Kwame Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, A Book Review

"Glass Globe" by suphakit73 at
“Glass Globe” by suphakit73 at

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism is an engaging, well-written examination of the idea of cosmopolitanism, which will lead students to think deeply about the meaning of global citizenship. At the core of the book is Appiah’s question, what obligations do humans have to each other? I used the book last year in my “Foundations of Global Studies Theory” class, and had the opportunity to read my student’s reflections on the work in their book reviews, which has shaped this review. Based on their feedback and the class discussion, I think that this book would be an excellent choice for an “Introduction to International and Global Studies” course.

Appiah’s work is deeply shaped by his own bi-cultural upbringing, with roots in both Ghana and England. One of his strengths as an author is the ability to make students see how these issues apply to their own lives by relating philosophical questions to his own experience. He also frequently uses case studies or thought experiments to make his point. In both my student’s book reviews and the class discussion my students tended to refer to these examples, which led them to remember his arguments. Appiah’s writing style was clear, jargon-free and accessible, another boon in my class where students were reading authors such as Marx and Chakrabarty.

Appiah also has the ability to challenge simplistic, binary thinking. Is it necessarily bad if an American retail chain opens a branch in a developing country? What are the limits to our obligations to each other? Is the Golden Rule a fundamental principle for all cultures? Appiah describes a nineteenth century British crime in Ghana to make the point that Ghana was not culturally pure at this point, but rather was already deeply engaged with Europe. Appiah challenges easy answers, and leads students to think critically about their own values.

One student particularly liked his discussion of who “owned” culture. Appiah suggests that by emphasizing “cultural patrimony” we may overlook the extent to which that art or culture may be part of a global patrimony, which belongs to everyone. Students often disagreed with Appiah’s points, but their own arguments became more nuanced through discussing the text. In particular, he is able to discuss such loaded topics as religion in a balanced manner.

At the same time, some of my students’ critiques of Appiah’s works were persuasive. In his discussion of religion Appiah tends to focus on the values that unite different faiths, rather than the detail’s that divide them. This tends to paper over the deep differences that divide religious groups in practice. As one of my students pointed out, his critique of the Golden Rule also seems to undermine his argument that religions share many mutual values. In general, Appiah’s analysis of nationalism seems more developed than his thoughts on religion.

Some of my students suggested that at times his argument seemed to be utopian or romantic; other students suggested that although Appiah critiques moral relativism, at times his argument comes close to this stance. One student also argued that Appiah overemphasized values over interests, such as in his discussion of what Jerusalem meant to Israelis and Palestinians. Sometimes the challenge is not only the competing values of the two sides, but also the competing interests. Unless this reality can be addressed, no amount of dialogue regarding values will end conflict.

Despite these critiques, this book is clearly written, can engage introductory students, and covers major global issues. Many students commented that they found Appiah an entertaining guide. With his life on three continents, his experience seems to embody the values that advocates. While conflict is inevitable on a planet with over seven billion people and thousands of cultures, Appiah is able to draw on some very old ideals (which date back at least to the ancient Greeks) to suggest how we might cohabit this globe. The strength of this book is its ability to have students think about their values, and how they are relevant in a global context. Global Studies can sometimes be a bleak field, and Appiah’s optimistic stance –with its emphasis on our shared humanity- can be uplifting. I strongly recommend this text in introductory and theory classes in our field.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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