In this interview, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy at New York University (and many other things, too numerous to list here), talks about growing up in Ghana, recovering from toxoplasmosis and meeting Elizabeth II in the hospital, the political imprisonment of his father, being sent to English boarding school to avoid the attention of a tyrannical president, an early interest in philosophy of religion, doing biology at Cambridge and why it wasn’t his bag, meeting Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his first thought, much later, when he learned Gates was unjustly arrested, Ivy League diversity and homophobia (or the lack thereof), taking classes with Ian Hacking and Philip Pettit, developing an interest in Dummett, a life changing question from Lord Somebody or Other, teaching in Ghana and realizing he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing philosophy, getting into social and political philosophy, losing his religion, moving to the states, working with Ruth Barcan Marcus, meeting his husband, Henry Finder, writing fiction, his extremely influential book, "In My Father’s House," the Black Lives Matter movement, male privilege, the demographics of the discipline, Sanders, Trump, his favorite curse word, and his last meal...
So, where did you grow up, Kwame? What did your parents do?
I grew up in Kumasi, in Ghana, the capital of the Asante kingdom, which was then about two and a half centuries old, and was a region of the British Gold Coast colony, which became Ghana when I was about three years old. My father was a lawyer and was involved in the struggle for independence and he served in the first post-independence parliament as a member of the opposition. My mother ran his legal office out of our house, and also wrote children's stories and researched and collected goldweights, which are small brass figurative and abstract objects, often very elegantly made, that had been used for weighing gold dust when it was our currency.
What did you do for fun?
When I was in primary school, I liked swimming, hanging out with my step-grandmother, who lived opposite us, and playing with the other kids on our street. Also climbing trees. Every so often, on Sundays after church, we got to go to visit my great-uncle by marriage, the king of Asante, who had amazing charisma. I was always excited by these visits. Later he was succeeded by my uncle.
What was your uncle like?
My uncle (whose title, once he became Asantehene, was Otumfuo Nana Poku Ware II), was an incredibly sweet man. I loved spending time with him when I was a child. And we grew up with his children. It was harder to see him when he became king. And by then I was living abroad. But I tried to visit him whenever I was home. Towards the end of his life, sadly, my sisters and I had a disagreement with my aunt, his wife, over my father's funeral, and, after that, I didn't see him again.
You were sent to boarding school in England when you were eight. Why?
I don't remember a great deal about the period before I was seven, probably because I fell very ill with toxoplasmosis about then, and spent a long time in hospital with fevers, feeling very weak. Finally my very smart doctor figured out what it was and I was treated with the right drug--Daraprim--but it took me a while to get back my strength. While I was recovering in hospital Queen Elizabeth made a state visit to Ghana, now not as Head of State but as a foreign visitor. She passed by my bed and I can still remember that President Nkrumah, who was with her, tapped his brightly polished shoes and looked at the ceiling as she spoke to me. He had once been a very good friend of my parents and knew who I was, but he wouldn't look at me.
As these two Heads of State were leaving, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen's husband, turned back and asked me to send his greetings to my mother, whom he'd met on a previous visit to Kumasi. Since my father was a political detainee at that point, Nkrumah realized that these people knew who they had been talking to. This apparently enraged him, especially after our meeting was covered in the British Press (editor’s note: it was an international story). So my doctor was fired from the hospital, which was run by the government, and my mother decided, after all this fuss, that I should be sent to my English grandmother, partly to remove me from Nkrumah's attentions. As a result, from the age of about eight I went to an English boarding school.
As a child, when your father was detained, were you worried about him?
My mother was remarkably good at giving us the impression that, as the Blessed Julian of Norwich put it, "all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." So, oddly, I don't recall worrying too much that he wouldn't come back to us, though I realized later (I was seven and eight at the time) that it must have been terrible for her. He was arrested again, many years later, in the course of a violent military coup at the end of 1981, while my mother and sisters and I were all out of the country. At that time, we thought for some weeks he might be executed. Luckily, though, he managed to persuade a sort of popular tribunal that he was a patriot (which was certainly true) so they released him. But one of the men with whom he was imprisoned--a General Afrifa--was taken out of his cell and shot.
What was your mother worried about? That is, what did she think Nkrumah was going to do to you?
She was worried both by the harassment of my doctor and by the fact that my continued presence, once the story got into the international press, might irritate the President and delay my father's release. Actually, what most worried her was the thought of being deported herself. She didn't want to leave Ghana while my father was in prison there. In fact, after her marriage she thought of Ghana as her home and never wanted to live anywhere else. Years later, after my father's death, people would sometimes ask her when she was going home. And she would always say, "But I am home." Eventually she actually bought a burial plot, so she could prove she planned to die in Kumasi!
How was boarding school?
I came home for the summer vacations and often for Christmas and Easter. My father was released from prison after an Amnesty International campaign not long after, so things got a bit easier for us. And then Nkrumah was removed in a military coup in 1966, and my father got involved in politics again. Because I was at school in England I also spent a great deal of time with my English grandmother, in a village in Gloucestershire. It was not too far from the town of Cirencester, where my mother's family had lived for more than five hundred years. So I guess I felt that both these places--Asante and Gloucestershire--belonged to me and I belonged to them.
Was there any indication you’d end up being a philosopher?
I started reading philosophy with a group of friends in high school. I had decided very young, after my illness, that I wanted to be a doctor, so I was preparing to go to medical school. But philosophy excited me more than anything else I read, in part because, as a member of a group of very devout young Christians, I was interested in theology. So I'd say that biology and philosophy and theology were my major interests in high school, though I played rugby and rowed for my school and acted and edited a magazine and started a student union (which meant that I was almost expelled) and a bunch of other things as well.
Were your parents religious?
My parents went to two different Christian churches. My mother's was a non-denominational Protestant church, where I went to Sunday School throughout my childhood. She was an elder of the church, which invited preachers of different denominations to speak, for many decades. My father was a Methodist elder. Their churches and their religious lives meant a lot to both of them.
What theological questions did you find interesting at the time?
I guess the theological problems that interested me most in my teens were the problem of evil, theodicy, and, of course, the basic question of how we could know about God's existence. Earlier, I just wanted to be a good Christian ... which, as you may know, is quite hard!
What stuff did you cover in the magazine?
There was a poetry magazine and a general school magazine. The latter had everything--fiction, stories about the school, drawings.
Was Cambridge part of the plan?
I'm afraid that, because I did well in school, it was assumed I would get into Oxford or Cambridge. And since you could only apply to one, I picked Cambridge, because it was a good place to do medical sciences, since I was then planning to be a medical doctor. I applied to Clare College, because my grandmother's neighbor had taken me there for a visit--he'd been there himself four decades earlier--and I liked it. Also, it was one of the two traditionally male colleges that was opening for the first time to women that year, and (having campaigned to get women into my boys' school) I thought that was a good idea. I must have filled in an application for somewhere else, but I don't remember where! Generally speaking, it was a good deal easier for someone with a boarding school education to get in in those days. So I guess I didn't expect not to get in. This is probably the point to insist how conscious I am of having grown up in circumstances of great privilege. My parents, as good readers of the Gospels, taught my sisters and I that "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." They felt that our great good fortune meant we should give back. I've tried to do that where I can.
Was Clare a good choice?
I had a terrific time at Clare College. I was a medical student to begin with, and so learned a lot of biochemistry and physiology ... I can't pretend I picked up much anatomy, not least because I never took to human dissection. (The teaching assistant was a young doctor preparing for his Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons exams. Even he admitted that we could forget most of what we learned once we'd passed the exams!) But by the end of my first year I'd asked to switch to philosophy and didn't look back.
Does your science background inform your philosophical views?
I think my biological training came in handy when I started to think philosophically about race. Not because it is a biological concept but because it isn't. But I enjoyed my year of biochemistry at Cambridge, perhaps because I had a great teacher. Not so much physiology and anatomy.
Least favorite classes as an undergrad?
Anatomy in my first year. By far. I got elected to the student representative body for the Faculty Board of Biology B, which ran the Medical Sciences degree. One embryology lecture would draw these elegant diagrams with his right hand and erase them with his left: unless you were an artistic genius you couldn't copy them. And it hadn't occurred to them that a handout we could fill in would help. We did a survey about the anatomy lectures and made a few modest proposals for how they could be improved. I can still recall the response of one of them when we came to the meeting: "I gave these lectures to the Regius Professor. If they were good enough for him, they're good enough for you." So much for cutting edge science.
What was the atmosphere like, socially?
We were still in the long nineteen sixties, so student politics was mostly quite left. I had a bunch of pre-college friends around and mostly got to know people through them. We were a fairly intellectual bunch--among us were the novelist, Candia Macwilliam; Charles Saumarez-Smith, who runs the Royal Academy now; Adam Bennett, Deputy Director of the Political Economy of Financial Markets program at St. Antony’s Oxford, and, in my second year, my schoolfriend Jeremy Butterfield, the philosopher of physics, arrived. He's still at Cambridge. Also that year, I met Skip Gates, who arrived as a Mellon Fellow from Yale. He tells the story that after the fifth person asked him if we had met, he decided I must be black, too!
ha! So it wasn’t a very diverse place?
There was only one other black person among the undergraduates, a philosophy student named Dapo Ladimeji, from a Nigerian family. Basically, though, I socialized in the evenings, read and wrote all night, woke up late, and had one or two tutorials a week with great supervisors... Philip Pettit, for example. The ideal life for me: philosophy and fun. That and falling in and out of love fairly often.
So, no home sickness, then?
Not really. I'd been in boarding schools in England since I was eight. After ten years you're used to partitioning your life.
Did your interest in theology persist?
Sure. I joined a group of Anglican philosophers called the Epiphany Philosophers. They were interested in many things, but religious experience was one of them. I co-edited their journal Theoria to Theory. I wasn't a theist by then, but I don't think you have to be a theist to be interested in theology or the philosophy of religion.
What was class with Hacking like?
Hacking's lectures ere exciting in part because other well-known philosophers--I can remember Elizabeth Anscombe in the front row once--came to hear them, and because they combined philosophical interest with a way of thinking about the history of modern philosophy. Hacking has always interested me as someone who combined an interest in highly technical issues--the nature of probability and statistical inference--with an engagement with broad issues in metaphysics and the philosophy of science ... also as someone who could take Foucault's method of genealogy and apply it with an historian's interest in the archives and a philosopher's interest in foundational questions. He was very kind to me ... his first philosophy job had been in Uganda and I guess he had a soft spot for a student from Africa!
Philip Pettit was only a little older than I was: he was a young don at Trinity Hall, next door to Clare, where I was an undergraduate. He was great to talk to about everything ... I think we were technically supposed to be doing philosophy of language and it was he that introduced me to debates about truth versus assertibility that were central to my dissertation work not long after and to my first two books. Again, someone who's worked over a very wide range of the subject; again, someone inspired by historical as well as philosophical questions (for example about the understanding of liberty as non-domination).
When did you decide to commit to grad school in philosophy? Did you consider doing anything else?
I remember having dinner in London after I'd graduated at the home of Sheridan and Lindy Dufferin. There was a Lord Somebody or Other there, who asked me what I proposed to do with my life. And I said that people in my family in Ghana had various businesses and I imagined one of them would give me something to do. He said he had a bit of advice for me. When he was young people had said that he should learn the family business and work his way up. Fortunately, he told me, his father had put him on the board of directors, instead. That was by far the best place to get to grips with a business. "So my advice is: don't start at the bottom." I don't know to this day if he was teasing, but the unreality of the conversation did make me realize that I had absolutely no plans for the rest of my life!
So went home to Ghana and was wondering what to do. Then I got a telegram (I think from my friend the philosopher Dorothy Emmet) telling me that I had received a "First" in the exams. So my wise mother said, "You have a first class degree from Cambridge in philosophy, why don't you go to the philosophy department at the University of Ghana and see if they'll let you help them with teaching?" and Kwasi Wiredu--a brilliant Ghanaian philosopher who was then the chair--said I could be a teaching assistant and maybe teach one course myself.
Once, I got to explain the Evil Demon argument to hundreds of first year students in a vast barn of a lecture hall with the fans all blowing so loud that I had to shout. And at the end of the class a bunch of students, many of them younger than I was, walked me back to my apartment and asked me whether I was really worried myself that there might be an evil demon deceiving me. So I told them I wasn't crazy, but that we needed to find a response to Descartes argument even if we didn't believe the conclusion!
That year at the University of Ghana persuaded me that I wanted to be a philosophy professor.
For grad school, why did you stick with Cambridge?
Once I had decided to go back to university to do a doctorate I wrote to one of my favorite teachers, Hugh Mellor, who sent me the forms. Frankly, I didn't think about anywhere else. Maybe I should have. But I had had a great time at Cambridge, I knew the faculty and had friends and family who lived in the town. I didn't look into going anywhere else.
Favorite classes in grad school? Least favorite classes?
I was there at a time when basically you sat around reading and talking philosophy or a couple of years and then you started to write a dissertation. So I didn't do much except read and talk (and have all kinds of other fun).
That sounds awesome (if you’re disciplined). Who was your dissertation director? Was writing the dissertation challenging?
Hugh Mellor supervised my dissertation. I had a hard time getting going until I got a computer account on the mainframe in the Cavendish Labs. Then, even though it was a line-at-time editor, I was able to start writing. And at a certain point Hugh said: No more extensions, just write it! And I did. The only difficulty was that time on the mainframe was allocated by an algorithm that meant I got kicked off the machine after a few hours unless I worked in the middle of the night. So that's essentially what I did. Once I got going it flowed pretty well. 'm not sure I'd have had a career in the days before one could compose digitally.
In grad school, how did you evolve, philosophically?
I changed my detailed views in response to papers I read by a wide range of philosophers of logic and language, but I was never really tempted by the anti-realist moves in Dummett. So I don't know that my big picture evolved very much.
When did you start getting into social and political philosophy?
I got into social and political philosophy because my first job was a joint appointment in African and African-American Studies and Philosophy at Yale and I had to figure out what a philosopher could usefully contribute to an interdsiciplinary program of that kind. There wasn't a lot about race in analytical philosophy at that point and there wasn't a great deal of serious discussion of racism either. Those seemed like topics that a philosopher with a solid grounding in modern biology could work on. Then you proceed by generalization: race is a species of social identity. What's to be said about that? And so one thing led to another.
What were you doing for fun?
I did the normal things: sex, talk, alcohol, talk, music, talk.
I was wondering, at Cambridge (or at any point in your career) did you encounter homophobia from your coworkers or students?
Cambridge in the 1970s was profoundly un-homophobic in general, at least so far as I experienced it. Indeed, being gay allowed one to get to know (non biblically) faculty one might not have otherwise met and to be invited to parties where gay people were thought to be decorative or amusing. And my main experience since coming to the United States has been that people have welcomed us as a couple at all the universities I've taught at. remember being very touched at the recruitment dinner at Harvard that Peter Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, hosted for us, when he welcomed each of us personally in his after dinner remarks and gave each of us a small gift. It's one of the privileges of working in the relatively civilized environment of the academy that even people who disapprove of homosexuality tend to be civil. And most college students today just think homophobia is profoundly uncool.
Are you still religious?
I spent a good deal of my late teenage years reading theology and philosophy of religion, finding it harder and harder to reconcile the best evidence and arguments with the Christian faith I grew up in, even though I was in a small group of evangelical Christian students at my high school. I think I'm the only person I know who recalls a specific moment of being, so to speak, "born again" as an atheist. I was with one of those fellow students at home in Ghana during a vacation playing a hym on the piano. He said something like "I don't think I believe any of that anymore." And I said to myself, in a sudden moment of recognition, "Nor do I." And that was it.
Was moving to the states a culture shock? People often report being surprised by racism in the states.
I was raised by a Pan-Africanist father who had lived in New York. I read Richard Wright (who visited us in Kumasi when I was a child) and James Baldwin, who were in our library at home in Kumasi. And, in England, I watched a lot of American movies and TV programs. So I'd say that my main experience coming to America (in particular, to Yale) in the late 70's for the first time was that it was a lot less racist than I expected. I arrived on beautiful fall day in New Haven, and on the lawn in front of Calhoun College, Charlie Davis, the first African-American master of the college, was walking a large beautiful dog. He was dressed in a natty tweed jacket, of the sort I assumed Ivy League professors all wore, and smoking a pipe. That was emblematic, it turned out. When I stared teaching, it was in a successful and expanding department of African and African-America Studies, with many non-black students including a young Jodie Foster, as well as in philosophy.
On a related note, was it odd living in New Haven, a place where the children of the most powerful human beings on earth live and take classes blocks away from some of the poorest people in America?
My first apartment in New Haven was, as I discovered after renting it, in a black neighborhood, ten minutes walk from campus. I used to walk home from the computer labs (there were only mainframe editors at that time!) and felt quite safe. New Haven was indeed a city of contrasts.
Who did you work and hang out with at Yale?
My mentor was Ruth Marcus, and she was the philosopher I saw most often when I first arrived. But I spent most of my time with colleagues in African-American Studies: Gerald Jaynes, a brilliant economist, John Blassingame, a great historian of slavery, and Skip Gates, the literary scholar, who is one of my oldest friends. I learned a great deal from sitting with them in Naples pizza house over coffee and cigarettes, discussing what we were learning in our various fields.
Still in touch with anybody?
Skip and I are in touch very often, though not as often as when we were colleagues, of course, when we saw each other every day.
First thought when you heard he was arrested?
I guess America is not less racist than I had expected.
So, in a previous interview you discussed coming out to your parents. When did that happen?
I don't recall exactly when this happened. It would have been around 1980, I think. My parents accepted my being gay but didn't feel the need to discuss it very often. My mother stayed with Henry, my husband, and me a couple of times here in the United States and he came, of course, as a family member to my father's (and later my mother's) funeral in Ghana. But once I moved to the US, I only saw my parents on brief visits to Ghana, usually on my own. So apart from asking how Henry was when I called, there wasn't much for them to deal with!
What does your husband do? How did you meet?
He’s the editorial director of the New Yorker, Henry Finder. He gets to work with David Remnick (the magazine’s editor), Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Gopnick, Jill Lepore and a whole lot of other wonderful writers. It’s a great job, which he loves. And they love working with him. Malcolm Gladwell once said that his aim was to develop an “inner Finder,” so that he knew what was most interesting in the stories he writes! We met at Yale, through a very old-Yale place called the Elizabethan Club, where one could have tea and cucumber sandwiches and visit rare Elizabethan manuscripts in the vault. By far the best thing that has ever happened to me. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, with prodigiously wide intellectual interest, and also very kind. He’s easy to love.
When did you start dabbling in fiction?
The late eighties. I had written up for no clear reason a description of the last moments of the life of a young undergraduate who had been poisoned. I showed it to Henry and he said, "It's the summer, you've no teaching to do, why not write the book that explains why he dies?" He made me sandwiches and tea and I sat in the study of a great big house we were renting and banged out the first draft of my first novel in a couple of weeks. It was enormous fun and a relief from the very different kind of writing I normally did. The later novels took longer and longer.
Why did you decide to leave for Cornell then Duke shortly after that?
I went to Cornell to join Skip in the hope of helping build up Africana Studies there; we went from there to Duke for the same reason. And we moved on to Harvard, when that offer came, because it seemed they were really serious about doing that. Which it turned out they were.
What were you working on around then?
Over the years at Cornell, I was finishing up the work that grew out of my dissertation in the philosophy of mind and language and beginning my first major work in African-American Studies, which led to the book "In My Father's House," which I finished on a National Humanities Center fellowship while I was at Duke. "In My Father's House" had a very profound impact in African and African-American Studies. People still read and cite it.
I am also proud of a book called "For Truth in Semantics," which was, I think, an effective critique of semantic anti-realism of the sort espoused by Michael Dummett. I tried to write it clearly enough that you didn't need to know a great deal about the existing literature to follow it. But, as you know, there are few dead options in philosophy, and I'm afraid I don't think I succeeded in stopping the rot!
You're at NYU now. How would you describe the city to somebody who has never been?
It’s a friendly meeting place of the world’s cultures and peoples, with a heavy emphasis on the cultures of the North Atlantic, but a sliver of stuff from almost everywhere. It’s mostly very safe, despite what people think, and people are generally courteous and helpful, which is also not widely understood. And it is a great place to eat, go to the theater or museums, and, of course, shop.
High point of your career?
Next year, I hope … and next year it will be the one after that!
Good answer. Low point?
My second year of graduate school. Not enough structure to the program to keep me focused.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice back then, what would it be?
I’d go back to my student self and tell me to take good notes on everything and to keep them in good order. As memory fades, I increasingly miss not having access to better records of my earlier life and thoughts.
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
Always (at least if you mean interesting to me!) I’m preparing lectures to give on the BBC in the fall that potentially have an audience in the tens of millions. And I’m beginning work on some lectures to give next spring on how to think about religion.
Cool. How do you see the future of philosophy?
I’m not much of a prophet and I feel very stuck in the present of the subject, which strikes me as splendidly more polyphonic than it was when I started out. I think, for example, that the idea of epistemic injustice wouldn’t have occurred to most of us as a possible topic when I was in graduate school.
Do you find any trends disconcerting?
I worry that not enough of us are spending time making the fascinating work that’s going on in so many areas of the subject accessible to a wider audience. There are important and fascinating technical projects that don’t need transferring out in that way; and they’re important both in themselves and because they connect with the issues that do deserve more public airing. But I’m constantly struck by the way in which so many public discussions have elements that could do with a little of the philosophical illumination that is available to insiders. The general level of discussion of democracy, for example, seems often to conflate it with having a majoritarian electoral system. But hardly any of the philosophical literature would take that as the central issue.
What's your take on the Black Lives Matter movement?
It’s depressing that it needs to be said in a modern democracy that the state shouldn't treat someone’s life as less important because they belong to some ethno-racial group. But it is necessary. And, given that it’s black people who are most likely to face this problem in our society, saying that black lives matter is one way of insisting on this. People who assert that the slogan implies that other lives don’t matter are either daft or tone deaf or dishonest.
The Trump phenomenon?
Like Sanders and Brexit, Trump represents a revolt against the elites. Given that lots of Americans have been left behind in the last few decades, as wealth has accumulated at the top, the revolt itself isn’t too surprising. I regret, of course, that it has been captured by someone who issues statements that are in various measures racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, and hostile to science and reason. I regret the astonishing vulgarity and incoherence of Trump’s pronouncements--the fact that they are often barely in English--and the fact that they appear to resonate, in particular, with so many white men, who apparently believe that the slow erosion of white privilege and male privilege is somehow unfair. It is a failure of our public discourses, explicitly encouraged by some in the right wing media, that this thought strikes anyone as plausible.
Why do you think philosophy is more white and male dominated than many other academic fields?
There is a good literature developing on this question. It must have many answers. But one reason for the racial disparities is historical: the opportunity to enter the field was only made widely available some forty or fifty years ago, and it was made available as opportunities expanded in many fields that are much more lucrative (though not, I should say, therefore more rewarding). Naturally, reasonably ambitious African-Americans didn’t start out by colonizing philosophy. For the same reason, it’s not a big subject for people who are first generation college goers in their families. I think there are also issues to do with the availability of role models and mentors. And I am persuaded that the way many people think of skill in the subject, as a sort of magical something that one either has or doesn’t have, discourages women more than men. Since this magical picture is just plain wrong, it would be good to discourage it as an untruth. But, given this fact, it’s a more pernicious untruth than some others about the subject and eradicating it deserves special focus.
I like that explanation. Most underrated philosophers, living or dead?
Anton Wilhelm Amo. The first philosopher from what’s now Ghana: taught at Wittenberg, Halle and Jena in the 1730s. He was educated as an experiment by the Dukes of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, to whom he was given as a gift, and the experiment paid off. One of his books makes a solid critique of Cartesian dualism’s treatment of sensation.
The Third Man: love the use of shadows and the weird soundtrack.
Great choice. Favorite book?
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I read it often with students and find it repays regular attention.
What’s your poison?
I'm fond of red wine; and we usually have half a bottle (or a couple of glasses each) with dinner. In college, I discovered port, but I now find it too rich to drink often.
Favorite curse word?
I don’t think I’ll be very hungry on my deathbed. Perhaps a cucumber sandwich and a glass of excellent Bordeaux.
Thanks, Kwame…it’s been fun!