Philosophy and the Colonial Difference
Mignolo, Walter D., Philosophy Today
In the 1950s the distinguished ethno-historian and expert in Ancient Mexico, Miguel Leon-Portilla, published his classical book titled La filosofia Nanuatl. He did not have to wait long for criticism and one of the major attacks was his "imprudent" use ofthe term "philosophy" to designate something that the Aztecs or Nahuatl speaking people could have been engaged in. But criticisms were in the first place ambiguous. The "lack" of philosophical discourse among the Aztec could have meant that they were "barbarians," uncivilized or not enough developed. On the other hand, it could have meant just that they were "different". In such case, Nahuatl speaking people may not have had "philosophy" but the "difference" shall not be considered as a lack but an assertion that they had or did something else. Europeans, in their turn, did not have whatever that "something" else could have been. In another study, Leon-Portilla reflected on the social role of the tlamatini. He did not translate this social role as "philosopher" but described it as "those who have the power of the word" (Leon-Portilla, 1976; see also Mignolo,1995 for the case of philosophy in the Andes). Leon-Portilla, as anybody else, had difficulties in defining, first, what philosophy is in order to show, second, that the Aztec or Nahualt speaking people indeed had philosophy. He managed, however, to give an acceptable picture of what philosophy was for the Greeks and then matching it with the remains of Aztec documentation from the beginning of the sixteenth century, before Cortes' arrival in Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
Leon-Portilla overlooked the fact that philosophy, in Greece, went together with the emergence of what is today considered the Western alphabet and Western literacy. Indeed, if I had to define what philosophy is (following the Greek legacy), I would begin by saying that it is something that is linked to writing and to alphabetic writing. I will further add that it was alphabetic writing, linked to the concept of philosophy, that allowed Western men of letters, since the sixteenth century, to establish the difference between philosophy and other forms of knowledge. There is a caveat in this argument, however: the Arabic language and the Arabic early contact and translation of philosophical texts from Greek to Arabic. I will not pursue this point, since I have to concentrate on Latin America, but it is indeed an issue to keep in mind to understand the emergence of the colonial difference.
Beyond overlooking alphabetic writing in its complicity with Western self description of philosophy, Leon-Portilla accepted without further question (and here he is not alone) that philosophy is a Greek invention and the natural point of reference to decide whether something else is or is not philosophy. We can extend the same argument to other practices, to be sure. But let stay with philosophy. So, the argument goes, philosophy did not exist before the Greeks invented it. Therefore, communities or civilizations before the Greeks, or even having simultaneous histories after the Greeks invented philosophy, but with not much contact between them, did not have philosophy. Like the Aztecs in the early sixteenth century, for example. Or the Chinese, before the Greeks and during the Greeks' golden age of philosophical thinking. There is something odd in this historiographical picture, particularly because it is the result of an argument that places philosophy as a good thing to have, a's a crucial achievement of which other cultures have been or are deprived.
You may be asking yourself at this point, what does all of this have to do with Latin American philosophy? A lot, indeed, since I am talking around the colonial difference, and the colonial difference came into being during the so-called "conquest of America," which is, in a different macro-narrative, the emergence of the Atlantic commercial circuit and of the modern/colonial world. Let me explain. But, to do that, I have to stay a little longer with the famous Greeks. Why, indeed, did Leon-Portilla have to title his book Nahuatl Philosophy and why did people react against this title, asking whether Nahuatl people had or had not philosophy? Why is Greek philosophy the reference point? And if Greek philosophy is not the ref erence point, then, what are we talking about? Perhaps we should modify the perspective from which we think about this issue. Instead of assuming that there is something like philosophy, which the Greeks invented, and that, thereafter, the rest of the planet had to deal with it, we should ask what was that "thing" that the Greeks called philosophy? This would be the first question. The second one would be, why once the Greek invented it, philosophy was appropriated by the West (since the Arabs where "first" in translating and pursuing it) and then converted into a point of reference to establish borders between philosophy and its difference. Well, I am arguing that "philosophy and its dif ference" became an issue beginning in the sixteenth century and that the issue was the making of the colonial difference.
Now, I do not know whether before the sixteenth century the problem encountered by Leon-Portilla was a common problem. It may have been. Certainly communities have had their self description and many ways of distinguishing themselves from different communities. But never before had the sixteenth century differentiation acquired the dimension that dif ferentiation had in the modern/colonial world; a world that was made, shaped, and controlled by European powers, from the Spanish to the British empires going through Dutch, French and German colonialisms. The European Renaissance (in the South) and then the European Enlightenment (in the North) did two things simultaneously. First the self image of the West began to be built by building the macro-narrative of Western civilization; and second, the colonial difference began to be built with the philosophical debate around the humanity of the Amerindians. Certainly, Vitoria, Sepulveda or las Casas did not ask themselves whether the Amerindians had philosophy. They assumed they did not. And in this respect, Leon-Portilla's was a brave and important move to assume that there was a Nahuatl philosophy. But the problem sits elsewhere.
I am arguing that the problem Leon-Portilla had is the problem of the colonial difference. And his contribution was bringing it to the foreground, even though, at that time (1959), the philosophical debates around decolonization were just at their inception. Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth was published in 1961. Why the debate around decolonization is important here, we will see in a minute. Before that, let's remember that Leon-Portilla's dilemma was not a problem for sixteenth century Spanish philosophers; even less for French philosophers in the eighteenth century, as we know because of the "debates on the New World" and because of Hegel's follow up to this in his lessons on the philosophy of history. Leon-Portilla is Mexican, while Sepulveda et al. were Spaniards, and the eighteenth century philosophers, including Hegel, were either French, German, or British. This is not a problem of nationality, but of local histories and of local histories from where you "feel" and "think," whether philosophically or not. Leon-Portilla may have felt the colonial difference when he decided to write a book on Nahuatl Philosophy.
But what is this colonial difference? I would like to quote Robert Bernasconi, a specialist in Continental Philosophy, and well versed in Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida. Reflecting on the challenges, that African Philosophy, currently, poses to Continental philosophy, Bernasconi states:
Western philosophy traps African philosophy in a double bind: either African philosophy is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no distinctive contribution and effectively disappears; or it is so different that its credentials to be genuine philosophy will always be in doubt. (1997, 188)
Now, I am not quoting Bernasconi as an authority, to stamp with his quotation what 1 have been arguing so far. I am quoting Bernasconi as an ethnographic informant. Furthermore, I think that the elegance and the force of his argument allows precisely for that. Otherwise, his argument would have been made at the pure level of the enunciated without putting at risk the very act of enunciation. That is, Bernasconi would have maintained the philosophical authority of someone who reports the difference without putting him/herself at risk in the act of reporting. I am quoting Bernasconi because of the double bind in which Western philosophy placed African philosophy. That double bind is the colonial difference and the structure of power that maintains it is the coloniality of power. Leon-Portilla did not articulate the issue in that way. He argued for the existence of Nahuatl philosophy because Nahuatl philosophy has been negated since the very inception of conquest and colonization. What did his critics do? They questioned the pertinence of attributing philosophy to the Nahuatls. Which means that the quarrel was prompted by the colonial difference, the double bind between an excessive similarity and an excessive difference. Where to go from here? Decolonization of philosophy and, more generally, of cultures of scholarship seems to be still a viable project. I quote Bernasconi again, this time on decolonization. What is new here is that as an expert in continental philosophy he has heard the claim that philosophers, social scientists, and humanists in the Third World have been making for at least thirty years:
The existential dimension of African philosophy's challenge to Western philosophy in general and Continental philosophy in particular is located in the need to decolonize the mind. This task is at least as important for the colonizer as it is for the colonized. For Africans, decolonizing the mind takes place not only in facing the experience of colonialism, but also in recognizing the precolonial, which establishes the destructive importance of so-called ethnophilosophy and sage philosophy, as well as nationalist-ideological philosophy. (1997, 191)
Decolonization, in the project of Moroccan philosopher Abdelkhebir Khatibi is the hidden view of the moon, the darker side of modernization. Even if modernization in its nineteenth century version was linked to the civilizing mission, and after World War II to developmental ideology, or in the nineties to globalization and the market ideology, its hidden side was and still is colonization. While imperialism and globalization place the accent on the hegemonic forces of regulation and control, colonization (or better yet, coloniality of power) places the accent on the receiving end of imperial and global designs. That is why decolonization as a project is more likely to come from the receiving end of global designs than from the local histories where global designs are drawn and implemented. If decolonization is for Khatibi the darker side of modernization, it is also the irreducible complement of deconstruction. Khatibi conceived decolonization as a double critique, of Western and Islamic fundamentalism, a step that is beyond deconstruction since deconstruction remains a critique of Western logocentrism from Western logocentrism itself (Khatibi, 1982). In this sense, deconstruction runs parallel to postmodern critiques of modernity. Decolonization however, as double critique, presupposes the colonial difference. It works precisely from the colonial difference, from the double bind between assimilation (say, Arabic philosophy is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no contribution) and marginalization (it is so different that its credentials will be always in doubt). Decolonization in Khatibi is simultaneously an undoing and a redoing. An undoing (double critique) of the colonial difference and a redoing in terms of what I have called elsewhere "border thinking," as the ground of future epistemologies and political projects. Khatibi names that "une pensee autre," "an other thinking" emerging from a double critique but, also, as a critique of occidentalism from the perspective of the colonial history of North Africa, from the Spanish in the sixteenth to the French in the nineteenth century.
In Latin America, decolonization of scholarship entered, in the middle to the late sixties, with the impact of Franz Fanon and of political decolonization in Asia and Africa. Philosophy of liberation was the philosophical version of what became later on identified as decolonization. Decolonization also invaded the social sciences. The Colombian sociologist Orlando Fals-Borda was, in the late sixties and early seventies, specifically calling for decolonization of sociology (Fats-Borda 1970). In any event, Enrique Dussel had also perceived something similar since the early 70s and he raised questions about the significant contribution made by Emmanuel Levinas by underlining the Eurocentric bent of his philosophy. Let me quote an observation made by Dussel in 1975:
Hablando personalmente con Levinas en Paris, en 1971, pude comprobar el grado de similitud de nuestro pensar . . . pero al mismo tiempo la radical ruptura que ya en ese entonces se habia producido. Me conto como las grandes experiencias politicas de su generation habian sido la presencia de Stalin a Hitler (dos totalizaciones deshumanizantes y fruto de la modernidad europeo-hegeliana). Pero al indicarle que no solo la gran experiencia de mi generation sino del ultimo medio milenio habia sido el ego de la modernidad europea, ego conquistador, colonialista, imperial en su cultura y opresor de los pueblos de la periferio, no pudo menos que aceptar que nunca habia pensado que "el Otro" pudiera ser "un indio, un africano o un asiatico". "El otro" de la totalidad del mundo Europeo eran todas las culturas y hombres que habian sido constituidos como cosas a la mano, instrumentos, ideas conocidas, entes a disposition de la "Voluntad de poder europea (y despues ruso-norteamericana). (Dussel, 1975, 8)
At the time Dussel was saying this, philosophy of liberation was entangled in one of its most enduring guilts, justly criticized by Horacio Cerutti-Guldberg ( 1981 ). Its complicity with political populism left a bad taste in the present memory of Argentina, particularly. The question is, however, why even the most enlightened new left was not safe from such dangers. Be that as it may, there is another aspect of philosophy of liberation, particularly in Dussel's version, that ought not to be forgotten. Dussel's observations in 1975 coincide almost word by word with Bernasconi's judgement of Levinas' philosophy in 1997:
The Eurocentric view of philosophy is still largely intact, both in the institutional presentation of philosophy and in the declarations of some of Western philosophy's finest minds. Take Levinas, for example. In spite of the pluralism that his thought celebrates, Emmanuel Levinas was quite explicit that he was not willing to look beyond the Bible and the Greeks as models of excellence: "I always say--but in private-that the Greeks and the Bible are all that is serious in humanity. Everything else is dancing." Derrida does not exhibit the same prejudice, but insofar as Western metaphysics has from the outset been deconstruction's primary object, deconstruction has had, little use for what falls outside Western metaphysics. (Bernasconi, 1977, 185)
If we think back toward Leon-Portilla's book, we may see that it opened up a can of worms that unfortunately went unnoticed in Latin American philosophical circles. Even when the question of whether there was a Latin American philosophy occupied the minds of philosophers beginning in the late sixties (Salazar Bondy, 1968). There was a parallel, at that time, between Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin American philosophers who were becoming aware of the colonial difference. For to ask a question: "Is there an African or a Latin American philosophy?" is to respond to the demands of the colonial difference. Leon-Portilla did it in this way, as a ethno-cultural historian and not as a philosopher. He did not ask whether the Nahuatl had philosophy. He assumed they did, but in doing so, he had to make an enormous effort to put the Nahuatls next to the Greeks and then to defend his move in front of his ferocious critics. That is, against the "malaise" produced by the colonial difference.
Now, the cards are on the table. Philosophy is a regional and historical practice, initiated in Greece and recovered by and in the making of Europe, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Coupled with religious and economic expansion, philosophy became the yardstick to measure other ways of thinking. But perspectives have been changing and now "philosophy" is located on the edge of the of the colonial difference-recognized because Western expansion touched every corner of the planet and displaced because what is good for one local history is not necessarily good for other local histories. To think from the colonial difference means, today, assuming philosophy as a regional practice and simultaneously Thinking against and beyond its normative and disciplinary regulations (Eze, 1997; Dussel, 1995, 1998). After all, it was a certain way of "thinking" that the Greeks called philosophy. In that sense, philosophy may have been invented by the Greeks, but thinking goes well beyond the Greeks and philosophy itself. The future demands thinking beyond the Greeks and Eurocentrism. Raul Fornet-Betancourt, a Cuban philosopher resident in Germany, has proposed "intercultural philosophy" to solve some of the puzzles presented by the colonial difference. It is certainly a way of dealing with thinking beyond Eurocentrism. However, one of the issues that should to be confronted is the translation of "cultural differences" into colonial differences and vice-versa. This double translation will show that the very concept of "culture" is a colonial construction and that, indeed, "cultural difference" is indeed the effect and the work of the coloniality of power. Or, if you wish, cultural difference is basically a semantic question, while "colonial difference" underlines power relations, the coloniality of power, in the very making of cultural differences. The colonial difference is indeed the underlying logic, and power relations holding together cultural differences have been articulated by the coloniality of power, from early Christian global designs to current global coloniality driven by the metaphysics of the market. Intellectual decolonization, and in the case at hand the decolonization of philosophy, can contribute to undoing the colonial difference and to imagining possible futures beyond the alternative offered by global coloniality and the current reproduction (mass-finances, mass-mediation, mass-migration) of the colonial difference.
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Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Philosophy and the Colonial Difference. Contributors: Mignolo, Walter D. - Author. Journal title: Philosophy Today. Volume: 43. Publication date: January 1, 1999. Page number: 36+. © DePaul University Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.