Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah, toward the end of The Ethics of Identity, asks how we (us run-of-the-mill westerners, I suppose) are to think about “illiberal practices that are grounded in local traditions” (p. 248)—practices that we find abhorrent but that are (or are presented as) integral parts of some tradition foreign to our own. He asks this specifically in the context of wondering how we might think about the case of male and female circumcision, taking as a starting point the assumption that male circumcision is, though strange, not inherently illiberal, whereas female circumcision is a paradigm illiberal practice. Considered in isolation, that is, there is no great problem justifying tolerance of male circumcision. But, if we tolerate male circumcision, must we not also tolerate its female counterpart? I do not here care whether Appiah’s assumption is fair. Even if the problem does not arise in this case, it arises in others.

Appiah considers two reasons why one might liberal tolerance of the illiberal practice of female circumcision. One, the “ironism” of Richard Rorty, will not concern me here. What I am interested in is a kind of isolationism about traditions that Appiah considers, according to which our liberal political tradition is “just our local framework; Confucianism and many African traditional religions provide others, each of which is, as they say, ‘equally valid’” (p. 248). On this view, we secure tolerance of what our liberal tradition approves by localizing all critique to within a framework. One framework cannot criticize another. Sometimes this view is defended as the upshot of a larger critique of the very idea of an Archimedean point from which judgment rains down—a point naturally assumed to be occupied by our own, liberal tradition.

Appiah’s criticism of this isolationist move is quite interesting:

It will be no surprise, by now, that I have very little sympathy with this line of approach. It requires us to define hermetically sealed worlds, closed off from one another, within which everyone is trapped into a moral consensus, inaccessible to arguments from outside. It abjures moral universalism from the very Archimedean point it repudiates. And it deals poorly with the reality of internal dissent: what are we to say of the African women who are opposed to infibulation? (p. 248)

There are two complaints here. The first turns the tables on the critic of Archimedes: the isolationist preserves local traditions only by decreeing their mutual incommensurability. And where is this judgment supposed to come from? Where else but an Archimedean point—or at least a point internal to neither framework. After all, from within our liberal tradition it seems perfectly reasonable to criticize traditions that involve female circumcision precisely because such practices are illiberal. And—turnabout is fair play—I suspect that those traditions equally contain the internal resources to criticize us liberals. So this repudiation of external critique is not going to emerge from within either tradition.

The second complaint concerns internal dissent: whatever a local tradition is, it is not the sort of thing that always or ever receives the assent of all those who live within it. Just as it receives criticism from external traditions, so also it suffers criticism from within. It is safe neither from its competitors nor from itself. It is safe only from the supposed critic of Archimedes, and is so precisely because this so-called “critic” is nothing of the sort.

What underlies Appiah’s criticism is recognition that there is no way to cut off conversation between traditions, no way to “hermetically seal” any moral framework. When two frameworks enter into such conversation, the Archimedean point serves as a useful ideal. We do not seek justifications internal to our own framework, but something more general, something beyond our locally inherited values—something that can be recognized as a justification to all parties to the dispute. To assume that we occupy this point already is hubris (and in this regard a dose of Rorty’s—or is it Montaigne’s?—ironism may be beneficial), but to strive for it is just to converse. To reject that any actual framework occupies the Archimedean point is to accept that all are open to criticism from everywhere, from every point actually occupied. The true critic of Archimedes works to open up space for mutual criticism, not to shut it down.


And Appiah, in his discussion of Rorty’s ironism that ensues, goes on to make a similar point to that I arrived at in my reflections above:

Here is a point, in fact, where our philosopher’s disagreement about rationalism makes a difference: for “rationalistic rhetoric” claims that in all encounters human beings are struggling with similar mental apparatus to understand a single world. Not only do I believe, unlike Rorty, that this is just how things are; I believe, despite Rorty, that thinking this way helps in disagreements with others, whether those others are down the street today or across oceans or centuries from ourselves. Rorty supposes that the rationalist is bound to think that “we” are right and “they” are wrong: but if there is one world only, then it is also possible that they might be right. 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. (p. 257)

I should note that following Appiah in abjuring relativism, and doing so for the very reasons he has given, need not commit one to moral realism (it is unclear to me, at least so far, whether Appiah is himself a moral realist). We do not need “right answers” to moral questions (as sanctioned by… the universe??) to debate them fruitfully. (The same is true, perhaps more obviously so, for debates about aesthetic taste.)

In a previous post, I criticized Tolstoy’s What is Art? for putting forth an impoverished view of art, impoverished because it forbids any kind of quasi-private communicative role for art. Here I want to discuss a second manner in which it is impoverished. Tolstoy’s view of the function of art—roughly speaking, the furtherance of the brotherly union of all people—forbids art from contributing to any sense of local identity. Thus, for instance, Barlow’s Columbiad and Paulding’s Backwoodsman (post coming soon) are unacceptable simply on the grounds that they are inherently American, that they contribute to a conception of specifically American identity in that country’s youth.

Consider Tolstoy’s tempered praise of certain modern works that he thinks instantiate “universal art, which conveys the simplest everyday feelings of life, such as are accessible to everyone in the world” (p. 132; Penguin Classics):

It is still more difficult to point in modern art to examples… of good universal everyday art, especially in verbal art and in music. If there do exist works which by their inner content might be placed in this category, such as Don Quixote, the comedies of Molière, Dickens’s David Copperfield and Pickwick Papers, the tales of Gogol and Pushkin, and some of the writings of Maupassant, even so these works, by the exclusiveness of the feelings they convey, by the superfluity of specific details of time and place, and above all by the poverty of their content as compared with examples of universal ancient art (for instance, the story of Joseph and his brothers), are mostly accessible only to people of their own nation and even of their own circle. (p. 133)

Tolstoy criticizes as superfluous and inherently exclusionary the “superfluity of specific details of time and place,” and it is precisely these details that allow works of art to contribute, not just to the elaboration of what it is to be human, but of what it is to be a particularly situated human. To understand the complex emotional state of Gabriel Conroy in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the reader needs to understand not just his relationship to his wife but his broader relation to the Ireland in which this relationship is situated. Even though I am not an early 20th century Irishman and so cannot experience precisely the same set of co-existing pressures as Gabriel, my sympathy is only increased by this complexity and nuance.

But for Tolstoy, the ineliminably Irish character of the story detracts from its universality, and so makes it less valuable as art. In a sense, he is correct (about the first part, not the second). Undoubtedly, there are aspects of the story that will speak differently to an Irish person than they speak to me. But what of it? Why must everyone react the same way to a work? Insistence on such homogeneity is infantilizing, because the only feelings that can truly be universally shared are the simplest feelings taken in isolation. But actual human experience consists of complex combinations of feelings, combinations inextricably linked with the “superfluous” details of one’s time and place.

And this leads to a broader point about what Tolstoy’s view of the function of art leaves out. It leaves out any sense of local identity. Tolstoy’s cosmopolitan picture of the brotherly union of all people is characterized in such a way as to preclude all identities more specific than “human,” because, for Tolstoy, all such local identities give rise to in-group and out-group, and so detract from universality. Brotherly union, for Tolstoy, is inherently homogenizing. And, once again, this insistence on homogeneity is infantilizing. It strips human beings of their complex relationships to one another.

In this regard my beginning to read Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity is well-timed in a way I had not expected. For Appiah is concerned precisely to explore the ethical role of local identities within a broadly cosmopolitan political outlook. On Tolstoy’s view, Appiah’s project is fundamentally misguided. But it seems to me that Tolstoy’s view is monstrous and—for all his emphasis placed on what is universally human—inhuman. I look forward to seeing how Appiah solves the problem that Tolstoy cannot even pose.

In The Ethics of Identity, Kwame Anthony Appiah attempts to articulate the role of identities within human life from an individualist vantage:

If there is something distinctive in my approach, it is that I start always from the perspective of the individual engaged in making his or her life, recognizing that others are engaged in the same project, and concerned to ask what social and political life means for this ethical project we share. (xvii)

The first chapter of the book is devoted to characterizing the nature of “the individual engaged in making his or her life,” the nature of what Appiah calls “self-creation.” He writes under the sign of John Stuart Mill, who characterized self-creation as constrained by history, human nature, and personal circumstance, but nonetheless dependent on the free creativity of the individual, who must choose the life he makes. Against the Millian view, Appiah poses two rivals, the Romantic and the Existentialist.

The Romantic sees self-creation as less creation than discovery. The individual has an authentic self, and the task of making a life involves uncovering this authentic self, freeing it from all external, perturbing influences. Authenticity is truth to an already given meaning. Of the two parts of the Millian picture—constraint and creativity—the Romantic emphasizes constraint above all, and minimizes creativity.

Unsurprisingly, Appiah’s Existentialist takes precisely the opposite approach. There is no pre-given self, waiting to be found. History and other sources of constraint exist, to be sure, but they hardly constrain. Every option is left open. Whatever one is not, one must choose not to be. One must not feebly excuse themselves by saying that the option was not open to them (for whatever external reason). There may be no such deferrals of one’s own authority. Thus the Existentialist sees self-creation is consisting entirely of creativity.

One may certainly question whether any actual Romantic or Existentialist thinker answers to Appiah’s depiction, but that is not to my purpose here. The dynamic that Appiah has set up is between a view of self-creation as a balancing act between constraint and creativity, and two possible, though perhaps never actually held, views that privilege one of these to the exclusion of the other. Appiah is certainly right to favor the middle position. Indeed the obviousness of the need for both constraint and creativity is one reason why I question whether either extreme has actually been held. For instance, Appiah quotes Foucault’s critique of Sartre’s invocation of authenticity within an existentialist framework. Foucault argues that this notion is incompatible with the denial of a pre-given self, and claims that “we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” Appiah thinks that Foucault’s view ignores the material constraints on self-creation. But this is unfair, for Foucault could not possibly have been unaware that every individual work of art is constrained and shaped by artistic tradition, available materials, contemporary technology, one’s sense of an audience, and so forth. Constraint is built into Foucault’s metaphor.

So Appiah’s balanced view might be less controversial (among those who care about self-creation, at least) than he thinks. But the balanced view, as I have stated it, which I believe is fair to how Appiah states it (at least so far; better statements may be forthcoming) is an abstraction, and an impoverished one. To favor it over the Romantic and Existentialist views is correct, abstractly, but misses out on something essential: the role of the Romantic and Existentialist views in the phenomology of self-creation.

Enter Emerson. On the surface, Emerson reads most like a paradigm Romantic thinker, even appearing to answer closely to Appiah’s caricature. Certainly Emerson is a descendant of the Romantic tradition, of Coleridge and not Bentham (to borrow Mill’s contrast). At the heart of his work is the ideal of self-reliance, and Emerson constantly characterizes this in terms of authenticity to one’s true self:

On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,—“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will then live from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. (Self-Reliance)

Here the “law… of my nature” is contrasted with that perverting influence, “the sacredness of traditions.” Fidelity to one’s authentic self is not merely the highest law, in this picture, but the only law. But to characterize Emerson as a Romantic on this basis would be to see only half the picture. For Emerson equally frequently reads like an Existentialist:

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. […] A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul simply has nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. (Self-Reliance)

Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back. (Circles)

While, in the first quote, authenticity appears (or appears to appear) in the guise of “self-trust,” what Emerson goes on to say nearly voids it of content. Everything external is a perverting influence, true—and everything one has been in the past is equally a perverting influence, a siren call to a foolish consistency. Everything but the choice that appears right to one at that moment is relegated to mere perturbation and inauthenticity. Thus Emerson here collapses into the pure Existentialist view, just as Foucault argued in the case of Sartre. In the quote from “Circles,” this is even clearer: no material influences are sacred, none profane. There is only experimentation. This notion of experimentation implies uncertainty: one does not know, in choosing, that one is acting authentically. That can only be found out after the fact.

So is Emerson a Romantic or an Existentialist? It is a question ill-posed. We might look to his own words for guidance, perhaps he is sometimes one, sometimes the other, and, wary of insisting on a “foolish consistency,” articulates now one in hard words, now the other. This is part of the answer, but if we consider this oscillation from the abstract vantage at which Appiah discusses the conflict, it appears like a foolish inconsistency, a mere inability to make up his mind. The problem is that that is the wrong vantage point in the first place.

To understand Emerson, it is essential to recognize that his primary aim is not to provide an abstract discussion of the nature of self-reliance. He is equally concerned to capture the lived experience of self-reliance, the phenomenology of it. And in that phenomenology, both Romanticism and Existentialism play a role, not as intellectual positions to be accepted or denied, but as expressions of a particular sort of experience. For, regardless of whether there is or is not a pre-given self, ontologically speaking, I certainly know the experience of feeling that I have made decisions that were not true to myself, however “true to myself” is to be theoretically understood. The Romantic insistence on authenticity, on self-discovery over self-creation, speaks to this experience. But equally there is the experience of all material, all context, as utterly impotent to tell me what to do, of the dizzying freedom of being forced to choose, of being unable to rule anything out. And this feeling gives us the Existentialist.

For the task of self-creation, it is not enough to accept, bloodlessly, the balanced view, though, bloodlessly considered, that is the correct view. It is also required that one learn to live with both Romantic and Existentialist experiences, to learn practically to balance them. Emerson’s enduring value is that he captured this phenomenological oscillation more accurately than anyone I know.