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Early Modern Cosmopolitanism?


Tomasz Grusiecki, McGill University



The word ‘cosmopolitanism’ derives from an ancient Greek term meaning ‘citizen of the world’, and in its broadest sense captures ‘a receptive and open attitude towards the other’ (Kendall et al., 1). There is, however, no standard definition of cosmopolitanism spanning across academic disciplines and political discourses. Inadvertently, the indeterminacy of this term has led to the creation of a near-empty signifier that can stand for almost any given cross-cultural or universalising context.


Already in ancient Greece there were two contradictory conceptions of cosmopolitanism. The first, associated with the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, recognizes no special ties to a particular city or state. When asked where he came from, Diogenes reportedly responded: ‘I am a citizen of the world’ (Laertius, 6:63), by which he meant that he belonged nowhere. His evasive response is read as an account of extreme individualism and disregard for social conventions. The latter conception, associated with the Stoic school, developed a positive notion of world citizenship: it revolved around the affirmation of moral obligations towards humans everywhere in the world; in this conception, all people belonged to a single moral community (Nussbaum, 1–25). It was this Stoic idea that helped Immanuel Kant to develop his understanding of cosmopolitanism as ‘an attitude of recognition, respect, openness, interest, beneficence and concern towards other human individuals, cultures and peoples as members of one global community’ (Kleingeld, 1). 


The Kantian disposition of openness admittedly clung to a belief in a racial hierarchy, but in its abstracted idealism stems from a larger claim to internationalism and egalitarianism (Kant, 17–26). This is at its very core a project rooted in the European Enlightenment. Given the Kantian credentials of ‘cosmopolitanism’, how useful is this term for the study of early modernity? 


The first question would be whether there was a widely accepted concept of cosmopolitanism before Kant. If we rely on visual representations to set out the context for our deliberations, we will of course find little evidence for the existence of globally shared mores in early modernity. Many images, however, suggest points of connection that transcended cultural divisions. One of those, a drawing by English colonist John White (c. 1540 – c. 1593), depicts an earthen pot cooking local foodstuffs (Fig. 1). This prosaic representation of the daily life of local Algonkin peoples recorded by White suggests that colonists took keen interest in learning from other societies. But, crucially, this interest did not stem from a systemic openness to strangers as in Kant’s exposition, but rather from a need to make do in a new unknown environment. On Roanoke Island, where White resided on and off between 1585 and 1590, English settlers needed to assimilate knowledge about the place from the Algonkins in order to survive. We might even presume a degree of cooperation between the two groups, but, on the whole, learning about local farming practices and hunting cultures was driven by self-interest rather than a self-proclaimed belief in moral responsibilities towards the other.


Historians have recently investigated this casual interaction between societies that had no extensive knowledge of each other. For example, in her book The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in the Age of Expansion, 1560-1660 (2009), historian Alison Games focuses on the everyday encounters with the peoples the English met as they travelled and settled the world. Games foregrounds the ways in which the English needed to co-operate with the other. She does not, however, define ‘cosmopolitanism’ despite making use of the term in the title. This omission is perhaps due to the fact that the author describes not a conscious systemic openness to strangers, but rather a number of practical engagements that were contingent upon specific local contexts. Thus, Games’s historical sources imply a very different kind of receptive attitude towards the other than is evoked by Kant’s philosophical system: while Kant defines cosmopolitanism as a top-down intellectual construct, Games brings to life an early modern openness to the other that emerged ‘from below’. Crucially, this openness stemmed from local conditions and exigencies rather than from systemic epistemological investigations. It remains to be argued whether this was truly cosmopolitanism avant la lettre, or rather an early modern set of practices that had predated it.


The designation ‘cosmopolitanism’ started appearing in European literature in the mid-seventeenth century, as demonstrated by historian Margaret Jacob in Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe (2006). The author finds mid-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century uses of the terms ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘citizen of the world’: the former was used by natural philosophers to denote the wider publics for their works; the latter in the context of the Royal Exchange in London. These terms, however, do not correspond with the Kantian ideal. The self-defined ‘cosmopolitan’ natural philosophers only communicated with other Europeans, while the term ‘citizen of the world’ was used in The Spectator (19 May 1711) to denote the role of London as the economic and political centre of the world.


The challenge of cosmopolitanism as a historical category is that it can stand in for many different things, losing its analytical potential as a result. Kant’s (modern) cosmopolitanism was about re-imagining the world as a larger community of sharing and recognition. Since the Making Worlds Project is concerned with the effects of transcontinental exchange in the period roughly two centuries before Kant, it is then worth considering how the unsystematic early modern openness to strangers shaped these historical actors’ local contexts and perceptions of the wider world. At the same time, however, we need to ask ourselves whether our project is about ‘cosmopolitanism’ (which is perhaps a strictly modern construct), or whether it is about something different—something specifically early modern. To what extent can the concept of cosmopolitanism help us in our own research on visual and material cultures? Presumably, the influx of objects from the Americas, Africa and Asia would have triggered early modern Europeans to re-imagine their own place and status in the world. One example is how the Amerindians were initially situated in the prelapsarian past by European scholars: an assertion that had more to do with Europe’s understanding of itself rather than with the empirical knowledge of the New World (Grafton, 148–157). The question, again, is whether this kind of inclusion of the other into Europe’s grand narratives is already ‘cosmopolitanism’, or whether it is something quite different?


© Tomasz Grusiecki, last modified 24 April 2016




Games, Alison. The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in the Age of Expansion, 1560-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.


Grafton, Anthony. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 1992.


Jacob, Margaret C. Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.


Kant, Immanuel. ‘Idea of Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose’. In The Cosmopolitanism Reader, ed. Garrett Wallace Brown and David Held, 17–26. London: Polity, 2010.


Kendall, Gavin, Ian Woodward and Zlatko Skrbis. The Sociology of Cosmopolitanism: Globalisation, Identity, Culture and Government. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.


Kleingeld, Pauline. Kant and Cosmopolitanism: The Philosophical Ideal of World Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.


Laertius, Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, ed. and trans. Robert Drew Hicks. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1925.


Nussbaum, Martha C. ‘Kant and Stoic Cosmopolitanism’. Journal of Political Philosophy 5 (1997): 1–25.






Fig. 1. John White, Cooking in an earthen pot; with meat, maize, etc., and a fire, 1585-1593, watercolour over graphite, touched with gold and white, 15 x 19.5 cm. British Museum, London (artwork in the public domain, © Trustees of the British Museum)

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