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Appiah was born in London, England, to Peggy Cripps Appiah, an English art historian and writer, and Joe Appiah, a lawyer, diplomat, and politician from the Asante region, once part of the British Gold Coast colony but now part of Ghana. For two years (1970-72) Joe Appiah was the leader of a new opposition party that was made by the country's three opposing parties. Simultaneously he was the president of the Ghana Bar Association. Between 1977 and 1978, he was Ghana's representative at the United Nations. He died in an Accra hospital in 1990.
Through Professor Appiah's father, a Nana of the Ashanti people, he is a direct descendant of Osei Tutu, the warrior emperor of pre-colonial Ghana, whose reigning successor, the Asantehene, is a distant relative of the Appiah family. Also among his African ancestors is the Ashanti nobleman Nana Akroma-Ampim I of Nyaduom, a warrior whose name the Professor now bears.
He lives with his husband, Henry Finder, in an apartment in Manhattan, and a home in Pennington, New Jersey with a small sheep farm. Appiah has written about what it was like growing up gay in Ghana.
Kwame Anthony Appiah during a lecture and visit to Knox College in 2006.
Appiah taught philosophy and African-American studies at the University of Ghana, Cornell, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton Universities from 1981 to 1988. He was, until recently, a Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton (with a cross-appointment at the University Center for Human Values) and was serving as the Bacon-Kilkenny Professor of Law at Fordham University in the fall of 2008. Appiah also served on the board of PEN American Center and was on a panel of judges for the PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award. He has taught at Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard universities and lectured at many other institutions in the US, Germany, Ghana and South Africa, and Paris. Until the fall of 2009, he served as a trustee of Ashesi University College in Accra, Ghana. Currently, he is the professor of philosophy and law at NYU.
His Cambridge dissertation explored the foundations of probabilistic semantics. In 1992, Appiah published In My Father's House, which won the Herskovitz Prize for African Studies in English. Among his later books are Colour Conscious (with Amy Gutmann), The Ethics of Identity (2005), and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006). He has been a close collaborator with Henry Louis Gates Jr., with whom he edited Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience. Appiah was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995.
In 2008, Appiah published Experiments in Ethics, in which he reviews the relevance of empirical research to ethical theory. In the same year, he was recognised for his contributions to racial, ethnic, and religious relations when Brandeis University awarded him the first Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize.
As well as his academic work, Appiah has also published several works of fiction. His first novel, Avenging Angel, set at the University of Cambridge, involved a murder among the Cambridge Apostles; Sir Patrick Scott is the detective in the novel. Appiah's second and third novels are Nobody Likes Letitia and Another Death in Venice.
Appiah argues that the formative denotation of culture is preceded by the efficacy of intellectual interchange.[clarification needed] From this position he views organisations such as UNICEF and Oxfam in two lights: on the one hand he seems to appreciate the immediate action these organisations provide while on the other he points out their long-term futility. His focus is, instead, on the long-term political and economic development of nations according to the Western capitalist/ democratic model, an approach that relies on continued growth in the "marketplace" that is the capital-driven modern world.
However, when capitalism is introduced and it does not "take off" as in the Western world, the livelihood of the peoples involved is at stake. Thus, the ethical questions involved are certainly complex, yet the general impression in Appiah's "Kindness to Strangers" is one which implies that it is not up to "us" to save the poor and starving, but up to their own governments. Nation-states must assume responsibility for their citizens, and a cosmopolitan's role is to appeal to "our own" government to ensure that these nation-states respect, provide for, and protect their citizens.
If they will not, "we" are obliged to change their minds; if they cannot, "we" are obliged to provide assistance, but only our "fair share," that is, not at the expense of our own comfort, or the comfort of those "nearest and dearest" to us.
Appiah's early philosophical work dealt with probabilistic semantics and theories of meaning, but his more recent books have tackled philosophical problems of race and racism, identity, and moral theory. His current work tackles three major areas: 1. the philosophical foundations of liberalism; 2. the questioning of methods in arriving at knowledge about values; and 3. the connections between theory and practice in moral life, all of which concepts can also be found in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.
On postmodern culture Appiah writes, "Postmodern culture is the culture in which all postmodernisms operate, sometimes in synergy, sometimes in competition; and because contemporary culture is, in a certain sense to which I shall return, transnational, postmodern culture is global – though that emphatically does not mean that it is the culture of every person in the world."
Appiah has been influenced by the cosmopolitanist philosophical tradition, which stretches from German philosophers such as G. W. F. Hegel through W. E. B. Du Bois and others. In his article "Education for Global Citizenship", Appiah outlines his conception of cosmopolitanism. He says cosmopolitanism is "universality plus difference". He then says that the first takes precedence over the latter, that is: different cultures are respected "not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people." But Appiah first defined it as its problems but ultimately determines that practising a citizenship of the world and conversation is not only helpful in a post-9/11 world. Therefore, according to Appiah's take on this ideology, cultural differences are to be respected in so far as they are not harmful to people and in no way conflict with our universal concern for every human's life and well-being.
In his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), Appiah introduces two ideas that "intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism" (Emerging, 69). The first is the idea that we have obligations to others that are bigger than just sharing citizenship. The second idea is that we should never take for granted the value of life and become informed of the practices and beliefs of others. Kwame Appiah frequents university campuses to speak to students. One request he makes is, "See one movie with subtitles a month.".
Criticism of Afrocentric world view
Appiah has been a critic of contemporary theories of Afrocentrism. In his 1997 essay "Europe Upside Down: Fallacies of the New Afrocentrism," he argues that current Afrocentricism is striking for "how thoroughly at home it is in the frameworks of nineteenth century European thought," particularly as a mirror image to Eurocentric constructions of race and a preoccupation with the ancient world. Appiah also finds an irony in the conception that if the source of the West lies in ancient Egypt via Greece, then "its legacy of ethnocentrism is presumably one of our moral liabilities."
Ralph J. Bunche Award, American Political Science Association, "for the best scholarly work in political science which explores the phenomenon of ethnic and cultural pluralism" for Color Conscious, July 1997
Outstanding Book on the subject of human rights in North America, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America, for Color Conscious, 10 December 1997
Honorable Mention, Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights for The Ethics of Identity, 9 December 2005
Appiah, Anthony (1985), "Soyinka and the philosophy of culture", in Bodunrin, P.O. (ed.), Philosophy in Africa: trends and perspectives, Ile-Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press, pp. 250-263, ISBN9789781360725.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Appiah, Anthony (1990), "Race", in Lentricchia, Frank; McLaughlin, Tom (eds.), Critical terms for literary study, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 274-287, ISBN9780226472027.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Appiah, Anthony (1992), "Inventing an African practice in philosophy: epistemological issues", in Mudimbe, Valentin-Yves (ed.), The surreptitious speech: Présence Africaine and the politics of otherness, 1947-1987, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 227-237, ISBN9780226545073.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Appiah, Anthony (1992), "African identities", in Amselle, Jean-Loup; Appiah, Anthony; Bagayogo, Shaka; Chrétien, Jean-Pierre; Dakhlia, Jocelyne; Gellner, Ernest; LaRue, Richard; Mudimbe, Valentin-Yves; Topolski, Jerzy (eds.), Constructions identitaires: questionnements théoriques et études de cas, Québec: CÉLAT, Université Laval, ISBN9782920576445.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) Fernande Saint-Martin sous la direction de Bogumil Jewsiewicki et Jocelyn Létourneau, Actes du Célat No. 6, Mai 1992.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony (1995), "Philosophy and necessary questions", in Kwame, Safro (ed.), Readings in African philosophy: an Akan collection, Lanham: University Press of America, pp. 1-22, ISBN9780819199119.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Appiah, K. Anthony (1997), "African-American philosophy?", in Pittman, John (ed.), African-American perspectives and philosophical traditions, New York: Routledge, pp. 11-34, ISBN9780415916400.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Appiah, Kwame Anthony (1996), "Identity: political not cultural", in Garber, Marjorie; Walkowitz, Rebecca L.; Franklin, Paul B. (eds.), Field work: sites in literary and cultural studies, New York: Routledge, pp. 34-40, ISBN9780415914550.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Appiah, Kwame Anthony (1999), "Yambo Ouolouguem and the meaning of postcoloniality", in Wise, Christopher (ed.), Yambo Ouologuem: postcolonial writer, Islamic militant, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, pp. 55-63, ISBN9780894108617.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2000), "Aufklärung und dialogue der kulturen", in Krull, Wilhelm (ed.), Zukunftsstreit (in German), Weilerwist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, pp. 305-328, ISBN9783934730175.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Appiah, K. Anthony (2001), "Grounding human rights", in Gutmann, Amy (ed.), Michael Ignatieff: Human rights as politics and idolatry, The University Center for Human Values Series, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, pp. 101-116, ISBN9780691114743.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2009), "Sen's identities", in Kanbur, Ravi; Basu, Kaushik (eds.), Arguments for a better world: essays in honor of Amartya Sen | Volume I: Ethics, welfare, and measurement, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 475-488, ISBN9780199239115.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Appiah, Kwame Anthony (Winter 1981). "Structuralist criticism and African fiction: an analytic critique". Black American Literature Forum. 15 (4): 165-174. doi:10.2307/2904328. JSTOR2904328.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
— (Spring 1986). "Review: Deconstruction and the philosophy of language Reviewed Work: The Deconstructive Turn: Essays in the Rhetoric of Philosophy by Christopher Norris". Diacritics. 16 (1): 48-64. doi:10.2307/464650. JSTOR464650.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
— (October 1990). "But would that still be me?" Notes on gender, "race," ethnicity, as sources of "identity". The Journal of Philosophy. 87 (10): 493-499. doi:10.5840/jphil1990871026. JSTOR2026866.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
— (April 2008). "Chapter 6: Education for global citizenship". Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. 107 (1): 83-99. doi:10.1111/j.1744-7984.2008.00133.x.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
--"The Key to All Mythologies" (review of Emmanuelle Loyer, Lévi-Strauss: A Biography, translated from the French by Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff, Polity, 2019, 744 pp.; and Maurice Godelier, Claude Lévi-Strauss: A Critical Study of His Thought, translated from the French by Nora Scott, Verso, 2019, 540 pp.), The New York Review of Books, vol. LXVII, no. 2 (13 February 2020), pp. 18-20. Appiah concludes his review (p. 20): "Lévi-Strauss... was... an inspired interpreter, a brilliant reader.... When the landmarks of science succeed in advancing their subject, they need no longer be consulted: physicists don't study Newton; chemists don't pore over Lavoisier.... If some part of Lévi-Strauss's scholarly oeuvre survives, it will be because his scientific aspirations have not."
^ abAppiah, Kwame Anthony. "Biography". appiah.net. Kwame Anthony Appiah. Archived from the original on 3 February 2011. Retrieved 2011. Professor Appiah has homes in New York city and near Pennington, in New Jersey, which he shares with his partner, Henry Finder, Editorial Director of the New Yorker magazine. (In Pennington, they have a small sheep farm.)
^Appiah, Kwame Anthony (Winter 2009). "Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?". Critical Inquiry. 17 (2): 336-357. doi:10.1086/448586.
^Appiah, Kwame Anthony (April 2008). "Chapter 6: Education for global citizenship". Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. 107 (1): 83-99. doi:10.1111/j.1744-7984.2008.00133.x.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
^Kwame Anthony Appiah, "Europe Upside Down: Fallacies of the New Afrocentrism" in Perspectives on Africa, ed. Richard Roy Grinker and Christopher B. Steiner (London: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), pp. 728-731.