Archive

African thinkers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave myself a challenge, by indicating I would talk about “Humanity’s place in nature, according to Spinoza and Ubuntu”, when asked to speak at the yearly Spinoza Summer Week. I did so this morning, and it was a truly philosophical session. What I mean by that I will explain below.

The summer week is organized by the Dutch Spinoza Society, a club that dedicates itself to maintaining the houses where Spinoza lived, and making them accessible to the public, as well as to furthering the academic study of his work, AND the study of his work by interested readers. This happens in reading circles and in the week, each July, for which a theme is chosen, to which speakers are invited – this year it was: Spinoza and Ecological Thinking. And it was done in a rural environment suitable to philosophize.

As reading material (yes, the participants prepare themselves in a serious manner, which creates meaningful sessions) I had given them a series of propositions from part I of the Ethics, and an article by Michael Onyebuchi Eze – Humanitatis-Eco (Eco-Humanism). The article argues that African Philosophy on Ecology goes beyond the anthropocentrism present in Westers-style Environmental Ethics, by focusing on a decentered, Ubuntu-style, cosmology of nature. The main point, as I pointed out: we should forego the desire to ‘fix’ the environment we need for our species, and start to learn about the sacredness of trees and rivers, as well as of the relations of the living and the not-yet-living generations. A certain awe, materially practised (don’t destroy the bark of a tree that protects your village), will change the human relation to nature in a more profound manner than moral prescriptions for protection of environments can.

We read quotes from the article, as well as from and about Ramose, Mbiti and Tempels. The upshot: a certain orientation in life is more important for ecology than technological fixes driven by limited perspectives (we should save species x). This orientation is informed by the idea that all of nature – be it in individual creatures or in species, or even forces such as wind or water, is an expression of ntu (divine energy) that flows through all being (ubu). This view – I say it hesitantly, translating in a western philosophical word – means there is a certain subjectivity, a certain awareness in all the differentations that make up ubuntu-nature.

This was an imperfect communal attempt at dialogical, intercultural reading, as all dialogical crossing of worlds is by necessity. Now we took the next step: to try to elucidate this through Spinoza’s ideas on conatus and immanent causation – and vice versa. These words were key, where Spinoza says that in the same way in which we may say that God is its/her/his own cause, we may say that it/he/her is cause of all things. (Proposition 25, part I). Every individual and individuated being thus, against the Aristotelian mainstream that declares it to be contingent, gains a certain necessity and inner divine-ness. This does not mean – I warned – that one can deify one’s ego. What is divine is this power to differ, to vary, to be individually different itself, not the form which it takes. The creative force, so to speak – my audience paused and wondered – the ‘ntu‘. So now I had done it, I had used that African concept to explicate Spinoza’s idea of immanence.

Followed a discussion whether Spinoza should be understood to be a metaphysician, and what ‘metaphysics’ means when it doesn’t involve transcendence. Spinoza ‘naturalized’ metaphysics, I said – claiming there is no ‘beyond nature’, but there is a beyond our distorted, desire driven understandings of the world as revolving around us (anthropocentrism). And now ubuntu – is it metaphysical? In this Spinozistic sense, perhaps? I argued yes, when we understand that ubuntu thinking of nature doesn’t recognize the Cartesian dualistic cleft in the world that Spinoza had to deal with to begin with. The physical and the spiritual (matter and mind, thinking and extension) are not separated, thus the metaphysical is always already in the changing, contiguous phenomena we perceive.

This was not a lecture, I called this morning a ‘session’ on purpose. I provided the materials and the main questions, which then interacted with the questions of the audience (the discussion on ‘metaphysics’ was not prepared but arose there and then) and led to a kind of shared, while individually diverse, certainty we had grown in understanding. One participant came to me and thanked me ‘for not using a powerpoint’ – they overload you with knowledge, he said, and there is no shared learning and thinking. Well that made my day of course – I am not against powerpoints, they can be very stimulating in the right context, but this – reading texts and discussing them from shared questions – truly philosophizing – remains the best!

There is something changing in the Dutch philosophical landscape – for some years mainly at the intersection of public and academic philosophy, now hesitantly in academia, there is a growing interest in African Philosophy. Being among those promoting this change, I wanted for a long time to write a post on this long overdue development. Having attended and contributed to several public and academic events centering on African Philosophy in these past two weeks, let me use their afterglow to highlight some signs of how Dutch interest is developing.

Books: over the past years several interesting titles in African philosophy have been published in Dutch translations, such as a book on Ubuntu by Mogobe Ramose, and the one on Socrates and Orunmila by recently deceased Sophie Oluwole. During her time with the publishing house Ten Have, Renate Schepen helped to introduce these authors to the Dutch audience. Another publisher, Van Tilt, introduced the work of Souleymane Bachir Diagne in a Dutch translation of Pol van de Wiel.

Teaching: there are still no lecturers in my country who have a full time position in African philosophy, like there are those who have the same in Ancient Greek philosophy, or Arabic philosophy. That doesn’t mean there are no academics teaching in diverse contexts, who have a name in the field through their publications. Among them are Michael Eze, who teaches in the department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, Pieter Boele van Hensbroek, at Groningen University, and Louise Müller, who is a Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kwazulu Natal, and guest researcher at Leiden University. My own Department of Philosophy at the Free University Amsterdam recently added a course to the curriculum called Diversifying Philosophy, which will contain some African Philosophy, and will be taught as of next year. A full course of African Philosophy was taught this school year by two lecturers of Wageningen University (university of life sciences) – an initiative of self-employed researcher, teacher and artist Birgit Boogaard. There are several others who add elements of African philosophy in their courses in Development or Religious Studies.

A network: an initiative has started last year May to bring together all of those who teach African Philosophy in the Netherlands, to promote the field, and benefit from each other’s experiences concerning teaching this special field. A first meeting was held at Radboud University, hosted by Philippe van Haute and Herman Westerink, and plans are in the making to transform the network into a research group in the context provided by the Dutch Research School for Philosophy.

Lectures: these last weeks saw a string of events, made possible by the visit of several African philosophers to the interdisciplinary Nijmegen conference on Intercultural Dialogues.

There was an interesting seminar – in a packed lecture hall – on Knowledge Diversity at Wageningen University featuring Wilfred Lajul from Uganda and Pius Mosima from Cameroon.

Together with the latter I also had the opportunity to speak at a public event on Depression in different cultures at Radboud Reflects, in – again – a packed Lux Theatre. This lively evening with discussion can be watched back here. The national newspaper Trouw had an article related to the event. And Brandpunt+ followed the week after.

Institutional: Here I can only add what is missing, and sometimes counterintuitively. The renowned Leiden African Studies Center has no chair in African Philosophy, or even a lecturer – showing that those studying aspects of things African lack systematic opportunities to either reflect philosophically on their field, or to study the philosophies of the African continent. Another place where one might expect Intercultural, including African, Philosophy is the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague, which dedicates itself to programs concerning development. Also here researchers and teachers have nobody in their midst who assures institutionally the dedication to reflection on their field, or philosophical aspects of the projects in the ‘developing world’. Even the young program in Comparative Philosophy in Leiden does not yet have a position dedicated to African Philosophy. There still is much to be done. Maybe Philosophy Departments should start taking the lead here now.

A few years ago, I started to write a work-plan, with the aim to see before me what I hoped to be able to do in the years before my retirement. This is weird, to write the (hush hush) word retirement here, in the public sphere, when in many ways (and I will not be the only one) I am feeling younger now then when I was younger biologically. But lets be realistic. Before retirement there are opportunities (such as some, limited, funding for traveling, helping younger (sic) colleagues to write their PhDs, teaching as a regular university teacher) that will be gone after. Even though after retirement other things will be possible, one should do what one can do while in a certain framework.

The plan in question comprised three elements: 1) a research project on spirit ontologies, which grew into a book proposal, which is a book-in-the-process-of-being-written at this moment. 2) another research project, which is still in the process of being realized, on African philosophy and the colonial archive (that is on Placide Tempels – more about that later). 3) some ideas toward decolonizing philosophy teaching. Not just the programs, not just the curricula, but the way we teach it as well. The means should be especially mutual visits, collaborations, and exchanges between academic philosophy teachers. Regarding my expertise and interest, these should be organized primarily between African, African-American and European colleagues. This blog post is on this third element. I am happy that writing the plan seemed, by itself to create effects, and attract ideas, people, and actual opportunities. This has happened with regard to all three elements, and made me convinced that writing down one’s hopes and ideals has a kind of ‘magical’ effect to set things in motion. I recommend it to everone!

The hope to be able to do something towards decolonizing philosophy teaching got its first fulfillment in an invitation to speak on ‘teaching philosophy interculturally‘ at the university of Essex in 2017. Others were the creation of a small network in the Netherlands of academics who want to do the same – a network on which I will write more another time. And while visiting two conferences in Dakar, Senegal in 2017 and 2018, one which was a joint project of Senegalese and American philosophers, I had the privilege to see even more styles of lecturing, of working together, than my visit to Calabar, Nigeria in 2016 had provided me with – as it was that Nigerian visit that had raised the desire to be able to contribute more to this larger movement of decolonizing academia. It may have been the enthusiasm of Jonathan Chimakonam, the organizer of the Nigerian conference that made me think such an exchange would be realizable, despite the many obstacles I perceived, among which access to funding is only a minor one. Chimakonam is very active on this issue, in writing as well as in organizing opportunities for academics. So his article in this new book, Decolonisation, Africanisation and the Philosophy Curriculum I had already read before the book came out.

This book gathers together fresh views of colleagues who deal with all of its title, not only in theory, but in the classroom, which in many cases, especially in South Africa, involves outside-of-the-classroom confrontations as well. This book gathers academic work in which the personal element is never far away. Personal experiences, personal interventions, color the critical reflections and positive proposals to change philosophy, not just for the benefit of Africa, but globally. Its editor, Edwin Etieyibo, writes in the introduction that is gives a contribution: “to the fields of decolonisation, intercultural and postcolonial studies, as well as an essential resource for the discipline of philosophy, not just in Africa but globally.” What I like about the book is that it offers reflection as well as very practical deliberations on how to organize a decolonized curriculum. Such as the discussion by South African Ernst Wolff on the respective advantages of teaching ‘dedicated’ or ‘integrated’ modules. In other words: should one leave the ‘modern philosophy’ course and all the other courses white as they are, and add a ‘diverse philosophy’ course to let students know there is more to be explored, or should one aim for unwhitening all the regular courses immediately. In a process of change, he defends alternating between the two. Chimakonam also writes on program development and distinguishes, more radically, three possible approaches, intriguingly called plan C (competition), plan B (balance) and plan D (displacement). In my words: should the ‘colonial’ program be replaced with an Africanized one (D), should one let a Western and an African program compete and observe what it does for its students (C), or should one offer Euro-American and African philosophy courses simultaneously, to let students come to their own conclusions or combinations? These proposals stir the reflection that is so much needed.

Very practical and useful is the article by Thaddeus Metz that aims to introduce newcomers to African approaches in philosophy to what’s characteristic and what one could read – ordered by classical course subjects such as political philosophy, epistemology and metaphysics. This is a must-read for any philosopher who is used only to the Western curriculum and thinks African philosophy is just some ‘fun’, ‘exotic’ subject – (s)he will discover on the contrary that all previous, culturally limited, conceptions of what philosophy can be and can do, were wrong. Munamato Chemhuru returns to the decades-old debates on what ‘African’ in ‘African philosophy’ can mean, and shows why this question should be explored once more. He argues that Africanizing the philosophy curriculum is fully consistent with the requirements of philosophy to be a critical discourse. To do so, he will have to reject the false images projected by anthropologizing studies of Africa that make all thought developed on the continent an element of essentialized and traditionalized cultures. “If Africanisation is properly understood as a process that involves putting African epistemology at the core of philosophy in Africa, instead of cultural anthropology, and continuing to accuse Western philosophy for its predicament, then the agenda of Africanisation can be achievable.”

These are just a few of the many topics in the book that interconnect in intriguing ways. To my view this is a must-read for any philosophers interested in curriculum change and development, in decolonizing the classroom, and their philosophy departments along the way. I hope the third element in my work-plan may materialize further in the coming years, and with the help of, among others, this book, and its writers. Let me dream: wouldn’t it be great to have masterclasses for philosophy professors interested in curriculum change and development of new inclusive ways to teach, where some of these African colleagues come to put us all to work, in critical reflection and in learning new styles of teaching. To discover a new wealth of approaches to classical subjects in philosophy, and to critique, in the end, this ordering of what is classical as well.

This post is my reading report of Decolonisation, Africanisation and the Philosophy Curriculum, Edwin Etieyibo (ed.), London & New York: Routledge, 2018. ISBN 978-1-138-57036-8.

covershitinggeogreason One month late, here is my post about the conference on Shifting the Geographies of Reason June 19-22 in Dakar. It has to open with the incredible poster, designed by former CPA president Jane Anna Gordon, featuring the magnificent photos by Djibril Drame. That already says a lot about this conference, which was co-organized by the Carribean Philosophical Association and La Société Sénégalaise de la Philosophie. It expresses that art is an integral element of the reflection that philosophy practices. An approach which reminded us, participants of this conference, of many thinkers, such as Senghor and Césaire, who would integrate poetry into their work to say things that purely academic language can not. Poetry was also a part of this conference, when at its closing session Rozena Maart read her impressive poem which seemed to reflect something of the deeper layers of experience which made this meeting possible.

It was a meeting in the true sense of the word, of scholars with roots in the Carribean and in African countries, as well as other world citizens who adhere to the fact that we are all together in what I discussed at another conference to be the global postcolony. More than at other philosophical conferences many presenters were young, and many were female, and this made for a unique possibility to hear the research and reflection of those who are so often not heard in the usual format of scholarly gatherings, where the system of keynotes by established professors overrepresents the older, and the male colleagues, and pushes the others into the workshop rooms.

35928795_10156441050219328_230338056702394368_n

Some of the CPA & SOSEPHI organizers together with the hard working student assistants – credits to the unknown photographer.

This conference had the workshop rooms as its heart – young and older were to be heard there, and the general gatherings provided the frame where members of the two organizing societies, who so enthusiastically had img_20180618_123008150-e1531594532302.jpgjoined forces, met.

 

For me it was a pleasant return to the Université Cheikh Anta Diop, which since last December I had come to know as a most hospitable place of intellectual encounter – with delicious meals by the most friendly catering service, eager students attending many of the presentations, colleagues who already have become friends, and of course, the natural beauty of the most Western tip of the African continent. It is impossible to give a short rendering of all that I learned through these encounters, buIMG_20180620_091239530t may it suffice to say that I

heard papers being presented on all the subjects I would like to hear at a conference – papers which disregarded the restrictive boundaries of disciplinarity, and which, informed by high quality historical, sociological, anthropological, and of course philosophical work, centered the experiences and events that brought us, humans, where we are in together – the postcolony, and centered intercultural and decolonial approaches as well that work toward us moving beyond this existential situation – with all the necessary truthfulness and open-mindedness to not leave anything out. To me, this is what philosophy should be. And places such as UCAD are where true philosophy therefore happens today.

 

 

 

 

 

In philosophy the 21st century started in 2017. This became clear to me in the days before Christmas, when I had the opportunity to attend the great conference in honor of Souleymane Bachir Diagne at the University Cheich Anta Diop in Dakar. It was there that I saw something of the way ahead for philosophy in the coming age – beyond the need for ‘schools of thought’ of the past century – beyond the melancholic returns to the ‘great thinkers’ and ‘systematic’ philosophy, and beyond the need to split up the field in something called ‘analytic and continental’ thinking.img_20171221_180325037-e1514803728257.jpgBeyond the self-aggrandizement of philosophies that claimed to end history, to make a radical new start, introduce a new ‘school’, or to even destruct philosophy itself. This new, fresh, orientation I witnessed, had nothing of that – instead it boasted all things modest: doing serious historical work, analyzing the intertwinements of religion, politics, and culture patiently and honestly, and above all: working on translation in the broadest sense – making little known texts and views a bit more well known, introducing ‘marginal’ thinkers and their work to a wider audience – and in all that: shifting the geographies of reason silently but significantly.

And how I liked the way it was thought out and done: to honor a mans achievement in his own country, to do so when he is still years before retirement and may expect time to allow him to inspire others more and bring his unique views into the world. This conference breathed, above all, the atmosphere of intellectual friendship – an atmosphere that spread through all the events and meetings of so many colleagues, students, and relevant others. IMG_20171222_144127795We were in the ‘francophone’ sphere of the African continent: in a sphere and in a place – opening a space for thought. But English was a conference language too, and mostly well understood. Wolof often served to accomodate the organizational processes of course. And I was lucky to also be able to retreat for a while in my own language, Dutch, with colleagues from NL I only truly got to know in Dakar, as such things go. So, the issue of translation was never far away – especially because the man who was the centre of it all, fondly called Bachir by his friends, embodies the issues of translation in his life story – so to speak. Having moved to ‘the capital’ – Paris – of so many postcolonies for his studies, he later returned to Senegal to strengthen the philosophical world in place through his powers of translation – only to move once more (much later) to another ‘capital’ (New York) – that of American-dominated thought, to translate African and islamic philosophy and make it more accesible to an academic world still very much ignorant to its potential and real contributions to a shared and negotiated understanding of the predicament of the 21st century. Thus also repairing what was worded by Frantz Fanon: “whenever there is a lack of understanding between [the black man] and his fellows in the presence of the white man, there is a lack of judgment.” (Black Skin White Masks)

Translation is never only finding words in another language to transmit what was expressed in the original one, nor just presenting little known thinkers to a wider audience – its most important, philosophical, work is negotiation, one of the central elements of dialogue and working to shared understandings. It is stirring things up almost unnoticed, working towards the growth of knowledge – and against the ideological falsehoods that have blinded many great thinkers. IMG_20171201_101438092Involved in such negotiation Souleymane Bachir Diagne critically investigates thinkers such as Senghor and Bergson, Iqbal and Thierno Bokar, – meanwhile fearlessly researching how religion and modernization, democratic movements, searches for identity as well as equality, interact, mix, and may be used as ways to open up towards ourselves and each other.

Translation, as practiced in Diagne’s work, is a gentle force, and very much needed to open the future to what our varying traditions of knowledge have been trying to discover about humanity. Now that we, in the 21st century, in our ‘post-colonial’ age, are doing the work of realizing the crimes we have done to and suffered from each other – we can finally start to learn differently. Not just reaching for ‘excellence’ in monological ivory towers of reason, but mastering another kind of excellence – the one that consists in the craftmanship of reading (listening!), translating (transferring) insights – in the budding multi-centered system of knowing that is presently being built. This kind of excellence is modest as well as daring, as it knows philosophy is not just about intellectual grasp – but is aiming to acquire such a grasp while working against inequality and injustice, and for wisdom and love.

 

 

“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.