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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.