Cosmopolitanism: World citizenship and the imagination

Scientific Essay, 2006

15 Pages, Grade: none



This paper examines the idea of world citizenship and if it is both possible and desirable; if it is to be understood as an abstraction or a framework for action. I consider a number of common notions of world citizenship and then, supported by Nussbaum’s theory of public rationality from the literary imagination, I illuminate how the cosmopolitan vision of Diogenes, kosmopolitês (cosmopolitanism), may present the most promising construct of world citizenship to act as a counter hegemonic citizen-based force to neoliberal globalization. Additionally, a review of the world citizenship teaching model Learning for a Cause elucidates the potential for my vision of kosmopolitês in practice. I find world citizenship to be crucial to contemporary society, but in need of (re)understanding.

Cosmopolitanism: World Citizenship and the Imagination

“I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitês]” -Diogenes

World Citizenship: A Common (Mis)Understanding

Marshal McLuhan’s idea of the ‘global village’ has taken on a new degree of resonance following the ‘globalizing decade’ of the 1990’s. There can be little uncertainty in 2006 that our world has become more intimately involved across boarders, regions and nation states. As Beiner (2003) reaffirms “without doubt, boundaries between national states are vastly more permeable than they were a generation or two ago, and this has incalculable implications for…the meaning of citizenship” (p. 200). As our global community shrinks and becomes more intimate, so too must our responsibilities, understandings and considerations expand to cover the reach of our actions. It is not a world state which must be created to attain world citizenship or experience cosmopolitanism; rather it is the general disruption of traditional polities, insofar as to remove civic action from the interests of political boundaries and geographical boarders, which will meaningfully foster the flourishing of human lives (Kleingeld, 2006).

One of the primary actors within the global community is that of the trans-national corporation (TNC). Stromquist (2002) elucidates this concept stating “large and complex because of their [TNC] economic success and influence, TNCs bring considerable change not only to the particular economic spheres in which they operate but also to other global milieus and down to their surrounding local environments” (p. 83). Global actors are not limited to TNCs however, additionally we have seen the increased emergence of trans-national non-governmental organizations in a multiplicity of domains, such as cultural, economic, and humanitarian to name but three; UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), WTO (World Trade Organization), and Amnesty International, for example. Finally, although not exhaustively, we also see individuals, such as Maurice Chevalier or Omar Sharif, which have become prominently recognized for their international influence and actions (Mathiason, 1998). It is conditions such as these which gave rise to a concept of a governmental structure which should have international reach; world government. With the continued proliferation of communications technologies, such as the internet, it has became possible for individuals without a formalized international presence to have global knowledge, information and influence; hence world citizens (Stromquist, 2002; Beiner, 2002).

Citizenship is what philosophers call an essentially contested concept, an idea in constant flux (Crick, 2000). However some understanding of the term needs to be present to properly contextualize the idea of world citizenship. Although not denying the complexity of the institution, I provide a very simple concept from the work of Osler and Starkey (2002) to frame my discussion. They claim that “fundamentally citizenship is about making a difference. It is about working with others in the quest for a good society” (p. 2). Additionally, Kingwell (2000) claims that citizenship is about making active our desire for justice and that this is something that we cannot do alone. This adds support to the idea of a global citizen as, if we need to work together to seek justice, which enables a ‘good society’, why would we work within invented political or geographical boundaries in an age of world interconnectedness? In the end, within this vision of world citizenship, we are all working together to fundamentally foster a desire of human flourishing which transcends social constructions; likened to the desire to survive.

Concepts of world citizenship have fluctuated between being members of an actual structure of world government, as a sovereign force, to world citizens as a mere theoretical concept for making global politics intelligible. Davies (2006) states this simply as “global citizenship: abstraction or framework for action” (p. 5). From the outset of this essay I forward the political, social, and economic impossibility of world government as a sovereign power deferring to the words of Hannah Arendt (1968):

Nobody can be a citizen of the world as he is the citizen of his country. No matter what form of world government…might assume, the very notion of one sovereign force ruling the whole earth, holding the monopoly of all means of violence, unchecked and uncontrolled by other sovereign powers, is not only a forbidding nightmare of tyranny, it would be the end of all political life as we know it… A citizen is by definition a citizen among citizens of a country among countries…Philosophy may conceive of the earth as the homeland of mankind and one unwritten law, eternal and valid for all. (p. 81)

Hannah Arendt closes one door, that of world government as a sovereign force, and opens another, that of world citizenship as a philosophical or theoretical space with the potential to bring about globally minded civic action. I will make the argument that world citizenship is in fact valid, useful, and possible as a framework for working the ethical imagination within the act of public rationality. That is, although I claim the need for our civic action to retain a locus in the nation state, I also claim that we can operate intimate and immediate forms of citizenship within a cosmopolitan vision; a genuine understanding and concern for problems that urgently demand a global response and for which the fostering our common good rests upon. Davies (2006) reminds us of a more familiar slogan, “act local, think global” (p. 9). Therefore, I move forward not with the notion of world citizenship as an sovereign institutionalized world force, or even a network of global organizations asserting a form of economic or social governance (see, for example, Boli & Thomas, 1997), rather with a concept of world citizenship as a theoretical site for unfolding imagination and public rationality which will lead to meaningful globally-minded local civic action. In précis, world citizenship is both a framework for action and an abstraction.

Osler and Starkey (2002) describe citizenship as having what they term as “three essential and complimentary dimensions. It is a status, a feeling, and a practice (original emphasis, p. 9). It is merely the first, citizenship as status which I believe does not easily apply to a workable conception of world citizenship because of the near impossibility of world government as a sovereign force. However, we do not need to have world government to have an intelligible concept of world citizenship. I assert that both feeling and practice are applicable, in fact, I suggest they are the two elements at the heart of the potential for my vision of world citizenship.

Feeling applies simply in that citizens of the world feel a fundamental belonging to humanity or the human race and guide ethical decisions around such a notion rather than around more ‘political’ concepts which have a definite geographical location. In reference to citizenship as a practice I do take issue, to an extent. That is, I argue that citizens act most effectively on a local level, but, can effect more meaningful change within a global citizenship structure which recognizes and appreciates the global dimension of local issues. For example, the instillation of a local paint factory might not only be considered in terms of the benefit and disadvantages to the immediate community, but also the cosmopolitan concern of global warming. Final decision by a world citizen would be born from a deliberation which cast a wider net than simply the concerns of the locally-minded citizenry. Political and social issues as well as feelings of compassion and empathy become removed from notions of boarders and boundaries. World citizens are cognoscente of issues insofar as they affect people as humans, not members of a certain polity. Osler and Starkey (2005) refer to cosmopolitan (original emphasis) vision as “feelings of concern and interest in the situation of other people on another continent” (p. 8). As Richardson (1979) says we need to “act local, think global” and become world citizens, individuals who “know how the world works, is outraged by injustice and who is both willing and enabled to take action to meet this global challenge” (as quoted in Davies, 2006, p. 7).


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Cosmopolitanism: World citizenship and the imagination
Concordia University Montreal
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Cosmopolitanism, World, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Ernest Sweet
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Graduate Student Michael Ernest Sweet (Author), 2006, Cosmopolitanism: World citizenship and the imagination, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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