African thinkers

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?

IMG_2059Last week a facebook friend sent me a greeting through chat, and I didn’t answer. Since I never want my friends to feel that I don’t notice their messages, I was looking for an excuse to give when I would feel like answering again. There was no deep or serious reason for my silence, I was just preoccupied. I started pondering that word – for the English language is native neither to me, nor to that friend. Unhinging the prefix from ‘occupied’ I wondered why I would not just say that: I was occupied, I was busy. But that would not have been true, literally. I would have had time for a message. It was just that I did not want to be engaged in conversation for some days. My mind just asked for some un-occupiedness – not being busy communicating, but having its capacity for itself.

Then I wondered, as I did more often, whether ‘for itself’ really can be said – meaningfully? In that mood that one doesn’t feel for communication, is one not, actually occupied in that other sense? Busy like a telephone line can be busy? Posessed even by something? The mood I am talking about is the one that often leads to creativity – it seems you are doing nothing, thinking nothing, not communicating – and after some time, seemingly from nowhere, new ideas pop up. A philosopher friend who died nine years ago, and who loved to play with words, called this the ‘incubation period’. Comparing an outburst of creativity to the breakthrough of illness. Silence before a storm, so to say. The bored, empty days one needs to let something unexpected present itself.

What happens when one is preoccupied in this sense? Creative people used to claim that they were inspired by their ‘muse’, a goddess supposed to breath creative insights into a person. Later, when such spiritual powers were not so much in fashion anymore, the muse was often the name for the adored mistress of an artist. But also then, the reference was to the spiritual side of a sexual relationship: the being in love, the passion. In all cases the mind, or whatever other seat of ‘me’, is not with itself, it is occupied by something which draws it away from the everyday. The everyday, the laundry, the dishes, the car, the garden can take care of itself. The facefookfriends, even real life friends too. When you are preoccupied you are in a sense ‘out of your mind’.

My beloved, referring to knowledge he got in his West African upbringing, explained me once that especially creative people are ‘followed’ by the spirits. My answer, a question, was: ‘ah, that is because  with them the spirits can have more fun?’ He continued that the spirits help the creative mind, they are actually part of that creativity. The flip side of this being that they can also stir things up too much, and get someone into trouble. That would be the reason that we see so much creative people struggle with drugs, depression, paranoia, and things like that. Those troubles are just the spirits gone out of control.

So how is it? It is true that when I write, or paint, I am not consciously constructing what I make. There is what we nowadays call ‘the flow’. A form of rapture that makes me wonder about some of the sentences I wrote when reading them back. And again. What ‘I’ do is make preparations. Cleaning the room, laying the books or brushes ready. Making sure that I will not be distracted by communication or chores that have nothing to do with the creative task. And then there is that boredom, that emptying, perhaps, to make it possible that ‘the creative spirit’ will come over me and do its work. It has to be treated with kindness, but also with discipline. Yes, it should not be fed with an excess of pride or excitement – that will summon up it’s dark side: loneliness, depression, dissatisfaction that can come and haunt.

The spirit of creativity thrives best on a simple diet, and appears when there is some good old boredom around – the pre-creative silence, that precedes this spirit occupying the creative human being. Could that be the deeper meaning of us saying of the human being in this preparatory phase that he or she is pre-occupied? I do not claim to know how it works, so I value different descriptions of what happens. And to any of my friends I would like to say: when I am ‘not available’ it could be just me being preoccupied.

About a year ago I wrote a post on the idea of ‘symmetrical anthropology’ coined by Bruno Latour. I was critical about the idea of such an anthropology back then. And principally I still am – one can not overcome the colonial attitude at work in researching ‘exotic others’ just by turning the colonial culture itself into the research object. One still didn’t listen to those ‘others’ nor has one put the problematic relationship between anthropology and the colonial project into question. The idea of anthropology itself, studying human beings apart from their self-understanding, just the non-literate, non-reflexive social phenomena that they produce could be seen to be, well, ‘racist’. When Latour proposed to turn the anthropological gaze around, and study the tribe of ‘the Moderns’, I couldn’t fathom how that would solve any of the negative effects modernity has had on relations between peoples.

I found it funny though, and that was why I read We have never been Modern in the nineties. The turning of tables was kind of naughty and potentially promised to realise a deconstruction of anthropology by using it against itself. Recently we are able to judge Latour’s project to the full, as his latest work, Modes of Existence, presents the outcomes of his anthropological research on the Moderns in a rich, full, thick volume. And in a website. As I promised to write a review article this month about the book, I set myself to reading it. And was surprised. I really really like the book. Latour’s anthropology develops into an ontology, or even a metaphysics – deploying the felicity and unfelicity conditions (a concept from speech acts theory) of the modes of existence that are factually recognized by the Moderns. The Moderns really are studied apart from their self-reflections, objectively, which is symbolized in the mysterious narrative figure of a female anthropologist. Latour describes how she tries to get behind their apologetical self-representations, and discover what they really hold to be real.

This kind of anthropology reminded me of a specific kind from the forties, not the more general approach that aims at description, but one that tried to overcome paternalism by reconstructing the ontology of a ‘non-western’ culture – taking it serious just like modernity does itself: the philosophical anthropology of Placide Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy. The idea that culture is grounded in ontology appears to me a very ‘catholic’, say neo-thomist thought. This approach searches to understand or describe not in terms of reductionistic science, nor just in those of self-expressions, but to dig into a layer of being being intelligible by the mind. The layer of the plan, so to say, of the Creator, readable by the schooled thinker. Every culture, in this view, gets dignity allocated to it by being outlined by the ultimate Source. This kind of approach is also present in Modes of Existence. The Moderns are not explained as a phenonemon in social evolution, nor are they taken by their own word, but they are questioned as to their deepest attachments – what they really truly hold to be of value, and thereby take to be real. Thus, Latour, hopes to open negotiation with ‘the Others’ – those the Moderns declared to be other, that is. A negotiation which is urgently needed in order to make a turn from economy to ecology. To negotiate with mother earth (‘Gaia’) before she decides to get rid of us.

Actually Latour goes about his business so seriously, and digs so deep into this cultured ontology of the Moderns, that one cannot not value the book. It makes distinctions you never thought about, it really puts your mind to work, and thereby stimulates the brain like a complex musical composition. After reading you will be able to understand more complex relations. Therefore Modes of Existence is great. It is also funny in the sense of putting those who always observed others in the role of being observed. And it is crazy in its many original ideas like that of the imaginary anthropologist, or the diabolical figure of ‘Double Click’, who aims at promoting the epistemological idolatry of unmediated access to an object.

Still, my old troubles with Latour’s project hold true. He doesn’t investigate the conditions of the negotiations he is aiming at. He doesn’t look into his own belief in the power of metaphysics – although it has become a pragmatist, speech acts kind of metaphysics. He has criticized so called postmodern thinkers for being ‘just critical’ and not doing real work to negotiate a different world. I have always thought that criticism to be unfair, for it is too early to know whether we are already ready to negotiate. Whether ‘we’ moderns are allowed to participate in the negotiation at all, and on what conditions. The real question lies hidden behind the seemingly accidental replacement, by Latour, of ‘the Moderns’ by ‘the Whites’, at the end of the book. Moderns, Westerners, Whites, Colonizers… Has the world been decolonized already? Has the reign of white mythology (made fun of by Latour in the figure of Double Click) already come to an end? Can we do anthropology at all? Should we not first accept the problems that the idea of anthropos has created? What to do with an analysis like the following: ‘To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory.’ If that is true, what is there for ‘the Moderns’ to negotiate? The ‘warfront’ of modernity, as Latour calls it, then will not disappear but by the final defeat of the moderns. not by telling them that they were never really modern.


The citation in the final section is from The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

White Mythology is a paper by Jacques Derrida, discussed here.

Placide Tempels was a Franciscan missionary living in the former Belgian Congo, and his work on the ontology of Bantu’s led to so many discussions about ‘African philosophy’.

Modes of Existence was published in 2013. My review (which is not a longer version of this piece, but a separate article) of it will appear in ESSSAT News and Reviews.