The problem of discrimination and bias against the Global Majority in the field of philosophy must be considered in two important senses. The one is a practical (extrinsic) consideration about the relationship between knowledge production and global relations of power. The other is a philosophical consideration intrinsic to the nature of Western philosophy. These considerations are not separable, they are mutually constitutive, and I would go so far as to insist that they would not exist without one another. The conceptual/philosophical problem – in the broadest sense of a ‘philosophical problem’ – is inseparable from the practical, but it is in this context, deserving of its own manner of presentation. I will begin with the practical problem because it is much easier to explain and illustrate, that is, the problem of the circulation of knowledge and the undue privilege given to work produced by the Euro-American academy due to global power relations and resource distribution. This will then lay the basis for the philosophical problem, not separable but not entirely equivalent, to the practical one.
The first problem, which is a secondary problem, is that of the position of the Global North as the center of global knowledge production in relation to all its marginalized others. This is not specific to philosophy, and could be extended to literature in its broadest sense, as Pascale Casanova has shown in her now acclaimed The World Republic of Letters (2004) (where the center is Paris), the world of reading, writing, and thinking has a global hierarchy that overdetermines all of what we read and how it is that we come to what we read.
Nevertheless, small sections of the traditionally excluded Global Majority have clawed their way into the Global North, a route through which they have found a readership, and more fundamentally, a place in the Republic. For instance, scholars from Latin America and Asia have been relatively integrated into the North American academy (for a host of reasons, and at no small cost), but this has always proved more difficult for African theorists for whom immigration is difficult and undesirable, and in some sense should rightfully be discouraged altogether. A small part of this difficulty is owed to African-American Studies departments that no longer have a strong Pan-African scope, and may have privileged the North American experience of blackness to the marginalization of those on the continent and elsewhere in the resource-poor diaspora. Naturally, other disciplinary departments have no interest in African scholarship due to a willful ignorance and a need to protect the supposed purity and survival of the classical canon from contamination. Moreover, many Africans do and should feel a greater compulsion not to abandon institutions of knowledge production on the African continent for recognition in the North American and European academy.
This is not to say that Africa makes no appearance whatsoever in the academy in the Northern hemisphere. Scholars from the Global North are wont to mine African thought and social scientific research to re-present it to the North American academy as niche, novel, and under-researched. This is the traditional passageway for African thought that finds expression in the American academy. When it appears, it is from those interpreters of African research and thought who mirror the methods by which paternalistic colonial travelers and anthropologists would accumulate large volumes of diary entries and travelogues replete with all types of fantastical representations of the black colonized as objects of study and curiosity, that were then used by the subject (European Man) to know, dominate, and control the object (the native/black/colonized). For a more detailed elaboration on the subject-object relation in modern rationality, for example, see Aníbal Quijano’s “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality” (2007).
These relations have not changed in structure, even when there are no explicit motivations that center governance, genocide, extraction, and control, these genetic impulses have not disappeared. The problems associated with the circulation and production of knowledge are reproduced on a global scale, not only in disciplines like anthropology or sociology, but across all disciplines and especially in the humanities.
The 2017 case of The Philosophical Society of South Africa (PSSA) is one sad but useful illustration of the problem. African philosophers were effectively excluded from the PSSA (and its major academic publishing platform, The South African Journal of Philosophy, or SAJOP), while opportunistic white theorists became experts on African philosophy. Not only is African philosophy patronizingly misrepresented by white philosophers, but these parasitic settler scholars also have easier access to global knowledge centers, where they become the experts and translators of African philosophy on behalf of Africans. This was the major impetus behind the formation of the Azanian Philosophical Society after the charge of racism called against the PSSA and the call for its disbandment. In an attempt to save itself, the PSSA elected the first black woman philosopher in South Africa as its new chair. When this was problematized in a national news outlet, the article was removed, and the story silenced. I must here mention, so as not to reproduce their methods of silencing, Professor Mogobe Ramose—arguably the most renowned African philosopher on the continent and expert on the philosophy of Ubuntu—who has experienced exponentially greater forms of silencing and epistemic racial violence throughout his extensive career in the South African academy. Ramose’s philosophy focuses on a conception of Ubuntu that privileges justice for those conquered in the unjust wars of colonialism (see African Philosophy Through Ubuntu), and has been overshadowed by the work of settler philosophers of Ubuntu that distort and do not thoroughly engage or appreciate the canon of African philosophy on its own terms. For a more thorough exposition of racism in the study of philosophy in South Africa, see Ndumiso Dladla’s Here is a Table: A Philosophical Essay on the History of Race in South Africa (2018).
Amongst those well-meaning liberals in the insidious global NGO circuit, for whom Africa is not solely an infinitely available reservoir of exploitation for the Euro-American center, Africa is considered a place in desperate need of humanitarian intervention. From this perspective, philosophy is viewed as a bourgeois indulgence in a continent riddled with a plethora of more immediate practical concerns (hunger, poverty, illiteracy, etc) to those who maintain the racist belief that most of Africa’s problems are self-imposed by corrupt African dictators and their governments, and that our efforts are best suited to solving our immediate problems, often in an effort to avoid the philosophical ruminations about the complex and violent historical processes by which these circumstances came to exist.
Distinct but not discordant to what I have here labelled the practical problems associated with thinking and publishing in anti-black contexts, is the more primary philosophical consideration of the question of bias and discrimination in the field of philosophy. But to lay a charge of discrimination and bias is to vulgarly understate the severity of the problem. It is not simply the case that Western philosophy occupies a privileged position in the teaching and practice of philosophy – to the point where it occupies the position of Philosophy (capital P) – but rather, the marginalization of philosophy coming from those considered without Reason is necessary for modern Western philosophy to exist (from Descartes and Kant through to Badiou and Zizek). Western philosophy could not exist without this systematic exclusion. What we still call the modern philosophical canon is founded on the recognition and supreme privilege given to man’s internal capacity for Reason, a rationality decidedly absent in the Non-European (in varying degrees based on an arbitrary racial hierarchy where the African occupies the extreme bottom end). Western philosophy, presenting itself as an inquiry into the most universal questions of being, functions to conceal its fundamental operations in the construction of the racial Other – those societies who were closer to animal than to the rational thinking subject. More than mere bias, African or indigenous philosophy cannot be recognized as part of the philosophical canon precisely because African and Indigenous people are constructed – by Western philosophy – as being without reason (Descartes), morality (Kant), and History (Hegel), and thus available for violence and domination of infinite degrees and kinds. The categories upon which Western philosophy grounds itself rely by necessity on their distinction from those for whom these human qualifiers are absent, or in doubt. It must not be forgotten that “[w]hen America, Asia and the African coast lay bleeding at her feet, Europe raised her Galileos, Newtons, Leibnitzes, Spinozas, Rembrandts and Shakespeares and hundreds more besides and upon their shoulders”. Hosea Jaffe, The Contribution of the Europeans to World Civilization 1942-1992: A Lecture on the Columbian Era, 1992
Philosophy departments (most blatantly but not solely Analytic ones) perpetuate the foundational assertion of the object-without-reason colonized subject in two important ways: firstly, by ignoring or disavowing the complicity of Western philosophy in the operations of racism/colonialism, and secondly, by continuing to project Western ethnophilosophy as a universal Philosophy, as an inquiry into the universal nature of ontology, metaphysics, and epistemology, and so on.
Given that Western philosophy exists because of its primary act of distinguishing the man of reason both from God and the natural animal (the category of the African), it would be wholly insufficient – and even detrimental to the cause – to merely include more philosophers from the Global Majority into the classical canon. In the same vein, we should be suspicious of hastily ‘diversifying’ the curriculum such that we teach European philosophy alongside all its Others, as this produces the false idea that the people whose worlds these Non-European philosophies contemplate are somehow sharing equally in a world predicated on their erasure, and are hereby presumed to be equally endowed with reason, and thus participate in the processes of philosophical knowledge production side-by-side as equals.
At the same time, I am not suggesting that we remove the works of Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Spinoza, from the study of philosophy, the effects of which will only position Western philosophy as non-dominant in a world still dominated by European thought and ways of being. This amounts to denying that any domination, historical and contemporary, had occurred, effectively amounting to a double denial: the first is a denial of the reason of the African (or non-European), coinciding with the second, a denial of this original denial.
Instead of wiping the canon clean of Western thought, or including the Global Majority as false equal partners, Western philosophy should be taught with the aim of emphasizing the dominating driving force of Euro-American thinking, ie. that its existence and continued hegemony is not due to the strength of its philosophical claims, or its assumed advanced Spirit, but due to the very complex technologies of the violence it deploys in its encounter with the Other. This side of philosophy is deliberately repressed in philosophy pedagogy, but this does not mean it is not there, blatant and bare in the work of Kant and Hegel and co. This underside must be privileged in the teaching of its most celebrated philosophers and theorists if we are to present an honest account of the contribution of the Global North to Philosophy in general.
For instance, we should not position Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology (where his racism is most elaborately explored) as marginal to his more significant three Critiques, as is presently the case. Instead, his Lectures (and the racism contained therein) should be considered central to his conception of Enlightenment, rationality, and morality, and ought to be taught in tandem with Emmanuel Eze’s The Color of Reason: The idea of “Race” in Kant’s Anthropology. Similarly, Locke’s Second Treatise of Government should not be allowed to stand as the definitive text in political philosophy on the social contract (often taught in tandem with Rousseau and Hobbes). But if The Second Treatise deserves our attention at all, it should be taught together with its most groundbreaking critics and interlocutors who expose its gravest missights and false premises, namely, Carole Pateman (The Sexual Contract) and Charles W. Mills (The Racial Contract), who should be granted a greater degree of consideration for their respective interventions into Western philosophy.
Finally, a case can be made for teaching only Non-European philosophers in philosophy departments. Power has made it so that serious students of philosophy in Africa are expected to be adept at both the Western canon as well the African, whereas students of philosophy in the West are encouraged to master Western thought, under the chauvinistic presumption that this already encompasses a universal examination of being. But the marginal position of non-Western philosophy has made it so that African philosophy already contains within itself a critique of Western thought, and in so doing contains (as a first principle) a fundamental and truly universal consideration of the founding problem of philosophy: justice.
This essay was first published by the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences Online, March 15, 2021. Re-published here with kind permission of the author. In addition, Lategan moderated a virtual Q&A with all the other participants of that forum which is available here:
|1.||↑||Hosea Jaffe, The Contribution of the Europeans to World Civilization 1942-1992: A Lecture on the Columbian Era, 1992|