Skip to Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues Full Site Menu Skip to main content
November 18, 2021

Responding To: Inquiries into the Future of Cosmopolitanism

Humanitarian Cosmopolitanism and the Global Sense of Place

JeeLoo Liu

Cosmopolitanism can be seen as a universal ideal championed by philosophers East and West, ancient as well as contemporary, and its widespread endorsement by the masses is especially an urgent need for today’s world of divided national interests and heightened ethnic hostility. However, one major challenge to cosmopolitanism is finding the way to motivate people to truly embrace this ideology. As Martha Nussbaum points out in her recent book The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal, the first problem for the cosmopolitan tradition lies in the realm of moral psychology: “The Stoics had trouble motivating real human beings to care about global justice” (Nussbaum 2019: 210). If we want to achieve the mentality of shared concerns for global justice and universal respect for human dignity—the two characteristics she identifies in the cosmopolitan tradition, “we need a realistic understanding of human weaknesses and limits, of the forces in human life that make justice so difficult to achieve” (Nussbaum 2019: 212). The recent Covid pandemic has fully demonstrated human weakness and limitations: due to disparities in technology and financial means, vaccines development and wide-ranging distribution to curb the pandemic only belong to the more medically resourceful and economically advantaged nations. The rest of the world’s population were left to their own demise. This is not justice, and there is no human dignity allotted to those who had to die outside of hospitals because there were no medical resources available.

My own conception of an ideal cosmopolitan world is not one that highlights justice and universal human dignity. To me, these goals are abstract and lofty; furthermore, they are both motivationally inefficacious and practically unimplementable. My imagery of a cosmopolitan world is based on the world of Grand Union (datong) depicted in the Book of Rites; in particular, in the following passage:

"[M]en did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up to the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained." (Legge 2013)

Beginning with this depiction of a society in which the great Dao prevails, and all under the sky share common goals, with public welfare in mind, and manifest the spirit of mutual care, I will expand it to the whole world. Borrowing from Doreen Massy’s notion of “the global sense of place,” I wish to present the vision of a cosmopolitan world where all people treat earth as their place of belonging, the locus of their persona identity, attachment, and nostalgia. On this global sense of ‘place,’ we are not merely ideologically “interconnected,” but are geographically interconnected in our livelihoods. We all have a stake in the spread of the pandemic, the threat of global warming and climate change, the exponentially produced inorganic wastes and the vastly diminishing earthly resources. We all need to care about earth and its inhabitants, because everyone and everything affects our living space—our place. I shall call this vision “humanitarian cosmopolitanism.”

Some Mental Imageries of Cosmopolitanism

Martha Nussbaum appeals to the mental imagery of “world citizens” in her promotion for cosmopolitanism. Following Kant’s conviction, Nussbaum believes that the self-notion of world citizens comes naturally to all of us: “Each child who is born, as Kant says … not just a little worldly being, but also a little world citizen” (Nussbaum 2019: 207). To recognize ourselves as world citizens means that we would care about justice for all, and we would love human dignity in all people. She puts this ideal in an optimistic declaration:

"If our world is to be a decent world in the future, we must acknowledge right now that we are citizens of one interdependent world, held together by mutual fellowship as well as the pursuit of mutual advantage, by compassion as well as self-interest, by a love of human dignity in all people, even when there is nothing we have to gain from cooperating with them. Or rather, even when what we have to gain is the biggest thing of all: participation in a just and morally decent world." (Nussbaum 2006: 324)

However, as Philip J. Ivanhoe aptly points out, Nussbaum’s conception of world citizens failed to address the many practical problems such as one’s paying taxes to one’s own country only, one’s being legally recognized as a “citizen” and thus not an “alien” or “illegal immigrant,” and one’s being governed by or swearing allegiance to a particular political institution. Ivanhoe sums up his critiques of Nussbaum’s conception this way: “If taken literally, being ‘a citizen of the world’ either implies the establishment of a single world government or inclines toward incoherence” (Ivanhoe 2014: 26).

Ivanhoe himself proposes a different mental imagery: world tourist. He derives his inspiration from Confucius’ conduct as recorded in the Analects 3.15: “When the master entered the ancestral temple, he asked about each and every thing done there….” (Ivanhoe 2014: 35). This passage and others in the Analects depict Confucius as a person who loves to learn, with a desire for experiences “that will deepen not only their knowledge about but appreciation of what it is to be human” (Ivanhoe 2014: 36). In Ivanhoe’s vision,

"[A] cosmopolitan is not a citizen of nowhere but an interested guest or visitor of various cultures and ways of life who is comfortable around the world…. The idea is that we should sincerely inquire about the cultural treasures of other people when we visit their countries, the religious symbols and rituals of those we meet when we encounter them in the course of our lives, the possessions people put on display when we enter their homes, and the customs, beliefs, and norms they follow when we visit and move among them. Such a practice can help us to understand these people and the lives they live; more importantly, the very act of asking-the ritual of inquiry-about such things will help develop as well as express and convey our respect for and interest in them." (Ivanhoe 2014: 34-5, emphasis added)

However, the guest or tourist mentality will not do the trick either. A guest is not invested in the local wellbeing and is not responsible in rectifying any local ills. A visitor only sojourns in the place and will eventually leave to go back to her own homeland. Having such a mental imagery does not establish deep attachments; on the contrary, this kind of visitor mentality reinforces the divide between us and them, here and there, and homeland and other nations.

To overcome the difficulty in human moral psychology for people’s endorsement of cosmopolitanism, I present the mental image of our being “stakeholders” in our shared space on earth—our place. I find the notion of place in geopolitics helpful in promoting cosmopolitanism, since the main obstacle in eradicating provincialism and nationalism—both standing opposed to cosmopolitanism—is people’s attachment to their homeland as their “place” of entitlements and their circle of care. If we can promote a global sense of place without renouncing patriotism, then the cosmopolitan philosophy we advocate would not be a radical form of cosmopolitanism that rejects demarcation of national boundaries and borders.

The Notion of Place

The notion of place has been used in geography from the beginning, but “it is only since the 1970s that it has been conceptualized as a particular location that has acquired a set of meanings and attachments” (Cresswell 2009: 169). In this newly adopted usage, place is a notion of human geography that establishes humanistic associations with external physical environment. A place is where one finds the sense of belonging. In the conception of early human geographers such as Yi-Fu Tuan, place is essentially “a static concept” (Tuan 1977: 179). Under this kind of view, one’s being-in-place is essential to one’s existence and self-identity, whereas one’s being-out-of-place is seen as “weak and disruptive” (Cresswell 2015: 27). According to Yi-Fu Tuan, one of the early expounders of the notion of place and an instrumental founder of humanistic geography, “Place exists at different scales,” and among which, “homeland is an important type of place at the medium scale. It is a region large enough to support a person’s livelihood. Attachment to the homeland can be intense” (Tuan 1976: 149).

However, a newer, “progressive” notion of place treats place not as a fixed homeland, but as a process of individuals’ appropriation of new locations, new social relations, and new identities. According to Tim Cresswell, a place is “never truly finished” and is “always open to question and transformation” (Cresswell 2009: 175). Cresswell explains that one’s sense of place is associated with “the feelings and emotions a place evokes” (Cresswell 2009: 169). Such feelings and emotions are derived from human experiences. Since one continues to form new experiences and new interpersonal relationships in a given place, one’s place should evolve as one continues to accumulate life’s experiences. Place is the location to which one attaches the most meaningful memories—both old and new. One could have a sense of nostalgia toward one’s past experiences and local history, or one could develop a sense of immersion and transformation in a newly defined place. The individual is situated in time and place, as the past marks her former relationship with the place whereas the future represents the place she sees herself occupies later on. One’s place needs not be fixed by one’s past. This is the notion that best depicts the migration of citizens from one nation or one continent to another.

Place also signifies changing personal space and meaning in multifaceted human relationships. What defines a place for an individual is not just the familiar sights, geographical locations, architecture, artifacts, but also the people surrounding the individual. One finds companion and friendship among one’s neighbors and local friends; one also establishes new relationships by starting a new family and finding a new work environment. One’s birthplace or hometown could gradually become a foreign place if one’s old associations are no longer there. Place builds on the present, among the people one knows and cares about. In Edward Relph’s explication, place is simply our “field of care”—“settings in which we have had a multiplicity of experiences and which call forth an entire complex of affections and responses” (Relph 1976: 38). Human affections and relationships are constantly changing; hence, place cannot be a fixed and closed region of a static being. It has to be always in the state of becoming. In other words, this interpersonal transformation of place supports the process view of place.

Cresswell says, “Thinking about the world in terms of deeply rooted, fixed places with clear boundaries and stable associated identities can be characterized as a sedentarist metaphysics” (Cresswell 2009: 176). Sedentarist metaphysics might suit the world in which boundaries are fixed and mobility is local and restricted; it is no longer befitting today’s globalism. We will need a different sociopolitical metaphysics, according to which the individual is free to move about in places. Doreen Massey’s progressivism of place provides such a new vision that we can employ to motivate humanitarian cosmopolitanism. Instead of being sedentarist, progressivism of place conceives of place as “active, generative,” as “something that our bodies reactivate, and through this reactivation, in turn modifies and transforms us” (Ross 1988, cited in Massey 1993: 67).

From A Global Sense of Place to Humanitarian Cosmopolitanism

According to Doreen Massey, reactionary nationalism, competitive localism and “santitized” obsessions with heritage are “problematic senses of place” (Massey 1993: 64). The notion of place that is tied up with one’s nationality, heritage, sovereignty and history is indeed the crux of one’s political identity; however, this very notion is at the same time the seedbed for intractable antagonism among groups of different nations, party lines, religions, ethnicity, geographic origins, historical roots, family names, and may other such ideologies. What Massey advocates instead, is a “progressive sense of place,” according to which place is imagined as “articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings,” rather than as areas with fixed boundaries (Massey 1993: 66). Massey defines ‘place’ in terms of complex social relationships among co-inhabitants of the same area. The residents’ mutual interactions consist of co-present power interchanges, social influences, cultural assimilations, and the foundation for such co-existence must be mutual understanding. She further proclaims that what we need is “a global sense of the local, a global sense of place” (Massey 1993: 68).

To motivate this global sense of place, Massey invites the readers to mentally place themselves on a satellite, looking back at the globe: “Imagine for a moment that you are on a satellite, further out and beyond all actual satellites; you can see ‘planet earth’ from a distance…, You can see all the movement and turn in to all the communication that is going on” (Massey 1994: 148). She develops this thought experiment further: “This time, however, imagine not just all the physical movement, nor even all the often invisible communications, but also and especially all the social relations, all the links between people” (Massey 1994: 154). Massey gives the following description:

"It is from that perspective that it is possible to envisage an alternative interpretation of place. In this interpretation, what gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus. If one moves in from the satellite towards the globe, holding all those networks of social relations and movements and communications in one’s head, then each ‘place’ can be seen as a particular, unique, point of their intersection. It is, indeed, a meeting place. Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings…. And this in turn allows a sense of place which is extroverted, which includes a consciousness of its links with the wider world, which integrates in a positive way the global and the local." (Massey 1994: 154-5)

Now we no longer need such a thought experiment, since we have already seen some rich and famous people such as Jeff Bezos, William Shatner, and Richard Branson going off to space and looking back at the globe. Jeff Bezos claimed that the spaceflight “reinforced his commitment to solving climate change”: “When you look at the planet, there are no borders,” Bezos said. “It’s one planet, and we share it and it’s fragile” (NBC news report, July 21, 2021).

It is this sense of a “fragile” earth that I wish to promote in the vision for humanitarian cosmopolitanism. We should all regard earth as our “field of care.” We are all inhabitants of this fragile place that is fraught with the danger of self-destruction through incessant warfare, uncontained viral infection, climate change, as well as other harmful effects of global warming. The urgent interconnectedness of “one for all; all for one” is demonstrated most vividly in the spread of Covid-19. When one person in another country is sick with the contagious virus or its many variants, the rest of the world is not immune from the thread of the pandemic. Even if some nations successfully curbed the spread by locking down their borders, eventually they must open the borders and confront the issue from a global perspective. If the more developed nations were able to work hand-in-hand from the start, and share the results of their medical research, their studies of the initial cause of the coronavirus contagion, their vaccine formulas and production, with other more dependent nations, this pandemic would not have reached such a devastating magnitude. Humanitarian cosmopolitanism—a world in which everyone is interconnected with their livelihood at stake—is not a lofty philosophical ideal; it is rather a geopolitical reality. We are all in this place together, and no one can possibly hold on to the old sense of place as one’s homeland, one’s nation, or one’s ethnic group. The dangers that our earth faces confront all of us, with no regard to age, nationality, ethnicity, religion, politics, or ideologies. It is high time that we reckon with this realty.


Chen, Xunwu (2020). “Confucianism and Cosmopolitanism.” Asian Philosophy 30 (1):40-56.

Cresswell, Tim (2015). Place: An Introduction. 2nd edition. UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. (2014). “Confucian Cosmopolitanism.” The Journal of Religious Ethics Vol. 42, No. 1 (March 2014), pp. 22-44.

Legge, James (trans.) (2013). Book of Rites, Liji: Bilingual Edition, English and Chinese. Createspace Independent Pub. Available on

Massey, Doreen (1994). “A Global Sense of Place.” In Doreen Massy, Space, Place, and Gender. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 146-56.

_________ (1993). “Power Geometry and A Progressive Sense of Place.” In Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, Tim Putnam, George Robertson, and Lisa Tickner (Eds.) Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Change. London and New York: Routledge. 59-69.

Nussbaum, Martha (2019). The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

_______________ (2006). Frontier of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Relph, Edward (1976). Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.

Tuan, Yi-Fu (1977). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.

JeeLoo Liu is professor of philosophy at California State University, Fullerton.

Other Responses