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Kai Kresse

Philosophy as Decolonization?

On Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (ed.): Postcolonial African Philosophy. A Critical Reader



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Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (ed.):
Postcolonial African Philosophy. A Critical Reader.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
374 pages
ISBN 0631203400




Blackwell Publishers:
external linkWebsite

1

  This collection of articles on the documentation and discussion of African philosophy in the postcolonial context consists of 17 contributions by 15 authors which are arranged and presented in five different groups: Africa and modern scientific reasoning (K. Gyekye, S. Harding, P. Amato), Africa and modern philosophic reasoning (E. Eze, T. Serequeberhan, G. Presbey), Rebuilding bridges (R. Bernasconi, R. Bell, B. Janz), The politics of the postcolonial (L. Gordon, L. Harris, J. Pittmann, D.A. Masolo), and Thoughts for a postcolonial future (K. Wiredu, E. Eze, J.-M. Makang, E. Eze). The selection of authors is an interesting mixture of some renowned names of the older generation of African philosophers and some – mostly younger – North American philosophers. But for a book whose title claims to cover the whole area of postcolonial African philosophy it is a little disappointing that only one author is currently residing in Africa, that no African of the younger generation living in Africa is included, and that no female African philosopher is part of the book. Due to limited space, not all authors and articles could be dealt with here, and the discussion is short; some interesting texts had to be left aside.



 Critique of Eurocentrism as programme

2

  Above all, this reader reveals the multiple facets of a dispute between, and an assessment of, the relations of European modernity to the African continent, as characterized by the colonial experience. As a general paradigm, Eze assumes that the political subjection and exploitation of Africa was a necessary consequence of Eurocentrist theory in philosophy and science (cf. introduction). Moreover, he describes anthropological research during colonial times (he refers to Levy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard) as instrumental works which had had the upkeeping and advancement of the colonial administration as its only goal (10), in order to prove European supremacy in a quasi-scientific way.

Kwasi Wiredu:
"Democracy and Consensus in African Traditional Politics. A Plea for a Non-party Polity".
In this Issue.
Article



3

  But while Levy-Bruhl's statements on Africans as 'prelogical', and thus having inferior thinking abilities, indeed cannot be taken seriously, such a general verdict surely does no justice to the ethnographic work of Evans-Pritchard. Wiredu, for instance, in this same volume, makes use of Evans-Pritchard's and Fortes's work on African political systems (published in 1940). To be able to sketch out a perspective for an adequate image of 'postcolonial' Africa, as the editor seems to strive for, it might be necessary to avoid such generalizations and the easy dismissal of a whole discipline. Otherwise, there lurks the danger of simply establishing a rhetorically inspired and dogmatic 'Anti-Eurocentrism' as a new centrism. In fact, Wiredu's article (303-312) on the principle of consensus in Akan politics uses Evans-Pritchard and other anthropologists as an empirical basis to build up his argument. This rather seems to show the possibility and indeed the need for philosophy (in relation to cultural contexts) to cross disciplinary borders and make use of anthropological material for the advancement of a theoretical point. In Wiredu's case, this concerns the characterization of, and the plea for, an "African" alternative to Western multi-party democracy.

»Should the mental liberation of Africa and the possibility of a multi-faceted work on the intellectual heritage of this continent be dependent on the conscious simplification of the history of another continent?«

4

  Eze, however, does show sensitivity in this direction – such as when he emphasizes that having to deal with phenomena like migrations and instability, it is important for African philosophers to »find ways to make sense and speak of the multipilicities and pluralisms of these historical 'African' experiences« (15). But again, how does this go together with the reductionist qualification of European modernity as »capitalist and ethnocentric, and racist« (12)? Should the mental liberation of Africa and the possibility of a multi-faceted work on the intellectual heritage of this continent be dependent on the conscious simplification of the history of another continent?

5

  This caution should not obstruct the view on the connection between European expansion of power and the development of science – on the contrary, that should be documented and interpreted in detail. But with every assumption and hypothesis, it is important to provide a clear reference to the sources on which the claims are based, and to discuss an approach which is appropriate to deal with the complexity of the problem. Eze's own thorough piece on the racist entanglement of Kant's philosophical anthropology ("The colour of reason", 103-140) is a controversial but productive contribution in this sense, following up necessary, uncomfortable, and possibly painful questions on the history of philosophy. This article works on Kant's texts and attempts to show that racist remarks by Kant are not a side-aspect of his work, but the expression of a fundamentally racist attitude which is important for an understanding of Kantian theory on the whole (130). Eze's portrayal of the founder of critical philosophy is not necessarily convincing, however.

6

  Neither is Serequeberhan's attempt of analyzing Kant's philosophy of history as a contribution to a critique of Eurocentrism, where a "destructive reading" (sometimes called "destructuring", sometimes "deconstructive") achieves the goals that it set itself from the outset (141-161). This raises an important question in regard to this collection of readings as to the debate on African philosophy as a whole: what is the main task of interpretation? Is it the affirmation of a 'good' African in contrast to a 'bad' European history of philosophy, or is it an understanding that is aware of the complex history of the other so that this can be used to make one's own concrete projects more fertile? Eze's article on Kant, in any case, is somewhere in between.

»Why should the discussion in Africa continue to be concerned foremost with Europe, and why should current African thinkers not be able to choose which thinker from which cultural tradition of philosophical reflexion they would like to use as an inspiration for their own philosophy?«

7

  It is difficult to see, however, how the project of a critique of Eurocentrism – which is to be welcomed – can be advanced in such a way. Serequeberhan as well as Eze give no convincing answer to the question of why the preoccupation with Eurocentrism should be the main task for philosophers in Africa. Is that really more important than the reconstruction of oral philosophic traditions, the development of serious systematic approaches, or the systematic interpretation of the works of African philosophers of the first generation? Why should the discussion in Africa continue to be concerned foremost with Europe, and why should current African thinkers not be able to choose which thinker from which cultural tradition of philosophical reflexion (including the European) they would like to use as an inspiration for their own philosophy?

8

  In this respect, the current collection argues that only a complete critique of Eurocentrism can liberate and clear the path for truly post-colonial times. But that seems to be only one of several possible positions, and the dominant focus on this aspect can also be understood as a restriction, and as the continuation of an entanglement in the prevalence of European categories and European history. If it is correct, as Bernasconi put it, that »Western philosophy has caught African philosophy in a double bind« (188, in his "African philosophy's challenge to Western philosophy"), then a liberation might be envisaged by the pursuit of self-set research agendas and perspectives. As it is, Bernasconi's title expresses the dominant perspective of the volume: from within the context of the North American philosophical discussion, the goal is to clarify and determine the demands and claims that the African discussion puts forward to the West. Thus, a "Western" perspective is hardly ever given up.

Kwasi Wiredu:
"Democracy and Consensus in African Traditional Politics. A Plea for a Non-party Polity".
In this issue.
Article



9

  Other possibilities for main research agendas – such as the systematic development of approaches, the work on specific philosophical traditions in Africa, or the detailed interpretation of modern African philosophers – are unfortunately hardly followed up, nor are they called for. One exception is Kwasi Wiredu's article already mentioned above, a plea for a non-party polity in which he combines a contribution to political theory with reconstructive work on the history of political theory and practice in Africa. This is followed by a worthwhile response of Eze which discusses some critical reservations (313-323). Another noteworthy article is by Kwame Gyekye who sketches a perspective for the compatibility of technology and humanism in Africa (25-45). This provides hallmarks for a more thorough formulation of such a programme that emphasized culturally determined contextuality of the conceptions of science, technology, "development" and their values, though the envisaged perspective remains vague, as its concluding comment on Kaunda's "African humanism".



 Work on the foundations of intercultural philosophy

»Janz formulates methodological requirements for a hermeneutical project, skeptically undercutting universalist perspectives for solutions, while also at pains to link hermeneutics to concrete African practices of discursivity.«


10

  Many of the contributions to this collection approach the African discourse from the outside and do not document it from within. In regard to their work on the foundations of intercultural philosophy, two articles deserve particular attention and praise. Utilizing different systematic perspectives, both Richard Bell and Bruce Janz attempt to approach philosophical thinking in Africa, while at the same time working on the methodological foundation of their approach. In both cases we see something like the sketch of a long term project. Bell, in his "Essay in intercultural philosophy" (197-220), sensitively describes a process of "finding oneself" in the unquestioned polyglot realities of everyday life and its reflexion in contemporary, i.e. postcolonial, Africa. He achieves this by drawing from the late Wittgenstein (and his discussions of Frazer) and through concrete, vivid references to literature (especially Bessie Head) and other forms of aesthetic practice in southern Africa.

11

  In his "Alterity and dialogue in African philosophy" (221-238), Janz is concerned with the project of African philosophical hermeneutics. He searches for a third alternative to the two seminal approaches of Theophilus Okere and Tsenay Serequeberhan. He is anxious to secure that such hermeneutics would be rooted in an African practice of understanding (which is a shortcoming of Okere) while it is also theoretically worked out as a hermeneutical approach (a shortcoming of Serequeberhan). Janz formulates methodological requirements for such a project, skeptically undercutting universalist perspectives for solutions, while also at pains to link hermeneutics to concrete African practices of discursivity. Like Bell's, his article offers solid points of departure for further research in fruitful directions.



 The Western world as tormentor and saviour?

Kai Kresse
teaches African Philosophy and Social Theory at SOAS, University of London, where he is currently writing up his PhD-thesis.

12

  Is Eze thus right with his judgement on the dilemma of the postcolonial situation of African philosophy, that »the West is against us, yet the West is our saviour«? For an exact assessment of the overall situation one should also listen to D.A. Masolo who warns his readers against some traps of postcolonial theory, such as simplistic generalizations that undermine the basis for productive work. Three important insights of postcolonial thinkers should be kept in mind and applied over and over again: that subjects can no more be thought of as abstract, as in the times of post-enlightenment; that there exists a wide gap between subjects as students and proponents of various values and the means of assessing judgements; and, that in discourse something like the beauty of reason is often unreal and illusionary (293).

13

  This book is important because one can, and partly has to, take up issues with the statements presented and their justifications. Since the specific overall perspective of the book, i.e. North American philosophical discourse, is not expressed in the title, some of the reader's expectations are necessarily disappointed, namely those that hoped for a representative depiction of the current philosophical discourses within Africa (and examples of that). Such aspects are not dealt with, and also the possibility of documenting postcolonial philosophical discourses in the various regions of Africa was left aside. Nevertheless, a number of contributions offer stimulation and guidelines for orientation in different fields of African philosophy. Thus, since one is forced to determine one's own position in relation to its various articles, occupation with this book is recommendable.



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