characters and the “unsociability of individuality.”[8] Together these threaten the human bond itself, and Appiah counters their corrosive effects by rewriting Mill. His argument is complex, following a conceptual path between romantic and existentialist notions of personal identity. But the indispensable element of Appiah’s argument is his connecting our acts of self-creation to the quality of our engagement and care of others. This reconciliation of Mill’s laissez-faire independence with the global interdependences of our postmodern condition is dazzling. Appiah summarizes his synthesis in a passage that also captures the spirit and vision of his work as a whole:

A free self is a human self, and we are, as Aristotle long ago insisted, creatures of the polis, social beings. We are social in many ways and for many reasons: because we desire company, because we depend on one another for survival, because so much that we care about is collectively created.[9]

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FOOTNOTES

[1] In My Father’s House, 155.

[2] In My Father’s House, x.

[3] In My Father’s House, 45.

[4] In My Father’s House, viii.

[5] Color Conscious, 71, 74.

[6] Color Conscious, 75, 76.

[7] Color Conscious, 104.

[8] “Liberalism, Individuality, and Identity,” Critical Inquiry 27.2 (Winter 2001), 318, 319.

[9] “Liberalism, Individuality, and Identity,” Critical Inquiry 27.2 (Winter 2001), 326.

 


Text by William McPheron
William Saroyan Curator for British and American Literature
Stanford University Libraries ©2004.



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