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Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 147-163

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Caliban as Philosopher
An Interview with Paget Henry

Linda Martín Alcoff

Paget Henry, professor of sociology at Brown University and author of Caliban's Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy (2000), is one of our most innovative and interesting social theorists writing today. His work over the past twenty-five years has focused principally on interpretive studies of C. L. R. James and other major Caribbean thinkers, along with development theory from the perspective of the Caribbean, covering such topics as structural adjustment and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In recent years, Henry has dedicated himself to a new project: bringing forth and developing critical reconstructions of the original philosophies of the Caribbean, showing their important relationship to African as well as European thought, and exploring their contributions to a liberatory philosophy that speaks to today's complex world. Thus he titles his book Caliban's Reason, invoking the slave who talks back, who has his, or her, own ideas, concepts, and philosophical problematics.

Caliban's Reason offers a new conceptualization of the rich traditions of thought in the English-speaking Caribbean, articulating philosophical ideas from poets, writers, and literary critics, as well as social theorists, and dividing them into two broad categories, the historicist and the poeticist, which Henry defines in the interview below. The book offers excellent overviews as well as insightful critiques of the work of C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon, Wilson Harris, Sylvia Wynter, and others, bringing them into dialogue with the critical theory tradition of Jürgen Habermas and the burgeoning Afro-American philosophy now being written in the United States. In future work, Henry plans to explore the South Asian [End Page 147] Indian thought that plays such a key role in the West Indies today, the intellectual work of Caribbean women (to a greater extent than he was able to do in Caliban's Reason), and the relationship between the liberatory philosophies of the English Caribbean, the Spanish Caribbean, and the rest of Latin America.

In our conversation Henry talks about, among other things, how he understands the relationships between philosophy and culture as well as between sociological, historical, and philosophical approaches to ideas, about coming to New York from Antigua to go to college, about taking courses from Hannah Arendt, about postmodernism's relationship to anticolonial philosophy, and about the need to have more South-South conversations in the development of new philosophical work.

——L. M. A.

Linda Martín Alcoff: Latino readers will be interested in your book, Caliban's Reason , first and foremost because of the overlap between Latin American and Caribbean societies, but also because of your subtitle, Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy , which identifies a philosophy by its cultural location. This is an issue for us as well, because this is not the usual way Anglo-Americans think about philosophy, which complicates our efforts to gain a foothold in North American philosophy. So I want to begin by asking how you understand the relationship between philosophy and culture. Can philosophies transcend the cultures that gave birth to them?

Paget Henry: Well, two things. I think that philosophy has two capabilities that enable it to transcend its cultural context, neither one of which is perfect. These two possibilities rest with the logical and the phenomenological capabilities of philosophical discourses.

To me, the logical gives philosophy a deductive/inductive mode of conceptually abstracting from specific cultural contexts. In contrast, the phenomenological gives it a self-reflexive capability in the negating and transcending of specific cultural contexts; just think of Hegel's definition of the “I” in the Phenomenology of Spirit, that capacity to negate one's surroundings and to define oneself in terms of that capacity to negate, right? That's the phenomenological moment that gives philosophy this ability to rise above specific cultural contexts.

So we have a logical and a self-reflexive capacity, but the philosopher, before he or she comes to maturity, is formed in a specific culture. He or she has to learn...


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