The African dangers of philosophy without history

May 29, 2017

By Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni

A reading of the 2016 BBC Reith Lectures presented by Kwame Anthony Appiah, to Afrocentric and decolonial minds, raises the problem of philosophical thinking that does not respect concrete historical experiences and hangs in the air like a hallucination of sorts.

When historical narrative, as a tale of the past and the present, is not accompanied by deep philosophical interpretation, it remains a collection of stories that are bereft of reflection and meaning. Uninterpreted and not reflected upon, history may be a true tale told by an idiot, full of characters and events from which we can learn nothing.

Similarly, when philosophy as deep reflection and thought is not accompanied by an understanding of historical events and characters it degenerates to empty meditation which may not be distinguishable from the broodings of a lunatic.

In short, both philosophy and history become useless if they don’t pay close and deep reflection of the lives of men and women in the world, if they don’t prioritise the human condition.

In the Western philosophical tradition philosophers who cleverly turned and twisted thoughts, juggled in mind games and weaved phrases to impress audiences were called sophists because they sounded sophisticated when they actually spewed clever but nonsensical ideas if any.

A sophist can be quite entertaining when dealing with light subjects that have no bearing on the lives of men and women in the world, but when a sophist starts juggling with civilisational and historical subjects to display his or her clever mind at the expense of weighty truths, sophistry degenerates to a crime against humanity, and becomes really offensive.

Beauty versus Power

There is no doubt that Kwame Anthony Appiah is a gifted and also hard working philosopher, the question that burdens this short article is to what end does he deploy his intellectual gifts and academic industry.

In one of his lectures Appiah argued that “there is no such a thing as Western civilisation.”

Correctly Appiah notes that “the values of liberty, tolerance and rational inquiry” that are claimed by Western philosophers as a unique invention and possession of the West “ are not the birthright of a single culture” and “in fact the notion of something called Western culture is a modern invention.”

This is in reference to the fact that the West did not invent such ideals as justice, freedom and democracy.

Appiah is correct that most of what is called Western knowledge is knowledge that was usurped and appropriated by conquering Westerners from other peoples, places and cultures that are not Western.

Many other historians, philosophers and political thinkers have noted well that Western development, industrialisation and prosperity were proceeds of the crimes of slavery and colonialism and not products of Western creativity and genius.

In observing that, Kwame Anthony Appiah makes a beautiful observation that is also important but it is not new.

In arguing that Western civilisation does not exist at all Appiah makes a powerless but dangerous allegation.

True enough, the Western civilisation is a criminal civilisation that has colonised, enslaved and stolen. But it exists; its existence has political and other consequences on places and peoples that are not Western.

Other peoples, civilisations and cultures of the world in the Global South have been punished by the Western civilisation.

From the genocides of conquest, through slavery and the exploitation of colonialism, the West has been experienced by non-Westerners as a pain and a punishment.

How then can a great philosopher like Kwame Anthony Appiah deny the existence of the Western civilisation without denying the crimes of the Western civilisation in the non-Western world?

To argue that there is no such thing as Western civilisation and to observe that the idea of Western culture is new can be philosophically true but not historically correct.

If it is correct because Westerners usurped and stole from other civilisations and cultures, it is still not politically right. Experientially and existentially in Africa and the entire Global South the West for centuries has been a painful political, economic, cultural and spiritual reality.

The beautiful argument that Western civilisation and Western culture are not Western and therefore not real is certainly not a powerful argument in that it ignores the power and the privilege that the West and Westerners enjoy in the world.

Through force and fraud, the West from a province of the world it turned itself into a centre of the whole world in terms of power, knowledge and being.

In terms of knowledge and military might, Plato and NATO, the West has managed to make itself a consequential reality in the planet.

Western intellectuals like Samuel Huntington and others have even boasted of the uniqueness if not the universality of the Western civilisation through modernisation and cultural imperialism that has expressed itself in the coca-colonisation of the world.

An ancient Western philosopher called Zeno distinguished himself in using clever paradoxes and denying the existence of obvious things and objects.

Once, Zeno claimed that no single human being can cross the same river twice.

When asked to prove the truth of this obviously false statement he argued that, if a river means a stream on the land that has flowing water and one man crosses it this very minute the next minute the stream will not be flowing with the same water that the man crossed on and the man would not be the same man as he would be a few more seconds older that he was the last minute.

That is how beautiful but powerless philosophy and sophistry can be, intriguing and interesting maybe but really not helpful.  Most of Anthony Appiah’s views on Western civilisation and culture belong to this category of intriguing and interesting but really not meaningful to Africans and other peoples of the Global South who have not only crossed but also drowned in the raging slavish and colonial river of Western modernity.

Biography, History and Philosophy in Africa

Philosophy and history do not grow on trees. Philosophy and history are carried and narrated by living peoples, just like civilisations themselves are embodied by persons who occupy places and therefore cannot be denied the way Appiah has tried.

For that reason, it is important to look at who exactly, biographically, is speaking through Anthony Appiah.

Officially he is introduced as “British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist” which signifies an interesting, not only biographical but philosophical identity. Somewhere he is introduced as a “grandson of the British Exchequer and a Ghanaian tribal Chief.”

Appiah’s mother, Enid Margaret was a white woman born of British family with a long political history. Sir Stafford, Appiah’s maternal grandfather was a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer.

On the paternal side Appiah is the son of Joe Emmanuel Appiah, the lawyer and diplomat from a powerful Asante family that has a long political history in Ghana.

Clearly, history and philosophy as academic disciplines and political practices cannot be separated from the identities and even bodies of the people that practice them.

It is only a philosopher and historian that has confused or complicated historical sympathies and philosophical sensibility that will seek to deny the existence of the Western civilisation and therefore make crimes of slavery and colonialism offences that have no real offender.

Not only in his Reith lectures has Kwame Anthony Appiah sought to minimise African victimhood and erase Western complicity in crimes against Africa, in the infamous essay “ Europe Upside Down: Fallacies of the New Afrocentrism,” his critique of Afrocentricity degenerated into criticism and conceited insult.

Appiah might be an African and black philosopher and narrator of historical events but he largely does not philosophise and historicise for Africa but the West.

There is a danger when philosophy and history about Africa authoritatively come from bodies that hide their Western sensibility and sympathies, it amounts to fraud.

Interestingly Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Reith Lectures of 2016 were themed “Mistaken Identities.”

The history and philosophy that will liberate Africa should not be sophistry or should it rely on beauty of narrative alone without power of truth and understanding.

There are few things as dangerous to peoples as a philosophical treatment that has no respect for a people’s historical experience. Africans and some Asians as victims of the Western civilisation may not trust thinkers with “mistaken identities” with their history and philosophy.

Appiah could have used his mixed identity to give a deeper and wider understanding of the relationship between the West and Africa but he gave an apologetic sophistry and squandered a world opportunity to speak for justice and truth.

Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni is a senior researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

One Response

  1. Wasn’t it Heraclitus who gave us the quote about the river? This mistake is ironic given the focus on the West and history.

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