Cosmopolitanism Research Paper Starter

Kwame Anthony Appiah


(Research Starters)

Cosmopolitanism is the view that all human beings are world citizens (Greek, kosmopolitês) with responsibilities that extend beyond national borders. Given the diverse nature of the global village, tolerance and understanding are the bywords. Supporters of cosmopolitanism, dating back to the Stoics and Cynics of classical antiquity as well as to Judaism and Christianity, insist that they advocate building bridges of understanding and do not support cultural, social or religious homogenization. Cosmopolitanism has implications for the economic, moral and political spheres. Along with multiculturalism, it has been at the center of an often contentious debate about the place of Western civilization in the K-12 school curriculum. On one side of the debate are conservatives who argue that cosmopolitanism should be part and parcel of a civic education that places a high value on Western civilization and its views on such topics as human rights and democracy. On the other side of the debate are liberals who view cosmopolitanism as synonymous with multiculturalism, the view that there is a de facto moral equivalence between different cultures, meaning in turn that Western civilization should not be privileged in the educational system.


Keywords Civic Education; Conservatism; Cosmopolitanism; Cynicism; Homogenization; Liberalism; Multiculturalism; Stoicism; Tolerance; Western Civilization


Cosmopolitanism, like democracy, had deep roots in Western philosophy and civilization before it came to the shores of America through British colonization. Once in America, it exerted a profound influence on the collective unconscious of America's Founding Fathers. Perhaps the most quintessentially American restatement of cosmopolitan principles is found in Jefferson's lines near the beginning of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This cosmopolitan ideal -- though variously interpreted by the nation's writers, politicians and educators -- has not only been the standard by which Americans judge how they treat their fellow Americans, but it is also the standard by which Americans themselves are judged in and through their dealings with peoples of other nations. In essence, cosmopolitanism has much to say about what it means to be an American living in a country and a world marked by profound diversity.

What is Cosmopolitanism?

As used in this essay, cosmopolitanism is the idea that all human beings are world citizens with responsibilities that extend beyond national borders, as well as to those in what Charusheela (2007) has called the diaspora at home. The emphasis is on an ongoing dialogue, or conversation, between those of different races, cultures and religions to arrive at an ever-deepening level of tolerance born of mutual understanding and respect.

As sociologist Ulrich Beck (2007) argues, "Cosmopolitanism, then, absolutely does not mean uniformity or homogenization. Individuals, groups, communities, political organizations, cultures, and civilizations wish to and should remain diverse, perhaps even unique. But to put it metaphorically: the walls between them must be replaced by bridges" (Beck, 2007, Conclusion).

Behind cosmopolitanism is the conviction that there are certain values - democracy, respect for human rights, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and so forth - that are the common inheritance of humankind and are worthy of preservation. These values are not "Western" or "Eastern," but universal:

What cosmopolitanism does not permit, however, is a kind of flaccid relativism; it insists that there are some universals-basic human rights, for instance-which are non-negotiable. Otherwise, it says, difference and disagreement are so much grist for mutually enriching dialogue (Brookes, 2006, Introduction).

As these values spread around the globe, a truly transcultural, cosmopolitan human society will become a reality, and that society will be far more peaceful than one ravaged by religious wars, ethnic hatreds and nationalist fervor.

Cosmopolitanism in the Real World

How does cosmopolitanism work in practice? Pogge (2002) makes an important distinction between weak and strong cosmopolitanism. Weak cosmopolitanism, which is predominately passive, considers all humans as having equal worth. Strong cosmopolitanism, which is more active, treats all human beings as equally worthy. Pogge considers weak cosmopolitanism to be a truism, while he believes strong cosmopolitanism to be self-evidently false. Indeed, it seems perfectly true - and this is supported by many evolutionary psychologists - that we are, as a rule, more obliging or altruistic toward genetic kin than perfect strangers (Wilson, 1975; Foster, Wenseleers & Ratnieks, 2006; cf. Wilson, 2005). Seeking to steer a path between the two extremes, Pogge suggests an "intermediate cosmopolitanism" wherein "all persons have a negative duty of very high stringency toward every human being not to collaborate in imposing an unjust institutional order upon him or her" (Pogge, 2002, p. 89). That is, human beings must not be active participants in building, supporting or imposing institutions of oppression upon their fellows.

Despite these clarifications, the meaning of cosmopolitanism remains somewhat nebulous. For some scholars, cosmopolitanism must be contrasted with multiculturalism, while in the context of education the two terms are sometimes used almost interchangeably (cf. Nussbaum, 1994). In a recent interview, Kwame Anthony Appiah (cited in Brookes, 2006) noted that the term still carries considerable negative baggage for some:

[Cosmopolitanism has] been attacked from both the left and the right. From the right … it was used as a term of anti-Semitic abuse, and their point was that people who had a sense of responsibility to the human community as a whole were going to be bad nationalists, bad patriots. The other direction of attack, from the left, was that cosmopolitanism was something very elitist. It came to mean a kind of free-floating attitude of the rich person who can afford to travel all over the world tasting a little bit of this culture and that one and not being very responsible about any of it (Appiah, cited in Brookes, 2006).

Further Insights

The Birth of the Cosmopolitan Idea

Cosmopolitanism is the anglicized version of a term first popularized by the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (412/404 B.C. - 323 B.C.). As a later philosopher recorded, "when [Diogenes of Sinope] was asked where he came from, he replied, 'I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitês]' (Diogenes Laertius VI 63)." (cited in Kleingeld & Brown, 2006). The idea of cosmopolitanism was in the air in ancient Athens, the most liberal city-state in ancient Greece, where Socrates and his student Plato spoke of universal truths applicable to all humanity. The idea of a common humanity was further popularized by the philosophical school known as Stoicism in the 3rd century B.C. (Berges, 2005). Political events also conspired to foster the cosmopolitan idea:

Stoic cosmopolitanism in its various guises was enormously persuasive throughout the Greco-Roman world. In part, this success can be explained by noting how cosmopolitan the world at that time was. Alexander the Great's conquests and the subsequent division of his empire into successor kingdoms sapped local cities of much of their traditional authority and fostered increased contacts between cities, and later, the rise of the Roman Empire united the whole of the Mediterranean under one political power (Kleingeld & Brown, 2006, par. 8).

Still, the cosmopolitan idea in the Greco-Roman world was most often advocated by those who were not the power brokers in society, but the outcasts and those of the lower classes, which helps to explain why cosmopolitanism has had, to say the least, a spotty record of progress. On those rare occasions when cosmopolitanism has been spread by the powerful, such as Alexander, it has been primarily through force of arms, not reasoned argument (Vertovec & Cohen, 2002, p. 139).

Today there continues to be general agreement in the West, though perhaps not based any longer on religious presuppositions, that some form of cosmopolitanism, whether interpreted radically or not, is correct. Indeed, cosmopolitanism in our time has been buttressed most notably by all of the scientific breakthroughs in the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, evolutionary biology, as documented in the results of the Human Genome Project, has shown that all human beings (homo sapiens sapiens) share a common ancestor who lived in Africa in the remote past, between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago (cf. Oppenheimer, 2003; Mellars, 2006, p. 9381). As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, "All your ancestors are mine, whoever you are, and all mine are yours. Not just approximately, but literally" (Dawkins, 2004, p. 39). We are one genetically, if not metaphysically.

Intellectual assent to our common humanity is not the same as cosmopolitanism, of course. While many throughout the centuries have paid lip service to the idea that what united human beings as a species is far more profound than the superficial differences in skin color, language or religion that divide us, the bloody history of humanity shows that peaceful coexistence through mutual understanding has been more the ideal than the reality.

Educating Citizens of the World

While some scholars note that the three main areas in which cosmopolitanism comes into play are politics, economics and morality (Kleingeld & Brown, 2006), one should certainly add education to the...

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