Magazine article New African

Kwame Anthony Appiah, the 'Postmodern Socrates', Gets His Honour

Magazine article New African

Kwame Anthony Appiah, the 'Postmodern Socrates', Gets His Honour

Article excerpt

The first African to get a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge University in the UK was of Ghanaian-British descent, named Kwame Anthony Akroma-Ampim Kusi Appiah.

A pure genius, Kwame Anthony Appiah, as he is better known, has been described by Stanford University in the US as 'our postmodern Socrates". On 13 February, US President Barack Obama decorated him with America's 2011 National Arts and Humanities Medal in the East Room of the White House.

Ivor Agyeman-Duah looks back on the life of the Ghanaian who the historian Henry Louis Gates Jnr admits "has the most settled mind of all of us put together".

IN 1962, THERE WAS A SMALL PALAVER at the Okomfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Ghana's second city. An eight-year-old boy, Kwame Anthony Appiah, had been hospitalised. The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, was visiting Ghana's president, Kwame Nkrumah, to see the newly built hospital.

Meanwhile, Anthony Appiah's father, Joe Appiah, a lawyer and Nkrumah's roommate in London and one-time advisor, was in jail, Appiah had accused Nkrumah of dictatorship and joined the conservative opposition, offending his old friend.

But Appiah had also married well to Peggy, a daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps, Britain's former chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), who was from a line of distinguished aristocrats. He had helped negotiate the terms for India's independence.

Appiah lived with his new family in Kumasi and among his extended family, headed by the king of Asante.

When the British Queen got to Anthony Appiah's bed during the tour of the hospital, she asked, according to one version of the story, after his father. Young Appiah pointed to Nkrumah and said: "This man has imprisoned him."

Anthony Appiah is not so sure of what he might have said, or even whether he was aware of why his father was in jail. But the opposition and their newspapers had certainly made enough noise about it--much to Nkrumah's embarrassment.

The Malawian doctor looking after Anthony Appiah, who was conducting the royal hospital tour, was eventually deported. Nkrumah said he was in league with the opposition.

But the controversy of the Appiahs' marriage was fodder for the international media and partly inspired (with the story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams of Botswana) the Hollywood film, Guess Who is Coming to Dinner?


Joe Appiah was a scholar of Roman classics, and wanted to name his son Socrates, against the wishes of his wife. She feared the possibility that if he did not live up to the name, he might become a laughing stock. Finally, he was named after an illustrious ancestor, Kwame Anthony Akroma-Ampim Kusi Appiah. Among the Asantes, Appiah's people, there is a saying that: "A child may resemble his father but he has a family." And he grew up to become the philosopher that the mother feared he could not be.

He became not just a philosopher but, as Stanford University in the US referred to him, "our postmodern Socrates". They said: "Appiah conducts his Socratic interrogations in the language and style of analytical philosophy. The questions he poses and the' conclusions to which he leads us are, like those of his ancient predecessor, often deeply disturbing, since they expose the 'false presuppositions' and outright 'errors and inaccuracies' of our most cherished forms of selfhood."

In 2009, Forbes magazine listed him as one of the seven most powerful thinkers in the world. In December 2010, Foreign Policy magazine also described him as one of the top 100 global thinkers.

On 13 February 2012 Anthony Appiah was invited to the White House and decorated by President Barack Obama among others, with the highly prestigious National Humanities Medal. Obama praised him in a citation "for seeking eternal truths in the contemporary world.

Your books and essays within and beyond your academic discipline have shed moral and intellectual light on the individual in an era of globalisation and evolving group identities. …

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