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Jean-Pierre Bekolo

Mudimbe’s initial gesture of philosophical skepticism - in relation to the western imperial project - or even disapproval had been well received in the academy and largely accounts for his formidable international reputation. But his latest philosophical position might be considered to betray signs of satiety and self-contradictory reaction.

In a conversation with Sam Okoth Opondo, V.Y. Mudimbe reveals his current philosophical positions. [1] Philosophy, in its presumed Greek origin and orientation, affirms a universality which in Mudimbe’s understanding equates, in relation to specially black non-Greek peoples, with the construction of the Colonial Library. The Colonial Library becomes the prison-house of the colonised subject who under the shackles of colonial and other sundry guises of racialised oppression, is to remain mute, submissive and even under the most favourable conditions, subordinate to the colonial imperative.

At this vital juncture, it becomes necessary for the colonised African subject in particular to articulate a counter-narrative of anger, resistance and alterity if only to affirm the reality of his/her existence. At this precise moment, his/her philosophy must not be a philosophy of acquiescence, a discourse of accord which rather than re-purpose the Colonial Library for liberation confirms the procedures and expectations of a so-called “universal” philosophy. But what is the meaning and value of philosophy if it is unable to side with the oppressed? Where is the dignity of the oppressed if they must endure the ignominy of corroborating or even collaborating in the oppressor’s discourse?

The moment the oppressed discovers the possibilities for philosophical speech and inscription is the moment in which philosophy re-invigorates itself and finds new meaning for its relevance. The related question can then be posed: What is the value of philosophy if it employs the veneer of universality to shield itself from the ideal of justice which strives for the universal? What is the use of philosophy if it is based on prevarication and falsehood?

Mudimbe’s earlier work involved tracing of the antecedents of a racial lie, a lie that condemned the black subject to silence and sub-humanity; an anthropologising operation that served as the intellectual handmaiden of a brutal imperial project. And where is the dignity or even power of philosophy if it must be enlisted for a grand, universal scheme of multifaceted oppression?

Mudimbe had unmasked the virulence of this universal scheme through the exploration of an archeology of silence. By itself this might be read as a counter-manoeuvre against oppression hence as part of a counter-paradigmatic genealogy. However, this strategy clearly needed to do more, there needed to be a bona fide modern practice of anti-imperialist philosophy as advanced by the likes of Cheikh Anta Diop and Kwasi Wiredu that underscores the centrality of the black subject as a restored, resistant, philosophical preoccupation in which participation rather than objectification becomes the practice’s defining hallmark.

Mudimbe’s initial gesture of philosophical skepticism (in relation to the western imperial project) or even disapproval had been well-received in the academy and largely accounts for his formidable international reputation. But his latest philosophical position might be considered to betray signs of satiety, self-contradictory reaction, when the potentialities of his earlier position should have been more deeply pursued.

The most likely results of this epistemic rebellion would have been a little upheaval in the fortified house of so-called universal philosophy before such a rebellion runs its course and is eventually co-opted, or the invention of an alternative philosophical practice. Mudimbe has chosen to probe neither of these conceptual options and ultimately elected to re-instate the excesses of a so-called universal philosophy.

Rather than be free of degeneration in the midst of philosophical fraud and exhaustion, he contentedly elected to be part of the problem. Philosophy, Mudimbe avers, addresses itself to “the history of a practice”, “the question of method” and finally “the inscription of a tradition.” This, one might presume, is derived from the Greek-influenced definition of the discipline. Philosophy also concerns “human questions about existence, organization of systems of ideas sanctioning a discipline, and a general conception or vision of the world and its ethics.” Ethics and cosmology are culturally mediated categories as we have noted and the particular and the universal are to a significant degree mutually dependent. However, “universal” philosophy does not deem this to be true and instead strives to assert its Athenian idealism. Mudimbe had questioned these presuppositions in his major book, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge. Instead, he suggests that we read the practice and institutions of western philosophy as a history of systematic exclusions, silences and traumatisms.

However, in his conversation with Opondo, that exclusionary history apparently no longer matters and so the registers and parameters that make “philo-barbarism” both necessary and intelligible are disqualified. Here, Mudimbe’s whole-hearted support for, and acceptance into, the western philosophical/intellectual archive ought to be a disappointment as he has in turn repudiated the possibility for a radical point of departure for contemporary human thought. The admittance into the master’s house unfortunately culminates in forgetting the hardships and requirements of the wide-open fields. How so predictable.

The sterility of the Greek philosophical paradigm stems from the fact that it denies the possibility of philosophy to non-Greeks or to put it more uncharitably, barbarians. And perhaps this is why philosophy is mired in its perennial conceptual stasis. In order to rejuvenate itself and confront the ethos and imperatives of interculturality, it must rid itself of its outmoded conceptual strictures, cast a more skeptical glance at its racialised history, and it must replenish itself with new social and cultural struggles in order to discover renewed relevance; in essence, it must undergo a conceptual re-birth.

On the verge of the possibility for such conceptual re-birth, Mudimbe identifies with a paradigm that makes philosophical growth arduous if not impossible and this is evident by examining his recent pronouncements at the broadest philosophical level. But in relation to a burgeoning African philosophical practice, he has managed to call into question his significance as an example for constructing such as practice. African philosophers would be better served by sticking to the openings offered by C.A. Diop, Molefi Kete Asante and, of course, Wiredu. These thinkers are important in that in different ways their thought enables the thinking through the trauma of slavery and colonialism so as to transform them into productive experiences rather than as historical lack. By this manoeuvre alone, the problematique of modern African thought is effectively transformed.

In the interview, given Mudimbe’s posture and pronouncements, Opondo is uncomfortable with the term “African philosopher” and perhaps rightly so because Mudimbe does not provide an opportunity to endow it with significance. What Mudimbe is primarily concerned with are definitions and conceptions of philosophy that impede or disqualify non-western philosophical systems; thus, a scholar of an archeology of western silences and exclusions becomes an advocate of them without apparently the least thought for the accompanying intellectual and ideological repercussions.

When Mudimbe is granted an opportunity to speak about an “African philosopher,” Jean-Paul Sartre becomes his model due to his transcultural gestures and potential. In his words, “calling Sartre an African philosopher shouldn’t surprise. In actuality, the first time the image was used, at Strasbourg University, I called Sartre a “Negro philosopher”. It was a political statement made in highly distinguished academia, a manner of recognizing the exemplarity of a philosophical commitment and of celebrating modalities. Sartre liked it, I was told”. He continues, “the qualification of Sartre as an African philosopher is both innocent and it is not. In a language of representation, the adjective ‘African’ rules an affirmation and implication of marginality. They have been integrated in our horizon. The English volume of Sartre’s anti-colonial writings has now acknowledged my daring qualification of Sartre as an African philosopher. Indeed, one could read it, only in a language of the political, for what it was in the 1950-60s, a political stance”.

This brings us to a crucial issue; if Mudimbe’s earlier oeuvre charts an archeology of exclusions and silences regarding the black subject, if indeed he received the generous attention of the philosophical world by that seemingly impetuous gesture, what has been the conclusion and appendix of his path-breaking inquiry? Mudimbe rather than follow up with a counter-paradigmatic practice re-institutes a series of presuppositions, problematics and diversions that make the question of African philosophy simply impossible.

The question of African philosophy can only be articulated from an incongruous locus; at the centre of the western philosophical archive as simultaneously its partial negation, nemesis and re-contextualisation, and by this way, African philosophy can only end up evolving a character that paradoxically confounds and extends the concept of philosophy itself.

Nonetheless, Mudimbe misses an important opportunity to re-configure African philosophy, and philosophy generally, by being content with its disconnect with the contemporaneous and its inherently false aspiration towards the universal. Indeed philosophy’s claim to universality is essentially contradictory as it is often a privileging of the particular based on the disavowal of cultural others.

Sartre and the prospect of African philosophy will at best be tentative as the boundaries of a possibility and not the nucleus which can only be articulated as a specific narrative as well as overcoming of the trauma that make African philosophy possible. Even with the best of intentions, nothing in Sartre’s experience qualifies or prepares him to inaugurate an African practice of philosophy from a primary and not an auxiliary position. When Mudimbe champions Sartre, he is failing to foreground African belief systems, African philosophical problematics and orientations that he ought to in order to be taken seriously in African philosophical circles.

For the philosophical to be truly so, it must adjudge itself by its systems of exclusions at which point philosophy has to define itself  by its relationship with the Other and its procedures for intercultural accommodation. Otherwise, it must be prepared to judge itself solely as a limited cultural practice and by its unmodified ethnocentricism.

Apparently, Mudimbe does not recognise the coloniality of Sartre’s participation in African philosophy notwithstanding the latter’s reputation as a figure of emancipation and radical politics. The philosophical agency of the black subject can only become credible when he/she fully articulates philosophical discourse meant for his/her own existential conundrums that the Greek paradigm by its invention and history necessarily disavows. And the philosophical traditions of the black subject would become even stronger when he/she is able to isolate and instrumentalise that which is philosophical in his/her history and culture despite the prevailing influence of Greek philosophical ethnocentricism.

It would appear that the Colonial Library rather than having the expected outcome of being dismantled due to its obvious limitations has been reconstituted as a bastion of rigour and objectivity. Mudimbe touts its virtues uncritically and yet his earlier texts flout the rules, procedures and modes of enunciation of the “classical” philosophical canon by their generative heterogeneity. Indeed their heterogeneous features are what distinguish them as notable texts that could be deployed to subvert the parochialism of the western philosophical tradition and act in the service of non-sexism, non-racialism and inclusive alterity. But by constantly employing Michel Foucault and other conceptual presuppositions of western philosophy, Mudimbe, not unexpectedly, has not been able to chart an alternative mode of philosophical discourse apart from an obvious reiteration of some of the precepts and procedural modes of “universal” philosophy by which alterity as a valid philosophical project becomes exceedingly problematic if not impossible. This indeed is a regression from the question of what constitutes African philosophy.

*Sanya Osha is a writer and scholar based at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation (IERI), and Centre for Excellence in Scientometrics and STI Policy at Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa. His publications include Postethnophilosophy (2011) and African Postcolonial Modernity: Informal Subjectivities and the Democratic Consensus (2014). Other major publications include, Truth in Politics (2004), co-edited with J. P Salazar and W. van Binsbergen, and African Feminisms (2006) as editor.

End note

[1] See “Explorations on Intellectual Ethnicity, Philosophy and Ethnological Reason”, V.Y. Mudimbe in conversation with Sam Okoth Opondo, The Johannesburg Salon, Vol. 10, 2016.

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