Anke Graness is Elise Richter Fellow at the chair Philosophy in a Global World / Intercultural Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Vienna (Austria), and member of the editorial board of Polylog: Journal on Intercultural Philosophy. She has published books – both in German and English (e.g. Das menschliche Minimum: Globale Gerechtigkeit aus afrikanischer Sicht: Henry Odera Oruka—The Human Minimum: Global Justice in an African Perspective; with Kai Kresse, Sagacious Reasoning. H. Odera Oruka in memoriam) and articles in peer reviewed journals in the area of African philosophy, ethics, intercultural philosophy, global justice, and feminist theory. Currently she is a project leader of a research project on the History of Philosophy in Africa from Ancient Egypt until the beginning of the 21st Century.
Philosophy in Africa – A Case of Epistemic Injustice in the Academy
I – as a German/Austrian philosop-her – was surprised and delighted to be invited by Meena to contribute to this important network of women in philosophy and I am very grateful for the opportunity to share parts of my work here with you.
The exclusion of woman philosophers and feminist theory from the History of Philosophy has been widely criticised and a number of ground-breaking research projects and publications contributed to the reconstruction of contributions of women to philosophy during the last decades. However, exclusion from the philosophical canon is not only a gender issue but is also an issue that concerns whole regions of the world.
In Africa’s case, exclusionary tendencies have played a particularly destructive role in the perception of philosophical concepts, schools, and traditions. For centuries Africans’ ability to philosophise was entirely denied (in the mainstream), and African thinkers, traditions, and schools were not seen as a part of world philosophy. The characterisation of Africa’s pre-colonial cultures and societies as ‘a-historical’ and ‘primitive’ (Hegel 2001, 117; 110-111) was one of the main obstacles to unprejudiced, solid research in the History of Philosophy regarding that region of the world. Since black Africans were regarded as incapable of intellectual reflection, it was generally assumed that there was and is no philosophical thinking in Africa South of the Sahara. From the end of the eighteenth century until recently (see Graness 2015a), such prejudices have been partly responsible for the low opinion of Africa as a source of original philosophical ideas and concepts and the exclusion of African schools, traditions, and authors from the philosophical canon. Thus, the dominant occidental version of the History of Philosophy as well as contemporary trends and debates in philosophy are examples of epistemic injustice, which consists according to Miranda Fricker “most fundamentally, in a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower” (Fricker 2007:1). The exclusion of a whole continent from the History of Philosophy is certainly a profound epistemic injustice.
Today, philosophy is an established discipline at several universities in Africa. African philosophers are engaged in lively and controversial debates (see e.g. the debate on ubuntu in South Africa), and there is a tremendous production of publications regarding philosophy in Africa. In addition, since 1978, philosophy in Africa has become an integral part of the World Congresses of Philosophy. However, despite some progress, it is still a fact that scholars and concepts from Africa are rarely included in debates or in standard works on philosophy, and philosophy in Africa is only in very rare exceptions part of philosophical curricula. But why? Beside academic ignorance and still existing prejudices, I think the following factors notably influence the perception of African philosophers and concepts today:
- The canon-forming power of the universities
Universities have a very specific canonizing power by means of setting down curricula and the funding of research topics. Establishing a canon requires doing a preliminary selection out of a variety of theories and concepts and drawing attention to certain problems, theories and authors. Given the enormous importance of the canon for the reception of a theory, it is important to ask whether it is the originality of the idea of an author alone that influences his/her inclusion or exclusion from the grand narratives or our curricula’s, or whether the origin of one’s academic degree (Princeton vs. the University of Nairobi) plays a role too, and whether gender, religion, or race make a critical difference in the process of inclusion/exclusion. In case of Africa, we are confronted with a fatal circle: Since scholars and concepts from Africa are rarely included in surveys and debates, there is little knowledge about African contributions to philosophy—what leads to an ignorance in curricula’s (outside Africa, but inside Africa as well!), and, thus, to a perpetuated ignorance in teaching and research.
- The place of publication
Despite significant improvements resulting from the electronic networking of the world and the thereby easier access to publishers and journals, African authors’ access to renowned publishing houses is usually limited due to exorbitantly high printing costs. Here it makes a big difference whether an author is situated in Europe or America and has access to the academic fund raising system or not. On the other hand, publications of publishers situated in Africa are hardly accessible in Europe or America. This directly influences the perception (and limited influence) of authors from Africa and other parts of the world.
- Financial Resources
The situation of academic philosophers in Africa is to a large extent a precarious one: the salaries of African universities are usually low—not only in comparison to the salaries in Europe and the USA but in respect to the average costs of living in their home countries too (an exception is the Republic of South Africa). This implies that many African academics run small businesses besides holding jobs at the university. Although it may have been common for centuries to practice philosophy alongside another profession (Spinoza did it, Kant did it), today this is hardly the case. In a highly competitive academic world, the fact that many African academics cannot solely concentrate on their academic work is a clear disadvantage, in addition to a basic lack of books, technical equipment, and travel grants at their institutions.
- The language
Today, the international scientific discourse is run mainly in English. There are, for sure, clear advantages of a world-language, such as having a shared media of communication. However, a lingua franca is (and was in human history, see Latin or Arabic) always the language of a hegemonic power. In the case of English, the colonial heritage is still obvious and its globalising tendencies are rightly criticised as a form of hegemony associated with the spread of market economics (see e.g. the famous critique of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o 1993). Beside the problem that taking over the language of the colonizer as academic language might perpetuate ‘mental colonization’, there is a lively debate in African philosophy about whether European languages and the concomitant episteme are able to grasp African reality, concepts, and traditions of thought (see e.g. Wiredu 1996, Ngũgĩ 1993).
It will be a long process to change the unequal epistemological and political-economic terms, under which academic work is done today, a process which can be influenced only partially by philosophers. However, equally important, is our will to change the ways academics work and how academic debates are conducted today. As long as the Euro-American dominated philosophical discourses are not even aware of concepts and arguments beyond its narrow discursive boundaries, nothing will change. Thus, it is time to open the debates in philosophy to perspectives from all regions of the world. This might lead to fundamental changes in our debates and research priorities. Presently, our debates are largely dominated by European and American scholars who draw primarily on concepts from the European History of Philosophy and from experiences within the industrialized nations. Experiences and social conflicts embedded in geopolitical power asymmetries as well as in different contexts (determined by historical, cultural, religious, socio-political conditions et al) are totally neglected. Such ignorance reduces the debate to a narrow body of questions and topics—and limits our horizon.
For a true change towards more academic justice the following considerations are of eminent importance:
- Euro-American philosophers have to be aware of their own context and how it reflects on their thinking.
- Euro-American concepts cannot be taken per se as concepts of universal validity while concepts from different regions are considered only to be valid for their respective region.
- It should be a basic principle of academic work to undertake serious efforts to include perspectives from different cultural, religious, and politico-economic contexts (i.e. to actively search for voices and sources from other regions of the world) and to open a true intercultural exchange. For culturally, socioeconomically, politically, and historically different worlds might lead to very different questions and problems—but also to different answers to the same questions. An intercultural dialogue or polylogue will lead not only to an enrichment of our philosophical horizons, but is also an essential precondition for answers to questions with a global reach.
To sum it up briefly: Philosophical concepts arise not only in a specific historical, cultural, linguistic, religious, and political context but also under very specific financial, technical, and institutional conditions that are anything but philosophical. Nevertheless, these material conditions are relevant factors. For the value of a philosophical argument as such it is irrelevant where it was developed—for its perception, acceptance and inclusion in the discourse, however, the place of origin is extremely important, if not crucial.
Fricker, M. 2007. Epistemic injustice: power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Graness, A. 2015a. Questions of Canon Formation in Philosophy: The History of Philosophy in Africa, In: Phronimon. Vol 16, No 2 (2015), pp. 78-96
Graness, A. 2015b. ‘Is the debate on ‘Global Justice’ a global one? Some Considerations in View of Modern Philosophy in Africa’, In: Journal of Global Ethics, Vol. 11:1, pp. 126-140.
Hegel, GWF. 1939. Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, Bd. 11 Stuttgart. [Engl.: Hegel, GWF. 2001.The philosophy of history. Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books]
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. 1993. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London: James Currey Publishers.
Wiredu, K. 1996. Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
 The following four paragraphs are an excerpt of Graness 2015b.