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The Hidden History of the Cosmopolitan Concept

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Heavenly Citizenship and the Aporia of World Community

image of Journal of the Philosophy of History

Despite the ubiquity of contemporary debate in learned and popular cultures concerning the place of the cosmopolitan and cosmopolitanism, the historical background to this peculiarly Western vision of world unity remains understudied and virtually unknown. This is particularly the case, rather surprisingly, for the early modern period, when the term “cosmopolite” reappeared in European vocabularies for the first time since antiquity. It is during this period, however, that the most significant, enduring and problematic features of the cosmopolitan concept are articulated, particularly in those conceptions of world community which drew on Pauline notions of heavenly citizenship. Employing a modified Begriffsgeschichtliche approach, this article utilizes several case studies of cosmopolitan thought from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – including Erasmus, Guillaume Postel, Johann Valentin Andreae and others – in order to critique the history of the concept of the cosmopolitan. This essay argues, on the basis of this evidence, that there is an aporia which is constitutive of cosmopolitan concept, and which impacts on all attempts to understand, analyse and apply the category from antiquity to the present. Namely, although the cosmopolitan ideal is a peculiarly Western mythology which has always possessed a patina of benevolent inclusivity, it is contingent on establishing boundaries and establishing exclusivity.

Affiliations: 1: University of


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