Kwame Akroma-Ampim Kusi Anthony Appiah FRSL is an ethicist, novelist, and scholar of global philosophy.
Appiah was born in London on May 8, 1954, and moved to the city of Kumasi, Ghana, shortly after. As a child, Appiah was exposed to multicultural influences. His father, Joseph Emmanuel Appiah, was from Ghana, while his mother, Peggy Cripps, was from England; they met in London, where Joseph Appiah was studying law as a representative of Kwame Nkrumah, the then prime minister of Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana), and Cripps worked at a nonprofit called Racial Unity. The marriage gained widespread recognition as one of the first interracial weddings in Britain and is said to have inspired the 1967 Hollywood comedy-drama, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” starring Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn.
Further, life in Kumasi was a melting pot, and Appiah grew up interacting with Nigerian traders and Middle-Eastern shopkeepers that had settled in the Ashanti Region to conduct business. Appiah’s family members came from different religious backgrounds, too; his paternal family was part of a non-denominational Christian church in Ghana, and they had many Muslim and Jewish relatives. All the diversity that Appiah witnessed growing up shaped his intellectual interests, leading him to become one of the most prominent scholars in the philosophy of culture and cosmopolitanism.
Although Appiah began studying in Ghana, he returned to England soon after due to the political climate, as his father by then opposed Nkrumah and was subsequently harassed by the government. As a child, Appiah was an avid reader, reading works of African authors such as Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and European authors such as Leo Tolstoy and the occasional Agatha Christie. Although his experience in England was welcoming, Appiah has remarked that “the skin and the African ancestry I shared with my sisters marked us out as different.”
After completing his sixth form at Bryanston School in Dorset, Appiah went to Clare College, the University of Cambridge, where he spent the first year studying Medical Sciences. He then transferred to a B.A. in philosophy, which he found more intellectually stimulating, and graduated in 1975. Following a brief period as a teacher at the University of Ghana, Legon, Appiah returned to Cambridge to pursue a Ph.D., graduating in 1982. Appiah’s dissertation, advised by D. H. Mellor, focused on the philosophy of language and was published as a book by Cambridge University Press in 1985 called Assertion and Conditionals.
At Cambridge, Appiah was active with a group of philosophers called Epiphany Philosophers (E.P.’s), who explored questions about science and religion; he has previously described the group as his “main intellectual mentor.” Appiah’s encounter with Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr., an African American man from West Virginia and then a doctorate student in English literature at Cambridge, was another significant aspect of his Cambridge experience. Gates and Appiah developed a close friendship that eventually led Appiah to visit the United States and later migrate to teach at top institutions, such as Yale, Cornell, and Harvard (Appiah himself became an American citizen on November 21, 1997).
Appiah’s later writings turned to political philosophy and culture, starting with In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (1992), where he looked at the contributions of African and African-American intellectuals to contemporary African life. The book was recognized with the Herskovits Prize of the African Studies Association in 1993. In 1996, Appiah co-authored Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race with Amy Guttman, where he problematized the concept of race as a biological construct and the tendency to exaggerate its role as a component of individual identity, although he has since then revised his view and acknowledges that race as a social identity is as relevant as other forms of identity such as gender, sexuality, and religion. Other notable works include The Dictionary of Global Culture (1998), co-edited with Henry Gates Louis Jr., Bu Me Bε: Proverbs of the Akan (2003), a collection of Twi proverbs co-authored with Appiah’s mother, and Avenging Angel (1991), a fictional murder mystery set at Clare College, Cambridge.
Despite reaching great heights as a scholar and public intellectual, Appiah has received disparaging comments based on his race, such as when a guest surprisingly exclaimed how a non-white person could speak fluent English during one of Appiah’s lectures at the Aristotelian Society in London. Yet, he is hopeful that people’s compassion toward one another can transcend divisive social identities due to shared membership in a global community, a moral philosophy for an increasingly globalized world that Appiah outlined in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006). The book won the prestigious Arthur Ross Book Award of the Council on Foreign Relations in 2007. In 2011, Appiah was awarded a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.
Appiah primarily lives in New York City with his spouse and editorial director of the New Yorker magazine, Henry Finder; they married in 2011 after more than 25 years of partnership once the state approved same-sex marriage. He was appointed Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University in 2014 and now lectures in New York and Abu Dhabi.