Critique of Cosmopolitan Reason

Timing and Spacing the Concept of World Citizenship

by Rebecka Lettevall (Volume editor) Kristian Petrov (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection X, 342 Pages


Since the Enlightenment, the definition of terms such as humanity, citizenship and rights has fluctuated and these ideas continue to have relevance for contemporary discussions of globalization from a «cosmopolitan» perspective. This volume goes back to the conception of cosmopolitanism in Greek antiquity in order to trace it through history, resulting in an unmasking of its many myths. The concept is reconstructed with reference not only to well-known (and some lesser known) historical thinkers of cosmopolitanism, but also to noted «anti-cosmopolitans».
The first aim of the book is to display historical perspectives on a discourse which has been dominated by ahistorical presumptions. The second is to critically explore alternative paths beyond the Western imagination, redefining the Enlightenment legacy and the centre-periphery dichotomy. Most notably, Eastern Europe and the Arab world are integrated within the analysis of cosmopolitanism. Within a framework of conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte), cosmopolitan reason is criticized from the viewpoints of comparative literature, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, postcolonialism and moral philosophy.
The book’s critical approach is an attempt to come to terms with the anachronism, essentialism, ethnocentrism and anthropocentrism that sometimes underlie contemporary theoretical and methodological uses of the term «cosmopolitanism». By adding historical and contextual depth to the problem of cosmopolitanism, a reflexive corrective is presented to enhance ongoing discussions of this topic within as well as outside academia.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Note on the Cover Image
  • Introduction
  • Toward a Critique of Cosmopolitan Reason
  • Part I Rethinking Cosmopolitanism
  • Philosophic Exile: Plato’s Care for the Self as Cosmopolitanism
  • Cosmopolitanism of the not-all, from a Psychoanalytic Point of View
  • Part II Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism Revisited
  • Anacharsis Cloots and the Birth of Modern Cosmopolitanism
  • Exemplary Universality: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Global Citizenship
  • Kant and the Right of World Citizens: An Historical Interpretation
  • Herder and Cosmopolitanism
  • Part III East of cosmopolis
  • De-romanticizing Exile
  • Cosmopolitanism and the Legacy of East European Dissent
  • Part IV Beyond Cosmopolitanism
  • Cosmopolitanism and the Infidelity to Internationalism: Repeating Postcoloniality and the World Revolution
  • Reflections of a Reluctant Cosmopolitan
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Terms
  • Series Index

Note on the Cover Image


Star Trails, Oxfordshire © Mary Spicer, 2013.


A star trail is a phenomenon conditioned by diurnal motion, in which an apparent motion of the stars in the sky, due to the rotation of the Earth, has been captured by long-time exposure photography. The image on the cover was taken close to midnight on 9 June 2013 in rural Oxfordshire, and is a single exposure of 40 minutes at ISO 100, focused manually. If the photographer (as here) focuses the North Celestial Pole, indicated by Polaris, the trails appear as concentric circles, reminiscent of rings created on water. As amazing as they are in their own right, they are also suggestive of the unity of time and space, the interdependency between the part and the whole, history’s dialectic between continuity and discontinuity and the hermeneutical movement towards new horizons of understanding. ← ix | 1 →

← 1 | 2 →

← 2 | 3 →


Toward a Critique of Cosmopolitan Reason

Being a cosmopolitan literally means being a citizen of the world, implying an expansion of one’s identity from the polis to the cosmos. This self-transformation occurs continuously through processes of mediation and interplay, having existential, hermeneutic, as well as political implications. As a cosmopolitan, developing sympathy toward humanity at large does not necessarily require detachment from particular affiliations, rather, in the words of Amanda Andersen (1998, 267), that one is creating a reflective distance from oneself, which enables a broader understanding that takes into account the culture and customs of the other. The cosmopolitan is thus inscribed in an increasingly inclusive global network of overlapping solidarities, in which individuals rather than collectives emerge as moral agents, inhabiting a new world community fostered by unprecedented universal challenges and conditioned by the declining authority of the nation-state. These are common imageries of cosmopolitanism.

However, one may ask, whose model of the polis fits the cosmopolitan vision that one ultimately has drawn upon? And, is a cosmopolis, that is, a universal “city-state” of equal citizens governed by reason, conceivable anyway for those who have traditionally lacked any particular polis to apply their “civic” ethos to in the first place?1 To reverse the first question, which cosmos (if there is only a cosmos in the singular, that is) is implied in “cosmopolitanism” and how big is it? Is this cosmos, or indeed its delimited yet absolute approximation as the “globe” (cf. Jordheim and Sandmo ← 3 | 4 → 2011), to be taken literally or figuratively? Is it natural or cultural? Is it always-already structured as a common reference point or an ideal order (the Greek kósmos being the logical opposite of khaos), or alternatively, is it essentially constructible, negotiable, divisible and, hence, contestable? The “cosmos” and the “polis”, as well as the compound “cosmopolitanism”, have each a long history, and, accordingly, have been mediated and conceptualized in numerous ways.

Scope and problem

Academic interest in cosmopolitanism, or rather what in the literature has emerged as “new cosmopolitanism” (Strand 2010), to which the philosopher Immanuel Kant, though in a quite selective representation, has been retroactively credited as its spiritual ancestor, has since the end of the Cold War been growing dramatically. Ironically, socio-political currents outside academia have simultaneously, if one omits the revival of humanitarian intervention and (quasi-imperialist) mission civilisatrice, to a significant extent been characterized by increased emphases on particulars—the “fundamentals” of religion, culture and ethnicity. Some of these did undeniably legitimize the infamous atrocities committed during the bloody closing of the old millennium (and the virtually equally violent opening of the new one). It is as if the fall of the Berlin wall ushered us into an intellectual and political vacuum that has been filled by a new dialectic, if not plain antagonism, between sheer universalistic interests and perspectives on the one hand and downright particularistic counterparts on the other, in which cosmopolitanism has appeared trying to legitimize itself as a compromise solution. What comes to mind in a European context, is the inexhaustible talking about, and the relentless efforts to create, in recent years, a borderless integration and unification, while the structural possibilities for a cosmopolitan citizenship have become all the less evident to identify—conditioned by the accelerating monetary crisis of the ← 4 | 5 → eurozone. In this respect, the universalistic project of Europeanization2 has ironically contributed to evoking a revival of ethnocentric nationalism, that is, the very antithesis of the European project, the combating of which constitutes its raison d’être.

Historically, Europe has perhaps more than any other area in the world, internally as well as externally, been conceptualized as a universalistic civilization—the birthplace of Reason, Science, Democracy, Human Rights and Economic Globalization. Paradoxically, however, it has all along been dependent upon archaic patterns of essentialist dichotomization. In the shadow of contemporary Europe’s search for a cosmopolitan identity (see European Commission 2012), implicitly in contradistinction to anti-democratic and traditionalist “others” in Europe’s near and far abroad, there reside neglected human rights’ problems, associated with marginalized groups, sans-papiers, national minorities and even indigenous peoples, also within Europe. One is tempted to ask whether cosmopolitanism has turned out to be the “false consciousness” of an essentially Eurocentric or neoliberal process of globalization, which, although formally pertaining to universality, contrary to its articulated ideals reproduces hierarchical structures of domination and segregation, disrespect for human rights and a modernity still essentially colonial? This is certainly the charge against new cosmopolitanism3 laid by theorists such as Peter van der Veer (2002, 166), David Chandler (2003, 25) and Chantal Mouffe (2005, 100–101). Or is cosmopolitanism yet to be interpreted in the opposite way, as a historically-evolved possibility of ultimately recognizing all humans, including the in-between individuals and collectives of post-territorial spaces, as well as actually overcoming the xenophobia and antagonism, including the constant risk of a “war of all against all” on the international stage, imposed by the early-modern and modern nation-state paradigm? Accordingly, ← 5 | 6 → cosmopolitanism in the twenty-first century may refer to several different, if not contradictory, notions. The way its contexts fluctuate, so does its meanings. One might, however, say that it was not until the late 1990s that cosmopolitanism developed towards the more political idea, which, at least occasionally, is referred to as new cosmopolitanism.

In order to approach the questions posed above reflexively one needs to re-think cosmopolitanism in the context of its historical and geographical conceptualization, which is suggested by this volume’s subtitle: Timing and Spacing the Concept of World Citizenship.4 The first aim of this book is to display new historically oriented perspectives and insights on a discourse rather dominated by ahistorical presumptions. A critical contextualization of cosmopolitanism, not only as an empirical concept but also as an analytical tool, might contribute with an understanding of cosmopolitanism’s explicit and implicit meanings and its significance and potential within contemporary political and social thought. In post-communist scholarship, cosmopolitanism is often treated as a universal in order to describe, explain, justify or criticize processes of, or responses to, “globalization”. Here, the effort is to look at cosmopolitanism more as an historically contingent concept. A guiding question is how our perception of the notion of “cosmopolitanism” has changed during different historical periods. ← 6 | 7 →

The second objective of the volume is to critically explore alternative trajectories beyond the Western imagination, by redefining the Enlightenment legacy and the role of the periphery vis-à-vis the centre. Most notably, Eastern Europe and the Arab world are included in the analysis of cosmopolitanism. Human rights thought, as an integral part of cosmopolitanism, has during different periods of history received strong impulses from these particular regions, for example in the form of ideas mediated by the Islamic theological Mu‘tazilah school of the eighth to the tenth centuries AD, as well as by the Charter 77 initiative in Czechoslovakia in the late twentieth century, even though these areas are often remarkably neglected in contemporary cosmopolitanism research.5 By highlighting the function of the outside world as Europe’s, or the “West’s”, dialectical other, the risk of unconsciously giving oneself to a perspective that is not able to see its own contingency may be reduced. From a European horizon, representations such as “Russia”, “Byzantium”, “Northern Africa” and “the Orient” have since the Enlightenment functioned as what Reinhart Koselleck (1979, 211–212) characterized as asymmetric “counter-concepts”, which have continuously reproduced a spirit of Europeanness, in contrast to its externally located alien and problematic shadows (see Petrov 2013, 340; cf. Petrov 2014, 32).6 A wider geographic focus may enable a deeper understanding of the European as well as the global integration process. ← 7 | 8 → Actual development within Europe’s “others”, for example the Arab Spring in 2011, might be instructive in order to more “cosmopolitically” facilitate coming to terms dialectically with universalism and particularism. However, as the sceptically inclined reader might object, can the cosmopolitan project ever be released from its original Enlightenment impulses of so-called Eurocentrism and Occidentalism? We agree with Kant that even if an ideal is beyond human reach and thus unattainable, this fact does not undermine the moral validity of striving for its realization (Denis 2013, 169). The challenge thus consists in trying to reconstruct a horizon of intelligibility in which cosmopolitanism is approximated to transcend rather than reproduce its traditional implications of East/West- and North/South dichotomization, while simultaneously recognizing the Enlightenment legacy as constitutive, in both positive and negative respects.

Cosmopolitanism and Conceptual History

Theoretical and Methodological Remarks

Although this volume is essentially a multi-disciplinary endeavour, a historical perspective is salient. If it could be said to have a common methodological framework, one of the candidates would probably be the German sub-discipline of Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history), emerging in post-war West Germany though having roots in German philosophical idealism of the early nineteenth century (Hampsher-Monk et al. 1998).7 ← 8 | 9 → Symptomatically, the reader will notice the preoccupation with the etymology and semantics of words, concepts, synonyms, antonyms, prefixes and suffixes, as well as with the pragmatics of linguistic accommodation, appropriation and translation, throughout the volume, although explicit references to Begriffsgeschichte or to an equivalent occurs only in some of the contributions.

From the point of view of conceptual history, cosmopolitanism can be treated as a controversial concept that dialectically indicates as well as constructs the world, or the “global” (cf. Koselleck 1972; 2002). As Andrew Vincent, the author of the concluding chapter in this volume, points out, even a seemingly innocent distinction like what differentiates old from new cosmopolitanism may become an arena for contestation—political or philosophical. Concepts that are essentially political, that is, controversial, acquire new, sometimes irreconcilable, meanings by virtue of the ways they are used in specific situations. Correspondingly, a conceptual practice can also re-define its socio-contextual framework, which conditions its meaning, consequently unleashing new horizons of expectation for acting and thinking; although there always, at least according to Koselleck, one of the founders of Begriffsgeschichte, exist social and material pre-conditions that escape language and discourse. Only since Kant, and particularly his paradigmatic 1795 work Zum ewigen Frieden (Perpetual Peace), have the notions of human nature, citizen, city, nation, state, sovereignty, politics, border, asylum, migration, Europe and humanity fluctuated. When Kant re-discovered and transformed the Stoic idea of world citizenship, he did so in the light of the theories of natural law current in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—even while his limited claims suggest that he also tried to distance himself from this tradition and such metaphysical premises it presupposed. The concept of world citizenship today is internally linked to human rights which are ontologically different from natural rights as understood during Kant’s time. (It must be pointed out, however, that Kant implicitly does include a kind of human rights in Perpetual Peace.) Contemporary human rights are not justified by the positing of a natural state, neither are humans supposed to share an eternal or common nature, and rights are granted by a collective act of human will, rather than seen as an expression of a divine plan or a natural ← 9 | 10 → law. These are important considerations when discussing contemporary problems of globalization from a “cosmopolitan” perspective. How, when and why, asks the conceptual historian, do the semantic transformations and pragmatic appropriations of cosmopolitanism occur, and how are these linked to other “histories”—of the cultural, political, social and economic?8 Yet, whilst several contributions in this volume do not explicitly address “Begriffsgeschichte”, it is still symptomatic that many of them do try to explore alternative paths in relation to what could be considered as the royal road of conventional intellectual history or political philosophy and theory. A conceptual historian should preferably not only consult the canonized classics but perhaps delve more so into relatively marginal sources, in this volume represented by “atypical” cosmopolitan thinkers, like Plato, Rousseau, Cloots, Herder and to some extent even Kant, in the role of a “pre-political” rather than political philosopher.

The history of a particular concept is, however, difficult to distillate, since it is so sophistically embedded in its context. It is proposed here that the philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer’s concept of Wirkungsgeschichte is constructive for understanding concepts and their historicity. The Gadamerian perspective implies that the hermeneutic effort fluctuates between the whole and the part and back again. The “effective history” means that historical interest does not just concern a particular historical event or phenomenon, but also their effects. This includes also the history of research. From this it might be assumed that several effects or meanings do not disappear but prevail, so that in the conceptual history of cosmopolitanism, several meanings of the concept are being used at the same period, and sometimes the actors do not seem to be totally aware about this. For example, it is appropriate to talk about a cosmopolitan as an elite traveller even today while also several other meanings prevail. And even so, cosmopolitanism existed also in the nineteenth century, or perhaps one should say between Kant and the end of the Cold War, even if it was not talked about as such. ← 10 | 11 →

From Cosmopolitanism to New Cosmopolitanism

It is clearly indicated in the library catalogues that academic interest in cosmopolitanism increased after the end of the Cold War. In so far as cosmopolitanism was an issue at all during the Cold War era, it was being discussed very differently from today. For example, even within academic disciplines it was mostly used as an image of the upper-class travelling cosmopolitan (Lettevall 2007), not least within literature. The proponents of new cosmopolitanism usually write the current’s own history as starting with Immanuel Kant, even though the sage from Königsberg developed his theories on cosmopolitanism in a different context and perhaps would not recognize his own philosophy in today’s discussions. Kant in his turn referred to the Stoics and the Stoic tradition. Since the end of the Cold War, academic interest in other parts of Kant’s political philosophy has increased, and now there exists a field of experts in this area. Pauline Kleingeld, for example, suggests that cosmopolitanism for Kant was “an attitude taken up in acting” and thus has nothing to do with rootlessness that was a common view of cosmopolitans during Kant’s time (Kleingeld 2012, 1).

The broad spectrum of meanings owing to cosmopolitanism has widened much further during the past decade, and its linguistic form as an -ism might tempt readers to see it as a coherent theory, which it absolutely is not. It is even difficult to see any hard core in it at all: versions of cosmopolitanism cannot be reduced to one central meaning or thesis, even if several scholars have tried to do so.

The starting point of Western thinking is usually placed in ancient Greece. That is also the case in Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie (Horstmann 1976, 1155), according to which there are traces of a cosmopolitan perspective already in some of the oldest remains of Greek philosophy, that is, in the Ionian philosophy of nature, which is seen in relation to the changing political and social situation with a new colonial horizon. Heraclitus proposed a world order that was common for all. Within the earlier history of the concept of cosmopolitanism, as described in this particular and impressive work, it is supplementary to a law that deals with the state, with a cosmic law. In the narrative, cosmopolitanism, if one may call it so, deals with a law beyond the law in the polis. Cosmopolitanism is ← 11 | 12 → thus understood as a system of rights, which are justified by Nature. Even if it is unclear whether Socrates saw himself as a world citizen, it is through Plato’s spokesperson Socrates argued that the philosopher’s body is situated within the polis, while his soul transcends its limitations.

In the authoritative Historisches Wörterbuch-article, cosmopolitanism is understood as a kind of humanism. Therefore, the quotation from Terence, “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me”, is interesting as it points toward one particular understanding of humanism. Starting with Terence, the story ends with the United Nations as an institutionalization of the Kantian idea of a rational world order.

Historically, the term supposedly was first used by Diogenes from Sinope when he called himself a cosmopolitan. This has been interpreted, or travestied, as a statement that a cosmopolitan is a person who is beyond such temporal political boundaries as geopolitical units, that is, city-states, or today’s nation-states. Independent from the fact whether this is true, the interpretation is a part of the conceptual history of cosmopolitanism.

However, since the remaining source of this conceptual use was conceived several hundred years later, by Diogenes Laertius, one cannot be sure about the validity of truth in this utterance. But from the perspective of the history of ideas or concepts, that does not matter so much since even ideas that are not true, so to speak, still are valid as having an impact on what comes afterwards. An approximation of the Cynic Diogenes’ kind of cosmopolitanism is actually quite common in contemporary discussions on the concept. According to the sources, he appears as an individualist who did not seem to care so much about humanity as a whole or its related conceptions. His goal seemingly was more about criticizing the prevailing system of norms. This cosmopolitanism resembles what Fougeret de Monbron, the French eighteenth-century writer and traveller, had connected to during his travelling, caring more about oneself than about anyone or anything else, hence a rather selfish cosmopolitanism. Such a description has been associated with the elite cosmopolitan traveller of the eighteenth century (Lettevall 2008). It is, then, more an individualist understanding of the concept, one with closer connections to the elite cosmopolitanism that prevailed during the eighteenth century among the elite nobility. ← 12 | 13 →

The stoic kind of cosmopolitanism is, however, a bit different. The legacy from Stoic philosophy, founded in ancient Greece and later developed in Roman antiquity, perhaps in Kant in particular, has engaged with problems associated with universal natural rights and thus rather dealt with the universal than the individual perspective.

If in the Western tradition the conceptual history of cosmopolitanism before Kant is closely connected to the history of Christianity,9 the history from Kant onwards is more secularized, even if it is still universalistic. Kant focuses on cosmopolitanism as a secular right of man, by which the individual is guaranteed what he calls the right of hospitality. What should become obvious by the end of this introduction is that this right is rather complicated. For example, it entails an obligation of the states and includes a sophisticated structure between the general and the particular that tends to be justified through the global argument, which Kant develops in Perpetual Peace. According to this, every human being has originally equal right to everything on earth—the globe, but historical circumstances have created a situation that implies a factual difference in rights. Thus, the equality in rights becomes restricted to situations when there is a danger of someone’s life.

Kant developed a cosmopolitan theory that has political implications. However, the nineteenth century was not a fertile ground for cosmopolitan ideas, even if the ideas prevailed in other ways and under different labels. For one thing, in the period from ca 1850 until the First World War, it was quite easy to travel in Europe without a passport. However, not surprisingly that situation changed during the war. The articulation of nationalism during the so-called long nineteenth century was accompanied by internationalism and several official as well as grass roots level efforts were made to increase the amount and quality of internationalism. Several social and political movements were very important in this respect, including the peace movement, the socialist and worker’s movements. It can be claimed that within many of them the idea of cosmopolitanism had surfaced even if it was not called as such. The word cosmopolitan had been used in the ← 13 | 14 → Russian pogroms to classify Jews. It had also been defined as signifying an arrogant person, evoking the Cynic, or as with the Fougeret de Monbron, a characteristic selfishness that goes before human rights and compassion. However, a strong sense of internationalism and care for a common world might still be endorsed among writers who define cosmopolitanism in that respect.10 Arguing like this, certain kinds of internationalism have carried cosmopolitanism over some time, and later on they turned into “transnationalism”, by which traditional institutions have lost much of their former power.

In the conceptual history of cosmopolitanism, as in all histories, it is easy to be caught in the trap of cumulativity. It is then interesting that cosmopolitanism is presumed to have two quite different roots. For how is the Stoic natural rights universalism to be combined with the Cynic individualism? Reacted from this perspective, the criticism of cosmopolitanism becomes quite understandable: The overreaching universalism might actually hide the majority, essentially supporting only a small minority of individuals.

The contemporary cosmopolitanism that took shape shortly after the decline of the Soviet empire, in the hands of Ulrich Beck, Jürgen Habermas, David Held and James Bohman, among others, is characterized by normativity and universalism, which in many ways theoretically seem hard to escape. At the same time, Kant’s legacy is crucial, and shows one of the difficulties with cosmopolitanism. It turns out that “new cosmopolitanism” is not so new in the twenty-first century. Since Kant’s time, the role and strength of the nation-state as well as that of the citizen have changed and developed. One kind of cosmopolitanism is characterized by mobility, movement and fluidity, and having encounters with diaspora, for example. Such cosmopolitanism is even “newer” than new cosmopolitanism. Even though the meaning of the categories “new” and “old” can be more absolute, rather than strictly relative or modifying (such as in the case of the “New World”), calling something “new” is dangerous because sooner ← 14 | 15 → or later it might likely turn old. Perhaps a critical cosmopolitanism, such as proposed in this volume, would be more descriptive.

A critique of cosmopolitanism includes the critique of the Enlightenment where focus is brought on the invisibilization of the other. Kant’s legacy seems to make this an unavoidable part of cosmopolitanism. The starting point is always a situation in time and place, and from that perspective we do not see what is in the shadow or beyond the horizon and unawareness of this causes problems. The fact that the Enlightenment perspective invisibilizes the other is absurd just as inclusion and human rights are at the same time at the centre of cosmopolitanism. This is the problem with all kinds of “cosmopolitanisms”. In this respect cosmopolitanism argues against itself. Even if this volume aims to widen the Enlightenment universalistic cum Western-biased perspective, in this case by including Eastern Europe and postcolonial theory, the Western context is still dominant. It is, however, important to remember that in principle, cosmopolitan ideas could be traced back as well to Indian (Ashoka), Chinese (Confucius) and Babylonian (Hammurabi) tradition, among others, such as is partly reflected in Micheline Ishay’s (2004/2008) monumental work on Human Rights.


X, 342
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
globalization history Enlightenment
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 342 pp.

Biographical notes

Rebecka Lettevall (Volume editor) Kristian Petrov (Volume editor)

Rebecka Lettevall and Kristian Petrov are Associate Professors of Intellectual History in the School of Historical and Contemporary Studies at Södertörn University in Stockholm.


Title: Critique of Cosmopolitan Reason