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This last week I was necessitated to clarify some things for myself. They concerned concepts – colonial, cultural, communal – all in contexts of conversations with colleagues in the international networks of people who struggle to truly decolonize philosophy. The first two will be the topic of this blogpost. I may return to the other another time soon.

Note: decolonizing philosophy is not just an academic matter, to make a career on, as Tuck and Yang warned us scholars of (in their article “Decolonisation is not a Metaphor“). It is also not only about landrights, as they argue it should be. As central as the issue of land is, conceptual matters are also always, even in the struggle for land rights, crucial.

Concepts can heal and concepts can betray. What is nowadays called ‘gaslighting’ is exactly that: betraying people through deceitful use of words. Make them think something is ‘normal’ or is ‘a fact’ when it is not, and you overpowered them without the need for physical violence. The cheapest way to dominate. A domination that is so unvisible it needs long and hard work to be (partly) undone.

Artwork by the author, acrylic on canvas.

The first conversation was brief, but went on in my mind – when a respected scholar from a formerly colonized part of the world said (without further explanation) that the very concept of ‘culture’ was suspicious. Ok. I can see it played a malignant role in colonial discourses of early ethnography – saying that non-white peoples had culture, whereas white ones had civilization. The first was then characterized by myth and folklore, the latter by science and reason. Of course. Later, much later, there were the times of multiculturalism, the 1990s, when thinkers and politicians from the oppressed and discriminated groups tried to let the very concept work for them, saying: ok, if you say we have culture, then we have a right to our culture, you have to respect its limits. It was an understandable move, but of course it didn’t solve oppression, as it left the oppresive conceptual hierarchy intact.

Then, in my reflections, an article passed by – from anthropologist-turned-sangoma-philosopher Wim van Binsbergen, on African contributions to world cultural history. He makes a claim for Afrocentrism, as an invitation to radically de-racialize scholarly understanding of humanity and its shared adventures. One of the important things he says in the article is that continents are a misleading (‘gaslighting’?) way to categorize and understand cultural groups. Cultural historical exchange is the effect of migrations, trading routes, climate changes, that run in divergent directions, on and across continents. Some things ‘African’ for instance may have developed in an exchange with ‘Asian’ societies in the times of the East-West trading routes of old, and vice versa. Some others may be answers to influences from the North, from ‘Europe’ (is Europe even a continent, a cartographer asked recently on Twitter), just as some things ‘European’ may have developed as answers to cultural developments from the South, from ‘Africa’. Van Binsbergen makes an important point there. If we want to do history truthfully, scientifically, the idea of ‘civilization’ may be the one to drop, instead of the one of culture.

To my view, culture is a world that roots in neolithical experience – it indicates working the earth to create crops that make sedentary life for humans possible. And as water always seeks the lowest possible place, humans have sought the least travel and discovery intensive life: that of the agri-cultural being. As a metaphor (the concept of culture is a metaphor) it indicates that human animals transform their world, and themselves, adorn it and sing about it and reflect on it and build ‘institutions’ in it. They all do, that is their way. European Enlightenment talk of civilization is gaslighting and should be abolished.

The second was in answer to a potential PhD candidate, who approached me some time ago with an interesting proposal. I was writing comments to the first version, and thought her goal – to repair a society damaged by colonialism by articulating its ontology – needed some finer articulation. I wrote her that next to colonial (to describe the life of those oppressed during that age) we needed another concept to repair history, ‘non-colonial’. I wrote: “this term I make up while writing, to indicate that colonized peoples will always have a level in their being where they resist their colonization and live their own ontology – although it may have gone underground because of repression”. Of course this is so. It is apparent, a no-brainer. When colonial ‘civilizers’ claimed they could take the ancient culture out of the people they were doing their work on, they were gaslighting those peoples, and themselves as accomplices of the violent system of inhumanity. They could not succeed in destroying the other’s way to live. Never. Damage yes. But on so many levels of resistance free realities live always on: in creolized languages, in ways to dress, in emotional economies, in secret signs to warn for danger from the enemy. It needs a word to articulate this reality in decolonizing work.

The non-colonial is the denial of the colony – a strong strategy of survival and of protecting truthfulness over gaslighting.

It is already two weeks ago that I met the ten international students who had enrolled in the Winter Course Intercultural Philosophy and Postcolonial Theory. A tiny room in the Mathematics and Sciences building (for rooms are always scarce since our university population outgrew its premises) barely held them and the teachers’ team: Dr. Louise Müller, Dr. Pius Mosima, and myself. For all it was an experiment, initiated by an invitation of the organizers of the Vrije Universiteit Winter School to submit an idea for a course.

Opening speech for the whole Winter School by the director of the International Office of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Our idea was to get this interdisciplinary and intercontinental team together to teach this interdisciplinary and intercontinental class. The organizers liked the idea. We spent much time in advertizing the course, and the result was worth it – there were in fact 11 paying students, but – it has to mentioned, sadly enough: one of our African students didn’t obtain her visa. Later we heard that from the other proposals several had to retract because of failing numbers of enrollments. We are happy that so many were attracted by our topic, and if a second edition will take place, or maybe a summer school version, I am confident even more students will partake.

As an extra Dr. Müller had organized a boat tour through Amsterdam’s canals, provided by the Black Heritage Tours on the Sunday before we started – a welcome contextualizing and bonding event. Here you don’t get the success story of the enterprizing Dutch, but how this story was built on slave labor and legalized abuse of human beings. The tour focuses on slavery and the role the Netherlands played in it, but also tells about the free blacks neighborhood that existed in the 17th century and shows other traces of how Africans were present in Amsterdam’s history.

The course itself was an intensive five days, with lectures in the morning by the teaching team taking turns, and seminars with student presentations and text discussions in the afternoons. The planning of the course seemed to work well. But what you cannot predict is how the people who enroll will connect, and whether a true group will be formed. It was very encouraging to see this happened immediately and spontaneously: soon the discussion page of our internet space on canvas filled up with extra materials the students were sharing with each other, and their willingness to learn from each other’s learning and research challenges was enormous. Also the atmosphere was – as hoped – intercultural, open and inclusive.

What more can I say then a big THANK YOU to all the participants who made this first ever graduate course (class) in Intercultural Philosophy and Postcolonial Theory possible. Hope to hear again from your research and endeavors in the future. And let us wish we can take this course also to other places!

Two of the participants were so kind to also write their own impression for this blog, and I will give these here below.

Victor Nweke wrote: “The VU Amsterdam Winter Course –  ‘Intercultural’ Philosophy and Postcolonial ‘Theory’: ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Discourse – is unique in many ways. What interest me most is the fact that it was a transcultural, transnational and transdisciplinary meeting of established and budding scholars struggling to understand and express themselves through interpersonal conversations. As a seeker of meaning in life, I would love to attend it as many times as possible from any location of the earth. The Amsterdam Slave Heritage Tour was great. Nonetheless, I think the Tour would have been much more lively if it was done in the middle of the course when all participants have become aware of their interconnections as members of the same species. The Boat Tour brought healing memories of the Cape of Agony in different parts of my Motherland.”

Surekha Raven wrote: “I am a Master’s Student in organizational anthropology and attended the course in preparation of my master’s thesis. The teachers are extremely knowledgeable and helpful and the course absolutely exceeded my expectations. The choice of literature fitted the objectives and I gained a lot of new insights for my master’s thesis. The variety in professional, educational and cultural backgrounds of both the teachers and the students made the lectures and our discussions even more engaged and productive. I especially liked the interdisciplinary, intercultural approach, truly inspiring and promising for a philosophy of the future.”

Our interdisciplinary and intercontinental class at the final day.

 

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.

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.

 

To wander freely does not mean being without direction. That would be erring around. A free wanderer however has no predetermined goal, but rather lets himself be guided by the quality he encounters on his journey. Quality being of course a relation between the traveller and his surroundings, a relation which is not free from the things one loves. One person might descry an attractive turn, which another would have passed by indifferently. So it goes in research: one does not know exactly what one is looking for (although funding institutions wrongly suppose that one does), but having come at a crossing, or seeing a dark alley on the side you decide to continue or to venture into a new direction.

It was thus, wandering, that I came to read Derrida’s Specters of Marx. In the course of collecting material for a reader on ‘knowledge and imagination’, in search for views that challenge mainstream ‘Western’ epistemology, I encountered Derrida in the introduction into African philosophy, Mazungumzo, by German-Dutch philosopher Heinz Kimmerle. Actually the book is an intercultural introduction – which means it confronts, as in a dialogue, texts from Western philosophers with texts or ideas from Africa and from African philosophers. In the chapter on spirit belief Derrida’s book featured – so, a few years later, when I had the time I started to read it. And was captivated.

Reading the book itself is like wandering, but then in a space that has been put there by the philosopher Jacques Derrida. As the great reader he is, Derrida takes you through literature which he thinks is necessary to understand the meaning of Marx, and why his specters will haunt us again after communism has been exorcised in the late eighties and early nineties of the twentieth century. As such it is a very interesting cultural history of the modern view of human society. Its political and anthropological preconditions. And its spectral ones. Larger than life looms the figure of Hamlet, who by the encounter of the specter of his father has been called to see justice and its violation. Who stands before the impossible question to risk his life or be silent, and thus, in both cases, risk his sanity.

Derrida calls into remembrance the words of Marcellus, who, frightened upon encounter of the ghost, speaks to his partner: ‘Thou art a Scholler – speake to it, Horatio’. Words that could be understood as the appeal the book does to the potential reader: scholars should address the specters of their times – those without rights, the invisible people, hungering, working as modern slaves in faraway places, out of sight of the consumers of their produce, the ones without identity (sans papiers), or those who are there, visibly, with papers and rights, but who through some magical trick are treated as second class citizens. Starting off with the most prominent specter of Marx, the one of the Communist Manifesto, Derrida finds with joyful expectation: ‘here is someone mad enough to hope to unlock the possibility of such an address.’

The surprise for me was, that while wanting to investigate alternative epistemologies, I had returned myself to that author whose books I had long sold, because I thought I would never read them again (this goes for more authors, as I don’t like watching ‘dead’ backs on my bookshelves – that are those books who do not invite anymore, who don’t promise possibilities of new readings). Derrida is strict on this point: ‘It will always be a fault not to read and reread and discuss Marx […], it will be more and more a fault, a failing of theoretical, philosophical, political responsibility.’ More and more now that the dogma machines of the communist states have (to a great extent, that is) disappeared, says Derrida. For now we cannot use it as an excuse any more that one would not want to discuss texts that are used (wrongfully) to support those injust regimes. And it put the question about alternative epistemologies in another light, the light of the (repressive) politics that decides on what we are allowed to know or not, and the (liberative) politics that aims to lift just such a – philosophically unforgivable – unfreedom.

I cited from Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, 1994 (original French edition 1993).

Heinz Kimmerle has put many of his texts online: http://www.galerie-inter.de/kimmerle/intercultural.communicationframe.htm