In an exploration of the ways we label and confine ourselves, a celebrated philosopher advocates for a theory of human identity that recognizes but transcends race, religion, nation, culture, and class.
Repudiating today's misguided surge of nationalism and nativist “purity,” Appiah (Philosophy and Law/New York Univ.; As If: Idealization and Ideals, 2017, etc.) provides an impeccably argued challenge to all manner of calcified identities, including the illusory notion of “Western” civilization. “The East” is no less a chimera. Broadly, the author insists that we are bound by ways of apprehending identities that took modern shape in the 19th century, and they demand re-evaluation. Appiah makes irrefutable points about the incoherence of narrowly defined identities and our collective delusions. However, he dithers a bit in his opening essays, splitting hairs and taking a chapter to express what could have been managed in 300 words. Indeed, the book often relates the obvious in exhaustive terms, and the author sometimes ends up preaching to the choir. While eviscerating much pseudo-science, he also parrots some of the more questionable contentions of academic ideologues, succumbing to their oversimplifications. Still, the author has a penetrating grasp of the complexities of identity, and he wields history like a scalpel, extracting the cancerous myths, poisonous prejudices, and foolish antagonisms that divide us. Though Appiah savors his entwined Asante and English heritage, he is, like Diogenes, a citizen of the world, and his intent is to build bridges. “My aim is to start conversations, not to end them,” he concludes, fully acknowledging that there is much more to be said on each of the topics he investigates. Appiah knows we are clannish creatures and that the most intractable of all “isms” is tribalism. He asks only that we rethink false assumptions and find our way out of the thickets.
A well-informed philosophical investigation into methods for breaking through “walls that will not let in fresh and enlivening air.”