Greg Thomas


Kwame Anthony Appiah for a Time of Transformation


“WE ARE ON THE CUSP of the fastest. deepest. most consequential transformation of human civilisation in history, a transformation every bit as significant as the move from foraging to cities and agriculture 10,000 years ago."   

The authors of Rethinking Humanity (quoted above) argue that we have a stark choice: “collapse into a new dark age or move to a new Organizing System that allows us to flourish in a new Age of Freedom. Such a move will not be easy—we will need to rethink not just the structures and institutions that manage society, but the very concepts they are built on” [emphasis added].

I propose the concept of rooted cosmopolitanism as an idea that can smooth the transition. The concept has been developed the most by London-born philosopher of Ethics and Epistemology Kwame Anthony Appiah in works such as The Ethics of Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Appiah doesn’t confine himself to the hallowed halls of academe—he’s a public intellectual with a weekly Ethics column in the New York Times Magazine.

Before quoting Appiah, let’s contrast the idea with its opposite, shadow concept: “rootless cosmopolitan.” Though the expression was coined in the 19th century, it gained nefarious anti-Semitic traction through a speech by Joseph Stalin in 1946 in which he attacked Jewish writers for lack of allegiance to the Soviet Union. Being a “citizen of the world” (cosmopolitan), in this polarized worldview, means that one has no allegiance to being local or members of a nation.

But such a racist connotation is silly. Is it possible to be committed to the one’s local neighborhood, region, and nation as well as devoted to human-wide and planetary issues? Of course. As Appiah writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The False Divide Between Locals and Citizens of the World”:

Real cosmopolitans—that is, people whose moral concern extends to everyone on our small planet—are rooted cosmopolitans, and because they prize conversations across cultures, they’re no friends of uniformity. All this follows from [Josiah] Royce’s point about a wise provincialism: The focused care and concern we have for those near to us doesn’t clash with having care and concern for the planet and its inhabitants. Every life is a negotiation between the small scale and the large."  —Anthony Appiah

In From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, political philosopher Danielle Allen has an essay, co-written with Angel Parham, “Achieving Rooted Cosmopolitanism in a Digital Age” that further elaborates upon Appiah’s vision:

A rooted cosmopolitan understands the value of community and what he acquires from membership in a community; consequently, he expands his own understanding of self-interest to include preservation of the community from which he takes those benefits. This is the sense in which he is rooted. He is a cosmopolitan in recognizing the globe as one of the communities to which he belongs and making the preservation of that global community a matter of self-interest.

Importantly, and even paradoxically, preserving that that global community requires responsiveness to the particular local interests of the other members of the global community . . . .

The value of the concept of ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ is precisely the relationship it establishes between self and other. This ideal seeks to identify a
developmental trajectory along which self-interest becomes an expressive, communitarian phenomenon involving negotiation among the demands of multiple nested communities."

—Danielle Allen and Angel Parham

This kind of mindset and perspective will be necessary to expand beyond the parochial tribalism and greedy neglect tearing apart our social fabric.



Greg Thomas considers the concept of “rooted cosmopolitanism” as key to functioning well in a time of planetary transformation & decadence.  He co-hosts of Straight Ahead: The Omni-American Podcast which recently interviewed Kwame Anthony Appiah.  Thomas further explores this idea in “Duke Ellington’s Rooted Cosmopolitanism” and a conversation with Integral psychologist Mark Forman in 2017, “Race, Rooted Cosmopolitanism, and Hope in the 21st Century.”

Words by Greg Thomas