Skip to main content

Dialogue between Kwame Anthony Appiah & Robert S. Boynton: On philosophy, race, sex & etc.

Daedalus, Summer 2003

ROBERT S. BOYNTON: You recently became a U.S. citizen. Why?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: There are very few differences between the things you can do as a resident alien and as a citizen, but I wanted to be able to vote and to be on juries. And I felt that there was a possibility that there would be a backlash against dark-skinned immigrants and it might be difficult to stay here unless one was a citizen.

Q: Your close collaborative friendship with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has been enormously productive for the both of you. What role has Gates had in your intellectual development?

A: Well, for one thing, I wouldn’t be in this country if it weren’t for Skip Gates. He was a Mellon Fellow – the first black one, I think – at Clare College, Cambridge, which was my college as well, There weren’t many brown or black people at Clare – I think there were three of us at the time – and Skip says that people kept asking him whether he’d met me, and that when white people keep asking you that question you can usually assume that the other person is black.

We became very close. He was already living with Sharon, his wife, and I would often go over for dinner. Wole Soyinka was at Cambridge, and the three of us would talk about Pan-African issues. It had never occurred to me to come to the United States before he persuaded me. As a child growing up in a Pan-Africanist household I was aware of people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and if you followed those stories it was natural that one’s general impression, on the whole, was that the United States wasn’t the best place for a non-white person to be.

Q: Your father was a prominent Ghanaian barrister and politician who was deeply involved in the Pan-African movement. Your mother descended from a prominent British family composed of Fabian socialists and landed gentry. How did they meet?

A: My father was studying law and was the president of the West African Students Union. My mother knew Colin Turnbull, who had founded an organization called Racial Unity, and as the secretary of Racial Unity she met the president of the West African Students Union.

My mother’s father was Sir Stafford Cripps, the chancellor of the exchequer in the first postwar government, who helped create the welfare state. Her great-aunt was Beatrice Webb who, with her husband Sidney, founded the London School of Economics, and were leaders of the Labour Party.

Q: I assume interracial couples were rare then. How was their marriage perceived?

A: People say that it was the first British Society interracial wedding, although I don’t know whether that is true. My maternal grandmother and grandfather knew the leaders of the colonial empire – Indira Ghandi stayed at their house, etc. – so they were quite familiar with non-English, non-white people from various countries. My grandfather had recently died, and my grandmother told my mother, “Well, if you are going to marry him, you’ve got to go live in his country and find out what it is like.”

So my mother showed up at the Gold Coast (as Ghana was called at the time). My father was a very good friend of Nkrumah’s at that point, so my mother found herself in an odd position: the daughter of a British cabinet minister traveling around with all these anticolonial types who were trying to get Britain out of the country. And she couldn’t tell anyone why she was there. She came back to England and said it was a lovely country.

My father’s family were typical aristocrats, so all they cared about was that she came from a ‘good’ family – which she did. Once that was explained, they said the marriage was fine with them.

Q: Where were you born?

A: I was born in England and went to Ghana when I was one. I went to primary school in Ghana, and when I was eight Nkrumah threw my father in prison, for reasons that were never entirely clear. It was a difficult time for the family, and I was sick as well. I had toxoplasmosis, which wasn’t very well understood at the time, and it took a while to figure out what was wrong. I spent a number of months in the hospital, and at about the time they figured out what I had, the queen of England made her first trip to Ghana.

I was in my hospital bed, and Nkrumah and the queen toured the hospital. Nkrumah didn’t speak to me, and as he was leading the queen and the duke of Edinburgh away, the duke turned to me and said, “Do give my regards to your mother,” whom he knew. This mightily upset Nkrumah, because the spouse of a visiting head of state was saying nice things about the spouse of someone he had thrown in jail. It was an international incident. My doctor was deported, and the event was on the front page of the British newspapers.

So my mother decided that it was perhaps best for me not to be in Ghana at that point. I was very close to my maternal grandmother in England, so I went to stay with her. And from the age of nine I was at an English boarding school.

Q: How did you decide to attend Cambridge?

A: This is moderately embarrassing, but if you were on the track that I was on at school, you went either to Oxford or Cambridge. I also had a lot of relatives who had gone to Oxford, so going to Cambridge was a way of getting away from them. I intended to be a medical student, and Cambridge is better than Oxford for that. I wanted to be a doctor because I was so infatuated with the doctor who took care of me when I was ill as a child.

Q: So how did you end up studying philosophy?

A: What got me into philosophy was religion: I was an evangelical Christian at the time. We were serious people, so we thought about religion and read theologians like Barth, Bultman, Tillich, etc. So it was in the context of thinking about my faith that I got interested in philosophy. A lot of what I read for myself was philosophy of religion.

I told the philosophy tutor that I had made a terrible mistake and wanted to study philosophy rather than medicine. He told me that I had to finish the term, and gave me a stack of philosophy books to read over the summer. If I still wanted to study philosophy after reading them, it was fine with him. I remember reading Rawls’s A Theory of Justice that summer. It was one of the most exhilarating books I had ever read at the time.

Q: What was the dominant school of philosophy at Cambridge at the time?

A: Philosophy of language was the thing, and the big topic was the debate that Michael Dummet had started about “truth conditions and assertability,” which was what I wrote my first monograph on. The debate was whether the essential concept in the theory of meaning was assertion or truth.

There was a group that modeled themselves on Wittgenstein, which I thought was quite phony and pretentious. The Wittgenstein world was a world of disciples. For me, philosophy had been about liberating myself, so I was very put off by this.

My teachers were Phillip Petit, Hugh Mellor, Ian Hacking. There was a sort of Cambridge tradition of thinking about probability. I attended the lectures that became Hacking’s wonderful book, Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy?

Q: The philosopher Jonathan Lear was a philosophy student at Clare College at the same time you were. Both of you moved from logic and the philosophy of language to ‘softer,’ more interpretive forms of philosophy – psychoanalysis in his case, and cultural theory in yours. Any similarities?

A: I think that what was true about Jonathan and myself was that we were intellectuals who became philosophers. We were people of ideas, not people driven by a particular technical agenda.

Q: What then drew you to something as technical as analytic philosophy? What satisfaction do you get from it?

A: There is a certain pleasure in thinking about how things hang together, or coming up with a solution. Although a large part of what I did was either critical or the working out of some details of thoughts that originated with someone else, I did feel that I was making progress; after working through the philosophical problems, I knew that certain strategies in the theory of meaning wouldn’t work. There is an ocean of possibilities, and knowing that the truth doesn’t lie in that direction is a kind of knowledge. It may be the only kind of knowledge that is available in this area, although perhaps I shouldn’t put it in quite that way.

Q: Did you go directly from your undergraduate philosophy studies to your graduate studies?

A: No. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I had no idea what I was going to do next. It hadn’t occurred to me to continue studying philosophy. I thought it was something one did at college, and then one went out into the world and got a job. So I went back to Ghana. I packed all my books into a crate, and my mother had bookshelves made for me at home.

I hadn’t yet received my exam results, and one day I got a telegram from Cambridge informing me that I had received a First. So I went back to Cambridge. In those days there were no courses. You simply hung around and read until someone said, “Why don’t you start writing something?” I returned in 1976, and in 1979 Skip persuaded me to teach a course on Pan-Africanism at Yale. That was when I first started investigating the history of Pan-Africanism. While I was there I wrote my dissertation proposal in order to get a research fellowship back at Cambridge. This meant I had room and board and a small stipend, library privileges, and that I could teach.

Q: Your most recent book is an introduction to philosophy called Thinking It Through. How would you describe your conception of philosophy?

A: I think of philosophy as a tradition of arguments about certain topics, and the way a topic becomes a philosophical topic is by connecting itself to that tradition. That means the status of strings in string theory in physics can become a philosophical topic by way of discussions of realism and nominalism. To put it in a slogan form, I think that philosophy has a history, but no essence. It doesn’t seem to me appropriate to take a view about whether this is a good or a bad thing. It simply seems inevitable.

The only normative question that one ought to ask of philosophy is, “Is it good for society that the practice exists?” And I’m convinced that the answer to that question is yes. Having an intellectual grasp of how we fit into the world is intrinsically valuable in the sense that a life with it is eo ipso more successful than a life without it. And it is also true that a culture in which people are thinking about the questions of philosophy is better equipped to deal with deciding such questions as whether it is okay to lock up dissidents on the say-so of the attorney general. Philosophy isn’t the only set of discourses whose presence is helpful for thinking about these questions – I’m glad there are Quakers around as well but it helps you think it through and make distinctions.

Q: Did your training in analytic philosophy help or hinder you as you began to retool yourself as a cultural critic?

A: When I started to write about race I made quite swift progress, by comparison with much of the recent discussion, because I did what I had been trained to do: cut it up, clarify the question, point out the logical inconsistencies in various proposals, etc. I think I made a useful contribution to the field with that work.

I came to be able to do this kind of work through the discovery of a form of writing that I enjoy, which is the philosophical essay. These essays aren’t the kinds of things that would be published in philosophy journals because they are too essayistic and anecdotal. Even though by the standards of cultural or literary studies what I do is quite abstract, I try to be less abstract than most philosophers are, and always to have examples in mind when I write.

Q: You have famously argued not only that racial rhetoric is the product of bad science, but furthermore that race itself doesn’t exist. Do you still believe this?

A: The way I’d formulate that claim now is that while there aren’t any ‘races,’ there are ‘racial identities.’ They don’t have any biological significance, but they are important socially. I want to hold on to the first claim as an important part of understanding what is true about the second claim. That is, I believe that racial identities don’t make sense unless you understand that some of the people who participated in the creation of them have these false biological beliefs. I do not think that racial identities would have the shape they do if they were not tied to biological ideologies.

You need the following distinction: forms of identity that are genealogical, that are based on descent; and forms of identity that are biological. Families, for example, are genealogical: I’m an Appi-ah and a Cripps. But saying that doesn’t commit me to any view about there being any biological properties that the Appiahs share. What the race-like identities have in common – including the ethnic ones – is that they are genealogical. But commitment to genealogy isn’t a commitment to there being anything biologically significant about it.

The very idea that there was a distinction between what we call biological characteristics and other characteristics is itself the product of a theoretical development. When you read the eighteenth-century natural historians, they talk about clothing and beards and skin color all in the same paragraph. They don’t yet have the distinction between those characteristics and biological ones. The distinction in its modern form depends on a genetic theory. Genetic theory was discovered by Mendel in the nineteenth century but wasn’t really noticed by anyone at the time, and is really an early-twentieth-century creation. So the very notion that you should have a property that is inherited in the body in the way that genes are is a very modern idea, and the idea that you should have a form of classification in which those characteristics are central is extremely modern – well into the twentieth century.

In the case of the West, genealogical identities were theoretically understood as genetic or biological. And this was a mistake.

Q: What concrete differences do these theories make?

A: I think that if everybody genuinely gave up the false biological belief, whatever fed our definitions of our racial identities would have to change. You wouldn’t even call them racial identities.

Q: Do you have any concrete proposals for how race should be dealt with in America?

A: If you ask me my thoughts about how to make progress on race in America, I believe that it has very little to do with things we say. If you wanted to invest political and financial resources in one thing, I would say that we should mix up the neighborhoods. As long as we have a society in which huge proportions of African Americans grow up in neighborhoods which are 80 percent or more African American, these will remain powerful, salient identities – in bad ways, as well as good.

Q: In your book Color Conscious (1996), you discuss the process by which the “politics of recognition” requires that a group (whether defined by ethnicity, gender, or orientation) writes a new “script” for how it should behave and be perceived. Would you describe your current work as writing a new script for identity?

A: I’ve mostly been interested in trying to understand these processes, rather than trying to get people to do things. I somewhat resist being identified as a public intellectual. I’m an intellectual and I care about politics, but I don’t think of my responsibility as an intellectual in politics as in any way greater, or different, from that of any citizen. I’m not against people taking those responsibilities, but I haven’t done so. There is a kind of fussiness about intellectual distinctions that I think is inappropriate in a struggle where there are two sides and you know which side you’re on. In philosophy there aren’t two sides, so scrupulousness is not fussy.

Q: Another way to proceed might be to analyze different aspects of identity; to do for, say, your sexual identity what you’ve done for your racial identity. Is that an interest for you?

A: People have asked me why, given that I’ve written so much about race, I haven’t written about sexuality in, say, the mode of queer studies. The answer I’ve given is that I did think philosophically about sexuality when I was starting out, and what struck me is that most of what one has to say was just responding to terribly bad arguments, and this did not seem very interesting to me.

Q: But how is this different from the critical philosophical work you’ve done in the case of race, which also required that you respond to terribly bad arguments?

A: Part of it is that I was better equipped to deal with bad arguments concerning the case of race because I had had a rather substantial education in biology. And evolutionary theory was one of the topics I was most interested in, so I actually know a lot about genetics and evolutionary biology.

In the case of race, I mostly concentrated on criticizing the best form of the wrong theory. The bad science in the case of homosexuality has mostly been psychoanalytic and, partly because I came to psychoanalysis through reading critiques of it, I’ve never had any time for it. Probably to an inappropriate degree, it makes me want to barf. It is just not a sensible way of thinking about sexuality. So disentangling my general skepticism about all explanations of homosexuality from my skepticism of these particular explanations would be difficult.

There is a separate problem, which has to do with the nature of ethics. Clearly attitudes toward homosexuals have a lot to do with views about the proper use of sex – the role of sex in pleasure, etc. And I must say that it is unclear to me why those are topics on which one ought to have any intrinsic moral thoughts. Sex is important because it produces pleasure, because it produces relationships, because it produces children, and all of these are of intrinsic moral importance. But sex itself is like, say, eating – it produces pleasure, it produces sociality, etc. – but we don’t have the sense that we should take eating seriously as a moral topic. I don’t feel as if I have anything special to say about sexuality, nor do I feel that it is my obligation to do so.

There is another difference between sex and race as philosophical topics. I am not a radical constructivist about sexual identity. I think there is something biologically there in the sexual sense. I think there is less there than most people think, but I don’t believe there is nothing. Whereas with race, I don’t think it is at all interesting from the biological point of view.