Critical Cosmopolitanism

Authored by: Fuyuki Kurasawa

The Ashgate Research Companion to Cosmopolitanism

Print publication date:  September  2011
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754677994
eBook ISBN: 9781315612850
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043782


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At this particular historical and theoretical juncture, discourses of cosmopolitanism in the human sciences are multiplying to the extent that the term itself risks dissolving into an empty signifier. Hence, before considering the implications of adding the qualifier ‘critical’ to the idea of cosmopolitanism, we need to define the latter more precisely. For our purposes, the literature on cosmopolitanism advances and draws upon three principals meanings. At the most general level, cosmopolitanism designates a worldview according to which subjects understand themselves as citizens of the world or belonging to humankind as a whole, whether in opposition to or superimposed upon their membership of territorially- or socio-culturally-delimited communities (city-states, nations, civilizations, religious or ethnic groups, etc.). 1 1

The word itself originated with the ancient Greek Cynics (Diogenes: ‘I am a citizen of the world’ [kosmou polites]) and the Greco-Roman Stoics (e.g. Seneca) (Nussbaum 2002a), although the principle of identifying with humankind is found in several Western and non-Western intellectual traditions.

In a second, complementary sense, cosmopolitanism refers to an ethos of worldliness, of seeking to engage with the world as one’s dwelling-place or home; frequently, this dimension is referred to as an openness to difference and commitment to cultural pluralism (Hannerz 1990), which thus imply a refutation of parochial or nativist tendencies. To be cosmopolitan, then, signifies a capacity for multiperspectivism, that is to say, to move between and be able to decode a wide array of divergent socio-cultural practices and belief-systems, as well as to be familiar with the self-understandings of various groups across the world. Third, cosmopolitanism identifies a belief in human unity and a consequent attachment to humankind in toto (Tagore 1997). Often supported by a humanist universalism that advocates recognition of the worth of all civilizations’ and societies’ contributions to social life, such a cosmopolitan outlook seeks to translate seemingly incommensurable cultural frameworks to make them mutually intelligible. Accordingly, it questions the ‘self-evidentness’ of categorical dichotomies commonly employed to hierarchically divide parts of humankind from each other (savage/civilized, ‘East’/‘West’, etc.), as well as exclusionary discourses grounded in essentialized group characteristics (racism, ethno-racial nationalism, ‘cultural separatism’ and religious fundamentalism, amongst others) (Sen 2005).

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