Beck, Ulrich — The Cosmopolitan Vision

Work Cited

Beck, Ulrich. The Cosmopolitan Vision. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.

Summary of the Introduction

The introduction opens with the opposition cosmopolitanism/patriotism. Today this old debate is over because the human condition has become cosmopolitan (2)

Cosmopolitanism is no more a controversial rational idea.

The “cosmopolitan outlook”: “Global sense, a sense of boundarylessness. An everyday, historically alert, reflexive awareness of ambivalences in a milieu of blurring differentiations and cultural contradictions. It reveals not just the ‘anguish’ but also the possibility of shaping one’s life and social relations under conditions of cultural mixture. It is simultaneously a sceptical, disillusioned, self-critical outlook.” (3)


Cosmopolitan identities: “One constructs a model of one’s own identity by dipping freely into the Lego set of globally available identities and building a progressively inclusive self-image. The result is a patchwork, quasi-cosmopolitan, but simultaneously provincial, identity whose central characteristic is its rejection of traditional relations of responsibility.” (5) Good example of the “both/and” that replaced the “either/or” of methodological nationalism.

Cosmopolitan empathy: “globalization of emotions” (5-6). Five interconnected constitutive principles of the cosmopolitan outlook:

  1. The principle of the experience of crisis in world society: “civilisational community of fate”
  2. The principle of recognition of cosmopolitan differences and the resulting cosmopolitan conflict character
  3. The principle of cosmopolitan empathy and of perspective-taking
  4. The principle of the impossibility of living in a world society and the impulsion to rebuild old walls
  5. The mélange principle: local and cosmopolitan cultures and traditions interpenetrate, intermingle.

Difference between globalization and cosmopolitanisation: globalization is one-dimensional as economic globalization. Cosmopolitanisationis multidimensional, it has irreversibly changed the historical nature of social worlds.

Three examples of cosmopolitans based on Munich, three writers from Munich write in distinct traditions of “rooted cosmopolitanism” that have both “roots” and “wings”:

  1. Thomas Mann (national cosmopolitanism): rejects in Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man the alternative nationalism versus internationalism and formulates the position of a national cosmopolitanism although he is aware of the “in-built ambivalences”. (11)
  2. Lion Feuchtwanger (German-Jewish cosmopolitanism): against the arbitrary administrative boundary one is born that determines who are friends and enemies
  3. Oskar Maria Graf (Catholic cosmopolitanism): From Tolstoy’s Christianity and Patriotism he quotes: “If men would only finally grasp that they are not children of some fatherland but of God the father!” (13) He puts “The world must become provincial. Only then will it become human.”

“What, then, does the cosmopolitan outlook signify? It does not herald the first rays of universal brotherly love among peoples, or the dawn of the world republic, or a free-floating global outlook, or compulsory xenophilia. Nor is cosmopolitanism a kind of supplement that is supposed to replace nationalism and provincialism, for the very good reason that the ideas of human rights and democracy need a national base. Rather, the cosmopolitan outlook means that, in a world of global crisis and dangers produced by civilisational and international, us and them, lose their validity and a new cosmopolitan realism becomes essential to survival.” (13-14)


Beck is building on his conception of “second modernity” and the “reflexive condition” it entails, as expounded in his famous Risk Society, and developed in the sequel World Risk Society and What is Globalization? In a nutshell, the present condition is reflexive, and as such everything is constructed including “reality.” As such there are no fixed identities, since they are socially constructed. The first modernity characterised by realism and a primary scientization with rationalism and the Enlightenment is replaced by a “reflexive scientization” based on constructivism. As such, science is equally altering the reality is attempts to describe and understand. Methodological cosmopolitanism is perceived as a better tool for describing this second modernity where globalisation — the movement produced by a world economy and increasing individualisation — have replaced the industrial society with a world risk society.

In consecutive articles and in this book, Beck elaborates on what he understands as cosmopolitanism, and develops the concept of “cosmopolitan realism.” He takes distance from “philosophical cosmopolitanism,” but in the end the project of a cosmopolitan sociology may just be the wishful thinking for normatively imposing a cosmopolitan project through “science.” For that, cosmopolitanism is opposed to nationalism, which is the basis for analysing the first modernity through the prism of the nation-state. Cosmopolitanism is also differentiated from globalization, which is a process of uniformization of the world around Western capitalistic values. Cosmopolitanism also have “enemies” in all forms of sectarian particularism, or uniformism, or violent universalism. All in all cosmopolitanism appears as “the good thing” that everyone should embrace.

I am not particularly unsympathetic to cosmopolitanism, but I think that a number of contradictions should be resolved. First and most importantly, this methodological cosmopolitanism claims to be opposed to nationalism, because different from methodological nationalism. However, it is based on the same hidden mechanisms of thought. Basically it is just replacing the nation-society on the “local” level we now know, with a global level. Everything we know in the nation-state is transferred to a global and transnational level.

Is cosmopolitanism synonymous with global then? Why not call it globalism? Well, because globalism is too close to globalization, which is a bad thing. Cosmopolitanism refers to something more positive, at least in our contemporary Western culture. This is the reason why the study of globalization could not lead to the introduction of a globalism philosophy, whereas cosmopolitanism as a philosophy seems to lead to the introduction of the study of “cosmopolitanization.”

My personal research project is actually to understand where our perception of cosmopolitanism as opposed to nationalism comes from, and why is cosmopolitanism associated with travel. My contention is that these two conceptions are not necessarily obvious to cosmopolitanism. First, the opposition between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, appeared when nationalism became a socially embedded discourse in the second half of the nineteenth century, and cosmopolitanism was thus constructed as the significant “other” to nationalism as negative and opposed to the good values of nationalism. This cosmopolitanism can hence be called a “national-cosmopolitanism,” since it is constructed inside the national paradigm. Second, the idea that cosmopolitanism is related to travel and the “citizen of the world” as a globe-trotter, is situated in eighteenth century Europe, when the “grand tour” was a must for all educated citizen or aristocrat. It was popularised by e.g. Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World in Britain, or Fougeret de Monbron’s Le cosmopolite ou le citoyen du monde in France, which famous opening sentence served as an inspiration to Byron in Childe Harold as the epigraph runs:

The universe is a kind of book of which one has only read the first page when one has only seen one’s native land. I’ve leafed through a number of them, and have found them all equally bad. This examination has not proved fruitless. I hated my country. All the impertinences of the diverse peoples among which I have lived has reconciled me to it.

Further readings:

”Toward a new critical theory with a cosmopolitan intent”, Constellations, Vol. 10, No 4, 2003.

“Cosmopolitical realism: on the distinction between cosmopolitanism in philosophy and the social sciences”, Global Networks 4, 2, 2004, pp. 131-156.

”The cosmopolitan perspective: sociology of the second age of modernity, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 51, No 1, 2000, pp. 79-105.

”The cosmopolitan society and its enemies”, Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 19(1-2), 2002, pp. 17-44.


About Frank Ejby Poulsen

Education: MRes History, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. MSc Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. LLM International law and EU law, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. Academia Profile: Languages: French: Mother tongue Danish: C2 English: C2 German: B1-B2 Spanish: A2-B1 Norwegian and Swedish: reading comprehension
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2 Responses to Beck, Ulrich — The Cosmopolitan Vision

  1. Hey Frank

    I’m trying to understand your project here. Haven’t had the time yet to read your thesis though….

    You seem to want to dissolve the opposition between nationalism and cosmpolitanism. As concepts the two have the same origin, meaning that they developed as eachother’s ‘significant other’. Is this your main argument and rightly understood?

    My (first) question: Does this common origin really *dissolve* the opposition? Aren’t you confusing origin with validity? Or are you taking the position that to trace the validity of a concept *is* to trace it’s origin? Perhaps it is this focaultian approach I have trouble accepting.

    Let’s take it to a more political level: Isn’t nationalism as a political project today *standing in the way* of – ‘surpressing’ – cosmopolitan identities which is a facticity for a lot of us? Not to say standing in the way of solving the many problems that cross the borders of the national states?

    Guess I’m more convinced of a ‘pure’ cosmpolitan outlook…

    See you
    – Søren

  2. Frank Ejby Poulsen says:

    Hi Søren,

    Thanks for you comment and feedback.

    You have it half right. I do not wish to ‘dissolve’ the opposition. I just wish to recast its history. My contention is first to consider with Skinner that an idea does not necessarily exist in relation to the word designating it. This is important because the word ‘cosmopolitanism’ only appeared in French dictionaries in 1863. Still, everyone would say that the eighteenth century was the golden age of ‘cosmopolitanism.’ Now my second contention is to consider our present conception of cosmopolitanism as a product of the evolution of ideas, and as such, to assume that it may not always have been so. As a consequence, I need to break down cosmopolitanism into several compounds that constitute it. I use Foucault’s conception of a discourse.

    When going back to the Enlightenment, and looking at how this discourse, through the elements identified, got formed, one is forced to see that many of our conceptions that we consider ‘nationalist’ were ‘cosmopolitan’ in their spirit. If you consider with your contemporary ‘pure’ cosmopolitan outlook the concept of ‘nation’ and ‘patrie,’ you are forced to consider them as the cosmopolitan concepts of that time. To many people, such ideas of a ‘nation’ and ‘patrie’ were abstract and far away concepts, since the local land and the local prince were all there was to them.

    It’s because of the addition of several elements and other discourses that are common to contemporary understandings of cosmopolitanism and nationalism, that the concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘patrie’ were injected with the idea of abstract moral communities based on equality and freedom of humankind. However, at the same time, the nation was also designating a culturally and ethnically specific population in a territorial state, and the patrie , a territorial state where the interests of the inhabitants meet for the common good. There was a certain duality of conception. Robespierre and Cloots, saw this problem very well. In the early hours of the French revolution there was no ‘French’ nation or ‘French’ patrie. These two concepts were only later ‘nationalised.’

    That is why the revolutionaries wanted to export the ‘French’ ideas; to them these were universal truth, that all men were created equal, the people had to be liberated from their tyrants. How else is it possible to explain then, that Cloots consider that there can only be one nation: humankind. There is also only one sovereign on earth: humankind. No one can logically, and that means inside the discourse of humanity, argue for a political fractioning of this humanity — on these standards. Why would, in a perfectly free and equal humankind, some decide that they are sovereign? And why them? And why not reducing to a little village in mountains? The answer to the fractioning is not philosophical, but political. Power/knowledge created a ‘nationalised’ conception of ‘nation’ and ‘patrie.’

    As to your second question, it deals — in my view — with the consequences of this historical study to political philosophy. I have not thought so much about this, because in my view, it comes at a later stage. Nationalism as such does not stay in the way. It depends what kind of nationalism it is. All in all, I guess that one has to accept that nationalism contains elements of universalism, and cosmopolitanism contains elements of localism. If all nation-state instead of being based on exclusive notions of ‘nation’ accepted the eighteenth century notion of a community of free and equal men, they would perhaps transform into cosmopolitan-states, and conceptions of sovereignty would not be a matter of which ethnic-nation decides inside territorial limits, but would be accepted to be necessarily diffused, depending on how many populations are affected by the decision considered.

    Apart from that, as always, political reality stands in the way of ideas. The way I see it, is to change nationalist mentalities and replacing them by cosmopolitan ones.

    — Frank.

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