Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 133-137
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Philosophy in/and Latino and Afro-Caribbean Studies
Linda Martín Alcoff
I realize now that the process that I underwent as a graduate
student—of having, first, to learn the facts and realities of other
people's lives, the lives of those in whose history and experience
the current academic theories were grounded, and of having,
second, to master theories that explained their experience but that
needed considerable refining and transforming to have meaning for
my own life—must have been the typical, indeed the defining
experience for students from the Third World coming to
the West . . . . Moreover, it was not only the old academic establishment
that reflected the perspectives of these powerful, dominant societies;
even the oppositional, and anti-establishment, counter-cultural,
“radical” intellectual trends and critiques of the day also in fact
represented the views of the powerful classes in those societies—the
white middle classes—but, now, of the new generation of those classes.
—Leila Ahmed, A Border Passage (1999)
This succinct description of a whole generation's experience with academic theory is by now a familiar refrain. Yet we are still living and working in the midst of the attempt to put third world and marginalized experiences first, to develop theory with our perspectives at the center; in fact, we are still in the beginning stages of this project. Only very recently has a critical mass of scholars with the relevant expertise obtained tenure in institutions that support research, allowing these academics to pursue lines of inquiry with some degree of autonomy. [End Page 133]
There is uneven development in the present-day academy on this front. In some disciplines, a two-stage process is occurring: first, the literatures, histories, cultures, and knowledges of nondominant groups are unearthed, examined, and taught; second, the central disciplinary assumptions and methods in the given discipline are reassessed for the study of any group, dominant or nondominant. This is slowly occurring in most of the social sciences (with the stark and crucial exception of economics), as well as in history, literary studies, and art history, with varying degrees of acceptance or attention from the disciplinary mainstream.
And yet, the discipline of philosophy—“queen of the sciences,” arbiter of universal knowledge, and the most basic and general of human studies—remains almost untouched by these new ideas. The problem philosophy has is that it generally sees itself as studying not “areas,” or specific arenas, but universals. Thus, not only is its methodology considered to transcend cultural location, so too is its subject matter. A few departments recognize the study of various Asian philosophies, but even here scholars report too often being asked to explain “karma” or “yin and yang” rather than the traditions of Indian epistemology or Chinese ethics. Serious philosophical conversation over the last two and a half millennia is taken to be an exclusively Western preoccupation.
This is both odd and wrong. It is odd because within Western philosophy itself, sharp geographical designations continue to organize the field and divide conversants, principally into French-, German-, and English-speaking philosophers. For a field that would refuse the claim that geographical location has salience for philosophical merit or truth, it continues to recognize and sanction the division of philosophy into what sometimes seem to be incommensurable conversations identified by nothing more than the arbitrary designations of nation-state boundaries.
This contradiction also indicates why philosophy's pretension to acultural transcendence is wrong, or unjustified by traditional philosophical argument. Location leads to significant differences in the problems considered most important for philosophers to address, as well as in the solutions considered plausible. But this is not explicitly acknowledged: Anglo-American philosophers usually consider continental European philosophical developments to be simply without merit, and the disdain is returned.
A commonly told joke offers to explain this mutual mistrust. An English, a French, and a German philosopher are each asked to develop a treatise on the camel. The English philosopher, in good empiricist fashion, [End Page 134] travels to Egypt and follows...