Tuesday June 30, 2009
A couple of years ago when I was travelling through Eastern Europe, I decided to learn German. This was something that I had – back in the days I was at school – resolved never, ever to do. After a few weeks of German classes at the age of thirteen or fourteen, horrified by those enormous words and that terrifying grammar (really, I remember thinking, how many definite articles do you need?), I gave up German, and vowed that this would be the end of it. But then, many years later, as I sat on the train heading from Bulgaria to London (not a direct service, I should add…), I found myself thinking that what I wanted to do when I got home was to start teaching myself German. There was no clear practical reason for this, but instead the sense that my lack of linguistic acumen was somehow limiting, the sense that learning another language – even learning to speak a little – would enable me to have a sense of myself as the inhabitant of a larger and richer world. Or, to put it another way, it was born out of the sense that my life and my outlook were a little too parochial, that a good dose of cosmopolitanism might do me some good. Not quite two years on, my German is still fairly ropey, but it is advancing slowly; and flushed by this minimal success, I’ve also decided to supplement my efforts to learn German with a serious assault at least on the basics of Mandarin Chinese. Progress, once again, is slow, but it’s all pretty exciting.
The idea of cosmopolitanism is, in fact, one that has always attracted me. As a writer, I find many of the books that I love come not from the traditions of English literature, but from beyond. And I might even be tempted to see my engagement with Buddhism over the years in this cosmopolitan light, as a kind of broadening of the possibilities of thinking and acting. As a philosophical notion, cosmopolitanism dates back to the time of the ancient cynics. When Diogenes was asked where he came from, he did not say that he was a citizen of Sinope, but he said instead “I am a citizen of the cosmos”, so scandalising the Athenians by refusing to identify first and foremost with the polis, with the city-state. I am not sure if Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism is going to scandalise anybody in quite the same way; but at the same time, it is a persuasive exploration of how we may be able to live together with each other, how we may be able to practice ethics, “in a world of strangers.” Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton, explores the implications of cosmopolitanism with the kind of fluency and charm that is all too uncommon in philosophy books (for those who have not read the book, he can be heard over on the Philosophy Bites podcast site).
One of the crucial claims that Appiah makes is that cosmopolitanism involves the recognition of both difference and universalism, and thus treads a kind of middle path between relativism on the one hand, and moral absolutism on the other. Making the case for universalism, we could say that we all have a shared biology, and that this shared biology sets many of the parameters for the kinds of beings that we are and the kings of things that we do. The folks who live over there (wherever “over there” happens to be) may seem to be pretty funny, but when you look more closely, they are pretty funny only within the bounds of this shared biology. They too, like us, get up to the same kinds of things: they are born, they raise their children, they fall in love, they talk about how best to do philosophy or how best to cook vegetables, they grow old, they die. Nevertheless, although there is much that is shared, the differences between us are not negligible. We live – depending on where we are, how we are brought up, and what influences have borne upon us – according to different modes of life. These two are not in contradiction: one of the human universals is that we creatures capable of living according to different modes of life. It may be that one frog (for example) goes about its life in much the same way as another frog. But human beings are not like this. The universal fact of human suppleness is something that leads to the fact of difference. It is not quite true, as Sartre claims, that our existence precedes our essence; but at the same time it is not quite false either. And so, it is also the case that that the people over there (from our perspective) are, in fact, pretty funny; although the corollary of this is that we (from their perspective) are pretty funny as well.
One of the crucial points that Appiah makes arises from the tension between universalism on the one hand and difference on the other. We can sometimes think that moral conversation is about securing agreement, and that only on the basis of agreement can we find ways of living together. If we could just exercise our reason with sufficient vigour, the argument goes, then we could see through all the different moral issues that afflict us, we could talk things through, and we could find a way of living harmoniously side-by-side. The bad news, however, is that this goal is one that is rarely reached, and that the differences that divide us are such that there is perhaps little chance of reaching this kind of moral agreement. But, on the other hand, the good news is that we do not need moral agreement to live with each other. Often, we get by, even when agreement is lacking.
That is to say, conversation about matters of right and wrong and so forth is not so much a way of getting to a final judgement; but instead it is – at its best – a means of helping us to find ways of putting up with each other. I might also add the reverse, and caution that conversations about matters of right and wrong are often dangerous precisely because – at their worst – they can lead us to believe that we cannot or must not put up with each other, leading as much to division as to harmony, as much to discord as to amity. In a world where differences will never be fully resolved, the dream of ultimate moral agreement is one that can cause untold damage. When we forget Diogenes’s challenge for us to remember that we are not just citizens of Sinope, or of wherever it is that we come from, or when we give in to the temptation to stake our identify upon one particular region out of the vast sea of conditions – the ten thousand things – out of which we have been born, it is then the problems start. And this is something that Appiah hints at, although he is not explicit on the point: we are, all of us, already citizens of the cosmos. I do not mean this in a vague and mystical sense. What I mean is that we are born out of an enormous range of conditions, that we are all of us multiple, and that to stake one’s identity, once and for all, upon a single flag, creed, nation or ideology is to close one’s eyes to the vastness and the complexity of this sea of conditions.
Yesterday, as I was walking down the street and seeing so many thousands of people all rubbing shoulders with each other, I was astonished that I didn’t see a single snarl. Thousands of people, putting up with each other. Perhaps it doesn’t seem a very elevated goal. Perhaps it seems ordinary. But such ordinariness is well worth preserving.
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