Oriental African – Ignoring non-European thinkers leaves us half-blind
We should ask why application of the same principle to white male philosophers is treated as an outrage
“Surely the works of W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Sylvia Wynter, and Rabindranath Tagore, (photographed above with physicist Albert Einstein in 1930) are as germane to a philosophical comprehension of the ‘civilized’ world as the treatises of Plato and Aristotle,” writes Azeezah Kanji. (COURTESY: VISVA BHARATI)
The Students’ Union at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London is being battered in the British press for its recent statement of “educational priorities,” which calls “to make sure that the majority of the philosophers on our courses are from the Global South or its diaspora (. . . ) If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint. For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so called ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers wrote.”
It seems reasonable that an institution whose very name proclaims its focus on Asia and Africa would prioritize the thinking of philosophers from the region and its intellectual traditions — particularly because these thinkers tend to be marginalized in the curricula of other schools.
However, the histrionic newspaper headlines convey the impression that the entire foundation of human intellectual endeavour is under assault. “University students demand philosophers such as Plato and Kant are removed from syllabus because they are white,” shrilled the Telegraph. SOAS students are being derided as a bunch of “barmy” “snowflakes,” who are dumping the “founding fathers of Western philosophy, whose ideas underpin civilized society” simply because of their race.
In this inverted logic, the white male philosophers facing the possibility of being decentred are represented as the real victims of discrimination, while the non-white and non-male thinkers who have actually been systemically excluded continue to be ignored. The blizzard of “snowflake”-bashing hides the real questions we need to be asking: Why is the philosophical canon so dominated by white men in the first place? And why are their works so often read without critical analysis of the context shaping them?
Data compiled by the Open Syllabus Project, from over 1 million U.S. college syllabi, reveals the extent to which reading lists are overwhelmingly populated by men of European origin: Aristotle, Plato, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, John Locke.
None of the 50 most-commonly assigned philosophy texts is by a woman, and Confucius and Saint Augustine are the only non-white philosophers who crack the ranks. The medieval Muslim philosophers, who were the link between pre-modern Greek thought and later European thought, are completely excised.
This entrenches the derogatory fallacy that women and people of colour have generally failed to engage in cerebral exertions worthy of being called philosophy.
It perpetuates the illusion that we can understand the essential truths of our world by reading the philosophical theses of certain European men on justice and human nature and freedom; that the perspectives of those on the undersides of the patriarchal and racist systems that have made the modern world are dispensable.
But surely the works of W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Sylvia Wynter, and Rabindranath Tagore (to name just a few of the many important thinkers on slavery and colonialism) are as germane to a philosophical comprehension of the “civilized” world as the treatises of Plato and Aristotle.
They are also vital for seeing the limitations of philosophers frequently represented as sources of universal wisdom. As Charles Mills, distinguished professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, points out, “most of the leading thinkers of Western modernity — Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Jefferson, Hegel, Mill, de Tocqueville, and others — had racist views about people of colour.”
Locke, for example, justified the dispossession of indigenous lands in the Americas with his conceptualization of property, and helped write the Carolina constitutions of 1669 which gave masters “absolute power” over their black slaves.
Kant is known for his cosmopolitanism, but he was also wrote things like “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,” “Americans and Blacks [ … ] serve only for slaves,” and “Judaism [is] hostile to all other people and hence treated with hostility.”
If these are the sources of the ideas that “underpin” our society, they should certainly be approached from a critical standpoint.
After all, when it comes to the intellectual contributions of women and people of colour, the idea that a thinker is limited by the specificities of time and place and identity is readily accepted. (So much so that philosophy produced by women is often deemed relevant primarily to “gender issues,” philosophy produced by Muslims is often deemed relevant only to Muslim societies, and so on.)
We should ask why application of the same principle to white male philosophers is treated as an outrage.
Azeezah Kanji is a legal analyst and writer based in Toronto. She received her Masters of Law from SOAS in 2015.