The lies that bind Rethinking identity, creed, country, color, class, culture

Anthony Appiah

Book - 2018

Who do you think you are? That's a question bound up in another: What do you think you are? Gender. Religion. Race. Nationality. Class. Culture. Such affiliations give contours to our sense of self, and shape our polarized world. Yet the collective identities they spawn are riddled with contradictions, and cratered with falsehoods. Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Lies That Bind is an incandescent exploration of the nature and history of the identities that define us. It challenges our assum...ptions about how identities work. We all know there are conflicts between identities, but Appiah shows how identities are created by conflict. Religion, he demonstrates, gains power because it isn't primarily about belief. Our everyday notions of race are the detritus of discarded nineteenth-century science. Our cherished concept of the sovereign nation--of self-rule--is incoherent and unstable. Class systems can become entrenched by efforts to reform them. Even the very idea of Western culture is a shimmering mirage. From Anton Wilhelm Amo, the eighteenth-century African child who miraculously became an eminent European philosopher before retiring back to Africa, to Italo Svevo, the literary marvel who changed citizenship without leaving home, to Appiah's own father, Joseph, an anticolonial firebrand who was ready to give his life for a nation that did not yet exist, Appiah interweaves keen-edged argument with vibrant narratives to expose the myths behind our collective identities. These "mistaken identities," Appiah explains, can fuel some of our worst atrocities--from chattel slavery to genocide. And yet, he argues that social identities aren't something we can simply do away with. They can usher in moral progress and bring significance to our lives by connecting the small scale of our daily existence with larger movements, causes, and concerns. Elaborating a bold and clarifying new theory of identity, The Lies That Bind is a ringing philosophical statement for the anxious, conflict-ridden twenty-first century. This book will transform the way we think about who--and what--"we" are.

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New York, NY : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company [2018]
First edition
Physical Description
xvi, 256 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
Anthony Appiah (author)
  • Classification
  • Creed
  • Country
  • Color
  • Class
  • Culture
  • Coda.
Review by New York Times Review

THE SPLINTERING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: Identity Politics, Inequality, and Community on Today's College Campuses, by William Egginton. (Bloomsbury, $28.) Egginton, a professor at Johns Hopkins, regards the often militant discourse around identity with sympathy and concern. THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. (Penguin Press, $28.) Expanding on their influential Atlantic article, the authors trace the culture of "safetyism" on campus to a generation convinced of its own fragility, warning of potentially dire consequences for democracy. IDENTITY: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, by Francis Fukuyama. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) In a sympathetic analysis of identity politics, Fukuyama argues that the sense of being dismissed, rather than material interest, is the current locomotive of human affairs. THE LIES THAT BIND: Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture, by Kwame Anthony Appiah. (Liveright, $27.95.) Appiah, a cosmopolitan by background and choice, says that we tend to think of ourselves as part of monolithic tribes up against other tribes, whereas we each contain multitudes. ARTHUR ASHE: A Life, by Raymond Arsenault. (Simon & Schuster, $37.50.) This first major biography of the great tennis champion, written by a civil rights historian, shows that Ashe's activism was as important as his athletic skill. He belongs on the Mount Rushmore of elite sports figures who changed America. DEAD GIRLS: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, by Alice Bolin. (Morrow/HarperCollins, paper, $15.99.) Bolin's stylish and inspired collection centers on the figure - ubiquitous in police procedurals from "Twin Peaks" to "True Detective" - of the "dead girl," a character who represents a dominant American fantasy, inciting desire and rage in equal measure. THIS MOURNABLE BODY, by Tsitsi Dangarembga. (Graywolf, paper, $16.) In this accomplished sequel to "Nervous Conditions," her prize winning debut of 30 years ago, Dangarembga, a Zimbabwean author and filmmaker, finds her indomitable heroine, Tambu, single, middle-aged and unemployed but unbowed. NOTES FROM THE FOG: Stories, by Ben Marcus. (Knopf, $26.95.) In his latest collection, the ever inventive Marcus delivers taut, bleak, dystopian stories that are disturbing and outlandish yet somehow eminently plausible. MARWAN'S JOURNEY, by Patricia de Arias. Illustrated by Laura Borras. (MinEdition, $17.99; ages 5 to 7.) This sensitive, beautifully illustrated tale of a boy's journey across a desert, away from his war-torn homeland, ends with safety and dreams of return. The full reviews of these and other recent books are on the web:

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 30, 2019] Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The supposedly eternal categories people use to group themselves into antagonistic collectives are misleading memes of recent vintage, according to this probing critique of identity politics. New York University philosophy professor Appiah (Cosmopolitanisms) argues that, although people have an innate "clannishness"-an instinct to identify with groups-the common essential properties that bind those groups are arbitrary, inconsistent, and mainly imaginary. The idea of fixed biological races, he contends, developed in the 18th century to justify the transatlantic slave trade; the notion of homogeneous national identities sprouted from a 19th-century romantic philosophy that forced them onto multiethnic, multilingual communities; modern religious divisions are based on contradictory, often unintelligible scriptures; and, contrary to the dicta of both white nationalists and Afrocentrists, Western culture isn't the creation of Europeans, Egyptians, or any other single people. Writing in erudite but engaging prose, Appiah spotlights figures who created identitarian doctrines or challenged them, including a West African boy who traveled to Germany in 1707 and became a philosophy professor, and ponders his own complicated identity as a gay, biracial man descended from English knights on his mother's side and Ghanaian royalty on his father's. With deep learning and incisive reasoning, Appiah makes a forceful argument for building identity from individual aspirations rather than exclusionary dogmas. (Aug.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

Appiah (philosophy, New York Univ.; Cosmopolitanism) argues that people identify with ideas and groups in ways that are inescapable but dangerous. The key danger lies in essentialism, the view that a group has fixed conditions of identity that apply without exception to its members. Thus, Scriptural determinism holds that people who profess a religion are committed to beliefs found in canonical texts, yet to view religion in this way is to ignore the diversity of belief and behavior among those who profess a particular creed. In another example, Appiah denies that race determines intelligence and personality traits and offers similar considerations along lines of country, class, and culture, moving easily over diverse fields including biblical scholarship, philosophy, history, and anthropology. Appiah often draws examples from his own remarkable life, as well as from personalities such as Michael Young, a sociologist who coined the term meritocracy and was an architect of the post-World War II British welfare state. VERDICT Written in a clear, nontechnical style, this book by an outstanding contemporary philosopher presents critical thinking about public issues at its best and should appeal widely to anyone interested in serious thought. [See Prepub Alert, 2/12/18.]-David Gordon, Ludwig von Mises Inst., Auburn, AL © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

In an exploration of the ways we label and confine ourselves, a celebrated philosopher advocates for a theory of human identity that recognizes but transcends race, religion, nation, culture, and class.Repudiating today's misguided surge of nationalism and nativist "purity," Appiah (Philosophy and Law/New York Univ.; As If: Idealization and Ideals, 2017, etc.) provides an impeccably argued challenge to all manner of calcified identities, including the illusory notion of "Western" civilization. "The East" is no less a chimera. Broadly, the author insists that we are bound by ways of apprehending identities that took modern shape in the 19th century, and they demand re-evaluation. Appiah makes irrefutable points about the incoherence of narrowly defined identities and our collective delusions. However, he dithers a bit in his opening essays, splitting hairs and taking a chapter to express what could have been managed in 300 words. Indeed, the book often relates the obvious in exhaustive terms, and the author sometimes ends up preaching to the choir. While eviscerating much pseudo-science, he also parrots some of the more questionable contentions of academic ideologues, succumbing to their oversimplifications. Still, the author has a penetrating grasp of the complexities of identity, and he wields history like a scalpel, extracting the cancerous myths, poisonous prejudices, and foolish antagonisms that divide us. Though Appiah savors his entwined Asante and English heritage, he is, like Diogenes, a citizen of the world, and his intent is to build bridges. "My aim is to start conversations, not to end them," he concludes, fully acknowledging that there is much more to be said on each of the topics he investigates. Appiah knows we are clannish creatures and that the most intractable of all "isms" is tribalism. He asks only that we rethink false assumptions and find our way out of the thickets.A well-informed philosophical investigation into methods for breaking through "walls that will not let in fresh and enlivening air." Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.