Cosmopolitan curiosity

After living in Thailand for four years, I’ve become increasingly interested in anything I can get my hands on (and head around) that deals with living and working in mutually satisfying relationships across cultures. In my work with Dr. Maria Cseh in the Global Competence Enrichment Program at GW, we pair up international and American graduate students and do seminars and a service learning project together to help facilitate global competence enrichment. I will likely do my dissertation on something related to global competence but in the meantime I’m trying to read and learn as much as I can about what it means to have cosmopolitan curiosity.

Currently, I’m reading Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers by Kwame Anthony Appiah, and it has a lot to do with living in a globalizing world. (As an aside, I read Appiah’s book The Honor Code a couple of years ago and loved it. I recommend both.) Appiah is a philosophy professor at Princeton, originally from Ghana, and educated in England. A few quotes stood out to me that I thought I would share here. These quotes come from a chapter that discusses conflicting values across cultures and the art of getting used to others.

“When we offer judgments, after all, it’s rarely because we have applied well-thought-out principles to a set of facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to justify what we have done–or what we plan to do–are typically made up after the event, rationalizations of what we have decided intuitively. And a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to.”

Later he concludes by saying:

“I am urging that we should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement, but because it will help us get used to one another. If that is the aim, then the fact that we have all these opportunities for disagreement about values need not put us off. Understanding one another may be hard; it can certainly be interesting. But it doesn’t require that we come to agreement.”

These ideas stand out to me. Firstly, the idea that our judgments typically come first from intuition is something that has been front and center in recent social science research. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fantastic summary. I also recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for a look at that idea as applied to moral psychology.

I find this theory moving: our judgments are rooted in our intuition (before/more than rationality) and much of our intuition is based on what we’re accustomed to. Therefore, getting used to one another will go a long way in helping us live together.

What’s the key to cosmopolitanism and living as a global citizen?

I am a chapter and a half from the end of Appiah’s book but this much is clear: to live and work effectively across cultures takes an almost radical disposition of curiosity and imagination. The more I learn about ideas like global citizenship, cross-cultural communication, intercultural competence, global mindset (the list goes on…), the more I am learning that curiosity is a key component. I’ll write more about this later because I’m just now starting to investigate what it means to be curious. For now, let me conclude by with this:

How would the world look if we embraced a disposition of radical curiosity for the thoughts, beliefs, actions, perspectives, and practices of others? How, if at all, would it change our relationships?



One Comment on “Cosmopolitan curiosity

  1. Great post! Reminds me of something from Madison’s notes of debates during the Constitutional Convention. On August 9, 1787, Gouverneur Morris proposed limiting the qualification for senators to those who had been a citizen at least 14 years. Here’s part of his reasoning:

    “The lesson we are taught is that we should be governed as much by our reason, and as little by our feelings as possible. What is the language of Reason on this subject? That we should not be polite at the expence of prudence…

    As to those philosophical gentlemen, those Citizens of the World as they called themselves, He owned he did not wish to see any of them in our public Councils. He would not trust them. The men who can shake off their attachments to their own Country can never love any other. These attachments are the wholesome prejudices which uphold all Governments. Admit a Frenchman into your Senate, and he will study to increase the commerce of France: an Englishman, he will feel an equal bias in favor of that of England.”

    You and he would have had a lot to talk about…


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