K.A Appiah and the Search for Contemporary Identity

Born in 1954 of British and Ghanaian descent, Kwame Anthony Appiah was originally interested in problems of semantics and theories of meaning before turning his attention to the impact of a more and more cosmopolitan world on perceptions of identity. He first considered the relation of personal and group identity to the realm of morals in The Ethics of Identity, published in 2005. To what extent are our deepest personal values attached to our inescapable cultural identity?

Nineteenth-century liberalism provided a political, but also a strongly moral framework for law-abiding citizens taught the fundamental principles of civic duties. The shaping of our individual identity takes place in the midst of conflicting choices and agonising options. For Appiah, the same age-old question hangs over our attempts at becoming ourselves: ‘Who are we is irrevocably linked to what we are as well.’ By ‘what’, Appiah means all the possible tags attached to our constitutive personality such as our gender, race, class status, cultural tastes not to mention personal pursuits in the realm of sport, charity work or any other social activity. 

Whatever our personal life model, be it founded on shared common values or derived from inner convictions, Appiah regards as our primary duty the fulfilling of moral obligations towards our fellow-beings. His debt to John Stuart Mill’s philosophy is fully acknowledged as he holds the notion of individuality developed by the liberal thinker as the bedrock of his own enquiry into the subject. Yet, he widens his arguments to bigger global concerns as the scope of our moral duties inevitably extends to the citizens of other nations than our own. 

Appiah’s next book Cosmopolitanism Ethics in a World of Strangers, published in 2007, refined his initial approach by exploring the possibilities of a new ethics in a ‘global village’ more and more interconnected socially and economically. By avoiding the term ‘multiculturalism’ and opting for ‘cosmopolitanism’ instead, the author took his distance from ‘an easy and spurious utopianism of ‘mixture’, as there is of ‘purity’. 

The idea of a cosmopolitan world, governed by universal Reason underpinned the whole Enlightenment project as exemplified in Kant’s idealistic proposal of a ‘league of nations’. This open-mindedness to other ways of thinking and living is the theoretical hallmark of Enlightenment philosophy. Yet, Appiah adds a cautious caveat to this all-encompassing vision of humanity as respect fro cultural differences could be neglected if not obliterated in the pursuit of grander universal imperatives.

The return of strong feelings of national identity prompted professor Appiah to pursue his critical reflection on the subject in his recently published ‘The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity’ (2018). Our social, cultural and political perceptions of our innermost ‘self’ constitute an ever-changing patchwork requiring constant revisions and readjustments. By analysing identity through the criteria of creed, country, colour, class and culture, Appiah debunks our long-established ‘myths’ such as the existence of ‘Western Civilisation’. The label ‘Western’ does not actually correspond to any fixed perennial definition.

As the author remarks: ‘You do not get to be Western, without choosing your way among myriad options, just as you do not get to be Christian or Buddhist, American or Ghanaian, gay or straight, even a man or a woman without recognising that each of these identities can be lived in more than one way.’

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