Anthony Appiah

Anthony Appiah Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy at Harvard, is the author of In My Father’s House, among other books.

Redmond O’Hanlon’s account of a journey to Borneo, undertaken with the poet James Fenton, was a grand deception, in which the ostensible search for an indigenous rhinoceros on the slopes of a mountain fastness turned out to be so much camouflage. Clues as to what was really happening could be glimpsed in the structure of O’Hanlon’s narrative. Into the Heart of Borneo is a book burdened by its sense of belatedness; every moment is glossed as the repetition of some earlier natural historian’s triumph. Near the beginning, when he first sees Troides brookiana, a bird-wing butterfly, O’Hanlon cites Alfred Russel Wallace’s description of it as ‘one of the most elegant species known’. What he does not see is also carefully itemised, in the words of those earlier heroes whose eyes have gazed on the mysteries: ‘an owl, Glaucidium borneense, “about the size of one’s thumb”, as [Charles] Hose described it, which calls poop-te-poop-poop’; or a tiny hawk, Microhierax, which lays ‘a large white egg about as big as itself’. The book’s very form – the palimpsest of prose from so many predecessors-makes plain one fundamental impulse of the journey: O’Hanlon is on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of those natural historians and explorers who inhabited his doctoral thesis on ‘Changing Scientific Concepts of Nature in the English Novel’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Everywhere he turns he sees the shade of Wallace (The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise. A Narrative of Travel, with Studies of Man and Nature, 2 vols, 1869) and hears the footpad of Charles Hose (The Field-Book of a Jungle-Wallah, being a Description of Shore, River and Forest Life in Sarawak, 1929). These men are O’Hanlon’s real companions; he reads them by torchlight in his tent; he sees the world through their eyes, and confides in them, as he cannot always do in Fenton.

Madmen and Specialists

Anthony Appiah, 7 September 1995

If you’ve ever spent some time in a Ghanaian town, such as Kumasi, in Asante region, you will occasionally have seen people half-clothed in filthy rags, hair matted with the red-brown dust thrown up from the laterite earth, wandering the streets largely unmolested; talking, perhaps, to themselves; begging sometimes; or scratching through rubbish heaps looking for something to eat. When I was a child in Kumasi we were taught to fear these madmen and women, whom we called bodamfoo. When we were naughty we would be threatened with a visit from them. Indeed, there is an Asante proverb which runs: Obodamfoo se ne dam ko a, na nye ode hunahuna mmofra. (If the madman says his madness has gone, that doesn’t mean the thing he uses to frighten children.) Among adults, I think, it would be more accurate to describe the attitude to bodamfoo as one of mild contempt. The only other people I can think of who are regularly treated with a similar contempt are what we would call alcoholics (though these even children will mock). But (to quote another of our proverbs) Odehyee bo dam a, yefre no asaboro – if a royal goes mad, we call him a drunkard – because, obviously, it is worse to be a drunk than a lunatic.’

Whose Nuremberg Laws? race

Jeremy Waldron, 19 March 1998

Race is something which shouldn’t matter, but which has mattered and therefore has to matter. In a world uncontaminated by injustice, we could regard heritable differences in skin...

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