Towards a Cosmopolitan Common Ground (March 2013)





Guest lecturer: Ken Plummer (plumk@essex)



Politics rests on the fact of human plurality … Hannah Arendt
What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another…
William  James
Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction Mikhail Bakhtin


You can find some of these ideas developed on Ken’s Web site at:

In particular look at the Manifesto for Critical Humanism in Sociology at:

This is also to be published in the Spring in   Daniel Nehring ed: Sociology: A Text and Reader (Pearson, 2013).



The start of the twenty first century is a time when social worlds and social theory have become massively fragmented and when multiple standpoints have emerged more clearly than before (though they have always existed). At the forefront have been the claims of postmodern social theory, and a host of new ‘isms’- including multiculturalism, feminism, anti- racism theory, post colonial theory, queer theory and disability( crip) theory –all of which suggest that classical theory should be held in radical doubt. Indeed, nowadays social theory cannot be of much value in understanding the twenty first hi tech late, global capitalist world if it ignores these developments -even if there are major schisms and disagreements about it. So how, if at all, can these tensionful positions be brought together or allowed to co-exist? Should they? How can we develop dialogues across these positions?


This lecture will look at some of these major emergent standpoints which cannot now be ignored by a social theory characterised by multiplicities and plurality.  Conflicts and tensions are now everywhere and mainstream social theory has not always been very helpful in handling them. We will briefly look at the vast array of conflicts present in the ‘post-modern/ late-modern /capitalist’ world (choose your own favourite conflicts! they are everywhere to be found), and look at a few of the ‘foundational’ papers that have set these conflicts out. From this, we will consider the pathways out of this neglect through various possible key terminologies – narratives, flows, … and various common grounds including:

‘capabilities’, ‘narratives’, ‘dialogues’, ‘flows‘ ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘human rights’.


The Problems of Differences


Now the blindness in human beings … is the blindness with which we are all inflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves. We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his (sic) own duties and the significance of the situations that these call forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of their lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to deal in an absolute way on the value of other person’s conditions or ideals…What is the result of all these considerations…?  It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly happy and interested in their own ways, however unintelligible they may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he (sic) stands… William James, On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings

What is Cosmopolitanism?

For the Ghanian-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of Strangers ( 2006)) it is a ‘universal concern and respect for legitimate difference’ (Appiah,2006:xv). For the Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (in Ulf Hannerz   Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places.( 1996)  it is ‘a mode of managing meaning’ ‘ a willingness to engage with the other’. ‘It entails an intellectual and aesthetic openness toward divergent cultural experiences, a search for contrasts rather than uniformity. ……(It is) a state of readiness: an ability to make one’s way into other cultures, through listening, looking, intuiting and reflecting (Hannerz: 1996: p103). For the German sociologist Ulrich Beck (who is at the forefront of sociological writers in this field) we have arrived at the ‘cosmopolitan moment’ as an emergent and  distinctive feature of modernity: ‘the human condition has itself become cosmopolitan’. We live with the ideas that ‘local, national, ethnic, religious and cosmopolitan cultures and traditions interpenetrate, interconnect and intermingle – cosmopolitanism without provincialism is empty, provincialism without cosmopolitanism is blind’ (Beck Cosmopolitan Vision 2006:p7). For the British sociologist, Robert Fine, cosmopolitanism is bound up deeply with international law and human rights. Indeed, cosmopolitanism is both ‘a determinate social form’ which ‘reconfigures’ a whole sphere of (potentially contradictory) rights as well as being a ‘form of consciousness that involves an understanding of the concept of cosmopolitanism and a capacity to develop the concept in imaginative and reflexive’. He sees it as both outlook (a way of seeing the world)  and a condition ( an existing form of the world) (In Cosmopolitanism p 111, 134.)  Finally, for the influential US feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum, it raises the issue of a  ‘decent world culture’  and a world moral community:


 If our world is to be a decent world in the future, we must acknowledge right now that we are citizens of one interdependent world, held together by mutual fellowship as well as the pursuit of mutual advantage, by compassion as well as self interest, by a love of human dignity, in all people, even when there is nothing to gain from cooperating with them. Or rather even when we have to gain the biggest thing of all: participation in a just and morally decent world. Martha Nussbaum Frontiers of Justice 2006: p324











For a Normative Cosmopolitan Sociology: Some Provisional Working Principles of Common Grounds


  1. The principles of global empathy and dialogue: understanding how people make sense of others in their different social worlds. The human world cannot live with monologue alone but needs dialogue. Some key areas of action and discussion include the nature of the ‘other’, of hidden and silenced voices, of multiculturalism, of the importance of recognition, the sociology of tolerance, the norm of reciprocity, the rise of the Empathic Civilization, and the role of dialogic ethics and the development of Cosmopolitanism. Our values here lead us to want to foster the ability to live with our differences and help shape an Empathic, Cosmopolitan Society.


  1. The principles of global care and kindness: understanding the ways in which people look after each other – even love each other – in the world. The human world cannot really live with perpetual cruelty, violence, war and hatred. (Yet it surely and sadly does) Ultimately such negative values will lead to the nihilation of the human species. Some key areas for action and discussion here include the ethics of care, the rise of the compassionate temperament and the humanitarian society, the importance of love and kindness in human lives, and even the way we look after our environment. It wants to foster kindness for others over self-interest to help shape a Caring Society.


  1. The principles of global justice: understanding fairness and how equalities and inequalities shape human life. The human world cannot live with its raging poverty, brutality, competition and stark inequalities across economic, gendered and racialized groups– for these lead to mass damaged and wasted lives. Some key areas of action and discussion here will focus on how human freedoms are restricted by intersecting social divisions across class, gender, ethnicity, health, age, sexualities and nationhood; how we can bring about a society with more social justice, redistribution, equalities and freedom – for all, not just the elite few. It wants to foster economic redistribution and interpersonal equality and respect to help shape a Just Society.


  1. The principles of global rights and human dignity: understanding the rise and role of human rights debates and their significance in what it means to be a human being with human dignity. The human world cannot live by simply banishing huge swathes of people as worth nothing and condemning them to wasted lives. Some key areas for discussion here include the problem of human dignity and what it means, of modernity and universality of rights, the variety and differentiations of human rights (e.g civil, religious, intimate), international agencies for rights and social movements for rights. It wants to foster human rights and dignity helping to shape a truly ‘Human’ Society – with human rights and dignity for people.


  1. The principles of global flourishing lives for all: understanding human capabilities and the social conditions under which they can flourish. The human world cannot condemn so many people to lives that are ‘wretched’, ‘damaged’ and lacking in any kind of ‘quality’. Some key areas for action and discussion centre on what is meant by human well-being, ‘happiness’ ; what is  meant by the good life and the wasted life; what are human capabilities and potentials; and what might be a ‘virtuous’ life.  What are the good traits of humanity, which need to be cherished and valued, and what social conditions will bring this about?  It wants to take seriously what it would mean to have a good life for all and help shape a Flourishing Society.


  1. The principles of global amelioration and social hope: understanding the ways in which people have made better worlds in the past and how they can in the present and the future.  The human world cannot live in despair, pessimism, gloom and a sense of uselessness. It must not succumb to negativism and pessimism. It needs a sense of hope and working for a better world. Some key areas for action and discussion centre on the tools of amelioration and change, the  maps of utopias – past, present, real and imagined, and the problem of balancing optimism with pessimism into a realistic appraisal of future worlds. The principle of hope lead us to consider the idea of real utopias and the strategies to achieve them. It wants to help shape a Progressive Society.


  1. The principle of global pragmatism: understanding that the world does not work through grand abstract theories, philosophies and plans but through small scale, local, practical, contingent, contradictory, and endlessly pluralistic practical actions. The human world cannot live with grand designs, grand rulers and despots, or authoritarian systems of any kind which trample on the human. They simply do not work for the majority for the people who live ordinary everyday practical lives doing ordinary everyday practical actions. Some key areas for action and discussion are the significance of local grounded politics and research; the value of ethnography and documentary methods which bring us into closer contact with other realities and worlds; a move from abstractions to details. It wants to create a practical Grounded and Practical World – grounded in people’s every day lives.






Global Politics and
Global Ethics

Sociology Of Sufferings

Empathy: Understand others Politics of Recognition
Dialogic ethics
Interpretive Sociology
Multiculturalism and standpoint Representational Sociology
Relational Sociology
Narrative-Dialogic Sociology (Bakhtin
Invisible and Neglected
Justice: Be fair, treat people equally Politics of Redistribution
Justice ethics
Intersectionality and standpoints
Real Inequalities Marx, Feminism, Ant- Race Theory, Bourdieu etc
Unequal Lives
Rights: Treat people with ‘dignity’, and the rights that follow from this Politics and Ethics of Dignity
Politics and Ethics of Rights and Duties
Sociology of Human Rights
Sociology of the Person and Dignity
Undignified Lives
Flourish: Help others to have flourishing lives Politics of Humanity and Capabilities

Virtue Ethics

Sociology of Human capabilities and Human Flourishing
Sociology of Good and Better Lives

Damaged and wasted lives

Care: Be Kind Politics and Ethics of Care Sociology of Care and Kindness
Abused Lives
Hope: Caution through the inevitability of disappointment but the importance of hope The Politics of Real Utopias Sociology of Hope
Problems of Pessimism
Humanities inhumanity to inhumanity
Be Practical Pragmatism Bridging the micro and macro

Individualism -holism



In Sum:

  1. Understand others
  2. Be Kind
  3. Seek Justice
  4. Foster Human Rights and Dignity
  5. Encourage Lives to Flourish
  6. Be Positive and Work for Better Worlds For All
  7. Stay Grounded and Be Practical

Cosmopolitan Hope?

I am so against our common stories of the market place, needed as they may be.
For I need stories of Cosmopolitan Hope – a dreaming forward-

in a world of often unbearable darkness.

I need stories of Wisdom – the blend of experience with science and art-

in a world of chaotic complexity.
I need stories of Empathy- my bridge to the others –

 in a world of monologic terrorism.

I need stories of a Human Flourishing  – a potential developed for all-

in a world of wasted lives.

I need stories of Social Justice for all- a fairness and freedom and equality-

in a world ruled without justice.
I need stories of Meliorism – an urgency of practical actions

in a world of indifference and carelessness.

Above all: I recall the Golden Story that haunts the world:
Treat others as you would be done by,

In a world of cruelty and violence.

Tell stories that will help the others.

And Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.


And to conclude with James again:


I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride. William James: Letters; and also cited in Biography” by Robert D Richardson   2006/7   p384


William James asked his uncle: What is a life for? And he was told: Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.

(cited in Robert Coles: Handing one Another Along (2010) p241.)


APPENDIX: Martha Nussbaum’s Central Human Functional Capabilities.


  1. Life.  Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living
  2. Bodily Health and Integrity.  Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; being adequately nourished; being able to have adequate shelter
  3. Bodily Integrity.  Being able to move freely from place to place; being able to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault, marital rape, and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
  4. Senses, imagination, thought.  Being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason – and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training; being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing expressive works and events of one’s own choice (religious, literary, musical etc.); being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression wit respect to both political and artistic speech and freedom of religious exercise; being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid nonbeneficial pain
  5. Emotions.  Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; being able to love those who love and care for us; being able to grieve at their absence; in general being able to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger; not having one’s emotional developing blighted by fear or anxiety.  (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.
  6. Practical reason.  Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life.  (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience.)
  7. Affiliation.  (a) Being able to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; being able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for the situation; having the  capability for both justice and friendship.  (Protecting this capability means, once again, protecting institutions that constitute such forms of affiliation, and also protecting institutions that constitute such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedoms of  assembly and political speech.)  (b)  Having the social bases of self-respect and nonhumiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.  (This entails provisions of nondiscrimination.)
  8. Other species.  Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature
  9. Play.  Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
  10. Control over one’s environment.  (a) Political: being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the rights of political participation, free speech, and freedom of association (b) Material: being able to hold property (both land and movable goods); having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

From Martha Nussbaum Sex and Social Justice. 1999: 41-2; but it can be found everywhere in her work (eg Frontiers of Justice); and most recently in Creating Capabilities (2011) and Development and Change, Forum 2006 Vol 37, No 6 November 2006 p1325-7, where she also comments on problems with the list – page 1315.


Links to Nussbaum and capability/ development theory.  NB

i)               keep practical not abstract ( Nussbaum keeps close to women & India)

ii)              capabilities are wide open and changing – they are not fixed

iii)            Social relations helps shape them and enable them to flourish
Making Dialogues Work (see Plummer, 2003; 2010)


Establish workable rules for living together without conflict but with differences.


  1. Recognise all the others – listen to their lived stories – avoid dehumanizing,degrading, mocking or silencing ‘the other’…? In a sense this is a precondition for ‘good talk’ of any kind. (Theories of recognition)
  2. Appreciate the social contexts of arguments? An awareness of solidarities… (the life come with their own sense of belongings and solidarities, their own habitus?
  3. Be aware of the matrix of inequalities and the differences of power? How do voices get heard- who is not heard  (discourse theory, standpoint theory, the subaltern).
  4. Weaken ‘the argument culture’ – a phrase coined by the psychologist Deborah Tannen -, by which sides have to be taken on everything. Is life always (or ever?) a polarity, a binary, a dichotomy, a struggle between good and evil.  Might not life be more like a continuum of differences- more subtle and complex than brute divides? (Argumentation theory –Billig et al).
  5. Understand the emotional and embodied basis (and history) of much life and talk? For to hear people argue their positions is to sense immediately that something much grander than reason is at stake: it is often as if these people are literally fighting for their lives.
  6. Develop new ways of approaching conflict?
  7. Find common grounds? From standpoints to a universal rationality and science?

Universals – a sense of human capabilities, a sense of common value (human rights theory); a universal sense of the uniqueness, variety (difference theory)

  1. Foster a cosmopolitan imagination or attitude?
  2. Be hopeful and positive. Watch out for the negative face of too much critique.  Grasp the future of new generations. A whisper of utopia.




1. On Our Narratives


Narratives and stories are among the most powerful instruments for ordering human experience. Narrative can be expressed in oral or written language, still or moving pictures, or a mixture of these media.
It is present in myths, legends, fables, tales, short stories, epics,history, tragedy, drama, comedy, pantomime, paintings, stained glass windows, movies, local news, and conversation. In its almost infinite
variety of forms, it is present at all times, in all places, and in all societies. Indeed, narrative starts with the very history of mankind….”     Roland Barthes, Mythologies1975.


We tell ourselves stories in order to live                Joan Didion, title of her collected stories.


Stories animate human life: that is their work.         Arthur W.Frank   Letting Stories Breathe


Narrative makes the earth habitable for human beings” Frank, again: p46


We have each of us, a life story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense is our lives…. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative to maintain his identity…

Oliver Sachs  opening to The man who mistook his wife for a hat


All sorrows can be born if you put them in a story or tell a story about them    Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition, 1958, after Karen Blixen).

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. (John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952).


2. A Note on Critical Humanism


“What Humanism means to me is an expansion, not a contraction, of human life, an expansion in which nature and the science of nature are made the willing servants of human good.” — John Dewey, “What Humanism Means to Me”


Human: Human, humanities, humane, humanitarian

Critical: Open not fixed; bad and good; not centered – not primacy of the West;  etc

Human Potentials: a cascade of continuous complexities and possibilities, multiplicities, contradictions, contingencies etc…


The Human Condition?The Existential Predicaments……We dwell in a vast universe of:
Communications:  we are symbol manipulating, meaning making animals

Complexities, differences and multiplicities:  – the search for simplicity?
Contingencies: hurled out in the universe, we confront fateful moments

Creativities: we act in this world (though much is ruled by the law of inertia)

Contradictions: pushed by opposites, antimonies, dialects all the time

Change: emergence, flow moving on all the time


3. On Our Differences


What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another… James, in Richardson 2006 p381


Living in a Plural World  – of endless multiplicities, movements and moments


Vincent Van Gogh Starry Starry Eyes ( and see also the video on you tube by Don McLean)

Brian Cox Wonders of the Universe

Kenneth Librecht, Snowflakes. W.H. Auden Snow

Marcel Proust Rembrance of Things Past
Umberto Eco  The Infinity of Lists
Gustave Dore’s On Dante’s Divine Comedy

Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade Project

Ridley Scott & Kevin MacDonald Life in a Day
Mike Davis Planet of Slums

“We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war”—King George V, 11 May 1922


4. On intersecting inequalities


Stories and narratives which display….


  1 Class  Order Classism and class consciousness
  2 Gender Order  (& patriarchy) Sexism and gender identity

(ethnicity and race)


Racialization, racism & ethnic identity
  4 Age stratification and generational orders Ageism and generational self
  5 Nations Nationalism and national identity
  6 The sexual order Heterosexism, homophobia & heteronormativity: sexual identity
  7 The disability and health order Sickness and ‘disablement’ ideologies: health/ability identity


5. The Centrality of Dialogue and the Relational Flow in Human Social Life


There are a great many philosophers and social scientists who place communication and dialogue at the heart of social relationships and social life. So much failed social life can be seen as a breakdown of dialogue and communication, and often a skewing of power relations so communication is impossible or at least one sided. People are spoken to: there is no dialogue. The works of the theologian Martin Buber, the sociologist Habermas, the feminist Seyla Benhabib, the philosophers Hanna Arendt, Gadamer, Bakhtin and Riceour, as well as the liberation theologian activist Paulo Freire all speak to this. Interactionists can have no difficulty in connecting to much of the thinking because –although it is often neglected- the ideas of George Herbert Mead on others and the dialectic of the self can be seen to closely connect. We can place them into a broad model..


The Social and Human Bond: The  elements of the communication –care flow:

Communication as a pre-condition

  1. Recognition
  2. Role taking
  3. Reflexivity
  4. Dialogue
  5. Respect
  6. Empathy
  7. Sympathy
  8. Compassion
  9. Generosity & Kindness
  10. Care ( and love?)


From James: We have as many selves as there are situations. From Cooley: We dwell in the minds of others without knowing it; the looking glass self. from Mead: The self is reflexive. From Dewey: Human life is experience. From Becker: We do things together. From Goffman: The world in truth is a wedding. From Strauss: Mirrors and identity, continuous permutations of action.






  1 comment for “Towards a Cosmopolitan Common Ground (March 2013)

  1. December 9, 2013 at 2:40 am

    I needed to thank you for this great read!!

    I definitely loved every bit of it. I have got you book-marked to look at new things you post…

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