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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Princeton Prof. Appiah accepts Gittler prize

Published: October 31, 2008
Section: News

In front of a full crowd in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall, Brandeis celebrated the inaugural ceremony for the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize on Monday with a speech from its first recipient Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah.

The $25,000 prize awards “outstanding and lasting scholarly contributions to racial, ethnic and/or religious relations,” according to the prize’s website.

Appiah, who currently holds the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professorship of Philosophy in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, has made contributions in his field through scholarly books, three novels, an annotated collection of proverbs from Ashanti, Ghana, and essays, poems, and reviews.

In an interview with The Hoot, Appiah said it would be, “an understatement” to describe his surprise in receiving the award.

He added, “if I hadn’t gotten it then I probably would have been interested once it was announced because it’s about things I care about and I’m interested in…I was very surprised and of course delighted and honored.”

Appiah acknowledged his connection to the values of Professor Gittler, a sociologist who taught, among other places, at Duke, the University of Rochester, Yeshiva, Ben-Gurion in Israel, and Hiroshima in Japan.

“As I understand it [Prof. Gittler] believed as I do that there’s an important place for universities in the world of social justice, and in particular for a scholarship in trying to advance social justice, trying to understand the problems that the world faces, the sources of division in the world,” he said.

President Reinharz introduced Appiah at the award ceremony calling the prize “a source of inspiration and encouragement for scholars at home and abroad.”

Reinharz told the story of a call he received from Gittler 12 years ago to ask if Brandeis, a university with which he was not associated, would award this prize.

Appiah noted, “Brandeis should be pleased and proud really that someone who wasn’t a Brandeis alum and who wasn’t a teacher at Brandeis picked this university of all universities because he thought of it as a place that was particularly committed to the connection between scholarly work and teaching, and the pursuit of social justice.”

Appiah began his address by first thanking Brandeis and the award committee and remarking that he was “particularly glad” the award is not just named in honor of Gittler but also his mother Toby, because of the impact of his mother on his childhood.

“Like most people, I owe a lot to both my parents, but my mother was the person who really gave us our moral education,” Appiah told The Hoot. “I feel very much shaped by my mother.”

Appiah then focused on his idea of “cosmopolitanism,” the same idea that titles his latest book – Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.

Appiah spoke about cosmopolitanism as a “stoic philosophical ideal…of the openness to others that I learned from my home family, an ideal…that can help guide the human community.”

Three of the fundamental thoughts that form Appiah’s definition of cosmopolitanism come from the Greek philosopher Diogones, who lived 24 centuries ago.

The first idea is, “we do not need a single global government,” second, “we should care about the fate of all our fellow human beings, not just those in our own political community,” and third, “we can take good ideas from all over the world, not just from our own society.”

The ceremony particularly attracted students from the Heller School’s Sustainable International Development program. Prof. Maria Green brought her Rights-Based Approaches to Development class to the speech instead of giving an exam that was assigned for Monday.

Youness Tihm, a student in Prof. Green’s course, said he enjoyed the talk and expressed a keen interest in Professor’s Appiah’s “philosophy to how people should interact.”

Musue Haddad, also a SID student, remarked that it was “very wonderful hearing the initiation of a new idea of cosmopolitanism and coming face to face with [Appiah].”