In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cosmopolitanism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Modern Cosmopolitanism
  • Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism
  • Black Cosmopolitanism
  • Postcolonial Perspectives

Atlantic History Cosmopolitanism
Chiara Cillerai
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0395


The term “cosmopolitan” has its etymological roots in the ancient Greek words for cosmos (κόσμος) and polis (πόλις) and it was used to describe interest in and tolerance for different peoples and cultures outside the boundaries of one’s own community. Universal citizenship, universal human rights, and communication are at the foundation of the idea of cosmopolitanism as it developed and emerged in different cultural and historical contexts throughout the centuries. In the early modern stages of Atlantic history, the emergence of cosmopolitanism is interconnected with the explorations and colonial expansionist projects. Different uses of the idea of cosmopolitanism emerged in conjunction with the increased circulation of people, ideas, and goods related to western European countries’ colonial ventures. The exchanges that these encounters forced among people from different places and cultural origins created the foundations for the emergence of ideas connected to the concept of cosmopolitanism. In this context, the transnational and universalist appeal of the cosmopolitan not only accompanied empire building, but also formed the basis of the rhetoric that resisted imperial expansion. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the idea of cosmopolitanism was at times invoked to resist the subjugation of people and the repression of cultures that colonialism caused. For example, the early modern Spanish theologians Bartolome de las Casas, Francisco Suarez, and Francisco de Vitoria invoked the cosmopolitan idea of universal natural law to respond to critique the contemporary colonial missions in the Americas and the slaughter of native people. During the same period, however, the notion of the cosmopolitan was also used to promote colonial expansion and the domination of people in the subjugated countries. This was the case for the English John Dee, who described Great Britain’s colonial enterprises in terms that painted the conquest of countries and the domination of people as the achievement of a mission to bring them a civilizing and cosmopolitan government. The use of cosmopolitanism to explain and discuss, to understand and talk about differences among people and their way of life are common features of the writings from the early explorations to the end of the eighteenth century. Studies of cosmopolitanism develop across different disciplines and time periods. The focus of this entry will be primarily on texts that are directly treating the way cosmopolitanism manifested itself during the period of Western colonial expansion in the Atlantic world.

General Overviews

An analysis of cosmopolitanism in the context of Atlantic history can benefit from texts that examine the history of the concept itself from different disciplinary and historical perspectives. Heater 1996 and Nussbaum 2019 present the history of cosmopolitanism from historical and philosophical perspectives in a format and style that can be helpful to both researchers and students. The Diderot and Rond d’Alembert 1754 entry for cosmopolitanism in the Encyclopédie is a useful primary source which shows the common usage of the term among the cultural elites of the Enlightenment. The historical and bibliographical essays in Kleingeld and Brow 2019 are useful to start any analysis of cosmopolitanism. The many links to different sources in a variety of disciplines that they offer make the entry especially useful.

  • Diderot, Denis, and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. “Cosmopolite.” In Encyclopédie; ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société des gens de lettres. Vol. 4. By Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, 297. Paris: Briasson, 1754.

    The entry defines cosmopolite as a man who is at home anywhere and whose ultimate allegiance is to humankind. The definition summarizes what cosmopolitanism meant for the international community of men of letters during the Enlightenment and the ideal that Enlightenment intellectuals often aspired to embody. This source is useful to understand what cosmopolitanism meant to 18th-century literary figures, philosophers, and political theorists in the Atlantic context.

  • Heater, Derek. World Citizenship and Government: Cosmopolitan Ideas in the History of Western Political Thought. New York: Continuum, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230376359

    The book’s chapters discuss the origins of cosmopolitanism in ancient Greek philosophy, its reappearance in medieval and early Renaissance thinkers, and the Enlightenment and its aftermaths. They provide a comprehensive analysis of the forms the concept of cosmopolitanism has taken in the history of Western political thought. The book is a useful companion for a study of the role that notions of cosmopolitanism had in Atlantic sociopolitical history.

  • Kleingeld, Pauline, and Eric Brow. “Cosmopolitanism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2019.

    This encyclopedic entry offers a historical overview of cosmopolitanism in periodized sections. The sections on bibliography, academic tools, and Internet sources are also rich in useful links and information. The segment on the Enlightenment gives a useful overview of the factors contributing to the resurgence of cosmopolitanism in relation to colonial expansions, a revived interest in ancient Greek philosophy, and a political and philosophical focus on human rights and reason. The entry can be useful to both instructors and students.

  • Nussbaum, Martha. The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674242975

    A critical analysis of the cosmopolitan tradition’s trajectory from the Stoics to the early modern period, this book highlights the forms cosmopolitanism took in Protestant cultures, its appeal, and its underlying problems. The final chapters address strengths and flaws cosmopolitanism presents in contemporary contexts such as the usefulness of the concept of world citizenship in cultivating recognition and concern among people across national borders, or the application of cosmopolitanism to understand forced migrations and the policies to address them.

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