On Nussbaum, cosmopolitanism and patriotism (and nationalism)

Martha C. Nussbaum, professor at University of Chicago Law School, published in 1994 an article praising a “cosmopolitan stoic education” over a “national education” that started debates in the English speaking world about cosmopolitanism. The article is a reaction against Richard Rorty and Sheldon Hackney, and is therefore answering an internal Northern American debate. Published in 1994, it set the beginning of contemporary cosmopolitan theory. It opposes cosmopolitanism as an opening towards the world to patriotism as an inward and egoist feeling. Instead, it suggests stoicism as an inspiration in educating America citizens. Since the mid nineties cosmopolitan theory evolved, notably by moving away from stoic references to reason – as interpreted by the Enlightenment – to Habermas’ turn to communication. The reason for doing so is that reason is decided inside a particular discourse – making it a hegemonic discourse –, whereas communication is based on discussing inside the discourse from many other. Moreover, since then, the opposition between cosmopolitanism on the one side, and patriotism and nationalism on the other, has been criticised.

Nussbaum’s line of argument:

“I believe… that this emphasis on patriotic pride is both morally dangerous and, ultimately, subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve — for example, the goal of national unity in devotion to worthy moral ideals of justice and equality. These goals, I shall argue, would be better served by an ideal that is in any case more adequate to our situation in the contemporary world, namely the very old ideal of the cosmopolitan, the person whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world.”

Some nationalists have engaged in a conversation about nationalism. A commitment to human rights for instance should be part of the education of citizens.

“But is it sufficient? As students here grow up, is it sufficient for them to learn that they are above all citizens of the United States, but that they ought to respect the basic human rights of citizens of India, Bolivia, Nigeria, and Norway? Or should they, as I think — in addition to giving special attention to the history and current situation of their own nation — learn a good deal more than is frequently the case about the rest of the world in which they live, about India and Bolivia and Nigeria and Norway and their histories, problems, and comparative successes?”

alexander_visits_diogenes_at_corinth_by_w_matthews_1914Diogenes cynic “citizen of the world,” defining oneself in more universal terms. Developed by Stoics: we have two communities, the local community of our birth, and the community of human argument and aspiration. One is born by accident in one nation. We should regard all humans as our fellow citizens and neighbours. Therefore we should not erect barriers between one another but recognise humanity everywhere.

Good civic education is education for world citizenship.

Stoics stress that one does not need to give up local identity, rather one should see our affiliations in terms of concentric circles: family, neighbours, countrymen, humanity. We should devote special attention to these close ties, the circle should revolve towards the centre. But we should not exclude the dialogue with the exterior, and devote attention and respect to others.

“I shall now return to the present day and offer four arguments for making world citizenship, rather than democratic/national citizenship, education’s central focus. (The first two are modern versions of my first two Stoic arguments; the third develops one part of my Stoic argument about intrinsic moral value; the fourth is more local, directed at the pro-patriotism arguments I am criticizing.)”:

1. “Through cosmopolitan education, we learn more about ourselves. One of the greatest barriers to rational deliberation in politics is the unexamined feeling that one’s own current preferences and ways are neutral and natural…. By looking at ourselves in the lens of the other, we come to see what in our practices is local and non-necessary, what more broadly or deeply shared.”

2. Our problems are global, such as pollution for instance. Dividing the world into nations is part of the problem in international cooperation.

3. “We recognize moral obligations to the rest of the world that are real, and that otherwise would go unrecognized.” à global justice.

“If we really do believe that all human beings are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, we are morally required to think about what that conception requires us to do with and for the rest of the world. Once again, that does not mean that one may not permissibly give one’s own sphere a special degree of concern.” One has more attention to one’s children.

4. “On the one hand Rorty and Hackney seem to argue well when they insist on the centrality to democratic deliberation of certain values that bind all citizens together. But why should these values, which instruct us to join hands across boundaries of ethnicity and class and gender and race, lose steam when they get to the borders of the nation? By conceding that a morally arbitrary boundary such as the boundary of the nation has a deep and formative role in our deliberations, we seem to be depriving ourselves of any principled way of arguing to citizens that they should in fact join hands across these other barriers.”

Some same groups exist both outside and inside: is a Chinese Chinese in China, and American the minute he crosses the US border?

The defence of national shared values should also transcend borders. Respect should be accorded to humanity and not end at the border to only US citizen.

Being a citizen of the world is a lonely business: like Diogenes, it is going against the comfort of patriotism.

“If one begins life as a child who loves and trusts its parents, it is tempting to want to reconstruct citizenship along the same lines, finding in an idealized image of a nation a surrogate parent who will do one’s thinking for one. Cosmopolitanism offers no such refuge; it offers only reason and the love of humanity, which may seem at times less colorful than other sources of belonging.”

tagore3Rabindranath Tagore is cited as an example with his novel The Home and the World, in which the hero declares: “I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.” Tagore created a cosmopolitan university in India to promote the ideals of the cosmopolitan community of Santiniketan against ethno-centric forces of Hindu nationalism.


First, what kind of stoicism is this? Whose stoicism? Isn’t it a certain period’s interpretation of stoicism? My argument is this: cosmopolitanism as we know it today is the product of nineteenth century nationalism. As such it is a “national-cosmopolitanism.” In this cosmopolitanism, it is opposed to patriotism and nationalism as the local. In this sense, the debate cosmopolitanism vs. patriotism and/or nationalism is a debate inside the paradigm of the nation-state. There is a need to formulate a debate beyond this paradigm, which necessitates a meticulous analysis of “Western” intellectual history, first, and, second, a wide communication with the rest of the world.

Second, and related to the first point, does cosmopolitanism need to be solely the philosophy of those who travel? And does it need to be the philosophy of values “transcending” “negative” ideas of patriotism and nationalism? Other authors – e.g. Kymlicka, Tan – argue that cosmopolitanism and nationalism are not so foreign because they both stem from liberalism.

In my master’s thesis I have shown that indeed during eighteenth century French political thought, the concepts of “patrie” and “nation” were formulated in cosmopolitan terms, from the discourse of natural law, and a questioning of the rational sovereign for free and equal humankind.

However, even if slightly dated, Nussbaum’s article has the merit to have started a whole range of debates and discussion on cosmopolitanism, questioning what it is, what its relation to nationalism is, and how to formulate a genuinely global cosmopolitanism that would not be set in a located discourse.

The debates between cosmopolitans and patriots appears to be the one produced by a forgotten history – a product of nineteenth century’s building of nationalism as rejecting everything foreign on the one side, on an eighteenth conception of the “cosmopolitan” as a perpetual globe-trotter. This is precisely why a history of cosmopolitanism in political thought is needed: to delineate clearly the battles between discourses or inside discourses, the Ursprung of concepts, objects and theories such as “nation,” “patrie,” and “cosmopolitan.” This is my research project.


Works cited:

Habermas, Jürgen (1979 [1976]) Communication and the Evolution of Society. Beacon Press.

(1984, 1987) The Theory of Communicative Action. 2 vols. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Cambridge: Polity.

Kymlicka, Will (2001) “From Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism to Liberal Nationalism.” In Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship, by Will Kymlicka, 203-221(19). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1994) “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.” Boston Review 19(5).

Rorty, Richard (1994) “The Unpatriotic Academy.” The New York Times, 13 February 1994.

Tagore, Rabindranath (2005 [1915]) The Home and the World. London: Penguin Classics.

Tan, Kok-Chor (2005) “The Demands of Justice and National Allegiances.” In The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism, edited by Gillian Brock and Harry Brighouse, 164-179. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

About Frank Ejby Poulsen, Ph.D.

Education: PhD History, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. MSc Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. LLB/LLM International law and EU law, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. Academia Profile: http://eui.academia.edu/FrankEjbyPoulsen Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Frank_Poulsen Languages: French: Mother tongue Danish: C2 English: C2 Italian: C1 German: B2-C1 Spanish: A2-B1 Norwegian and Swedish: reading comprehension Latin
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