In defense of the ivory tower

Philosopher Anthony Appiah argues the importance of 'figuring things out' over 'doing'

Come September, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah will begin teaching at Princeton University, having jumped from Harvard's "dream team" of black scholars recruited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. His move coincides with that of Cornel West, professor of Afro-American studies who is also moving to Princeton after a public dispute with Harvard president Lawrence Summers.

Professor Appiah is an expert on the issues of racial identity and black nationalism and has taught, among other subjects, philosophy, literary theory, and ethics. He has also written three novels and several philosophical texts, including "Necessary Questions" and "In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture."

What responsibility do you have as an intellectual to change the climate in terms of racial identity?

My primary obligation as a teacher is to provide my students with the tools for working out as best they can what they should think about these things. It's not my job to tell them what to think. It's my job to teach them what you need in order to figure out what to think. They won't all end up agreeing with me, and that's fine.... But you're not going to allow students to settle comfortably into a position,... whether it's reactionary or progressive. As a teacher, that's my task. I don't have a job to perfect their souls.

Who is your audience?

I think it's a very personal decision for an academic. I write mostly in the New York Review of Books, [read by] a very small proportion of the population. I try not to write in a way that is off-putting to people who are not academics.... One of the things I've done with Skip [Henry Louis] Gates is create an encyclopedia of the African world, and I've helped to get it into inner-city schools in Newark, Boston, Chicago, and many other places, spreading knowledge about African-American history.... You pick your mode of intervention in civic life – mine has come to be these interventions in education, nonuniversity education. But I have to say that mostly when I write, I write because I want to understand something, and ... at the heart of what I do – and I think at the heart of what most intellectuals do – is a certain kind of selfishness, in the sense that you're driven in the end by your own intellectual curiosity.

Do intellectuals have a responsibility to apply their talents to the larger world?

No, not as an intellectual, because your responsibility as an intellectual is to deepen your understanding and therefore our understanding.... I think our university life would be corrupted irremediably if you said to everybody in the university, beyond understanding, you have an obligation to go out and change those parts of the world that your understanding can help change. I don't think we're especially good at it – practical wisdom doesn't come with theoretical understanding usually. Do we think Einstein would have made a better leader for Britain ... than Winston Churchill? I don't think so!

You've said that the life of an intellectual is not politically effective. Why?

The fundamental vocation of the intellectual is to figure things out, you know, intellego, to understand. And politics isn't about understanding, politics is about getting things done. Understanding can be an instrument of getting things done, but nuance and complexity of understanding can be an obstacle to getting things done. Politics – it's the art of the possible, and sometimes in order to do the best that can be done, you have to ride roughshod over what are, for an intellectual, important distinctions – for example, between the truth and the untruth.

What is wrong with the concept of the philosopher king?

I have two worries about putting intellectuals in charge. One is just a historical worry, for intellectuals have been in charge in a number of famous cases. Actually, the Cambodian regime under Pol Pot was very highly educated.... I think both the good and the bad sides of the French and the Russian Revolutions were driven by very philosophical people. Marxism-Leninism is a philosophical system, but it also led to Stalinism and to the gulag. So there's a historical worry, but the other thing is just a worry of principle. I'm a democrat; I think that everybody counts for one, and intellectuals should count for one, too.

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