African-American Philosophy as First Philosophy

The institutional racism in academic philosophy comes down most basically to this fact: while a black or brown philosopher is supposed to read a white author like Russell and think, “Russell speaks to my human potential beyond racial differences,” it is completely permitted, even encouraged, for a white philosopher to read Du Bois and think, “Du Bois speaks as a black person to the black experience, and so doesn’t speak to my human potential beyond racial differences.”

This is the brute force of Eurocentrism in philosophy: it is asserted, without argument, even without self-awareness really, that the universal is found only in the European tradition. All others traditions are local, to be transcended. Only European philosophy is the space of having transcended.

What a twisted effect this can have on a black or brown philosopher’s mind! From the get go, the black philosopher is set an enormous hurdle which is not there for the white philosopher: that the black thinker has to overcome their entire being – their culture, their history, their physical appearances and unreflective modes of comportment – to transcend to philosophy. For the white philosopher the message is: think for yourself. For the black philosopher it is: think beyond yourself.

The white philosopher is seen as going from one aspect of white culture, that of their upbringing, to another aspect of white culture (Plato, Hume). The black philosopher is required to go from their culture to an aspect of white culture (Plato, Hume). If the reflective distance required to go from C.S. Lewis to Quine is like crossing a river, the reflective distance required to go from Malcolm X to Quine is like crossing an ocean. And yet what is the conclusion? It is the white philosopher who can teach how to have reflective distance, and the black philosopher who has to learn it. The person swimming the ocean has to take swimming lessons from the person swimming the river!

The central disagreement between Russell and Wittgenstein was on the question: is philosophy universal in the way science is universal?

Russell said “yes, philosophy is like physics, only it discovers more abstract truths.” Carnap and Quine said, “yes, because philosophy is meta-science.” Though Russell and Carnap were politically progressives (contra Quine), their view of philosophy underscored Eurocentrism. After all, the modern Scientific Revolution happened in Europe, and no philosophers engaged more with making sense of modern physics and its implications for human understanding than philosophers from Descartes to Russell. On this view, the universality of European philosophy piggy backs on the universality of physics and biology, on Newton and Darwin. The philosophers who are most universal are the ones who engage with Newton and Darwin.

This is the natural link between scientism and Eurocentrism.

Wittgenstein, like Dewey and Heidegger, denied that universality in philosophy is akin to universality of the physical sciences. Rather, universality in philosophy is a cultural practice. Now Wittgenstein told only one half of the story: how to get out of the grip of the scientistic conception of universality in philosophy. He suggested it is a confusion – a category mistake, to use Ryle’s phrase – to speak of universality in philosophy while the various human practices of philosophy, across cultures, are disconnected, disunified and not in dialogue with each other. If philosophy is a cultural practice, then universal philosophy is only possible through a merging of different cultural philosophical practices.

If only Wittgenstein had paid more attention to African-American philosophy, he would have found the positive alternative to scientism.

It is said that Du Bois or Frederick Douglass are not philosophers – their thinking is not universal – because they speak specifically of the African-American experience. But this inference only makes sense on the assumption that the African-American experience is local and does not have the potential to speak to something universal. This assumption is flatly false.

When I read Descartes, I identify with Descartes – I see myself in his writing because I too, as a person, as a thinking being, want to question everything and think for myself. From where I am now as a person, I can place myself in Descartes’ shoes and think, “Beyond issues of time and space and race, what he is saying speaks to my condition now!”

I experience the exact same thing when I read Du Bois. I identify with Du Bois: his writing speaks for my inner most thoughts, the ideas I didn’t know I had, the reflections I didn’t know I could think to myself, ideas which make me feel I am growing into a more universal me, shedding my limited cultural baggage to stand in the light of a more universal humanity.

One wants to say, “But how can this be? Bharath, you are not black. Your ancestors were not slaves. You did not live through segregation. That is what Du Bois is talking about. You can read him to admire him, as history, sociology, literature. But identify with him? That’s crazy. Worse: it is insensitive, presumptuous, arrogant. You need to acknowledge his black experience as something unique to him and to other blacks. It is their experience, not yours. Don’t appropriate it, and take away their own ability to speak to their unique experience.”

Why though doesn’t the same thing apply to my reading of Descartes? I am not French. My ancestors were not Catholic. I didn’t receive an Aristotelian education. I am not in fear of my life due to persecution by the Church. How is it that in spite of all these differences between me and Descartes, I can read him as relating to my human condition now, but I supposedly can’t do that with Du Bois?

The assumption is that Descartes was doing something universal in standing up against the Church and thinking for himself. Standing up to authority, blazing a new path – that is not French or male or limited to the 17th century: it is a universal potential in all human beings.

Of course, Du Bois is speaking to his black experience. And blacks can relate to the text in a way I can’t. But the crucial issue is: Is Du Bois reflecting on his, and his fellow blacks’, experiences in such a way that it also can evoke deep reflection of our shared humanity? The answer is Yes!

Du Bois was an African-American philosopher, but that already is something universal and not just local. For he was, first and foremost, a pluralist – someone bridging African and European traditions and cultures. Du Bois was not essentially an African who added on top a layer of European learning. He was, through and through, African and European and American, and that is what shines through in his writing. He didn’t have to get beyond his African-Americanness to transcend to a land of universality. His African-Americanness was already itself a form of pluralism and a more universal way of being than being only African or only European.

Du Bois’ struggles as an African-American, and his reflections on those struggles, is a testament to the difficulties and challenges we all face to bridge various cultures in our own lives, to move beyond segregated homogenous cultural identities to an integrated, pluralistic, universal human culture.

Yes, my biological ancestors were not slaves. They were Brahmins in India. But I am now displaced, belonging neither to the East or the West understood as homogenous cultures. I am an Indian-American, and as a hyphonated being, I trace my ancestry not only to thinkers in India and even in Europe, by also to thinkers like Du Bois and James Baldwin and Malcolm X, who were through and through hyphonated beings, thinkers at the cutting edge of the synthesis of cultures required for a more real, true universalism of humankind.

The appeal of scientism is it provides the sense of an easy universalism, free of the strife and struggles of bridging cultures, dissolving misunderstandings, overcoming old hates and distrusts. Scientism says: “Poof! No need for all that hard cultural work before we can understand our common humanity. As humans we all have brains, and if we do brain scans and understand the brain, then of course we understand our shared humanity!”

But if we think of philosophy not simply as meta-science, but as a practice of transforming currently disparate cultures and modes of beings into a more unified, inclusive whole, then not only is African-American philosophy really philosophy – it is first philosophy. Crucial and foundational to a truly pluralistic, global philosophy.

3 thoughts on “African-American Philosophy as First Philosophy

  1. seymourblogger (@abbeysbooks)

    The racism begins with the demand that philosophy be read in English, French, etc and not in many languages that are native to many students. I got this from Babette Babich who deplores it. It is the reader – the user as McLuhan says – who brings the meaning to the text. I identify regardless of color or nationality. Or not.

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  2. robertmwallace2

    I have certainly related to DuBois in the way that you describe. I’m not “black”; I’m “white,” ostensibly a member and representative of the currently “dominant” culture. But I have my own distinctive experiences which for me do not align with any of the experiences that are recognized by the currently dominant culture. And DuBois’s struggle to find and use his own voice, to be true to his own experience, speaks very much to my own struggle to do the same. Different barriers; same goal.

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