Reith Lectures 2016  KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH – Mistaken Identities


(Reith Lectures, inaugurated in 1948 by the BBC to mark the historic contribution made to public service broadcasting by Sir John (later Lord) Reith, the corporation’s first director-general. Since 2002, presented by Sue Lawley)

Kwame Anthony Appiah – mother from Cotswold village, father from Guana, (Guess who’s coming to Dinner), born UK lives New York, in a homosexual relationship. Eminently experienced in crossing conventional boundaries of identity.

Stories – in all he begins with a story, belief in stories, to show affiliations, to show.

In all challenge the settle assumptions of how identity works

  1. CREED

Mother methodist, father Anglian.

Identity precedes doctrine – Judism before Jewish

Main argument: too much emphasis on belief. One of three aspects of religious life:

1. Practices

2. Community

3. Belief

Orthodoxy – acting right – practice.

Problem with too much emphasis on belief: scripture talks in metaphores, requires interpretation. Blizard of uncertainty. Can be argued one way or the other depending on selective texts. Does doctrine drive practice or vice versa? Dressing practice of middle east, eating habbits.

eg Place of women in the Koran, passage supporting the superiority of men (same in Christian). Yet, women Prime Ministers in Muslim countries

eg Islam incites violance – onward christian soldiers

Identity endures through change, survives because of transformation.

The One True Way (Truth) versus relaxed convictions, open for challenge and revision

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: ‘I draw on a philosophical tradition in which one of the central thoughts is the recognition of human fallibility, and I think that one of the ways in which we’re fallible is that we seek for certainty in places where it’s not to be found and where the correct attitude is one of not of disbelief, not of certainty that it’s in the opposite direction, but of relatively relaxed convictions of one sort and another which we leave open for challenge and revision if new ideas, new stuff comes in. And I think there is a problem when people are so certain of things that in the nature of the case seem to be exactly the sort of things that someone who is committed to them should see are the sorts of things you shouldn’t be certain about. Nothing is clearer, I think, than the difficulty of coming to the truth about theological questions, for example. Everybody in the world agrees that most people in the world have incorrect religious beliefs.’

Karl Popper and falsifiability in science

‘Every genuine scientific theory then, in Popper’s view, is prohibitive, in the sense that it forbids, by implication, particular events or occurrences. As such it can be tested and falsified, but never logically verified. Thus Popper stresses that it should not be inferred from the fact that a theory has withstood the most rigorous testing, for however long a period of time, that it has been verified; rather we should recognise that such a theory has received a high measure of corroboration. and may be provisionally retained as the best available theory until it is finally falsified (if indeed it is ever falsified), and/or is superseded by a better theory.’

‘I like the formulation of that of Sir Richard Burton, the 19th century traveller, first Christian I think to get into Mecca because he was able to pass for a Pashtun, he said “Truth is the shattered mirror strewn in myriad bits, while each believes his little piece the whole to own”.


Story: Aron Ettore Schmitz, born in Trieste (1861),  mother and father were Jews, of Italian and German origin. Trieste was the main trading port of the Austrian Empire. So young Ettore was a citizen of that Empire. Ettore was nine when a unified Germany was cobbled together. Trieste Italian end of World War 1. How do you decide on your country? James Joyce – his teacher – drew on character of Bloom.

Politics and Peoplehood

Today resurgence in Nationhood

– Brexit, the idea of “taking back control” – was one of the key arguments made by the Leave campaign in the European Referendum. Across Europe, nationalist parties in countries such as Germany, France and Austria are enjoying success. “Make America great again” is one of the key slogans of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Moving borders – India Pakisthan migration, Paint is still wet.

Nationalism relatively modern. 200 years old. Romanticism reacting against rationalism, German Folksguist, Spirit in language and literature.

Kosovo -newest country. Self determination outweighed territorial integrity. Except the Serbs.

Crimea – what a people wants depends on where you draw the lines (eg Tibet) (Scotland uk)

All depends on who are we?

Roma rejected within the nation in name of purity.

Nations invented and reinvented:

Inventing is a creation not a lie.

Languages in common, stories that connect them. Brown skin scot can thrill to the words of Burns

A daily plebicite. A committment to governing a common life

Challenge for liberal democracies.

Romantic state, peoples will. Liberal peoples willingness

Liberal states antham we can work it out.

Robert the bruce rallied not in the name of scotish identity, but in the name of freedom.

Why are we hocked on the romantic view of nationhood?

It’s a simple message. The other is more complicated.

Can combine: Heder was both a german nationalist and global citizen.

We can hang together without some ancient spirit of the folk, not prehistoric.

More and more, with increasingly globalisation, we will have greater diversify of origin.

Heder you can be cosmopolitan and patriot.

3. COLOUR from Akra

Something we make, not something that makes us

Story: Anton Wilhelm Rudolph, Enlightenment experiment, Liza Doolittle.

What did Anton demonstrate? That black men can also be intellectual (contrary to Kant)

Racial purity, led by science, elements of difference, justifying slavery.

History: Linnaeus, – human beings as part of nature in a way that meant that we could be classified, like other animals and plants, by genus and species. Homo sapiens, and who placed us alongside monkeys and apes in the natural order.

C20th with genetics unpicked, we can know that we share the vast majority of genes.

Race is something we make, not something that makes us. Lost wax method. Race becomes a palimpsest.

Yet if the idea of racial essence has been so disproven by science, why is the concept of race – and modern forms of racism –

‘Othering’, accademic word – usually something else underneath


Is there such a thing as Western culture?


Tyler 1871, primitive culture – modern anthropology. That complex whole that includes knowledge, customs, acquired by man as society.


Mathew Arnold – ideal – Culture was the pursuit of our total perfection, the best that has been thought and said in the world. Moral and aesthetic ideal.

Give up the idea of Western civilisation/Western Culture.

What is the West? What geography? West and Asia. North Atlantic. African, Latin America, the global south?

Christian Europe defines itself through opposition. The battle of Tour.

Greek and Rome, the Golden Nugget. The core of a civilisation opposed to Islam.

From Plato to Nato. (when democracy was minority)

We’ve invented a fable about Western culture, we’ve forged a grand narrative stretching from Athenian democracy to the Magna Carta through to modern liberal democracy, which has sustained us through the Cold War to the modern day.

Yes, there is a stronger tradition of liberal democracy across much of Europe and North America than in some other parts of the world. Perhaps it’s just a case of challenging simplistic caricatures of Western culture.

Against the idea of culture as an essence or a birthright. Same as religion, nationalism and race: none of these provide the essence of a fixed identity.

“Values aren’t a birth right, you need to keep caring about them”

Fusion of Tyler and Arnold. The everyday and the ideal. More organic unity. Each part essential to the whole. A life lived with others

Creed, Colour, Culture, all can be forms of confinement. But can give contours to our freedom.

I am human, i think of nothing human alien to me.

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