Colonialism in Philosophy Decolonizing Western Philosophy

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Philosophy and Decolonization | Photo (detail): © mauritius images / Lorenzo Dalberto / Alamy / Alamy Stock Photos

Thanks to increased postcolonial awareness, Western philosophy today must question itself as to what extent it has contributed epistemologically to the subjugation of the global South and to the discrimination or even enslavement of its population. Here, the proposal is made to deconstruct Western philosophy via its central concept of the individual and to replace it with the concepts of the dividual and dividuation as it is used by different theorists of the global South.

Thanks to increased postcolonial awareness, Western philosophies recognize themselves as conditioned by historical anthropologies and ethno-cultural assumptions of human individuality. Postcolonial critique while being aware that colonialism is not post, is not over, therefore intends to incorporate non-Western perspectives and to enrich the range of philosophical concepts in order to integrate different self-understandings. It aims to recognize that the academic discipline of philosophy was developed in the European Enlightenment of the 18th century as a result of specific cultural parameters. It criticizes prejudical differentations between persons, accompanied by theories of races. And it proposes new concepts for a more encompassing conception of the human existence in the world.

1. Epistemic imperialism

Using the terms “epistemic imperialism” (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018) or “cognitive empire”, certain theorists from African countries demand a “decolonization of mind”, and inclusion of the contribution of “Others” on the understanding of the world. The current proposal to “decolonize” philosophy doesn’t just refer to the historical moment of West-European colonization in the late 19th century and the “Scramble for Africa”; it extends to the philosophical self-understanding of the global North and to its epistemic fundament.

Rereading the idealist German thinkers, the Nigerian philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze discovers the fact that for Hegel, colonialism seemed to be “a benefit to Africa because Europe inseminated it with reason, ethic, culture and mores, and thereby historicized it . (...) Hegel declared the African subhuman” (10). Eze questions the relation between the European claim to universality and the fact that the ‘ideals’ of European modernity have been separated up from their “historical implementation. (…) By dialectically negating Africa, Europe was able to posit and represent itself and its contingent history as the (…) ideal humanity. Europeans introduced the notion of a difference in kind between themselves and Africans as a way of justifying unspeakable exploitation and denigration of Africans” (13).

In this regard, also the central concept of Kant’s Critique of judgment, the sensus communis or “common sense”, is open to criticism. It is not only that his critique is based upon the assumption of a self-evident form of recognition that withholds the possibility of other ways of perceiving and judging; it reveals to be a racial judgment since it assumes that certain person of non-European descent such as Irokese people are unable of the “common sense”.

Furthermore, Kant’s critique goes along with a first philosophical theory of race. While his call for the recognition of the “moral law within” is related with Newtonian deterministic laws of nature, his anthropology as an attempt to find “a specifically human, inner nature” (Eze, 108) develops a hierarchical assessment of races according to the skin colors placing the whites on top and the blacks or olive-jellows at the bottom.

Therefore philosophers of the global South underline the fact that these German philosophers connect their conception of the human individual with bourgeois culture and legitimize the right to vote with property of the self and of land. The moral law, associated with the domain of freedom, reveals itself as reserved to the ratio of “possessive capitalism”, as Macpherson criticizes.

2. Problematizing the individual

Critiques of the concept of the individual are mainly articulated by postcolonial thinkers such as Stuart Hall, who claims that the Western concept is not corresponding to the hybrid identities of vast parts of the world’s population, who are forced to migrate and to adapt to foreign cultures and to become a dis-individuated in the quest for survival. The Cameroonian economist Francis B. Nyamnjoh maintains that researches in Cameroun and Botswana “suggest that Africans are not only interested in rights and freedoms as individuals, but also in rights and recognition as communal and cultural solidarities” (2001, 29). Certain African philosophers tell us that terms such as “human dignity” are first in the Namibian Constitution and more important than individuality.

The Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos even accuses the global North of an “epistemicide” of non-Western knowledges and of drawing an abyssal line between zones of being and of non-being until today. He vehemently asks for an Aesthetics of the Epistemologies of the South (2020) which goes beyond the North-South dichotomy by developing “third values" such as “deep entanglements” and “aesthetic interpenetrations” of the violently separated contact zones.  
And D.A. Masolo confirms that “the lives and identities of individuals are regulated by the range of their interactive relations. (…) One individual may attend congregations of three or more organizations – scholarly, ethnic, commercial, fun-club, or religious – within short periods without confusing his or her distinctively different roles in each” (297).

3. The counter-concept of (dis-in)dividuation

As today's critical perspective teaches us, contemporary becoming-world needs to be understood as an expanded “principle of relativity” which does not longer correspond to atomist or Newton’s physics. This principle constrains us to adopt perspectives informed by various lenses, and to direct them at multiscalar levels.

Insights into single persons’ voluntary and involuntary participation in biotic masses and ecological ensembles, in world societies and technological practices all create a need to redefine human subjectivations. Actual insights underline that we have always stood in relationships of interpenetration – with languages, images, technologies and social structures – that question ideas of indivisibility as well in the biological, the social and cultural realm. We recognise that our self-identity as undivided entity expresses a misleading negation of necessary, life-constituting participation and find ourselves faced with the task of considering and moderating our possibly contradictory participations.
Especially under the given postcolonial perspective and the increased interferences of cultures in the globalized world, a substitution of the Western concept of the individual seems inevitable. It has to be replaced by a term which does not indicate separation, privilege and epistemological dualism, but instead indicates mobile relationships or even of mutual constitutions of persons, cultures, societies, ecological assemblages and so forth. 

Several anthropologists and ethnologists share the conviction that cultures of the global South cannot be analysed within the Western frame of family or the individual. The English ethnologist Marilyn Strathern (1988, 13) and other anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins or Viveiros de Castro use the term “dividual” borrowed from Gilles Deleuze to characterise  the non-dualistic relationships between persons and their extended families in societies of the global South.  The Indian sociologist Arjun Appadurai refers to the “dividual” in order to evoke working class people of the global South and their non-individual struggle for a minoritarian self-determination. Others point at our increasing involvement in digital technologies in order to underline that there is no longer an unambiguous boundary between the single person and his/her chat group or social medium. 

The Antillan philosopher Edouard Glissant had already argued for “disindividualisation” (1990, 211) and the necessary abolishing of unified cultural understandings in the 1980s. His concept  translates the conviction that persons and cultural products should expose their inherent and unnoticed entanglement with others, by subverting the imposed Western norm.

They should connect with their historically inflicted legacies of indigenous, Black and colonially imposed expressions, and should build up complex networks similar to the Caribbean archipelago. By so doing, they should provide a model of pluriversality for the whole world – “Tout-Monde”.

Taking this further, I intend to emphasise that the terms “dividual” or the more processual of “dividuation” not only help us to bring to the fore insights into our inevitably shared planetary existence. They are associated with the endeavour to transform our dividuatedness into inclusive participation care. And they even suggest the putting-together of potentials in “condividual” ensembles that combat capitalised appropriations and eco(techno)logical over-exploitation. Nevertheless dividuation does not mean division or uniformisation: every dividuation is different from every other owing to its peculiar participation mode. There are no two identitarian dividuals. But recognizing oneself as a dividual is a huge task: dividual consciousness ultimately demands that we understand lateral ties as an opportunity for a becoming-world through affirmed “condividuations.”


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