At a time when talk of a "clash of civilizations" looks increasingly like a self-fulfilling prophecy, when bin Laden-ites seek to reshape the world in the image of universal Islam, when our own leaders blithely hive off the good from the evil, us from them, Anthony Appiah issues a call for a more helpful posture toward a world of stubborn difference, an approach he calls, reaching back to the 4th Century Greece, "cosmopolitanism."
The cosmopolitan ethic starts from the thought that human knowledge is fallible—that no culture or individual has a lock on truth—and upholds "conversation," broadly defined as the respectful and candid exchange of views among individuals and cultures—as a good in its own right; agreement is not its ultimate goal. It understands individuals in the context of their cultures but tends, where the two clash, to give primacy to the former. What cosmopolitanism does not permit, however, is a kind of flaccid relativism; it insists that there are some universals—basic human rights, for instance—which are non-negotiable. Otherwise, it says, difference and disagreement are so much grist for mutually enriching dialogue.
Cosmopolitanism is a title in the "Issues of Our Time" series from W.W. Norton, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., in which big-name intellectuals tackle important contemporary themes. (The series launched with, in addition to Appiah's, books by Amartya Sen and Alan Dershowitz.)
Kwame Anthony Appiah, who was raised in Ghana and educated in England, is professor of philosophy at Princeton University. His books include In My Father's House, Thinking It Through, and The Ethics of Identity. He's the editor, with Henry Louis Gates Jr., of Africana.
Mother Jones: "Cosmopolitan" is a word with a certain pedigree, a certain amount of baggage, so let's start by defining terms.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: Sure. The word comes from a Greek phrase, which means "citizen of the world." The first person we know to have used the word...