Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cornel West, Anthony Appiah on Traditions and Human Responsibility

Let It Be: How Anthony Appiah and Cornel West view the need of ahistorical (traditional) criteria for deciding human responsibility.
We are the sum total of our experiences. To blindly look away from our traditions would mean to ignore who we really are. To just live inside them would mean no progress. We need to accept us as who we are and should strive to make it better. In this essay, I argue how both Cornel West and Anthony Appiah put forth this perspective and ask us to understand human responsibility by keeping an ambivalent attitude towards our traditions.
In the chapter, Prophetic Pragmatisms [1], Cornel West argues for a new for a pragmatist philosophy, namely Prophetic Pragmatism. He writes - “Prophetic Pragmatism conceives of philosophy as historically circumscribed quest for wisdom that puts forward new interpretations of the world based on past traditions in order to promote existential sustenance and political relevance.” He argues that while traditions may be burdensome, prejudiced, and dogmatic, they can also be identified with rationality, critique and resistance. He further adds that traditions are also malleable and dynamic. The progress that we see around us has happened within notions of our traditions. Traditions that were in path of progress were first questioned and later circumvented creating way for new traditions. In West's words - “Innovation presupposes some tradition and inaugurates another tradition”. Critique and self-criticism are vital to the concept of prophetic pragmatism. Cornel West writes - “The mark of the prophet is to speak the truth in love with courage – come what may”. Thus, as we must listen, we must question as well.
Anthony Appiah looks at the phenomenon of globalization and argues against the argument that it is a threat to homogeneity. He argues - “Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes, just as individual survives the alterations of Jacques's 'seven ages of man'”. Calling cultural purity to be an oxymoron, he argues that since the invention of trade, our societies have always been impacted by each other. Trade of spices invented new forms of cooking, silk trade route changed how people dress. So, McDonalds and Levis are just new products of trade and hence we should not treat them as threats to homogeneity. He argues further - “... you already live a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places, and contain influences from many more”. Thus, we are already impacted by traditions surrounding us. To stop changing would mean stop being who we really are.
Cornel West and Anthony Appiah are standing together in the middle, arguing against the ends of a rope. Cornel West wants us to shun the Emersonian principle of breaking all traditions and past activities, the one extreme. Similarly, Anthony Appiah cautions us against the other extreme view taken by cultural purists who argue to “Don't ever change”. Together they, ask for a balanced, middle ground approach, a “let-it-be” solution wherein you accept the good, and strive to better things that are not so good.

[1] Pragmatism: A Reader. Pg 401.
[2] Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers. By Kwame Anthony Appiah.

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