Cosmopolitan attitude

Cosmopolitanism, like the nonviolent attitude, can only be a consciously chosen attitude. This implies a certain curiosity about other ways of living and the openness to get engaged with other ways of thinking. Above all, cosmopolitans feel responsible for the world in which they live. In their dealings with others, they try to avoid ‘essentialist‘ judgments. Furthermore, cosmopolitans always make an attempt, not to fix others to a certain identity. They seek to look behind the categories of identity, to be able to perceive the singular human being. Last but not least, cosmopolitans do not believe that they have already found the ultimate truth. They are therefore always ready to revise their knowledge in the light of new, evident findings.

The cosmopolitan: home everywhere or nowhere?

The term ‘cosmopolitanism‘ is composed of ‘cosmos‘ (world, world-order, or universe) and ‘polites‘, the citizen of the ancient Greek city-state (‘polis‘). This definition of Diogenes from Sinopes’ situated the cosmopolitan outside of this limited, political, and existential community. “A ‘cosmopolites’ is one who, either in thoughts or in practice, distances himself from the customs and laws of his city and evaluates them from the standpoint of a higher order.1

Hence, among enemies of cosmopolitanism, this connotation of the cosmopolitan of ‘standing outside the community‘, played an important role. Thus, European Jews, who had become the focus of resentment and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, were often described by Nazis and Stalinists as ‘rootless cosmopolitans‘.

Diogenes’ dog life – a model?

However, Diogenes’ subversive retreat from the Polis and his ascetic ‘dog life’ does not fit the image that the world has of the cosmopolitan today. On the contrary, today the cosmopolitan is often located amid society. S/he moves on the stage of international relations – among politicians, stars, ambassadors, and international organizations. This makes him no less unpopular among contemporary conspiracy theorists than the ancient ‘punk’ Diogenes among his fellow citizens.

Did Diogenes say that he was at home everywhere? All over the world, in the whole cosmos? Or did he mean the opposite thereof: not being at home anywhere, not in any part of the world? So is he who calls himself cosmopolitan at home everywhere or is he homeless? […] The difference could not be greater. Whether it means that a person transcends all national borders and believes that he or she belongs to a universal community of people. Or whether he or she can no longer feel at home anywhere as homeless, betrayed, expelled, banished – there are worlds between these cosmopolitanisms.”2

Who is a cosmopolitan?

Indeed, these two very different worlds reveal that it is not easy to determine who can be called ‘cosmopolitan’. The position outside the community alone has never made anyone a cosmopolitan. Whether it is through privilege or voluntary or involuntary exclusion. Whoever does not identify with the community into which s/he was born because s/he has opportunities everywhere, can adhere to an abstract ‘humanism‘ that does not oblige to anything. On the other hand, those who feel excluded and at home nowhere can look down on the double standards of the privileged, without showing any solidarity with others.

Likewise, living abroad alone has not made anyone a cosmopolitan. Even people, who leave their home country and spend their entire life in another country, do not necessarily become cosmopolitans. On the contrary, they may even become more ‘nationalistic’ than the people in their country of origin. Withdrawing from their new environment, they try to transplant the lifestyle of their home country into their new home. They consider only those contacts as full-fledged that confirm their worldview and their values. Thereby they can go on living as if they had never left their country.

Field of unresolved contradictions

Cosmopolitanism is not […] a privileged attitude, but rather a field of unresolved contradictions: between particularistic ties and universalistic aspirations, between the diversity of human laws and the ideal of a rational order common to all human cities; and between the belief in the unity of humanity and the healthy agonisms and antagonisms that stem from the human diversity.3

Professing cosmopolitans sometimes go so far in their disidentification with their community, that they even ban their nearest relatives. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the great philosopher of the French Revolution, wrote treatises on education but sent all his children to an orphanage. Edmund Burke wrote about him: ‘He loved humanity but hated his own blood‘.


However, despite the openness that is vital to the cosmopolitan stance, it should not be confused with assimilation at any cost. Indeed, there is a difference between the over-adaptation that arises from the fear of being noticed as a stranger and the cosmopolitan openness to new ways of living. Cosmopolitans can therefore at the same time value their culture of origin and show an open attitude towards other cultures. Therefore cosmopolitans who live abroad do not see any contradiction in practicing rituals of their own tradition, while in other areas they naturally adopt the way of life of their new home country.

The often painful state of being caught between two stools can, over the years, liberate cosmopolitan emigrants from the restrictions imposed by their culture of origin. In addition, through the cultural fusion that takes place in their worldview, people living abroad can possibly find creative and unique interpretations of both cultures.


A corrective to forms of accelerated nationalist sentiment is precisely ambivalence. The ‘tearing’ at the social bond that follows from a mindful self-distancing from its exhilaration and hostilities – and from the restrictively nationalist framework. One might, at the same time, love a country and dissent from its nationalist fervor; that would activate ambivalence in the service of a critical reflection on a possibility of war and a refusal to partake in its excitations.4

In conclusion, the cosmopolitan attitude moves between the extremes of voluntary withdrawal and forced assimilation. Accordingly, it creates an opening for both sides: the ‘host’ and the ‘stranger’, the old and the new citizen.

At home in a foreign language?

When we have to express ourselves in a foreign language, we may feel insecure. But in this uncertainty, we can also uncover the ‘taken for granted’ of those, who feel at home in their language. When Heidegger remarked that humans are characterized by the fact that they are ‘at home in language‘, was he also thinking of those who have to find a new ‘home’? Or of those who do not feel at home in the language, in which they want to make themselves understood?

That is where the question of hospitality begins: Must we ask the foreigner to understand us, to speak our language, in all the senses of this term, in all its possible extensions, before being able and so as to be able to welcome him into our country? If he was already speaking our language, with all that that implies, if we already shared everything that is shared with a language, would the foreigner still be a foreigner?5

The responsibility of each individual

It would actually be the responsibility of the politicians in each country to promote this open, cosmopolitan attitude, not to prevent it. When new citizens feel that all doors are closed to them by a xenophobic atmosphere, it becomes very difficult if not impossible for them to get involved in their own way.

However, representative democratic politics is mainly about votes. It seems easier to get voters’ attention by appealing to their fear and egoism. It is, therefore, all the more important to recognize that it is everyone’s responsibility to avoid parallel societies. Therefore it is more important than ever to cultivate a cosmopolitan attitude of hospitality. A stance that is not guided by hasty judgments and populist constructions of the enemy.


Cosmopolitanism includes […] the commitment to pluralism. Cosmopolitans believe, that there are many values worth living by and that it is impossible to live by all these values. That is why we hope and expect different people and societies to give shape to different values. […] One truth, we [cosmopolitans] are indeed holding on to, is that everyone has responsibilities towards other people. Every single person counts. That is our pivotal thought. And it sets a clear limit to our tolerance.6

The reason as a human legislator?

With the Stoics, the meaning of the term ‘cosmopolitanism‘ shifted. The Stoic ‘kosmopolites‘ sought to find common ground in the diversity of the partly incompatible laws of the individual cities. Hence, they found this universalism in ‘Logos‘, here in the sense of the human ability to think.

Marc Aurel, the last Stoic of antiquity, wrote in his ‘Essays’: ‘If we have in common the ability to think, then we also have in common reason […]. If this is true, then reason, which determines what is or is not to be done is also common to us all. In this case, the law is also common to us all. If this is right, then we are all citizens. In this case, we are part of a kind of state. If that is true, then the cosmos is a state, so to speak.

Indeed, the political motivation for this attempt by a Roman emperor, to unify the manifold laws of the cities and to regard reason as the universal legislator can easily be located in Roman imperialism.

Eurocentric universalisms

However, despite its importance for cosmopolitanism, universalism can lead the cosmopolitan to black ice. On the one hand, they are often so abstract that they express little. On the other hand, they are usually by no means as neutral and above all differences as it appears. Thus European (political) concepts were ‘globalized’ in times of imperialism of the European nation-states. That is to say, they have become ‘universal values’ that should apply to the whole ‘rest of the world’.

As a cosmopolitan, if we want to avoid this variant of Eurocentrism, we have to get very involved in texts and practices from foreign cultures. The cosmopolitan political philosopher has to existentially ‘delocalize’ his/her thinking. S/he should ‘decolonize’, that is, uncover assumptions that have become habitual through their own culture and tradition.

Delocation of concepts

The political philosopher Farah Godrey calls this method of postcolonial theory ‘delocation’ and ‘relocation’ of perception and political thought. According to Godrey, comparative political theory can ‘extract’ new concepts and practices from non-European traditions. It can then make this fruitful for one’s own political theory and practice. The prerequisite for this, however, is that the cosmopolitan political philosopher deals existentially with the foreign culture. S/he should, however, avoid uncritically accepting the blind spots of the foreign culture.

Cosmopolitan political thought

Political theory itself can evolve towards cosmopolitanism only when explorations of comparative thought occur at the center, rather than at the margins of the discipline. […] Such reflections […] could serve as an added voice of pluralistic discourse on the topic.7

Ahimsa‘ was such a concept that derived from yoga scripture, and was ‘transposed’ into the field of political philosophy. Farah Godrey describes Gandhi’s transformation of the Ahimsa attitude into a political strategy ‘- Satyagraha’ – as one of those cosmopolitan ‘delocations’ of concepts from non-European traditions. Although the situation here is more complex. Gandhi already incorporated European concepts into his political theory, which he intertwined with Indian traditions. While freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King adopted his strategies for their civil rights movements.

Bhagavad Gita

According to Godray, Gandhi developed his concept of nonviolence not from Patanjalis’ Yoga Sutra’, but from the Bhagavad Gita. He subordinated Ahimsa to the pursuit of truthfulness, Satya, as a fundamental human task. Asceticism and self-discipline were central to Gandhi’s understanding of politics. For though, if necessary, the Satyagraha attitude also included exposing oneself to suffering, such as relentless fasting or the stoically enduring of prison sentences.

In contrast to Western-centric understandings of political power as restrained by mainly external and institutional factors, the Indian tradition emphasized the importance of inner over external restraints on those who wielded political authority. […] In this view, those who are able to practice internal self-restraint are better able to compel the external environment.”8


Asceticism, combined with political ‘truthfulness’ is, according to Godrey, an example of a category that is not considered ‘political’ by Western standards. However, if one takes a closer look at the motif of ascetism, taken from the Bhagavad Gita, it becomes clear that this idea is not so alien to European political philosophy. Indeed, it is about self-control or mastery of the senses and emotions.

To illustrate the ‘immortality of the soul’, Plato chose the same image, which plays an important role in the Bhagavad Gita. According to Plato in his work ‘Phaidros‘, reason as a charioteer, keeps the two horses ‘will‘ and ‘desire‘ in check.

In the Bhagavad Gita, it is Krishna, the charioteer, who advises Arjuna, the prince, and general of the Pandavas, not to be guided by his emotions in the battle of Kurukshetra. Rather, Krishna advised Arjuna to fight ‘apathetically’ against them in order to bravely and steadfastly fulfill his Dharma as a warrior and ruler. Because according to the Bhagavad Gita the souls of his relatives are immortal anyway. Therefore, their soul could not be destroyed even by the death of their body.


The Greek Stoics also viewed ‘Apatheia‘ as a prerequisite for political leadership. According to Chrysippus of Soloi, it is the inner condition, that determines whether an action can conform to reasonable standards. Apathy, however, did not mean indifference. In ancient Greek, this term had no negative connotation.

On the contrary, the Greeks considered even the Olympian gods to be apathetic, ie. not subject to passion or suffering. On the other side of the pathos- scale are the chthonian gods, such as Demeter, Gorgo, Hades, and Dionysos. These gods of the underworld were considered pathetic as they were associated with grief over the deceased. Dionysus, the leader of souls, was the master of pathos. That is why he was the patron god of Greek Tragedy.


Accordingly, among the Stoics, ‘apatheia‘ referred to the ability to control emotions. In addition, the stoic attitude was characterized by a lifelong effort of self-control – in Sanskrit: ‘Svadhyaya’. It was this attitude that Gandhi expressed as eloquently as obsessively in his public diaries. There he recorded exactly everything that did, though, and felt. After all, only a self-controlled person who is free from passions can make correct judgments. This view is shared by the stoics, as the attitude of ‘Apatheia’ as well as by Gandhi, as ‘Satyagraha’ practice. According to this view, a person controlled by his emotions cannot properly grasp the truth.


Whether this is the only way to connect ‘Pathos‘ and truthfulness, is the subject of one of the texts on this website. Although, there is no doubt that some emotions or passions, such as ressentiment or fear, can be politically exploited. However, as an abundance of scientific studies shows, ‘pathos’ plays an important role in our ability to make existential decisions. As figured out in neuroscience, our emotional brain, as well as the mirror neurons, allow us to emphatically understand the world. It enables us to make intuitive decisions that go far beyond the relatively simple logic of the mind.

Although the Bhagavad Gita as the source of ‘Satyagraha‘ doesn’t suggest it, Gandhi considered compassion as one of the five pillars of nonviolence. The other four pillars are respect, understanding, acceptance, and appreciation. For, the connection of thinking and feeling allows us to intuitively connect with others. Above all, our intuition lets us eventually ‘tap’ into the mystical source of universal consciousness.


According to today’s neurosciences, our bodies play a crucial role in how we think and feel. So should we really cling to the metaphysical concept of the soul as a disembodied entity? Wouldn’t it be possible to imagine the soul as inseparable from the body? Like Jean-Luc Nancy, who understands the soul in ‘Corpus’ as the ‘relationship of the body to itself’? In this case, the intention not to hurt would be even more important.

In this light doesn’t Gandhi’s asceticism also appear as a kind of violence? All the more so as this intentional self-harm, even sometimes expanded to the ‘moral’ blackmail of uncomfortable political opponents. Is this relentless control really necessary to deal with one’s passion? Can’t we imagine other ways of mastering our emotions and leading others to freedom? Perhaps a less mental, a ‘cosmo-feminist’ approach to politics would be possible? But this cosmo-feminist deconstruction of the disembodiment inherent in metaphysical terms would go even further. Because it would also affect the central concepts of cosmopolitanism itself.


Many of the key terms central to the [debates on concepts of cosmopolitanism] ‘universal’, ‘theoretical’, ‘abstract’, ‘conceptual’ – have been characterized as implicitly masculine because of their properties of mastery, distance from the experience, indifference to specifics and concern for absolutes in human life. These are terms of disembodied, free-floating, or generalizing scientific or humanistic thought. […] Feminism has learned to wrestle with problems and attendant possibilities while struggling to keep the situated rather than the universal subject in the foreground.”9

World citizenship

The Stoic view and above all Stoic cosmopolitanism also influenced Immanuel Kant. Thus, the position that human rights and international agreements occupy today in the concept of cosmopolitanism, is due to Kant’s impact. Just as Mark Aurelius saw in reason the legislating principle common to all human beings, accordingly, Kant spoke of ‘world citizenship‘. However, Kant linked this to a new concept of human rights as a cosmopolitan sphere of jurisdiction.

In his essay ‘To Perpetual Peace,‘ Kant tried to apply his moral philosophy to politics. The ‘Categorical Imperative‘ demands us to act ‘always on that maxim, whose universality as a law we can at the same time will“.10 According to Kant, human rights should be valid as an imperative for political negotiation. Moreover, Kant believed that human dignity, “not to be treated as a mere means to another end“, can ultimately only be enforced in a world, where states are not constantly at war with each other.

Side note: Categorical Imperative in the light of psychoanalysis

The connection that Judith Butler makes in ‘The Force of Nonviolence‘ between Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Sigmund Freud‘s psychoanalysis should not go unmentioned here. Because it sheds new light on the moral-philosophical approach to nonviolence. The ‘Categorical Imperative‘ calls on us to ask ourselves whether we want to live in a world in which the personal principle of our actions would be the rule for everyone.

In other words, it asks us to think of our actions as somebody else’s. Because in order to be able to imagine our intention, as a rule, we have to depersonalize or alienate it in a certain way. According to Butler, following a psychoanalytic trail, in this process, a potentially destructive act is reversed or reciprocated by the categorical moral demand. From a psychoanalytic point of view, this imaginative operation can lead to a projection of our unacknowledged intention.

It is a difficult and disturbing kind of imagining, one that mandates my dispossession from my own actions. The act that I imagine is no longer the one I imagine myself doing […] To whom does it finally belong? Thus, paranoia begins. […] Of course, if I become convinced that I will be persecuted, not realizing, that the action, I imagine is in part my own imagined action, [...], then I might construct a rationale for acting aggressively against aggression that is coming at me from the outside. I can use that persecutory phantasm as a justification for my own acts of persecution [as ‘self-defense].”11


This shows where the problem of the stoic or moral ‘control’ of emotions lies. Where the superego takes over the reins of control too much, ‘Thanatos’, the death thrives, reigns. This way of dealing with ‘Pathos‘ tends to repress or suppress feelings, which can lead to the projection of these feelings or intentions onto others – and thus even more to (‘morally justified‘) violence.

Indeed, the transition from the moral suppression of violence by the superego to the projection of repressed violence onto others is a gradual one. It can only be revealed, if we are still able to see our own potential action in the phantasm that seems to come from outside. According to Butler, this phantasmatic dimension of ‘substitutability’ often happens before any conscious deliberation; even before the ‘I’ comes into being. “Someone is experimenting with me in the midst of my [moral] experiment; it is not fully under my control.”12

State of Nature

Kant – in this regard similar to Hobbes – considered the warlike relations between the nations as the ‘state of nature‘. Therefore, international agreements and internationally applicable law should maintain and secure the peace between states perpetually. Therefore, the civil legal order for the purpose of international peace consists of civil rights (the citizens of a state and that state); international law (between states), and world civil law (the rights between world citizens and states to which they do not belong). Human rights should serve as the basis for all of these legal spheres.

By asserting that not only states and heads of states are important actors in the international arena, but also civilians and their various associations, which could themselves be the subject of a new legal sphere, Kant gave new meaning to the term ‘cosmopolites’ as a term for the world citizen. Above all cosmopolitan citizenship means the creation of a new universal jurisdiction and a public sphere in which people are entitled to rights solely on the basis of their humanity.”13

Civil Society

Civil Society refers to all public associations, federations, and meetings based on voluntary action by citizens. In other words, it is the space where citizens meet and act in their rule as citizens.

Most importantly, clubs, associations, and social networks are independent of a state apparatus and of economic profit interests. For this reason, civil society is dependent on the observance of human and civil rights, i.e. on state protection of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of association. The concept of civil society as a mediating sphere between the state and the individual citizen goes back to Montesquieu. According to this concept, civil society can prevent the ruling classes from ruling despotically.


The word ‘public’ denotes two closely connected but by no means identical phenomena. Firstly it means that everything that appears before the general public is visible and audible to everyone, giving it the widest possible publicity. […] Secondly, the term ‘public’ denotes the world itself, in so far as it is what we have in common and as such is different from […] what we privately own, i.e. the place we call our private property. […] The public space, as well as the world we share, gathers people together. At the same time prevents them from overlapping and falling into each other, as it were.14

Hannah Arendt refers in her understanding of the public sphere to Alexis de Tocqueville. According to him, platforms for public meetings and discussions can act as a bulwark against the ‘tyranny of the majority, “by allowing like-minded individuals to come together in association, defend their interests, promote their goals, and make their points of view clear. At this level, life in free organizations allows for diversity and ensures that the rampant forces of conformism, leveling, and homogeneity are put in their place.”15


Although Kant spoke of ‘world citizenship, at the same time he warned against a world government; i.e. a global superpower that would only represent the particular interests of a privileged group. The existence of sovereign states potentially can lead to conflicts and wars. Nevertheless, this is, according to Kant, preferable to a world-state.

In his own words, Kant states that individual, sovereign states, are “according to the idea of reason, better than the amalgam of the same, by one power that is overgrowing the others and merging into a universal monarchy; because the laws lose more and more of their vigor with the increased scope of government, and soulless despotism, after eradicating the seeds of good, ultimately degenerates into anarchy. (Kant, 1795, S. 367).“16

The dictatorship of the majority

Similarly, Hannah Arendt saw in a world government the danger of a dictatorship of the majority over minorities, or even of a totalitarian regime.

It is easy to imagine that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will decide quite democratically that it would be better for humanity as a whole to eliminate certain parts thereof.”17

The tendency of one state to rule the whole world is, according to Arendt, totalitarian per se. Consequently, totalitarian movements have precisely the characteristic of dedifferentiating nation-states and their civic fabric of political lobbies from within. According to Arendt, one of the characteristics of totalitarianism is that it stifles the tendency of a democratic society to create alternative spaces for the public. Like an ‘iron band,’ they compress society into a ‘monolithic block‘. Totalitarian tendencies can therefore easily be recognized by this criterion: Do open spaces for an alternative public exist or are these nipped in the bud?

Perversions of reason

Hannah Arendt described Totalitarism as a ‘perversion of reason‘ because it drives ideology into a lethal consequence. Ultimately, this perversion ended in the unsurpassable terror of the concentration camps. There, the Nazis destroyed their victims’ identity, dignity, spontaneity, and the ‘unpredictability’ to the last. Thereby they reduced human beings ‘to a conditioned bundle of reactions‘. Still, the danger of totalitarianism, which has been unleashed by Nazism and Stalinism, is by no means banned at all times.

Unpolitical critical mass

A prerequisite for a totalitarian movement was the mobilization of those masses who until then had not felt addressed by the politics of representative democracy. Therefore, according to Hannah Arendt, totalitarian movements have their best chances in very populated countries and in times of mass migration and mass unemployment.

The success of totalitarian movements among the masses meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries […]. The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in government […] the movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in democratically ruled countries […]. The second democratic illusion […] was that these politically disinterested masses do not count […]. Now it has become clear […] that democratic governments rely as much on the silent consent and tolerance of this disinterested and inarticulate part of the population as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country.18

Visiting right

Furthermore, Derrida’s concept of hospitality goes back to Immanuel Kant’s writing ‘To Perpetual Peace‘. It was emphasized by Jacques Derrida in his ‘philosophy of friendship’. It is a right that all people have as citizens of the world. According to Kant, it is the right of a stranger, ‘not to be treated in a hostile manner by another because of his arrival on another’s soil‘. Even though one may refuse to receive him when this can be done without causing his destruction. But so long as he peacefully occupies his place, one may not treat him with hostility. Moreover, Kant wrote about the right of visitation, ‘which entitles each human being to offer himself for society by virtue of the common ownership of the surface of the earth‘. This formulation was enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

Dangerous moment

As Jacques Derrida has argued, hospitality is always accompanied by a moment of indeterminacy. Does the host know if the intentions of the guest are really not hostile? […] Doesn’t hospitality often begin with mutual distrust that must be dispelled? […] This indeterminacy caused Derrida to coin the term ‘hospitality‘, to capture that dangerous moment when the cosmopolitan project can get stuck in hostility, instead of becoming hospitality.”19

Cosmopolitan ‘right, to have rights’

Therefore, according to Hannah Arendt, there is one right that matters most. The ‘right, to have rights at all‘, and to ‘participate in the human community‘ should be granted to all people without exception. A right, that would protect the human dignity of every human being would be the only legitimate universal principle in a world of nation-states and global mass migration.

Antisemitism […], imperialism […], totalitarianism […] – have proved, one after the other, one more brutally than the other, that human dignity needs a new guarantee, which can be found in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, the validity of which must this time embrace humanity as a whole, while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial authorities.20

However, Hannah Arendt viewed the emergence of increasingly detailed human rights and special rights with skepticism. In contrast to this pessimistic view, the cosmopolitan political philosopher Seyla Benhabib agrees with this development of differentiation of human rights. She perceives it as an opportunity for minorities to actually assert their ‘right to have rights‘ in the majority society.

Rights of minorities

Every nation-state has groups that are excluded or oppressed by the majority. Turkey, for instance, discriminates against the Kurds; Eastern Europe neglects their Roma and Sinti; India persecutes the Muslim and Christian minority, and Myanmar the Rohingyas. The governments of these states do nothing to protect the rights of these minorities or even actively promote their persecution.

According to Seyla Benhabib, international human rights offer transnational civil networks and individuals the chance to stimulate democratic processes and, under certain circumstances, to enforce their minority rights. Therefore, one of the most important human rights for these ‘democratic iterations‘ is the fundamental right to expression.

We must use the documents of global public law and the legal advances in Human Rights treaties soberly without too much utopian bombast, to support the development of counter-hegemonic transnational movements that demand rights across national borders in a multitude of interlocking democratic iterations.”21


Why is it so important right now to combine a nonviolent attitude with a cosmopolitan outlook? Although secularism is closely related to ‘humanism’ as a substitute for religion, it is not as neutral and tolerant as it claims.

In general, ‘humanism’ means an attitude that believes in the equality of dignity and basic rights for all people on the planet. By definition, secularism stands for the equal treatment of all religions and for religious freedom. A ‘humanistic attitude’ that excludes people based on their religious identity, is neither secular nor humanistic. Hence, secularism cannot exclude a large part of humanity because it partially clings to a certain premodern tradition.

On the other hand, secularism means the separation of the religious and civil spheres. Here, as Étienne Balibar asserts, a field of confrontation between different types of universalism opens up.

Institutionalized inequality in the name of secularization?

However, the secular reservations about granting Muslims the same freedom of belief as all other religions, or more aggressive forms of Islamophobia, underestimate the many ways in which culture and religion can interact. Furthermore, they underestimate the influence that civil networks and the living together of different identity groups can have.

Moreover, such one-sided views ignore the effect of the intersectional overlapping of identities. Religious identity can have intersections with class, ethnicity, nationality, and other factors. Last but not least, the unreflective, Islamophobic attitude mostly forgets that right-wing ideologies, which particularly exaggerate the enemy image of the ‘Islamic man’, are also characterized by a very backward, reactionary image of women.

Equal treatment?

However, the cosmopolitan nonviolent attitude consists in the unwavering attempt to perceive the singular human being behind all these categories of identity. In addition, under certain circumstances, it would include the civil courage to stand up for cosmopolitan values. In its most consistent form, it would consist of warning others of the danger of constructing images of the enemy.

The reason why nonviolence requires a commitment to equality can best be understood by considering that in this world some lives are more clearly valued than others. [...] This inequality implies that certain lives will be more tenaciously defended than others. If one opposes the violence done […] to other living beings – this presumes that it is because those lives are valuable […]. And yet, in this world, as we know, lives are not equally valued; their claim against being injured or killed is not always registered.22


While Seyla Benhabib stressed the legal dimension of cosmopolitanism, Étienne Balibar does not believe that human rights alone can solve conflicts. According to Balibar, incompatibilities between religious worldviews are not, as Samuel Huntington claims, a ‘Clash of Civilizations‘. They are rather ‘conflicts of different conceptions of universalism‘. Therefore, secularism, as represented in the concept of ‘Laïcité‘ in France, is not secular enough to mediate such conflicts. Therefore, the secularism of ‘second degree‘ was necessary. Although, he concedes that this ‘heretic’ secularism would first have to be invented.

It would be more accurate to say that cosmopolitanism opens the field for competition between alternative cosmopolitics. Cosmopolitics is also a stage for the competition between different notions of secularism.23

Return of the ‘religious’?

After the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center, public discourses repeatedly claimed the topos of the ‘return of the religious‘. Jacques Derrida took this as an occasion, to address and deconstruct the concept of ‘religion‘ itself. In his essay “The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Mere Reason“, Derrida diagnosed an inadmissible universalization of a concept that only applies to Christianity. Since the Latin term ‘religio‘, cannot be translated and adopted by other cultures without disturbances to their own cultural practices.

Civil religion

In his attempt to think about religion ‘within the limits of mere reason‘, Kant only admitted the Christian religion to be a moral religion. Moreover, Kant calls for a ‘reflective [secular] civil religion‘ for which it was essential not to depend on any historical revelation, and which thus opposes dogmatic faith.

However, Derrida points out that the unconditional generality of the Categorical Imperative is ‘evangelical‘ in his ‘messianic structure‘. In other words, the Categorical Imperative has the character of a ‘revelation‘. Just as Christianity has its ‘good news’, so has the ‘civil religion‘ of secularism. The good news is the existence of a general ethical guideline for all actions, which preserves the dignity of everyone.

Messianic structure

Here, so Derrida, the ‘messianic structure‘ of the Enlightenment ideology becomes visible. According to Derrida, in Christianity, as in Civil religion, revelation is always coming with a (historical) event. In other words, it is connected with a unique appearance and a ‘coming to light’; as in ‘Enlightenment, ‘French Revolution‘, ‘Death of God‘, ‘Declaration of Human Rights‘, and so forth. Although Enlightenment pretended to have emancipated from religion and belief. It was, according to its messianic structure, not free from religious features. Moreover, morality is involved in these ‘revelations‘ – secular as well as Christian. Consequently, since Christianity is inscribing in ‘pure’ morality, likewise it is inscribing in secularism.

Global Latinization

According to Immanuel Kant, the Christian religion is the only one that can be thought of ‘within the limits of mere reason‘. Thus it could become the starting point for the European concept of secularism. However, this separation between religion and the civil sphere of rights is alien to the majority of non-European cultures.

Nevertheless, as a result of European colonization, the Christian term ‘religion’ spread around the world. Derrida understood ‘Mundial Latinization‘ as the globalization of the Latin and then Anglo-American concepts and legal practices.

Consequences in the colonies

Mundial Latinization‘ and thus the export of the secular separation between religion and state had far-reaching consequences in the colonies. As the author, Prem Kumar Vijayan emphasizes in ‘Gender and Hindu Nationalism. Understanding Masculine Hegemony‘ especially lower-caste women in India were affected by it. Confronted with the vast diversity of laws and customs in Indian society, the British unified the Brahmanical ‘laws’ of inheritance. As a result, women of lower castes lost their right to inherit land property. This was due to an incompatible conception of the division between public law and private custom. The multifaceted culture of the colonized had no equivalence for such secular division. Due to the incompatibility of conceptions of law, these women lost their right to own the land they were working.

Two sources of religion

According to Derrida, the ‘two sources’ of (Christian) ‘religion’ are: ‘contract‘ and ‘trust‘. In every performative act of sworn speech or assurance, one of these sources of religion is operating. ‘Swear, that you have said the absolute truth to the best of your knowledge without concealing anything’. To clarify, even where God remains unnamed, this oath produces, quasi in a ‘mechanical’ way, God as a witness.

Beyond the culture, semantics or the history of law which define the concept [of ‘oath’] [], the experience of testimony is the place where these two sources [of religion] converge: source of the healing (the salvage, holy or sacred) and source of the fiduciary (reliability, loyalty, fidelity, credit, trust, faith, sincerity, and ‘bona fides‘). […] In testimony, the truth is promised beyond all proof, all perception, and all demonstrative indication. Such a performative act states finally (again and again): ‘Believe in what I say, as one believes in a miracle’.”24

Promise of salvation

The second source of religion is as well inscribed in rationality. It is faith as a ‘promise of salvation‘ or the attempt to restore a ‘healthy, undamaged, wholesome whole‘. For, rationality is, above all, the ability to bring knowledge into a comprehensive coherent system, a wholeness. Thus, according to Derrida and Kant, religion and rationality originate from the same sources.

Ultimately, religion is, so Derrida’s astonishing assumption, not the mere antagonist of technical-scientific development and capitalistic globalization. Rather, the two sources of religion are themselves active in technology and are structural elements of European rationality. Moreover, the conflicts between fundamentalism and technical-capitalistic globalization show how one source of religion works against the other.

Religious wars?

Are not the acts of war or the military intervention of the Judeo-Christian Occident, which are carried out in the name of the most venerable cause [] in a certain way also religious wars? […] To define a religious war as such, one would have to be able to draw boundaries of the religious. […] One would have to separate the characteristic features of the religious itself from those which constitute the concepts of the ethical, juridical, political, or economic. Nothing, however, proves to be more problematic.25

Cosmopoliticization of faith

In times of global migratory flows and a globalized economy, national borders are becoming increasingly permeable. Although, right-wing parties are becoming more and more popular, on the other hand, ethnic and religious mixed identities emerge. In this way, individualization is finally penetrating the realm of the religious – including monotheistic religions. Hence, Sociologist Ulrich Beck calls this phenomenon, which is partly the result of multiple identities in exile, ‘cosmopolitanization of faith‘.

Post-modern heterodoxies

While nationalism was religiously dressed up in the modern age, nowadays religions are unfolding the cross-border aspect again. This appears, on the one hand, in attempts of radical Muslimic groups, to revive the Caliphate as a pan-Islamic symbol. But on the other hand, life in exile and the mixing of religious communities are giving rise to new heterodoxies. As a result, Individuals are no longer unconsciously adopting the faith that their family had handed down to them. On the contrary, they consciously choose, and in some cases even take over rituals from other religions.

Contamination versus ‘fascism of the pure’

Hence, this ‘cosmopolitan faith‘ holds opportunities for understanding between religions. Indeed, if individuals truly and consciously ‘chose’ their faith, they can perceive foreign religions as inspiration. In other words, one can interpret this phenomenon as the ‘self-invention’ of individuals in a spiritual sense. Therefore cosmopolitan spirituality is partly or completely liberated from religion.

However, this applies not only to the second or third generation of immigrants in search of a new identity. Similarly, it applies to people who can not cope with aspects of their religion. The resistance of casteless people in India against structural violence shows that people are no longer willing to adopt inherited belief systems. Homophobia, misogyny, hierarchies, authoritarian tendencies, as well as body hostility, and sexual abuse by persons of authority, are no longer accepted. Indeed, why should one tolerate them, when the aim is mainly, to surrender to a higher principle? Consequently, it is no longer the monotheistic ‘either/or’, but the post-modern ‘and‘ that applies in this cosmopolitanisation of faith.

Voluntary exclusion

The potential for violence of religions lies precisely in their orthodoxy. Where a religion insists on its purity, on its sole claim to truth. However, this purity will be increasingly difficult to maintain unless it is through a voluntary ghettoization of religious communities. In Israel, for instance, strictly orthodox Jews even feel ‘polluted’ by a tram that passes through their neighborhood.

When the imposed immediacy of the neighborhood of old and new religions [...] blurs the boundaries between them, it reveals the extreme fluidity of religious beliefs. Then the memory is awakened that religion – contrary to the purity fantasies of Western and Eastern ideologists – must be understood as an original ‘impure’, interwoven matter. There is nothing more wrong than playing off ‘the’ European heritage and ‘Islam’ against each other. Mohammed is inconceivable without Europe, antiquity, and Judaism. Cultural borrowings, diasporic spreads, and amalgamations run through history. [] Currently [they are] expressed and culminated in spiritual wanderings in which faith has become the means of self-realization.26

The cosmopolitan practice has, according to the author Dipesh Chakrabarty, always been considered a mixture of cultural elements. Cultures, this is the modern perception, previously had been ‘pure’ and unmixed. Therefore, they were more ‘authentic’ in the eyes of nationalists. However, it was precisely the attempt of modernity to present cultures as pure, that had created this impression.

Worlds of encounter?

Mostly, the ‘cosmopolitanisation of faith’, Ulrich Beck is talking about, takes place in metropolises. Here people of the most diverse origins live together in a confined space. However, this urban mixing, and thus the possibility of cosmopolitan encounters between different identity groups, does not always work. In ‘Megacities‘ like Mumbai, for example, ethnic and religious segregation can lead to a communal structure within the districts. The effect is often, that different districts seem like altogether different worlds.

However, this closure of communities also takes place in cities where different lifestyles are already mixing. The sociologist Richard Sennett laments the situation in New York in the 1990s:

When you walk through New York, you are almost overwhelmed by the diversity of different lifestyles in this most diverse of all cities. But because the different scenes isolate themselves from each other, it seems as if they are not good for meaningful encounters from which lively stimulations or a meaningful moment of a brief conversation, a touch, or an interaction could emerge. […] The leather-fetishist and the spice trader are protected by encapsulation.”27 Since the 1990s, New York has changed a lot. The integration of different population groups into district communities has, according to the psychiatrist and stress researcher Adli Mazda, been successful.

Informal Settlements

The logic of capitalism leads to the gentrification of ever new districts of the cities. This has the consequence that housing becomes less and less affordable. Beyond that, Informal settlements are emerging wherever the large influx from rural areas exceeds the capacity of a city.

In India, it is often the caste into which one is born, that determines the district in which one lives. Most slum dwellers belong to the lowest caste or are Dalits. They often try to escape from the discrimination in their villages to the anonymity of big cities. Likewise, many Adivasis, who have lost their habitat and source of subsistence through large-scale projects end up in slums.

Even though the living conditions in the informal settlements may seem frightening for Europeans. It is often in these most confined spaces, where the mixing and growing together of different cultures, religions, and ethnicities take place.

Mass mobilization

Right-wing parties and their ‘shadow armies‘ use, so the Indian author Suketu Metha in ‘Maximum City. Bombay lost and found‘, the informal dwellings frequently to acquire new voters. Indeed, these right-wing organizations provide the inhabitants with profoundly needed sanitary facilities. However, they do this mainly to win over the mass of slum dwellers. Although these organizations offer a certain degree of protection, they exercise control in a mafia-style manner in their districts. The election victory of the Hindu-nationalist BJP in 2014 can partly be attributed to these strategies of mass mobilization.


One of the most crucial characteristics of the cosmopolitan attitude is its disbelief in the essentialism of social identities. It seems that the question of identity has become even more urgent than ever before in the age of globalization. In times of global capitalism, which demands maximum ‘flexibility’ from the subject, social identity can provide support and cohesion. In a world that can change from one day to the next, identity grants a certain degree of security. Ultimately, identity can also provide a motive for solidarity.

Social Identities connect the small world in which we live with those close to us, with larger movements and aspirations. They allow us to make an extended world comprehensible, alive and urgent. They can broaden our horizons to communities, which are larger than those in which we personally live.”28

Identities (gender, religion, class, race, nation, culture, ethnicity) generally seem like roles that are often not embodied voluntarily. They not only determine how others see me. Furthermore, they assign what properties we ascribe to ourselves and how we interpret them or incorporate them into our habits.


When we judge others by their identity, we often assume that identity is based on a commonality between all those who share it. As if an ‘essence’ existed that would connect all individual cases in this category of identity.

Essentialism is the idea, that certain categories are based on a reality or on a ‘true nature’, which is not directly observable but gives an object its identity, and which also is responsible for other resemblances between attendants of this category.”29

This is a fallacy of the human mind, which begins to develop at a very early age. Indeed, already at the age of two, children distinguish between female and male persons and expect them to behave differently. Thus, essentialism assumes that individuals, who share a certain identity, have a profound similarity that connects these people. However, the essentialist concept of identity reinforces the divisive effect of identities. This is true, especially in the categories of race, ethnicity, or religion.

Subversion of ascriptions

The philosopher Judith Butler pointed out that negative identity ascriptions can be collectively undermined. Instead of suffering those ascriptions implicated in their identity, a group can begin to ‘own’ their identity. That is, a group that shares a certain category of identity can subversively affirm conventional negative attributions. Instead of suffering from the ascriptions associated with their identity, the group can begin to interpret it differently. Knowing that identities are arbitrary and not essential, minority groups can then use them to stand up for each other. Used this way, identities and their new valuation really can empower these groups.

Hence, the deconstruction of identity-ascriptions as performative effects enables groups that belong to an incriminatory identity category in their struggle for self-definition and self-determination. They can thus question the conditions that led to the disempowerment from which they suffer because of their identity. This is exemplified by the Dalit-Panther movement, which in turn was inspired by the Black Panther Party. These movements were initially about reevaluating their own identity and finding their own voice instead of being determined and devalued by others.

Vehicle for transformation

Identities only work because they guide us, […] and talk to us like an inner voice. And also because others, who see something specific in us, address us accordingly. If we do not bother which shape our identities assume, we can not just refuse them, because we do not own them alone. We have to shape them in community, inside and outside of categorized groups, to make them better suitable to us.30

However, identities don’t have to be restrictive, they can also become a vehicle for transformation. Precisely because identities develop in a double-bind of self-ascription and external ascriptions, this process can be reversed. As we begin to define ourselves, the way others perceive us will also change over time.

Author: Eva Pudill


Estimated reading time: 36 minutes

>> Ahimsa in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra

>> Satyagraha: How Ahimsa became a Political Term

>> Ahimsa as Political Practice in post-Gandhi India

>> Ishvara Pranidhana: Mysticism as a nonideological Zone

>> Nonviolent Resistance Movements Worldwide

>> Disgression: Power & Violence

>> Disgression: Humanity & Human Rights

>> Ressentiment: the Circling of Thoughts about Missed Reactions

>> Catharsis in Ritual, Tragedy, and Performance-art

Questions & Answers

What does cosmopolitanism mean?

Cosmopolitanism includes […] the commitment to pluralism. Cosmopolitans believe, that there are many values worth living by and that it is impossible to live by all these values. That is why we hope and expect different people and societies to give shape to different values. […] One truth, we [cosmopolitans] are indeed holding on to, is that everyone has responsibilities towards other people. Every single person counts. That is our pivotal thought. And it sets a clear limit to our tolerance.“6 … read more

What characterizes the cosmopolitan attitude?

The cosmopolitan attitude implies a certain curiosity about other ways of living and the openness to get engaged with other ways of thinking. Above all, cosmopolitans feel responsible for the world in which they live. In their dealings with others, they try to avoid ‘essentialist‘ judgments … read more

What is the core idea of cosmopolitanism?

The term ‘cosmopolitanism‘ is composed of ‘cosmos‘ (world, world-order or universe) and ‘polites‘, the citizen of the ancient Greek city-state (‘polis‘). This definition of Diogenes from Sinopes situated the cosmopolitan outside of this limited, political, and existential community … read more

What is critical cosmopolitan thought?

European (political) concepts were ‘globalized’ in times of imperialism of the European nation-states. That is to say, they have become ‘universal values’ that should apply to the whole ‘rest of the world’. Critical cosmopolitanism is aware of this Eurocentrism … read more

Why is the categorical imperative problematic from a psychoanalytic point of view?

The ‘Categorical Imperative‘ calls on us to ask ourselves whether we want to live in a world in which the personal principle of our actions would be the rule for everyone … read more

Why is a strong counter-public so important for a democratic society?

The concept of civil society as a mediating sphere between the state and the individual citizen goes back to Montesquieu. According to this concept, civil society can prevent the ruling classes from ruling despoticallyread more

Why would it be important to think of cosmopolitanism in the plural?

Secularism, as represented in the concept of ‘Laïcité‘ in France, is not secular enough to mediate such conflicts. Therefore, the secularism of ‘second degree‘ was necessary. Although, he concedes that this ‘heretic’ secularism would first have to be invented. Accordingly, cosmopolitanism should be thought of in the plural form: “It would be more accurate to say that cosmopolitanism opens the field for competition between alternative cosmopolitics. Cosmopolitics is also a stage for the competition between different notions of secularism.“23 … read more

What does Jacques Derrida’s concept of Mundial-Latinization mean?

Derrida understood ‘Mundial Latinization‘ as the globalization of Latin and then Anglo-American concepts and legal practice … read more

What is cosmopolitization of faith?

In times of global migratory flows and a globalized economy, national borders are becoming increasingly permeable. Although, right-wing parties are becoming more and more popular, on the other hand, ethnic and religious mixed identities emerge. In this way, individualization is finally penetrating the realm of the religious – including monotheistic religions … read more

Can the ascriptions implied in every identity be subversively deconstructed?

The philosopher Judith Butler pointed out that negative identity ascriptions can be collectively undermined. Instead of suffering those ascriptions implicated in their identity, a group can begin to ‘own’ their identity … read more