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The Cosmopolitan Imagination: The Renewal of Critical Social Theory

reviewed by Mitchell Aboulafia - January 11, 2011

coverTitle: The Cosmopolitan Imagination: The Renewal of Critical Social Theory
Author(s): Gerard Delanty
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0521695457, Pages: 306, Year: 2009
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Globalization may be the buzzword of our epoch yet it escapes concise definition. We can point to obvious features of the phenomenon—for example, the pervasiveness of markets and new means of communication and transportation—but academics will be debating its nature for the foreseeable future. In The Cosmopolitan Imagination Gerard Delanty is less interested in dissecting globalization than in presenting standards that can be used to judge its justices and injustices, its rights and wrongs, which he does by offering an insightful, provocative, and often penetrating analysis of cosmopolitanism. As a sociologist and critical theorist his task is not merely to provide an empirical account of types of cosmopolitanism. He wishes to develop a version that will assist us in critically evaluating norms.

The book’s first chapter provides a summary of approaches to cosmopolitanism from the Ancient World (the Axial Age) to the twentieth century. Needless to say, overviews of this sort can leave a reader breathless. However, it serves Delanty’s purpose in setting the stage for the theoretical underpinnings of his book, which are discussed in Chapter Two and concisely reiterated in the Conclusion. Delanty is clear about his agenda. His critical cosmopolitanism cannot simply be a form of multicultural tolerance of the Other, although the latter plays a formative role in the development of the cosmopolitan imagination. It must sustain a standpoint for evaluating norms and offer a path for sharing them. He agrees with classical critical theorists that the goal is immanent transcendence and not merely the understanding of others. Toward the close of Chapter Two he provides a tidy summary of his orientation. He specifies “four dynamics that have to be present, to varying degrees, in any specific dimension to demonstrate the extent of a cosmopolitan orientation” (p. 86). These dynamics are listed below:


The capacity for the relativization of one’s own culture or identity. In the encounter with the Other the self or native culture undergoes a process of learning or self-discovery. In this case, cosmopolitanism is to be understood according to the hermeneutic principle of understanding the Other, as in Gadamer’s theory of the fusion of horizons.


The capacity for the positive recognition of the Other. This goes beyond the use of the Other in self-transformation to an accommodation of the Other….


The capacity for a mutual evaluation of cultures or identities. In this case there is the possibility of inter-cultural dialogue extending beyond learning from the Other to a transformation of cultures and standpoints….


The capacity to create a shared normative culture. This emerges out of the critical dialogue of standpoints and consists of a transcendence of difference and diversity towards a shared or common culture. It can be understood as a more developed third culture in which a translation of perspectives occurs. (pp. 86-87)

Needless to say, this is an ambitious version of cosmopolitanism. Not only must we understand each other and be tolerant of different views but a third culture must emerge that involves the translation of perspectives and shared norms. Further, “it is possible to see these dynamics as putting into play capacities that become progressively stronger as we move from the first to the fourth” (p. 87). And as if defending these elements of a critical cosmopolitanism weren’t enough, Delanty also wishes to defend the claim that a cosmopolitanism of this sort is not localized historically; that is, he argues that cosmopolitanism “resides in social mechanisms and dynamics that can exist in any society at any time in history where world openness has a resonance” (p. 88). Much of the rest of the book is taken up with an explanation of these features of cosmopolitanism, as well as an attempt to escape from Eurocentric accounts of cosmopolitanism and modernity.   

In Delanty’s view not only are there multiple versions of cosmopolitanism, there are multiple versions of modernity that are not constrained by periodicity.

The forms, interrelations and dynamics of modernity are varied and uneven, but underlying them is the most basic impetus towards self-transformation, the belief that human agency can transform the present in the image of an imagined future. This view of modernity as a break from the past seems to accord with the major philosophical and cultural understandings of modernity as a dynamic process that has made change itself the defining feature of modernity. Modernity is thus a particular kind of time consciousness that defines the present in its relation to the past, which must be continuously recreated. Modernity is not a historical epoch that can be periodized, but a mode of experiencing and interpreting time…. Modernity is thus not exclusively Western but can emerge anywhere. (p. 191)

Delanty acknowledges that modernity first arose in Western Europe but this should not lead us to see it as a European phenomenon. “Modernity is necessarily global in outlook, while it first emerged in Western Europe and North America it is not Western” (p. 190). His insistence on remaining open to different versions of modernity certainly appears respectable and broadminded. Yet it leads Delanty into problematic territory when he focuses on at least one specific case. How, for example, is a reader to reconcile the following three passages, which are from the Conclusion of the book?

The concept of modernity, I have argued—to simplify a complex debate—refers to the interaction of state, market and civil society in ways that make possible the self-transformative capacity of society leading to the emergence of cultural models that affirm human autonomy and freedom. (p. 256)

There is no one model of modernity, which is not Western and nor is it universal. Its singularity, to follow Jameson, at most consists of its capacity to open up the immanent possibilities for self-transcendence. It is only in this sense that modernity can be considered as singular. (p. 257)1

There is no doubt that the Chinese combination of capitalist development and a single-party state along with the revitalized neo-Confucianist value system is a new model of modernity and one that has emerged out of the reform of communism, which elsewhere failed to sustain a viable model of modernity. (p. 257)

If Delanty were simply placing different forms of modernity on a continuum, then perhaps these passages might be reconciled. China is on its way but hasn’t quite caught up. However, Delanty’s point is that China is developing a new form of modernity (through interacting with other parts of the world). The problem is that he often describes modernity in terms that sound as if they are drawn from a combination of Western existentialism and the Frankfurt School, for example, “the immanent possibilities for self-transcendence.” Certainly China is developing features of what Delanty has described as modernity. But it seems somewhat problematic to describe the most salient attribute of modernity in such Western terms—immanent possibilities for self-transcendence—and then claim that China (as well as other nations or civilizations) has its own (unique) modernities. For example, how exactly are we to understand a “revitalized neo-Confucianist value system” in terms of self-transcendence?   

There are other instances in which Delanty utilizes concepts that are associated with “Western” traditions in questionable ways.

Cosmopolitan culture is one of self-problematization and while diversity will, by the pluralizing nature of cosmopolitanism, be inevitable, the reflexive and critical self-understanding of cosmopolitanism cannot be neglected. Cosmopolitanism must be seen as one of the major expressions of the tendency in modernity toward self-problematization and subject formation. (p. 68)

Delanty appears to hold that the most developed form(s) of cosmopolitanism would not be possible without these features of modernity. This is not an easy thesis to defend. Or to be more exact, it is a simple thesis to defend if you presuppose these characteristics as necessary for a sophisticated cosmopolitanism. My sense is that Delanty believes that he has adequately defended this thesis in The Cosmopolitan Imagination. I would suggest that his account is more suggestive than definitive. The problem is not just Delanty’s. It’s in the nature of the material, which is a hybrid of sociological and philosophical claims. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough philosophy or moral psychology to fully defend his position in this book. And I say this as a reader sympathetic to the importance of the concepts of reflexivity and self-problematization for understanding cosmopolitanism.      

There is much more that might be said about a book as ambitious as The Cosmopolitan Imagination if one were to write an extended review. No doubt Delanty offers a compelling sociological approach to cosmopolitanism, which contains worthwhile discussions on a wide range of topics. However, in the end this book’s ambitions escape the number of pages that the author dedicates to them, which may be due to the fact that The Cosmopolitan Imagination is part of a larger project.


1. Jameson, F. 2002. A singular modernity. London. Verso.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 11, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16284, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:45:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Mitchell Aboulafia
    The Juilliard School
    E-mail Author
    MITCHELL ABOULAFIA is Director of Liberal Arts and Professor of Liberal Arts and Philosophy at The Juilliard School. He specializes in social theory, with an emphasis on the relationship of European theorists to American pragmatists. He is the author of several books. His most recent, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism, was published the summer of 2010 by Stanford University Press.
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