The Magic of ‘I’

K. Anthony Appiah
K. Anthony Appiah; drawing by David Levine


“Rootless cosmopolitans” was the belittling label that Stalinists applied to Jewish intellectuals during the Soviet purges; and although the American academy is neither Stalinist nor anti-Semitic, there has for the past twenty years been a good deal of argument between the enthusiasts for roots and the defenders of cosmopolitanism. Writers such as Harvard’s Michael Sandel and the London School of Economics’ John Gray have contrasted the rootless condition of cosmopolitan liberalism with the rootedness of traditional societies elsewhere in the world and of our own society at various times in the past, invariably to the disadvantage of liberalism.

Skeptics have thought the contrast was overdone, and historically minded skeptics have pointed out that Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill would have been deeply astonished to be told that a concern for community was incompatible with a concern for individuality. If asked whether they wanted us to have deep attachments—to our friends, families, towns or villages, regions, and nations, with their particular histories and quirks—or whether they wanted us to pursue our individual intimations of the good life, drawing on the resources of the whole world and the whole of human culture, they would certainly have answered “both.”

The Ethics of Identity offers a defense of the “rooted cosmopolitanism” that Anthony Appiah thinks that liberals are really committed to. It does a great deal more than that, but its central theme is indeed that no sane person supposes that a commitment to liberal individualism implies that we are to construct our lives out of absolutely nothing, any more than a sane person supposes that poetic originality requires that the poet should abjure the use of all known languages when she sets out to write. Conversely, the liberal individualist is cosmopolitan to the extent that she thinks that we can find the ingredients for an interesting life in more than one place, more than one culture, and that a decent respect for what we have inherited is consistent with a wish to do something novel with it.

“Cosmopolitanism” is in many ways a slightly inapt term to cover everything that is at stake; one need not think of oneself as a citizen of the entire world in any literal sense to believe that what people should do with their lives should not be dictated—morally, logically, or physically—by where, and into what family, ethnos, or nation, they were born. Nor does the fact that one thinks that different persons, families, cultures, and nations can learn from one another imply that such lessons should be imposed by brute force upon the unwilling. Still, cosmopolitanism is by no means a wholly inapt term in a world of contending nationalisms, where it is far from easy to persuade either citizens or their leaders that nations have much to learn from one another.

Nobody is better placed than Anthony Appiah to make the case for rooted…

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