On Identity: A Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

If you lose your ego, you lose the thread of that narrative you call your Self,” wrote Haruki Murakami in his book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche…humans, however, can’t live very long without some sense of a continuing story. Such stories go beyond the limited rational system (or the systematic rationality) with which you surround yourself; they are crucial keys to sharing time-experience with others…

Murakami identified that, “You are simultaneously subject and object. You are a whole and you are a part. You are real and you are shadow. ‘Storyteller’ and at the same time ‘character’. It is through such multilayering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.”

In his uniquely poetic way, Murakami identified one of the most profound truths of being human; that we are a complex mesh of identities, each with narratives, expectations, behaviours and roles – and that such identities, and identity narratives are essential to the operating of our society.

In a hyperconnected world, our identities matter more than ever – they become empowering, weaponised, sanctuary and danger simultaneously and it’s perhaps because of this, that we must now understand identity more than ever before.

In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity and Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. We discuss the nature of identity, the labels we place on each other, and how best to  understand their significance and role in society.

Q:  Why do identities matter?

[Kwame Anthony Appiah]:  Identities essentially involve a few key elements – we have a label with ideas about how to apply it (to others, and by others), the label gives us a ‘way’ to think, feel and do things and also consequences for identifying and thinking under that label.  We also have the reality that in a society, the label affects how other people treat you and shapes how you treat, and see them.

For those of us who have an identity, it offers a conception of who we are, and helps us to think about how we ought to behave, who we belong with, with whom we should have solidarity, with whom we have conflict and who is on the inside and outside.  Some of this is of course, can lead to negative outcomes but there is a positive role of identity in shaping who we are.

People are individuals, they have to make lives and decide how to live their individuality – and society provides labels to allow that for example, ‘I am a man, and here are the things that men typically do, and so I’m going to do those things…’ or ‘I’m British, that means I must like tea and cricket… or a cheeky Nando’s

In earlier, simpler forms of society, people may not have felt they had very much choice about what to do.  You couldn’t decide you weren’t a man or a woman in the past, and you couldn’t (as an individual) decide that men were there to make music, when society determined they were there to hunt, gather and fight battles.

Modern life has allowed more identities, with more packages of expectations and behaviours for people who have those identities – in modern society too, we can reject labels altogether and say, ‘I’m not a man! I’m a woman!’ or ‘I am a man, but being a man doesn’t have to be like that, it can be like this…

Identities are useful – if you had to make everything up in your life, from the start, with no input whatsoever – that wouldn’t be freedom – you’d be less free; you’d have to think constantly about what you should or should not do.  There would be no structure for your life choices.   To the extent that identities give a rough stereotype for behaviour they are useful and give us a predictor of how people will behave, particularly strangers – but let’s give it some context… You don’t really need to know the gender of your family members in order to predict how they will behave, you’ve been living with them your whole life, and know lots about them – but when you meet a stranger, a simple identity signal like clothing, that could indicate gender, can give you a lot of useful cues for what you should and should not do in relation to them.

At the moment we are perhaps rightly focused on the bad side of identity and the ways in which identities divide people, but it is worth pointing out there is a lot of useful stuff that identities provide for us, both in dealing with other people and in thinking about our own lives.

Q:  What are the dangers of identity politics?

[Kwame Anthony Appiah]:  We live in complicated societies that are constantly faced with complicated challenges, but one of the long-standing facts about identity is that we define insiders and outsiders to our group, creating solidarity among insiders and hostility towards outsiders.

It was not long ago when most people you met were people you’d already met before… but now we’re gathered in groups of millions and hundreds of millions, and we’re living in cities where you are constantly in the presence of people you’ve never met before, strangers.

This is where identities come in.  Most English people are strangers to most other English people, but being English can bring people together, even though they don’t know each other, and that’s powerful, and essential – in large groups, we need to find things that hold us together, otherwise we’ll treat each other as strangers and the things we need to make a society work – coordination behaviours – would not exist.  However, this comes at a cost.

A lot of politics is about bringing people together to get things done, but the negative side is around division of us from them.   In the United States, the divide between people of different political identities is hostile… people are now more concerned about their children marrying outside their political tribe, than marrying out of their race or religion.  In today’s United States, asking a republican parent if it was OK for their daughter to marry a democrat would elicit a response similar to asking parents years ago if their daughter could marry a black person – the polarization is astounding.  The polarization is working though, it’s holding republicans together at the cost of dividing them from other Americans.  You see the same thing in England, dividing Leavers and Remainers… I suspect if you asked a Remainer if it was OK for their daughter to marry a Leaver, you might hear, ‘I wouldn’t want one of those in my family…

The necessity of collective action on a large scale requires us to use identity to bring groups together, but this creates insiders, outsiders, and creates hostility as much as it binds.

Q: How have identities shaped society?

[Kwame Anthony Appiah]:  Class has the virtue of being a kind of social-identity that’s tied to something objectively real, that being your socio-economic options.  In some ways, our societies are becoming increasingly economically polarized and one of the challenges for those doing well out of the system (the club classes) is to distract people from the power of identity because if people organized around class identity, they would presumably be deposed since those at the bottom of the hierarchy are larger in number, and presumably they would wish to take action to reduce inequality.   It’s a puzzle to me why class doesn’t play a bigger role in our politics.

In the United States, racial divisions form a residue throughout our existence.  First through our being a slave society, then as a Jim Crow society, and a society in which there was systematic oppression of racial minorities.  When people say this era is over, we have to remember that there are still lots of social processes in which white people are continuing to exert privilege over non-whites and that the legal aspects of white supremacy were in place until the 1960s.  The State of Virginia banned interracial marriages until 1967 when the Supreme Court told them they couldn’t do it anymore. This is recent history.  The systematic denial of opportunities in housing and education means that the black population in the United States has a tiny slice of wealth, and this is just one of many real, substantial effects of racial history, along with the continuing racial hostility, racism, and appeal of white supremacy to a significant part of the population.

In Europe, racism isn’t based on the history of slavery and the slave trade but rather on the history of Empire and the presence of visibly different people from other parts of the world in what were, for long historical periods, spaces in which almost everybody was white.  Even if there’s no profound cultural difference between brown, black and white Britons… they speak the same language, eat the same food, abstain from going to the same churches….. identity culture assigns significance to their bodily differences, and so race exists – even though we know that from a moral and cultural point of view, it’s shallow.

We use identities to make ourselves, to define ourselves with and against people – and we have to make a conscious effort to see this – else we will over-assign significance to identity, as we do in the world of gender.  Women and Men are far more similar than our gender ideologies suggest to us and we’ve been trying very hard for a couple of generations to push against the bad consequences of gender discrimination and patriarchy (the gender parallel to white supremacy).  We’ve been trying to drive it out of our system, but people keep falling back into it.

You cannot get rid of identities, but you can reform them.  You can take a form of identity that’s been historically associated with repression and hierarchy, and make it more egalitarian – that’s what we’ve been trying to do with gender.  Let me be clear, I’m not in favour of the abolition of gender, but I do think there’s a lot of work we need to do in order to find more equality.

Q:  Can we get past identity?

[Kwame Anthony Appiah]:  Our challenge is to tame the bad side of identity, and we can do this with identity.  We can tame partisan identities by appealing to national identities… we can say ‘you may be conservative, and I may be progressive… you may be on the right, I may be on the left, but we’re all French for god’s sake, let’s get on with doing the things that need doing!’ That can work remarkably well. When you get for example, Dutch people thinking of the descendants of recent Muslim migrants as being Dutch, they are willing to think of them as the natural recipients of all the social services that society provides to all other Dutch people.  If they think of them as foreigners, or recent foreigners, or Muslims, or Surinamese… you put up a barrier.

If you want to sustain a proper form of social equality, you have to remind people that yes, you may be divided on certain dimensions, but at the end of the day, you’re all Dutch.

Some of the most racist white Americans do things for people in Africa because they’re Christians and they believe in the mission, and work in mission hospitals.  So people who wouldn’t treat black people around them very well, are sending money to build schools in Tanzania – their religious identity is trumping the effects of racial identity.

Identities can be used to unite as well as divide; when we’re trying to get something done, we need to look at the identities that will unite us for that purpose, not the ones that will divide us against it.  We also need to be more relaxed about identity – Part of the trouble with the psychology of Brexit or Trumpism is that people are taking their identity too deeply into the conception of who they are.  Nobody wants to look back on their lives, I hope, and think, ‘Wow, I had 86 years as a Brexiteer…’ We need balance….

We need to get serious about the identities that are useful for things that are serious, and not waste our time getting obsessed with features of identity that may have a place, but shouldn’t have a weight.  If, as you should do, you are thinking about the ecological state of the planet – the only sensible way to think is with great care and concern for everybody.  We have one planet, and we have to make it work for everyone, not just one group. The same is true of the global economy – which can only really work if it works for everyone.  We need to lift China, India, Africa, everyone and create wealth for everyone not just the part of the world that’s already rich.

Part of our job as people in the public sphere is to remind others of these facts.   We have to combat division, politicization and counterproductive notions of identity.

Q:  Why are some areas of life (e.g. the sciences and academia) much less reliant on labels?

[Kwame Anthony Appiah]:  The culture of the academies and sciences is inevitably transnational.  Think about it, the scientific revolution involved Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, so many people from different societies using the same learned language for their scholarly work, speaking different languages at home, practicing different faiths or perhaps having none.  They’re brought together by this project of trying to understand the natural world, the stars, the planets, the universe.

Having common projects which you take seriously has the effect of damping down the salience of other identities.  You still worry about sexism in labs, you still worry about racism in recruitment, but the natural tendency of the enterprise is against all that because what matters is how you contribute to the project.

We need human identity, but there will be lots of projects like climate science, like inequality, where we need our identity as a scientist as a philanthropist more than our gender, race and so on.  Climate science in particular is interesting because they have this sense of urgency around what they’re trying to understand and are annoyed and puzzled by the failure of the rest of us to take it with due seriousness.

Another domain you see this is the arts.  The most important artworks of our time are radically transnational.  It’s true of movies, sculpture, novels….. Salman Rushdie is not exactly nationally anything he’s a hybrid, a mixture, and that’s one of the reasons so many people read him.

We can use the identities that are generated by important projects to combat the bad side of the other identities.

Q:  How do you define yourself?

[Kwame Anthony Appiah]:  There are lots of bits to anybody’s identity, and the key is not to let any single element take-over and to recognize that there are parts of your identity that are more or less relevant based on different contexts.

When I’m playing with my great nephews, and great niece, it doesn’t matter that I’m a philosopher or respectable teacher… I’ll roll around on the floor with these babies in a way that my students would find embarrassing.

On the other hand, I’m also very conscious of the side of identity that has to do with how people react to you, not about how you react to them.   I’m very conscious of the fact that when I get into a taxi in London or New York, Stockholm or Florence, they see a brown skinned man and it sets-up a reaction.  It may not be negative, a lot of those taxi drivers are also brown skinned themselves – so it may be a positive reaction, but it does set up a reaction, that’s a fact.  If I lived in India, my skin colour would be much more common – my ‘brownness’ wouldn’t matter, I’m just anyone…

When people say, ‘where are you from?’ I know they want to know – in essence – why I’m not white. I don’t have an easy answer for them.  I’m brown because I have a father from Africa and a mother from Europe, so I come from two places, not one.

We need to raise our children to be aware of their visible identities – the things people can tell or assume by looking at you.  We need to raise our children to be conscious of the fact that they have a visible identity, so that they know how the society they live in works – but also so that they know that they cannot allow other people to force them into an interpretation of that identity that they may not like  – and that they have lots of other identities besides.

For me? I think a central part of who I am relates to coming from two families in two places – each of which I’m proud of, and each of which relates to who I am.  My mother and father’s families both played significant public roles in their countries – as I speak to you, I’m looking at a table that has some pictures on it, photographs… it includes a picture of my grandfather with Gandhi, my parents with Nkrumah, my grandfather with Nehru, me with Nelson Mandela giving him an honorary degree, me with John Kufuor, former president of Ghana, and also George Bush having lunch at the White House.   These are things that are only possible because of the family I was born into.  We have all done good and bad things, but I think of myself as belonging to a tradition of trying to make a contribution to the society that I live in.


View Interviewee Biographies

Family Background

Kwame Anthony Akroma-Ampim Kusi Appiah was born in London, where his Ghanaian father was a law student, but moved as an infant with his parents to Ghana. His father, Joseph Emmanuel Appiah, a lawyer and politician, was also, at various times, a Member of Parliament, an Ambassador and a President of the Ghana Bar Association; his mother, the novelist, Akan art collector and scholar, and children’s writer, Peggy Appiah, whose family was English, was active in the social, philanthropic and cultural life of Kumasi. Their marriage, in 1953, was widely covered in the international press, because it was one of the first “inter-racial society weddings” in Britain; and is said to have been one of the inspirations for the film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Kwame Anthony Appiah’s grandfather, J. W. K. Appiah was the Chief Secretary of the Asanteman Council, the ruling body of the Asante kingdom; in 1970, his great-uncle by marriage, Otumfuo Sir Osei Agyeman Prempeh II, was succeeded by his uncle by marriage, Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II, as Asantehene or king of Ashanti.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s three younger sisters Isobel, Adwoa and Abena, were born in Ghana. As a child, he spent a good deal of time in England, at the home of his grandmotherDame Isobel Cripps, widow of the English statesman Sir Stafford Cripps. Cripps was the British Ambassador in Moscow during the Second World War, and served after the war as Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Minister of Finance. He was also involved in negotiating the terms for Indian independence. Stafford’s father, Lord Parmoor, was the first Labour leader of the house of Lords, and a major supporter, with his wife, Marian, of the League of Nations and Save the Children. (Parmoor’s sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, were the founders, with George Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallace, of the London School of Economics, and were central figures in the Fabian Society.) Isobel Cripps traveled widely, including on an extended visit to China in 1947, where she met Chairman Mao and Generalissimo and Madam Chiang Kai Shek as President of the British United Aid to China Fund, which she went on to chair for many years.

Education

Professor Appiah was educated at the University Primary School at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi; at Ullenwood Manor, in Gloucestershire, and Port Regis and Bryanston Schools, in Dorset; and, finally, at Clare CollegeCambridge University, in England, where he took the B.A. in the philosophy department in 1975. He also learned a great deal by being a member of the informal group known as the Epiphany Philosophers. After his undergraduate career at Cambridge, he taught at the University of Ghana, Legon, an experience which encouraged him to go back for graduate study. He received a PhD from Cambridge in Philosophy in 1982.

Career

His Cambridge dissertation, advised by D. H. Mellor, explored the foundations of probabilistic semantics, bringing together issues in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind; once revised, these arguments were published by Cambridge University Press as Assertion and Conditionals. Out of that first monograph grew a second book, For Truth in Semantics, which explored critically Michael Dummett’s defenses of semantic anti-realism.

Since Cambridge, he has taught at Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard universities and lectured at many other institutions in the United States, Germany, Ghana and South Africa, as well as at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris; and from 2002 to 2013 he was a member of the Princeton University faculty, where he had appointments in the Philosophy Department and the University Center for Human Values, as well as being associated with the Center for African American Studies, the Programs in African Studies and Translation Studies, and the Departments of Comparative Literature and Politics. In January 2014 he took up an appointment as Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he teaches both in New York and in Abu Dhabi and at other NYU global sites.

Scholarly Interests

Professor Appiah has also published widely in literary and cultural studies, with a focus on African and African-American culture. In 1992, Oxford University Press released In My Father’s House, which explores the role of African and African-American intellectuals in shaping contemporary African cultural life. This book won the Anisfield-Wolf  Book Award as well as the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association for “the most important scholarly work in African studies published in English.”  His current interests range over African and African-American intellectual history and literary studies, ethics, political philosophy and the philosophy of the social sciences; and he has also taught regularly about African traditional religions. He has a continuing interest in literary criticism and theory as well and a 2018 issue of the journal New Literary History was devoted to his work; but his major current work has to do with the connection between theory and practice in moral life. He is working at the same time on two larger projects. One explores some of the many ways in which we now think about religion; another examines the ethical and political consequences of the changing nature of work.

Publications

Since his first two books in the philosophy of language and In My Father’s House, Professor Appiah’s publications have covered a wide range of topics.  In 1996, he published Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race with Amy Gutmann, and in 1997 the Dictionary of Global Culture, co‑edited with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Along with Professor Gates he has also edited the Encarta Africana CD-ROM encyclopedia, published by Microsoft, which became the Perseus Africana encyclopedia in book form. This is now available in a revised multi-volume edition from Oxford University Press. In 2003, he coauthored Bu Me Bε: Proverbs of the Akan (of which his mother, the writer Peggy Appiah, was the major author), an annotated edition of 7,500 proverbs in Twi, the language of Asante. He is also the author of three novels, of which the first, Avenging Angel, was largely set at his alma mater, Clare College, Cambridge, and he has written and reviewed regularly for the New York Review of Books.

In 2004, Oxford University Press published his introduction to contemporary philosophy entitled Thinking It Through. In January 2005, Princeton University Press published The Ethics of Identity and in February 2006 W. W. Norton published Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which won the 2007 Arthur Ross Award of the Council on Foreign Relations. In January 2008, Harvard University Press published his Experiments in Ethics, based on his 2005 Flexner lectures at Bryn Mawr. In November 2009, Forbes Magazine put Professor Appiah on a list of the world’s seven most powerful thinkers, selected by Princeton’s President. W. W. Norton published The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen in October 2010. His work has been translated into many languages, including Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Georgian, Hebrew, Indonesian, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. In the Spring of 2014, Harvard University Press published his Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of IdentityA Decent Respect: Honor in the Lives of People and of Nations was published the next year by the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong.

Harvard University Press published in 2017 a book based on his Carus lectures at the Eastern Division annual meetings of the American Philosophical Association in December 2013. Entitled As If: Idealization and Ideals, it discusses the role of idealization and ideals in science, philosophy, ethics and political philosophy.  The Lies that Bind, based on his 2016 BBC Reith Lectures on “Mistaken Identities,” was published by Profile in the United Kingdom and W. W. Norton in the United States in 2018. He is working on a book tentatively entitled On the Very Idea of Religion for Yale University Press, which is based on his 2016 Terry lectures at Yale.

Professor Appiah was the general editor of the Global Ethics Series, published by W. W. Norton. In October 2015, he began to write the weekly Ethicist column for the New York Times magazine, answering readers’ questions about their ethical quandaries. His preparation for this task was a few months as one of three “Ethicists”—the other two being the novelist Amy Bloom and the legal scholar Kenji Yoshino—who recorded a weekly podcast discussion in response to readers’ questions. In 2019, he contributed an essay to the catalogue for Ghana’s installation at the Venice Biennale.

Over the years, Appiah has written in the press and spoken on radio and television about issues of public importance, from the role of honor in political life to the challenges raised by many forms of identity, including partisan identity, for democratic politics.

The website for the Institute of Arts and Ideas published his poem on Why Philosophy Matters on World Philosophy Day, 2017.

Public Lectures

Professor Appiah travels widely lecturing on the topics he writes about: in the summer of 2012, for example, he gave lectures in Oslo (on multiculturalism), Melbourne (on global citizenship), and Sao Paulo (on identity), and then spoke in the fall in the United States on honor in KnoxvilleYoungstownSchenectadyCambridge and New York, and on cosmopolitanism at the Century Club, in New York, and in Edison, New Jersey. After a discussion of courage in Paris, organized by the Villa Gillet, in November 2012, he gave lectures in 2013 in Hong KongBrazilIsrael and New Zealand, as well as in a number of places in the United States. In March 2015, over NYU’s Spring Break, he gave a series of seminars at the Centre For Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University, along with a public conversation on cosmopolitanism with the distinguished geographer, Professor Ash Amin.

In July 2015 he discussed moral revolutions at Le Conversazione in Capri. In September 2016, he spoke about ethics and the humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and equality at Ohio State University. In October and November 2016, his Reith Lectures, discussing ways in which people’s thinking about religion, nation, race and culture often reflects misunderstandings about identity, were broadcast on the BBC. They were recorded in London, Glasgow, Accra and New York. In the summer of 2017, he gave a seminar on W. E. B. Dubois at the New School’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry. He gave a plenary address entitled “Two Cheers for Equality” at the meeting of the European Society for Analytic Philosophy in Munich in August, 2017. In December 2018 he gave the George W. Gay Lecture at Harvard’s Medical School on “The Politics of Identity, the Injuries of Class,” the first Gay lecture in the second century of the prize’s existence.

In February 2019, he gave the opening lecture of “A Night of Philosophy and Ideas,” at the Brooklyn Public Library, organized with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, and then had a public conversation on “Identity and the Law” with Emerson Sykes for the ACLU’s Podcast, “At Liberty”.

He participated in a seminar on Identity and Genetics at NYU Abu Dhabi and gave The Harper Lecture at the University of Denver. In March he gave the Reasons for Hope Lecture at the Central European University, Budapest, and a talk for RESET at The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Columbia University, and a Louis J. Gambaccini Civic Engagement Series  lecture at the Eagleton Institute, Rutgers University, as well as the Burke Lecture at Oakland University; and he recorded a discussion for the “Why is this Happening?” podcast with Chris Hayes and took part in the Assembly of the Society for Progress at Harvard’s Kennedy School. In April he appeared at a Public Forum, “Of, By & For The People,” in conversation with Susan Lori Parks and Oskar Eustis at the Public Theater. Over the next couple of weeks, he gave the Kant Lectures at Stanford University and the Whitehead Lectures at Harvard.

Home and Family

Kwame Anthony Appiah has homes in New York City and near Pennington, in New Jersey, which he shares with his husband, Henry Finder, Editorial Director of the New Yorker magazine. (In Pennington, they have a small sheep farm, with a few ducks and geese and some fish to round out the menagerie.) On August 8, 2011, after more than a quarter century of partnership, they were married in New York City, about two weeks after same-sex marriage was recognized by the state, with their friend Skip Gates as the sole witness.

Their family is scattered across the globe. Professor Appiah’s three sisters live in Namibia, Nigeria, and England; Isobel has a Norwegian husband, Klaus Endresen, and Adwoa’s husband, Olawale Edun, is Nigerian. Henry Finder has two sisters and two brothers, Susan, Joe, Jonathan, and Lisa. His elder sister has a Chinese husband, and his two brothers have American wives. Their 14 nephews and nieces, Kristian, Anthony and Kojo EndresenTomiwa, Lamide and Tobi Edun, Maame Yaa, Mimi, and Joseph AppiahEmma FinderZack and Ben Finder, and Hannah and Aaron Lu, currently live in Ghana, Namibia, Nigeria, Hong Kong, England and the United States. Olanitan Edun, their first great-nephew, was born in London in April 2017, and now lives in Lagos; Alexandra Endresen, their first great-niece, and Erik Endresen, her first cousin, were born in January and February 2018. They live in Windhoek and London.

Honors and Awards

Kwame Anthony Appiah has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and was inducted in 2008 into the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and he has served on the boards of the PEN American Center, the National Humanities Center and the American Academy in Berlin. Until the fall of 2009, he served as a trustee of Ashesi University College in Accra, Ghana, and now serves on its Academic Advisory Board. He has also been a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF). He has honorary degrees from the University of Richmond, (2000), Colgate University (2003) Bard College (2004), Fairleigh Dickinson University (2006) and Swarthmore College(2006), and received the degree of Honorary Doctor of Philosophy in May 2008 from Dickinson College, where he gave the Commencement Address in the pouring rain. In the fall of 2008, he was awarded the first Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize by Brandeis University for “outstanding and lasting scholarly contributions to racial, ethnic and/or religious relations.” In May 2009, in the course of a busy week, he received honorary degrees from Columbia University and the New School, and presented the Sue Kaufman award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters to Charles Bock. Colby College honored him with a Doctorate of Laws at their 189th commencement in 2010. In September 2010, he was granted an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters at a Convocation Lecture at Berea College.

In 2007, Professor Appiah was the President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association (APA) and he then served from 2008 to 2011 as Chair of the APA’s Executive Board. For six years, ending in 2012, he was Chair of the Board of the American Council of Learned Societies. In March 2009, he succeeded Francine Prose as President of the PEN American Center, a position he held for three years. In December 2010, Foreign Policy named him one of the top 100 global thinkers. President Obama presented him (and eight others, including his friends Andrew Delbanco, Amartya Sen, Ramón Saldívar and Teo Ruiz) with the National Humanities Medal on February 13, 2012. On April 30, 2012, he was appointed by the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian to the Advisory Board of the National Museum for African Art. On May 20, 2012, he gave the Commencement Address at President Obama’s alma mater, Occidental College, on its 125th anniversary; and a few days later he traveled to Boston to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at Harvard’s 361st Commencement, which brought to an end the celebrations for Harvard’s 375th anniversary. (With his Columbia honorary degree of 2009, he now has honorary degrees from each of the colleges or universities at which President Obama earned his degrees!)

On October 18, 2013, Kwame Anthony Appiah received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Edinburgh, in recognition of his “global influence on philosophy and politics,” alongside his friends John Kufuor, former President of Ghana, the historian Emma Rothschild, and the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron. They were all members of the Global Citizenship Commission, which held its first meeting in Edinburgh the same weekend.

On May 21, 2015, he spoke at the NYU Law School Commencement ceremonies for the graduating class of LLM students; and then gave a commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College the next day. Also in May of 2015, he was elected to an Honorary Fellowship at Clare College, Cambridge. In January 2016, Professor Appiah had the honor of becoming the president of the Modern Language Association. In May 2016, he spoke to the doctoral degree recipients in the College of Arts and Sciences at NYU and received an honorary degree from Wesleyan University.

The World Post listed Professor Appiah as #95 on its Global Thought Leaders Index in December 2015, which was led by Pope Francis (#1), Paul Coehlo (#2) and Muhammad Yunus (#3), and included philosophers such as Peter Singer (#16), Daniel Dennett (#22) and Martha Nussbaum (#23).

In August 2016, Professor Appiah was enstoloed as Nana Gyamfi Akroma-Ampim Nkosuahene of Nyaduom, in Adanse, pledging allegiance to his paternal uncle, the Nyaduomhene, traditional ruler of the town which was founded by their ancestor, the early eighteenth century Asante general, Akroma-Ampim.

On November 24, 2016, Professor Appiah received the Spinozalens Prize, given by the Spinoza Prize Foundation, from the mayor of Amsterdam. (His prize lecture was published in De Groene Amsterdammer.The prize, which is awarded biennially, pairs a living thinker with a dead one, and is “for thinkers who concern themselves with ethics and society.” Professor Appiah was paired with Hannah Arendt.  On the same day, the Dutch translation of The Honor Code was published. While in the Low Countries to receive the prize, he gave lectures on “The Challenges of Identity” at Leuven University and Radboud University in Nijmegen, and discussed questions of honor with a prize-winning group of high-school students in philosophy, who had produced videos asking questions about honor.

In the Spring of 2017, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. On the 4th of July 2017, the Carnegie Corporation of New York honored Professor Appiah as one of their 2017 Great Immigrants.

In May 2018, he received an honorary doctorate of letters from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, where he gave a commencement address. In the early summer of 2019, he received an honorary degree from Duke University.

Public Service

Professor Appiah serves on the Boards of Facing History and Ourselves, the New York Public Library, the Public Theater, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and on the Advisory Board of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum for African Art and the Visiting Committee for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum; and he has served on the International Team of Experts for the Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss. He is also a founding member of the Society for Progress, which aims to advance the integration of ethical considerations into the conduct of business.

He chaired the jury for the first Berggruen Philosophy Prize in October 2016, which was won by Charles Taylor; and for the second, which was won by Onora O’Neil. In 2018, he chaired the committee of judges for the Man Booker Prize, in London, and continued to serve as chair of the judges for the Berggruen Prize. Anna Burns won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her novel Milkman. Martha Nussbaum, the winner of the 2018 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture was celebrated at a gala event in December 2018 in New York. In 2019 he served on the Jury for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.



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