Decolonizing philosophy

Wits University Campus. Image credit: Paul Saad via Flickr.

Many philosophers consider their field to be the mother of all disciplines. The popular picture is that philosophy, like a fertile womb, gives birth to other sciences and fields of inquiry which then move on with their own methodology and concerns (and they never call their parents!). Naturally, if there is any credence to this methodology, then decolonization of the curriculum or academia needs to start with philosophy.

On the global level, the discipline has been riven with controversy recently. In an open letter to the Journal of Political Philosophy, Yale philosopher Chris Lebron exposed the lack of concern for including issues surrounding Black Lives Matter within the remit of an otherwise all-encompassing publication. The issue was sparked when a (published) symposium was eventually conducted by the journal, with one significant omission, namely there were no black philosophers invited to participate despite relevant expertise.

Across the ocean, a similar occurrence caused ripples within the South African philosophical community when a panel was configured on the topic of “South African Identity” which notably neglected philosophers of color, even those actually working within related areas. Again the outcry, both global and local, was that Black Voices Matter philosophically speaking.

In the wake of the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements, questions of curriculum change became pertinent and stentorian in South African academia. Whether we are questioning the colonial legacy of specific disciplines (see here for economics and here for mathematics, traditionally thought to be held to standards of exigency or abstract reality respectively) or the university as a whole (see here for discussion), the role of philosophy requires special treatment. I think this is the case even if we do not accept the birth-mother story since philosophy is still often associated with critical thinking and engagement with other disciplines.

In fact, transformation in philosophy has been slow and rocky. Most of the departments in South Africa are predominantly represented by a privileged minority (at both the graduate and faculty levels). In response to these concerns, philosophers such as Raphael Winkler, at the University of Johannesburg, argue that a more pressing issue is the phenomenon of “white guilt” and who in society has the right to be an authority on matters of race and/or national identity. There are no doubt interesting philosophical questions here, however, I think such debates are red-herrings to the curriculum issue. The issue of transformation and Africanization of the philosophical curriculum is an issue of structure, content and composition not only personnel.

There are a number of options available to any project aimed at reconstructing the philosophical curriculum in South Africa. As noted in one particularly poignant response to Winkler’s article, the history of South African philosophy is a battle between two western traditions. On the one hand, we have continental philosophy. These are the departments, mostly located at historically Afrikaans universities, often associated with existentialism, psychoanalysis and literary criticism. On the other hand, we have the analytic tradition. These are the departments that follow a tradition closely linked to the birth of mathematical logic and the philosophy of language in the early 20th century in Britain. There is not much communication between these schools of thought. But in either camp, much of the agenda, questions and methodology have already been set by the parent countries in the West.

One path to confronting this situation is the path of inertia. We can just keep on keeping on until acted upon by a rational force of nature. Perhaps alter the personnel with a more representative sample but leave the issues and methodology largely unchecked. There is nothing wrong with the possibility of African philosophy per se, but it needs to show its worth to be considered a serious contender for default status. I think there are two worries with this kind of position. One is that it could unduly deculturalize philosophy. Analytic philosophy, despite often using techniques of investigation such as deductive logic, is not an objective science (continental even less so). It has historical and cultural baggage (like many other disciplines).  Its topics are informed by many of these erstwhile positions (would Descartes or Rawls have put so much weight on weightless disembodied individual thinking if they had strong communal ties as expressed in the Southern African concept of Ubuntu?). Another issue with this sort of view is that it assumes African philosophy is a final product. But to me the excitement of the possibility of an African philosophy is precisely located in its inchoate nature.

Another strategy could be the formation of a comparative discipline, such as comparative politics, which examines western and non-western philosophical thought side-by-side. I think that this possibility is promising. But it suffers from feasibility issues, namely that if the philosophers who are teaching this new field are mostly trained in analytic philosophy, there is a strong likelihood that the resulting comparison will reduce African philosophy to a curiosity or an “exotic” side thought. This is a nontrivial worry (but also not insurmountable).

The last option is that we make a genuine attempt to Africanize the curriculum. By this I mean we question the content (kinds of questions we ask), the methodology (how we ask and answer those questions) and our sources (who is saying what and what their positionality is). This would be an exploratory project and might lead us to many points of contact with other traditions, both analytic and continental, and further abroad, Indian and Chinese or even lesser explored traditions. Of course, this path is beset with complexity. Is there any such unified object as “African” thought or philosophy? Need there be (the West may have done quite well without a similar unified object of “Western thought”, see Appiah’s account)?

Perhaps in following a dictum of Edouard Glissant (that “the West is not the West: it is a project not a place”) we can appreciate an African philosophical project not bound by geography or history but not ignorant of them either. These are surely the questions that would engage the brilliant minds of our future scholars and attract the collaboration of others further abroad. Continuing to exclusively exist within the same western intellectual atmosphere seems to me like a much less exciting prospect.

Ryan M. Nefdt

Ryan M Nefdt, a philosopher, teaches at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of St Andrews.

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