Decolonising our minds

Every generation has to undergo some turnovers on one or the other factor.

What is to considered to be normal at one time in another generation can be “not done”.

The last few years it seems like we are living in a society which wants to overcorrect itself. It wants to break with previous passages in history. In several countries suddenly a lot of words may not be used any more because they are considered wrong or unjust to certain groups of the population. Often then there are created new words to substitute the older word, but then they forget that happened in the past already with several words as well.

With the “Black Lives Mattermovement this seems to have arrived in a roller-coaster or rapids. It looks like when you do away with all monuments and all related words that part of history shall be made away with and forgotten. Instead of thinking about the value of keeping also the wrong things in memory.

Even the prestigious London university got caught in a row with some of its students who have repeatedly demanded leading philosophers, whose ideas have underpinned civilised society across the Western world. It might well be that a lot of philosophers their writings students may have to cover, come from Europe and as such from white people. Instead of studying the European Enlightenment figures, the students have insisted the majority of philosophers should be from Africa and Asia, and white thinkers only to be studied “if required”.

People often forget that they when being part of a certain culture should learn about their own culture first. If one wants to learn the other culture(s) it should also be possible but in another curriculum. It is wrong to exclude European thinkers, because they are part of our world mindset and provided the patrons with our wisdom, morals and ethics.

What we can see today is that lots of youngsters are trying to desacralise European thinkers, stopping them from being treated as unquestionable. We should not stop studying them, but should be able to look at them critically.

For sure, we may question what should be the place of European philosophy, and European philosophers, in an age of globalisation and of a shifting power balance from West to East, but we should recognise that they are essential to our insight in the construction of our society throughout the ages.

The argument for a more diverse curriculum seems reasonable, indeed unquestionable. After all, philosophers and thinkers come not just from Europe. There are great non-European intellectual traditions, a myriad philosophical schools from China, India, Africa and the Muslim world, many of which have shaped European philosophy as well. It would be good to see that there is made more place to look at the works of Mo Tzu, Zhu Xi, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina, Anton Wilhelm Amo, Frantz Fanon, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Feng Youlan, just to call a few.

It is wrong to think that all European philosophy would be tainted by racism and colonialism. Several people are now falling in the same trap as racists, suggesting that because one possesses a particular identity, so one’s ideas are necessarily distinct, and linked to that identity.

A philosopher is white so his or her ideas are contaminated.

John Locke is widely regarded as having provided the philosophical foundations of modern liberal conceptions of tolerance. Yet he was a shareholder in a slaving company.
Immanuel Kant, often seen as the greatest of Enlightenment philosophers, clung to a belief in a racial hierarchy, insisting that

‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites’

and that

‘the African and the Hindu appear to be incapable of moral maturity’.

Sian HawthorneSian Hawthorne, convenor of the undergraduate course in ‘World Philosophies’, the only philosophy degree that SOAS provides, observes:

‘Enlightenment philosophers make arguments about knowledge and reason setting us free, and laud the values of liberty, at the very moment that colonial enterprises and the slave trade are expanding. Those very same arguments are summoned to justify Europe’s so-called civilizing mission and make claims about European superiority.’

Jonathan Israel, now Professor Emeritus of History at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton, lauds the Enlightenment as that transformative period when Europe shifted from being a culture

‘based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition and authority’

to one in which

‘everything, no matter how fundamental or deeply rooted, was questioned in the light of philosophical reason’.

Yet, Israel is also deeply critical. At the heart of his argument is the insistence that there were actually two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Locke, Voltaire, Kant and Hume is the one of which we know, and of which most historians have written. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the Radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream’s intellectual timidity constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment

‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.

Israel finds the argument that the ‘Enlightenment is racist’, coming from a one-eyed view, the selective picking and choosing of certain individuals and quotes.

Such critics see only the more conservative mainstream figures, such as Locke, Kant and Hume, and ignore the thinkers of the Radical Enlightenment,

an approach that Israel calls

‘seriously obtuse’.

The Radical Enlightenment, he observes,

‘was condemned by all European governments and by all churches, because in principle it insisted on the universal and equal rights of men and the full emancipation of the black population.’

Israel is sympathetic to the demand that university curricula be diversified.

‘There is a strong case for studying non-European traditions as an essential part of any philosophy teaching course.’

But, he points out, such a global view began in the Radical Enlightenment itself.

‘Many radical enlighteners believed their anti-Christian naturalism had powerful roots in medieval Islamic philosophy. They also had strong affinities with Chinese Confucianism. They were free of the Eurocentrism that marked the mainstream Enlightenment of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume and Smith.’



Visual and aural impacts – contacts and concepts

Added commentary to the posting A Progressive Call to Arms


Additional reading

  1. The twist of politics and expression
  2. Institutional Racism
  3. Mass Media’s Deception Causing Division