Skip to main content

Awards & Honors: 2011 National Humanities Medalist

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah is well known for his work developing African-American studies programs at Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard. Now at Princeton, working in the philosophy department and at the Center for Human Values, the Ghana-born philosopher sits on a board that is advising the New Jersey Ivy on redeveloping its black studies program. Along with his frequent collaborator and friend Henry Louis Gates Jr., Appiah coedited Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. His contributions to expanding the humanities curriculum to study black America and African heritage thus recorded, and already widely discussed, what else is there to say?

A great deal, actually. Setting aside this signature portion of Appiah’s resume, one notices there are still more than enough books, ideas, and moments of interdisciplinary exploration to fill out a rich and distinguished academic career on their own. And this other work suggests a mind as skeptical as it is constructive, and as historical and literary in its bearings as it is philosophical. The institution-builder looks, at times, like a freelance. The breadth of his journeys seems reminiscent of yet another reference work Appiah has coedited: the ambitiously titled Dictionary of Global Culture.

Born in London to an upper-class English mother and an African politician father, he was raised in Ghana. An avid reader as a child, he recalls taking on a book a day, though some took several days, as did War and Peace. After a very challenging book, he’d reward himself with an Agatha Christie mystery. He also read Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. The family home contained many books from the Heinemann African Writers Series, and his mother was a writer as well, of children’s books and poetry. At boarding school in Ghana, he joined a reading group of earnest young Christian men, who together read theology and later Kant and Kierkegaard.

A sickly child, he had received a good deal of medical attention and grew up intending to become a doctor. He enrolled at Cambridge to train in medicine, but still took an interest in philosophy, which increasingly absorbed his studies. Around this time, he met Gates, then a graduate student who had come to Cambridge to study with Wole Soyinka. Their friendship continued even after Appiah returned to Ghana and, without much intention of pursuing a scholarly career, took a job as a teaching assistant at the University of Ghana. He found academic life congenial, so he returned to Cambridge to earn his doctorate. Meanwhile, an invitation from Gates soon brought him to Yale, where he taught a seminar on pan-Africanism, a movement in which his father had been active.

Appiah’s work in analytical philosophy bears the influence of Cambridge, where during his studies the philosophy of language was dominant, unlike in the United States where moral philosophy reigned supreme. Using his linguistic philosophical training to consider the matter of race, Appiah argued in Color Conscious against race as a biological construct, as it was understood in the nineteenth century by Matthew Arnold and others. Modern genetics and philosophical scrutiny rendered such views incoherent. The degree of biological difference separating one black person from another, the onetime medical student showed, was often greater than that separating a black person from a white person—a position in keeping with the thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois and Franz Boas.

Appiah even questioned the modern concept of race, though his views have shifted since then. “As a teacher, I think it is important that one can change one’s mind. You make an argument. People make a counterargument. Sometimes they persuade you. So, I am less of what philosophers call an eliminativist than I probably was.” Race as a form of social identity now seems, to him, comparably coherent next to gender, ethnicity, nationality, and religion.

His earlier work also helped set the stage for his recent flourishing as the author of three elegant volumes that move with great confidence across the borders separating literature, history, and philosophy. In remarkably limpid prose, Appiah has written about ethics and globalization (Cosmopolitanism), experimental philosophy (Experiments in Ethics), and the role of honor in setting the course of moral progress (The Honor Code). And in each of these works, one sees evidence of a uniquely capable mind entirely at home in different centuries and different modes of thought, clarifying and applying strands of the Western tradition from Socrates to the twenty-first century.

By David Skinner
David Skinner is Editor of HUMANITIES