Appiah, Kwame Anthony

views updated

Kwame Anthony Appiah


Philosopher, author, educator

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a American scholar with British and Ghanaian roots renowned for his writings on African culture and race relations in contemporary society. A philosopher by training, Appiah was once described by fellow academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The Chronicle of Higher Education as "the smartest person I've ever met." Like Gates, Appiah has had a long academic association with Harvard University, but moved on to another Ivy League school, Princeton, in 2002. His opinions on race and the African diaspora have incited some controversy in the academic world, but the core tenet of his worldview is an enlightened cosmopolitanism. Summarizing Appiah's beliefs in Black Issues Book Review, Aaron Bryant wrote: "Appiah suggests we go beyond tolerance and tribalism to accept responsibility for the impact we have on the lives of people we know, as well as the lives of people we don't know."

Appiah was born on May 8, 1954, in London, England. His mother, Enid (Peggy) Cripps, was the daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps, who had been Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, or treasury and finance minister, from 1947 to 1950; her grandfather, Charles Cripps, was a prominent member of Britain's Labour Party and headed that party's wing in the House of Lords during the late 1920s. Appiah's father, Joseph Appiah, was a Ghanaian lawyer and politician who had been educated in England. He was descended from the local ruling family in Ghana, and when Appiah was a boy growing up in the African nation, villagers still visited the house to bring tributes to the family in the form of crops. The 1953 marriage between Appiah's parents received international media attention at the time as the first genuine "society" wedding between a British subject and a black African.

Earned Doctorate from Cambridge

Appiah spent his earliest years in Ghana, where his father was a leader in the country's National Liberation Movement, a political party active in the country in the years that followed its independence from Britain in 1957. Later Appiah attended a boarding school in Dorset, England, and went on to study philosophy at Clare College of Cambridge University. There, in the early 1970s, Appiah met Henry Louis Gates Jr., who would later attain renown as one of the foremost scholars of race in America. Appiah earned his master's degree in 1980 and a doctorate two years later and, having already spent time teaching at both Clare College and the University of Ghana, was hired by Yale University in 1981 as an assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies for its African studies and Afro-American studies departments.

Appiah's first two published works were Assertion and Conditionals and For Truth in Semantics, both of which appeared in the mid-1980s. According to Danny Postel in The Chronicle of Higher Education, these works "established … Appiah's reputation within probabilistic semantics, a relatively esoteric corner of the philosophy of language (a field within a field within a field)." In 1986 Appiah moved on to Cornell Univer- sity in Ithaca, New York, as an associate professor of philosophy, becoming a full professor three years later. During a stint at Duke University as professor of philosophy and literature, his first novel, Avenging Angel—a murder mystery set at Cambridge University—was published.

In 1991 Appiah became a professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy at Harvard University, and in 1999 was appointed the school's Charles H. Carswell professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy. His next book was In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1992 and became one of the most hotly debated titles in academia as well as the recipient of numerous awards for excellence. In it Appiah reflected on his late father's involvement in the Pan-African movement, which arose early in the twentieth century as a response to both the African diaspora resulting from the slave trade and the European colonial domination of the continent at the time, which denied Africans basic political and human rights.

Advanced Controversial Theory on Race

Through the series of essays that make up In My Father's House, Appiah discusses the social theories of W. E. B. DuBois, African national identity, notable literary masters who emerged from the postcolonial atmosphere such as Chinua Achebe, and the continent's political future—and that of Africans around the world. As Postel explained in The Chronicle of Higher Education article, the work was "rife with themes, but its core argument is that the very concept of race is false, that race is in fact a construct, a superimposed category that does not correspond to biological reality. The 19th-century idea of dividing the human population into racial groups—Negroes, Caucasians, Asians, etc.—was bad science. The genetic diversity within the human population turns out not to be distributed along racial lines." Yet Appiah's theories about race also ignited tremendous debate in academic circles as a politically "incorrect" view of human civilization. His critics claimed that to summarily dismiss racism in such a fashion amounted to a dangerously Eurocentric view, and also failed to take into account the wide diversity of cultures and civilizations found on the African continent.

At a Glance …

Born May 8, 1954, in London, England; son of Joseph Emmanuel (a lawyer and politician) and Enid Margaret (an art historian and writer; maiden name, Cripps) Appiah; partner of Henry David Finder (a magazine editor), 1986—. Education: Clare College, Cambridge University, BA (with honors), 1975, MA, 1980, PhD, 1982.

Career: University of Ghana, Legon, teaching assistant, 1975-76; Clare College, Cambridge University, director of studies in philosophy, 1980; Yale University, director of undergraduate studies, African studies and Afro-American studies, 1981-83, assistant professor, 1981-85, associate professor of philosophy, 1985-86, associate director of Center for Research in Education, Culture and Ethnicity, 1985-86; Cornell University, associate professor, 1986-89, professor of philosophy, 1989-90; Duke University, professor of philosophy and literature, 1990-91; Harvard University, professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy, 1991-99, Charles H. Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy, 1999-2002, chair of Committee on African Studies, 1995-2002, director of graduate African-American studies, 2001-02; Princeton University, Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy, 2002—.

Selected memberships: African Literature Association, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Association, Aristotelian Society, Modern Language Association of America, Society for African Philosophy in North America (founding member; president, 1991-92).

Selected awards: Sanisfield-Wolf Award, Cleveland Foundation, and Herskovits Award, African Studies Association, 1993, for In My Father's House; Annual Book Award, North American Society for Social Philosophy, and Ralph J. Bunche Award, American Political Science Association, 1997, for Color Conscious; Candle in the Dark Award, Morehouse College, 2003.

Addresses: Office—Department of Philosophy, 1879 Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544-1006. Agent—Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Associates, 445 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022.

While teaching at Harvard, Appiah worked closely with Gates, who became the school's Alphonse Fletcher University Professor as well as professor of English and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The two collaborated on a notable series on African-American writers, Critical Perspectives Past and Present, published by Amistad Press, and revived Transition, a groundbreaking Ugandan journal of philosophy and culture from the 1960s. In 1997 their joint work Dictionary of Global Culture was published as a new style of reference work that sought to address the historical imbalance present in standard studies of the past. "This means that Beethoven's entry is only slightly shorter than Charlie Parker's, and Shakespeare's almost as long as [Zambian president] Kenneth Kaunda's," noted a reviewer for the Economist. In the end, the Economist contributor judged the authors' end result a mixed one, noting a failure "to address the global audience that their title gestures towards."

Appiah and Gates also served as coeditors of Microsoft Encarta Africana: Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Black History and Culture, a CD-ROM published by Microsoft in 1998. Appiah was intensely proud of the work, which he considered a singular achievement in African and African-American scholarship in the new information-technology age. "It's apt that the first real encyclopedia of Africa and the diaspora is a multimedia one, because the biggest cultural contribution of people of African descent in our century has been in music and the arts," he told Brendan Lemon in Interview magazine.

In 2002 Appiah accepted a post at Princeton University, where he became the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy. He continued to produce scholarly works on philosophy and African identities, including Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006). In an interview with Julian Brookes published on, Appiah—who had become a naturalized U.S. citizen by then—explained the premise of the term "cosmopolitan," whose etymological roots in ancient Greek refer to someone who is a "citizen of the world." This idea, he reflected, also denotes "the acceptance that we're all responsible for the human community, which is the fundamental idea of morality. What's distinctive about the cosmopolitan attitude is that it comes with a recognition that encounters with other people aren't about making them like us."

Selected writings


Assertion and Conditionals, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

For Truth in Semantics, Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Necessary Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, Prentice-Hall, 1989.

(Editor and author of introduction) Early African-American Classics, Bantam, 1990.

Avenging Angel (novel), Constable, 1990, St. Martin's Press, 1991.

In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Nobody Likes Letitia (novel), Constable, 1994.

(With Amy Gutmann) Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, Princeton University Press, 1996.

(Coeditor) Transition: Issue 69, Duke University Press, 1996.

(Editor, with Henry Louis Gates Jr.) The Dictionary of Global Culture, Knopf, 1997.

(Editor, with Gates) Microsoft Encarta Africana: Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Black History and Culture (CD-ROM), Microsoft, 1998.

(Editor, with Gates) Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Basic Civitas Books, 1999.

(With Saskia Sassen) Globalization and Its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money, New Press, 1999.

(Coauthor) Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Princeton University Press, 2001.

(With Peggy Appiah and Ivor Agyeman-Duah) Bu Me Bé: Akan Proverbs, Center for Intellectual Renewal, 2002.

Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2003.

The Ethics of Identity, Princeton University Press, 2005.

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, W.W. Norton, 2006.

Has also coedited with Henry Louis Gates Jr. the series Critical Perspectives Past and Present for Amistad Press on notable African-American writers.



Black Issues Book Review, May-June 2006, p. 42.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 5, 2002.

Economist, March 15, 1997, p. S5.

Interview, October 1998, p. 94.

New York Times Magazine, March 18, 2007, p. 15.


Brookes, Julian, "Cosmopolitanism: How to Be a Citizen of the World,", February 23, 2006, (accessed March 5, 2008).

—Carol Brennan