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The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  1,223 ratings  ·  193 reviews
Who do you think you are? That’s a question bound up in another: What do you think you are? Gender. Religion. Race. Nationality. Class. Culture. Such affiliations give contours to our sense of self, and shape our polarized world. Yet the collective identities they spawn are riddled with contradictions, and cratered with falsehoods.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s "The Lies That Bind
Paperback, 272 pages
Published October 2018 by Profile (first published August 28th 2018)
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Oct 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is more of a contemplation of identity--it's not really a "rethinking" so much because there's really nothing new here. Just thoughts about religious and racial identity and how those things shift and are culturally bound and can be shed. I like everything he said and I like his solutions (that it's better to conceive more broadly of our identities as opposed to creating small and warring identity groups), but I just didn't really learn much that was new. Still, I found myself nodding ...more
robin friedman
Sep 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A Nightmare A Body's Got To Live With In The Daytime

Robert Coover's, recent novel "Huck out West" carries the story of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and related characters through the Civil War to 1876. The story is told in Huck's voice with many observations, some cutting but some insightful. Among the latter sort, Huck says in this book discussing what contemporary readers would recognize as the concept of identity:

"Tribes"... They're a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin y
Aug 13, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author is a Ghanian/ British philosopher who has spent most of his career in the US. He gets a little academic at times, but does a brilliant job of dissecting and debunking ideas of identity around "creed, country, color, class and culture," showing how too much of our thinking about those things are left over from bad 19th century ideologies.

He doesn't think we can get rid of identity in the sense of social groups, but "the problem is not walls as such but walls that hedge us in; walls we
Craig Werner
Jan 26, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose "identity" (those are scare quotes) as a "black (or at least not white)", "gay," academic who speaks what he calls "the Queen's English," infuses every aspect of this smart, useful book on the way we use labels to define ourselves and those we come in contact with. His take-home point is basic, clear and true: every label is a radical simplification that leads us and others to deny parts of all of our complexity. His chapters on creed, country, color, class and cultur ...more
Jon Stout
Mar 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: the nationalistic and the cosmopolitan
Recommended to Jon by: Bill Dennis
Shelves: philosophy
Kwame Anthony Appiah sets out to examine the various parts of our culture which make up group identities, the way we categorize ourselves or characterize others. He identifies five kinds of group identity: creed (religion), country, color, class and culture. My first impression is that he does a job of deconstruction on each of the kinds of group identity, showing that there are so many internal contradictions, and the history of each category has evolved so radically, that it is meaningless to ...more
Robert Stevenson
Oct 21, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The book starts off with a decent beginning about how identity as a word evolved out of Erik Erikson sociological research in the 1960’s and then it adds nothing. After the intro, the book quickly descends into a confusing epistemological labyrinth of religious interpretation, broad historical summary and gross generalizations.

I could not finish it, even after three or four tries and I found myself wondering why Zadie Smith endorsed the book. Glad it was public library book and I didn’t waste mo
Jackie Law
Oct 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Divided into five main sections – creed, country, colour, class and culture – The Lies That Bind is a philosophical exploration of what is meant by identity in our contemporary world. To better understand how fluid any definition will inevitably be it is necessary to delve into history, and to consider how people choose to interpret different aspects of their inherited place, upbringing and potential. The author argues that:

“labels belong to communities; they are a social possession. And moralit
I got this book thinking this was perhaps another criticism of "identity politics" that has become so trendy on both the left and the right; I've typically found these critiques self-serving and vague ("identity politics" is never very well defined, and the alternative always aligns with the political presuppositions of the author), so I guess I keep wondering if I'll find one that treats the concept fairly.

Anyway, that's not what The Lies That Bind is. It's indeed a critique of identity politic
Kamila Kunda
Jan 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, own
We live in the times when more people than ever before have a voice and don’t hesitate to use it, even if they have nothing interesting or important to say. We tend to speak more and listen less. We too often focus on our particular and personal identities. That’s why reading “The Lies That Bind” by Kwame Anthony Appiah was a refreshing experience as the book is devoted to social constructs of identities, not individual particulars.
I read it slowly, taking breaks to read other books, and process
Feb 13, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
Appiah examines the concept of identity. His take was rather obvious to me, but not necessarily to everybody. Part of his premise is that we overly essentialize many identities, race, religion, gender, nation, but underestimate how much class plays into things. I've been saying this for years. ...more
Meh. This book adds nothing to the conversation. It feels like it's decades old. I can distill it into one sentence. We are all human! Now you don't have to read it. ...more
Joshua Born
Oct 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook, nonfiction
I had high expectations for Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. Its title – describing as it does identities based on membership in a group as "lies" – foreshadowed that my reading of it would be an extended session of proverbial preaching to the choir. Such is my antipathy toward the extended tribalism that is, unfortunately, human civilization. Furthermore, an encounter with a synopsis of the book had spoiled to me that its dénouement turns upon its own theme and ma ...more
Feb 26, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Mixed feelings on this. I felt like it meandered around the periphery of well-established conversations, only selectively engaging with previous work. At times this led to some novel thoughts, but other times I felt like the statements were grandly proclaiming conclusions and ignoring a whole field of arguments. The book isn't really "rethinking" identity unless it means thinking about it for the first time after taking it for granted. ...more
Pavol Hardos
Wise, erudite, and a trifle boring.

There might have been a bit too many examples to make simple - but much needed - points about the fluidity and social construction of identities. But you won't be able to recall the brilliant examples when you will most need them, and those who most need to read a book like this probably never will.

Jul 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics-history
This was an interesting book about how religion, country, colour, class and culture form common sources of identity and how these elements are oftenbuilt on fictions and contradictions. Appiah's overall argument is that we should promote flexible and multifarious conceptions of identity over rigid attachments to narrowly conceived thoughts on class, colour or nationality. It is written in a very accessible manner and draws on both theoretical and practical insights. A good introduction I would s ...more
Sivananthi T
Feb 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Appiah's treatise on identities takes apart the idea that any identity is one rooted in permanence. Well worth following through his argumentation and though true, does not help us unpack why the power of identities continues to persist to be powerful. ...more
Jun 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Riveting. I think I learnt something new about history and the relative recency of concepts like race and national identity on each page of this smashing book.
Joseph Pfeffer
Mar 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There is no such thing as identity.

Humans cannot exist without identity.

Therefore, to be human means having something that does not exist but without which we are nothing.

So one might sumarize the message of Kwame Anthony Appiah's engaging, humane, wide-ranging, book, one which tries, and largely succeeds, to embrace all humanity in its optimistic vision. Appiah's inclusiveness, his love of strange hereditary and cultural combinations, his cosmopolitanism in the best sense, comes from his own b
Sid Groeneman
Dec 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Like any writing that's seriously analytical, this book requires some effort to get the most from it. But readers interested in the topic of "identity" who put in the work will be rewarded. The author, a professor or philosophy at New York University, devotes a chapter to each of the five bases of modern identity: creed, country, class, color and culture. The book's value lies in debunking each concept as having an essential uniqueness that binds together all sharing that identity. As one exampl ...more
Of all contemporary philosophers I can think of, Kwame Appiah is the most "commonsense," and while I would normally use that as a disparagement (superficial verifiability and playing into the biases of an ovine readership displacing the unmasking of deeper truths), here I use it as a compliment. Simply put, the concept of identity is malleable and fluid, but also requires a certain amount of skin in the game (note how when the right froths at the mouth about kids-these-days identifying as trans, ...more
Jan 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Brilliant book! Picked it up at the AAC&U conference last week, where the author spoke at the opening night forum. Been reading him for years in the New York Review of Books, so I was very excited to get to see him in person, and he was wonderful. Such a pleasure to listen to him, and he was great at Q&A after his talk, too. So it's no surprise that the book is so good. I'll be reading more of his work.

Definitely give this one a read, if you have even the slightest inkling of interest in issues
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
LIES THAT BIND is Appiah's polite broadside against essentialism: "we fall into an error...of supposing that at the core of each identity there is some deep similarity that binds people of that identity together" (xvi). He sets out to challenge that assumption in creed, country, color, class, and culture in order to "reconfigure them; though he admits that identities "can be the enemies of human solidarity, the sources of war, horsemen of a score of apocalypses from apartheid to genocide," he st ...more
Feb 01, 2021 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Probably a big hit at philosophy professor dinner parties.

There's some food for thought here, but it's neither particularly filling nor novel. The highlight for me was the joke below about how we define ourselves by opposition to things, which I will absolutely mistell at my own, philosophy-free dinner parties.

p.41 "There's an old joke about a Jewish man shipwrecked on a desert island. Over the decades he builds three buildings. When he's found, his rescuers ask him what they are. 'This is my h
This is an essay by Kwame Anthony Appiah. His parents are Ewe from Ghana and immigrated to Great Britain. He looks at how human beings identify themselves by identity starting with himself. Do his family identify as Ewe first? Who are the other people who were around them in Ghana. Do they identify as Ghanaian? As British? Does he identify as British? Do others accept him as a British man? This is a interesting look at identity. Is very much like a lecture at a university but he is a professor. ...more
4.5 what an interesting book. Appiah takes all these sticky messy problems of identity and approaches them from a naive-ish position, working out the situations through logic. He intersperses this with accounts of how identity has played out in his own family. It shouldn’t work — it could have been terrible — but it does. Appiah is erudite, unfailingly fair minded and respectful, and his conclusions are satisfying. Prose Is pellucid and almost jargon free. Stimulating and enjoyable reading.
Austin Amandolia
Mar 30, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author builds momentum throughout his argument, so that the reading never feels repetitive or predictable. If you have not deeply contemplated why we use the identities we do, I highly recommend this book. If you have considered identities intently, then some of this book may seem obvious at times, but there are still plenty of interesting insights that make it worth the read. It's also a fairly quick read, and is strong in its diverse use of historical figures. ...more
Fantastic! A great breakdown of many aspects of how we create different identities for ourselves and for others. It stimulated a very thoughtful discussion about race, religion, and nationalism. I appreciated reading this as it was a good, easy to read, conglomeration of many things I studied in school, but see being forgotten in society.
Jan 28, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Timely interrogation of the ethics and history of the ideas around gender (in the Introduction), creed, color, class, and culture in an accessible style. I have long admired Appiah and I'm likely to read his companion piece, Ethics of Identity. ...more
Nov 07, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Along the way I sometimes felt like I'd lost track of the main thread of the book, but it all came together rather gratifyingly in the end, and I do feel like I came away with a clearer understanding of the world we live in and the humans we live among. ...more
Oct 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Liked this book so much! Reminded me of his Cosmopolitanism book. Very good discussions of things like race, nationality, sex but I most of all liked his treatment of religions and cultures.
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Kwame Anthony Appiah, the president of the PEN American Center, is the author of The Ethics of Identity, Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy, The Honor Code and the prize-winning Cosmopolitanism. Raised in Ghana and educated in England, he has taught philosophy on three continents and is a former professor at Princeton University and currently has a position at NYU.


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14 likes · 4 comments
“In each of my five test cases, we fall into an error I’ll describe in the first chapter: of supposing that at the core of each identity there is some deep similarity that binds people of that identity together. Not true, I say; not true over and over again. How plausible I can make this thought will depend upon arguments, but also upon details and upon the scores of stories that illustrate my claims. There’s no dispensing with identities, but we need to understand them better if we can hope to reconfigure them, and free ourselves from mistakes about them that are often a couple of hundred years old. Much of what is dangerous about them has to do with the way identities—religion, nation, race, class, and culture—divide us and set us against one another. They can be the enemies of human solidarity, the sources of war, horsemen of a score of apocalypses from apartheid to genocide. Yet these errors are also central to the way identities unite us today. We need to reform them because, at their best, they make it possible for groups, large and small, to do things together. They are the lies that bind.” 2 likes
“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.” 2 likes
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