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Foto Heidelberg: Thaddäus Zech







Rooted in the philosophical tradition of ancient Greece, cosmopolitanism is a humanistic ideal of openness, justice, and ethical responsibility based on the idea of a metaphysical equality of all human beings. Its beginnings can be said to go back to the reputed statement of Diogenes the Cynic (400-323 BC), “I am a citizen of the world” (kosmopolites) when responding to questions regarding his place of origin. First discussed by the Cynics,

A Just and Humane Society

it was the Greek and Roman Stoics who more fully developed cosmopolitanism as a universal ethical principle aiming at personal and societal change. Their vision was to create a just and humane society by focusing on the worth of reason and moral capacity as the connecting principles of our common humanity.

From its beginnings cosmopolitanism was an ethical attitude promoting a moral vision: we might aspire to maintain genuine openness and respect in encounters with human others regardless of social or cultural affiliations. Our moral obligations are owed to all human beings based solely on the ground of our shared humanness, without reference to nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, culture, rank, status, religion, political affiliations, or other communal particularities. This connection with humanity as a whole, above all, should define the purpose of our behaviour and conduct. For the Stoics this was a process of active engagement, both with our inner subjective processes as well as the socio-cultural structures of our society. Based on their belief in the innate human capacity for reason, which for them was a faculty of moral choice, the Stoics argued for this capacity to be further developed and guided through educational processes. Their focus was a moral or ethical cosmopolitanism that rested with the individual and its active engagement in shaping and directing emotion, desire and thought. Stoic philosophy was one of the first to show that specific social-cultural structures shape our feelings and thoughts in explicit ways and therefore argued for a specific cosmopolitan pedagogic as a means to ensure cosmopolitan ideals at the grassroots level. Through this they aimed at creating a just and humane society.

Another aspect of Stoic cosmopolitanism was the emphasis on interdependency between human nature and cosmic nature. Human beings were seen as embedded in and inextricably connected with the cosmos as their physical environment and consequently should strive for unity and harmony with it. “Living in accordance with nature” was therefore a guiding principle of Stoic cosmopolitanism and can be understood as an extension of ethical behaviour beyond human beings to the physical cosmos at large.

Immanuel Kant and Cosmopolitanism

After a time of relative silence cosmopolitanism regained meaning as a political and moral theory during the age of Enlightenment, in particularly with the writings of Emanuel Kant, albeit with one significant difference: the focus of attention was much more on a form of institutional cosmopolitanism dealing with political and juridical processes on the structural level of institutions and state formations, rather than the bottom-up, moral cosmopolitanism of the Stoics focusing on the individual and its ethical capacities. The active process of self-reflection and self-transformation was neglected. Kant, for example, did not believe in the ability of the human to positively transform the passions, including aggression, but rather conceived of them as natural and pre-cultural. He saw the human being as innately aggressive and therefore believed in an institutional cosmopolitanism founded on universal international law and justice that directed and supervised human agency through external guidelines.

Cosmopolitanism in the 20th Century

Kant had a tremendous influence on the further development of cosmopolitanism as a political concept and its subsequent reception in the 20th century. Cosmopolitanism has often been criticized as an idealistic theory and elitist attitude, which is impossible to implement on a practical scale. During the second half of the 20th century though, with its ever-increasing political, economic and cultural globalization a form of cosmopolitan interconnectedness inevitably emerged: people, economic systems, eco-systems and climates, social and cultural lifeworlds have become inextricably connected the world over, in both positive and negative ways. Consequently, cosmopolitanism has found renewed interest as a global political theory and regained meaning in terms of practical relevance for establishing a civic society. Cosmopolitan traits are found also in institutional or legal creations like the formation of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice in Den Haag, or the codification of universal human rights.

Despite the many variations of cosmopolitan themes - from legal to political, cultural to civic cosmopolitanism - all approaches seek to find a balance between our moral obligations as individual actors of a shared humanity and institutional requirements that support this striving for global justice and peace. Because of the profound social, ecological and ethical consequences of global interdependency it seems all the more important to look at and explore the many potentials inherent in the cosmopolitan agenda.

Our Focus

At the institute in Heidelberg the centre of attention is mainly on the classical cosmopolitanism of the Stoics and their emphasis on the ethical capacities of the individual human being. Moral or ethical cosmopolitanism depends on the inner life-world, the inner disposition of the individual, which is subsequently expressed in the outer world. Conscious self-reflection is therefore an inevitable prerequisite for establishing a rooted cosmopolitanism.

The focus here is twofold: a) on educational frameworks or organizations (e.g.. educational system) engaging with processes which make up the flow of our individual consciousness, what Socrates famously called ‘know thyself’, forms of introspection and firsthand observation of our own mental phenomena; b) on broader social or cultural movements, for example grassroots movements engaged in or aiming at forming a just and ethical society as envisaged within cosmopolitanism (e.g. mindfulness movement).


Foto Aborigine:
Landmark Media / interTOPICS