Me on Al-Jazeera on Who Can Think

By Wrongzo • Philosophy • 16 Jan 2013

Monument to Amilcar Cabral, Praia, Cape Verde by Xandu (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monument to Amilcar Cabral, Praia, Cape Verde by Xandu (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For context: I really like Al-Jazeera. They have better reporting on Africa than most other big news outlets (for general Africa news in English that won’t cost you over $1000/year, it’s pretty much them and the Christian Science Monitor – for specific countries, there’re other good sources).  I also love that they have columnists who talk seriously about philosophy, even if I don’t always (or, it seems often) agree.

But I wanted to say a couple quick things about a column that I read this morning there (published yesterday) that struck me as simply bizarre in a few respects.

The piece is called “Can Non-Europeans Think?”  It’s a response to an earlier column on Slavoj Zizek and takes that article – rightly, I think, this is where I agree – to task for this passage:

There are many important and active philosophers today: Judith Butler in the United States, Simon Critchley in England, Victoria Camps in Spain, Jean-Luc Nancy in France, Chantal Mouffe in Belgium, Gianni Vattimo in Italy, Peter Sloterdijk in Germany and in Slovenia, Slavoj Zizek, not to mention others working in Brazil, Australia and China.

Dabashi’s response is odd in two ways, I think, and contains a more serious error in a third.

First, the original column contains an implicit snub of basically all Anglo-American philosophy, that Dabashi does not correct. I suspect – though I don’t know the guy, so who knows – that he agrees that Anglo-American philosophy should be snubbed.

As Dabashi points out, the only American philosopher on the list is Butler, and she is very heavily influenced by 20th Century French philosophical thought. What’s bizarre about this for a philosopher working in the US is that, while I make extensive use of Butler in my book (and did in my dissertation), among many Anglo-American, “analytic” philosophers, this is considered at least slightly disreputable (not obviously among the colleagues I hold near and dear, but certainly among many in the profession). So the list is a sort of bizarro-world list of important philosophers, from the perspective of English-language academia – even if we’re limiting ourselves to living, reasonably-well-respected-among-philosophers thinkers who could plausibly be called “public intellectuals” (so no one like, say, Pettit, who is very influential within philosophy but mostly unknown outside academia), the list would probably include at least some of Martha Nussbaum, Richard Posner, Michael Ignatieff, Catherine MacKinnon, Michael Walzer, or Leon Kass (and that’s just off the top of my head, I’m sure there are other good candidates).

That’s annoying inside baseball for the philosophy profession, and doesn’t really undermine the main point of the reply, which is that the list is entirely European (with the exception of some unnamed philosophers in Brazil and China).

What’s more relevant to the point is that it leaves out important philosophers outside Europe. For instance, on Africa:

We can turn around and look at Africa. What about thinkers like Henry Odera Oruka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Okot p’Bitek, Taban Lo Liyong, Achille Mbembe, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, V.Y. Mudimbe: Would they qualify for the term “philosopher” or “public intellectuals” perhaps, or is that also “ethnophilosophy”?

I love wa Thiong’o’s The Wizard of the Crow. I am ashamed not to have read more Achebe. And he certainly counts as a fierce public intellectual. But they’re novelists, first and foremost. Soyinka is someone to greatly respect, but primarily a playwright/poet/activist. p’Bitek was a poet (and also died in 1982, which would seem to disqualify him from this particular conversation). Liyong was primarily a poet and literature critic.  Only half the list are thinkers who are recognizable as philosophers in a disciplinary sense. And of those, Oruka and Eze are dead, Diagne and Mudimbe aren’t based in straight-up philosophy programs (not fatal to their intellectual stature, by any means! It just reflects on the odd nature of the list) and only Mbembe teaches at a university in Africa, and he is at a major university in South Africa, which is uncommonly well-connected to the global profession for Africa.  Meanwhile, a number of living, prominent African philosophers could have been added, notably Appiah, who was president of the American Philosophical Association.  I might also suggest Gyeke, a prominent living Ghanaian philosopher.

[This whole next paragraph needs a big disclaimer: I AM NOT AN EXPERT ON AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY. I would welcome argument on this take! I am probably wrong, per the blog title!]

Though perhaps even more than Appiah, an odd lacuna from Dabashi’s list is Hountondji, for three reasons. First, his most famous book, African Philosophy: Myth & Reality specifically takes aim at the idea that Dabashi seems to be criticizing, that Africans cannot do “philosophy” but only “African philosophy.”  Hountondji’s whole schtick is that African philosophy is nothing other than philosophy done by people who live in Africa or are of African descent, and should engage with and can live up to the standards of philosophy of other origins. In fact, he makes a pretty persuasive argument that the “sage philosophy” movement exemplified by Oruka reinforces the relegation of African philosophy to “ethnophilosophy” by insisting that there is a different African tradition and way of thinking that should not be judged by the standards of Western philosophy. I think Dabashi’s article has a similar effect, though surely unintended – “I couldn’t find enough philosophers in Africa, but here are some poets and such who address some philosophical themes, that’s probably good enough, you know, for Africans.”

Second, less importantly, Hountondji certainly has the European pedigree that Dabashi values – he studied with Althusser and Derrida. Third, he certainly has public intellectual cred: he was a minister in the Beninois government and a high muckety-muck at CODESRIA.

I don’t have as much expertise [so, instead of minimal, zero] on philosophers from other non-European regions, but I would also just note: Sen isn’t on the list of Indian philosophers? WTF?

But in closing, I want to return to a different point that I think Dabashi gets wrong, and this one is important aside from who would be on our philosophical dream teams.

Dabashi uses his concerns about non-European philosophers not making lists as a springboard to talk about imperialism. He cites approvingly Gramsci’s misquote of Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant said that you should act only in such a way that you could will that everyone else act according to the same principle; Gramsci’s gloss adds everyone “in a similar situation.”

Dabashi uses this to go on a discussion of how the universalist aspirations of philosophy make it inherently imperialist, a shadow of Europe’s former(?) imperial reach.

This strikes me as a problematic take in two ways.

First, I think it represents a particularly destructive and unhelpful kind of critique. So Kant potentially substitutes his own views for those of everyone, in an “imperialist” way – this is probably true of him, as well as Rawls and Frances Kamm (zing!). So what? The question is what we are doing with him, and Kant has been used to good effect in very cosmopolitan and de-centered kinds of philosophy. For instance, I have in mind Korsgaard, who develops a theory based around mutual accommodation and reciprocity, but who is building on Kant and could probably not have written her book without doing it.  Maybe Dabashi does this when he’s not writing pieces for al-Jazeera, I don’t know, but the piece here strikes me as critique in its least helpful mode, finding an echo of something problematic in philosophical work and using it almost purely to dismiss.

Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Ghana, 2009

Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Ghana, 2009

Second, I think it risks missing the real imperialism and anglo-americo-eurocentrism for a focus on the intellectual problem. I spent the Fall of 2011 on a Fulbright to the Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Ghana. Aside from missing my family, it was a very interesting and stimulating experience – of course, I had my gripes about things, and became that white guy complaining about the water, but overall I had some great philosophical conversations with folks there, both at the department and in my research with the military.

But philosophers there are working at a serious disadvantage, in a way that reinforces a perception of African philosophy as “ethnophilosophy.” First, I think people don’t often appreciate the logistical challenges that African philosophers sometimes face. I was lucky, in that I retained many of my global connections. But my colleagues had to scrape to get access to many professional journals, and their access was often supported at the whim of external donors – access to things like journal archives is expensive!  That’s why I’m planning to try to publish as much as I can in open-access formats (I would release my book as Creative Commons if it wouldn’t make my tenure committee have a good laugh at my expense).  But if you can’t engage with the most current research, it’s going to hurt you when you go to try to get your own stuff published and become respected as a philosopher. Even books can be a problem – you might think that eBooks would be a great boon to folks working in a place where getting physical books shipped (no Amazon warehouse in Ghana!) can be slow and expensive, but I quickly learned when I suggested this that the problem is: good luck getting Amazon to take payment for that eBook in Ghana cedis. Plus, while I don’t get to conferences enough, that’s my own fault – my Ghanaian colleagues made pretty decent salaries for Ghana, but it made going abroad to conferences, relatively speaking, much more expensive for them – again, making it harder to gain recognition, other things equal.

Second, there’s a weird angle on this from the “metropole.” Take my own tenure case. Having the Fulbright to my name certainly will help me, but the opinion of my African colleagues while I was on it won’t. I have been told that, when I suggest references for my tenure case, I need to have almost all of them be from as-prominent-as-I-can-snag American and UK universities, because they are the ones that the promotion and tenure committee will know. On the one hand, this is largely reasonable – if the APT committee has no idea whether Emmanuel Ani is a smart dude (he is), they have no way of knowing whether his thinking I’m a smart dude matters. But on the other hand, this uncomfortably makes Western people’s assessment of whether I’m likely to be a good colleague to Africans more important than Africans’ assessment of whether I was. It gives me strong incentives not to spend my time engaging with African philosophers. And again, makes it harder than it should be for Africans – who will have an easier time, for the reasons above, interacting with other African scholars – to get recognition outside the African scholarly sphere. That reinforces the relegation of African philosophy to “ethnophilosophy” in the way that Dabashi rightly complains about. Even for me, it would be different probably if I was working on some area of philosophy where the African-ness of my interlocutors was important, not just their philosophical acumen, but that would basically mean I was working on…. drum roll… ethnophilosophy.

So in the end, I agree with Dabashi that relegating African (and other non-European) thinkers to “ethnophilosophy” is problematic – I want to be able to read, write about, and assign Cabral for reasons that have nothing to do with his happening to be from Cape Verde (I do not, no, use him enough in my work – I am part of the problem!). But I think focusing on the theoretical imperialism of the philosophical enterprise doesn’t help much, and in fact may blind us to the ways in which the marginalization of non-European philosophy has more to do with mundane, material barriers. U Ghana has some really smart Plato scholars and Eze and Wiredu had some great fights about deliberative democracy. I trust African philosophers to take a critical eye to Kant and Rawls and Quine and whoever – if, you know, we pay attention to the practical barriers we’ve put up to them engaging in that conversation with us Europeans.

OK, I’ve spent way too long on that.

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