The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. Everyone in this series is a storyteller, even if they may not always think of themselves in that way. Each storyteller has something unique to share. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About Kwame Anthony Appiah
Philosopher and writer
Kwame Anthony Appiah is Professor of Philosophy and Law at NYU. He was born in London but moved as an infant to Kumasi, Ghana, where he grew up. He took BA and PhD degrees in philosophy at Cambridge and has taught philosophy in Ghana, France, Britain, and the United States. He has been President of the PEN American Center and serves on the board of the York Public Library and the Public Theater. In 2012 he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. He has written the New York Times column The Ethicist since 2015. His most recent book is The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity.
As a philosopher, why does storytelling matter to you?
I was trained as what was called an analytic philosopher and our job was to make arguments. It was not to tell stories. If we did tell stories, they were very abstract schematic stories. A believes that B, A has evidence of B, but the evidence is misleading. Does A know that B? Now that’s the schema for a story, but it’s not deeply memorable and it’s got no context. Gradually I came to the view that when I was making arguments it would be better to have examples.
I’m often telling stories to illustrate a conceptual or philosophical or argumentative point. People understand things better if they have a story. That’s why we remember so many of Aesop’s morals. True stories also illustrate conceptual points. In some ways I think real stories are more convincing to people because you can point to something that happened in history or to a person and say look, this is actually possible. It’s not just theoretical.
For example, I wrote an essay about nationality and I pinned the essay to the story of Italo Svevo – an early 20th century novelist who wrote in Italian, but was born in Trista, which at the time he was born wasn’t part of Italy, it was part of the Austrian empire actually. His father’s language was German, and he went to a German speaking school. So why did he write in Italian? He changed his name to Italo because he wanted to identify with Italy. He wrote in Italian even though his German was better. So here’s an example of a real person who makes the point that many nations are modern and invented, that doesn’t mean you can’t be deeply and passionately attached to them. I could have made those points without telling you about him, but you’re much more likely to remember them now that I have.
In another case, I was making some arguments about race and the story I pinned it to in that case is the story of a young African boy named Anton Wilhelm Amo, who was taken to Europe in the early 18th century and went on to become a professor of philosophy in Germany. One thing that the story illustrates is that in the early 18th century ideas about the intellectual inferiority of Africans just hadn’t been established yet. The negative understanding of Black people that developed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries isn’t inevitable because people didn’t always have that view. As a reader, you’re not going to forget him because it’s an amazing story. The point that he makes, you’re more likely to remember too, because it is anchored in your memory in the story.
Now I feel I can’t do my job without stories. And I can’t do it with stories just from my own life. I have to read history and fiction. As I do, I learn things too. My understanding of what John Stuart Mill called Individuality was deeply affected by thinking about Stevens, the butler character in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. That’s true of ancient texts too. Because I’m a teacher, I read The Iliad every year. My life obviously is not remotely like Achilles’ life. I don’t face any of the problems that he faces. Still, there are things about honor, shame, anger, and regret that you see in The Iliad that help you think about those things.
When you’re beginning to tackle a story, what do you think about? What’s the process like?
Part of life as a humanist is you just accumulate thoughts that you want to express at some point, and you don’t have time to work on all of them so they’re just sitting there. Later, as you’re thinking about a problem you realize that something happened to you or that happened to some character, real or not, seems relevant. Then you go back and reread the short story, or reflect on the novel, or on that period in your own life and you have to figure out what it is that is relevant to the problem at hand. The whole point about stories is they have to be told. But the world doesn’t come with a plot. It doesn’t tell you which bits are important, you have to decide. You have to decide what to tell or include and what order to tell it in. Life doesn’t come with a guide saying this is the plot and these are the incidentals.
For example, I was asked a question about how to relate to people with whom you have deep political disagreements. I wanted to write about it for my column in the Times. I decided I wanted to tell the story of my relationship with a neighbor of my grandmother. He was a very right-wing politician, while my grandmother and I were not right-wing at all. But we were neighbors and I liked him and he did many good things in my life. So I thought, how can I tell the story of this guy in a way that makes the point that if we’re stuck with one another in societies and if we can’t find ways to be with people that we disagree with, we’re sort of screwed.
It’s not just that I had the experience and that therefore there’s a story waiting in my life. There isn’t a story waiting. I have to turn it into a story. Some things happened, but to make them into a story, you have to decide which ones you’re going to report. What are you going to leave out of the story? What’s the point you want to make?
How much do you think about your audience? How does your approach differ with different audiences?
You have to think about your audience. If I’m giving a presidential address, I’m not going to explain to them what a metaphor is. The basic question is, what can your audience be expected to know? One of the things I’m most worried about is seeming to condescend to my audience, or treat them as if they might not know something that they will be extremely irritated by, because they do know it well. But often I’m explaining something to them that they think they know, and I’m showing them that they don’t really know it. I have to do that gently because otherwise it’ll look like I’m insulting them.
This is especially important with my non-technical writing for my students or readers of the Sunday Times. They’re an audience that’s willing to work a bit, they don’t want everything laid out. I’m not smarter or cleverer than they are, they’re perfectly capable of following an argument. The only privilege I have is that I’ve been allowed to spend my life thinking about these things and learning about them from other people who’ve thought about them. The worst sin I think is insulting an audience by condescending.
Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics says you should adopt the degree of precision appropriate to the subject. The temptation of intellectuals is always to be fiddling around with all the unnecessary details. You should know all the details, but usually they’re not worth telling. You should go through the details and make sure what you say is right, but you don’t need to make everybody follow you down the path. You should have cleared the brambles.
There are famous philosophers who didn’t clear the brambles, they show too much of their work. Fortunately they weren’t writing for the general public, they were writing for other philosophers. But even then clarity matters. You have to understand the argument but they don’t have to tell you every possible thought they ever had. There’s an amount of showing your work that needs to happen in philosophy though, because it doesn’t matter what your conclusions are, it matters why you came to them. It’s a matter of difficult professional judgement, how much of your argument do you actually show? Part of that is about knowing your audience – are you writing for philosophers, or the general public?
Public philosophy isn’t about telling people what to think. It’s about offering them options, the ways to think about things and reasons for those options – which they may reject. And that’s fine. I don’t care if my students or my readers end up disagreeing with me. I would like them to understand why I’m taking the position that I have, but I’m aware of a thousand arguments on every side.
I’m a professional philosopher and I think professional philosophy matters, too. One of the reasons I think professional philosophy matters is that we discover interesting things and we should share them if we can, but sharing them is not just a matter of distributing the conclusions. Sharing them is letting people see why you might think them, and why they might therefore come to think of them too. This is about important topics from ‘should I mask?’ to ‘should Rachel Dolezal have pretended to be black?’ There are lots of interesting topics where philosophers have something useful to contribute to the conversation. I think we should contribute to the public conversation when we usefully can. We can contribute by explaining why we think there are reasons to do things, and what a reasonable person might do. Getting people to see what the reasonable thing is can involve telling stories, as opposed to just making arguments. That’s the connection to narrative.
I’m often reading philosophers who are writing things that are not accessible to the public, because they’re writing to me and they’re allowed to assume I know certain things. Then I have to figure out if what they tell me is useful, and how to transmit it on. I may have to fill in blanks and do things that they haven’t done. That’s fine. That’s my job. Narrative is often helpful in that.
What is the power of storytelling? Why does it matter?
Part of our sociability is an interest in gossip, the stories about other people. We trade them on and they become currency in social relations. There’s a famous humanist slogan from the Roman playwright Terence which says “Nothing human is alien to me.” In the play what’s going on is that the character’s reporting gossip about what’s going on on the other side of the fence. He’s just saying, I like stories about other people. The thing that humans are tied together by, is that we like swapping stories about other people.
If you go to a very remote society where you don’t really understand anything, but you have a story or two to tell about somebody they’ve heard about. You’ve got the beginnings of a relationship. We enjoy interesting stories about other people, even mildly interesting stories about other people. And we remember them.
Narrative is also a large part of the way people understand themselves. They locate themselves in stories. Immigrants narrate their lives through stories of migration. They narrate their lives as having achieved a new country. They speak of themselves not just as me, but as Nonna and Papa and other ancestral people who are in other places. They have stories about them that locate them, and they locate themselves in relation to those stories. Just being a person involves telling stories, telling your own story, telling the story of your family and your community, and having a sense of where you fit into those stories. That’s how we know who we are. If you ask someone who they are, the answer they give you is going to be stories about how they make a living, what family they come from, or what society they live in. So it’s not surprising that people understand stories. They need them to be people.
How do you make a story better?
There are so many elements in the craft of writing and like most people who write I’m not sure I have a full conscious grip on how I do what I’m doing. There are things you have to play with, not just the plot or the story but the telling. There’s the materiality of the language. How do I describe Anton Wilhelm Amo? What can I truthfully say? We only have limited information about him, and this is a work of nonfiction so I can’t just make stuff up. But there are more interesting ways of describing him than just saying where he comes from. You assemble the content and then you need to figure out the form.
The form means both the language you use sentence by sentence and the order in which you tell it. There are stories you tell of someone where you say a whole lot about them at the start and set them up as a character. Then there are others where the character is doing something for a while and then you say, by the way this is who this is. There’s how you tell something, and then there’s the sequence in which you put the events together.
In fiction, you don’t often just write things in the order in which they happen. That’s something I learned writing mystery novels. The classic formula is you start with a death, and then you may have to go back a very long way to understand why something happened. You can also tell a story from many different points of view. All of those tools are there in fiction.
Even in nonfiction, you can imagine the story from somebody’s point of view. I wrote a book about honor, so I included a bit about duels. You can ask what someone was thinking when they agreed to risk their life in this completely bizarre way. You could tell it from a first person point of view. I didn’t do that exactly, but I did try to get inside their mind and figure out what they were thinking. Readers trust you. They know that if you say something is from the point of view of someone, they know that you’re trying to represent a point rather than accurately describe everything that happened. Contemporary readers are trained to accept many different ways at getting at the truth apart from just saying in a flat-footed way what happened in the order in which it happened. This is true of the best journalism too. They can tell things from someone’s point of view. We know that they weren’t inside the person’s head, but we trust them to have made a good faith effort to try and get at that point of view.