The (unbearable?) whiteness of philosophy

There’s an interesting – and important – discussion going on in South African professional philosophy at the moment. You can read about it on the Mail&Guardian, but the nutshell summary is that tensions regarding the “apparent supremacy of European philosophy over African philosophy” have resulted in the president and “several black philosophers” resigning from the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa (PSSA).

One response that has resulted from the PSSA’s January meeting is by Associate Professor Rafael Winkler (Philosophy, University of Johannesburg), who argues that attempts to “decolonise” or “Africanise” philosophy will not only perpetuate racial divisions, but also “inadvertently legitimises xenophobia towards black and white foreigners and the exclusion of non-black South Africans from partaking in the struggle to establish a new future for South Africa”.

And that is absurd hyperbole at the least, but closer to complete nonsense.

Of course it could legitimise xenophobia, depending on how curricular change is implemented. But there’s no reason to think that it will do so – and there’s also no reason to be blind to the fact that on that reasoning, xenophobia towards black South Africans and black foreigners is already being legitimised if it is true that the curriculum is skewed to the extent that some say it is.

I wanted to point readers to a good comment from James Godish under that M&G piece, which challenges Winkler’s account of the 2016 discussions (which he was apparently not present at). [Edit: Godish seems to have been a pseudonym for Ndumiso Dladla, and the comment can be read on the Huffington Post.]

But, the Mail&Guardian has for some reason deleted that very cogent (and polite) comment, as well as never having approved another critical comment from Phila Mfundo Msimang (who is in the Philosophy Department at UKZN, and who was present at the conference). The M&G have also not approved my comment, pointing this out [edit – my comment is now approved, but Godish’s is still missing].

This is, to say the least, rather odd and concerning, and I hope that the M&G will explain why the comment section is stifling debate (rather than simply blocking abuse, which is completely reasonable).

As for the substantive issues regarding the philosophy curricula in South Africa, though, the concern with Winkler’s response is that there’s a vast gap between a curriculum that includes “African philosophy” and one that alienates foreigners.

A call for “decolonisation” (rarely defined with any clarity) could entail a spectrum of interpretations, running from simply casting a broader net than simply teaching the ideas of a bunch of dead white Europeans, all the way to eliminating all those dead white Europeans entirely.

Now, it seems both possible and permissible for me that an institution can choose to focus on any particular tradition, so an institution choosing to focus (for example) on the analytic tradition isn’t necessarily racist, though it of course could be.

The concern here, though, is surely that these decisions aren’t always made with sensitivity to a local context, where one develops curricula that not only speaks to a particular time and place, but also serves to signal inclusivity, and to encourage students to see philosophy as a field where authority doesn’t only come from “somewhere other than Africa”.

There are better and worse arguments for curricular reform, of course. Unisa professor Ndumiso Dladla is quoted as arguing for the inclusion of African philosophers by saying that: “If you study philosophy in Germany, German philosophy is the very basis of philosophical training”, and this confuses the fact that there are already a bunch of canonical thinkers who happen to be German in the curriculum.

People (even in Germany) don’t study German philosophers because they are German, in other words, though they might well study German philosophers because the canon is skewed towards Europe (and therefore, Germany).

To put it another way, you don’t want to hinge this argument on the fact that if Germans study German philosophers, Africans should study African philosophers. If African philosophy is worth studying, everyone – including Germans – should study it.

To be clear, I do think it’s a failing that there is an inherent bias against (or neglect of) African philosophy (I did one course titled “Philosophy for Africa”, in 1992, but the course certainly stood out as a superficial gesture towards inclusivity).

But in an imagined future world where that bias no longer exists, it would certainly seem wrong-headed to me for there to be a rule that “in country X, thinkers from country X need to be included”.

In this case, however, it’s because of coloniality and a skewed curriculum etc. that this is such a pressing issue, and one that shouldn’t be misrepresented as something that perpetuates racial divisions.

So, it’s to my mind an (argumentative and political) error to hinge these sorts of call for curricular change on the assumption or claim that thinker x or y (from this continent) deserves a place in the classroom, because that prejudges the issue in a deeply unphilosophical way.

We should rather be saying that until x has an equal shot at being included, the curriculum is apparently biased towards a certain tradition, where students aren’t getting the chance to engage with valuable content that might also be more relevant to them.

The problem, of course, is that the status quo won’t shift without concerted effort, so I’d be wholeheartedly supportive of a massive correction* in favour of redressing the imbalance in what is currently taught.

A closely related problem, of course, is that we need people who are able to teach things from outside the current canon – and philosophers are in general in very short supply, even more so once you ask for specialists.

*This sentence needs to be refined. My objection – or locus for intervention – would be more (for example) in courses that call themselves “History of Philosophy” rather than, say “History of European Philosophy”, while neglecting to include anyone not from Europe.

In general, political philosophy courses would be another area where it seems likely that a better balance can be struck. In short, my main concern is not the curriculum per se, but rather what I’ve (in the few universities where I have knowledge of this) perceived as a blindness to this as a potential issue at all.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.