What is Cosmopolitanism?

By: | June 12, 2017

The word cosmopolitan comes from the Greek, and means “citizen of the world.” Cosmopolitanism refers to the view that all human beings are ultimately part of one community and can interact and live together productively with certain shared basic standards of social and political behavior. Cosmopolitanism proposes a universalistic, open-minded way of living in the world. It’s an approach where homeland and tribe come second to purported shared values and shared human experience.

As The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “In most versions of cosmopolitanism, the universal community of world citizens functions as a positive ideal to be cultivated, but a few versions exist in which it serves primarily as a ground for denying the existence of special obligations to local forms of political organizations.”

The political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle does not advocate cosmopolitan views. In their culture, a citizen would identify with his polis or city-state and only fight for it. The concerns and well-being of foreigners would be of little interest to him except those who also became citizens of his polis. The first Greek philosopher to promote cosmopolitanism and speak of himself as a cosmopolitan was the 4th Century B.C. cynic Diogenes, who was inspired by Socrates. Cosmopolitanism went on to become very influential under the Roman stoic philosophers and then in early Christianity, where working for the sake of the divine kingdom to become “fellow-citizens with the saints” (Ephesians 2:20) took precedence over nationality and earthly bounds of citizenship. The division became less about nationality versus the world and more about secularism versus the religious community.

Cosmopolitanism continued to evolve through the early modern period, the Enlightenment and nineteenth and twentieth century. Cosmopolitan also came under critique by Marx and Engels as a typical feature of “free” trade market capitalism, although they also advanced elements of cosmopolitan ideology in arguing that all workers of the world shared interests in common. Meanwhile, economic cosmopolitanism was advocated by free market libertarian thinkers like Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek.

In his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Kwame Appiah attempts to argue for maintaining a place for local tradition and ways of life while being open to the multiple identities and cultures of a global community. In an interview, Appiah explained his positive view of cosmopolitanism, while acknowledging that it has had decidedly negative connotations for elements of the left and right over the years. On the right cosmopolitanism has been seen as a negative accusation particularly against Jews and other minorities, alleging that they are not loyal to any one place or have dual loyalties, and from the left cosmopolitanism has been cast as a marker of elitism that seeks to create a global order at the expense of working people and authentic local culture. To Appiah’s view, though, Cosmopolitanism is a moral good, allowing people to strive for what’s best for humankind as a whole, while accepting the different ways of life of different peoples.

Appiah acknowledges in the interview that cosmopolitanism relies on a relativistic mindset where there is no one truth or one superior culture. As such, Appiah lumps in various religions that want to convert people as a negative, anti-cosmopolitan force. He does want everybody to share certain basics of agreeing to rights and standards, but somehow without ignoring potentially valid alternate perspectives. “There are two strands to cosmopolitanism, and both are essential. The first is universalist: it says everybody matters. But they matter in their specificity, as who they are, not who you want them to be,” he says.

As Appiah and advocates of cosmopolitanism see it, the history of culture is often a history of cross-border sharing and influence:

“[O]nce you start out on the cosmopolitan exploration, one of the things that are bound to strike you is that among the most interesting civilizations that the planet has produced, hardly any have produced what’s interesting about them by themselves. Think of the places we think of historically as great centers of civilization—Mogul India, Venice in the Renaissance, Greece in the 5th Century BC, London in the 19th Century—they all borrow; and this is what people do, they borrow, they exchange, that’s how cultures work. Often when people talk about things that are supposedly “authentically” this or that—what could be more authentically Italian than spaghetti, say; except that the Chinese invented it. What could be more authentically American than jazz, which in fact comes out of a city that was black and Irish and Latin and French?”

From another more conservative perspective, cosmopolitanism is cast as basically a feel-good mentality cultivated mainly by privileged Western liberals. As Ross Douthat writes in a July, 2016 column, most cosmopolitans tend to share a similar worldview and taste while talking about how they appreciate different worldviews and tastes. Instead of really wanting diversity and cultural sharing, he accuses them of trying to amalgamate cultures into one confused melange.

“Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own,” Douthat writes, further claiming that:

“The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call ‘global citizens.'”

“They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.” Cosmopolitan elites “can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.”

In all the differing perspectives, it’s clear that cosmopolitanism remains a very relevant and fascinating subject, particularly as the world reacts to the rapid pace of globalization and technology. As more cultures and populations are mixed together both voluntarily and involuntarily, the history and theories of cosmopolitanism are being played out on a global scale.