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The Mirage of Universalism Behind European Localism

An Excerpt from The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy

It should be clear by now that Eurocentrism is not limited to the “bad,” but it encompasses also the “good” and the “ugly.” That means that Eurocentric critiques of Eurocentrism are indeed part of the image of totality that Eurocentrism projects. The question is to delink from it and to show the local dimension of universal pretenses. Out of debating the question of whether there is an African or Latin American philosophy, interesting answers emerged that provide some guide to get out of the trap. Aware of the question that preoccupied their previous generation in African philosophy, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze and Tsenay Serequeberhan moved in a different direction by proposing “negative critique” as a strategy and also as a program. Negative critique consists in taking on major monuments of Western philosophy from the perspective of African thinking. Whether such thinking abides by the rules of Western philosophy is out of the question. Chukwudi Eze took on Kant in a lengthy article on “The Color of Reason: The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Anthropology” (1997). While Serequeberhan confronted Eurocentrism from the perspective and practice of African philosophy. The question of whether there is philosophy in Africa is no longer a question. There are African philosophers, trained in the West, who are aware of the trap and the colonial epistemic difference, and engage in epistemic disobedience and confront the blindness and arrogance of Western philosophy.

Negative critique runs parallel to Rodolfo Kusch’s “solution.” Though a marginal philosopher in Latin American philosophy (which should be taken to be at the margin of the margins), he is currently being recognized and honored as a distinctive and original thinker. His solution to the trap consisted in distinguishing, on the on hand, between “filosofia” (philosophy) and institutional activity, and, on the other, “filosofar” (though difficult to translate into English, it would mean “to philosophize” or “to do philosophy,” which means that thinking and doing are two sides of the same coin). To do philosophy, you do not need an institution or need to respond to the rules the institution imposes upon you to regulate whether you are or you are not an accepted philosopher in the profession. Formulated in these terms, the question of whether there is philosophy in Latin America is no longer a question.

Notice, furthermore, that the distinction between philosophy and thinking that connects African philosophers with those in Latin America are not the same as those of Martin Heidegger’s in The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking. Heidegger is changing the content of Western philosophy while African and Latin American philosophers need also to change the terms of the conversation to liberate themselves from continental philosophy. Liberation here is on the same continuum with decoloniality of knowledge and being for the simple reason that to control knowledge means to control being and Subjectivity. African and Latin American philosophers are engaging philosophy as one critical juncture in their struggle for liberation/decolonization, while Heidegger is not aiming at liberating but introducing a change in Western philosophy. He doesn’t have to be decolonial certainly; I am making a distinction and not passing judgment. This is why the geopolitics of knowing and of being is crucial for decolonial thinkers.

Engaging in negative critique and in philosophizing (in the sense of Kusch) means to be epistemically disobedient. Epistemic disobedience means that the rules of the game do not have to be followed and expectations fulfilled, although references to European philosophy by non-European philosophers is unavoidable due precisely to the colonial epistemic difference. For a non-European philosopher not to engage with European philosophy would mean to opt for self-marginalization. Instead, by confronting both canonical definitions of philosophy and canonical authors, and interpreting both without bending to disciplinary rules, what is achieved is the common activity of “thinking and philosophizing” instead of worrying about whether one is doing philosophy properly. Institutions shall be at the service of human activities rather than human activities being repressed by the institutions. By making “thinking” the crucial concept, European philosophy appears in its historical contingency and its imperial complicities instead of remaining the ultimate word on what philosophy is or should be.

There is a fundamental aspect that underlines both the initial question about the role of philosophy in Africa and Latin America (and other places whose relations with Europe were marked by imperial/colonial relations): the colonial culture and the colonial difference in all its aspects, including the epistemic one. Local thinkers adopted and adapted the concept of “culture” to frame the overarching frame of “independent thought.” While in Latin America the identitarian expression “Nuestra América” (cultural identity) was a main philosophical concern that Leopoldo Zea (in Mexico) picked up in his edited volume; in Africa it was Amilcar Cabral who placed the cultural dimension, clearly and forcefully, in the political arena:

When Goebbels, the brain behind Nazi propaganda, heard culture being dis- cussed, he brought out his revolver. That shows that the Nazis — who were and are the most tragic expression of imperialism and of its thirst for domination — even if they were all degenerates like Hitler, had a clear idea of the value of culture as a factor of resistance to foreign domination.

The topoi had been recast in different words. In India, Ranahit Guha pointed out that what the British were never able to colonize was Indian memory. In the Caribbean, Lloyd Best fought all his life for what he summarized as “independent thought and Caribbean freedom.” And a similar idea was expressed, independently and during the same years, by Ali Shar’iati in Iran when he argued that there is no freedom without independent thought. All these concerns where flatly outside of continental philosophy. Continental philosophy has its own concerns, which were and are not the concerns of direct ex-colonies and in general of a non-European world. Questions about whether there is philosophy proper outside of Europe affect the entire non-European world. The epistemic colonial difference infringed upon is not something specific of Asia, Africa, and Latin America but to all of non-Europe.

Hence, to start from accepting the geopolitics of knowing/knowledge becomes a necessity for undermining the epistemic colonial difference. The awareness is certainly in the air. But institutions — especially universities and publishing houses — are not yet willing to accept that the belief in the dream for/of the West and the nightmare for/of the rest is over. Perhaps this growing awareness is the biggest challenge of African thinking (and non-European appropriation and uses of the term philosophy) poses to continental philosophy. What do I mean by that? In reality, Cabral’s concept of “culture as a factor of resistance” and Lloyd Best’s and Shar’iati’s defense of “independent thought” are connected through the common concern facing coloniality of knowledge and of being rather than being connected through a chronological and monotopical genealogy of thought, which is the case of Western philosophy as a discipline and an institution. They all point to the need to epistemically disobey hegemonic categories and the ranking of who, and what knowledge, qualifies as what.

For the problem is that around the term “philosophy” a system of belief guides the scale and the ranking, beginning from European philosophy on top and moving down the scale to lesser “philosophies.” In this regard, Enrique Dussel’s connection, in 1977, between geopolitics and philosophy becomes very significant. In the first chapter of his Philosophy of Liberation, he insisted on taking “space” seriously. Not space at large but space configured by imperial global designs, what today is described as modern/coloniality and in which the colonial difference has been a fundamental organizer and classifier of the world order. We could see also that Dussel is specifically arguing about “places” and of “places of thinking.” Thus he said, “I am trying, then, to take space, geopolitical space, seriously. To be born at the North Pole or in Chiapas is not the same thing as to be born in New York City.” Dussel’s statement comprised a diagram describing the world order during the Cold World. At that time the world was divided between capitalism, socialism, and non-aligned countries; that is, First, Second, and Third Worlds. The division, which was of course made in the First World, implied an epistemic distribution and ranking of disciplinary knowledge. Amilcar Cabral expressed a similar idea in a different vocabulary and experience:

History teaches us that, in certain circumstances, it is very easy for the foreigner to impose his domination on a people. But it also teaches us that whatever may be the material aspects of this domination, it can be maintained only by the permanent, organized repression of the cultural life of the people concerned. Implantation of foreign domination can be assured definitively only by physical liquidation of a significant part of the dominated population…. In fact, to take up arms to dominate a people is, above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least to neutralize, to paralyze, its cultural life. For, with a strong indigenous cultural life, foreign domination cannot be sure of its perpetuation.

“Philosophizing” in the sense that Kusch defines it, engaging the problems at hand in particular space/places rather than focusing on the history and problems that philosophy as a European discipline demands, means to engage in epistemic disobedience and putting the problems before the discipline instead of maintaining the disciplinary boundary before the problem. It implies using the tool of the disciplines to solve problems (those that Cabral mentions), instead of faithfully reproducing the discipline in the colonies under the banner of civilization, modernization, progress, philosophical excellence, and the like.

Struggles for de-colonization in Africa and Asia, in the second half of the twentieth century, starting with the liberation of India in 1947, were of relative success in terms of the state and the economy, since local elites who controlled the state after expelling the colonizer maintained the same political theory and political economy that the colonizer imposed in their respective countries. Frustrations ran high among believers and activists in the process of decolonization when they realized that decolonization had mutated from external to internal colonialism. Thus, decolonization did not remove coloniality, the logic that organized imperial power which local elites now shared. However, decolonization left an undeniable imprint in engendering decolonial thinkers and decolonial thinking. I do not want to say decolonization engendered “new philosophies” because the novelty implied will be cast in the linear temporality of modernity where newness is part of the rhetoric of modernity which would deny novelty to something such as African or Latin American philosophy. And this is another challenge of African to continental philosophy.

The Advent of “Black Thinkers” and the Future of Cosmopolitan Localism

Lewis Gordon has reframed the debate in terms of “Africana Philosophy.” Africana philosophy is not restricted to philosophical activities in Africa. In his words:

Africana philosophy is a species of Africana thought, which involves theoretical questions raised by critical engagement with ideas in Africana cultures and their hybrid, mixed, or creolized forms worldwide. Since there was no reason for the people of the African continent to have considered themselves African until identity was imposed upon them through conquest and colonization in the modern era (the sixteenth century onward), this area of thought also refers to the unique set of questions raised by the emergence of “Africans” and their diaspora here designated by the term “Africana.”

Africana philosophy raises and addresses fundamental questions. Two are apposite here. One: “Africana philosophy examines what emerges from the question ‘in reality who and what am I?’, when posed by those who were actually enslaved and by those who lived the dubious status of a questioned humanity.” A radical shift in the geography of reasoning is taking place here. While one of the pillars of modern continental and secular philosophy (after continental theological philosophy) was “I think, therefore I am,” the question and dramatic personal and historical conditions that drove Descartes to pronounce such a statement are absolutely irrelevant for those who are philosophizing from the experiences and the legacies of slavery and from the perspective of philosophers who belong to the lesser humanity according to the Eurocentered classification of which continental philosophy was, either intentionally or not, complicit. The question, “In reality, who am I?” is not a question that can be formulated or answered in isolation. Gordon has already told us (and also V.Y. Mudimbe) that Africa was an invention, and people have to recognize themselves as African vis-à-vis the hegemony and dominance of European philosophical discourses. The colonial epistemic difference sustained by European categories of thoughts is being unmade by the relent- less work of Africana philosophy and other similar efforts.

After discussing African-American and Afro-British European continental philosophy, heavily entrenched in postmodern vocabulary and arguments, Gordon unveils several illogical statements which, on the surface, appear logical and rational. One of them, as an example, is “…postmodern anti-essentialism goes nowhere since the denial of essentialism does not ensure anti-essentialism.” Examples abound in philosophy and politics in which by critiquing in the first case and accusing in the second you cover the road with dust so to hide what you are doing (which is — willingly or not — exactly the same thing as what you critique; only the contents have changed).

Facing this logic entrenched in continental philosophy, Gordon sets up a second underlying concern of Africana philosophy: “We are thus faced with our second, underlying concern of Africana philosophy — namely that of liberation and social transformation.” We are here coming back to Amilcar Cabral’s concerns in politics and Enrique Dussel’s in philosophy. Liberation in both cases is strictly linked, politically and philosophically, to struggle for the decolonization of knowledge and the liberation of both the colonial and imperial subject. Here we are turning the tables and “philosophizing” (that is thinking about and undoing), a puzzle that continental philosophy deliberately ignores but which must now be forced into the open: that European philosophy is a particular local name for human thinking.

The challenge that global decolonial thinking presents to continental philosophy was described, from another local history, by Mehrzad Boroujerdi:

Nativism stands in the same relation to orientalism in reverse as Eurocentrism does to orientalism proper. Both nativism and Eurocentrism provide an ontological and epistemological umbrella under which it becomes possible to develop a theory of history and a political platform. Whereas Eurocentrism advocated such ideas as the uniqueness and superiority of the West and its uni- vocal manifest destiny,nativism was born of lamentable circumstances of colonialism and the agonizing milieu of the post-World War II period of decolonization. It represents a cultural reflex on the part of many Third World intellectuals from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean eager to assert their found identities.

The challenge that African and non-European spaces/places (in Dussel’s sense of geopolitics) presents to continental philosophy comes from the fact that while it is obvious that confronting Western epistemic hegemony and the arrogance it instills in the epistemic subjects that it creates is unavoidable, such a confrontation with the West is not a problem for Western philosophers, intellectuals, and thinking people in general. We are here once again at the heart of the colonial difference and the geopolitics of knowledge that, once again, are not a problem for European philosophy. But it should be if the colonial epistemic and ontological difference are to be put to rest. But it may be difficult for continental philosophers to take seriously an agenda formulated by non-European thinkers challenging their naturalized beliefs in the epistemic privileges of something called philosophy.

Taking advantage of Dussel’s definition of space/place, let us replace “nativism” by “localism.” We can now make two parallel and mutually reinforcing arguments. The first is that after all, Eurocentrism is nothing but a particular nativism holding the privilege of drawing and implementing global designs — global designs that since the Renaissance were successful in disguising colonial epistemic differences and selling them as cultural differences. Cultural differences makes you believe that it just happens that cultures are different as it hides the hierarchy and power relations that colonial differences unveil. Colonial difference is, indeed, already a decolonial concept. Thus, non-European localism is what Boroujerdi describes as nativism, a term that may slip into privileging blood and land, which is not what his argument points to. In fact, Botoujerdi’s paradigmatic example of “nativism” is Frantz Fanon who can hardly be accused of fundamentalist thinking.

Now, the advent of Black intellectuals, both in the sense of African and Afro-Caribbean diasporas as well as in the sense of non-European intellectuals, thinkers, artists, philosophers, and activists, is really posting a major challenge to European philosophy — and that is to Kant’s cosmopolitan legacies, still alive and well today, even among African philosophers. How come? Philosophical localism (born of the lamentable circumstances of colonialism) is by definition decolonial and, contrary to the claims of continental philosophy, is pluri-versal instead of uni-versal. Therefore, cosmopolitanism from above — that is, Kant’s legacy picked up by “honest liberals” (to use John Rawls’s expression) — is automatically unveiled as unidirectional: a benevolent imperialism reorienting the civilizing mission that is not asking questions about how relevant cosmopolitanism is for intellectuals beyond the Euro-American sphere, in Tanzania, Bolivia, Ghana, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, or Iran, to name just a few spaces/places. If the cosmopolitan project is not conceptually unraveled from the perspective of the non-European world in the same way that “philosophy” was unapologetically appropriated in countless acts of epistemic disobedience, then the way forward, conceptually, is the idea of “cosmopolitan localism.” This sounds like an oxymoron, no doubt. But do not forget what we have said about epistemic disobedience.

Cosmopolitan localism means simply a world in which many worlds would co-exist as the Zapatistas’s famous dictum has it; and it implies that the commonalities of localisms — what connects the diversity of local histories — has, once again, its origin in the “lamentable conditions of colonialism.” Non-European localisms have this in common: the experiences of European and, later on, US imperialism, which are common global experiences marked by the differences in each local history. Thus, localism cannot be universal, as European imperial localism, but is by definition pluriversal. The major challenge, therefore, of African and non-European philosophy is indeed the growing and consolidation of independent thoughts, with the full awareness that such independent thoughts do not mean going back to the roots but dealing with and undoing the colonial epistemic difference.

Walter Mignolo is William H. Wannamaker Professor of Romance Studies in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University. His recent publications include, with Catherine Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concept, Analytics, Praxis (2018) and The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (2011).

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