Jindal Centre for the Global South,
O.P. Jindal Global University
Haryana – India
E-mail ID: firstname.lastname@example.org
As a first-year student of philosophy, one of the first things one learns is a list of logical fallacies. This is important because a philosopher’s most significant virtue is their rational thought and the application of it. Any philosopher’s argumentation then, must be free from logical inconsistencies. One such inconsistency is the logical fallacy of ‘Ad Hominem’ wherein a speaker attacks the nature of another speaker’s character rather than engaging with the nature of his/her argumentation. This fallacy is interesting because there is an amusing dichotomy that is rendered in the field of philosophy. This dichotomy follows from a preexisting problem and the treatment that it has received over centuries. Historically, Ad Hominem is probably the most frequently occurring fallacy; however, it is also one of the least recognised and acknowledged fallacies whenever discussions on philosophy ensue. The largest issue within the ambit of this fallacy as well, is the systematic exclusion of certain philosophers and philosophies on the basis of race, colour and their language.
Gottfried Leibniz and Christian Wolff have both been known to accept Chinese philosophy, especially that of Confucius (551-479 BCE), as superior in terms of practical philosophy, of ethics and politics relating to contemporary moral issues. It is also said that the French king Louis XV, one of the thinkers behind the laissez faire economics, was influenced by the sage king Shun who was famous for his model of governance by “wúwéi- non-interference in natural processes”. These instances are examples of what the general environment in the field of philosophy used to be but isn’t anymore. In ‘Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon (2014)’, Peter K J Park remarks “the only options taken seriously by most scholars in the 18th century were that philosophy began in India, that philosophy began in Africa, or that both India and Africa gave philosophy to Greece.” The shift from what was believed before to the later exclusion of Africa and Asia from the philosophical canon was caused, in the opinion of Park, by the conflux of two coordinated and integrated elements. These elements were – (a) the Kantian fan club intentionally wrote philosophical literature that made it seem like Kant’s critical idealism was the apogee of all previously existing philosophies, and the fulfilment of all their aspirations; (b) “European intellectuals increasingly accepted and systematised views of white racial superiority that entailed that no non-Caucasian group could develop philosophy. Even St Augustine, who was born in northern Africa, is typically depicted in European art as a pasty white guy (Norden & Bryan, 2017). It is important to note that even within the segregation of European and non-European philosophy, there was a systemic and systematic exclusion of philosophy written or spoken in any language except English.
In ‘On the Different Races of Man’ (Über die verschiedenen Rassen der Moonstone), published in 1775, Kant distinguished four fundamental races: Whites, Blacks, Kalmuck, and Hindustani, and attributed the variation to differences in environment and climate, such as the air and sun, but clarified by saying that the variation served a purpose and was not purely superficial. He stated “The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent. The N— are far below them, and at the lowest point are a part of the American people.” He also says, “The race of the whites contains all talents and motives in itself; The Hindus…are educable in the highest degree, but only to the arts and not to the sciences…The race of N—…can be educated, but only to the education of servants, ie, they can be trained; The [Indigenous] American people are uneducable” (Kant, 1775).
“Philosophy is not to be found in the whole Orient. … Their teacher Confucius teaches in his writings nothing outside a moral doctrine designed for the princes … and offers examples of former Chinese princes. … But a concept of virtue and morality never entered the heads of the Chinese” (Kant, 1775). Kant’s contempt for Confucius is quite evident to all those who have read about Chinese philosophy or Kant – and because of his exemplary influence in Western philosophy, in the words of Bryan W Van Norden, “…contemporary Western philosophers take it for granted that there is no Chinese, Indian, African or Native American philosophy.” The English scholar G E Moore (1873-1958) was one of the originators of explanatory reasoning, the custom that has turned out to be overwhelming in the talking world. At the point when the Indian logician Surendra Nath Dasgupta read a paper on the epistemology of Vedanta to a session of the Aristotelian Culture in London, Moore’s just remark was: ‘I don’t have anything to offer myself. In any case, I am certain that whatever Dasgupta says is totally false.’ Indian reasoning was marginalised at this time and so this was no friendly joke between associates as the gathered English scholars giggled at this ‘contention’. Many compare the instance to the exclusionary impact of sexist jokes in the workplace today. However, what is even more disgraceful, than the constant value judgements passed on the logic and significance of philosophies originating from ‘coloured backgrounds’, is the hijacking of credit for revolutionary philosophies by the western philosophical canon. The theory of enlightenment is often regarded as the basis for modern civilisation and is one of the most profound achievements of Western philosophy. Imagine a scenario in which I revealed to you that Enlightenment really rose in Ethiopia in the seventeenth century.
Zera Yacob was born on 28 August 1599 into poverty in northern Ethiopia. Having pronounced that no religion was more ideal than some other, he was forced to flee and hide in a cave (until the ruler died in September 1632) when Catholicism was pronounced Ethiopia’s authentic religion. In the cave, he built up his new, rationalist reasoning. He believed — (a) reason’s quality is matchless, (b) all humans are made equal, (c) religious beliefs and subjection should be rejected, (d) an action’s morality is based on its consequences towards the overall harmony in the world, and (e) truth can be sought in observing the natural world. His beliefs manifested in an individual faith in a mystical Maker. A lot of these beliefs coincide with those of the later European Enlightenment and had been thought out by an Ethiopian man from 1630 to 1632. Yacob’s reason-based theory was put to paper in Hatäta (‘the enquiry’), which was composed in 1667 on the request of his understudy Walda Heywat. Three and a half centuries later, one cannot easily find Hatäta.
A recurring theme throughout colonial history is the use of language as a means of subjugation, oppression and degradation. Every European colonial power took away the native language of their colonies in an attempt to mould and own their identity. From science to literature, it was only when written or translated in a European language (mostly English) or found by the European that something found value or was considered worthy of acknowledgement and consideration for appreciation. The ostracisation of non-European or non-English spoken/written philosophy is, therefore, very easy to trace.
The Europeans colonised and took away the freedom of their colonies to converse in, write in or, considering present day evolution of the situation, even think in their native language. Meanwhile they imposed their language in written and verbal discourse on a day-to-day basis. They made the idea and ability of mastering their language an aim and accomplishment in the minds of those they oppressed. They immersed themselves in the culture of their colonies, handpicking their ‘collectibles’ to repackage and popularise in the world as their own, while also simultaneously disparaging it to seem uncouth and raw (even if having potential for better at best). They propagated the direct relationship between the colour of one’s skin and the language they spoke with the quality of the ideas they propounded. Since no one but those who spoke their language had access to the discursive space, this racist cycle of exclusion and dismissal went on, most unfortunately, for centuries.
Philosophical theories have led to our democracies and our societal structures. Every day we live a philosopher’s theory without knowing that we are satisfying his/her arguments made hundreds of years ago in front of his/her contemporaries. We are breathing in a construct concocted by a philosopher in his chambers at the king’s court or in a cave while in exile. But it seems that, historically, the foundation for all disciplines has been exclusive and oppressive in the process of its genesis and later. Is it, then, morally correct for me as a liberal, feminist, egalitarian to respect and abide by a democracy that has fundamentally wronged people of colour like me in the days that lead up to its maturity? Can my conscience allow me to obey the social contracts I am bound by despite knowing that they were conceived from the pigeonholed perspective of an upper caste white man? I have the strongest desire to say a strong, resounding no. But then I am taken back to my class on logical fallacies and am reminded that by discrediting a philosophy on the basis of other opinions expressed by a philosopher, I would, too, be trapping myself in the dichotomy of the fallacy of ad hominem. However, it is important for us to call out glorified philosophers like Kant for influencing people into truly adopting racist behaviour and to disprove multiple Western philosophies as revolutionary and original. It is important to step out of the cycle and give historically excluded philosophies and philosophers the recognition they deserve. We must aim for the inclusion of marginalised philosophies and philosophers so that there isn’t a perpetuation of an overarching definition of absolute truth (as defined by the superior white class) imposed on all of humanity.
Herbjørnsrud, Dag. The African Enlightenment. Aeon. Retrieved from https://aeon.co/essays/yacob-and-amo-africas-precursors-to-locke-hume-and-kant
Van Norden & Bryan W. Western Philosophy is Racist. Aeon. Retrieved from https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-western-philosophical-canon-is-xenophobic-and-racist
Park, Peter K J. (2014). Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon. SUNY Press
Hanlon, Aaron. (2017, Nov 25). The use of dubious science to defend racism is as old as the Founding Fathers. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/use-dubious-science-defend-racism-old-founding-fathers-ncna823116
Kant. Immanuel. (1775). On the Different Races of Man (Über die verschiedenen Rassen der Moonstone).
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.