The Personal Philosophy of Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher, novelist, and professor of philosophy at Princeton University. Appiah was born in London but moved as an infant to Ghana, where he grew up. 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, Peggy Appiah, whose family was English, was a novelist, children’s writer, and social activist. In 1970, Appiah's great-uncle, Otumfuo Sir Osei Agyeman Prempeh II, was succeeded by his uncle, Otumfuo Nana Poku Ware II, as king of Ashanti.

Appiah was educated abroad in England, ultimately graduating from Clare College, Cambridge University, in England, where he took both B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in the philosophy department. Since Cambridge, he has taught at Princeton, 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.

Appiah is the author of several books including "The Ethics of Identity," "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers," "Experiment in Ethics," and "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen." He has also written three novels and reviews regularly for the New York Review of Books. 

He currently serves as President of the PEN American Center. He 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.

  • Transcript


Question: What is your personal philosophy?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: So if you are a philosopher, you get asked on planes and trains and so on what your philosophy is. And I do have this sort of corny answer, which is that my philosophy is that everything is much more complicated than you first thought. I mean given that that’s what I really do think, I think that reality is very, very complicated and difficult.

Morality is very complicated and difficult, and we need guides to make our way through it. We need pictures, I think; but none of the pictures we have is completely right.

The best physics isn’t quite right. The best biology isn’t quite right. The best philosophy isn’t quite right.

We are ever striving to make better pictures, and pictures are not true or false. They are more or less adequate to what they’re trying to represent. 

So I wouldn’t expect there to be a massive and obvious coherence to my views or anybody else’s. I guess I do have as a result of this thought a kind of, as I say, a tendency to think that there’s going to be some merit in almost any picture. And so to look for the balance; to look for what can be learned from every set of claims, every perspective that’s reasonably on the table.

Rather than trying to bang my way through to one correct picture even of a small subject matter, I like to see what can be gained by looking at something from many points of view. And I think that that’s something that spills over into my view about how you should conduct yourself.

Politically I very much believe in listening to people who have policy views that I regard as preposterous. To try and figure out why they think what they think, and to see whether there might something to be said for their view; and if they’re willing to, tell them how I got to my view and why I think it’s reasonable; and see whether we can, if not come to an agreement, at least understand each other better. 

And sometimes I think not come to an agreement, but shift each other’s position so that we end up in different places as a result of the conversation, even if we don’t end up in the same place. So those are kind of temperamental things, but I think they flow from a picture of what what philosophers might call our epistemological situation; the fact that knowledge is pretty hard to come by.

We’re not very well placed to come by the truth, and we have a better shot, I think, at coming by it if we pay attention to all of the many different attempts at the truth that are out there in many intellectual activities, many sciences, many other disciplines, and in many civilizations and many cultures.

Recorded on: July 31, 2007