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Cosmopolitans

1.

The three books by leading philosophers under review share one theme: cosmopolitanism. Otherwise, they could hardly be more different. Anthony Appiah and Amartya Sen have written short, brisk, pointed essays on the perils of cultural isolation and narrowness. Martha Nussbaum has written a substantial philosophical treatise on the difficulties that recent fashions in political theory have put in the way of understanding the nature of justice for the mentally and physically disabled, foreigners, and animals. But Appiah and Sen take very different approaches. In Cosmopolitanism, Appiah suggests that if people with vastly different religious, sexual, and political attachments are to live together without violence they must master the arts of conversation. In Identity and Violence, Sen makes a flat-out assault on the use of exclusive attachments and social groupings to define our relations to others. He deplores the ways that people use sexual, racial, religious, and other forms of identity as reasons to fight and persecute one another. Aptly enough, Cosmopolitanism is relaxed and conversational, while Identity and Violence is often irritated and sometimes angry: “Violence,” Sen writes, referring to conflicts in Rwanda, Congo, Israel, Palestine, and other places, “is fomented by the imposition of singular and belligerent identities on gullible people, championed by proficient artisans of terror.”

Amartya Sen is not only a Nobel Prize–winning economist, but someone who can draw on his own experience and character to discredit the idea of identifying people by one trait or another. He is, he writes,

at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, … a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in a “before-life” as well).

The last few pages of Identity and Violence tell us something else; when Amartya Sen was eleven years old, there were intercommunal riots in Dhaka, where his family were then living. A poor Muslim laborer named Kader Mia staggered into the garden, bleeding profusely, looking for help; he had been stabbed in the street by Hindu thugs. Sen’s father drove him to a hospital, where he died from his wounds. Kader Mia’s ghost haunts this little book.

Anthony Appiah was born into two upper classes, British and Ghanaian. His father was Joe Appiah—an Asante aristocrat, and a campaigner for independence from Britain in the 1950s; to the surprise of both their families and most of their friends, he married Peggy Cripps, a daughter of the formidable British Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps. Peggy went to Ghana and became a distinguished folklorist; when Joe Appiah fell out with President Nkrumah, Anthony endured English boarding schools, then studied philosophy at Cambridge on his way to a career in the Ivy League. Peggy showed her loyalty to her new home by purchasing a grave plot in Kumasi; as Appiah tells the reader in Cosmopolitanism, she placed a slab of concrete on top so that nobody could be buried there in her place. Two months ago, she died in Kumasi at the age of eighty-six.

Appiah’s exploration of cosmopolitanism begins with an elegant demolition of two common ideas: the first is that different cultures live to all intents and purposes in different universes; the second is that if we all live in the same universe, one story about that universe must be right and the rest just wrong. Consider illness. As Appiah observes, Asante people will seek to explain illness through their belief in witchcraft:

People do get sick for unaccountable reasons all the time, do they not? Many of them have reason to think that there are people who dislike them. So that once you have an idea of witchcraft, there will be plenty of occasions when the general theory will seem to be confirmed.

On the other hand,

When people get sick for unaccountable reasons in Manhattan, there is much talk of viruses and bacteria. Since doctors do not claim to be able to do much about most viruses, they do not put much effort into identifying them. Nor will the course of a viral infection be much changed by a visit to the doctor. In short, most appeals in everyday life to viruses are like most everyday appeals to witchcraft. They are supported only by a general conviction that sickness can be explained, and the conviction that viruses can make you sick.

Do we have to choose between these interpretations? There is no simple answer. Anthony Appiah’s sister is a deaconess of the Anglican Church. When her son was ill, she consulted the local remover of spells—who happened to be a Muslim imam. Between his skills and up-to-date medical treatment the child recovered.

We smile, but when a friend goes into the hospital we wish him or her luck, even though we may not strictly believe in luck. Faced with a skeptic who doubted that there were such things as germs and stuck to the familiar story about evil spells, how many of us could convince him or her? Germs are less visible than envious neighbors; and who knows whom we might have offended? We live in one world, but have many different ways of interpreting it; some are effective for particular purposes—space travel comes more easily to those who know Newtonian physics—but the world allows plenty of leeway for interpretation. To understand what we do and do not have in common, we can only engage in conversation with each other, and since both the human species and each of its members deals with the world with a variety of interpretative techniques, there is much to talk about.

Cosmopolitanism is far from artless. Appiah balances an affectionate understanding of the sheer variousness of different cultures with an insistence that “my people” means, in the last resort, nothing less than “human beings.” We do not construct our interpretations of the world out of nothing; we pick them up in the societies in which we grow up. On the other hand, we are much less the children of one society than we imagine. A trading people such as the Asante not only engaged in commerce with Arab merchants whose Islamic faith was—on the face of it—at odds with their Asante animism; they also married them. We are more naturally cosmopolitan than many recent commentators, who grumble about the diluting effects of globalization on “culture,” suppose. Evoking his own Asante village, Appiah writes:

We do not need, have never needed, settled community, a homogeneous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron. The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places, and that contains influences from many more. And the marks of cosmopolitanism in that Asante village—soccer, Muhammad Ali, hip-hop—entered their lives, as they entered yours, not as work, but as pleasure.

This thought leads Appiah into the contentious territory of cultural property, on which he has recently written in these pages.* The provocation he discusses is not the Metropolitan Museum’s recent travails with the Euphronios krater but the looting and destruction of the King of Asante’s palace by Sir Garnet Wolseley in the late nineteenth century. Appiah argues not that the British were anything other than wicked but rather that their wickedness does not mean they should now send everything back. Some of the loot should be returned; but it would be of more use to Ghana if Britain would lend antiquities from other parts of the world and allow Ghanaians to see what they otherwise would have to travel to the British Museum to see.

Appiah is very critical of those who talk too easily of the “cultural patrimony” of contemporary nations. A peculiarity of the recent demands from countries throughout the world for the repatriation of objects declared to be their own cultural patrimony is that the present inhabitants of the countries in question often bear a very indirect relationship to the people who created the artifacts in question—the Italian government has claimed title to the Euphronios krater, a Greek pot that was exported in antiquity to Etruria. In some cases, moreover, the values of today’s national and religious leaders are violently opposed to everything that informed the lives of the original artists and artisans. Who thinks it was a good thing that the Taliban could smash the contents of “their” museums?

The route by which many of the treasures that are the glory of the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum got to those museums is often dubious. That does not settle the question of what to do about them now. The glory of Venice rests on the looted treasures of Constantinople, but nobody so far has proposed that the horses of St. Mark’s basilica—which are nowadays in its museum—should be sent back to Istanbul. If such things really are the patrimony of the entire world, as UNESCO keeps on saying, any particular state or people should see itself as the custodian pro tem. It is, as Appiah says, a curious thing that people who think of themselves as combatting the greed of dealers and rich collectors have themselves such a narrowly possessive notion of cultural property.

2.

It is cultural cosmopolitanism that most interests Appiah; but he also raises some nagging political questions that readers will have in their minds from the first page. The most obvious is this: If the remedy for cultural narrowness is to listen to anyone who is prepared to talk about his view of the world and its implications, what are we to do with those who believe that they possess a unique, saving truth, and have no intention of discussing anyone else’s? Appiah does not provide an answer; but then he does not set out to do so. He tries to make clear the difference between openness to the views of others and offers of friendship such as that made by Osama bin Laden in 2002 when he presented the United States with the choice between conversion and continued terrorism. As he writes,

Cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them. So we hope and expect that different people and different societies will embody different values.

On the other hand,

Counter-cosmopolitans [such as Osama bin Laden], once more like many Christian fundamentalists, do think that there is one right way for all human beings to live; that all differences must be in the details.

Appiah finds this view epitomized in the scathing German couplet:

Und willst du nicht mein Bruder sein,
So schlag’ ich Dir den Schädel ein.

  1. *

    See Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Whose Culture Is It?The New York Review, February 9, 2006.

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