What does a philosopher do?
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.
Question: When did philosophy spark your interest?
Kwame Anthony Appiah: Before I was a month or two old, my father had announced to the world that I would either be a doctor and go to Cambridge, or a philosopher and go to Harvard. So apparently my father knew something that I didn’t.
I only discovered this later on looking through press cuttings. I don’t remember this from my childhood.
And as it happens, I did study medicine at Cambridge, and I did teach philosophy at Harvard, so it’s sort of interesting.
I don’t remember the first time I realized that I was really interested in philosophy. I think two things happened. One is I happened to go to a school where there were other people of my age – 15, 16, 17 – who got interested in it. And they were interesting and smart people, and I hung out with them and we read philosophy together, partly influenced by a couple of teachers – one a chaplain and the other an atheist.
It’s hard to believe this, especially if you’ve read “Language Truth and Logic”; but I found a book called “Language Truth and Logic” in the bookroom at our school, the place where you can buy books. And I found it extremely exciting. This was sort of a positivist manifesto. I’m not any kind of positivist really, but the idea that you could think rigorously about these important questions, and that you could break through the sort of encrusted assumptions of your society or of societies in general, and see through to a clearer vision of what the world was really like, and what was important. And so that struck me, I think, as very exciting.
I was going through a religious crisis at the time. I was evangelical 15, 16 year-old, and I suppose I was in the process of losing my faith. I wouldn’t have known that at the time.
But I was very interested in theological questions, and again the kind of rigor with which philosophical argument could address these questions which were addressed, I thought, quite less interestingly perhaps by in the sort of Sunday school or religious setting. I think that was part of what excited me.
I have to say that while that’s what sort of brought me to the subject, I don’t find myself terribly interested now in those questions. In the United States where the vast majority of people claim some sort of religious belief haven’t thought much about what that means. They haven’t thought about what it means not it in terms of what they should do, but in terms of how they should think.
And in particular people are very vague, I think, about what they mean when they say they think there is a god. And one of the things I found helpful in philosophy as a 16, 17 year old was attempts by philosophers; most of them were quite devout and religious, but they were nevertheless people who wanted to be more rigorous about what that meant than most people. I’m using this word “rigor”; Aristotle said you should adopt the level of the precision that’s appropriate to the subject; and he was right.
Recorded on: July 31 2007
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