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The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

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From the best-selling author of Cosmopolitanism comes this revealing exploration of how the collective identities that shape our polarized world are riddled with contradiction. 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 From the best-selling author of Cosmopolitanism comes this revealing exploration of how the collective identities that shape our polarized world are riddled with contradiction. 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 assumptions 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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From the best-selling author of Cosmopolitanism comes this revealing exploration of how the collective identities that shape our polarized world are riddled with contradiction. 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 From the best-selling author of Cosmopolitanism comes this revealing exploration of how the collective identities that shape our polarized world are riddled with contradiction. 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 assumptions 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.

30 review for The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

  1. 5 out of 5

    Robin Friedman

    A Nightmare A Body's Got To Live With In The Daytime Robert Coover's, recent novel "Huck out West" carries the story of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and related characters through the Civil War to 1876. The story is told in Huck's voice with many observations, some cutting but some insightful. Among the latter sort, Huck says in this book discussing what contemporary readers would recognize as the concept of identity: "Tribes"... They're a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin y A Nightmare A Body's Got To Live With In The Daytime Robert Coover's, recent novel "Huck out West" carries the story of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and related characters through the Civil War to 1876. The story is told in Huck's voice with many observations, some cutting but some insightful. Among the latter sort, Huck says in this book discussing what contemporary readers would recognize as the concept of identity: "Tribes"... They're a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can't get away from them. They're a nightmare a body's got to live with in the daytime." ("Huck out West", p. 215) I was reminded of Huck's pithy observation in reading philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's thoughtful and learned book, "The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity" (2018) which is based on lectures he delivered for the BBC in 2016 titled "Mistaken Identities". Huck's statement could almost serve as a theme for Appiah. Appiah recognizes the importance of identity to individuals in terms of growth and self-understanding. Individuals are born into groups and we rely on one another in particularized surroundings to meet needs. Still, identities can turn into nightmares of rigidity in thinking of oneself and one's own group or "tribe" and in separating oneself and one's group from others, sometimes demonizing them. Some philosophies and religions are skeptical of concepts of personal identity and would try to do away with them, but that is not Appiah's way. Instead, Appiah tries to loosen but not eliminate ties of identity and to reformulate the understanding of identity in several critical areas of life where identity thinking is at its highest. Broadly, Appiah encourages the reader to eliminate views of essentialism and fixity in understanding one's identity commitments in favor of a more fluid view that recognizes change in what otherwise might seem as a fixed identity and continuity rather than otherness between oneself and others. The approach is broadly cosmopolitan. At the end of the book, Appiah quotes from the dramatist Terrence: "nothing human is foreign to me". Showing a commendable openness, Appiah says the aim of his book is to "start conversations, not to end them". More importantly, he tells the reader that "philosophers contribute to public discussions of moral and political life, I believe, not by telling you what to think but by providing an assortment of concepts and theories you can use to decide what to think for yourself. I will make lots of claims; but however forceful my language, remember always that they are offered up for your consideration, in the light of your own knowledge and experience." The book opens with a chapter discussing among other things the nature of labeling and essentialism in human identity formation. The chapters which follow discuss and try to modify understandings of identity in five broad areas: religion/creed, country, color, class, and culture, each of which is a sensitive subject for many people. Appiah tries to show problems in common essentialist understanding of identity in each area and often ties these problems into various developments in thought in the 19th century which have outlived their usefulness. Although not receiving a chapter of its own, Appiah discusses throughout perhaps an even more pervasive identity concept: the nature of gender and of one's sexuality.Although Appiah stresses what he sees as mistakes in understanding gender and in maleness and femaleness, I found this the weakest portion of the book and less convincing than the discussions in the remaining five chapters. For me, the most persuasive and important identity discussed in the book was creed and religion. Appiah does not try to persuade his readers for or against religion or a particular religion. Rather he points out insightfully and well that people tend to overestimate the importance of belief and creed to religion. He finds that religion is more a shared, changing practice of a group over time even when this shared practice facially involves elements of a creed, such as the recital of articles of faith. Appiah suggests how understandings may change while practices remain shared. He wants to discourage a heavy investment of personal commitment to creedal content and to a fixed separation of oneself from others. The discussions of the remaining four identity components, country, color, class, culture, also are important and worthwhile, although the section on religion had the most to say to me. The book proceeds in various ways, and Appiah's writing is often passionate, personal, and beautiful. The book offers argument and various forms of analysis, but it is more effective on a personal level and in its use of the work of other writers. Appiah uses many details from his own life, as the child of a British mother with ties to peerage and a father from Ghana with ties to Ghana's elite and to Ghana's winning of its independence. His own life shows the nature of loosening but not eliminating ties of identity in favor of a breadth of human understanding, where possible. The book is perhaps even more impressive in the range of learning Appiah shows and the use he makes of the lives and work of others. Appiah calls many other writers and books as witness to his development of a fluid concept of identity, including, for example W.E.B. DuBois, Matthew Arnold, Cavafy, Sir Edward Burnet Tylor, and Philo. He discusses at length Anton Wilhem, a distinguished philosopher and the first African to earn a PhD in philosophy from a European university. But the figure who appears closest to Appiah's heart in this book is the novelist Italio Svevo (Aron Ettore Schmitz) whose novel "Zeno's Conscience" is a modernistic classic. With a background in both Judaism and Christianity and ties to many nationalities, Svevo developed a cosmopolitanism and an openness to shared identity that appears to be a model for Appiah's own. In one of several passages discussing Svevo and "Zeno's Conscience", Appiah writes: "Although he once referred to Trieste as a crogiolo assimilatore -- an assimilating crucible, or melting pot -- Svevo knew how much remained unmelted. His Zeno is, above all, a walker in the city, a boulevardier and rambler, moving from one neighborhood to another. He is also a man always struggling with his own irresolution, always smoking his 'last cigarette', always betraying his ideals, and forever scrutinizing his own prejudices and preferences like a quizzical ethnographer. He wants to confront uncomfortable truths -- to side with reality, however much it stings." (p86) Appiah clearly writes from the more liberal end of the political spectrum, but enjoying and learning from this book does not involve a commitment to a political creed. Appiah has written a provocative, thoughtful account of the nature of identity and of hot-button issues in identity that helped me and may help others with this treacherous subject. Perhaps, with modification, loosening, and thought, identity does not have to be the "nightmare a body's got to live with in the daytime" that Huck found it to be in Coover's novel. Robin Friedman

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    The author is a Ghanian/ British philosopher who has spent most of his career in the US. He gets a little academic at times, but does a brilliant job of dissecting and debunking ideas of identity around "creed, country, color, class and culture," showing how too much of our thinking about those things are left over from bad 19th century ideologies. He doesn't think we can get rid of identity in the sense of social groups, but "the problem is not walls as such but walls that hedge us in; walls we The author is a Ghanian/ British philosopher who has spent most of his career in the US. He gets a little academic at times, but does a brilliant job of dissecting and debunking ideas of identity around "creed, country, color, class and culture," showing how too much of our thinking about those things are left over from bad 19th century ideologies. He doesn't think we can get rid of identity in the sense of social groups, but "the problem is not walls as such but walls that hedge us in; walls we played no part in designing…walls that block our vision and obstruct our way." Rather than use our identities to separate ourselves, we can use them to define our own freedoms and connect ourselves with the larger world. If "identity politics" and the fragmentation and polarization of the world trouble you, this is worth picking up.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jackie Law

    Divided into five main sections – creed, country, colour, class and culture – The Lies That Bind is a philosophical exploration of what is meant by identity in our contemporary world. To better understand how fluid any definition will inevitably be it is necessary to delve into history, and to consider how people choose to interpret different aspects of their inherited place, upbringing and potential. The author argues that: “labels belong to communities; they are a social possession. And moralit Divided into five main sections – creed, country, colour, class and culture – The Lies That Bind is a philosophical exploration of what is meant by identity in our contemporary world. To better understand how fluid any definition will inevitably be it is necessary to delve into history, and to consider how people choose to interpret different aspects of their inherited place, upbringing and potential. The author argues that: “labels belong to communities; they are a social possession. And morality and political prudence require us to try to make them work for us all.” “As a rule, people do not live in monocultural, monoreligious, monolingual nation-states, and they never have.” The book opens with a brief introduction followed by a section on classification. This lays the groundwork for all that is subsequently discussed. “Identities […] can be said to have both a subjective dimension and an objective one: an identity cannot simply be imposed upon me, willy nilly, but neither is an identity simply up to me, a contrivance that I can shape however I please.” The author writes of clannish tendencies and habits, of how children have manners drilled into them that enable them to fit in with their home society. The way they walk, talk and dress offers acceptance and safety. ‘Others’ may be regarded as threatening and suffer suppression. “In many places in the world one ethnic or racial group regards its members as superior to others, and assumes the right to better treatment.” What though is an identity? The section on creed discusses how the major religions developed, how their holy books were created, and how interpretation of texts changes over time. Like everything else that is important in human life they evolve. Fundamentalists defend practices they favour and try to force them on others. “Heretics aren’t killed because they differ in arcane theological details; they’re killed because they reject, and threaten, the authority of their theocratic rulers.” Religion, it is argued, is not so much about belief but rather practice and fellowship. It is a verb more than a noun. If identity requires acceptance and a feeling of belonging, the section on country challenges what this could mean in terms of place. It explores how borders change over time and how citizens travel and settle elsewhere. A country of birth may cease to exist due to mergers and divisions. The language used to educate may then be changed alienating the next generation. Colour also presents challenges of classification as so many, including the author, have forebears from multiple lands. Birthplace or family ties offer little in the way of answers to certain prejudices. The discussion on class is also complex encompassing as it does financial, social and cultural capital. Education may offer a chance of mobility but resentments can fester when success is perceived as unearned. “It is no accomplishment to have been born on the finish line.” Appiah enjoyed a privileged upbringing with influential contacts in Britain and Ghana. Although recognising the advantages to wider society of a meritocracy, of fairness of opportunity, there is recognition of the difficulties in achieving this ideal. “being able to give money to your children incentivises a parent” Wealth acts as a gatekeeper to elite education and the opening of doors to certain respected careers. The final section, on culture, explores what differing groups and individuals regard as of value and influence, and how sections of society try to claim ownership. “we should resist using the term ‘cultural appropriation’ as an indictment. All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture.” Appiah accepts that intellectuals have a tendency to suppose that the things they care about are the most important things. In talking of Western culture he argues that the division is not so much between nations as between Christianity and Islam. Despite the historic conflicts involving the two religions, there has been more sharing of knowledge and ideas over the centuries than may be credited. The traits men use to distinguish themselves from others are shown to be self-serving and often contradictory. Identity offers the benefit of belonging, but with who can be difficult to define or agree. Appiah’s arguments are cogent – conversation starters rather than prescriptive. Despite the complexities of the subjects pondered, this is a digestible read. “I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

  4. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Liked this book so much! Reminded me of his Cosmopolitanism book. Very good discussions of things like race, nationality, sex but I most of all liked his treatment of religions and cultures.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mythili

    Reads like a series of undergrad lectures. I generally agree with him and enjoyed the board range of references he drew from but didn’t feel challenged or pushed or particularly surprised by anything in this book (and sometimes felt he oversold his argument). I would be very interested to read more about the life of Anton Wilhelm Amo Afer, though.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jo

    I enjoyed this book. It was broad ranging and 'introductory' in nature - if you have specialised experience of some of the particular areas then it wouldn't take you into new territory - but the whole thing was joyfully disruptive, and I found some areas of Appiah's discussion rather helpful in clarifying my own 'broad brush' thoughts. Especially around class and culture: the questioning of any and all kinds of essentialism that undermine the overlapping complexity of our messy human realities. I enjoyed this book. It was broad ranging and 'introductory' in nature - if you have specialised experience of some of the particular areas then it wouldn't take you into new territory - but the whole thing was joyfully disruptive, and I found some areas of Appiah's discussion rather helpful in clarifying my own 'broad brush' thoughts. Especially around class and culture: the questioning of any and all kinds of essentialism that undermine the overlapping complexity of our messy human realities. Also questions about whether cultural products should ever be conceptualised as Intellectual Property, as if everything human can be fixed, owned, and have a price. I particularly enjoyed what Appiah's own multiple identities brought to the table, the naturalness with which he drew from and brought together sources and resources from across the world, which enabled familiar points to be made in less familiar ways and to push outwards the edges of my thoughts. Thank you!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    When I read Cosmopolitanism, it was exactly what I needed; finally somebody was making sense, finally someone with global morals. Here, Appiah comes very close to Cosmopolitanism (which I consider his best statement, and which I’ve loaned to friends and raved about). However, The Lies that Bind covers a LOT of ground, and I found some strawmen in his arguments and is dismissive of European enlightenment & reformation cultural innovations in a way that would have Will and Ariel Durant, or Ken When I read Cosmopolitanism, it was exactly what I needed; finally somebody was making sense, finally someone with global morals. Here, Appiah comes very close to Cosmopolitanism (which I consider his best statement, and which I’ve loaned to friends and raved about). However, The Lies that Bind covers a LOT of ground, and I found some strawmen in his arguments and is dismissive of European enlightenment & reformation cultural innovations in a way that would have Will and Ariel Durant, or Kenneth Clark, rolling in their graves. However, he concludes his argument so strongly that I can’t help giving it top marks. Appiah’s remarks on identify are what we need right now, lest we fall into endless tribal identify wars that will endlessly and pointlessly divide us.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Robert Stevenson

    The book starts off with a decent beginning about how identity as a word evolved out of Erik Erikson sociological research in the 1960’s and then it adds nothing. After the intro, the book quickly descends into a confusing epistemological labyrinth of religious interpretation, broad historical summary and gross generalizations. I could not finish it, even after three or four tries and I found myself wondering why Zadie Smith endorsed the book. Glad it was public library book and I didn’t waste mo The book starts off with a decent beginning about how identity as a word evolved out of Erik Erikson sociological research in the 1960’s and then it adds nothing. After the intro, the book quickly descends into a confusing epistemological labyrinth of religious interpretation, broad historical summary and gross generalizations. I could not finish it, even after three or four tries and I found myself wondering why Zadie Smith endorsed the book. Glad it was public library book and I didn’t waste money on it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Salvatore

    A good primer on the subject. Identities are necessary to growth, to self-awareness, to challenge. And yet identities/groups/sub-groups don't explain the nuances. It's a delicate balance, a continuous push and pull of which we really need to be consistently aware. Appiah has some good examples, especially when it comes to class (the race and country chapters also dive deeper). But on the whole this is more of an introduction than a thorough investigation.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    One of the better philosophy books I've read in awhile. It's well written and easy to comprehend (which says something for the philosophy genre) and the ideas are interesting and thought provoking. I wish I had more than three weeks to think about the ideas and research some of the references (perhaps I need my own copy...).

  11. 4 out of 5

    Victor Negut

    Nothing groundbreaking but the usual excellence that I have come to expected from Kwame Anthony Appiah. For anyone who is not familiar with his work I highly recommend reading his books or articles. He is one of the rare voices of reason on many topic which others seem to lack sense on.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Fredin

    Very good. Most identities are vague at best. One should reflect the identities one claims.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Nino Vallen

  14. 4 out of 5

    Andy Mast

  15. 5 out of 5

    Peter

  16. 4 out of 5

    Yuki Miyagiwa

  17. 5 out of 5

    Robert

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lorenzo Kebede

  19. 5 out of 5

    Paul Retkwa

  20. 5 out of 5

    Pat Norman

  21. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

  22. 5 out of 5

    Robin Friedman

  23. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  24. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Collins

  25. 5 out of 5

    Samantha Snavely

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Dyson

  27. 5 out of 5

    Leigh Jackson

  28. 4 out of 5

    Abu Daud Khan

  29. 5 out of 5

    David

  30. 5 out of 5

    Eivind

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