Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at NYU. His latest book is The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. (May 2020)

Follow Kwame Anthony Appiah on Twitter: @KAnthonyAppiah.

IN THE REVIEW

The Defender of Differences

Franz Boas: The Emergence of the Anthropologist

by Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt

Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century

by Charles King
In 1906 W.E.B. Du Bois invited Franz Boas to give a commencement speech at the black institution where he taught, Atlanta University. Boas told the students of Africa’s contributions to civilization. “I wish you could see the scepters of African kings, carved of hard wood and representing artistic forms,” he said, assuring them that the bronzes of Benin “have so far excelled in technique any European work, that they are even now almost inimitable.” Du Bois, a decade his junior, later recalled his own reaction: “I was too astonished to speak. All of this I had never heard and I came then and afterwards to realize how the silence and neglect of science can let truth utterly disappear.”

The Key to All Mythologies

Claude Lévi-Strauss in his office in Paris, 1969

Lévi-Strauss: A Biography

by Emmanuelle Loyer, translated from the French by Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff

Claude Lévi-Strauss: A Critical Study of His Thought

by Maurice Godelier, translated from the French by Nora Scott
In 1937 Claude Lévi-Strauss, a twenty-nine-year-old aspiring anthropologist, decided that the time had come to do his fieldwork—a rite of passage for his intended profession. Bronisław Malinowski, Polish-born and British-trained, had established the model, settling by himself for several years among the Trobriand Islanders during World War I and publishing …

Dialectics of Enlightenment

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason

by Justin E.H. Smith
How enlightened was the Enlightenment? Not a few critics have seen it as profoundly benighted. For some, it was a seedbed for modern racism and imperialism; the light in the Enlightenment, one recent scholar has suggested, essentially meant “white.” Voltaire emphatically believed in the inherent inferiority of les Nègres, who belonged to a separate species, or at least breed, from Europeans—as different from Europeans, he said, as spaniels from greyhounds. Kant remarked, of something a Negro carpenter opined, that “the fact that he was black from head to toe was proof that what he said was stupid.” And David Hume wrote, in a notorious footnote, that he was “apt to suspect” that nonwhites were “naturally inferior to the whites,” devoid of arts and science and “ingenious manufactures.”

The Red Baron

Michael Young, London, 1997
Inspired by the meritocratic ideal, many people these days are committed to a view of how the hierarchies of money and status in our world should be organized. We think that jobs should go not to people who have connections or pedigree but to those best qualified for them, regardless of their background. Occasionally, we’ll allow for exceptions—for positive discrimination, say, to help undo the effects of previous discrimination. But such exceptions are provisional: when the bigotries of sex, race, class, and caste are gone, the exceptions will cease to be warranted. We’ve rejected the old class society. In moving toward the meritocratic ideal, we have imagined that we have retired the old encrustations of inherited hierarchies. As the sociologist Michael Young knew, that’s not the real story.

NYR DAILY

The Achievement of Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe found a way to represent for a global Anglophone audience the diction of his Igbo homeland, allowing readers of English elsewhere to experience a particular relationship to language and the world in a way that made it seem quite natural—transparent, one might almost say. A measure of his achievement is that Achebe found an African voice in English that is so natural its artifice eludes us.