In his excellent new book Kwame Anthony Appiah takes on an estimable, if—at first glance—naive pursuit. In an era of Brexit, the 2017 Charlottesville incident, and 'I Really Don’t Care, Do U?,' Appiah hopes to inspire a rethinking of our restrictive and therefore divisive notions of who we are. But if that seems an impossible task, should the massive obstacles stop us from trying? Appiah, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University and the author of eight previous books, brings to the task a number of insights and the mind of a realist ... Having both acknowledged the necessity of identity and demolished some notions of it, The Lies That Bind has little specific to say about how to awaken the world to a more productive understanding of what makes up our identities. But perhaps that will be the subject of Appiah’s next book. In the meantime, if the solution to the fracturing of our world remains elusive, this book at least helps us think clearly about the problem.
What sounds at first like a direct challenge to our political culture’s obsession with identity turns out to be a series of highly literate but dilettantish 'explorations'—discursive arguments that racial identities are sometimes based on obsolete science, national identities depend on fictions, religious identities have more to do with practice than with doctrinal belief, and so on. The difference between Mr. Appiah’s stated aim and the content of his claims is reflected on the book’s title page: Identities are outright 'lies' in the title, but in the subtitle they don’t require debunking but a mere 'rethinking.' He doesn’t so much argue that racial, class-based and national identities are false or fabricated as point out the ambiguities at their margins. But surely very few people need to be told that human identities lack the certainty of mathematical theorems.
At times in The Lies That Bind, Appiah seems to be either fighting a battle that’s already been won, as when he challenges the scholarly movement known as Afrocentrism, which he believes perpetuates 19th-century delusions about race, or debating with the sort of people—white nationalists, Brexiters—who are never going to listen to someone like him in the first place ... Perhaps the most challenging chapter in The Lies That Bind for Appiah’s educated, open-minded readership will be the one on class. While Appiah rejects the notion that some traits are innate to particular groups, he does believe that some traits are innate to all people ... It’s an appealing ideal, and while I’m under the influence of Appiah’s suave vision of communal magnanimity, it seems doable, a city on the hill that will encompass the whole world, a city we might actually get the chance to build ... An hour or two after closing The Lies That Bind, however, doubt creeps in. Not everyone wants to glide among multiple identities in a chattering marketplace.
Are we, I wondered after reading Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind, entering a new phase of European Romanticism? A repeat of the era in which leaders sought to distil the idea of the volk ... Being a philosopher, and a very erudite one at that, Appiah doesn’t so much answer these questions as pose them in newly lucid ways ... Appiah’s breadth of scholarship allows him to create connections that would otherwise be hard to come by. Nationality is brilliantly deconstructed through the lens of 19th-century Europe ... Wherever the eminent philosopher seems to tread, he leaves a trail of scholarly references in his wake. Add the particulars of his own life—descended from elite families in both Ghana and England; mixed-race, transnational and gay—and it makes sense that he would have a great deal to contribute. But there is something unsatisfying about the book too. Having problematized all of our labels, Appiah is indecisive about whether they should continue to bind us or not ... We are fixed in our identities, yet Appiah says we should not be fixed. There is barely a word in his book I don’t agree with, but I wish they added up to something more solid.
...a thoughtful study ... Appiah is an excellent person to explore why notions of identity matter so much today ... But if you are going to read only one book on identity this year, Appiah’s is the one. Not just for the vivid autobiographical details ... And not just for his lovely images ... I liked his analysis of cultural appropriation ... I love that remark as a rebuke to the prevailing ethos of constructing our identities by climbing over each other’s faces. Even if Appiah’s suggested goal might be unattainable, the work he proposes that we do towards it would be noble.
Appiah—who could variously be described as biracial, Ghanaian British, an Asante, a Londoner, and a gay cis man—is perfectly positioned to explore the various meanings and missteps involved in charting human identity ... Perhaps the most startling of Appiah’s claims is that cultural differences are a response to the need for a distinguishing identity. Herein lies the paradox of cultural identity: the human need to belong will always require an outsider group to reject.
...an impeccably argued challenge to all manner of calcified identities, including the illusory notion of 'Western' civilization ... 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 ... 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 ... A well-informed philosophical investigation.
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.