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November 18, 2021

Responding To: Inquiries into the Future of Cosmopolitanism

Contemporary Accounts of Cosmopolitanism

Philip J. Ivanhoe

Cosmopolitanism has received increasing attention in recent years as the global nature of the modern world and the multicultural dimensions of contemporary societies becomes ever more salient. In her 1996 essay “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,”Footnote 1 Martha Nussbaum presented a contemporary Western liberal cosmopolitan theory, crafted on Kantian assumptions about the moral status and dignity of persons as rational moral agents. Her view was inspired by and traces its origin back to classical sources in the Western tradition and most prominently Diogenes of Sinope, who claimed to be “a citizen of the world.”

While her account offers a powerful statement of an important moral point of view, it also faces certain challenges, especially as a prescription for how to understand and navigate our global, multicultural world. As a range of critics have pointed outFootnote 2, human beings do not and cannot live in the thin air of an abstract conception of “the world” populated by “persons” shorn of every vestige of history and culture. Human beings do and must live in actual communities and inhabit and live through ongoing traditions with particular features and unique histories; they work out the forms their lives might take within such thick and textured social contexts. Moreover, the kind of view advocated by Nussbaum seems strongly inclined to encourage and perhaps even demand a high degree of homogeneity in the world’s cultures—at least when it comes to their values and practices—which is unappealing for a variety of reasons that some of these same critics have pointed out.Footnote 3

Cosmopolitanism as Universal Moral Theory

Nussbaum’s essay represents an important analysis of cosmopolitanism conceived as a universal moral theory aimed at ensuring that all people enjoy a particular conception of dignity defined largely in terms of first-generation rights. Such a view informs a number of important practical attempts at implementing cosmopolitanism in the world; for example, this is largely the view expressed in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France. As important as such an approach has been and remains, it has become increasingly clear that it remains bound to a particular strain of Western moral theory that has proven to be quite provincial and, in some ways, quite unappealing when applied to the world at large. For our purposes, the most important feature of Nussbaum’s early account is that it understands cosmopolitanism primarily as a moral theory and that this is but one way to conceive of and employ the term.

Cosmopolitanism as Ideal View of the Self

Another way cosmopolitanism is understood is as offering an ideal view about the self and a personal moral stance toward other cultures and the people who live in such cultures. This, in fact, is the kind of view that animates Nussbaum’s influential book Cultivating Humanity, which, while not explicitly presented as a form of cosmopolitanism, makes a persuasive case for the importance of a critical, multicultural education in contributing to the production of worldly and humane people. Unlike Nussbaum’s earlier essay, which regards cosmopolitanism as a moral theory, this second approach is founded on the central importance of the concrete particular features of different cultures in their unique and irreducible plurality.

This is also the conception of cosmopolitanism that informs and inspires a more recent book by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of StrangersFootnote 4, in which he seeks to describe how one can live as a grounded cosmopolitanism: roughly, someone who embraces and remains committed to a home tradition or culture while working to understand and appreciate a range of other cultures and traditions in the wider world. Such an understanding of cosmopolitanism, as a view of oneself and one’s personal moral stance toward other cultures and the people who live in them, offers a second important way to conceive of and deploy the term, but these two by no means exhaust the range of possible conceptions found in contemporary accounts.

Cosmopolitanism as Political Philosophy

A third way to understand cosmopolitanism is to take it primarily as describing a political philosophy: a view about what nation states and their citizens owe to one another. This is the view that Nussbaum employs in her more recent book, The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed IdeaFootnote 5. In this work, she describes a Stoic tradition of philosophy inspired by the quote, noted above, attributed to Diogenes of Sinope but focuses on the bifurcation this tradition draws between a particular conception of justice—according to which people possess and are owed a fundamental and unalienable dignity that is impervious to a range of contingent aspects of life—and the physical material needs that in fact are necessary for human flourishing. The “flaw” that Nussbaum identifies is the clear bright line that the tradition has tended to draw between these two aspects of the human good. She argues, persuasively, that both define moral duties and that neither can coherently stand apart from the other—we have a moral duty to offer material aid to those in need in order to ensure that justice can be realized, and we must offer this aid in ways consistent with their fundamental human dignity.

A version of this general idea is found in Rawls’ conception of distributive justice, but Nussbaum presses the case further, presenting it in terms of her “capabilities approach,” in which guaranteeing that people are supplied with a range of material needs enables them to employ their inherent, basic capabilities in order to develop more complex capabilities that are needed to pursue and enjoy the full spectrum of human good. For our purposes, the important point is that cosmopolitanism is here conceived as a political theory whose characteristic feature is that all people have an equal claim not only to be treated with basic dignitary but also to our material assets, no matter their political relationship or citizenship.

Cosmopolitanism Outside the Western Tradition

Each of the three conceptions of cosmopolitanism described above contributes in significant ways to a more adequate and satisfying understanding of the global nature of the modern world and the multicultural dimensions of contemporary societies. Each can and some have been used as the basis for more critical-theory approaches to this general set of issues. For example, Chike Jeffers argues that Appiah’s writings on cosmopolitanism, while revealing and powerful, fail to fully take into account the Eurocentric residues that inform parts of his analysisFootnote 6.

Another way to critique and perhaps criticize these and other contemporary approaches to cosmopolitanism is to begin by highlighting that they all arise from the Western philosophical tradition and employ its characteristic assumptions and approaches. In itself, this is an observation, not a criticism, but in light of several of the critiques raised above, it presents a prima facie case for concern and establishes an imperative to defend this exclusive and seemingly narrow and provincial starting assumption. Adding to such concerns is the fact that many other traditions of thought outside the Western tradition have produced alternative, powerful, and attractive ideas about the set of problems that define what we call cosmopolitanism. For example, in China there is a long and rich tradition centered upon the idea of bringing “All Under Heaven” (tianxia 天下) into harmonious union, that “all within the four seas are brothers (sihai zhi nei jie xiongdi 四海之內皆兄弟), that all human beings share the same basic nature (benxing 本性) and are “one body” (yiti 一體) with all people, creatures, and things, or that the goal of humanity is to realize the “Great Unity” (datong 大同), a notion that first appeared in the “Evolution of the Rites” (Liyun 禮運) chapter of the Book of Rites, but that has been revised and advocated as a utopian ideal throughout history.

Among the core aims of our Cosmopolitan Group is to not only offer critiques and criticisms of the reigning Western conceptions of cosmopolitanism but also to introduce new theories and visions of cosmopolitanism drawn from non-Western, and specifically, Chinese sources and use these to further the effort of understanding and navigating the global nature of the modern world and the multicultural dimensions of contemporary societies in order to enhance the lives of all under heaven.

1. Martha C. Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, edited by Joshua Cohen, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996): 3–20.

2. Many of the other contributions in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism raise the following type of objection from a variety of perspectives.

3. For another work that engages Nussbaum’s essay, discusses several of the objections raised to it in the volume cited above, extends their criticisms, and sketches some possible alternative conceptions of cosmopolitanism, see Philip J. Ivanhoe, “Confucian Cosmopolitanism,” the Journal of Religious Ethics, 42.1 (March 2014): 22-44. For Nussbaum’s views on multicultural education, see her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,1998).

4. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006).

5. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Idea, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2019).

6. See Chike Jeffers, “Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 51.4 (December 2013): 488–510. One key feature of Jeffers’ argument is that “the historical integration of the world through European imperialism gives people of color added reason to uphold certain forms of group partiality.”

Philip Ivanhoe is a professor and department chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Georgetown University.

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