Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Rooted Cosmopolitanism

In his The Ethics of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005) Kwame Anthony Appiah defends a position he calles rooted cosmopolitanism. His discussion gives us material for a more subtle approach to Peace through Understanding. We began with the hope that peace could be achieved through understanding; and that understanding is to be obtained through dialectics. A survey of the history of philosophical reflection on dialectics gives the impression that there are two main sorts of ideas about the ends of dialectic: Platonic and historical, or transcendent and immanent. In Platonic theories we end up with universals, Forms, or Ideas, principles to which all must agree if they are rational, universal human rights, and moral absolutes. In historical theories we end up with familiarity, sympathy and love. Appiah suggests that both of these approaches is flawed. Familiarity can breed discontent, resentment, and boredom as well as it can make possible sympathy and love. Truly universal principles will be as empty and trivial as declarations of the nobility of truth, beauty, and goodness. Instead, we should seek agreement on specific practical issues through dialogue across cultures. Against antiuniversalism that celebrates all diversity, Appiah complains that aside from the moral repugnance of some forms of tyranny that would seek to excuse themselves by appeal to non-Western values, "it protects difference at the cost of partitioning each community into a moral world of its own." (249) The objection is similar to one made by Miroslav Volf against MacIntyre. But while Volf allows for learning to value various principles rooted in different traditions, Appiah takes a more particularist approach.

"If we want to hold on to the idea that the ethnocentrism of the Enlightenment was wrong, but still sympathize with the radical and continuing doubts of the ironists, we must find, I think, a different response from Rorty's to the cosmopolitan experience of being "impressed by other vocabularies." I prefer to speak with the Enlightenment: to think of dialogue--and I don't mean jsut the dialogue across nations that cosmopolitans favor--as a shared search for truth and justice.

People from other parts of the world, we can all agree, attract our moral attention; through them we see the "balance of good and bad" in a particular position, and our sympathy is engaged. In the past, in a humanist narrative, this would have been glossed as the discovery of our common humanity, and these responses to others could have been defended as a source of insight into that human nature. "Yes, they are different and we rejoice in that: but we can rejoice in it, in the end, only because it is human difference." (Strains of "Ode an die Freude" in the background here: "Alle Menchen werden BrĂ¼der ..." und so weiter.) This--I agree with the critic of Enlightenment humanism here--is the wrong conclusion." (250-251)

"I want to suggest that there was something wrong with the original picture of how dialogue should be grounded. It was based on the idea that we must find points of agreement at the level of principle: here is human nature; here is what human nature dictates. What we learn from efforts at actual intercultural dialogue--what we learn from travel, but also from poems or novels or films from other places--is that we can identify points of agreement that are much more local and contingent than this. We can agree, in fact, with many moments of judgment, even if we do not share the framework within which those judgments are made, even if we cannot identify a framework, even if there are not principles articulated at all." (253)

"It should perhaps go without saying that the existence of conflict--geopolitical tension--doesn't track with moral or metaphysical difference, either. For the most part, conflict between national powers doesn't arise from clashing conceptions of the good. On the contrary, conflict arises when both have identified the same thing as good; and where it is, in the economic argot, a "rivalrous good" (something that cannot be shared by two parties at the same time: a port, an oil field, a piece of fertile territory). The fact that both Palestinians and Israelis--in particular, that both observant Muslims and observant Jews--have a special relation to Jerusalem, to the Temple Mount, has been a reliable source of conflict. Cosmopolitan education, Martha Nussbaum says, should help students "to recognize humanity wherever they encounter it, undeterred by traits that are strange to them," and "learn enough about the different to recognize common aims, aspirations, and values, and enough about these common ends to see how variously thay are instantiated in the many cultures and their histories." Again, I think this is a commendable ideal; but it would be a mistake to think that harmony among peoples could thereby be achieved. Proximity, spiritual or otherwise, is as conducive to antagonism as it is to amity." (255-256)

Appiah rejects relativism in a manner similar to Bencivenga's: "We can learn from each other's stories only if we share both human capacities and a single world: relativism about either is a reason not to converse but to fall silent." (257) Given Bencivenga's warnings about assumptions of unity, we should perhaps modify this to say that we can learn from one another only if we share capacities and share experiences. There is no need to posit a unique world.

Appiah's position is summarized in the following paragraph:

"Cosmopolitanism imagines a world in which people and novels and music and films and philosophies travel between places where they are understood differently, because people are different and welcome to their difference. Cosmopolitanism can work because there can be common conversations about these shared ideas and objects. But what makes the conversations possible is not always shared "culture"; not even, as the older humanists imagined, universal principles or values (though, as I say, people from far away can discover that their principles meet); nor yet shared understanding (though people with very different experiences can end up agreeing about the darnedest things). What works in encounters with other human beings across gaps of space, time, and experience is enourmously various. For stories--epic poems as well as modern forms like novels and films, for example--it is the capacity to follow a narrative and conjure a world; and, it turns out, there are people everywhere more than willing to do this. This is the moral epistemology that makes cosmopolitanism possible." (258)

Appiah often quotes Mill, and the last quote is worth requoting: "To human beings, who, as hitherto educated, can scarecely cultivate even a good quality without running it into a fault, it is indispensable to be perpetually comparing their own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances from themselves: and there is no nation which does not need to borrow from others, not merely particular arts or practices, but essential points of character in which its own type is inferior." (271) -Mill, Principles of Political Economy.

The flaw of liberalism as stereotyped in popular culture is that it excuses what is morally unacceptable as merely different. Appiah's liberalism does not have this flaw, and he discusses the problem sensitively. Bencivenga is also quite explicit about the fact that dialogue will have to be confrontational at times and painful. At the other extreme are those who would impose their own cultural habits on others in the name of a need for Lebensraum, those who are uncomfortable hearing foreign languages, entertaining guests with foreign table manners, sitting on a plane with Muslims.


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