EssaysFeatureImaginal Politics

Translating Non-Western Philosophy

Barriers to philosophical research in the Global South

Philosophy is an all-encompassing discipline. As a field of inquiry, it has both direct and indirect foci. The latter often involves engaging with other fields, e.g. the philosophy of physics, or biology, psychology etc. The former, on the other hand, aims directly at the human condition. Questions of consciousness, agency, morality, religion and politics are some chief concerns of this aspect of philosophical investigation. My primary focus will be on the direct philosophizing which has found and founded a home in many academic institutions across the world. Specifically, I want to discuss the question of “decolonization” or regionalization of philosophical teaching. Should the curriculum in philosophy be changed along these lines and if so in which ways? I want to home in on a few possible paths that such an inquiry might take based on thoughts and ideas presented largely in the African philosophical tradition but extending them further.

For instance, the debate surrounding African philosophy, its definition, purpose and goals, is a fraught one. No clean survey will suffice to confront the myriad philosophical and practical issues which beset any task of revisiting or revising the philosophical curriculum and general milieu in African as well Western academia (a central aim of this research project). However, I want to focus here on two major points of contention, one with relation to how we should even begin to frame such a discussion and another based on the idea of the hurdle of epistemic injustice, or being wronged in one’s capacity as a knowledge producer, which many non-Western philosophers face.

It should be noted that I aim my arguments at global significance. What I mean by this is that much of the debate surrounding “decolonization” is narrow in focus, i.e. decolonization is only an important issue for Africans or scholars in the Global South for instance. On the contrary, I think that if the arguments for reshaping and rethinking the philosophical scaffolding of our institutions have any force whatsoever, they should apply more broadly. In other words, if there are good reasons to question Western philosophy in Africa, then at least some of those reasons should be used to question Western philosophy in the West more generally.

The two main issues I want to highlight here is the debate surrounding universals in philosophy and the particular issue of epistemic injustice. The first issue concerns the conflict between uniformity and diversity, between the universal and the particular. Much of the resistance to alternative philosophical thought in Africa or elsewhere has been staged on the battleground of rationality (Hegel, Durkheim, Frazer et al. have all contributed to this ignominious literature). Analytic philosophy for instance is argued to have logical reasoning and critical thinking as its core methodology. With the battlelines thusly drawn, any “alternative” conception is othered as irrational.

In opposition to this assumption of the universal nature of reason and its role in a dominant philosophical tradition in the West, something called particularism has emerged. Perhaps, the thinking goes, African philosophy should start with African traditions or ontology (Oreka’s first current trend of African philosophy) which encompass particular non-Western world views? Tempel’s influential Bantu Philosophy was a vital force in creating an ethnophilosophical pursuit of this sort (see Hountondji’s African Philosophy: Myth and Reality for a now famous objection). But with any call for the particular, boundary conditions inevitably surface. Does this apply to all Africans? Is there a distinction between Sub-Saharan Africa and Africa which encompasses the Arabic traditions of the North steeped in its intellectual history? In other words, is there any concept of a homogeneous Africa and its peoples to which such ethnophilosophical musings refer?

If we follow the eminent Ghanian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu, perhaps the stage should be reset to allow for cultural or “other universals” which can be discovered in the non-Western world or the Global South (see this project). So instead of a small stock of universals applying to all human beings, different cultures and regions have different universal concepts which apply to them. This possibility could create a theoretical space of competing universal ideals vying for supremacy or even just acceptance. There are two effects of such a proposal which I take to be important, one positive and another less so. On the positive side, this proposal dovetails with the call to add global significance to the decolonization debate. If alternative “African” or non-Western universals can be discovered and utilized to bear theoretical fruit, then there is no principled reason for why these universals cannot apply to regions outside of Africa (cf. Carlos Forment’s 2015 conception of “plebeian citizenship” in the Global South, although his idea of “self-exploitation” is morally concerning) or even in the West. On the negative side, this allows for the suggestion that concepts such as rational critical thinking are Western universals. Thus, non-western “others” are sent on an anthropological treasure hunt for conceptual spaces as yet unmined (and often undermined) by the Western thinkers or the “lived experiences” of the other.

There is, however, a different way of carving up the theoretical terrain in accordance with a view advocated by Souleymane Bachir Diagne in Ink of Scholars: Reflections on African Philosophy (2016). This view does not involve divvying up the “universals” according to culture or geography. Instead it suggests rethinking the relation between universals and their particulars as one of translation and not instantiation. Metaphysicians of old attempted to understand how concrete particulars are instantiated by their abstract universals. For example, how distinct red objects all relate to the concept of redness in general despite marked discrepancies in hue. Thus, following some traditional Platonists, we might think of instances of redness as imperfect reflections of the true concept or Form. “Imperfection,” in this context, can lead to a problematic continuum. In this way, the concept of rationality could be seen as captured or instantiated better by analytic philosophy than, say, Eastern philosophy.

However, if instead we see the relation between universals and particulars as that of translation, where every translation is unique and tells a historical cultural story, we will find a more accommodating home for alternative philosophies. One way of capturing the idea is that philosophies aim to interpret and translate a text that exists only in the deepest fathomage of the common human psyche. In some African traditions, the Rational is translated not individually but socially. It involves acting in accordance with how others act for the betterment of the whole through its entirety and not its parts. This might better explain certain claims as to so-called African tendencies toward consensus as opposed to democratic decision procedures (see Godefroy Bidima 1997 on the idea of “palaver” or la palabre in traditional socio-political spaces). Taken to its logical limits, the view suggests a picture of all philosophy as ethno-philosophy or the idea that every philosophical tradition is a response to a particular cultural environment. I think this picture has a certain abstract elegance to it.

On a related note, language has played a central role in both African and Western philosophy (which underwent its own linguistic turn at the turn of the last century), with some practitioners advocating philosophy in African languages (Wiredu), and even the untranslatability of certain philosophical concepts (Cassin). One interpretation of this call for idiosyncrasy is via a detour into the erstwhile and now abandoned doctrine inspired by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or linguistic determinism (see Pullum 1991 for a particularly jocular yet thorough debunking). The idea being that the structures of various languages determine cognition and thus the world-view of its users. Diversity here supersedes universality (of course, the motivation behind linguistic liberation in African goes further than determinism). Linguistic determinism is an unproductive pursuit and at its best little more than a trivial claim about the cognitive effects of particular languages (e.g. the differences between languages with absolute locational features vs. egocentric locations) and at its worst a claim of incommensurability of cultures.

So far, the discussion might seem abstruse. Talk of universals, translation relations, linguistic determinism etc. might lead one to question the practical applicability of these ideas. Nevertheless, I think we can find a useful analogy in the so-called cognitive revolution ushered in by noted linguist Noam Chomsky in the mid-twentieth century. Most linguists today think that despite surface differences between the world’s languages, there is, in fact, one common human language shared by all, a universal grammar of sorts. This claim does not mean that individual languages are not unique or interesting but rather they are interesting because they tell us something about our universal linguistic endowment. Similarly, African, Indian, Carribean, Analytic philosophy all tell us something about human thinking on questions of morality, logic, religion, culture and existence informed by different experiences and environments and translated from our universal capacity for reasoning. In this sense, each particular philosophical tradition sheds light on our underlying universal philosophical history.

A less diagnosed obstacle which faces ‘alternative’ philosophies is that of implicit bias and epistemic injustice. I was once startled by what I considered to be extremely boastful behavior of an African American philosopher at a conference a few years ago. My impression at the time was that this individual felt the superfluous need for self-aggrandizement at every possible point. In later moments of my career I have encounter similar urges to recite my resumé in particular company. One reason for this imperative is that philosophers of color (and academics in general) often tend to be epistemically undermined in terms of their status as knowers (see Miranda Fricker’s seminal work on the concept on Epistemic Injustice). One is then compelled to have one’s epistemic parking validated, so to speak, on a constant basis on account of our philosophizing while black. African philosophy, Eastern philosophy and other non-Western traditions face a similar problem of status. The endless controversy over the word “philosophy” as applied to these disciplines is itself testament to this quandary (similar to the resistance to the term “marriage” being extended to non-cis or non-straight couples). The idea is that “philosophy” is a discipline associated exclusively with Western thought (despite the stark differences in methodology and outlook between different strands of so-called “Western philosophy”). Whose musings get to be called “philosophy” seems like a moot issue to me, but by merely being denied within the word’s remit on arbitrary grounds, we create an injustice of a particular kind akin to denying a women the presidency of a nation for allegedly lacking the requisite “stamina” for the job.

Where to from here? There is a story recounted, in Kwame Appiah (1992), in which a traveller in an African country asks a local person where the capital city of this particular nation is, to which the local replies “if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here”. In many ways, the position that non-Western philosophy finds itself in, via colonialization, imperialism and other pervasive ordeals, is not the ideal place to begin a quest into the philosophical roots of particular cultures. Ideally, we would have wanted an Africa untouched by the violent intellectual domination which she has seen, from which to ask questions about her cultural heritage or philosophical ethos. Nevertheless, our lot is inescapable and any proposed changes to the philosophical curriculum or practice requires both an appreciation of where we are now and an understanding of what our options are with relation to this place.

One can of course struthiously bury one’s head in the sand. However, this serves no one. Not the students demanding change (see here), nor the philosophers who claim the elitism and institutionalization of the field has helped it lose its way. Incorporating new ideas and cultural bases to a discipline traditionally associated with wealthy men of a particular class and race, can only serve to provide a stronger foundation for the field in terms of public engagement (UK institutions have recently adopted a public engagement model, see here).

From my perspective, the path forward needs to consider both the issues of the translation of universals and epistemic injustice. Both of these can be confronted directly within the curriculum. In terms of the latter, including philosophical material written by a diverse set of scholars with relation to race, gender, culture and ethnicity is the first step. This is not a new idea (see here). In terms of the former, engaging philosophical thought from other languages in translation or original helps. A more pronounced strategy would be to rage against the disembodied unsituated rationality assumed in much of analytic philosophy. Practically speaking, instead of merely introducing the works of a particular philosopher in isolation, students should be made aware of their social background (not unlike practices in the Cambridge school of political thought). This is not to introduce the ad hominem, but rather to produce a complete profile of the thoughts and embodiments thereof. A popular Eastern critique of Western medicine involves the claim that the latter treats diseases and not people. Similarly, philosophical treatment of arguments cannot neglect the philosopher and her milieu, especially when such treatment only serves to enhance the understanding expressed in her work.

Ryan M. Nefdt lectures at the University of the Western Cape. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of St Andrews. He is currently a research fellow on the Andrew Mellon funded project Citizenship and Justice aimed at questions surrounding decolonizing the political philosophy and theory curriculum in South Africa.

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