African thinkers

“How ‘to talk religion’? Of religion? Singularly of religion today? How dare we speak of it in the singular without fear and trembling, this very day?”

Derrida 2002. Acts of Religion, p. 42.

This Derrida quote was above the abstract I sent in for the 23rd ISAPS conference, recently held in Vienna. My paper was titled “Bantu Philosophy” and the problem of religion in intercultural philosophy today. Going by the comments and questions after presenting my paper, I think I succeeded to bring some fresh questions to the debates on Bantu Philosophy, the 1945 publication by Placide Tempels, a Franciscan missionary in what then was called the Belgian Congo. Tempels’ book, which first appeared in Dutch and was later translated to French and English, kicked off the many debates on the existence and nature of African philosophy. Is philosophy localized, or universal? Was his presentation of a culturalized ontology a well-meant first attempt at intercultural dialogue, or can it not be taken outside of the colonial context in which Tempels worked? Or could both be true? In my presentation I wanted to go into another matter: Tempels’ attempt to sketch a solution to the loss of religiosity in what he called the age of industrialization – in the colonialized part of Africa where he lived as well as in Europe.

Although he culturalized ontology, Tempels still spoke of religion in the singular – a thing which we nowadays find hard to do, according to Derrida. Now there is much talk of religions, in the plural: we speak of the dialogue of religions, or their confrontation. To talk of religion, in the singular – to ask whether there is any meaning in religion as such, seems an obsolete question. Especially in philosophy. This would imply, namely, to discuss religious anthropology in a transcultural manner: to ask what human beings share in terms of religious desire. Tempels now, did exactly that. For him, ‘Christian doctrine’ was about receiving as a reality ‘the strengthening of life’. For him religion was all about

‘the aspiration towards the strengthening of life, the raising of it, the taking of it into the supernatural, its participation in the constant intensification and internal growth of our life through union, living union, with God.’ (80)

This rather unusual wording of what he saw as the essence of Christian religiosity he derived from his construction of what he saw as ‘Bantu ontology’ – which would be an ontology of ‘vital force’. In his view the people he had come to live amongst in the Congo had understood life, human life, and life in general, as a continuous possibility of intensification or decrease in vital force. Cursing another is meant to decrease his vitality, blessing her or him does the oppositie. Tempels’ initial motive to investigate and describe what he saw as original Bantu culture had sprung from his observation that all missionary work in Africa had actually failed, as European culture was brought over to African peoples in its new, materialistic and spiritually empty version, while religious teachers had never tried to understand the soul of those they aimed to convert, and therefore had not really conversed with them.

In the end however Tempels made an unusual double hermeneutical move – to first interpret what his African interlocutors taught him in terms of a metaphysics of life force, and to secondly reinterpret in its terms the languishing catholic metaphysics of salvation. This made him take Christ as the enhancer of life force per se, and as the counterforce in an age which, he feared, was about to empty the human person (African and European alike) of its soul, seeing progress solely in terms of industrialization and economic expansion. This was not just a hermeneutical circular movement avant Gadamer, as it simultaneously upheld the neo-scholastic claim to metaphysical knowledge of ultimate divine reality. Thus Tempels culturalized and contextualized what was supposed to sustain and transcend the contingent phenomenal world.

In my presentation I asked whether we should see this in the light of his confused non-professional philosophy (Tempels just took the two years of philosophy required in the study for the priesthood), or whether in the end his work contains elements for an answer to Derrida’s question: how to speak of religion without fear and trembling. If it does, perhaps some light can be shed in the discourse which only speaks of religious difference, without seeing how religion should be analyzed in a contextualized manner – as intrinsically related to the political and economic struggles that disturb our present times.

If we follow that road we could see that any philosophical search for truth (post – cultural relativism) has to move through analyses of the political and the economical. In Tempels work we see the beginnings of such a move – where he relates religion (in the singular: be it Christianity or traditional African religiosity) to the historical situation of industrialization and colonization – a situation that advertizes itself as civilization, but Tempels doubts this. He tries the idea whether it might not be better in a sense for Europeans to let themselves be taught by those they allegedly came to civilize.

‘We get the impression that these masses want to rise from their alleged lowliness, clothing themselves in the knowledge of their own lore and in their conception of the world; and thus standing before and looking down upon the small group of Westerners […]” (73).

To state, as Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha does in his article in the Encyclopedia Brittanica , that Tempels remained bound to a colonial outlook because he saw Christianity as superior to traditonal African religion is too fast a conclusion to my view. His Christianity did not speak (as traditionally was done in European religious discourse) of salvation of the eternal soul, but of a continuous intensification and internal growth of life through union with God – which to my view is a Christianity which had been transformed through its contact and dialogue with ‘Bantu philosophy’ – with his observation that ‘there is to be found in the depths of the Bantu soul an aspiration, an irresistable allurement towards an infinite strengthening of life.’ (81) This is not just a reformulation of traditional Christian ‘talk of religion’ – it is quite another talk. Of religion, across cultural and theological difference, positioned over against what Tempels saw as the false progress of industrialization and the only materialistic ‘development’ through colonialism.



I guess that was my longest ‘silence’ ever between two blog posts. And even while there was so much happening in my philosophical life… Now I have to try to catch up a bit, before things will be too far in the past. In Momentum I wrote about experiencing new opportunities of collaboration and exchange on what matters to me in philosophy – and I mentioned one of them: an invitation to the philosophy department of the University of Essex. There, by mid-May me and Tübinger colleague Philipp Thomas, who has great experIMG_4297tise in teaching how to teach philosophy, were welcomed to spend some days for exchange with our Colchester colleagues in what our host, Matt Burch, had named a ‘pedagogy workshop’. A very apt title, as we gathered in different formats around pedagogy -explicitly on our common field: philosophy. We were kindly invited to observe teaching approaches in the newly formed summer program for bachelors students, to participate in a research activity on ‘race and gender’ theory, and to present our own views on philosophy pedagogy amidst an engaged group of Essex-colleagues.

I was invited to speak about ‘teaching philosophy interculturally’,  and my experiences with my new course on intercultural and African philosophy – designed for students in arts, communication and literature at my own university. I started by telling about ‘how I got here’. About my long standing interest in a dialogical approach in teaching, which I first used in the early nineties with the seminary students I taught for four years, being convinced that they should not just acquire knowledge of philosophy, but do so while also practising the art of exchange of ideas with each other and with me, their teacher. On top of that, I was not interested in promoting intellectual discussions only, but more so to create a safe space in which they could express personal commitments to values – so that these could be articulated, scrutinized, affirmed or critiqued – to be prepared, so to speak, for our present day situation of interculturality and pluralism. On the basis of this experience I was assigned the task, at the Free University Amsterdam, to transform service teaching (philosophy for non-philosophy students) from one-directional classical introductions into philosophy – into courses that were tailored to the programs in which they had to function, with more stress on active participation of the students. The actual transformation was of course coming from the teachers who designed and taught the courses – for earth sciences, biomedical sciences, and all the other fields. We involved pedagogy professionals from our teaching expertise center, who were developing a value-dialogue based method of academic teaching. The idea of this approach was that philosophy courses, more than before, would help students from all fields to develop their critical skills, not just intellectually, but alIMG_4310so concerning societal, personal and cultural matters. That was twenty years ago. And over the years, developing several dialogical approaches as a service teacher myself (as well as in the philosophy bachelor and master programs), I introduced more and more content into the courses from other places than the obvious European and American ones – teaching, for instance, on the links between diverse African philosophies of communality and individuality and American theories of the social self, or on Foucault’s work on the prison in comparison with that of Angela Davis, using Rwanda’s gacaca courts as an example of new experiments of doing justice in cases of violence on an extreme scale. I was finding my way experimentally, as I didn’t want to close myself in in new – alternative – schools that were already emerging here and there. I showed, in my presentation, how I always make a point of including photos of the philosophers from different continents on my powerpoints, to create an – also visually – inclusive space for the students to learn together.

While I perceived the philosophy department at the University of Essex to be very open to connecting the field to ‘real world issues’, and as having a much more diverse student population than my own department has – my experience teaching students from so different fields as dentistry, cultural anthropology and development studies, theology as well as organization and governance studies – fields which include much more diverse student populations (in many respects) than the discipline of philosophy -, had brought me to this point in time where I could share from what I learned. And I got so many helpful and stimulating questions and responses. It was a great learning experience, and has nourished my hopes to develop further plans for interculturalizing and decolonizing philosophy teaching, together with colleagues from different parts of the globe. I think it is time for philosophy departments to get into this – to think through in a critical manner the efforts for inclusivity and diversity other fields in academia also have made, and also to re-think philosophy’s own role in history – often too close for comfort to the racisms and colonialisms in which European politicians, kings and entrepreneurs, do-gooders as well as researchers, entangled themselves.

Postscript: this was only the first of at least three or four other subjects for blogposts that were waiting too long!

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.


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.



In my free time I rarely read novels. I mostly read biographies and autobiographies, with a historical interest. From those, more than half center on the times when the nazi’s ruled large parts of Europe. It is not just that those books help me get a grip on what my parents found so hard to talk about. It is neither because those times still form a touchstone for everyday discussions on morality in Western Europe. There is also a philosophical interest. Nazi politics, the ideas it was founded on, and its effects in society, help to better understand – as a school example – other totalitarianisms, wars, medical experiments, and racisms we have seen since then. Ever new autobiographies appear which clear up some new aspect of that system of hate, repression and ideological indoctrination.

Recently I have been involving myself  with two life’s stories that highlight the sufferings under nazi racism of a relatively small group of people, which did not get much attention up till now – children which were born out of marriages and relationships of Africans and Germans. The bulk of this group were called in nazi terminology the ‘Rhineland bastards’ – children whose existence was part of those fateful events connecting the first and the second world war. The Treaty of Versailles, marking the end of the first world war had ordered, among other things, a demilitarized zone between Germany and France – the Rhineland. France however, had not kept to this part of the treaty, and had moved, shortly after the war, some forty thousand troops into the Rhineland. They were soldiers from its African colonies, who probably for a combination of adventure and a promise of rewards had joined the army of their colonial rulers. As the soldiers stayed there for a long time, families were founded and babies were born. To Hitler this was a double insult and danger – not only was the occupation of the Rhineland as such an insult and setback for Germany, the existence of what he saw as ‘bastard children’  threatened the purity of his fictional ‘Aryan’ race. Long before the outbreak of the war, in 1936, he therefore moved his troops into the Rhineland zone, to nullify the ‘shame’ of its occupation, but with the intent to do something about this ‘bastardization’ too. As the offspring of the African soldiers were reaching puberty by that time, the idea was to sterilize them before their genes could spread further among the German people. Many of them indeed suffered the fate of forced sterilization, or perished in later years in the concentration camps.

Two children of such mixed ancestry who survived published their life’s stories, in 1999 and in 2013. Their story was a bit different though. One of them was the grandson of the consul to Germany of Liberia, Hans J. Massaquoi. The other was born from the marriage of an enterprising Cameroonian who moved to Germany while his country was still ‘Deutschese Schutzgebiet’. They grew up in Hamburg, and in Berlin. Not being part of a larger group of people of African descent, they escaped the fate of the Rhineland children, and survived, albeit in very difficult circumstances, the nazi era and the war. Theodor Michael’s book was the first that I read. He was born as the fourth child from loving parents. Tragedy struck in their lives, however, when first their mother died at a young age, and some years later their father. From a young age, Michael, banned from further education by the nazi race laws, and reduced to the status of a stateless person, survived by working in ‘human exhibitions’ in zoos and circuses, and later by working for the movies. Whenever exotic looking persons were needed, Michael and others with a dark skin color, played roles in nazi films, like in the scenes in ‘Baron von Münchhausen’, where a harem guarded by black slaves is depicted. After the war, Michael stayed in Germany, raised his own family, and through second chance education made good for what the nazis had taken from him.

Later I started in the book by Hamburg born Hans J. Massaquoi, who, when his grandfather had returned to Liberia (his father lived abroad and did not involve himself with his child) was raised by his single mother. His life’s story after the war continues in the USA, where he became a journalist and worked for Ebony magazine. In his elaborate memoires, I read the background of the story of the Rhineland children. The nazi racist plans to tackle what agriculture minister Richard-Walther Darre in 1933 called ‘the black Shame on the Rhine.’ Just to get a wider view on nazi racism I will cite his words, and that of the ‘Führer’ himself. Darre wrote these ugly words: ‘These mulatto children were created either through rape or by white mothers who were whores. In any case, there exists not the slightest moral obligation toward these racially foreign offspring. […] I demand: sterilization off all mulattoes […] within the next two years. Otherwise it is too late, with the result that hundreds of years later this racial deterioration will still be felt.’ Hitler too had already worded his thoughts on the issue in ‘Mein Kampf’ (written in 1923-24), speaking of ‘the contamination by Negro blood on the Rhine in the heart of Europe.’ He saw the cause of this ‘negrification’ in the lax attitude towards purity of the French: ‘if the development of France in the present style were to be continued for three hundred years, the last remnants of Frankish blood would be submerged in the developing European-African mulatto state. An immense self-contained area of settlement from the Rhine to the Congo, filled with a lower race gradually produced from continuous bastardization…’

As little attention as Hitler’s anti-black policies have had in literature on the nazi and war period of the 30ties and 40ties of the  20tieth century, as important it is to get this bigger picture of nazi racism. In many aspects the long shadows of those days still loom over our present times. Their racist politicies not only were directed against Jews, Roma and Sinti, but also against Africans and their children. Racism is not yet removed from our present societies. Knowing  the ideas of the most convinced racists of modern times might help to look this monster in the eye. Reading how the authors of the mentioned memoires, born as Germans, and raised by African and German adults who loved them, built meaningful lives guided by  ‘Prussian’ values, as Theodor Michael says it, is an inspiring lesson in human culture, that has reinvented itself since times immemorial through exchange and migration.

I cited from Hans J. Massaquoi ‘Destined to witness. Growing up in nazi Germany’, Harper Perennial 1999.

The other book mentioned is Theodor Michaels ‘Deutsch sein und schwarz dazu. Erinnerungen eines Afro-Deutschen, DTV, 2013.

IMG_2105I just say things, sometimes. Things that just come to my mind. It is out of a kind of playfulness. Playing with thoughts, observations and words. It is something we did at home when I was little. I mean we, the kids. Sometimes it was irritating, over the top and not nice to one of us or to someone else. When it made us laugh, it didn’t always feel like having fun. Often the laughter covered up tensions in the tribe we were, seven kids. But whatever it was, the art never left me. The art to come up with strange observations. And I must confess that I’ve hurt others saying witty and clever things that were not nice, and I only realised afterward. That is the down side of it. The up side is for me however that it helps to think. To gain some new and surprising insight. From my own words (they, themselves are not the result of thinking, they just bubble up from somewhere). Or from the reaction they provoke in others.

Like the other day, when I watched the cat sitting like cats can with her paws folded inwardly towards her own chest. I said to my loved one: ‘the cat is also praying for us’. You see? A remark like that is not the result of reflection, it is just a strange thought being formed into words. I was completely baffled about his reaction, though. He said, completely serious: ‘yes, in my country (which is in West Africa) it is said that only human beings can skip their prayers and live. Animals can not skip one day – or they will die. They always have to pray.’ What had I expected? Just a compliant smile about my silly observation, perhaps. Or, nicer, a really friendly reaction because of my kind intention towards the cat. But not being taken serious – and more having my observation being fitted in a foreign frame of thought about animals and religion.

The only slightly comparable view of animals I know of is Thomas Aquinas’ remark that whereas human beings have to choose the good, in order to do God’s will, animals are created with an innate propensity to do what they are meant to do. The good in the creation sence, that is. Thomas distinguished between for levels or aspects of ‘law’  – and law meant for him not a fortuitous rule but the telos of things: what is meant to be. There is the eternal law, the ‘ideas in God’s Mind’ – say things as they are meant to be on the cosmic and eternal scale. There is natural law, which is the order of creation – how things should behave in time and space. Then there is the human law, which is the closest one can come to being accidental, as it is how things should be according to human morality. But that is neither completely accidental, as it is reigned by practical reason. But human morality is plural, Thomas is clear about that. It is contingent, one might say with that beautiful philosophical word. Factual. Not eternal. The fourth aspect or level of law is divine law as it has been revealed to mankind. It gives humans a better way to direct their lives than just practical reason, as it teaches us not only how things should be in a moral sense, but also spiritually. It leads us, quasi circular, to what we can know (not by reason, but through revelation) of eternal law.

For animals things are not complicated as that, in the eyes of Thomas. They do not have to struggle theologically, philosophically and ethically through so many levels, which perhaps conflict and complicate things amongst each other. For them all levels are conflated: they just do what was meant for them to do. God has blessed them by withholding them the curse of free will. The viewpoint I just learned, that stems from one of the many West-African traditions (or perhaps from the Arabic heritage that was brought in with islamic religion) was only similar to Thomas’s, though, in the sense that it distinguishes the human and the non human animals primarily by their relation to the Creator and not by their level of consciousness or their intelligence. There is a great difference, though, too. The praying animal is not that blessed as the Thomist animal. It does not have moral freedom perhaps (the freedom to choose evil over good), like humans have. But it has a certain kind of spiritual freedom. Humans can always turn away from God and repent again, it seems – until they come to their natural death. That is not real freedom, it is being treated like children.

The non-human animal on the contrary is taken more seriously, spiritually. It can choose to turn away from God, but only at its own mortal peril. Which make animals seem to be more serious pillars of all there is. Without them praying the fabric of the world would start to crumble. So in that frame of thought, I was right to utter the words: ‘the cat also prays for us.’ I didn’t know what I meant when I said it, but somehow I was dead-serious too. Then, how does it come that writing about such metaphysical stuff always makes me want to giggle? Is it just the remainder of the practices of my youth to surprise each other and make ourselves laugh? Or is it because it becomes clear that the most serious stuff of philosophy, the stuff about God and Creation, and How Things Are Meant to Be can only be approached by becoming a child in some sense of that expression – by just playing with funny and crazy thoughts and words, because practicising rational argumentation without the slightest fun can never come that far?