Kwame Anthony Appiah
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.”
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.” 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.
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
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.
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.”
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.” 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,
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.”
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.
In My Father’s House, x.
In My Father’s House, 45.
In My Father’s House, viii.
Color Conscious, 71, 74.
Color Conscious, 75, 76.
Color Conscious, 104.
“Liberalism, Individuality, and Identity,”
Critical Inquiry 27.2 (Winter 2001), 318, 319.
“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.