Assignment 5: Research 1: Mistaken Identities: Culture by Kwame Anthony Appiah as part of the Reith Lectures series for 2016, New York City University.


Figure 1: An image of the Human Zoos which travelled Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries.

As I have completed the Context and Narrative course I have progressed perhaps inevitably towards an interest in identity, culture and the roles that we perform as we play out our parts in society. I now embark upon assignment 5 and will present the wider research that has been carried out as I develop my visual objectives for this final submission.

Mistaken Identities: Culture, a lecture by Kwame Anthony Appiah, NYC University (2016)
Kwane Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, his 2016 Reith Lectures’ series investigates the subject of identity and explored four topics that are fundamental in our understanding of identity. This particular lecture focused on culture within the context of a wider debate on the history of the modern term western culture.

Whilst this lecture is not directly relevant to photography it does offer a different perspective and an additional layer of information when we seek to interpret and understand culture and identity and as such will offer a fresh source of inspiration to any forthcoming visualisation of assignment 5.

The lecture starts with the story of Sir Edward Burnett Tylor who in 1871 published a book entitled Primitive Culture the first work in modern Anthropology. Tylor’s Culture was “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs and any capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

Appiah also describes how English poet and literary critic Matthew wrote ‘Culture and Anarchy’ offering a different notion of culture which was “the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” For Arnold, culture was, “a moral and aesthetic ideal, which found expression in art and literature and music and philosophy.” Appiah then details how current notions of the West came about to eventually arrive at the point where “Western here can look simply like a euphemism for white.”(Kwane Anthony Appiah, 2016)

Appiah describes how much of this notion of western culture is bound up in the popular thinking that the so-called western culture has inherited what he calls the Golden Nuggets when he argues that;

“from the late Middle Ages until now, people have thought of the best in the culture of Greece and Rome as a civilised inheritance, passed on like a precious golden nugget, dug out of the earth by the Greeks, transferred when the Roman Empire conquered them, to Rome. Partitioned between the Flemish and Florentine courts and the Venetian Republic in the Renaissance, it’s fragments passed through cities such as Avignon, Paris, Amsterdam, Wiemar, Edinburgh and London, and were finally reunited – pieced together like the broken shards of a Grecian urn, in the Academies of Europe and America.”

(Kwane Anthony Appiah, 2016)

This point links with a most interesting thought which challenges popular thinking of how the West often sees it’s own culture relative to other major ideologies;

“There are many ways of embellishing the story of the golden nugget. But they all face a historical difficulty; If, that is, you want to make the golden nugget the core of a civilisation opposed to Islam. Because the classical inheritance it identifies was shared with Muslim learning. In Baghdad of the ninth century Abbasid Caliphate, the palace library featured the works of Plato and Aristotle, Pythagoras and Euclid, translated into Arabic.”

(Kwane Anthony Appiah, 2016)

Appiah also contests that Chaucer’s England 600 years ago is dramatically different to the England we have today;

“Take whatever you think was distinctive of it, whatever combination of customs, ideas, and material things which made England characteristically English then. Whatever you choose to distinguish Englishness now it isn’t going to be that.”

(Kwane Anthony Appiah, 2016)

The lecture becomes even more significant when Appiah states that;

“that Western culture was at it’s core individualistic and democratic and liberty minded and tolerant and progressive and rational and scientific. Never mind that pre-modern Europe was none of these things……The idea that tolerance was constitutive of something called Western culture would be surprising to Edward Burnett Tylor, who, as a Quaker, had been barred from attending England’s great universities.”

Appiah arrives at his core argument, which is that in terms of culture;

“Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the West, however you define it, being Western, provides no guarantee that you will care about Western civilisation. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European.

And by that very logic they don’t belong to a European who hasn’t taken the time and trouble to absorb them. The same is true naturally in the other direction. The story of the golden nugget suggests that we can’t help caring about the traditions of the West because they are ours. Infact the opposite is true. They are only ours if we care about them. A culture of liberty, tolerance and rational enquiry that would be a good idea, but these values represent choices to make, not tracks laid down by a Western destiny.”

(Kwane Anthony Appiah, 2016)

So from a philosophical perspective we now have a concept of culture that can contain shared or common components and that can coexist alongside other cultural ideologies. These cultures can develop, mutate, be passed on or indeed be forgotten. There are effectively no fixed status, rules or boundaries other than those imposed or initiated by the motives of people and in history these people have been mainly men.

Unfortunately history has shown how the developing countries of Europe would come to use their culture as a measurement of superiority and utilise the invention of the camera and photography extensively as a tool in the subjugation of countries and continents in pursuit of Colonialism to devastating effect.

In particular I will take forward the following quote from the lecture;

“The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European.”

(Kwane Anthony Appiah, 2016)  


Appiah, K,A.(2016) Reith Lectures/Mistaken Identities: Creed, Country, Color, Culture – lecture 4: Culture. Radio 4 website transcript can be accessed AT: (accessed 3/1/17)

Figure 1: An image of the Human Zoos which travelled Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, image seen online AT:

(accessed 9/1/17)

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