An Interview with Presidential Scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah

The Student had the privilege of interviewing Presidential Scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah, a renowned philosopher and author, to discuss his background, career as a writer and thinker, and hopes for the future of philosophy.

The Student had the privilege of interviewing Presidential Scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah, a renowned philosopher and author, to discuss his background, career as a writer and thinker, and hopes for the future of philosophy. Appiah gave his keynote address, “What is Racism? One Story,” on Saturday, Oct. 30, in Lipton Lecture Hall.

Appiah earned his B.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, and then went on to teach at Yale, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, and Princeton. Presently, Appiah is a professor of philosophy and law at New York University. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Appiah holds honorary degrees from Bard College, Berea College, Colby College, Colgate University, Columbia University, Dickinson College, the University of Edinburgh, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Harvard University, the New School, the University of Richmond, and Swarthmore College. He was awarded the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize by Brandeis University in 2008. Appiah’s most recent book is entitled “The Lies that Bind.”

Q: What drew you to philosophy and what questions were you looking to answer when you began your career?

A: The way that I came into philosophy was, I suppose, the same way as many people in the European tradition, because I came to philosophy through religion. I was a very devout evangelical Christian teenager, and I read a fair amount of theology. I read 20th century theology — people like Carl Bart — who were all drawing on philosophical language. And so pretty soon you think if I'm going to make any sense of this, I turned to the philosophers. And that became a large part of my life. I got more and more interested in philosophy itself, and less and less interested in the religious questions — in particular, in theological questions, questions about the nature of God, and just more interested in questions about epistemology and metaphysics more generally, not on the ethics side at the start.

I was reading with a group of friends and an advisor who was an assistant chaplain. We even had a go at [Immanuel] Kant's “Critique of Pure Reason” — though, as you can imagine, reading that by yourself isn't super rewarding as a 17-year old. And then I discovered Alfred Ayer. In the college book room, there was a copy of “Language, Truth, and Logic,” which I picked up — I don't know why. And I found that very bracing and exciting. Pretty soon, I was reading philosophical stuff in high school just because I wanted to, and not because it was helping me to understand my religious situation. A little bit later I lost my faith, but by then, I was deeply into philosophy. I don't think the losing of the faith was much connected with philosophy.

Q: I also come from a fairly religious background. The religious texts that I read growing up, namely the Torah, led me to become interested in philosophy as well. Do you have a hunch as to why Philosophy and Theology are so intertwined?

A: They're close fields and I think it's natural if you get interested in philosophy to be interested in theology, or religious sort of theory, because they're asking many of the same questions. And of course, there are many philosophical questions about theological questions, and so on.

Q: Sometimes, when I write about philosophy, I discover things that I did not anticipate. Have you ever come to unexpected conclusions that challenged your pre-existent beliefs?

A: Oh, all the time. You think about a question and have a first-off reaction and intuition about what the right answer might be. Sometimes I don't know what I think about something, but sometimes I have a fairly clear initial intuition. Then I have to write down a defense of it and explore the question. I think one of the things that you discover in philosophy is that, if you go very carefully through an argument, there are steps where you identify assumptions that you've made, and you realize that you don't actually believe the assumption. That step can't go through without some other supporting bits. It may be valid, but it's unsound because the premise isn't true. And so the first thing that you do is see if there's some other premise that would do the work. You don't immediately abandon your intuitions.

I always tell my students that they don't know what they think until they try to argue for it — until they've made a careful defense of it. It's one of the great privileges of a literate society that we all have access, not just to reading, but to writing as a mode of thinking. Writing as a mode of thinking is very different from the interior monologue.You can be more disciplined if you write it down, because you can go back over the argument again and again, holding things constant. Certain kinds of intellectual progress in human history only began after writing.

Q: What impact do you hope that your writing has on readers? How do you hope to make complicated topics understandable, but not necessarily simpler, to broad audiences?

A: If you're sensible, you're always thinking about who your audience is. I write once a week roughly for a column in the New York Times, which is allegedly read by a million people or something. Well, I know there aren't a million people with philosophy Ph.D. 's in the United States. So, I'm not going to be able to assume this for my audience. Rather, I assume that it is an intelligent, thoughtful, but not philosophically trained audience, which makes a big difference. My audience is mostly people who have university educations.

But I'm always trying to think about who my audience is. I also think about what my mother would say in response to the things that I write. She would say, 'Darling, what on earth are you saying there?' If my interior mother says, 'I think maybe there's a [different] way of saying this' then I'll shift my phrasing or word-choice. I think Einstein said that you should develop an account that's as simple as possible, but no simpler. That's a hard thing to gauge because there are always more details that you could put into the argument: you could always go deeper into something. I'm not interested in persuading them, getting them to think what I think because I think it. I have to provide them with good reasons for thinking that they can follow my argument. I am trying to find out what I really think.

When I'm writing for the New York Review of Books, or the New York Times Magazine, or for my publisher, I have editors — people who say to me, 'I think I know what you're saying, but that’s not what it comes across as.'

On the question of simplicity, I think that people would rather read something that's a little bit harder than they’re used to, than something that is condescending — that treats them as if they're idiots, or simple-minded. I think that it's more respectful. My advice: read those who write clearly, but also not dryly, then you'll absorb habits of mind and practices of writing from them. And you'll get better at writing too.

Q: Your works have problematized nearly all of my identity labels, as I'm sure they have for your audience as well.  They've also simultaneously led me to appreciate my uniqueness. If individuals are not united by their shared experiences, how do you suggest that they avoid feeling isolated by their uniqueness?

A: I think precisely because of our shared identities. Each of us lives our identities in our own way. I'm the only man who has been a man in the way that I'm a man. And you're the only person who's ever been whatever your gender identity is in the way that you have done it. And not everybody recognizes that about themselves. They think, 'I'm just a woman like my mum,' or 'I'm just a gay man, like Oscar Wilde.' But that's not true. There's diversity within every kind of identity.

Nevertheless, there are things to be learned from what John Stuart Mill called other people's experiments of living — things that other people have tried. On the one hand, your situation has never been lived before with the exact range of options, identities, family background, social context, political context. No one's ever had your situation before. On the other hand, lots of people have faced similar situations, and you can learn from them. And one thing that helps you pick the people to learn from is that they share some identity with you. We're unique, in part because we have lots of identities, and there are so many options. There are so many options for racial identities and gender identities and national identities — those have more than 190 options. By the time you've looked at all the possible combinations, there are many more possible combinations than there are people on the planet. No two people have the same identity, never mind the same lives. And identities aren't the only things that we have. We have lots of other properties that are not social identities, and we're different in those as well. So yes, we're unique, but these identities provide links, and other things provide links, that serve as shared agendas.

Lots of things can link you to other people. So I think that the reason why identities are often important, especially in political movements, is because they do bring people together — they generate forms of solidarity. That's very useful, because not only does solidarity make joint action possible, it creates a group of people you can run to, to protect you from threat. Your fellow x's, when you're under threat as an x, are going to be the first people to understand the situation and come to your aid. So there are lots of ways in which, though we are, as you said, uniquely singular, we can use shared identity, shared projects, shared ideals, and still come together under a cosmopolitan agenda to insist that human rights are the business of everybody.

Q: Currently, our understanding of identity is at the forefront of national conversations. How do you think that our society's understanding of identity is going to change in the years to come? What new direction do you hope that today's students will take in these conversations?

A: A lot of the national conversation is, just to be frank, a little silly. When people criticize what they call identity politics, they're often assuming something — they think that if it matters what your race means, you can't think that anything else matters. That's just a stupid thought. It's just a silly idea. W.E.B. Du Bois cared very deeply about the fact that he was Black and an African American. But, he also did care that he was in America. He engaged in projects whose point was to redeem America from racism and, and other classist perspectives and to some extent as well. So the idea that we have to be a feminist to count as an anti-racist is just stupid. I'm going to vote in the elections for the new mayor of New York. I'm going to vote for the next governor of New York. I'm going to be voting in the presidential election, I will vote for two senators and a congressperson. And those are all different levels of political identity. But it's, it would be absurd to say that you have to choose between being a New Yorker and being an American when you're voting for the mayor of New York. That's just not true. And I think similar confusions are pervasive in discussions about these matters.

So there's a perfectly sensible set of discussions to be had about whether we're giving the right weight to considerations about one group or another. But I feel that sometimes people at this moment — and this is not just an American thing — get too wrapped up in ethno-racial identities in a way that that deprives them of cosmopolitan engagement with people of other ethno-racial identities, and also in a way that tends to homogenize their own racial identity or their own ethnic identity. I would urge people to remember that there are many ways of being white, many ways of being Black, many ways of being Asian, many ways of being Native American. And there are many things to be gained by working with people who are of different racial identity than you.

Q: You touched on the illusions that can arise from certain homogenized identities, which oftentimes result in cultural movements. Even if the identities that bind us are lies, do you think that we should respect them in certain ways? Do you think that we should appreciate the historical artifacts like culture that have arisen from our lies?

A: Yes. So two things. One is that they bind these lies. And binding can often be very good. It's the central point of Marxist theories of ideology that the illusions can be very, very powerful in social life. And, of course, when we criticize something [such] as ideology, we want people to abandon the "illusion." But illusions can do good. And if they're doing good, it's not a good idea to abandon them unless you have a better idea about how to do the good. So there's something annoying about the intellectual who comes into the functioning social movement critiquing the details of their social understanding. In the context of the movement, what's important is only to point to areas where they're getting in the way of the movement. It's not important to correct [lies about identity] for their own sake — that's a task for intellectuals. In the context of an actual social movement, insisting on correctness is just annoying. Pointing to errors that are leading us astray — that's helpful if it's right. Saying, 'Look, we could bring those people on board, if we recognized what we shared with them. And the way we're thinking about it now, we think of them as enemies.' There are different contexts for thinking about things, and if you are in a social movement, you need this to be a point. Every time I try to explain this point in the presence of my friend, Gayatri Spivak, she tells me I haven't got it quite right. But I took from her account of strategic essentialism the point that essentialism in general is going to be incorrect. But it's also extremely useful in the context of many concrete struggles to have a simple notion of women, [for instance], to be working with. And the fact that a more complicated account of women is philosophically preferable doesn't mean that it's preferable for the purposes of movement.

Q: When you receive criticism, whether it be from scholars or colleagues, what approach do you take when responding to them?

A: Well, I sometimes get upset by critics mostly when I think they've been unfair when they've attacked a position. I [would hope] that anyone who's reading me [is doing so] with the kind of respect that you want to read people [with]. And so I have to say that I have to hold my tongue for a bit sometimes too. But look, when I started out, I had a view that a lot of racism in the world was the result of false belief and that, if you just corrected the beliefs, you could put things right. I'm reassured by the fact that it's a view W.E.B. Du Bois had when he started out, and he was a fairly smart fellow. So, I don't feel so bad about it now. And eventually, he came to a deeper understanding of the role of false belief and ideology.  W.E.B. Du Bois found that we should have the desire to dominate the production of the false belief, not the false belief it produces.

Now, why am I saying all of this? Because I think that some of the resistance to things that I've said is ideological: it comes from people who think that if they agree with me, they'll have to follow some political conclusion that they don't like. And I'm just used to that now. And I probably do it myself, and probably read other people in that sort of way and don't like their conclusions. The one deep thought from the long history of Western epistemology, I think, is fallibilism — it's learning to recognize what Socrates knew already, which is that smart and thoughtful people can just be wrong. And since most of us aren't either smart or thoughtful, people can be wrong. And we should just accept ourselves. We're going to make mistakes. And part of the point of critics is that, if you're lucky, they'll get through to you and help you correct your mistakes.

Second thing, I am very conscious of the fact that if I feel that somebody has misunderstood me, I may have [avoided]it if I'd been clearer. Or if I had anticipated a thought that I see that they've had, I could have preempted a misunderstanding. Some people willfully misunderstand, and you can't stop that. But sometimes people misunderstand you in ways that you could have entirely predicted if you thought about it more. And that's on you.

Q: You have a humble view of your own work. How do you see your work contributing to anti-racism efforts?

A: [My view of my own writing] is realistic. If I thought that I could abolish racism by writing a book that was super clear, I would do that. But I don't think that. I can contribute, but my book is not going to break the back of the thing. That's the thing, it's not really just about ideas — it's about feelings and art. A significant part of the struggle against racism is being conducted by artists — not by people making arguments, but by people presenting pictures of ways of living, or drawing attention to things that people are doing right or wrong — not making a proposition about it. It's about eliciting a response from people and getting them to see, 'I shouldn't be doing that' or 'Or, gosh, I didn't think about it that way.' There's a whole repertory of cultural tools that are working to make our lives better. There's also a whole country, a repertory of cultural tools trying very hard to make our lives worse, and we have to combat those. But you know, what gets to one person won't get to another person. So, my goal is to make a contribution to some agendas.

Q: Do you ever think about the role that you have played in shaping young minds?

A: What comes first is that I have had the privilege of being allowed to decide what I think about and then trying to get straight about it for myself. And then discovering that it's useful for other people — don't tweet that — and trying to make it more useful to other people. Because of the things that I've learned myself, I'm able to help fellow academics. In elite institutions, like the ones that I've taught in, people have enormous privilege, because they're allowed to set their own intellectual agendas mostly. We're allowed to spend time with smart young people who want to know about the things we're doing. I have discovered much through what they tell me and teach me. When they don't understand, and you help them understand, you will improve your own understanding.

I think about certain people who are out in the world and becoming known, who have helped me. I sometimes think, that's one of mine. The other day, I went to a dinner to raise money for PEN, the writers organization, and they gave some awards. One of them was to my oldest dearest friend, Skip Gates. And the presenter was somebody whom we both taught together, then a young woman called Jodie Foster, who was our student and wrote a wonderful senior thesis about Toni Morrison when she was a student at Yale. From time to time, she says something and I think 'Oh, you know, I had a role in making that person.' And that pleases me. I mean, I don't have children of my own, but I have some children. Not that I made them — that would be ridiculous — but that I helped them. That's the great privilege of being a university teacher, that you're allowed to spend time thinking about things you want to think about, with people who want to think about them with you.

Q: Is there a particular discovery shift or change in the field of philosophy that's surprised or impacted you?

A: The turn among this generation started a while ago, but it's certainly present in this generation of graduate students and younger philosophers. The turn was to a genuine concern about engaging with real problems in the world. Cornel West wrote a wonderful book called “The American Evasion of Philosophy,” whose central thesis was that American philosophy professionalized itself in the mid-20th century by moving away from the kind of philosophy that [came from] someone like John Dewey, which engaged with the world in a professionalized discourse. Dewey focused on issues in the epistemology and philosophy of language of mind, which did not have much to do with politics or social life. When I was becoming a philosophy undergraduate, John Rawls had just published “A Theory of Justice,” and that book revivified analytic normative philosophy. When I wrote a paper on racism in the 80's, there was very little on that topic written by philosophers. Even though people criticize it for not being directly enough connected with applied questions, it did provide a framework for thinking about applied questions and also began a move to engage with questions about identity, politics, power, and equality. Not in a way that's just about dotting I’s and crossing T's, but about thinking what's helpful to move us ahead.