Are Soas students right to ‘decolonise’ their minds from western philosophers?
The prestigious London University was the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas). It hit the headlines last month when journalists discovered that students, backed by many of their lecturers, have set up a campaign to “Decolonise Our Minds” by transforming the curriculum.
“They Kant be serious!”, spluttered the Daily Mail headline in its most McEnroe-ish tone. “PC students demand white philosophers including Plato and Descartes be dropped from university syllabus”. “Great thinkers too male and pale, students declare”, trumpeted the Times. The Telegraph, too, was outraged: “They are said to be the founding fathers of western philosophy, whose ideas underpin civilised society. But students at a prestigious London university are demanding that figures such as Plato, Descartes and Immanuel Kant should be largely dropped from the curriculum because they are white.”
The prestigious London University was the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas). It hit the headlines last month when journalists discovered that students, backed by many of their lecturers, have set up a campaign to “Decolonise Our Minds” by transforming the curriculum. So shocking did the idea seem of a British university refusing to teach Plato, Locke or Kant that the story was picked up by newspapers across the globe. BBC2’s Newsnight debated whether “universities should eschew western philosophers”. This predictably generated more outraged headlines when one of the guests, sociologist Kehinde Andrews, denounced Soas as a “white institution” and the Enlightenment as “racist”.
For academics and students at Soas, the press coverage itself is the cause of outrage. “When the report came out that we were trying to take white men off the table, it was just bewildering because we had no intention of doing that,” says Sian Hawthorne, a convenor of the undergraduate course World Philosophies, the only philosophy degree that Soas provides. “Our courses are intimately engaged with European thought.”
“We’re not trying to exclude European thinkers,” says a second-year doctoral student, and a member of the Decolonising Our Minds group. “We’re trying to desacralise European thinkers, stopping them from being treated as unquestionable. What we are doing is quite reasonable.”
So what is the truth behind the headlines? Will philosophy students at Soas really not be taught Aristotle and Kant? Do the students and academics have a point that the curriculum is “too white”? And 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?
I went to Soas to talk to students and academics. “That’s the one thing,” one student told me, “that no journalist has so far done.”
The School of Oriental and African Studies was founded in 1916 “to secure the running of the British Empire”, as historian Ian Brown puts it in his history of the institution. Its aim was to provide “instruction to colonial administrators, commercial managers, and military officers, but also to missionaries, doctors and teachers”. Soas taught them the local languages as well as providing “an authoritative introduction to the customs, religions, laws of the people whom they were to govern”.
Today, of the more than 6,000 students at Soas, almost half come from abroad, from 130 countries, and more than half are black or minority ethnic. Far from teaching students how to administer the empire, the school now helps develop independent, postcolonial societies. It sees its mission also as providing a critique of empire, and of its continuing legacies, a view that extends to the very top of Soas management. “Our minds are colonised, absolutely,” says Deborah Johnston. Johnston is no student, nor even a mere academic, but the pro-director of learning and teaching, one of the most senior management figures at Soas. She continues: ‘‘In most UK universities there has been a dominance of European thought. That’s why we need to do work to decolonise the curriculum, and our minds.”
For some, such views emanating from the very top of the institution entrench the belief that, in the words of an academic at another London college, “Soas is the most politicised of British universities”. Others, however, see the problem not as one of an institution that is too politicised but as one that has not yet rid itself of the ghosts of empire. The curriculum, such critics claim, is still too rooted in a colonial view of the world, too stuffed with European thinkers, and too blind to African, Asian and Latin American thinkers.
Neelam Chhara is a third-year politics student at Soas, and the Student Union officer for “equality and liberation”. “On my course in political theory,” she says, “we discussed 26 thinkers. Just two were non-European – Frantz Fanon and Gandhi.”
Such “frustrations with our curriculum” led students to set up the Decolonising Our Minds group. “We thought: why not show what an alternative curriculum could look like by hosting thinkers and academics that didn’t centre on Europe like our curriculum was doing.”
Meera Sabaratnam laughs when I tell her about Chhara’s reading list. “That’s two more non-Europeans than when I was taught political theory in my undergraduate PPE at Oxford.” Sabaratnam is a lecturer in international relations at Soas. As an institution, it is, she says, much better than most universities. For instance, 39% of academic staff are of black or minority ethnic background – more than three times the figure for British universities overall. Nevertheless, she supports the Decolonising Our Minds campaign. “It is necessary to talk about colonial legacies and to look at how colonialism and racism impact the institution.”
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, myriad philosophical schools from China, India, Africa and the Muslim world, many of which have shaped European philosophy. Three years ago I wrote a book on the global history of ethics, called The Quest for a Moral Compass, which drew not just on European philosophers, but also on the works of Mo Tzu and Zhu Xi, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina, Anton Wilhelm Amo and Frantz Fanon, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Fung Yu Lan. All these different thinkers, I wanted to show, can be woven into a single but complex narrative through which we can rethink global history.
And yet, the debate about a “diverse curriculum” is not as straightforward as one might imagine. Few would contest the idea that European thinkers should not be on the curriculum simply because they are European. But of the major European philosophers that often dominate reading lists – such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Arendt or Sartre – how many are there simply because they are European rather than because their ideas merit study?
Sabaratnam acknowledges the problem. “Framing a course is primarily about content: what are the issues that need to be taught, and who can speak interestingly about those issues? How many European thinkers you include and the balance between European and non-European thinkers is an academic decision. If you want to understand political theory, you can’t avoid engagement with Kant, Hegel and so on.”
“But,” she adds, “that can’t be the be-all-and- end-all.” There has, she insists, “to be a parallel debate about diversity and representation. There is value in having non-European thinkers and women on those reading lists.”
If European thinkers should not be on reading lists simply because they are European, should non-Europeans be included just because they are non-European, solely for the value of increased diversity? Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, and last year’s Reith lecturer on Radio 4, is sceptical. He teaches a course on global ethics, which includes European, Chinese, Arab and Indian thinkers. The key question for him, however, is not “Is the curriculum sufficiently diverse?” but “Is any particular thinker worth studying?”
“If they were uninteresting or unimportant,” he observes, “it would not be much of a defence to say, ‘They are Arab or Chinese and make the course more diverse.’”
The difficulties in thinking about a diverse curriculum can be seen in the founding statement of the Decolonising Our Minds campaign. It does not say: “We need to expand our curriculum to include philosophers from across the globe”. Rather, it insists (under the heading “Decolonising Soas: Confronting the White Institution”) that, “If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical viewpoint.” This suggests that not having white philosophers should be the default position. This might not quite be “students demanding white philosophers be dropped from university syllabus”, as the newspapers claimed, but it’s not that far off.
“When you put it to me like that,” says Sian Hawthorne, “yes, I think that is problematic. However, I take a more generous reading of that statement as saying whomever is taught, whoever’s work is drawn on, it must always be dealt with critically. That is one of the first principles of a university education.”
The students themselves told me that they had not realised what the statement actually said, and would change it.
Do we need to be particularly critical of white philosophers, I asked Hawthorne. Yes, she replied, because “whiteness has been engaged in perpetuating forms of oppression and marginalisation and exclusion”. Does she think that all European philosophy is tainted by racism and colonialism? “Yes. There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate this.”
But by insisting that the work of all white philosophers, from Aristotle to Arendt, from Socrates to Sartre, should be seen as tainted by racism, is she not confusing ideas and identity? Is she not falling into 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.
Hawthorne rejects the criticism, and uses as an analogy the way that academics look upon the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was one of the most influential 20th-century philosophers, having shaped the ideas of a host of thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida. He was also a Nazi with repulsively antisemitic views. The discovery of Heidegger’s nazism and antisemitism has led to much debate about how to treat his philosophical ideas.
“Do we deal with Heidegger?” asks Hawthorne. “I think we must. But we must do so in the understanding that he was a Nazi. We don’t not read his texts. But we read them carefully. That should also be the case with white philosophers. Just because they’re white doesn’t mean that they’re written off. But we need to be careful.”
This, though, is a false analogy. What concerns many about Heidegger is not his skin colour or his identity but his political views. Asking whether Heidegger’s Nazi views should affect the way that we understand his philosophical ideas is different from insisting that, because Aristotle or Kant or Arendt were white, we should be careful in the way we read their writings.
“Whiteness is not a useful category when talking of philosophy,” says Appiah. “When people speak, they speak ideas, not identity. The truth value of what you say is not indexed to your identity. If you’re making a bad argument, it’s a bad argument. It’s not bad because of the identity of the person making it.”
Perhaps the fiercest debate about European thought emerges in the battle over the Enlightenment, that sprawling intellectual, cultural and social movement that spread through Europe during the late 17th and 18th centuries, and was the harbinger of intellectual modernity. There is no period of history that has been more analysed, celebrated and disparaged. Unlike, say, the Renaissance or the Reformation, the Enlightenment is not simply a historical moment but one through which debates about the contemporary world are played out. From the role of science to the war on terror, from free speech to racism, there are few contemporary debates that do not engage with the Enlightenment, or at least with what we imagine the Enlightenment to have been. Inevitably, then, what we imagine the Enlightenment to have been has become a historical battleground.
“It’s become familiar to think of the Enlightenment as special,” Hawthorne suggests, “because it’s a constitutive narrative for how the west understands itself.” The Enlightenment, in her view, provides a myth, a creation story, that the west tells itself about what makes it more civilised and the rest of the world more barbaric.
Yet, for much of the past two centuries, the Enlightenment was seen as central to the values of the left, and of those challenging western imperialism and injustice. As the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm put it, “All progressive, rationalist and humanist ideologies are implicit in it, and indeed come out of it.”
More recently, however, many on the left have argued that the Enlightenment, far from being a resource for those challenging colonialism, is itself a colonial project. Enlightenment universalism, such critics argue, is racist because it seeks to impose western ideas of rationality and objectivity on other peoples. “The universalising discourses of modern Europe and the United States.” Edward Said argued in his book Culture and Imperialism, “assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world.” It is an argument central to the Soas campaign.
Soas academics and students argue that Enlightenment thinkers had a highly restricted notion of freedom; freedom as “the property of propertied white men”, as Meera Sabaratnam puts it. 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”.
“Enlightenment philosophers make arguments about knowledge and reason setting us free, and laud the values of liberty,” Hawthorne observes, “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 civilising mission and make claims about European superiority.”
The British historian Jonathan Israel, now professor of modern European history at Princeton university, is perhaps the most important contemporary scholar of the Enlightenment. Over the past decade he has published an extraordinary trilogy of books, Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested and Democratic Enlightenment. The size of Israel’s labours is eye-catching. Each work in the trilogy runs to almost 1,000 pages; in total there must be close to 2m words here. There are few who better understand the Enlightenment.
Like many before him, Israel 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”.
I talked to Israel about the Soas debate. The argument that the Enlightenment is racist, he suggests, comes 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”.
In 1770 a remarkable polemic against colonialism and slavery called Histoire philosophique des deux Indes (The Philosophical History of the Two Indies) was published. Written by a number of Radical thinkers including Raynal, Diderot and d’Holbach, it was both a study of Europe’s relations with the East Indies and the New World and an encyclopedia of anti-colonialism. Arguing that “natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will”, the book both prophesied and defended the revolutionary overthrow of slavery: “The negroes only want a chief, sufficiently courageous to lead them to vengeance and slaughter… Where is the new Spartacus?”
The Histoire was astonishingly successful, published in more than 50 editions in at least five languages over the following 30 years. But it was only one of many such radical tracts, including d’Holbach’s Système sociale, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, and the works of Condorcet and Diderot. “This current,” Israel argues, “was totally at odds with all forms of imperialism, colonialism and racial discrimination or prejudice.”
The Radical Enlightenment was “without question the starting point for the anti-colonialism of our time”. In Israel’s view, what he calls the “package of basic values” that defines modernity – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, racial equality, sexual emancipation and the universal right to knowledge – derives principally from the claims of the Radical Enlightenment.
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.”
“I wouldn’t want to go up against Jonathan Israel,” laughs Sian Hawthorne. “He is probably the foremost thinker on the Enlightenment. All I would say in response is that there is no single thing that you can point to and say ‘That’s the Enlightenment’.”
That, however, is a view that fits more comfortably with Israel’s notions of the two Enlightenments, the mainstream and the Radical, than it does with the claim that “the Enlightenment is racist”.
Hawthorne is right, however, to point to Locke’s failure to challenge slavery and to Kant’s racial anthropology. Such views do seem shocking today. But they seem shocking because of the transformation in consciousness brought about in large part by the Enlightenment itself. In most societies and traditions, European and non-European, the kind of ethnocentrism expressed by many mainstream Enlightenment thinkers was the norm. The Enlightenment helped change that. “I don’t know where you’d get the powerful tools for criticising European colonialism if you did not have the Enlightenment,” observes Appiah. “The modern idea of equality, the modern critique of inequality – much of the materials for that idea and for that critique come from that period.”
One does not have to rely on historians like Israel or philosophers like Appiah to make that point. It was made also by the very people who suffered under the yoke of European colonialism and sought to cast it off.
Today, most people know of the French and American revolutions, two great social tumults whose reverberations we still feel. Few know of the other great revolution of the 18th century – the one in Haiti that began in 1791 and culminated with independence in 1804.
In 1791, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed Saint-Domingue, as it called its colony, into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that turned into a revolution, a revolution that defeated the three greatest armies of the age – the French, British and Spanish – to become the first successful slave revolt in history, a revolution that was to shape history almost as deeply as those of 1776 and 1789.
The slaves were led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a self-educated former slave, deeply read, highly politicised and possessed of a genius in military tactics and strategy. He was the “Spartacus” for which the European radicals who wrote the Histoire philosophique des deux Indes had pined.
Toussaint’s greatest gift, perhaps, was his ability to see that while Europe was responsible for the enslavement of blacks, nevertheless within European culture lay also the political and moral ideas with which to shatter the bonds of enslavement. The French bourgeoisie might have tried to deny the mass of humanity the ideals embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But Toussaint recognised in those ideals a weapon more powerful than any sword or musket or cannon.
From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Nelson Mandela, for two centuries those battling against European power and racial oppression looked to the Enlightenment ideals as the fuel for their struggles. Today, most of those struggles and movements have disappeared. As a result the meanings of “radicalism” and “decolonisation” have withered, and come to mean something very different and much more tame than they did half a century or a century ago. Shorn of the social movements that gave Enlightenment values their radical edge, those values have lost much of their meaning. That today so many should so easily dismiss the Enlightenment in the name of “decolonisation” tells us more about the shaky foundations of contemporary radicalism than it does about the Enlightenment.
The one word that Sian Hawthorne returns to again and again is “dialogue”. “We’re not used to seeing the world as the world. We keep cutting things up and segmenting them. Too often we don’t see the entanglements between European and non-European philosophies. What’s missing is dialogue.”
“Dialogue” is one of those words, like “diversity”, that can mean all things to all people. It is often used to define shallow, skating-on-the-surface conversations which give the impression of an exchange but which touch upon nothing substantive. It can also mean proper, dig-deep contestations through which we test each other’s ideas and in which we show ourselves willing to be uncomfortable as we ourselves are tested. In universities, and in society at large, there is today too little of the latter and too much of the former; too little real engagement and too great a desire to stay within our comfort zones.
There is much on which I disagree with the Decolonising Our Minds approach. I disagree with its concept of “whiteness”, with the characterisation of the Enlightenment as “racist”, with the understanding of what “European thought” constitutes, with what it means to “decolonise”. What I admire, though, is the openness to have this debate, and to engage in the kinds of conversations I had with both students and academics. I spent an afternoon discussing, debating and disagreeing with Meera Sabaratnam. At the end, she said: “The discussion that we’re having now is exactly the kind of discussion that it should be possible to have at universities.” On that, I could not agree more.
A different philosophy: six key texts
1. Mo Tzu, Basic Writings
(Columbia University Press)
Most people know of Confucius. They should know of Mo Tzu. Though he lived a century after Confucius, he has a claim to be China’s first true philosopher. Unlike Confucius, Mo Tzu engaged in an explicit reflective search for moral standards and gave tightly reasoned arguments for his views. He defended a universalist vision, arguing that the moral interests of strangers are as important as those of our tribe. He proposed a form of what we now call “consequentialism”, the idea that an act should be judged primarily by its effects, which was remarkably sophisticated for its time. The conservatism of Confucianism, and its cultivation of the moral character necessary to rule, to administer and to follow, won the favour of the Chinese state. The radicalism of Mo Tzu was forgotten and suppressed. Only fragments of his writing remain.
2. Ibn Rushd, The Decisive Treatise
(University of Chicago Press)
The Andalusian Muslim Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), often known in the west as Averroes, was the last of the great classical Islamic philosophers. Through his commentaries on Aristotle, he became more influential on western philosophy than on Islamic thought. Central to Ibn Rushd’s work was the relationship between philosophy and religion and the insistence on the compatibility of reason and faith. Perhaps his two most important works are The Incoherence of the Incoherence and The Decisive Treatise. The first is a response to the great theologian al-Ghazali and his attack on reason in his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers. The second is a defence of the role of reason in a community of faith, in which Ibn Rushd argues that it is God who commands humans to employ reason and not just faith.
3. Abu’l ‘Ala al-Ma’arri, The Book of al-Ma’arri
(New Humanity Books, 2015)
Today, we have become used to thinking of the Islamic world as insular, hostile to reason and freethinking and with a single, unquestioned view of God and the Qur’an. But in the first half-millennium of its existence, especially during the Abbasid period (750-1258), there was within the Islamic empire an extraordinary flourishing of philosophical debate and of freethinking. The most important of the freethinkers was Abu’l ’Ala al-Ma’arri, an 11th-century Syrian poet and philosopher, renowned for his unflinching religious scepticism:
“They all err – Muslims, Jews,
Christians, and Zoroastrians:
Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
One, man intelligent without religion,
The second, religious without intellect.”
[from The Two Universal Sects]
There are very few English translations of his work. There is NYU Press’s recently published edition of his Epistle of Forgiveness (sometimes compared to Dante’s Inferno) and this short selection of his poetry.
4. Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment
(Oxford University Press)
A groundbreaking study of the “other Enlightenment”, not the Enlightenment of Locke, Hume, Voltaire and Kant, but that of Spinoza, Pascal, d’Holbach and Diderot, a half-underground movement whose radicalism, according to Israel, has deeply shaped modern conceptions of freedom, liberty, equality and tolerance.
5. CLR James, The Black Jacobins
Trinidadian CLR James was one of those towering figures of the 20th century who is all too rarely recognised as such. Novelist and orator, philosopher and cricket lover, historian and revolutionary, Pan-Africanist and Trotskyist – few modern figures can match his intellectual depth, cultural breadth or sheer political contrariness. The Black Jacobins tells the story of the Haitian revolution and of its tragically flawed leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture. Decades before historians such as EP Thompson began producing “history from below”, CLR James told of how the slaves of Haiti had not been passive victims of their oppression but active agents in their own emancipation. It is a work of biography and social history, not of philosophy, but central to the narrative is the importance of ideas, especially the ideas of the Enlightenment, as weapons for social transformation.
6. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
(Penguin Modern Classics)
A classic of the anti-colonial struggle, The Wretched of the Earth has since become the bible of postcolonial literature. Fanon’s admirers see him as giving succour to the view that European thought is destructive of non-European peoples and cultures. His critics focus on his celebration of violence as redemptive. Fanon’s work is in fact more subtle than either allow. Born in Martinique, Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist and revolutionary and a key figure in the Algerian struggle for independence. The Wretched of the Earth was written when he was dying of leukaemia and is a searing indictment of the dehumanising trauma of colonialism on the colonised individual, culture and nation. KM
• This article was amended on 19 February 2017. Soas is the School of Oriental and African Studies, not the School of Oriental and Asian Studies as an earlier version said.
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