In defence of dead white philosophers

Norman Mailer’s The Fight, an account of Muhammad Ali’s 1974 victory over George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, contains a section where he discusses a book on Bantu philosophy:

‘The instinctive philosophy of African tribesmen… saw humans as forces, not beings. So a man was not only himself, but the karma of all generations past that still lived in him, not only a human with his own psyche but part of the resonance, sympathetic and unsympathetic, of every root and thing about him.’

The central theme is that mankind is, essentially, a universal composition, stemming from thoughts, ideas and history from all corners of its past. If this is correct, it makes it all the more bizarre that students at SOAS in London are calling for ‘white’ philosophers to be purged from the curriculum, relegated to footnotes and examples of colonial injustice.

As SOAS specialises in the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, students might well expect a philosophy course to feature African, Asian and Middle Eastern philosophers more prominently than elsewhere. But demonising ‘white’ philosophical thought is ridiculous.

Do these students think that, in order to right the wrongs of the past, of colonialism and racism, it’s necessary to segregate historical figures and philosophers on account of their race? Surely these students see that racism can’t be undone by a new kind of racialism.

They also seem to be ignoring the fact that not all white people are the same, or think the same way. It’s close-minded to tar all white philosophers with the same brush. What about authors from different times, and thinkers on different subjects? Are Thomas Paine and Thomas Aquinas both equally worthless and wicked?

African and Asian societies have grown, flourished and fallen (as their European counterparts have) over the centuries, and the flow of ideas between these different cultures has forged the societies we inhabit today. Yes, many were subjugated by Europeans and subjected, rather than just exposed, to European schools of thought. But by ignoring those schools of thought now, how can students hope to understand how contemporary African and Asian thought has developed, or what impact African and Asian philosophers have had on their white counterparts?

How can we objectively teach philosophy without white philosophers? They are critical to how we think, and to understanding how we think. Observing them through the prism of colonialism may be fair, in some contexts. But to sideline them simply because they are white would leave gaping holes in the curriculum. What’s more, it promotes the old, ugly idea that our thought is defined by our race or background. Philosophy, as a subject, is really a process of debate. All significant contributors to that debate must be discussed – regardless of the colour of their skin.

Benedict Spence is a writer based in London.

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