Francesca Bordogna begins her 2008 book on William James ‘at the Boundaries’ discussing how the pragmatist philosopher created confusion with his 1906 address of the APA, on ‘the Energies of Men’. According to the closed-in minds of the professional philosophers, Bordogna writes, he only showed his own failure at good philosophy, by mentioning not only psychological and physiological insights, but also unscientific sources from popular spiritual healers and thinkers – in search for what could bring human beings to higher levels of mental and physical energy. An approach like that of James would probably still get the same kind of reaction at most gatherings of professional philosophers. Philosophy is, they hold, about conceptually clear analysis of theoretical and practical problems, or, if one is into continental philosophy, about rich hermeneutic descriptions of structures and ideas. It is not about ideas of what James called “common, practical men”. Philosophers can speak about their beliefs, of course, but not take these beliefs into the philosophical discourse itself – thus works the discipline’s exclusion of voices from ‘ordinary’ life. As Peter Park has shown in his historiography of the modern canon in philosophy, the gradual exclusion of religious and spiritual texts from philosophy, and the rewriting of its history to legitimize this move, has served the racist effects (if not motives) of the modernist, professionalized field. The issue of racism in modern philosophy had earlier already been outlined by Emmanuel Eze. His work and that of Park, implicitly also serve to bring philosophy, in post-Enlightenment times, again beyond the modernist boundaries that were challenged by James.

Pius Mosima’s recent book, which aims to provide a critical discussion of the concept of sagacity, as introduced by Henry Odera Oruka, now adds the case of African philosophy to this growing movement to bring philosophy beyond the boundaries. And it does so in a new, deconstructive, way, not trying to write a ‘grand narrative’ of what’s African (like e.g. John Mbiti attempted almost fifty years ago), but by including (in between the lines of his discussion of the past seventy years of the African philosophy debate, and of the philosophy of Oruka) practical and narrative approaches to problems of life that root in African traditions into the field of philosophy. Thus his book, titled Philosophic sagacity and intercultural philosophy, simultaneously criticizes the Euro-American hegemony in philosophy, as well as the strict policing of its disciplinary boundaries that goes along with it, and does so more by showing how things can be done otherwise, rather than by highlighting once more what’s wrong with modernist thought. At some points in his book Mosima is outspoken about his aim, as well with regard to its critical aspects, as to its constructive contribution to what he names ‘global wisdom traditions’. Below I want to highlight these outspoken moments, that add to a better view of what African philosophy could bring to the dialogical table of philosophy, as well as to a deconstruction of the modernist identification of philosophy with professional disciplinarity. What the book offers beyond that I will leave aside here. But one can also find in it also a well-researched (and much needed) overview and discussion of the different positions in the debate about African philosophy since the publication of Bantu Philosophy by the Belgian missionary Tempels, shortly after WW II. And of course a critical analysis of its main subject: Oruka’s philosophy of sagacity. Besides these two, very clear, main expositions, I was most intrigued by the general approach present in the book – which shows directions for a globalized philosophy beyond what Lewis Gordon has called disciplinary decadence.

What makes African philosophy a special case for doing so, lies in the fact that because “European imperialism and colonialism violently and profoundly disrupted Africa’s social, cultural, and political continuity and integrity” (17) it has had to find it’s voice, as Mosima shows, through and beyond debates about the status of traditional and modern knowledge systems, about whether to adopt an essentializing identity as ‘African’ at all, and, finally, about how philosophy can deal with its universalizing urges and its always localized commitments. This brings the author to adopt the view that “Place and belonging become what we make of them through constructs of meaning and through the construction of community.” This view sheds new light on the now globally so urgent matter of identity in a world that is increasingly interconnected through economical, political and even military processes. What’s more, it allows us (as I understand it) to take the achievements of African philosophy as a model for philosophizing in other places too. Philosophy is then allowed to move beyond a fixed geography of space, and beyond the idea of contained ‘continents’ to a continuous hermeneutical negotiation of the places where we think from. Thus marrying traditional structures of understanding that we commit to, to nonlocal reflections. This movement makes it no accident that a deconstructive (dislocating) approach is pervasive in the book. According to its author “intercultural philosophy enables us to go beyond the particularism of the ethnophilosophers and the universalism of the professional philosophers […] and helps us deconstruct the hegemonic imposition of the North Atlantic model.” (25)

Now the reader becomes intrigued to know what actual insights then, beyond the idea of an essentialized African tradition, African philosophy will bring to the global discussion. Here Mosima is not very explicit, but we can find many indications of where he would want to go to find such a contribution. We find remarks such as “We cannot interpret reality and search for wisdom just as abstract reality.” (70) Or, in a rather harsh criticism of those thinkers rejecting ethnophilosophy (like Hountondji, Towa and Oruka), we read that they are “overrated and promoted merely for the sake of the triumph of the Western, individual, text-based philosophy that they project.” (72) Alternatively, philosophy should take seriously, even include, ‘collectively managed and owned worldviews’ – to put it in James’ words: the ideas and practices of dealing with life of ‘common practical men’. Towards the end of the book, building from and critically dialoguing with Dutch intercultural philosopher Wim van Binsbergen, it becomes more clear what these ideas and practices in the case of the African heritage could be: besides traditional “wisdom of the body, expressed and mobilized in every ritual act of therapy” (120), “there are African local-level practices of conflict resolution and reconciliation”. (121) Thirdly, ‘comparative mythology’ is mentioned, as a source of symbolic knowledge of life available to human beings.

In the end, in the promotion of his radically dialogical version of intercultural philosophy (which differs from the more static approach of comparative philosophy), Mosima proposes to “look for an African sagacity that does not limit itself just to a ‘culture’ but goes beyond borders [taking into account] the oneness and interconnectedness of humanity.” He also clarifies the importance of this move – “to enable us to deal with common problems [for humankind, AR] across borders.” Thus, if we follow this proposal, philosophy will go beyond many boundaries simultaneously: first, it will leave behind the Western normative idea that ‘real’ philosophy consists of abstract thought and should be practiced only by professional philosophers; second, it will move beyond the idea that local wisdom is contained within fixed cultures (but rather is all the time anew performed, while cultures develop and interact with their context); and third it will move towards the most uncommon idea that philosophy can not just be detected or unearthed in human practices (e.g. of justice, of mythological storytelling, or of healing) – but that these practices themselves are philosophical. Philosophy cannot be identified with reason, but is love of wisdom, be it present in abstract thought, in healing practices, or in therapeutic storytelling. Interestingly enough, all this is motivated by a commitment which reminds one of the pragmatism of William James, understanding philosophy as a way of dealing with shared human challenges of survival, and inviting into it therefore practical wisdom from all kinds of venues.

A long time ago I wrote in a Dutch magazine a short article about the philosophy that could be found in the sayings of world famous and now mourned soccer player Johan Cruyff. Some readers found that I had went to far in translating the intriguing words of Cruyff into philosophical language. I might have. Cruyff’s exressions should perhaps be taken to be philosophy already. I am not sure about it. To the practical question of how to include the voices of ‘common men’ into philosophy William James did not yet produce clear answers. Pius Mosima does not provide us with them either. His book is more like a program, a guide of where he thinks a globalized philosophy should go. But with this already quite radical program in hand – to let the case of African philosophy deconstruct and reform the North Atlantic hegemonic idea of philosophy as abstract reason – one is now expecting the next, even more radical step: to include the actual practical wisdom, the actual voices, rituals, institutions and stories from ‘daily life’ into philosophy and bring them into dialogue with each other as well as with those of – now recognized to be local in origin too – Western-style disciplinary philosophy.


The page references follow the printed version of Pius Maija Mosima, Philosophica sagacity and intercultural philosophy. Beyond Henry Odera Oruka, published by the African studies Center, 2016. The book can be read online too.


I have been silent for too long. The reason was not, surely not, being tired of blogging. As usual once a week an idea for a post sprang into my mind. But over the past months, I could never sit with some rest to write it. There were more papers to write, or finish for publication than I was used to, as a result of the many conferences I was lucky to go to over the past one and a half year. A common book project which I initiated about two years ago was suddenly asking for the work to be done, as a publisher came on board. There was a sudden increase in invitations to speak at book presentations and events for a wider public. And teaching just had to go on as usual. It seemed longtime investments in what matters to me in philosophy were now coming together – with movements in the world around me. Such a time is called momentum – a window for action after long preparations which one didn’t know if they would lead anywhere, and where, if so.

Reflecting on the change in myself that accompanies this momentum, I often had to think of a story, told by a friend I met in my first year of philosophy, in 1980. This friend was deeply involved in yoga, meditation and what we now call spirituality. Back then it was called mysticism. Like a Jehova’s witness, she was always pulling me into conversations on spiritual matters, and said she was convinced that althangela-81-4-2ough I was burying myself in the classical curriculum of my philosophy studies, she knew that I was really oriented toward the mystical. I protested the word, as ‘becoming one with the One’ did not attract me – a fan of negative dialectics and critical thinking. In the end, of course, we had more in common than we both would admit, and we entered into a fundamental conversation that lasted for 16 years. Then my friend (who had changed to religious studies in 1981, out of protest against what we now call the white canon in philosophy) at the moment she was about to start her PhD project on sufi mysticism in the middle ages, and already was making headway with learning Arabic and Persian, died.

The story she told me, in an attempt to convince me to turn to the spiritual, was from Carlos Castaneda’s famous books on his journey into native American shamanism. She tried to convince me to read Castaneda by recounting he had embarked on his surprising journey, full of personal challenges and spiritual visions, from the moment he had decided to simply say ‘yes’ to anything that came upon his path. So he said yes when he was asked to become the pupil of a native American shaman.

To me saying yes like that was almost like blasphemy. Negative dialectics, you see. Keeping distance, making detours, looking at what divides and taking its painful realizations in, were what I lived by. Distance over against nearness. And this was not just a matter of psychology, I knew it was necessary to get where I needed to be to understand something in this life. Long before I started this blog I wrote what I called my ‘log’ – a personal handwritten diary of events and experiences in my philosophical life. In that log, I once wrote that my life was about continuous detours. Moving somewhere, but returning every time to find that I could not enter, not say ‘yes’.

Now I find myself saying yes all the time – to the many unexpected invitations that come towards me, like the exciting one that came just this week – to come over to the university of Essex to share my experience with introducing intercultural and African philosophy in teaching. Entering, saying yes, is a great change to me, and the interesting thing is that I didn’t give up my critical approach in (and to) philosophy to get there. The world around me has changed. The world has taken many detours too, with devastating consequences, and more are happening even now. In present times, however, new platforms that urge for change are springing up – outside, but now gradually also inside academia. Now that I am learning to say yes, I find companions who have been getting to this same place on their own lonely journeys. A window in time has opened and one never knows for how long it will remain so. Criticism is wanted, and now directly transforms into affirmation for those working for positive changes. This is called momentum.

In this blog I have commemorated my friend Reva van Haaster, who died in 1997 – I have hardly known a more dedicated, thorough, and unprejudiced researcher than her, and she was also that friend who brought flowers when you had passed a difficult exam… Over the years we pursued a dialogue between our often diverging viewpoints, inspired by true friendship and love for knowledge.

This post is also a greeting to all my philosophical friends, new and old, you know who you are. Let’s enjoy the momentum and make a difference!

The photo shows me, 1981, a fan of negative dialectics and critical theory – still pursuing philosophy after my friend had left the studies.

Philosophy is as such a secular profession, taking the attitude of wonder and reflection towards any phenomena it takes in consideration. Sometimes this is seen to create a tension with the search for wisdom that has been present in philosophical tradition over the ages – a tension which can bring thinkers to take religious, agnostic as well as atheist approaches. Whatever one’s specific approach or subject matter, however, the critical instruments provided by philosophical reflection, allows us to gain fresh insights. Also in matters of bible studies, religious studies and theology.

Two weeks, ago, on the 16th of November, I was one of four speakers who were invited to comment on two newly published books on religion in the Netherlands. Religion in the white, Christian section of society, that is – which sociologically gives a distorted image, of course – because while the traditional white protestant and catholic churches are in constant decline, black migrant churches, as well as mosques and islamic communities are thriving.

The traditional churches, however, see so much decline, the authors of both books think, because European christianity has emptied itself from most spiritual practices and experiences – having adapted itself to the stifling influence of the Enlightenment and its consequences. For theology these were either a focus on ‘belief’ as confessing something to be true, or on unearthing the historical basis of the bible from a secular perspective. In my contribution to the book presentation, I suggested, in line with an article I published in 2015 (see below for reference), to circumvent the Enlightenment, and baby-jesus-2reread the gospels as shamanist literature.

Such an approach tunes in with what post-Enlightenment Christians search for, often in non-European religious traditions, to wit: a reevaluation of intuitive knowing, of ritual practice, and religious trust or faith. My own path, which I now call shamanistic, has been inspired by experiences in my childhood that have led me to search to express  these three elements in words, in philosophy. One of the most important philosophers who provides a basis for stretching philosophical discourse to that intent is William James (1842-1910), most well known as the founder of the psychology of religion, with his work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He describes there how we live in a tangible, empirical world on the one hand, but experience (sometimes) that this is surrounded and influenced by a wider, spiritual reality.

Building philosophically on the work of James, and having studied anthropologists’ works on shamanism and on the shamanistic Jesus, I came to reread the gospels in a kind of direct manner, detouring the critical reflections that sprang from the heritage of Enlightenment rationalism. Although the term ‘shamanistic’ stems from Siberian language and originally refers to mediators between the everyday and the spiritual world in that region, the term has been globalized in our day, and is used as well for new spiritual movements that open up traditional knowledge for individuals in modern societies, as for spiritual practices of peoples that are still in touch with traditional ways of living accross the globe.

With respect to the gospels, several researchers have attempted to reread them in a shamanist framework. For instance the South African anthropologist of religion Pieter Craffert, who shows in his book The Life of A Galilean Shaman (2008) that shamanistic practices were alive and well in the society in which Jesus lived. Or theologian Marcus J. Borg, who in his Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time (1994), using a Jamesian language, describes Jesus as ‘a spirit person’ – someone for whom the ‘screens of consciousness’ that keep the everyday and the spiritual domain apart, are unusually permeable. And there is the theologian who practices trance journeys himself John J. Pilch, who in his book Flights of the Soul (2011), on spiritual experiences in the bible, describes the testing of Jesus by Satan, as fitting the traditional route of a shaman to be: ‘Jesus demonstrates that he has acquired the necessary ritual skills to deal with and control the spirit world.’ (Pilch 2011, p. 116)

In my article “The ‘Shamanic’ Travels Of Jesus and Muhammad: Cross-cultural and Transcultural Understandings of Religious Experience”, published in 2015 in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, I discuss this and other literature and go into some of the shamanistic events in the gospels. To just give some examples, we can read in Luke 4:1-14 that Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the desert, filled with the Holy Spirit. After passing the test, that proves which of the two spirits, the holy one or the evil one, is strongest, he returns into society with the force of the Spirit. When he subsequently starts to tour the country, and console and heal people in spiritual and physical need, he shows shamanistic qualities all the time. He passes through an angry mob that cannot touch him (protected by the power of the Spirit) in Luke 4: 29-30, and has power over demons according to Luke 4: 33-36. Also in Matthew and Mark do we find a wealth of shamanistic stories, such as Jesus’ expulsion of demons from some possessed persons in Matthew 8:28-34, his healing of a possessed man in Matthew 9:32-34, a possessed girl in Mark 7:24-30, and a deaf and mute man in Mark 7:31-37). This last story, moreover, presents a description of specifically shamanist practices by Jesus, who puts his fingers in the ears of the man, and touches his tongue with his own spittle. Even today we can find practicing shamans to breathe or spit over a patient – as an exhalation or a secretion of saliva are understood to serve as a vehicle for the healing spirit that is called to assistance by the shaman.

In the seventeenth century theologians in Europe turned against the belief in spirits as well as spiritual practices, like the Dutch pastor Balthasar Bekker, who proposed to read the bible in a rational manner in his work De betoverde weereld. Although his motive, to get people to take more responsibility for their own moral agency, instead of blaming their evil actions on possession, was in line with the teachings of Jesus too, who stress that those cured should turn their lives around toward the good and away from evil – the effect of centuries of rationalist theological works has been that European christianity has lost its appeal for many people, as they don’t find much spiritual appeal or healing there. So in my talk at the book presentation I proposed that, next to the inspiration the ex, or post-christians get from non-European religions, they might as well try to read ‘around’ the Enlightenment, and try to let the gospel stories about the shamanistic Jesus inspire them. This Jesus makes trance journeys, associates with spirits, heals people from his shamanistic inspiration, and shows them ways to more free, loving and just ways to live.

The photo is from the nativity scene my dear parents made, before I was born.

This post is a reworked version of my speech at the book presentation in Dutch, which can be found here.


Today I started preparing the class on phenomenology I will be co-teaching the next six weeks. My colleague and I prepared the study program earlier, of course, and made the choice of texts, but now I am close-reading the text for the first session – which is tomorrow. A lovely text, although it bewilders me sometimes – or, wait – that is not a failing, but actually a positive point, that it bewilders!

The bewilderment follows from the space-in-between the text takes, explicitly: in between ‘methods’ or ‘approaches’ or ‘styles. Sara Ahmeds Queer Phenomenology is, in her own words, letting such things as queer theory and phenomenology ‘encounter’. Not dialogue with, not conflict, not fuse, not found each other – just ‘encounter’. I see other approaches encounter in her text also. A critical approach, where she brings in the experiences of migrants to dislocate the familiarity of phenomenological ideas of home. But also a deconstructive approach – and this intrigues me most – where she moves ‘the gaze’ (one can lend this word from Foucault here) from the table ‘around which’ Husserl and Heidegger weave their phenomenological reflections, to the table which we have to think to understand where the grand old men were coming from.

When reading her quotation of Heidegger, I am immediately plunged in the bourgeois world I know so well – as the ideal of home-making of my parents:

“What is there in the room there at home is the table (not ‘a’ table among many other tables in other rooms and houses) at which one sits in order to write, have a meal, sew, or play. Everyone sees this right away, e.g. during a visit: it is a writing table, a dining table, a sewing table – such is the primary way in which it is being encountered in itself.” (Ahmed, 45)

Nineteenth century bourgeois idealism, in which the wife sews at the sewing table, the guests gather around the dining table, or perhaps even the card table, and the philosopher secludes himself before and after the social events his wife prepares at the writing table in his study. So many tables! My parents, who had very little money when they married, were striving, while I grew up, to expand the number and diversity of their tables, and to replace the poor, second hand, ones by inherited antiques or newly bought design ones.

As a student, reading myself into women’s literature, I learned that ‘a room of one’s own’, or even a table of one’s own, the prerogative of the modern European intellectual or writer, were only rarely available to women. One of the best Dutch female writers of the early twentieth century, Carry van Bruggen, wrote her novels at the kitchen table. And Ahmed writes about her own writing table from that non-self-evidency when describing moving into a new house:

“There, that will be my desk. Or it could just be the writing table. It is here that I will gather my thoughts. […] On the tables, different objects gather. Making a space feel like home, or becoming at home in a space, is for me about being at my table.” (Ahmed, 11)

Is it a coincidence that just yesterday, talking to someone who has known me all the years that I have been writing and publishing, I memorized the tables where my (Dutch) books were written? The first one, my dissertation on Spinoza, was written on an early Atari computer, on a small white desk I had bought after moving into an appartment for the first time. The second, the book on nature in ethics, my most voluminous one, was written on a Windows computer, at the same desk, in the study corner of the small house where I lived next – with my back to the kids’ toys strewn around the room, as well as to the kitchen in the back. The third book, the small one on truth in religion and science,  was written at my parent’s old, discarded, forty years old ‘design’ table, in the attic of the somewhat larger house that came after. I worked on a laptop from then on, to save space – a thing still not very available. The fourth book, the philosophy of spirituality study book, was written in yet another house, a smaller one – at the same old table that was now the dining table, sewing table, and writing table – actually the only table. The fifth book, the one on spirits in modernity, I memorized, was written in the smallest room in the next house, almost feeling I had to apologize for occupying a room of my own, and the desk was now one I had purchased in the thrift shop for 15 euros – as the large old table of my parents was promoted to dining table once more…

And now, recently, I have moved my books and papers, to a spacious room I call my study, adorned even with the American desk of my grandfather, the desk that was the materialization of my father’s authority when I was young. The desk with the many drawers, even secret ones. The desk underneath which I hid as a toddler, feeling safe in the dark confined space between the colorful American wood. The most beourgois DSC_0008-2.jpgwriting space I have ever used… The first time I sat at it to work, I had the strange sensation to have changed places with my father – being the adult with the authority to speak now. But since I have it, I have not (yet) written a book. Is it a coincidence? Or is it because inhabiting this ‘male’ space as a woman, and not just sitting in a corner where I am not noticed, somehow eats my endurance in writing away? It might be just the adjustment, in which case my next book, the first one in English, will be written next year at my grandfather’s American desk. Or, if it doesn’t work, I will pick up my laptop and sit somewhere, at the dining table, or the attic, I don’t mind. As long as the writing keeps on flowing…

Quotations are from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others, of 2006. Durham & London: Duke University Press.


On the 29th of March this year, I got an invitation to attend a conference in Calabar, Nigeria on “Marginalisation in African Philosophy: Women and the Environment”. It was not just an open call for papers, I was invited, together with other delegates from different countries, as “The colloquium is intended to assemble a tight small circle of active scholars in the fieldchairing-olajumokes of women studies and the environment through African philosophy.” Having been reading myself into the field of African philosophy for more than 10 years, supported by my own tight small circle of friends with a similar interest in the Netherlands, I was much honored that my work now paid off, and I was actually invited over!

Now I have been back a week, and still I am only starting to oversee the wealth of thoughts, themes, and contacts I have been put in connection with. The organizer of this event, professor Jonathan Chimakonam, is also the driving force behind the homegrown Conversational School of Philosophy at the University of Calabar. As usual, a good conference cannot be materialized without the help of students – who in this case did more than they would have in a Western-European context, where catering, transport, and such things are more abundantly available. Another common element of conferences is a table for purchasing books. I had up till now seen no more exciting book table as the one here – because the books for sale would be very hard to get in Eimg_3879urope, and their authors are neither very well known over here. At the same time, they contained fresh and intriguing philosophical approaches, that would be able to not just diversify, but challenge, Euro-American curricula. A distinguished American colleague, who clearly was experienced with this aspect, probably had brought an empty suitcase, as I saw her purchase a pile of books. I noted by myself to do the same would I to be able to visit another conference in Africa, but satisfied myself this time with just two titles, by Dr Ada Agada and Prof. Innocent Asouzou. But I will read more than was available in Calabar, as some titles are published this side of the Sahara, for instance by the Dutch African Studies Centre. The writer of one of these books, Dr Pius Mosima, of Cameroon, was also presenting and told me about the series.

My own paper focused on the subtheme of the environment, and presented the importance of a hermeneutical approach to create a dialogue between the different approaches to trees in an African context. The approaches distinguished were those of conservationalists, adherents to monotheistic religions (in this case Christianity and Islam)img_3815 and traditionalists. I showed that the different frameworks of these groups are negotiated regarding questions of conservation or cutting of trees. As negotiation is in essence a play of power, I proposed to move it to dialogue, in order to first understand and discuss the different meanings that are attributed to trees, hoping to promote a better communication, and thereby a more sustainable relation between humans and their environment. In the days before I gave my talk, I was amazed by all the beautiful trees in Calabar, of species mostly unknown to me. The picture shows a very impressive tree at the university campus where we gathered for our sessions. I felt as if the trees welcomed me. And so did those present, giving very stimulating comments and questions to my paper.

Before I decided to go to this very rewarding conference, having never heard of Calabar before in our closed-off European philosophy institutions, and hesitating still, as the trip would take a whole week out of my teaching preparations, I searched for some information. It was a little youtube video of the students (of whom I now count some among my friends) telling about what philosophy meant to them that actually won me over. Philosophy in Calabar, Nigeria is just philosophy, as it can be found all over the globe. But all the same it is more alive than in most places I had beeimg_3821n before. Perhaps because material circumstances of studying and doing research are unimaginably harder than in the rich country where I happened to have been born and raised, African philosophy seems to focus more on real world questions, is more engaged, and therefore, I would say, more relevant. It will take time to process all the new insights I gained, to read up on all the new books and articles I encountered. In the meantime I already enjoy writing and exchanging with so many new philosophical friends I encountered.

As a motto to my own lecture I took a quote from the famous African revolutionary and thinker Amilcar Cabral on the ‘Africanness’ of African thought and culture, and I might as well conclude with it now, as it sums up what I experienced and shared in these encounters:

“The important thing is not to waste time in more or less hair-splitting debates on the specificity or non-specificity of African cultural values, but to look upon these values as a conquest by a part of mankind for the common heritage of all mankind, achieved in one or several phases of its evolution.”

Amilcar Cabral 2007, Unity & Struggle. Speeches and Writings, Unisa Press, Pretoria, p. 180.

Photo credits: Moses Ogah Irem (the paper session) and Angela Roothaan (the other photos)


When you have read my posts regularly, you will have noticed that I tend to discuss (and read) more history books than you would perhaps expect in a philosophy blog. Today I will try to explain some of my reasons for this.

During my studies I also read ‘other’ books of course, because philosophy as such has no subject, or ‘everything’ is its subject. Philosophy is a way of thinking about things, but these things can range from the principles of mathematics to poetry, and all other thinkable subjects. Famous are writings from philosophers such as Bertrand Russell or Gottlob Frege on mathematics, and Heidegger and Gadamer on poetry, just to illustrate my remark. Of course there is also philosophy on philosophy, on its methods of reasoning and argumentation, on its history, and on its place in the whole range of human sciences.

My ‘subjects’ outside the works of philosophers and about philosophy itself have gone through different phases. After finishing my masters, for some years I read passionately in the field of theology, history of Christianity and bible studies. The philosophers I read in that time were Arendt, Levinas, Strasser and of course Spinoza. After finishing my PhD there was a phase that I read rather widely, in environmental studies, in philosophy of science, and, in philosophical methodology (so to speak), investigating the approaches of hermeneutics (Gadamer), deconstruction (Derrida) and pragmatism (first Mead and Cooley, later James). It was the time of my postdoc research. Later I moved to African philosophers like Mudimbe, Mbiti, and E. Eze, and read a lot of cultural anthropology on the side. The last few years I discovered, next to reading more of James and Derrida, more of Scheler and Foucault. And the ‘extra’ reading is nowadays very often in history, especially in ‘alternative’ views on the history of the US (not the one of the victors) and on WWII.

Why this route anyway? Just yesterday, when I started another book in the history of philosophy, on James, to be specific, the interesting study by Francesca Bologna called William James at the Boundaries. Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge, I was fascinated by her introduction on the strange address James gave as president of the APA in 1906. The speech was about ‘The Energies of Man’. In this speech he described the benefits of yoga and drinking alcohol to enhance the human spirit, and cited popular works and works by thinkers on the verge or outside academia. Bologna provides good reasons for discarding the idea that James was losing his mind (as some philosophers present did), by showing that it was a deliberate and recurring strategy in his work to transgress boundaries. “James struggled to reconfigure the relationships between philosophy and the sciences, as well as professional and amateur discourses. Through these efforts […] James reinterpreted the nature of philosophy and science and, by doing so, proposed a new vision for the intellectual and social order of knowledge.” (Bologna, p. 4) When reading this, I realized that for many years, without knowing what I was doing, I had been following a similar course as James, in this respect: something in me always opposed itself to the pressures to keep to one discipline, and to specialize within that discipline – to discipline my curious mind, so to speak.

So now why the history? Let’s start IMG_3706with WW II. In other posts I have made clear that the world in which I grew up pushed me to read up on it: the world of the 60s and 70s of the last century, a world that wanted to move on, that drove itself crazy over Cold War stuff, and that actually consisted of an almost audible silence about matters nobody wanted to be remembered of. Every year now new material on that time still comes out. Some things were only researchable after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and some are only researchable now that certain individuals die, leaving archives, or because their power to silence others is gone. Just recently I came across an article about a collective of secret historians who wrote on the events in the Warsaw ghetto. Those writers, who knew they probably were not going to survive the hell they had landed up in, took it upon themselves to register things as they experienced them, for posterity. I was absolutely amazed and awed by their farsighted courage and mental strenght. And I realized that all over the world, projects like that must still be happening, even now, more or less in secret, more or less under the duress of oppression.

The powers that try to rule history, attempt to obscure it at the same time, for their own actions to be more effective. And that’s where the alternative histories of the US also come in, from that same stifled Cold War time I grew up in, where we were taught to think of the US as our saviours from Hitler, who brought us all the goods of modern life, washing machines, cigarettes, chocolate bars, and scientific management. There was nothing to be worried about anymore ever, as long as we stuck to our new big brother. Even as a child I felt that both things were unhealthy: not wanting to know about WW II, and not wanting to know about who our new protector was. I realized more and more over the years that there can be no good thinking, no good philosophy, without a wish to know history as it ‘really’ happened. Not that we can ever find ‘real’ history in an absolute sense. But we can at least get rid from the worst outgrowths of propaganda, by doing the real work of serious history. And if we are no historians ourselves, we should read all the painstakingly collected facts and carefully reconstructed structures of what happened and how it was transferred. It will clear our minds.

And, last but not least, we should do the same with the so called ‘history of philosophy’, which, for the most part, is not history at all, but a construction to bring us under the impression that the Europeans, that is the Romans and the Greeks, and later the Enlightenment thinkers, imagined all things worthwhile. There are powerful powerstructures at work in that construction too. Peter Park, in his recent work Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy. Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 has written a real historiography of how this powerstructure came to dominate the history of philosophy. Many others of course pushed in this direction by their own investigative work, among others a philosopher whom I discussed here before, Emmanuel Eze. Just the other day I watched the entire talk he delivered some years before his untimely death, which has been luckily recorded and publicized on youtube, and would recommend you, when you watch, to keep watching till the end of the second part, which makes clear why not reading outside the ‘official’ history of philosophy will not only makes the discipline remain stuck in old questions, but also deny itself many qualitative texts that it has never read or even known of which could help to rethink these questions and perhaps think up better answers than it did before.



It is more than twenty years ago that I first read Arendts Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since that time I have regularly referred to the work in classes, and further pondered the consequences of her research into the role Adolf Eichmann played in the murder of millions of European Jews. What remained with me most was her view on the problematic side effects of bureIMG_3703aucracy. The positive goal of bureaucracy can be described as the equal treatment of citizens, and the efficient delivery of goods delivered by state and non-state organizations. Its negative side effect is that it offers the possibility for individuals to wash their hands from their complicity in malfunctioning and even evil procedures. Eichmann the bureaucrat, as he could be seen in the Jerusalem court after his capture in 1960, showed, according to Arendt, an incapacity to think, to put himself in someone else’s shoes, to see a human being as having a right to its own life.

When the political atmosphere in Europe became more xenophobic over the last ten years, and organizations simultaneously relied more and more on bureaucratic procedures to optimize their functioning, I read Arendt’s view on the banality of evil as offering a model to understand present times. I saw the disappearance of individual responsibility of managers and administrator, of teachers, police, scientists and doctors behind protocol as a moral danger for society.  I didn’t realize, however, that for evil to happen, it is not enough that someone with evil intent, or just a morally weak character, can hide behind procedures. Because a well-functioning bureacracy, with well-described responsibilities, and procedures for complaint, still contains obstacles to abuse, which protect the rights of individuals affected.

What the new historical research of Stangneth, which I am currently reading, shows, is that Eichmann and his complicits not just surfed on the possibilities of normal bureaucratic structures, but that, under the guise of being very well organized, Nazi rule actually internally destroyed certain essential elements of bureaucracy, especially official hierarchies of responsibility. I speak here of something different from what, in a recent post, I called ‘freedom to act’. Freedom to act essentially exists for every individual, in those pockets where bureaucratic and legal systems fail to reach. To put it simply: at all times any individual can try to go around the system, calling on an original freedom to act as a human being. What Stangneth shows to have happened in Nazi rule is something else: it is the selective taking more power than ‘the system’ allows by certain individuals, under the protection of the ‘highest power’, the ideological leader of the movement (the ‘Führer’), a highest power which promises its loyal servants to back them up by unlimited violence.

So this new study on Eichmann ‘before Jerusalem’ makes clear how Eichmann actually had much more power than he claimed to have had when he defended his actions in court. He did not have a high rank, but this was not very important in Nazi dealings. It was even beneficial, in order to carry out things that should remain hidden from the public. Being “on the Führer’s special mission”, Eichmann did not need to call on hierarchical responsibilities to get things done: ‘in a regime governed by relationships, only personal access to someone in power carried any real influence.’ (Stangneth, p. 40) Stangneth further analyzes many sources which were not available to Arendt (especially the so called Sassen interviews, held while Eichmann lived in Argentina), but also departs from a quite different anthropology. While for Arendt an evil person is one who lacks the potential to live the idea of Aristotelean practical reason, someone who goes along with a system that ignores humanity, for Stangneth an evil person is a responsible agent, who is perhaps not highly intelligent, but who shows talent in using a psychology of fear to rule others. ‘”Much more power… was attributed to me than I actually had”, Eichmann explained. And “this fear” of his presumed power meant that “everyone felt he was being watched.”‘ (Stangneth, p. 26)

Now, through this new book, we can see how ambitious, to the point of megalomania, Eichmann was. Still, Stangneth’s analysis doesn’t fall back on the simple and dangerous idea that there are just certain evil persons who are to blame for the worst crimes of history. While restoring full responsibility to the criminal, she also maintains the importance, shown by thinkers like Arendt and Foucault, of scrutinizing structures of power to explain what happened. What is new, however, in her work, is that her analysis of how those structures work is more rich, more complex – dissecting the different workings of journalism, state violence, the psychology of fear, and the effects of symbolism on human thinking  – to provide a more real and a less naive understanding of how evil in the midst of ‘modern civilization’ can be organized and carried out. Like Raul Hilberg she follows the view, not of the victim, but of the perpetrator, to understand the workings of what was done.

As to Eichmann, she makes clear that he was a great actor, putting forward a different image of himself as circumstances required. What he did was make use of people’s unreflected ideas about humanity. Thus it could happen, Stangneth writes, that ‘even someone of average intelligence (Eichmann, AR) can induce a highly intelligent person (Arendt, AR) to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.’ (Stangneth, p. xxv) Why this book fascinates, is, therefore, because it shows how a new kind of writing history is necessary for a philosophical understanding of humanity. A writing of history that investigates the psychological, moral, and cultural epistemic frameworks that guide common understanding – to prevent following them naively, and to make sure to count with the possibility that, apart from their already inherent distortions, they may also be used to consciously mislead. Such a historiography warns philosophical anthropology to not take its own idealism as its unreflected point of departure, but to scrutinize its own hopes, dreams, judgments, i.e. all of its normative frameworks, as a potential heel of Achilles.

Citations are taken from Regina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. London: Penguin Random House, 2014.