Kwame Anthony Appiah Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Combining intimate knowledge of life in Africa with a philosopher’s care for ideas and a reader’s appreciation of culture, Appiah critically analyzed the racial myths by which European culture views Africa, and those that inform the pan-African movement.

Early Life

Kwame Anthony Appiah (also known as Anthony Appiah and K. Anthony Appiah) was born in London, England, to Enid Margaret Appiah, an art historian and writer, and Joe Emmanuel Appiah, a lawyer, diplomat, and politician from the Asante region, once part of the British Gold Coast Colony but now part of Ghana. He grew up principally in Kumasi, the capital of Asante. In his preface to In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, he describes growing up in his father’s world—filled with barrister wigs and dark suits—and in that of the Asante palace royalty (to which he was closely related on his father’s side) without experiencing any sense that they were separate worlds or that they were radically different from the world of his mother’s family in England. When Appiah was eight years old and hospitalized for an illness, he was visited by both Queen Elizabeth and President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana on the same day. This acceptance of differences without the identification of contradictions would inform his adult writing, which is often animated by the recognition of the diversity of cultural inheritances.

As a writer, Appiah followed in the footsteps of his mother, a writer of children’s books under the name Enid Elizabeth “Peggy” Cripps; however, there can be no mistaking the early and crucial influence of Anthony’s father. A dedicated pan-Africanist and nobleman, the senior Appiah distinguished himself first during World War II in West Africa and then after the war in London as a leader of the West African Students Union. He attended the 1945 pan-Africanist conference along with W. E. B. Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah and twenty-seven years later was one of the few surviving members of that conference to attend a 1972 pan-Africanist conference. An early supporter of President Nkrumah as well as an early challenger who led an opposition party, Appiah was jailed by Nkrumah for his political activity but, according to his son Anthony, left as an enduring legacy to his children the lesson to be completely untempted by racism.

Life’s Work

Kwame Anthony Appiah was educated at Clare College in Cambridge, England, where he received his B.A. in 1975, his M.A. in 1980, and his Ph.D. in 1982. Throughout the 1980’s, he taught at Yale University, Cornell University, Duke University, and Harvard University, where he continued to teach in the 1990’s along with his friend and frequent collaborator, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Appiah’s earliest publications as an adult were poems published privately in the 1970’s; this interest in literature would remain a part of his professional career. Though his first three books, Assertion and Conditionals, For Truth in Semantics, and Necessary Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, show an ability to write about complex philosophical issues in language that is clear and accessible to general audiences, they did not find wide audiences. These works, written before he focused his attention on the philosophical issues related to race and culture, were not widely reviewed, made no discernible impact on the study of philosophy, and quickly went out of print. Similarly, while the 1991 publication of a mystery novel, Avenging Angel, firmly established his professional interest in literature, its Anglophilic tone and setting do not give any sign of the complex questioning of nationality that would emerge in his philosophical writing.

The appearance of In My Father’s House in 1992 was a watershed for Appiah’s career. By reevaluating concepts of race, nationality, and culture, Appiah brought a fresh perspective to the ongoing debate about the importance of race at a time when Afrocentrism, of which Appiah is highly critical, was beginning to be nationally and internationally articulated, especially, though not only, on college campuses. Afrocentrism, as opposed to Eurocentrism, looks at the world from a black African perspective. Appiah’s goal in writing In My Father’s House was to expose the bad biology that underlies the pan-Africanism that extends from Alexander Crummell and W. E. B. Du Bois to the late President Nkrumah of Ghana. Though he is sympathetic to the goal of African unity, he points out that most people who have sought such unity have had to assume the existence of some stable African essence, an assumption that paves over the multicultural mixture of local and regional and ever-changing cultures that is modern Africa. Though he stops far short of articulating a vision, Appiah’s goal is to posit a nonracially biased alternative for grounding pan-Africanism based loosely on the notion of a fraternity of nations. A mixture of philosophy, literary criticism, history, and autobiography, In My Father’s House received the Annisfield-Wolf Award and the Heskovitz Award of the African Studies Association for the best work published in English on Africa and established the ideas Appiah would spend the bulk of the decade exploring.

In My Father’s House was widely and usually favorably reviewed, and its publication vaulted the author onto the stage of public intellectual debate, giving him a role he clearly relished. Though Afrocentrism is not a specific target...

(The entire section is 2284 words.)