Just returned from one of the two international trips I expect to make for philosophy this year. From Vienna, a city I only visited for the second time, and shorter than the first time… The first time I saw her grandiose avenues, with all the towering sculptures of emperors and empresses. I also saw her silent, closed, street views – when I went river-wards to see the famous, crazy Hundertwasser house.

This time I walked the other way, right through the older city center, with medieval looking porches and little streets interspersed between – more grandiose palaces and her magnificent Dom.

I walked to the Center for Science and Culture, where I was invited to take part in an experimental style netwerk meeting on Intercultural Philosophy and Post-/De-colonial Theory. Experimental, as it didn’t want to use the hierarchical conference style, with the established professors holding keynotes for a large audience, and the younger scholars having to compete for attention in parallel sessions. How you do academic work matters. The Vienna group, which has organized such events for several years now, wanted to create a space where younger and older, students, researchers and professors, could meet as in… a meeting!

The meeting did start with lectures, like the one by Babacar Mbaye Diop from Senegal (on museums and looted art), and by Renate Schepen (on time and afrofuturism), but even then the time planned for discussion with all those present was way more than at a regular conference, where consuming information is often more important than reflection. In the afternoon session now there was text-discussion, close reading, as it might have been a seminar group – but now with people from across the globe who were partly new to each other. The text at the center was Felwine Sarr’s Afrotopia, of which we weren’t sure how to classify it – as an essay, a manifesto…?

The second day brought another exciting turn, with three presentations rooted in Latin-American experience, among others by Rolando Vazquez. Vazquez made sure to delineate the concepts of postcoloniality and decoloniality from each other, as sharp as possible. Postcoloniality would be the critique of the colonial enterprise by its victims wanting to occupy modernity themselves, whilst decoloniality would be a similar critique which, however, rejected modernity as a way of being in the world. Insight was thus gained, but historically, I wondered, whether thus overlappings among experiences and motives of those oppressed by coloniality were not obfuscated. Here arose just one of the many interesting points of discussion and dialogue of the meeting, which asks to be pursued in a next one.

An even deeper question is how action and reflection hang together. And how their relation mirrors the one between intercultural philosophy and de-/postcolonial theory. Is our aim to construct instruments for change rooted in conceptual representations of suffering? To deconstruct hegemonic structures of thought? Or to ask open reflective questions and build spaces for dialogue? To me the most inspiring aspect of this meeting was the confidence that nobody present would want to decide on one of those approaches. We all seemed to realize that none of them can be fruitful without the others.

And what better place could provide that space for thought than the town where Hundertwasser is so present – whose houses integrated in living nature (after only decades) now are present in so many city planning projects. Green roofs, living areas without cars, a ‘human’ scale of living – he foresaw our need of them and pushed to create them. Maybe, hopefully our theorizing and discussing may also produce some ideas of use for a way of life not based on abuse by humans of humans, and of all other persons.

It is already two weeks ago that I met the ten international students who had enrolled in the Winter Course Intercultural Philosophy and Postcolonial Theory. A tiny room in the Mathematics and Sciences building (for rooms are always scarce since our university population outgrew its premises) barely held them and the teachers’ team: Dr. Louise Müller, Dr. Pius Mosima, and myself. For all it was an experiment, initiated by an invitation of the organizers of the Vrije Universiteit Winter School to submit an idea for a course.

Opening speech for the whole Winter School by the director of the International Office of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Our idea was to get this interdisciplinary and intercontinental team together to teach this interdisciplinary and intercontinental class. The organizers liked the idea. We spent much time in advertizing the course, and the result was worth it – there were in fact 11 paying students, but – it has to mentioned, sadly enough: one of our African students didn’t obtain her visa. Later we heard that from the other proposals several had to retract because of failing numbers of enrollments. We are happy that so many were attracted by our topic, and if a second edition will take place, or maybe a summer school version, I am confident even more students will partake.

As an extra Dr. Müller had organized a boat tour through Amsterdam’s canals, provided by the Black Heritage Tours on the Sunday before we started – a welcome contextualizing and bonding event. Here you don’t get the success story of the enterprizing Dutch, but how this story was built on slave labor and legalized abuse of human beings. The tour focuses on slavery and the role the Netherlands played in it, but also tells about the free blacks neighborhood that existed in the 17th century and shows other traces of how Africans were present in Amsterdam’s history.

The course itself was an intensive five days, with lectures in the morning by the teaching team taking turns, and seminars with student presentations and text discussions in the afternoons. The planning of the course seemed to work well. But what you cannot predict is how the people who enroll will connect, and whether a true group will be formed. It was very encouraging to see this happened immediately and spontaneously: soon the discussion page of our internet space on canvas filled up with extra materials the students were sharing with each other, and their willingness to learn from each other’s learning and research challenges was enormous. Also the atmosphere was – as hoped – intercultural, open and inclusive.

What more can I say then a big THANK YOU to all the participants who made this first ever graduate course (class) in Intercultural Philosophy and Postcolonial Theory possible. Hope to hear again from your research and endeavors in the future. And let us wish we can take this course also to other places!

Two of the participants were so kind to also write their own impression for this blog, and I will give these here below.

Victor Nweke wrote: “The VU Amsterdam Winter Course –  ‘Intercultural’ Philosophy and Postcolonial ‘Theory’: ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Discourse – is unique in many ways. What interest me most is the fact that it was a transcultural, transnational and transdisciplinary meeting of established and budding scholars struggling to understand and express themselves through interpersonal conversations. As a seeker of meaning in life, I would love to attend it as many times as possible from any location of the earth. The Amsterdam Slave Heritage Tour was great. Nonetheless, I think the Tour would have been much more lively if it was done in the middle of the course when all participants have become aware of their interconnections as members of the same species. The Boat Tour brought healing memories of the Cape of Agony in different parts of my Motherland.”

Surekha Raven wrote: “I am a Master’s Student in organizational anthropology and attended the course in preparation of my master’s thesis. The teachers are extremely knowledgeable and helpful and the course absolutely exceeded my expectations. The choice of literature fitted the objectives and I gained a lot of new insights for my master’s thesis. The variety in professional, educational and cultural backgrounds of both the teachers and the students made the lectures and our discussions even more engaged and productive. I especially liked the interdisciplinary, intercultural approach, truly inspiring and promising for a philosophy of the future.”

Our interdisciplinary and intercontinental class at the final day.

 

When I tell about my engaged research into shamanism and shamanistic cultures, I have often encountered the same idea: that I am into a romantic idea called ‘back to nature’, that I idealize non-modern cultures, in short – that I am, somehow, loosening the high standards of philosophical reason that modern Western culture has reached.

This idea encountered me when I had written my first book on nature ‘Terugkeer van de natuur’ (The Return of Nature’). The title, as it happens, was more the idea of the publisher. My own title was considered too difficult, but of course, philosophically, it was much more clear, and would have prevented some of the romantic misunderstandings. It was ‘Nature as metaphor’. I wanted to show that through the concept of nature we express our deepest existential experiences, experiences which already presuppose ourselves as agents. Nature can never be observed as something ‘outside’.

And this – making it into something ‘outside’ is what is happening in our times – where indigenous peoples are persistantly being ‘finished off’ by large scale agriculture and extraction of crude resources by companies entering and overtaking their lands. All means seem allowed, from inventing new laws that make their traditional way of life illegal, to expulsion, to ‘helping’ them to settle down, to letting murders of shamans and protectors unpunished. The indigenous peoples who have up till now resisted modern ways of life have often done so by retracting into less inhabitable, less penetrable areas.

This morning I happened upon this well-done, non-romantic documentary (in German) on shamanism in present-day Mongolia. What is important if one doesn’t want to remain stuck in the standard ideas on shamanistic cultures, is to postpone one’s judgments and to listen to what the shamans themselves have to say. They are not voiceless, they are not ignorant about what they reject. They are clear about their views and goals. Still they are seldomly listened to.

One of these shamans, Ganbat Sandag, to be seen near the end of the film, says it clearly: ‘without us, without our way of life (that of the reindeer herds and hunters) this nature would not be that wild anymore as it is up till now’ (my paraphrase). In these words the key to the shamanistic understanding of our (human) relation to the world is given:

‘Wild’ does not mean ‘untouched by humans’ (that would be romantic), wild is what has been kept in a certain state by humans – in cooperation of course with the other creatures in that ‘world’. Nothing is untouched, is uncreated, is un-kept, un-domesticated.

The question is how we touch, how we domesticate, what kind of home we make and keep, and for whom. Modern capital in its more ugly forms (visible in the docu in the extraction of valuables from the mountains in the area, an activity that releases toxic substances, that in turn cause illnesses in the human and non-human population) destroys ‘wild’ homes, to create cheap, large scale, short-lived homeliness for the poor masses it first created and then transformed into customers.

Capital needs ‘wild’ nature outside of civilization – to create an image of conservation and space for its poor consumers – but in that wild nature the conservators, the hunters, are not allowed to live their lives anymore. All over the world traditional hunters are ‘hunted’ down by new laws and conservationist organisations (google some of the issues in which WWF is involved in Central Africa, for example).

What is at stake is a deeply philosophical issue: how we understand the human relations to nature – nature in us, us in nature or nature outside, and us outside of nature (then where will we be…?).

Ganbat Sandag says it clearly: ‘if we cannot hunt anymore, this way of life will disappear, and the reindeer will disappear as well.’

The difference of insight, and the bone of contention is thus: what is wild nature? The shamanistic peoples say – it is the nature that we have been preserving like this for ages. The modern peoples say – you get out of there, become sedentary like us, and leave ‘nature’ to itself. That, I agree with this shaman, is a romantic mistake.

When going against the grain is one’s natural tendency, living in harmony with one’s surroundings is a challenge. When ‘everybody’ says I should read book X, or see movie Y, the chances are strongest I will not go and read it, or go and see it. Such an almost anarchistic tendency makes learning also difficult, because one is suspicious towards the very phenomenon of the teacher.

So when I was finding my way in this new field of African Philosophy, ever since I read Heinz Kimmerle’s Mazungumzo, in 2003, I had this same tendency to find my way through obscure articles and not-so-well-known books, instead of working my way straightforwardly through the classics of the field – such as the works of Oruka, Wiredu, and Hountondji.

I also had a problem understanding – years ago – why Hountondji had criticized Bantu Philosophy by the missionary Tempels so strongly, as the ‘othering’ undertaking of a colonial mind. Back then I had not yet realized the flaws in the French and English translations of Tempels’ work, nor had I fully understood the context in which African philosophers since the days of Tempels had been working – how much work it had taken to undo the colonial heritage – by criticizing, discussing, dialoguing, which has made many among them the masters of these philosophical arts in our times.

And now, last week, having read so much more, and therefore having become more humble in my opinions, I finally went to listen to a lecture by the teacher of decades – to be a student once more.

It was in Leiden, Pieter Boele van Hensbroek had organized his trip, and the Africa Studies Center was so kind to host the lecture. The topic of the afternoon was religion, politics, the state, the law – all set in the specific history of the Methodist Church in Benin. I heard later that some were surprised that the philosopher who had earlier stressed that African philosophy has a universalist intention, like all philosophy, and should not be seen as local and cultured, now focused so much on such a ‘local’, specific topic, bringing out a religious point at the end, that God can never be finally known by human beings.

The most localized remark Hountondji made was how the Catholic Basilica in Ouidah is built right across the House where snakes are revered, suggesting that traditional African religion is just as important, if not more important to life as it is, than the imported Christian and Muslim religions. Still he did not focus on the traditions, which might have satisfied the curious Dutch public, always fascinated by an ‘exotic’ story. They got mostly history, and conflict, and a philosophical weighing of interests of humans in society, that should bring us mostly to valuing the law over personal interests.

In the end it was a ‘universal’ weighing of arguments on the occasion of local historical facts – showing his listeners that it was time now to follow him to what is of interest to us all in these times – to not forget that the perseverance of human values takes work, and courage, and persistence of us all.

Now there was a possibility as well have a photo taken with this independent thinker who had helped shape African philosophy by critically discussing its scope and aims, and who carried within him many decades of experience with our world, with reflecting, and with teaching. A student of Wageningen University who had come to listen too was so kind to take it. Here it is.

Paulin Hountondji with members of the Dutch research group African Intercultural Philosophy

This is the name of the newest study group in the framework of the Dutch Research School of Philosophy. This week, on December 12, 2019, it held its first meeting, at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. The group will meet twice a year and wants to create a collegial, inclusive and friendly meeting place for those working in African Philosophy in the Netherlands in an academic context. Exchanging knowledge and experiences should keep research and teaching in the field in our country on a high level, and expand it from there.

The group aims to make African Intercultural Philosophy visible as an academic field. There is a lot of interest in African Philosophy outside academia in our country, but within, it is still in its first stages – with here and there a course taught, and a researcher working mostly in isolation (locally, though often not internationally).

As our OZSW page says: “The group focuses on the Intercultural Approach in African Philosophy, which has from the start of the academic study of African Philosophy been an important point of departure. It aims to study, discuss and bring African Philosophy further in ways that stress its meaning in and for a globalizing philosophy.” Thus we make clear that we do not view African philosophy as something contained in certain cultures, or which concerns only ‘local’ problems or traditions. African philosophy, on the contrary, offers much to enrich philosophy from other traditions and also a ‘globalizing’ philosophy.

The group hopes to raise consciousness in universities to introduce courses on African Philosophy in their programs, and perhaps even inspire the initialization of a master program for those wanting to specialize in it. It also hopes to increase collaboration in supervising of PhD students, of whom several were present yesterday. It may be a vehicle to organize or inspire conferences and make intercontinental collaborations easier. Attention to the issue of the closedness of Western philosophy (materially through visa and travel problems for philosophers from the African continent, and mentally through exclusionary epistemological frameworks) is not a side issue.

We want to articulate the field as deserving its own programs and conferences, not to be an afterthought in ethnology or ‘general’ philosophy. Finally, we want to exchange research findings, and collaborate in publishing projects. This first meeting Dr Henk Haenen (to our knowledge the second person ever to do a PhD in African Philosophy in the Netherlands) held a presentation on the concept of beauty in the work of Woly Soyinka, a topic which managed to raise in the discussion all the major issues concerning ‘African’ philosophy and African ‘philosophy that makes this field so exciting.

Our call: if you teach African Philosophy or if you research it at an academic level in the Netherlands, then you are invited to join the research group, in order to enrich each other and help this important field grow in depth and outreach. You can reach us through our page which is behind the top-most link in this post.

The occasion of our first meeting called for a photo moment. Not all members could be present this time, so this is only a small part of our group!

Compared to the craze about their most famous 17th century painter, Rembrandt, the Dutch treat their most famous 17th century philosopher, Spinoza, with heavy neglect. Just recently an African professor narrated me how strange it was to him to try to find the house where Spinoza lived in Rijnsburg, stepping from the bus and seeing no signs. And how strange it was to him as well to notice that the house itself didn’t provide much information about his life and work. He is not alone. Many of those visiting the Netherlands from all over the world try to find traces of the famous philosopher, and find not more than a few crumbs. Crumbs that would not even have been there but for the hard work of a few dedicated volunteers…

Today I had a meeting with one of the volunteers involved in trying to do something about this, by writing texts to be provided in the one room in Spinoza’s last house in the Hague, which can be visited two hours a week. Wim Goris has done his own research into several aspects of Spinoza’s life, such as his food, his means of transport, and also of his death – to wit, his burial. We were having a coffee in the building next to the little elevated grassfield in the center of the Hague, where Spinoza’s remains are supposed to have been scattered with many others. Wim explained that the café used to be the house of the warden of the New Church where Spinoza had been buried by his friends in a rental grave of 12 guilders. And naturally, we were contemplating the little amount of interest there had been up till now on the precise facts of his burial and what had happened to his bones.

That there had been a grave was not even known to me before. I had visited the monument on the burial area several times, but had never thought much about Spinoza’s bones, as I had this vague idea that they were scattered and never had a clear location. Of course I had my photo taken there as many others will have too. But I had – I confess – thought more of how to use it on social media than of the remains of the thinker with whose work I had communicated on a daily basis for almost nine years, when I did my PhD research in the 1990s.

But now, over coffee, we spoke of why his philosophy still appeals to so many readers, even if it has so often been misinterpreted even by serious scholars. It must be because he reflected on life as it is. On its finitude and the sense of eternity that we can even have amidst all change and perishing. On the connectedness of human life to all other life, our bodily, emotive, thinking and spiritual constitution – he tried to think it all together in an age that tried to split it all up. That must be one of the reasons why there is so much interest in his work in places like Japan, and in most African countries – places where practices of life as connected and interconnected have been preserved amidst the inevitable disconnecting forces of modernization.

Duting that conversation I suddenly wanted to know, for the first time, where the bones are, like one can in the case of a Christian saint for whose remains a golden box is placed in a cathedral, or at least a stone vault. I noted by myself that it is not stupid to want to connect to the actual remains of someone whose life has added greatly to human understanding. It helps to be aware, in the moment, in the body one is in now, of the meaning he created, or channeled in his life.

Drinking our coffees, we had to comfort ourselves with the realization that his remains were at least somewhere in that little grass field outside the café. They will have been returned into the cycle of life to such an extent, after three hundred plus years, that he will be there just somehow, in the place, in the air maybe even.

Maybe it was that moment, in a conversation, where I said to a relatively new friend, that I had four friends in philosophy: Jesus, Nietzsche, Spinoza and Derrida. It was an intellectual conversation, in which humor and reflection naturally mixed. After I went home I thought back to that confession, and realized – of course – I had mentioned no women. Why? I noticed something else – that Nietzsche was the only non-Jew in the group. Well, now my mind was looking for all kinds of secondary things, of course, free-wheeling, whereas the joking remark in fact was meant to say something about me – to give some fragments from which to build my portrait: the shamanistic, zen-riddle loving, nature metaphysic, deconstructive playing, strongheaded woman-girl. One can build that portrait not because I am like them. Not because they are like me. Because I like to be with them, my mind likes to play with theirs. They are my friends.

Now two days later I woke up very early, from a dream, in which I was meeting Derrida. I finally had the chance to check some things about his philosophy with him, while we were having a short conversation, so I did. And he answered seriously and very much to the point. I realized I had to remember what he said, what I said, as this conversation was giving me these unique pieces of understanding I had been looking for. But when the dream ended, and I immediately tried to recover it, I found it was already gone! In the dream, the conversation was also not long. There were many women, some of whom he had a relationship with, maybe his wife was there amongst them. Everybody wanted to talk to him, because it was so unique that he had returned from the dead just for this one evening. In fact we were all gathered at a party to celebrate this and be with him and enjoy the evening.

We went up, in a lift/elevator, and I was told we were going to the 50th floor or so, the top of the building. I was a bit scared, as it was so high, and far below us was the ground. On the top of this building was a tropical garden, planted on both sides of this completely square walking path, and it was a gorgeous summer evening with a pinkish honey-fluid sky and the palm trees softly rustling. Waiters were walking around with drinks, the gathered friends were finding their way after coming out of the lift, in the lush garden, and there I spoke briefly and philosophically with him, before he was claimed by someone else who wanted to use this brief moment that he was amongst us again. Before returning to the other world once more. He would be there just for this one evening. For this return/farewell party.

So I spoke too short with my philosophical friend, he would vanish once more, and on his/our friend-party he was soon mingling with too many people. On top I forgot the important checked aspects of his philosophy. Still I felt remarkably satisfied and at peace, finally, to have spoken with him and touched on these open spaces in his work or in my understanding or in whatever web we were in, weaving along with all the others before and after us. Almost established their meaning. And forgotten. And enjoyed. If you can still follow me, that is the kind of philosophical friendship that characterizes me, and that is me.

This was the weirdest blog post of them all, I guess. that means, considering style. The content is clear, of course. For who understands. Interpretations are welcome. Deconstructive ones please. Or shamanistic ones. Or zen ones. Or nature metaphysic ones. No theological, Freudian, or Jungian ones – they won’t do.

An impression? In this direction? New York-ish?

No credits defined, photo taken from this website