Updated: May 24, 2022
The debate on the decolonisation of the humanities is part of the questioning about universalism that is being asked by a growing number of thinkers, writers and artists from different regions of the world, including the West. Going beyond the statute of a simple intellectual and academic exchange, this debate has become over time a highly political exercise that highlights the geopolitics of domination and addresses the very narratives on which socio-economic, cultural and intellectual hegemonies are based.
Given the cognitive and psychological implications of the meanings of the world that we generally use, it is legitimate to ask why the need to decolonise universalism did not arise at the crucial moment when the new South American, Asian and African nations, freed from colonialism, were setting up their ethical, political, cultural and educational frameworks.
The shadow of the 'Enlightenment’
Part of the answer to this question lies in the rhetorical strength of the European hegemony which, unlike other dominations, has been able to construct a strong conceptual armour that has discouraged for centuries the prevalence of alternative explanations of the world. This strength lies less on the proposed humanistic values and principles themselves than on the capacity for duplicity developed by the philosophers of the 'Enlightenment' to find an explanation for the ethical and moral contradictions raised by nascent capitalism and its need to exploit the wealth and labour power of dominated peoples. These thinkers who monopolised the discourse of humanism have produced a series of theories, notably that of the hierarchy of races and cultures, which excluded from the universality of human rights the conquered peoples in the Americas and the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. It is worth recalling, for example, the deafening silence and intellectual gymnastics that certain philosophers of the 'Enlightenment', and not the least, have practised in the face of the barbarity of the slave trade, slavery and colonisation that had enriched their respective countries. We must re-read the monstrous Black Codes enacted to enshrine in law one of the great crimes against humanity, at the very moment when the European humanism was being constructed. Finally, it should not be forgotten that when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, more than two thirds of the world's peoples were still under the colonial domination of the countries that had signed this international instrument enshrining the humanism of the "Enlightenment".
Coloniality and mimicry of the colonised elites
The elites of the peoples who fought against slavery and colonisation first used Western humanism and universalism to turn it against their oppressors and justify their aspirations for dignity, freedom and equality. Most of the great struggles of the last two centuries, notably the abolitionist and anti-colonialist movements have used these values to win their ethical and political battle.
While this tactic has been successful in delegitimising domination and building solidarity with Western revolutionary movements, it has also had an unexpected side effect. By relying solely on concepts, paradigms and values of European universalism, the elites of colonised peoples came to internalise it deeply as the only possible universalist model, the only horizon for any reflection on universality. By adopting the vision of the humanism developed in the West and by refraining from seeking out the universal values of their own cultures, these elites, and in their wake, their peoples, have trapped themselves in a way and fallen into another type of dependence, which is perhaps more pernicious: intellectual dependence.
This fundamental contradiction has led postcolonial elites to a distressing mimicry in their efforts to rebuild their societies and states. Even the Haitian Revolution, which was the first revolution in the world to have attempted to apply the universality of human rights (which neither the American nor the French revolutions did as they perpetuated slavery), failed to free itself from the representations inherited from the slave society. It squandered its potential for creativity, innovation and transformation by sinking into ceremonial, political and administrative mimicry. As the Haitian historian Pierre Buteau underlined it, “Haitian elites seem to subscribe to all the rules of the West while challenging, albeit quite strongly, the three foundations on which this civilisation has built its power and supremacy over other peoples: colonialism, slavery and racism”.
In his "Discourse on Colonialism", Aimé Césaire had, long before African independence and in the light of this Haitian experience, warned against the duplicity of Western humanism by stressing that "a civilisation that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a damaged civilisation. A civilisation that tricks its principles is a dying civilisation.... The most common curse in this matter is to be the dupe in good faith of a collective hypocrisy, adept at misrepresenting the problems in order to better legitimise the odious solutions that are provided”.
The resilience of the dominant system
It was not easy to deconstruct the Western model as it has become like an indistinguishable seaweed that has invaded our imaginaries. According to Serge Latouche, "it is a monster in relation to our categories of species identification... which has been able to digest the contributions of the cultures it has swallowed and which appears as a living machine, half-mechanism, half-organism, whose cogs are men and yet which is autonomous in relation to them, from which it draws strength and life, in short, a mega-machine”. The two remarkable aspects of the Western singularity, according to him, are "its ideology and its character as a techno-economic mega-machine” which claims the mission to organize and dominate the living world for its own interest.
Efforts to emerge from coloniality proved even more difficult as the universalism of the Enlightenment, produced by Western historical particularism and carried by capitalism, showed an extraordinary capacity to digest and recuperate its own contradictions. It is a monster that can mate with all other species and engender strange new creatures.
When criticism comes from within the system...
However, faced with the resilience of the dominant system, more and more Western thinkers, concerned about its effects on humanity and nature, have engaged in a critical analysis from within, trying to question the proclaimed universal principles and values in the light of the cultural and philosophical diversity of the world. The philosopher and sinologist, François Jullien, raised this questioning in one of his publications: 'We must therefore remember what is contingent and consequently singular in the history of ideas about our invention of human rights declared to be universal in Europe itself, if we no longer wish to be mistaken about the universality that can be attributed to them. Human rights, which only came into being in the modern era, are clearly the product of a double abstraction. Both of "rights" and of "mankind". An abstraction of rights: this notion privileges the defensive angle of the claim and the emancipation of the subject consecrated as the source of freedom, the "duty" itself being conceived only in dependence of the notion of "right". Secondly, an abstraction of mankind: Human being is isolated from any vital context, from the animal to the cosmic, the social and political dimension being itself a later construction. It is only as an individual that "mankind" is absolutized, since the only goal of any association is conceived as "the conservation of human’s natural and imprescriptible rights".
This vision, which had claimed to be universal, is today reduced to its European particularism by the existence of other interpretations of humanism as the one offered by the philosophy of Ubuntu which reminds us that no one exists exclusively as such and individuals are the results of relational processes.
The crisis of the system: an opportunity for paradigm shift
The omnipotence of Western universalism is progressively undermined by the structural crisis of the dominant model, whose claim to be the natural and logical outcome of human aspirations is increasingly contested. While it may be reproducible, as in some so-called emerging countries, the climate change has highlighted that it should not be generalised to the whole humanity. The concept of humanism, which is based on the belief that the human experience is the ultimate source of meaning, legitimacy and action, is today seriously questioned.
The political, socio-economic, and ecological impasse created by the imposition of a single model of development invites us, as a simple precautionary principle, in seek solutions in other cultures. This crisis of model offers other peoples of the opportunity to rediscover and revisit their philosophies and knowledge that have reflected on the notion of universality and humanism. Their thinkers are invited to practice challenge the assignments to silence and mimicry, and trace new paths of reflection. As Felwine Sarr so rightly reminds us in his book Afrotopia, "Africa has no one to catch up with. It must no longer run along the paths indicated to it, but walk swiftly along the path it has chosen for itself. Her status as the eldest daughter of humanity requires her to extricate herself from competition, from that infantile age when nations pounce on each other to see who has accumulated the most wealth, technological gadgets, thrills, It is this collective danger that humanity is facing that obliges us to reappropriate the knowledge and know-how of our cultures in order to forge worldviews based on other humanisms that can offer reliable alternatives”.
To make the necessary epistemological and conceptual breaks we need to get out of the stifling closed-door and sterile opposition with the West. Faced with the current impasse, it becomes an urgent necessity to explore the plurality of historical experiences and epistemes in order to discover other world intelligences that can help break out of the conceptual and epistemological enclosures imposed the predatory system called capitalism.
The first step in this direction is to go beyond rhetorical generalities and explore concrete aspects of untapped cosmogonies and philosophies which have the potential to contribute to the construction of a pluriversalism offering alternative ways of being in the world.
Ali Moussa Iye
Founder Afrospectives | Political anthropologist