Kwame Anthony Appiah Commencement Speech
Occidental College Commencement
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Address of Kwame Anthony Appiah
Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University
"Living With Connections"
I've already learned one important new lesson this morning, which is that it's a terrible idea to follow four Oxy graduates when speaking. But I'm going to give it a try.
As you just learned, I spent a little time a few months back with one of your better-known alumni. It was a humbling experience to be surrounded by the extraordinary men and women who were my fellow recipients of the Medals of Arts and Humanities. I'm as humbled today, standing alongside four distinguished alums of this great school to receive with them a degree that will make me forever an honorary member of the Occidental class of 2012. Thank you so much, Occidental, for doing us this great honor. And thank you, too, for beginning the college education of the President who gave me the medal.
During the medal ceremony, the President told me he had a bone to pick with me. It seems that when he was writing his first memoir, he'd intended to call it In My Father's House. Then his publisher broke the terrible news: this Appiah fellow had just published a book with that very title and he had an African father and a white mother, too. Which would make it kind of awkward for him to use it. Well, I said I was sorry.
What I didn't tell the President is that I had been meaning to call my book The Invention of Africa until a colleague of mine mentioned that he had a book coming out with that title! So I knew how the President felt.
When I got back from Washington, I checked the online Library of Congress catalog and discovered 23 books called In My Father's House published since I was born; four of them in the same year as mine! That made me feel a little less bad. And anyway Dreams from my Father is a pretty good title: and I'd certainly have traded my title for his book sales.
It's hard to keep up with everything that's being written. More than half a million new titles were published in English in 2010. If we asked the class of 2016 to divide up the task of chugging through all those books, one a day each for every semester they're here, they wouldn't be finished before they graduated college: and that wouldn't leave them any time to catch up on the 22 million books that are in the Library of Congress catalog already, or the half a million that will be published during each year they are here. Add in the newspapers and magazines, let alone the blog posts and the tweets ... well, there's just no way to keep up.
Nowadays, in fact, it's hard to keep up not just with what's being written but with all the devices for writing. I confess to a terrible weakness for gadgets. Most Americans have this weakness, I suspect. I doubt I'd have a career as a writer if it wasn't for the crude word-processor on the massive mainframe computer I had access to as a student at Cambridge. Because I'm one of those people who can't read his own handwriting.
In fact, I found myself wondering recently what it would look like if you stacked up all the cutting-edge computers and computerized gizmos I've used in the course of my writing life. In 1983, I had a Kaypro II. (I know you don't know what that was, and I can't remember what it was, either.) Then there was the early no-name IBM clone, made in Korea, I think; the five others that followed with more powerful processors, the iMac and the Mac Cube, and one with the goose neck, and then the iPhone 1, 2, 3, and 4 and the iPad 1, 2, and 2.1; my MacBook Air, the first Kindle, the Kindle DX, the Kindle Fire ... I've had all of them. I think about all of these marvels, each of which I had for less time than the last -- many of them oxidizing quietly in a landfill somewhere... Because they're only marvelous until the newer, better version comes along.
But then I thought about some of what I've read on those transistorized rattletraps. The plays and poems and essays and stories. They're still with us. They're still with me. Alchemy, as a science? Molders on the junkyard of history. Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist? Still in print. Still performed. Still taught.
Technology proceeds by substitution; the arts and humanities by addition. Our challenge today is that the process of addition has exploded. The library of Congress began with Thomas Jefferson's collection: about six and a half thousand books, an enormous collection almost two hundred years ago. When Michel de Montaigne sat down to write his famous Essays, he boasted an enormous library, too: but two and a half centuries before Jefferson, in 1571, that was just 1,500 books. Both of these men had Plato in their libraries. Both were in dialogue, as a result, with Socrates, who had died a couple of millennia earlier. And they had access to an accelerating accumulation of other voices in between.
Socrates asks, "Can virtue be taught?" and his question reverberates across the centuries. Montaigne, Jefferson, you and I are part of an ongoing conversation about how to answer that. "Socrates is always asking questions and stirring up discussion, never concluding, never satisfying...," Montaigne said. But he wasn't complaining.
He could hardly do that because his own essays were exactly the same. They were conversational; and that's what a conversation is like. A conversation isn't like a proof in geometry. In a conversation--a real conversation--no question has just one answer; and every answer opens up another question. Montaigne, who said that "the soul of Socrates," was "the most perfect that ever came to my knowledge," engages with Socrates, literally hundreds of times in his three volumes of essays. Montaigne even repeats some of Socrates's jokes: "They told Socrates that someone had not been improved by his travels: ‘I very well believe it,' said he, ‘for he took himself along with him.'" Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1820 that "the superlative wisdom of Socrates is testified by all antiquity, and placed on ground not to be questioned." Now you and I have not just Socrates but Montaigne and Jefferson to
One of my intellectual heroes, the logician and philosopher Frank Ramsey, died in his late twenties, in 1930, and still managed to transform half a dozen fields, from mathematics to economics to philosophy. He was a member of the Apostles, a secret society at Cambridge. Its official name was the Cambridge Conversazione Society, and I once wrote a novel set among its members. Ramsey wrote a famous paper once entitled "Is There Anything to Discuss?"
Think about it, he said. A proposition could be logically true or false-in which case there's no point in discussing it; you just need to provide a proof. Or else it's just an empirical fact whether it's true or false--in which case, you go out and discover which, and there's nothing to discuss. Or, finally, it's a matter of taste-where there's no fact about it at all, so what's the point in the discussion? So his answer was, "No."
Ramsey delivered the paper to his fellow Apostles, people like Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Maynard Keynes ... and what did they do? They spent the next several hours discussing it. That's one of the lessons of the humanities. There is never nothing to discuss. There's an ongoing conversation, centuries old, and one of the great rewards of education is to be able to join it.
Occasionally you get a sense of this in other disciplines. Some of you will know the story of Fermat's Theorem: Pierre de Fermat, the great 17th century French mathematician, scribbled in the margin of a book that he had discovered what he called a "truly marvelous proof" about a simple arithmetical conjecture. Unfortunately, he wrote, "the margin is too narrow to contain it." If only he had more room. This was in the 1630s. Mathematicians spent the next three and a half centuries trying to solve it. But in the end, my former Princeton colleague Andrew Wiles finished the job. That's why we love math.
So what's the purpose of the interpretive disciplines? The biologist who comes up with a new antibiotic will save lives. The engineer who figures out how to create safe, affordable energy from fusion could save lives. The fundamental physicist, like the mathematician, can legitimately aspire to having definitively answered some question. But in the humanities we don't sell answers: we invite you into that ongoing human conversation, the one that Socrates was near the start of, that Montaigne and Jefferson continued.
And through that conversation you come to answer for yourselves the questions no one can answer for you: the ones you have to decide for yourselves. The humanities help you think about what to do with technology, and what not to do. They help you think about the immense potency of scientific thought, and about its limitations. And even when they offer no definitive answers, they help you ask good questions. Such as: What's the meaning of life? (I did have an answer to that, but the margin was too ...)
Never imagine, though, that the sciences and the humanities belong to two separate realms. They don't. Some of the most exciting work in historical and literary scholarship these days is in what's call the " digital humanities." Social psychology and neuroscience send tendrils into the realm of art and criticism and ethics. Conversation-which I said was central to the humanities-involves communication. And no more powerful mechanism of communication, across the planet, has been devised than the Internet. Information, data, has never been more abundant. Remember all those books and blogs and magazines and tweets.
But that means that real knowledge-genuine understanding-has never been more desperately needed: you need some way to navigate through the noise, to pick your way through ten thousand books called In My Father's House, to find among the terabytes the kilobyte you need right now. And that's what your liberal arts education has provided you. The margins of culture may not accommodate the answers, but it has plenty of space for some amazing questions. Etymology isn't always the best guide to meaning, but in this case, I think the origins of the word "liberal" tell you pretty much what you need to know. Liberal shares its Latin root, of course, with the word liberation: a liberal education is an education for free men and women. (It doesn't, alas, mean a free education, but the endowments of our great liberal arts colleges mean that for many people it is, at least, a subsidized education; which is why Oxy will be asking for your financial support in the years ahead, and why as a member of your alumni association I will be getting some of those invitations.)
When I think about how all of us should live together in our increasingly interconnected era, I like, as some of you know, the idea of "cosmopolitanism." The cosmopolitan is a citizen of the world: that's what the word means. But when it was first introduced, in the fourth century BCE, it was by Greeks who knew hardly anything about most of the people on the planet. They couldn't affect people living half way around the world. Today, you can. In good ways. And in bad ways. Which puts a heavy burden on us all. And as interconnected as the world seems now, I promise you that within a decade, it will be an order of magnitude more so.
In the 125 years since Occidental began, the world has been getting more and more densely interconnected. Occidental was 20 years old when the first regular trans-Atlantic wireless telegraph service began. In the early 1930s NBC and the British Broadcasting Corporation started shortwave radio services internationally. When I was finishing graduate school, CNN became the first international television network ... broadcasting to the United States and elsewhere. And by the time most of you were born, there were a couple of hundred million personal computers in the world and Tim Berners-Lee had just invented the worldwide web. Today there are three or four times that many PCs, and this month the Netcraft Web Server survey got responses from 662,959,946 sites around the world. So, much to my surprise, it looks like there are six and a half billion people who don't have websites yet!
But here's the thing: there are also 5 billion cell phones. More people have cell phones today than have access to running water. Given the way product cycles work in technology (where today's high end becomes tomorrow's low end, and today's low end disappears), in the coming decade those 5 billion people will have smart phones. There will be 5 billion people with the Internet in their pocket. Five billion people with real-time access to world cultures and the world economy; Indian farmers with access to prices their goods fetch in urban markets, Chinese citizens seeking the political truths their government is trying to hide, American students discovering opportunities to work for not-for-profits in Africa and Asia and Latin America. In the last Ghanaian elections students with cell phones waited at polling stations to text the results to national radio stations. Even if they had wanted to, the government couldn't fix the election.
Ask yourself what this means for your ability to do good and evil in the world? What it means for education, for culture, for national sovereignty, for international moral norms?
A woman in Saudi Arabia can see the lives of women elsewhere and ask, "Why not me?" A gay couple in Uganda can hear the President of the United States declare that LGBT people are entitled to marriage equality and ask "Why not us?" Nothing you put on the web, even if it's only meant for your neighbors, is guaranteed to have only local impact.
That is the world you are entering. Even if your first job is just down the street from here, what happens in your life will depend on events in Athens and Beijing and Cairo ... a whole alphabet of cities and countries you will need to know something about just to read the headlines on your favorite news site on your latest smart phone.
Nowadays you can zoom around the planet either virtually or physically at the speed of sound. Socrates had a point: whereever you go, you take yourself with you ... So I hope you proceed carefully.
So here you are, with more intellectual and technological firepower at your disposal than any previous generation. With a greater capacity to shift the course of human lives around the planet, too. You've got decisions to make. As graduates of Oxy, as beneficiaries of a first-class liberal arts education, you've got the skills and the judgment to make them. Technology-representing the cumulative labors of centuries of mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and engineers-has now made it possible for you to say whatever you want and be heard by billions of people around the planet -- all those people with the Internet in their pockets. And you have the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years and millions of books and, yes, billions of blog posts and tweets to work with.
So . . . Oxy, Class of 2012: what do you want to say? The world is listening. The world is talking. Join the conversation.