Cosmopolitanism: Provincializing a Eurocentric Concept & Bringing Norms Back

‘But today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means.’

Theresa May’s anti-cosmopolitan statement in defence of Brexit in October 2016 stands in stark contrast to one of her great predecessor’s declaration, Winston Churchill, who in May 1948 pronounced in Amsterdam: ‘We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as belonging to their native land, and that without losing any part of their love and loyalty to their birthplace. We hope wherever they go in this wide domain, to which we set no limits in the European continent, they will truly feel “Here I am at home. I am a citizen of this country too”.’

May’s attack on world citizenship rejects Enlightenment values going back to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who propagated the ideal as a means to achieve peace and famously propagated hospitality as a right of world citizenship. As Jeremy Adler pointed out in the Guardian the pejorative sense of cosmopolitanism adopted by the Prime Minister echoes the stigmatizing accusation of rootlessness that marked German, and later Soviet, anti-semitic discourse. In the 19th century the ‘rootless Jew’ was seen as a ‘cosmopolitan’ citizen from ‘nowhere’.

This is now a xenophobic PM and former Home Secretary placing herself in a long tradition of scapegoating citizens of her own country and in extension ‘foreigners’ to achieve political ends. Churchill had been no less political when propagating a form of belonging beyond the nation state. He spoke after the experience of the 1930s and the Second World War, when millions had been deprived of their citizenship, displaced and exploited, and with the European continent awash with stateless and refugees. His embracing Europe was also, of course, an instrument of the beginning Cold War.

What unites May and Churchill  is that they are both writing in times of crisis, real or perceived. Apparently, crises serve as a forceful trigger for debates on cosmopolitanism and belonging. This is as true for political discourse as for academic reasoning about belonging, the embrace of difference and about the limits of the community to which responsibilities pertain and rights are granted. Indeed, cosmopolitanism is a phenomenon full of ideals, values, and norm setting and at the same time a practice of recognising equality in difference and welcoming others. In scholarship, it also links the analysis of behaviour and political intervention through research aiming for a better world. Better worlds (“Bessere Welten”) is the title of a recent publication focusing on cosmopolitanism in historical scholarship.

In their introduction the editors Bernhard Gissibl and Isabella Löhr point out that cosmopolitanism became fashionable in the social sciences after 1989/90. The end of the Cold War and the resulting transformation, repercussions, and insecurities challenged thinking about a just world order and triggered a renaissance of cosmopolitanism. Yet, this was a “new cosmopolitanism” that marked a radical departure from the “old”, Enlightenment cosmopolitanism in essentially four ways. First, cosmopolitanism is no longer understood as a utopian project to be realised in the far distant future, but as a practice taking place in the past and present; second, it is conceptualized not as universal but as always situated and contextualized, constantly negotiating the particular and the universal; third, its erstwhile elitism is rejected in favour of vernacular and postcolonial understandings of the term and the practices it denotes. Finally, debates about the “new cosmopolitanism” transcend the long European intellectual pedigree of the term. They extend beyond Western intellectuals to include postcolonial perspectives and a plurality of voices.

This new cosmopolitanism has spawned lively debates among political theorists, in political philosophy, sociology and anthropology as well as in media and communication studies. While many disciplines announced a “moral” or “cosmopolitan turn”, historians, with few exceptions, remained surprisingly disengaged and hardly took note of the ideas in neighbouring disciplines. This is the more surprising because the rise of global history, intercultural transfers, and transnational and -cultural entanglements constituted a research agenda that was cosmopolitan in everything but the name. However, the discipline has not embraced the analytical potential of cosmopolitanism and the cosmopolitical for the study of interpersonal interactions across time, space and, essentially, political as well as cultural borders.

It is this conceptual lacuna in historical scholarship that Bessere Welten addresses. The contributions explore the heuristic value of cosmopolitanism as an intellectual and scholarly term. They do not merely follow the fad but test its conceptual purchase empirically in various fields. The volume is organized into four sections that analyze cosmopolitanism as a mechanism marked by inclusion and exclusion (1), as a normatively charged attitude towards difference (2), cosmopolitanism’s relationship with mobilities (3), and cosmopolitanism as a constellation of governance (4).

The range of topics covered under these rubrics are broad. Contributions discuss the cosmopolitical in the context of female Catholic missions (Katharina Stornig) or the transcontinental humanitarian activities of the Aga Khan Development Network (Soumen Mukherjee); they look at the organized inequality of governance structures within the Ottoman Empire (Nora Lafi), and they question the applicability of cosmopolitanism as an analytical tool within Jewish studies (Mirjam Thulin), considering the fatal and ultimately lethal use of the term to stigmatize Jews in darkest Europe up to the 1950s. Other contributions explicitly probe the concept’s applicability to Non-Western contexts, e.g. by critically evaluating the “colored cosmopolitanism” behind the making of the Bandung Conference in 1955 (Jürgen Dinkel), or by analyzing the agency and worldview of late 19th century Duala traders at the West African littoral (Stefanie Michels). In doing so, the volume itself actively contributes to decolonial understandings of the concept beyond its European intellectual baggage.

Providing historically informed perspectives on engagements with diversity, difference and “the Other”, the volume pleads for a critical and reflective use of the term as an analytical tool. The contributions show empirically, that meanings, reach and concrete form of cosmopolitanisms are always situated in specific temporal and spatial contexts. Thus, cosmopolitanism can add to the analytical toolbox of global history by enabling historians to address engagements with difference and the tensions between difference and equality beyond their spatial dimensions. Global history’s emphasis on the spatial is complemented with a perspective that is sensitive to social interactions and the universal, or rather pluriversal, contexts and references that inform them. This cosmopolitan historiography is, thus, interested in moral rather than spatial universalisms, and it analyses “humanity” in concrete interpersonal relations and the challenging presence of the Other.

In a core chapter of the volume, historian Miriam Rürup deals with the flurry of cosmopolitan concepts and projects spawned by the need to regulate statelessness in the decade after the Second World War. As often, a postwar period served as a hotbed for cosmopolitan thinking and the chapter addresses one of the strongest facets of cosmopolitanism, i.e. the claim to extend rights and obligations beyond the confines of the nation-state and the tensions that arise from the clash between particularistic and universal conceptions of rights.

It was in this context that Hannah Arendt published, in December 1949, her famous essay in which she boils down all the contemporary enthusiasm about universal human rights to the claim that there is, essentially, only one human right – the “right to have rights” at all (cf. Seyla Benhabib on “Hanna Arendt and The Right to have rights“). Digesting her own experience as a stateless refugee, Arendt emphasised the importance of belonging to a framework that acknowledges the individual as a bearer of rights. Rürup shows how this claim informed today’s cosmopolitanist thinking, most prominently in the work of Seyla Benhabib, and she emphasizes the ambivalence of Arendt’s argument which, despite all sympathies for more universal arrangements, makes a pragmatic plea for the nation-state as the best available framework for belonging as entitlement to individual rights.

So here we have, in 1949, an erstwhile citizen of nowhere with a very clear understanding of what citizenship means. The contrast between May and Arendt reveals that cosmopolitanism is not a utopia but an option, also within national frameworks. On the one hand, we have citizenship as a form of belonging bestowed at populist governmental whim. On the other, there is citizenship as an entitlement to which individuals have a rightful claim in a mobile and entangled world. The fact that, in 2017, some European governments seriously opt for the former shows that more scholarship into cosmopolitanisms past and present is required – and that scholars should bring their insights into public debate.

Cite this blog post
Johannes Paulmann (2017, April 25). Cosmopolitanism: Provincializing a Eurocentric Concept & Bringing Norms Back. Europe Across Borders. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from

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