Cosmopolitanism and Change. A Comparison between the Views of K.A. Appiah and C. West

I was reading recently Anthony Appiah’s book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, and at one point I was reminded of Cornel West’s ideas expressed in his 1985 essay, “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual.” Considering the always current issues of immigration, multiculturalism, multiracial communities, the way communities change because of immigration, and living, in general, in a multicultural environment, I think the ideas expressed by the two authors can set a path in our understanding of them. Maybe even solving a few problems.

Appiah sees change as a natural occurrence that should not be disturbed. While some people consider globalization to be a threat to the identity of certain social groups, the author argues that this view does not take into consideration the free choice of the individuals in those particular groups. He argues, “If we want to preserve a wide range of human conditions because it allows free people the best chance to make their own lives, there is no place for the enforcement of diversity by trapping people within a kind of difference they long to escape. There simply is no decent way to sustain those communities of difference that will not survive without the free allegiance of their members.” (p. 105). In his opinion, no human being has the right to claim to know what other people want, or need: “Even if you grant that people shouldn’t be forced into sustaining authentic cultural practices, you might suppose that a cosmopolitan should side with those who are busy around the world ‘preserving culture’ and resisting ‘cultural imperialism.’ But behind these slogans you often find some curious assumptions.” (pp. 105-106) (…) “Talk of cultural imperialism structuring the consciousnesses of those in the periphery treats … people … as tabulae rasae on which global capitalism’s moving finger writes its message, leaving behind another homogenized consumer as it moves on. It is deeply condescending. And it isn’t true.” (p. 111)

Cornel West, on the other hand, believes that change must be imposed, in a way, so that society could evolve. Even though he talks about a specific social group, his ideas can be generalized also for other minorities. West argues that “the present day academy and contemporary literate sub- cultures present more obstacles for young blacks than those in decades past.” (110) He believes there are three reasons for this. “First, the attitudes of white scholars in the academy are quite different than those in the past. (…) Second, literate subcultures are less open to blacks now than they were three or four decades ago (…).Third, the general politicization of American intellectual life (in the academy and outside), along with the rightward ideological drift, constitutes a hostile climate for the making of black intellectuals.” (110-111). West believes in the idea of the socially engaged intellectual, and for him a philosopher should be involved in the life of his community, trying to improve it. This is a departure from Appiah’s conception, which viewed the intellectual as more of an observer and analyst. West tries to give solutions in regards to what a (presumably young) black intellectual should do to overcome his social and even personal difficulties. Personal difficulties, because, in West’s opinion, “The choice of becoming a black intellectual is an act of self-imposed marginality; it assures a peripheral status in and to the black community. (…) for blacks, as with most Americans, the uses for literacy are usually perceived to be for more substantive pecuniary benefits than those of the writer, artist, teacher, or professor.” (110) West analyzes in detail “four models for black intellectual activity”: “The Bourgeois Model: Black Intellectual as Humanist” (115), “The Marxist Model: Black Intellectual as Revolutionary”, “The Foucaultian Model: Black Intellectual as Post Modern Skeptic” (120), and “The Insurgency Model: Black Intellectual as Critical Organic Catalyst” (121), concluding that the last model should include the best parts of the previous three.

Both Appiah and West think, in essence, that we must respect each other, respect our variety, and the opinions of each other. Whether they talk about a global community (Appiah), or a very specific one (West), both thinkers see the importance of change as a phenomenon that must be taken into consideration when analyzing the particulars of human society. In their view, change shapes our lives. They set themselves apart one from another, in my opinion, through their approach to this change.

Works cited:

Appiah, Kwame Akroma-Ampim Kusi Anthony, “Cosmopolitan Contamination” from Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), pp. 101-113.

West, Cornel, “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual,” in Cultural Critique, No. 1 (Autumn, 1985), University of Minnesota Press, pp. 109-124,

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