Interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah – Pt. I

In a three-part series, the ORB interviews Kwame Anthony Appiah. Raised in Ghana, educated at Cambridge, and now a University Professor at NYU, Appiah is a prize-winning philosopher of, among other things, identity, race and ethics. Also a novelist, he writes and speaks extensively on cosmopolitanism and race, having last year given the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures on the subject of ‘Mistaken Identities’. His latest book, As If, published by Harvard University Press, deals with the phenomena of imagination and idealisation, in domains from representations in mathematics to weather forecasting. In this interview, Daniel Kodsi talks to Appiah about the very beginning of his career, professional philosophy, incentives in academia, the personalities of distinguished 20th-century philosophers, getting “clear” on things (and, correspondingly, believing bullshit), where philosophy is going, the contrast between transgenderism and transracialism, standpoint epistemology, green card marriages, Trump and liberalism, divisions in society, the coherence of conservatism, no platforming, and the ethics of buying opera tickets.


DK: Why did you become a philosopher? And do you like philosophy for the same reasons now that you had when you became a philosopher?

KAA: That’s a good question. I came to philosophy in a peculiar way, I think. I was a very devout Christian in High School, and there were a few of us; we were a group of friends. We started reading theological stuff because we were religious people but we were thoughtful— actually, with an assistant chaplain who had just graduated from Oxford, where I think he read philosophical theology. Anyway, at the same time, there was a master in the school, who was an atheist, as it happens, who had a philosophy club, and he would play us recordings of Russell, Wittgenstein and such people … I suppose what happened was that because the coherence of the religious ideas seemed increasingly unclear to me, that made the philosophical stuff seem both relevant, because it was about some of the same things but approaching them in a different way, and just because it seemed to explain some of the difficulties that I had with the religious stuff.

So it happened, probably because of the atheist teacher, that there were copies of Language, Truth and Logic in the book room at the school where you could go to buy books, and I, for some reason, bought one of those, and I found that I felt about it the way Kant felt about Hume. It woke me from my dogmatic slumbers. And the verification principle seemed like a great tool for smashing away at things, and while I didn’t lose my religious belief exactly immediately, I suppose that was part of what did it. So I’d say I came to philosophy through theology and found it interesting in part because it allowed me to get clearer about what I couldn’t make sense of in the theological stuff. But pretty quickly it just seemed interesting in its own right. And I got interested in philosopy more generally, though I did read a lot of philosophical theology … There was this book, Language, Logic, and God, which was published in the sixties, probably, by a man called Frederick Ferré, which was helpful in clarifying my puzzles about theology. But pretty soon I was just interested in reading philosophical stuff. It happens that the book that awoke me from my dogmatic slumbers was the Ayer, but we also read The First Critique and I actually read Being and Nothingness so we didn’t just read analytic classics.

DK: What do you consider to be your main research interests? How have they changed? Some of the more recent books you’ve written have been for a popular audience, and perhaps you want to discuss why you’ve moved in that direction?

KAA: Just to make the transition, I didn’t answer the second part of your first question, which was about what interests me now or whether its changed. I think I like getting clearer about things and so everything I’ve done, whether it’s technically in philosophy or not (and I haven’t always been working on philosophical questions), is something that interests and puzzles me. And in a way, one thing leads to another, so usually you’ll work for a while on a puzzle for a while and in the course of it some other puzzle appears, and you’ll think, “oh, I should think about that,” and that’s how I’ve gone from one thing to another.

In terms of what I’m interested in, I do think there’s a role for philosophy in the culture, which is to help people, not to tell people what to think about anything but to help them think more clearly about things and to notice distinctions that help with questions they have. I’m interested in that in part because, I think, like most philosophers today I am employed as a teacher, so each year a bunch of young people come along who haven’t done it before, so you’re constantly reminded that all your assumptions about what’s interesting and important are learned and therefore have to be communicated, and each year you have to think how to explain to people, a different bunch of people, why anyone should care about whatever it is you’re thinking about. Now, if you’re teaching ethics, people mostly don’t need persuading that they ought to have views about how one ought to behave, and sometimes I am teaching things like that, so it’s not very hard to persuade people that they ought to be interested; I think it’s sometimes hard to persuade them that they ought to be interested in this way, and that’s also work. But I also think of myself as something more generic than a philosopher, as an intellectual, as someone who’s interested in understanding the world and to some extent I think the intellectual vocation is not just about making sense of the world, although that’s etymologically what it is, but about explaining it to other people, and I think that what I’ve discovered over the course of a life in philosophy is that there’s a huge amount of work that’s been done by philosophers that’s extremely useful for addressing problems that people are talking about anyway. There’s a long history, which goes back to the middle of the twentieth-century, of why philosophers shifted from being the people you went to to ask about the big questions of public life, the Deweys and the Jameses before that (and James and Dewey were highly regarded in their own day by other philosophers) to a situation where the most highly regarded philosophers are people like Quine (who doesn’t say anything interesting about how to live your life in his best known works, though I think it’s wonderful philosophy and I enjoy it and I’m happy to spend time thinking about it) and why the system of prestige came to see that as more important.

I wrote a book about some of Michael Dummett’s arguments. Michael Dummett was a very well-regarded philosopher in the field of philosophy, language and mind, obviously. But he actually also was one of the most important thinkers about racism and immigration policy in the United Kingdom, and almost nobody in philosophy knows that. And in fact, he didn’t think that it was very important work, philosophically; he didn’t think of the work that he wrote about immigration even as philosophical work. Even though I don’t believe anyone without a philosophical training would have been as clear about how to frame the issues as he in fact was. Actually, Cornel West wrote a book about this, called The American Invasion of Philosophy, which proposes an account of how that happened. But by the post-War period, the 1950s, instead of Dewey, you had Lionel Trilling, and it was the literary intellectuals who had taken over the job of speaking to the culture about what was going on. Now, I’m a recent former president of the Modern Language Association; I think that literary studies is full of interesting stuff and that it’s important and that it’s fine that they talk to the culture. What I think that is not is fine that philosophers don’t. This doesn’t mean that I think it’s the most important thing that philosophers can do, especially from a philosophical point of view, but it should be done, and while not everybody should be doing it, I think it’s an important … After all, the culture, the society, allows us to pursue our own interests, gives us offices and salaries and jobs, and, you know, since we can be useful, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be. So I have spent a lot more time recently writing books that are both, I hope, philosophically interesting, but also written in a way that presupposes much less philosophy than most other books… Even this book [Appiah gestures at his new book, As If], which talks about representation theorems and probability and so on, it’s meant to be possible for a person to pick it up. I explain what a representation theorem is; I don’t assume you know what a representation theorem is. And I don’t know. It’s hard for me to tell, since I’ve spent the whole of my adult life doing this stuff, but I give it to people to read, who aren’t trained, and …

DK: The ubiquitous intelligent lay-person.

KAA: The intelligent person who reads The London Review of Books, or the TLS or something. I think those people are important, because while they’re a very small proportion of the population, they are a part of the population that shapes a lot of what goes on in the world and, as it were, presents the options, in a democratic society, that the society looks between. And we live in an interesting moment, from that point of view, because at the moment, one part of the political world (and this is not just a point about the United States) is explicitly opposed to presenting things and thinking of things in a way that the intelligentsia across the whole spectrum, left to right, thinks about them and has this interesting alternative approach, which has the disadvantage that it’s completely incoherent when it comes to actually working things out. I don’t know what’s happened, but today there’s a vote going on in the United States Senate about this health care bill. But the way those issues are framed is completely … I mean, they’re meaningless. And yet nevertheless, people are highly exercised about it. That’s a problem of our society and, again, not just an American problem.

DK: There seems to be a great number of things that people believe that I don’t see how they can believe. And what’s more, they probably think the same thing about me. And there’s a question there about how we’re meant to approach this seemingly very deep epistemic divide between what two parts of the same culture (or ostensibly two parts of the same culture) believe.

KAA: Yes. I think with this problem it’s really important to distinguish between what people think and what they say. I’m not sure that it’s true that the people that you don’t understand couldn’t make sense of the views that you have and they don’t. What I think the situation is that they don’t want to, in part because there’s a kind of self-management going on: they know what lies that way if you start thinking certain thoughts, and they don’t want to go there, so they stop going in that direction, and the way they stop is by refusing to engage, and so what they say is ‘that doesn’t make any sense,’ or ‘I don’t understand that’ or whatever, but it’s more I think actually that they’re anxious. And I think the question of how people can hold views… As I said, I started out as a religiously devout person… Look, it can be true that people think they have a thought when they don’t. They can be deeply attached to a linguistic formulation that upon reflection doesn’t say anything. For hundreds of years, mathematicians tried to do what was called ‘squaring the circle.’ Once you get clear about what’s involved there, you can see that it doesn’t even make sense to propose to ‘square the circle’ because it can’t be done. But it took a while to figure out that it couldn’t be done. A long while. So a lot of our thoughts are really not thoughts, they’re things masquerading as thoughts. They’re representations that actually have no content. So that may be true about some political beliefs as well. It’s certainly, I think, true about a lot of theology, that it’s not that it’s clear what it says and it’s wrong, it’s that once you think about it deeply, you can see that it isn’t really saying anything that could have a truth-value. So I think one wants to distinguish between the cases where on one side is nonsense—it might be deep nonsense; there might be those that are very unclear about why it’s nonsense.

DK: Bullshit in the Cohenian sense, unclarifiable unclarity.

KAA: Yes. A surprising amount of stuff in the history of thought turns out to be like that, turns out to be in that sense bullshit. And lots and lots of bullshit in that sense, it’s easy to see that it’s bullshit, and the people who attach themselves to it may be bullshitters in the other sense, may be people who don’t care about truth. But I think a lot of people… I, myself, am convinced, I’m sure, of lots of things which will turn out in the end not to make sense. I think that it’s a philosophical mistake to think that because we have a grasp of our language, the question whether a question expresses a thought should be transparent to us. Once you understand how thoughts work, you can see that that’s not true.


DK: I spoke a bit loosely in saying that their thoughts don’t make sense to me. Most of the time they make sense, but just seem clearly untrue. For instance, there are a lot of things that political philosophers believe and accept as orthodoxy, which certainly aren’t public orthodoxy. Some versions of libertarianism, maybe, are quasi-dead options in a lot of political philosophy, but very much not dead elsewhere. How are philosophers supposed to communicate with the public when often their conclusions are so different?

KAA: This is one of many places where there’s two jobs. One job is just to get clear about what the situation is, and there you proceed in the best way you can, and if it turns out that you can’t persuade people in the general culture because what you think is the correct picture presupposes something that they take to be evidently false, that’s no reason not to go on believing it. It’s not a challenge to what you believe. But there’s the other task, which is to try and make the best sense of what is going on and to try to help people, as I said, think more clearly about it. So on those sorts of questions, part of the difficulty is precisely because it’s not clear what the thoughts are, very often, our public language for talking about political ideas is, itself, profoundly unclear. Once you listen to libertarians for a little while, it becomes a little unclear as to what makes all those doctrines cohere, what makes them all part of the same thing. There are formulations. Some formulations make more sense than others, but the body of actual doctrine, about what libertarians are supposed to believe, what people from the Cato Institute are likely to say, is … The best handle I can get on it is to try and identify presuppositions that I think are incorrect, and if you can see that they’re incorrect or once you see that they’re incorrect, you can see that the debate is wrongly framed. Who’s the audience for that? Well, the Cato Institute. There are some smart people there. They’re not idiots. Some are very clever. They may be in the grip of a fixation in the way that some very clever—


DK: And do you think there is maybe an incentive for them to… ?

KAA: Yes, that’s a level of the problem that philosophers don’t think about, because, on the whole, philosophers, when they’re arguing with each other, tend not to accuse people of pretending to believe things or of motivated pretense at believing things or even at bad motives for believing things as opposed to bad arguments. But the world is full of all those things, and I think philosophers often come across as naïve about all this, because the obvious explanation of why someone says something is not to give a philosophical account of it, it’s just to say “do you get rewarded for saying that?” And the rewards don’t have to be financial. They can be other forms of rewards. A good example is what happened to Bob Nozick’s claims in Anarchy, State and Utopia about taxation, which he argued was equivalent to forced labor. He was a friend of mine. I liked Bob, and he certainly didn’t mean to be … He’s certainly not someone who didn’t care about equality and so on, which is precisely the point about his motives. And the fact is that in his book there’s also a set of arguments that would lead to the view that the whole scheme of distribution in the United States is radically unjust. So if you ask why did people take up one thing more than the other, I think the explanation is that there was a mood in the society among prosperous people to reduce taxes, and prosperous people pay to set up foundations, and prosperous people are more likely to buy books than less prosperous people, so if you start going that way, you’ll get rewarded in the most basic of ways.

DK: Do you think that there’s an ethical argument for Nozick not writing a book like that, that can be used and misinterpreted in a certain way?

KAA: He actually makes arguments like that. I remember him saying once, and perhaps he wrote this down, but I remember him saying it, that he wouldn’t want to be in the business that Dick Hernstein, (who was a psychologist at Harvard) was in, which was interested in the connection between race and intelligence, and he thought that once you thought that there was a connection between race and intelligence, you were invested in a view which has unfortunate social consequences, independently of whether it was true, and so there he was talking about the ways in which you could be motivated, in that case intellectually motivated, by an attachment to a thesis, to do things that had bad effects. So I don’t know what I think about his book in particular, but I think it is important, if you’re going to address the culture, to think not only about whether what you’re saying is roughly true or ‘true enough’ (which is what I wanted to call the ebook  ‘As If’ but somebody else had already taken that title) but also about how it will be taken up and whether it’s open to manipulation. And there are things you can do preemptively about that—you can make it plain that it would be a misunderstanding to go a certain way with it, and so on. It won’t stop people, but it will at least slow them down, perhaps. I think it’s an important issue, because, inevitably, everything’s going to be more complicated than you could possibly explain in a five-thousand word piece in the New York Review of Books. I think everything’s more complicated than you can explain in a million page book addressed to geniuses. So you have to make choices about what you’re going to simplify, what you’re going to leave out, what pictures are useful and not useful in ways that are not simply about whether they reflect reality. If you’re addressing philosophers, you could think about it in one way, because we have professional incentives on the whole not to be motivated by certain considerations. But even among philosophers, too, there are incentives. In general, there’s not much reward to be had for questioning certain liberal (in the philosopher’s sense, liberal) precepts in political philosophy. There are not many professional rewards for it because we have gotten so embedded in that view. I think we’d be better off if we left more options open, myself, because I think political philosophy is a field in which extreme confidence in the correctness of your views is evidence that you don’t understand how complicated a subject it is, and I think, under the influence of Rawls, who was a very fine philosopher, we’ve carved out space in certain ways.

DK: Rawls and Dworkin and Cohen have had a tremendous impact, I think.

KAA: Yes. I mean, I didn’t know Cohen, and I haven’t actually spent huge amounts of time reading him, either, but yeah, I think Ronnie’s certainty about his basic liberal picture (to which I’m very attracted) was unwarranted as certainty.

DK: Do you think that there was a danger with them that they had personalities that made people want to agree with them?

KAA: Yes. Well, I mean, they were very different. John Rawls was very, very diffident. The opposite of bombastic. The opposite of vain. Sandel tells a story about when he got back to Harvard from Oxford, being called by Rawls … I can’t remember how the story goes, but the point is he called this young man who’d just written a dissertation about his work and began by explaining to him who he was. Anyway, I didn’t know him very well, because he was sort-of retired by the time I was teaching at Harvard, but I did see him socially a little bit and he was incredibly diffident, whereas Ronnie who obviously of the three I knew much the best, and was a friend of mine, was a very attractive personality: witty and attractively clever, and also somewhat overwhelming in argument – it was hard to hold your end up – even though he was perfectly nice. So, yes, I think that part of the appeal … The odd thing about Ronnie Dworkin was he was a hedgehog who thought he was a fox or something like that. Perhaps it’s the other way around. I can never remember which… I think that he thought that his achievement was drawing all these consequences out of one great idea, and in fact I think what he was, was remarkably ingenious at taking a million ideas and following them all out.

DK: I suppose that he was comparing himself to the view Isaiah Berlin and Bernard Williams shared about there being a plurality of values.

KAA: Yes, and I think that’s just wrong. He’s wrong about himself. If you see how he actually wrote, in The New York Review of Books, about the questions of the day (abortion, homosexuality and so on), he was in fact drawing on a very rich body of ideas and values, and equality is by no means the only thing that was being invoked. And obviously, don’t misunderstand me, equality was very multivalent and so on… But I think the reason his mind was attractive was that it wasn’t, in that way, unitary. Although he did, at least in his views on legal interpretation, hold a view according to which there was always a correct answer, and I think that’s something that Bernard Williams didn’t think… It took a long while, for example, for sufficientarian views to take off in part because there was this assumption that equality was this evidently valuable thing, an assumption shared by those guys.

DK: To return to more metaphilosophical questions briefly, there’s a question as to the nature of philosophy in the local tradition and whether it’s defined by its subject matter, or a certain way of going on…

KAA: Yes. I think that the best account of disciplinary objects is a historical one. That is, it’s one that says, ‘just give the genealogy; explain how we got here from there.’ So a philosophical question is one that arises – a philosophical question now is, as it were, a question that is connected with the questions that philosophers are currently thinking about. And I have never been terribly interested in the boundary question. That is, I’ve never been terribly interested in not crossing the boundary between philosophy and something else. I don’t mind if people say it isn’t a philosophical question; the question to me is ‘Is it a question? Is it an interesting question? And do the contemporary tools of philosophy have anything to help with it?’ And the answer to that, in the case of all the questions I’ve looked at, is ‘yes’, but usually it’s also the case that other things are helpful too, that you need to know some history, some psychology, some sociology, in the case of race, some biology and some evolutionary theory, to get the best answers. But I think that’s consistent with the view that the essence of the subject is whatever people think is essential to the subject right now. Questions that you get to from there are philosophical, and that means that at some point anything could become a philosophical question, but some things aren’t yet, and some things used to be and are definitely not now, though there’s nothing to stop them coming back if the right process occurs. And the same is true about other disciplines. You can’t really explain what literary studies is by giving some account of its subject matter or by its methods. And that’s a young subject. It’s basically not much older than Matthew Arnold.

DK: How do you think the local, ‘analytic’ tradition was shaped by the linguistic turn, and what legacy do you think that’s left on how philosophers think? There’s a certain way people speak, about getting ‘clear’ on things…

KAA: Well, when I wrote my dissertation, that was at the end of what I would say is the period in which the theory of meaning was the central question, the central topic in philosophy, which it’s definitely not anymore. And one, I think, of the reasons why it isn’t is we explored the main possible accounts of content—psychological accounts of the sort that Frege rejected, accounts in terms of truth conditions and so on. And it turns out that natural languages are best understood as involving all of those, to some degree or other, and it’s probably best left to linguists and experts who study actual languages to tell us what’s useful from the vast repertoire of resources that came from philosophical language, philosophical semantics, to do their work. And people like me aren’t interested in working out the details of an actual semantic theory for an actual language. We’re just interested in the broad outlines of how language works. And as I say, I think we learned over that period, from I suppose Frege to Dummett, a lot about the ways in which language works. We learned a lot about speech-acts; we learned a lot about reference; we learned a lot about lots of things. But I think one thing we learned was that representation … Well, one thing I conclude is that a lot of the important questions about representation aren’t questions about language at all, except in some extended or metaphorical sense in which any system of representation constitutes a language. The ways we represent the world, the visual world, are not language-like at all, except in some very abstract sense. And my knowledge of the world is as much embodied in a system of mental maps that are very un-linguisticy as in a lot of propositions of a very linguisticy sort.

DK: What do you think of the system of prestige that you mentioned earlier, according to which subjects like philosophy of mind and epistemology are quite central, ethics is somewhere in the middle and political philosophy is at the outskirts?

KAA: One thing that’s gradually shifted is what epistemology is about. In the heyday of the philosophy of language, of linguistic philosophy, epistemology was about what knowledge is, about the nature of knowledge. A lot of contemporary epistemology is not merely analytical.. It’s about what are good ways of thinking, what are justified forms of thought. It’s not about, as it were, coming up with some justified true belief type of account. It’s about explaining the norms of reasoning and ways of coming at the truth, so it’s much more normative than it used to be.

DK: The way Oxford teaches philosophy, at least at undergraduate level, is still very much focused on knowledge, not justification.

KAA: Okay, well, that’s interesting … Because of Tim Williamson’s work, there’s a new set of questions, because it was assumed, roughly speaking, going way back—it’s arguable that this is an assumption in Plato—that knowledge is a kind of belief, a special, privileged kind of belief, and as you know, Williamson thinks that we shouldn’t conflate them. But the contrast I was drawing wasn’t really between knowledge and justification, because even the accounts of justification, in the heyday, were, in a way, oddly non-normative. You just described what the processes of justification were. You didn’t ask, ‘Why? Is that a good way to justify beliefs?’ Or at least you just assumed that there was a coincidence between whatever our practices were and good ways of doing things. I think there are two things that have shifted. One is a shift that is anti-Cartesian, away from the focus on individual knowledge to the sociology or philosophy of science, which I think is good, because as I sometimes say to my students, the important question isn’t really what I believe; it’s what we believe, how we come to grapple with the world together. It’s not very interesting what one person thinks. Our real challenge, especially in the world of representations of a sort that can articulated in language is to come to things we can say together, as it were. And one thing is that there, what works is often not going to be discovered by a priori reflection. You have to look at the history of the sciences and the sociology of knowledge. So, simple example, one of my colleagues works on some of the norms of attribution, the fact that we give priority to the person who gets there first and so on. This is not something that can be justified a priori, I don’t think. But he has arguments that this system of awarding prestige motivates people to do things that will, in fact, produce good side-effects at a faster rate. I do not know whether that’s right, but whether or not it’s right, the arguments there have to be contingent… Some of it is game theory, and I think a lot of game theory is a priori but still the inputs have to be contingent or a posteriori.

I think that maybe I would say there’s less consensus than when I started out about the system of prestige and about what’s important. So maybe it’s true that the American Philosophical Association’s members, if polled, would mention first, among the people they would think of as great philosophers at present, people who do those things. I don’t know. I think it would be an interesting experiment to find out. But you see this in actual departments, when we are deciding how to make appointments, one thought is we’ll just replace someone with someone who does what is now the same thing, though of course over time what it is to do that thing can change. But sometimes people say, ‘oh, we don’t have enough M&E [metaphysics and epistemology] in the department,’ and some people agree and some people don’t. So I think that one of the things that has shifted in the course of my career is even among the people who think of themselves as analytic philosophers, there’s less of a sense of what’s at the centre of it, or, indeed, what the method is.

In Part II, Appiah talks about the philosophy of race, green card marriages, and Trump.