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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Last winter I found an email in my mailbox with an invitation, out of the blue, to give two lectures in Southern Germany. Near the Bodensee, in a village called Weingarten, which translates as Vineyard. IMG_20180731_132347273The organisor of a yearly philosophical summer week, Dr. Hälbig, had found my German article of a few years ago on Emanuel Swedenborg. If I wanted to come and speak on him and on Spinoza. The theme of the week was the other side of the Enlightenment. Of course I said yes, especially after a friendly phonecall with Herr Hälbig. Not all of my readers know that I feel verbally more at home in German than in English, as I spent quite some time in with relatives and friends in the country. Still it was a challenge to see if I could also speak as freely for a group of interested people who would not all be versed in philosophy. This past week I was there. Close to the Swiss border, in this very hot summer, in a continental climate.

I had the opportunity to stay there three days, and also hear several German colleagues whom I didn’t know before. Especially two of them, full professors, surprised me the by their truly German style of doing philosophy – which reminded me of my student days at Leiden university, where some of my teachers also knew that style. One of them spoke on Leibniz’s metaphysics, and doing so took the audience on a dizzying ride through metaphysical arguments from the Middle Ages to Immanuel Kant, discussing the problem of freedom. When I also saw an essay he recently published on freedom I was stunned by its exclusively German list of references. Even to discuss positive and negative freedom he didn’t need Isaiah Berlin, but other, German authors. In English language philosophy the opposite is of course also the case, where many great continental thinkers who were mentioned here would not even be known by name.

The other was a Kierkegaard specialist, who took us through the dark moors of protestant existentialist experience of sin, aptly summarized by an elderly lady who attended as ‘Sündensumpf’. While listening my mind kept wandering back to my student days, where for the last time I had been immersed so deeply in North-European and German ways of seeing life through philosophy. And to the very specifically German style of doing philosophy, from which I obviously had removed myself so far that for my bio I had just indicated that I taught philosophy at my university, while all the other speakers had listed, in the right order, their Studies, their PhD, their Habilitation (second research exam after the PhD, neccesary to become a full professor). The exams and titles and positions which I had forgotten to mention, perhaps also because somewhere along the way I must have lost interest in the game of academic hierarchy.

What struck me also, upon reflecting, is that there is no such thing as continental philosophy. French philosophy is just as different from German philosophy as Anglo-saxon philosophy is. And I thought further about the debate on the existence of a specifically African philosophy on which I had been reading over the past years. In this debate, the participants often struggle with the claim of European philosophers that their ideas are universal, whereas those of philosophers of other continents were supposed to be local and bound to their specific cultures. Here, in Weingarten, among the vineyards,img_20180802_072942504.jpg that suddenly appeared as a non-issue. For everything here was so German, including the appropriation of Kant, who was mentioned in every second sentence, so to speak, and always with the full realization of the very specific historical and cultural context of his philosophy. No, things were even more localized, for, as Germans do – always discussing the differences between their constituent peoples at dinner or at the bar (in this case the closest two – the Frankish and the Swabians), there was no escaping the grounded and situated nature of the philosophy being done. It kind of relieved me. After all we are all in the same boat: Anglo-saxons, French, Swabians, Tamils, Han-Chinese, and Igbos – we all come from our own fields with different animals, foods and fruits, and our own histories of power struggles over them, and the identities we developed while tending to them. And from these very local circumstances somehow in all cases thoughts emerge that may attract others from other fields and languages, making them interlocal, although never universal or global in asimple manner. In this case the fields grew grapes. IMG_20180730_171723862

My lectures went well, years of teaching philosophy to non-philosophy students had done their work. The participants liked it that I discussed texts with them and took them along the very personal and existential questions about modernity I have had ever since my early teenage years. And I was relieved all the German idiom I had gathered was still there and helped me to get into a real dialogue with very nice, interested and interesting people, some professional philosophers, others from other professional backgrounds. It was a good experience, to visit my neighbors in their homeland, and sit and philosophize in the vineyard.

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.

 

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)