No one can claim to be the owner of knowledge: knowledge circulates, has a history and multiple geographies that contribute to thinking about humanity as a whole.
What is the link between algebra – from the Arabic term al-djabra –, the thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty andubuntu, principle of African philosophy? A strong desire for mathematics having shaped my philosophical thought I wish to propose a reflection in which the world is caught both in a system of logic and in its entirety, that of a universalism that I qualify as “lateral”, powerfully nourished by the history of post-colonial societies.
Mathematics makes it possible to express a very powerful symbolic language. Certainly today, we have the feeling that the binary system, worked by Gottfried Leibniz, at the end of the XVIIIe century, enhanced by George Boole the following century took over and imposed a form of mathematization of things, a government by numbers) as the thinker Alain Supiot suggests.
However, it is indeed what escapes this setting in algorithms which it is necessary to analyze, these constitutive faults of reality which make all the richness of it, even the poetry. The sciences that I call "subtle" make it possible to apprehend this other reality.
One of the ways of taking this into account is to focus on the complex thoughts that have hatched in the South, whether it be so-called post-colonial, studies restricted (which are interested in the social categories at the base of society) or even teachings inviting decolonize Sciences.
For example, the mathematical sciences teach us precisely that the West does not have a monopoly on science, including modern science. The history of algebra, and its Arab origin, is also well recalled by René Descartes.
Circulation of knowledge
The best way to carry out this decolonization of the sciences is to apprehend the history of knowledge as the history of humanity in its totality. No one can claim to be the owner of knowledge: knowledge circulates, has a history and multiple geographies, as the work of the Indian historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam or the writings of by Amin Maalouf.
This is also the perspective of the multidisciplinary courses that I teach at Columbia. In my course on African studies, we seek to shed light on the African continent in its history, in its present, and perhaps also in its future. The United States, because of its history, has played a key role in the field of "African Studies" with, for example, the foundation of the Center for African Studies at the University of Northwestern under the leadership of anthropologist Melville Herkovits or the African-American thinker WEB Dubois.
These intellectuals were fundamental in the idea of conceiving the history of the continent as a whole and in its movement, and not only by what the imperial explorers or colonists had to say about it in a time frozen and imagined by them.
Thinking Africa outside of itself
This change of direction has enabled many American universities to take an interest in African philosophy studies, to discuss knowledge while developing collaborations with African universities or organizations panafricanists.
And beyond that, to remember that Africa does not exist “just” in Africa. It is therefore important that African studies are also studies of the African diaspora, what Paul Gilroy called the Black atlantic, the black atlantic.
At the same time, we must be vigilant so that Africa does not end up becoming the periphery of its own diaspora. What about the very precise study of African societies today or of an African history that is not necessarily oriented towards the time of slavery and the time of the constitution of African diasporas, etc.? ?
The recent work carried out by François-Xavier Fauvelle and Anne Lafont, Africa and the world: retold stories, in which I participated (to be published by Éditions de la Découverte, September 2022) allows this dissemination of knowledge. We are thus interested in certain cities which, long before the colonial period, played a key role in learning and the circulation of knowledge.
It's a city witness to globalization knowledge in the Islamic world as well as in a large part of West Africa.
We cannot understand the intellectual history of the African continent if we do not study the importance of these cities which housed mosques – universities where scholars from all over the Muslim world and beyond met to discuss. Travel was from the south of the West African region to Egypt, to Arabia and to North Africa; others made the trip in the opposite direction, from Andalusia, from North Africa, from Egypt, etc.
Reconstructing Africa's History
It is therefore important to reconstruct a history of Africa centered on itself by showing that this continent has never been closed or cut off from the North by the Sahara desert, as we sometimes read, a desert which is anything but a mur and is traveled by roads as physical, spiritual as intellectual.
We often discuss African philosophy by wondering if orality can truly be the support of critical thought as required by philosophy, forgetting that Africa is not only the place of oral transmission. knowledge. It is also a place of strong written scholarship which centers like Timbuktu bear witness to.
The city of Saint Louis in Senegal, which I mention in The bundle of my memory was also an important intellectual beacon where many Muslim scholars came from afar to learn.
Little is known about this story, which has often been obscured by a strictly ethnological approach of Africa. This, in line with works such as those of Michel Leiris or others, often considered that societies without writing were societies without real history. François-Xavier Fauvelle and Anne Lafont are working to deconstruct these stereotypes and, on the contrary, have undertaken to build a little-known intellectual history of the continent.
At the heart of the latter, we can thus evoke the place of African scholars of written tradition. like Nana Asma'u, who was related to Ousmane Fujio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in northern Nigeria, an important intellectual center until the XNUMXthe century.
It is through a better understanding of this intellectual heritage that we can also think today about what I call the post-colonial philosophical moment.
The post-colonial, condition of the universal
Far from being in opposition to the universal or universalism, the post-colonial is a condition, on the contrary, of the universal. At the time of the great so-called “civilizing” missions, the universal was thought of only through the prism of the colonial moment.
In other words, and in these contexts, it is Europe that considered that it was “naturally” a bearer of universality on the basis of its own particularisms.
It's not what I would define as universal. To use Merleau-Ponty, the philosopher evokes the concept "lateral universal". Rather than having an "overhanging universal" as he writes, which would be dictated from above by a culture which considers that it alone has this dimension of verticality, we would have a universal where cultures would be placed on the same plane of immanence horizontally.
Let us take a specific example, that of languages. When you are confronted with a world where a plurality of languages coexist, two attitudes are offered to you. Either you decide that one language dominates and imposes itself on everyone. This model is that of the imperial universal.
On the other hand it is also possible to consider that the languages meet, without one dominating the other, but that to be understood it is necessary to resort to translation. This mediation allows a co-existence, a horizontality of ways of thinking.
Ubuntu or how to make humanity together
The South African concept of “ubuntu” also evokes this. It is make humanity together, according to the translation that I propose of this term. That is, to respond to the challenges that are addressed to us as one and the same humanity that inhabits the Earth.
To inhabit the earth together is to inhabit it with all the living. And it is moreover in this context that it is important to explore the African philosophies of the relationship of humans to nature.
In these philosophies is expressed the idea of a solidarity of the living in general. It's the opposite well-known phrase of Descartes, which affirms that humans are masters and possessors of nature. On the contrary, ubuntu stipulates that humans do not have to transform nature into natural resources, that a river has the right not to be polluted and that it is necessary to be able to articulate this right as an environmental right.
Fight against the shrinking world
Admittedly, the resurgence of tribalism, the strong rise of ethno-nationalisms, murderous identities, to use the Maalouf term, the hubbub of thought and its consequences, violence – think of the Uvalde massacre by a white supremacist for example – make this work of universal identification very difficult.
The mere mention of living together is naïve. The fight against these ideas must therefore take place at two levels. First, the fight against inequalities between nations, in particular what Léopold Sédar Senghor called the North-South line of injustice. This line is not only economical.
For Senghor and others today, it is also about fighting against cultural contempt. This amounts to also fighting through thought and opposing ethno-nationalisms with another way of thinking about the world. For the supporters of these ideologies, humanity amounts to a juxtaposition of tribes, a simple addition. To this we must oppose the idea of human society, which Etienne Balibar name the cosmopolitan, that is to say a policy of the human species as a whole, not in small bits.
Miscegenation is a moral notion
To achieve a policy of humanity, it seems important to us to sublimate the idea of interbreeding, not physiological but moral. To think of a Creole world in this way, where one can learn to focus. In my opinion, this is a duty, an ethical disposition: everyone must be mixed in their own way.
In other words, you have to learn to see your language from the point of view of another language, learn to see your culture from the point of view of another culture and it is on this condition that we will overcome ethno-nationalisms and tribalisms.
When governments adopt ethno-nationalist principles instead of valuing a form of pluralism, as we see today with India for example, there is no shift. On the contrary, there are watertight lines made between individuals, collectives, between “them” and “us”.
But it is far from simple. The philosopher Henri Bergson teaches us as well as the tribal thought is in a certain way more immediate and easier, because it is given to us by an instinct. We have a tribal instinct, which amounts to considering that those who look like us are ours, who have the same color of skin, who have the same language, who have the same religion, etc. However, thinking about humanity, explains Bergson, is infinitely more difficult because it may seem too abstract.
But the philosopher also offers some paths to give reality to this humanity: one of them, the most complex, is philosophical reason. The other is the Religion, which he says is “spreading like wildfire.” Unfortunately, religions can easily be instrumentalized and locked into identities murderous.
Train the younger generations
Finally, in this fight remains a central question: that of education. It is precisely a question of training the younger generations in this philosophy of decentering and in this ethical duty of interbreeding. And on this level, the history of philosophy is a good example to take.
The history of philosophy is taught as it was fabricated at a given time, as being an exclusively European history – where the great texts are those of the pre-Socratics then of Socrates, then of the disciples of Socrates, Aristotle and others, then of European Antiquity, then of the European and Latin Middle Ages, then of European modernity... Yet these teachings are given in total ignorance of philosophies that have emerged everywhere else, such as Chinese philosophies or those that have developed in the world of Islam and have spread in Greek thought for example.
It is therefore important that the history of philosophy be taught in this way, that this history be a plural history in its geographies and in its languages. We could imagine a education where, for example, alongside a text by Bergson there is also a text by the South Asian poet and intellectual Mohammed Iqbal, who is a Bergsonian, in many respects.
I would dream of teaching a course that would be a place of dialogue and not of juxtaposition between thinkers from different regions and times, different languages, different traditions. As my friend Roger-Pol Droit pointed out: it would be a question of evolving with a “society of philosophers”, a company that is constantly growing and is not limited to one geography.
This article follows an interview given by the philosopher to The Conversation France and published as part of the colloquium “African Modernities. Conversations, circulations, decentrings”, which takes place from June 9 to 11, 2022 at ENS-PSL, on the Jourdan and Ulm campuses. Find the program here of these exchanges.