The five dimensions of critical cosmopolitanism

A conceptual study

Soraya Nour Sckell

I. Introduction[1]

Contemporary cosmopolitan theories have very different aims and approaches[2], but all of them try to respond to current developments in the global scene concerning the status of a human being considered as a citizen of the world ("cosmopolitan") and not of a particular State. Most of the criticism against theories of cosmopolitanism, above all the "philosophical" ones, addresses their strong normative character, which characterizes them more as an aspiration, an ideal, with no much explanatory potential. Ulrich Beck[3] even formulated an opposition between a philosophical cosmopolitanism (what should be) and a sociological cosmopolitanism (what is), considering that the first one would not be necessary to the second one.

These are false oppositions, which should be overcome. Critical cosmopolitanism aims to provide a solid review of the moral presuppositions that found the cosmopolitan theories and situate them in more social, political frames. It aims also to surpass the opposition between "cosmopolitan methodology", that focus on the individual in the global scene, and the "state-centered" and "territorial methodology", that focus on the local scene, combining both. It is informed by both theoretical and explanatory approaches, concerned with issues like racism, nationalism, xenophobia, and problems related to migrants, refugees, asylumseekers, stateless, displaced persons, ethnical minorities, and indigenous people.

To overcome the opposition between a philosophical cosmopolitanism (what should be) and a sociological cosmopolitanism (what is), as formulated by Beck[4], and other dualisms stemming from it, a profound interdisciplinarity is necessary. In International Law, cosmopolitan theories explore authors who outlines the status of the human person as the most fundamental subject of international public life (Cassesse[5]), regardless of one's affiliation to a state, in opposition to state-centered internationalists. In Theory of International Relations, cosmopolitan theories review many  paradigms, such as the network-society (Castells[6], Harvey[7], Lash, Urry[8], Cox[9]), globalization (Giddens[10], Sassen[11], Bell[12], Toffler[13]), transnationality (Levitt[14], Smith[15], Guarnizo, Portes[16]) and economy-world theories (Wallerstein[17], Arrighi[18]), which do not consider the state as the main actor in the global scene (global politics instead of international and transnational relations), and to consider theories like "glocalisation" (the global in the local) and "multi-level analysis", which try to understand the interconnectedness between the global and the local. In sociology and political sciences theories, critical cosmopolitanism considers, besides the political logic of the state, the logic of economic, cultural and religious orders and that take in account how non-state actors challenge the prerogative of the state as main actor in the international scene (Beck[19], Held[20], Archibugi[21]), and how citizenship across borders can be constructed (Falk[22], Balibar[23]). This reveals five main dimensions of the concept of a critical cosmopolitanism.

II. Dimensions of critical cosmopolitanism:
1) Cosmopolitanism

The first dimension of critical cosmopolitanism concerns the ethical horizon of building a cosmopolitan world view. As formulated in Antiquity, cosmopolitanism is the moral ideal of a universal community of human beings considered apart from their links to particular communities. Cosmopolitanism, in this sense, has as ethical horizon the construction of a cosmopolitan self. But this ideal face within the psyche exclusive private bonds such as nationalism, racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination implied in identity issues.  It is then necessary to analyze the conditions of cosmopolitanism in a context where violence is produced by the imposition of exclusive identities to those considered to belong to a "we" and by the exclusion of all others considered not to belong to it.

The underlying question is: does the personal identity concerns public life?   This implies firstly a normative question: what are the just rights and what values are good? Secondly, a question of social theory: what permits the adherence of individuals to these principles and what just institutions correspond to them? Finally, a question of philosophical anthropology: what is the nature of personal identity in relation to collective belonging?[24] 

As Balibar[25] analyses, a first answer considers that public space must concern the universal values, and be neutral regarding identity issues, in order to guarantee plurality. The particular and contingente character of biographical, social and cultural elements of identity cannot define justice (Rawls[26]). A second answer considers such neutrality to be impossible, given that politics and justice always legitimize a certain conception of personal identity by making it invisible, devaluing or stigmatizing others. The recognition of particularities as a matter of justice would be necessary (Taylor[27], Kymlicka[28]).

A third answer focuses on "translation" as a prerequisite for effective universalism, which depends on the ability to establish successful communication without having pre-established common codes. It does not mean a relativism that could accept discrimination and inequality, but is legitimate only if it amplifies rights.

While cosmopolitan liberalism is based on rationality devoid of affection (Rawls[29], Habermas[30]), critical cosmopolitanism also considers the role of emotional motivation in moral and political deliberation, as discussed in history of philosophy and today by neuroscience. It also reviews theories that question the devaluation of lives that are dispensable, that we leave die, for which we do not cry (Butler[31]).

2) Cosmopolitism in local democracy

A second issue addressed by critical cosmopolitanism is: how to give local democracy a cosmopolitan horizon? Critical cosmopolitanism expects to analyze the conditions by which even a territorially limited local policy considers its consequences for human beings (including future generations) seen as such and not as members of a certain state. It is especially local politics that must be cosmopolitan, respecting the environment and the civil, political, social, economic and cultural human rights of the inhabitants of a certain territory, regardless of their citizenship.

Critical cosmopolitanism considers that a democratic state must not wait for the development of a cosmopolitan law outside it[32]. The first goal of cosmopolitanism is the cosmopolitization of local democracy. The democratic government of a group by itself, according to the principle of popular sovereignty, should include the whole of humanity (including future generations) to be truly democratic. What is crucial is that a democracy respects the civil rights of political community members (such as the right to vote), that it respects the fundamental rights of all those living in their territory and the human rights of all people in the world, regardless of their citizenship. This is the deep sense in which the interrelation between constitutional, international, and cosmopolitan law must be understood.

Within contemporary democracies, most violations of human rights are caused because of identity issues. This can be seen in claims against democracies in forums like the Inter-American System of Human Rights (protection of cosmopolitan human rights, even with limited regional jurisdiction) and the European Court of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court.

In the beginning of its operation in 1979, the Inter-American System of Human Rights (ISHR) was mainly concerned with systematic, mass violations of human rights by the militar dictators in Latin America. However, in its current phase, the priority of the ISHR is to monitor the demands of excluded groups who are affected in terms of rights to participation and expression, who suffer social or institutional violence, and who have difficulty accessing the public sphere, the political system, and social or legal protection. Most cases concern violence practiced by police against certain groups, violence against women tolerated by state authorities, deprivation of land and the political participation of indigenous people and communities, discrimination against the Afro-descendant population, and abuse on the part of bureaucracies against undocumented immigrants. Individual cases reveal structural discrimination (even through "neutral practices") and violence against certain groups[33]. It is important to note that most of the issues are brought to the court by civil associations and NGOs, and that the action of the court is monitored by these associations.

The same happens in the European Court of Human Rights, where European democracies are accused of discrimination against gypsies and ethnical minorities, violation of social and economic rights of non-national individuals, expulsion of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers who run the risk of having their human rights violated if expelled to their original country.

3) Cosmopolitics as democratization of the transnational relations

A third issue addressed by critical cosmopolitanism is: how to democratize the global system? How to transpose principles and practices that have been created within the framework of the nation-state into this global system? How to develop new forms of democracy with something other than a territorial foundation? How to go beyond national citizenship if there is no formal cosmopolitan citizenship? Which plausible Conception of organization, praxis and historical transformation would then correspond to it? There is no democratic representation in the most influential international organizations and global institutions of governance. On the other hand, there are a number of forms of association in civil society that transcend borders, creating new forms of citizenship - citizenship in network, in contrast to territorial citizenship. Modern political theory conceived the exercise of democratic citizenship and legitimate representation as fully exercised only within the framework of local political institutions, but the theory of justice has been increasingly developing in the last years to conceive new forms of democracy and citizenship beyond the state as well. If the state still makes strong, imposing changes in the global order, in some domains the behavior of individual actors can decisively shape global politics.

Cosmopolitanism becomes then, as Balibar[34] says, cosmopolitics. Cosmopolitan citizenship does not exist as a legal and political status but as a practice of cross-border associations of individuals in any form of organization (institutionalized or not). Critical cosmopolitanism provides a conception of cosmopolitan citizenship that differs from those of "world society," "world public sphere," or "collective conscience," since it focuses on political participation and not on consensus. It also provides a reformulation of the liberal theory of democratic representation: transnational civil associations do not have the moment of "authorization," but they do have the moments of "control" and "accountability."

As Gaille-Nikodimov[35] analyses, most contemporary projects of transpositions of democracy to the global scence are based in a first meaning the term constitution, developed in the 18th century: a legal instrument that limits the power of the state in favour of the autonomy of the citizens. Democracy would not coincide with the people's sovereignty, since the value of the universal principles knows no borders. Thus, in most contemporary projects of the transposition of democracy beyond the state, people's sovereignty is weakened. However, the concept of constitution also has a second meaning, also tied to the concept of democracy, but which emphasizes the act that institutes the constitution-norm and, more necessarily, the constituent power derived from the sovereignty of the people. Individual and group sovereignty, with their constituent power, are the only criteria to democratize the transnational relations.

The democratization of the transnational relations must be on the basis of the self-affirmation of a political subject as well as on the basis of human rights. These two diferente conceptions should not be opposed, but united. The constituent power corresponds to the process of self-emancipation of the political subject. But the human rights are the criteria to impede a political subject from affirming itself as an identity that oppresses its integrants or excludes others[36]. According to it, a possibility of democratization of international, global, or cosmopolitan relations can be found in the practice of cross-border, extra-parliamentary associations of individuals. Several of them concern identity questions, e.g. issues concerning immigrants refugees and asylum-seekers[37].

4)  Cosmopolitan Law

Critical cosmopolitan law concerns the consecration of the individual as a subject of international law, especially regarding human rights and international criminal law, but also in areas such as minority rights, environmental law and the common heritage of humanity. Some authors consider that the notion of international law would even be inappropriate for nominating relations in which the individual becomes the main subject of law: this is not only an international law governing relations between states, but a cosmopolitan law, which gives an individual a power against the state, or which confers power on international forums against individuals despite their states. In some respects, the individual's status as a subject of international law is compatible with state-centered theories of international law. In the case of cosmopolitan rights and duties, in contrast, i tis necessary to carry out a thorough review of all legal categories based on state sovereignty constructed in the last two hundred years.

This cosmopolitan law appears as autonomous, neutral, based on the rationality of morality and thus worthy of universal recognition, a transcendental principle standing above its historical forms. But it can be sufficiently explained neither as a product of universal reason nor as the imposition of a dominant ideology. It results from a long history of "cosmopolitan citizenship in exercise" as well as from a cumulative theoretical systematization. Cosmopolitan law is also, reciprocally, the criteria of legitimacy of the exercise of cosmopolitan citizenship. This can delegitimize associations that claim a non-cosmopolitan identity, that oppress their members and exclude others.

Many authors consider that individuals do not have the status of a subject of international law, since it is the state that is required to confer such rights on individuals and to impose obligations on individuals in their home system. Firstly, it’s necessary to explore the situations in which it is possible to consider in international law the individual as a subject of law – especially individual responsibility in international criminal law and individual petition in human rights - and how the traditional categories of international law should be completely transformed regarding this "cosmopolitan law". Secondly, i tis necessary to analyze a fundamental difference between international rules regarding international crimes and human rights treaties:

  1. The individual in international criminal law could be considered a subject of law as bearer of the obligation not to commit international crimes, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and terrorism. Rules regarding international crimes confer rights and obligations directly on individuals, even if the national system does not adopt them. Whoever violates such rules can be tried by the courts of any country in the world or, when applicable, an international criminal court. These obligations impose individual responsibility, in contrast to the collective responsibility that prevails in international law.
  2. Human rights treaties require states to confer such rights and enforce these obligations in the national system. If the state does not confer such rights and obligations, individuals have the right to individually petition international bodies. On one hand, this right is granted to individuals directly by international rules and exists independently of national legislation. It is a genuinely cosmopolitan law. But, on the other hand, those who violate these norms do not bear individual responsibility on the international level (only eventually on the national level). There is only an international collective responsibility on the part of the state to which such individuals belong.

Critical cosmopolitanism aims firstly to develop a concept of cosmopolitan law, reformulating all the modern state-centered categories of international law. Secondly, it aims to construct the normative and legal justifications for the claim that violations of human rights should imply international individual responsibility (as in international criminal law). It also addresses the following questions: There is no precise concept about how to protect the human person against its own governments. What is the responsibility of the international community for individuals suffering in another place? What kind of intervention is possible, who can intervene and do what?

5)  Cosmocentrism

A fifth issue of critical cosmopolitanism concerns the vision of the universe as a whole, about the place that each natural phenomenon occupies in this universe, about the relation of the parts between themselves and with the whole universe. This also implies discussing the place that the human being - as one being among others - occupies in this universe and the consequences of its actions, which can be translated into ecological and environmental concerns, and even into an aesthetic question.

The concept of cosmopolitanism contains the concept of cosmos. But how to conceive the cosmos (organism, machine, network, system, chaos, set of forces) is a controversial issue. Equally controversial is how to conceive the relation of the human being to the cosmos: the cosmos is for some authors world of nature, "object," of which the human being participates as a natural being among others, and not as "subject". For others, the cosmos is unity between subject and object, and the way we say the world depends on how we think and feel.

From these questions arise a series of other controversies about the understanding of our place in the universe. For some authors, to understand what the human being is depends on the place of the human being in the universe. Thus, cosmology implies an anthropology, and for some authors also an ethics and even an aesthetics. Several authors consider that the history of mankind can be explained only along with the history of the cosmos. For Kant and A.v. Humboldt, the notion of a common origin of all that exists in the cosmos is inseparable from a conception of humanity and a cosmopolitan worldview.

Modern anthropocentrism, claiming a superiority of the human being over nature, legitimized a destructive mode of production and consumption of nature, considering nature as a mere means for the attainment of human ends. The ecological crisis today reaffirms the interdependence between all natural beings, and the insufficiency of a cosmopolitan theory that does not consider nature. Consumer accountability is often demanded. However, it is also necessary a socio-political structural transformation and the development of a new ecological consciousness. This presupposes another way of thinking about the relationship between the human being and nature, And this can imply also the possibility of imputation of individual criminal responsibility to leaders of legal entities by omission in case of environmental crimes.

The conception of a superiority of the human being over nature implies as well the devaluation of "beautiful nature." The restitution of the beauty of nature, an aesthetic question, has ethical and political consequences, as restitution of respect and responsibility for nature.

III. Conclusion

The concept of a critical cosmopolitanism has five main dimensions, that can be found in authors of the most diverse theoretical traditions, and which demand a deep reformulation of state-centered modern theories of justice, democracy and citizenship. The first one is "the cosmopolitanism self": critical cosmopolitanism is conceived as a world vision that considers the construction of a "cosmopolitan self" as a question of justice. Political theories that ignore identity issues cannot explain why the universal does not resist nationalism, racism and xenophobia[38]. The second one is “the cosmopolitan democracy”: different to the model of a national democracy constructed by modern political democratic theory, critical cosmopolitan democracy conceives a local political-legal order as fully democratic only if it respects the environment and the human rights of all people of the world regardless of their citizenship[39]. The third one is "the cosmopolitan cross-border citizenship": the concept of critical cosmopolital citizenship reformulates the modern conception of citizenship and representation for not having a territorial referential and the dimension of authorization. This would explain the practice of cross border associations of individuals, institutionalized or not. The philosopher Etienne Balibar call it “cosmopolitics” instead of  “cosmopolitanism”[40]. The fourth one is "the cosmopolitan law": critical cosmopolitan law reformulates the conceptions of modern international law centered on the state, considering individuals as subjects of international law. This would explain two legal developments: the rights to individual petition on human rights and the individual responsibility in international criminal law[41]. And finally, the fifth one is “the cosmocentrism”: critical cosmocentrism implies a form of ecological consciousness based on the relationship between the self and the cosmos, which would imply a profound revision of modern anthropocentric conceptions[42].

[Redaktion:] Die Kunstwerke in diesem Artikel stammen von dem niederländischen Maler
Schriftsteller, Bildhauer und Kunstheoretiker Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)


[1]    CEDIS - NOVA Law School, New University of Lisbon. This text is part of the research project “Cosmopolitanism: Justice, Democracy and Citizenship Without Borders”, PTDC/FER-FIL/30686/2017, FCT - Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, I.P. A previous version of this paper has appeared in: Andrej Krause and Danaë Simmermacher, Denken und Handeln. Berlin 2020. A longer version is forthcoming in: André Santos Campos & Susana Cadilha (ed.), Soverignty as Value. Rownan & Littlefield, 2020.

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[3]    Beck, Ulrich.: The Cosmopolitan Perspective: Sociology of the Second Age of Modernity, in: British Journal of Sociology 51 (2000), p. 79–105; Beck, Ulrich: The Cosmopolitan Society and its Enemies, in: Theory, Culture & Society 19 (2002), p. 17–44; Beck, Ulrich: Toward a New Critical Theory with a Cosmopolitan Intent, in: Constellations 10 (2003), p. 453–468; Beck, Ulrich: Der kosmopolitische Blick oder: Krieg ist Frieden, Frankfurt/M. 2004a; Beck, Ulrich/Grande, Edgar.: Das kosmopolitische Europa. Gesellschaft und Politik in der Zweiten Moderne, Frankfurt/M. 2004b; Beck, Ulrich: Cosmopolitan Realism: On the Distinction between Cosmopolitan in Philosophy and the Social Sciences, in: Global Networks 4 (2004c), p. 131–156; Beck, Ulrich: Kosmopolitisierung ohne Kosmopolitik: Zehn Thesen zum Unterschied zwischen Kosmopolitismus in Philosophie und Sozialwissenschaft, in: Helmuth Berking (ed.), Die Macht des Lokalen in einer Welt ohne Grenzen, Frankfurt/M./New York 2006a, p. 252–270; Beck, Ulrich/Sznaider, Natan.: Unpacking Cosmopoltanism for the Social Sciences. A Research Agenda, in: British Journal of Sociology 57 (2006b), p. 1–23; Beck, Ulrich: Cosmopolitanism: A Critical Theory for the Tnwenty-first Century, in: George Ritzer (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Globalization. Malden, MA/Oxford, UK 2007a; Beck, Ulrich: The Cosmopolitan Condition: Why Methodological Nationalism Fails, in: Theory, Culture & Society 24 (2007b), p. 286–290; Atkinson, Will: Beyond False Oppositions: A replay to Beck, in: British Journal of Sociology 58/4 (2007), p. 707–715; Gille, Zsuzsa: Cosmopolitan Vision: By Ulrich Beck, in: American Journal of Sociology 113 (2007), p. 264–266, Martell 2008, Poferl./Sznaider 2004, Smith 2008, Skrbis 2008 

[4]    Beck, Ulrich: Kosmopolitisierung ohne Kosmopolitik: Zehn Thesen zum Unterschied zwischen Kosmopolitismus in Philosophie und Sozialwissenschaft, in: Helmuth Berking (ed.), Die Macht des Lokalen in einer Welt ohne Grenzen, Frankfurt/M./New York 2006a, p. 252–270

[5]    Cassese, Antonio: The Human Dimension of International Law, Oxford 2008.

[6]    Castells, Manuel: Networks of Outrage and Hope, Cambridge 2012

[7]    Harvey, David: Cosmopolitanism and the geographies of freedom, New York 2009.

[8]    Lash,  Scott / Urry, John, The End of Organized Capitalism, Cambridge 1987.

[9]    Cox, Michael: The Post Cold War World, London 2018.

[10]   Giddens, Anthony: The Politics of Climate Change, Cambridge 2011.

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[12]   Bell, Duncan: Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire, Princeton 2016.

[13]   Toeffler, Alvin. Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century, New York 1991

[14]   Levitt, Peggy / Khagram, Sanjeev: The Transnational Studies Reader, New York 2007

[15]   Smith, Michael Peter/Eade, John (ed.): Transnational Ties: Cities, Migrations, Identities, London 2017

[16]   Portes, Alejandro / Guarnizo, Luis / Landolt, Patricia, La globalizacion desde abajo. Cidade do Mexico 2003

[17]   Wallerstein, Immanuel / Chase-Dunn, Christopher / Suter, Christian (ed): Overcoming Global Inequalities, N York 2016

[18]   Arrighi, Giovanni: The Long Twentieth Century, London 1994.

[19]   Beck, Ulrich: Kosmopolitisierung ohne Kosmopolitik: Zehn Thesen zum Unterschied zwischen Kosmopolitismus in Philosophie und Sozialwissenschaft, in: Helmuth Berking (ed.), Die Macht des Lokalen in einer Welt ohne Grenzen, Frankfurt/M./New York 2006a, p. 252–270

[20]   Held, David: Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Realities, Cambridge 2010.

[21]   Archibugi, Daniele: The Global Commonwealth of Citizens, Princeton 2008

[22]   Falk, Richard: Power Shift. On the New Global Order, London 2016.

[23]  Balibar, Etienne: Secularism and Cosmopolitanism, Columbia 2018

[24]   Renault, Emmanuel: L’expérience de l’injustice. Reconnaissance et clinique de l’injustice, Paris 2004, p. 250

[25]   Balibar, Etienne: Cosmopolitisme, internationalisme, cosmopolitique, in: Bertrand Ogilvie / Diogo Sardinha /Frieder Otto Wolf (ed.), Vivre en Europe. Philosophie, politique et science aujourd’hui, Paris 2010, p. 19-49.

[26]   Rawls, John: The Law of Peoples (1993), Cambridge 2002

[27]   Taylor, Charles: Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Princeton 1994

[28]   Kymlicka, William / Straehle Christine: Cosmopolitanism, Nation-States, and Minority Nationalism 1999

[29]   Rawls, John: The Law of Peoples (1993), Cambridge 2002

[30]   Habermas, Jürgen: The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays, Cambridge 2001.

[31]   Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, New York 2009.

[32]   Menke, Christoph / Pollmann, Arnd: Philosophie der Menschenrechte, Frankfurt am Main 2007.

[33]   Abramovich, Víctor: Das violações em massa aos padrões estruturais: novos enfoques e clássicas tensões no sistema interamericano de direitos humanos, in: SUR – Revista Internacional de Direitos Humanos 6 (2009), N. 11, p. 6 – 39.

[34]  Balibar, Etienne: Cosmopolitisme, internationalisme, cosmopolitique, in: Bertrand Ogilvie / Diogo Sardinha /Frieder Otto Wolf (ed.), Vivre en Europe. Philosophie, politique et science aujourd’hui, Paris 2010, p. 19-49.

[35]   Gaille-Nikodimov, Marie: La constitution est elle-même un terrain de lutte, Paris 2002

[36]   Gaille-Nikodimov, Marie: La constitution est elle-même un terrain de lutte, Paris 2002

[37]   Caraus, Tamara / Paris Elena (ed.): Re-grounding Cosmopolitanism. Towards a Post-foundational cosmopolitanism, New York 2018.

[38]   Appiah, Kwame Anthony: Cosmopolitanism – Ethics in a World of Strangers, New York 2006; Balibar, Etienne: Secularism and Cosmopolitanism, Columbia 2018

[39]   Beitz, Charles R.: The Idea of Human Rights, New York 2009; Menke and Pollmann 2007, Pogge 2002,

[40]   Castells, Manuel: Networks of Outrage and Hope, Cambridge 2012; Falk, Richard: Power Shift. On the New Global Order, London 2016.

[41]   Cassese, Antonio: The Human Dimension of International Law, Oxford 2008; Kelsen, Hans: Principles of International Law, New York 1952

[42]   Giddens, Anthony: The Politics of Climate Change, Cambridge 2011

© Soraya Nour Sckell, 2020