Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at Princeton. His latest book is The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.

 (November 2012)

We’re Still Puzzled

President Obama at the White House, January 2012
You know the joke. A psychiatrist shows a patient a series of inkblots. Each time, the patient sees an erotic episode. “You seem to be preoccupied with sex,” the psychiatrist concludes. The patient protests: “You’re the one with all those dirty pictures.” Ask people to read the inkblots of American political life and that result, too, is likely to tell you more about them than it does about what is really going on.

Battling with Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois, 1904; photograph by J.E. Purdy
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois looms over the study of African-American life like a cathedral over its close. He wrote in almost every conceivable genre—autobiography, biography, criticism, drama, essays, fiction, journalism, poetry, reviews—and was a scholar in a variety of disciplines. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, he became, …

The Apple Fell Far from the Tree

Barack Obama with his stepgrandmother, Sarah, half-sister, Auma, and stepmother, Kezia, at their homestead in Alego, Kenya
Families, it sometimes seems, are just a vast web of potential embarrassments…interspersed, no doubt, with the occasional opportunity for pride. Honor and shame, as much as love or liking, are what bind us to our kith and kin. The teenager rolls her eyes as her mother gets up to dance at the wedding; grandparents flush when their friends ask about the grandson who just “came out” in Sunday school; a wife looks down disconsolately as her intoxicated husband rises to make the after-dinner speech. We can all evoke such moments.

Religious Faith and John Rawls

The philosopher Martin Buber, Tel Aviv, 1962
In December 1942, a philosophy major at Princeton, who was due to begin serving in the army upon graduation, submitted his senior thesis. It was a substantial piece of work. Entitled “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community,” it …

How Muslims Made Europe

The conception of the Mediterranean as the meeting of three continents goes back to classical Greece. But it took a further intellectual leap to conceive of their inhabitants as a collectivity. You can have Europe, Africa, and Asia without thinking of Europeans, Africans, and Asians as particular kinds of people.

What Was Africa to Them?

Fifty years ago, Britain’s Gold Coast colony became the independent nation of Ghana. For the first time, a European colony in sub-Saharan Africa achieved full democratic self-government.[^*] The moment was of special significance for the people of Africa’s New World diaspora, as Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and a …

Whose Culture Is It?

“There is no document of civilization,” Walter Benjamin maintained, in his most often-quoted line, “that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He was writing—some sixty-five years ago—with particular reference to the spoils of victory carried in a triumphal procession: “They are called cultural treasures,” he said, …

The Election and America’s Future

For what has been called “the most consequential election in decades,” we have asked some of our contributors for their views.—The Editors   K. ANTHONY APPIAH Princeton, New Jersey If there’s one thing that supporters of the current administration insist upon, it’s that George W. Bush “is a …

Into the Woods

Once upon a time, in a town far away, there lived a boy named Kwame, his sister, Ama, their mother and father, a nanny called Yaa, a cook called Yaro, and two cats who were much too wild to have names and who came and went as they pleased. Every …

You Must Remember This

In the second of the Federalist Papers, John Jay writes that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their …

What Garland Knew

Suppose you are a chess-playing professor at a distinguished law school, raised in the heart of the African-American haute bourgeoisie, publicly active as an evangelical Christian, and famous for combining a strong sense of black solidarity with ambivalence about affirmative action. Suppose, in short, that you are Stephen L. Carter.

The House of the Prophet

Five years from now, Martin Luther King Jr. will have been dead longer than he lived. In the decades since his assassination, his life and words have become a touchstone for interpreters of America’s long struggle for racial justice. Children all over this country are raised now with his name …

Equality of What?

Here are two important questions of public policy in which it looks as though we have to choose between liberty and equality. Some people think tax laws, which clearly limit our freedom to spend our money as we wish, should be designed to equalize incomes, because great inequality in incomes …

Dancing with the Moon

I read The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo for the first time when I was in my teens. Colin Turnbull, its author, had been a friend of my mother’s since before I was born and so there was a copy in the library at home.

Battle of the Bien-Pensant

Academic moralism is one of the oldest traditions of the university, which began, after all, as an ecclesiastical institution whose students were mostly destined to be members of the clergy. In the early part of the twentieth century, the ethical voice in the American university was to be heard from …

Africa: The Hidden History

Some thirty-five years ago, H.R. Trevor- Roper—in a moment of condescension that quickly became notorious—declared to an audience on the BBC: “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But, at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The …

The Multiculturalist Misunderstanding

Have you noticed that “culture”—the word—has been getting a heavy work-out recently? Anthropologists, of course, have used it zealously for over a century; though the term’s active life in literature and politics began long before that. But some current ways in which the concept of culture has been put to …

The Arts of Africa

Tenabea nyinaa nseåø. (All dwelling places are not alike.) —Asante proverb I learned about art growing up in my hometown, Kumasi, the capital of Asante, an old Akan kingdom at the heart of the new republic of Ghana. There were paintings and drawings on our walls; there …

The Marrying Kind

For most Americans today, acquiring a spouse is the most important task in the years after high school. You are supposed to find someone you love and who loves you, to get to know each other and confirm that you are compatible, and then move into shared quarters and take …

How to Succeed in Business by Really Trying

The town of Kumasi, where I grew up, is the capital of Ghana’s Asante region, and its main commercial thoroughfare is called Kingsway Street. In the 1950s, if you wandered down it toward the railway yards at the center of town, the stores you passed sold processed foods, cloth, and …