Can democracy really exist in conflict? Kwame Anthony Appiah will shed light on this topic and others during the 2023 PPE Distinguished Public Lecture this month.

Appiah is a professor of philosophy and law at New York University. His lecture, “Politics and Polarization: The Place of Identities in Democracy,” will explore the concept of identity, both philosophically and psychologically. He also will discuss the role of identities in democracy and the challenges of maintaining differing views in a humane way.

The event will be held March 15 at 5 p.m. in the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre of the Moss Arts Center. It is free and open to the public, with a reception to follow. The annual event, established in 2017, is hosted by Virginia Tech’s Kellogg Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

Each year, the PPE Distinguished Public Lecture is presented by an internationally known scholar whose research carries significant social relevance and traverses disciplinary boundaries. The lecture is also an opportunity to present some of the important work done in the humanities and social sciences, said Michael Moehler, director of the center.

Appiah’s lecture will explore how democracy can be “meaningful and authoritative” while being responsive and respectful to people of all views, Moehler said.

“In the ideal case, democracy allows us to reach meaningful consensus on political matters while equally respecting the views of all citizens,” Moehler said. “However, if society is too diverse, then the chances of reaching meaningful consensus are slim. A plurality of views typically leads to better decisions, but it might also paralyze democracy. It’s paradoxical.”

Appiah, who previously visited Virginia Tech as keynote speaker for the first Humanities Week in 2022, is widely published in literary and cultural studies. His focus is on African and African American culture. He received the National Humanities Medal in 2011 for his contributions to philosophy and the pursuit of truth in the contemporary world.

His books “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity” are among his many award-winning publications. They also directly connect with the lecture’s topic, which will include discussion of the global role of identities and the importance respecting diversity through a worldwide scope.

Among his many accolades, Appiah received the Ralph J. Bunche Award of the American Political Science Association for the best scholarly work in political science. He also received the Outstanding Book Prize of the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights and the Arthur Ross Book Award of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Appiah was named one of the Carnegie Corporation of New York's “Great Immigrants" in 2017. He was elected president of the American Academy of Arts and Literature in 2022.

Menah Pratt, Virginia Tech’s vice president for strategic affairs and diversity and vice provost for inclusion and diversity, said the event will reverberate well with the university's Principles of Community Week, which will take place March 13-17. The week is an annual celebration of the concepts that support InclusiveVT and the university motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), in the spirit of community, diversity, and excellence.

“These principles reinforce our aspirations for a diverse and inclusive campus, where we can freely express and explore ideas in an atmosphere of empathy, civility, and mutual respect,” Pratt said. “Professor Appiah’s conversation on politics, polarization, and the place of identities in democracy will resonate well with the goals of the week.”

The Kellogg Center represents a partnership between the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the College of Science. The lecture series’ past guest speakers include Kyoto Prize reciepent Martha C. Nussbaum, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, New York Times bestselling author Dan Ariely, award-winning British historian Adam Tooze, and Nobel Prize winner Esther Duflo.

Written by Kelsey Bartlett