Continental Philosophy and Postcolonial Subjects

By Schutte, Ofelia | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Continental Philosophy and Postcolonial Subjects


Schutte, Ofelia, Philosophy Today


As a field of specialization in the United States, Continental philosophy generally refers to French and German philosophy in the post-Kantian era. A few great thinkers other than French and German philosophers are included in its canon, for example, Denmark's Kierkegaard and Italy's Croce and Gramsci. Rarely does Continental philosophy extend its borders to Spain. Spanish philosophers in the Continental tradition remain unacknowledged in most anthologies. In recent years, advocates for diversity have raised the question of the importance of including philosophers from various parts of the world in our teaching and research practices. While I believe it is important to engage with philosophers from underrepresented parts of the world, including Africa, Asia, and Latin America (as well as Spain, which occupies a privileged place vis-a-vis the others yet is still unrecognized), this is not the principal topic of this essay. Instead, I propose to deal with a related and perhaps more subtle issue. The issue I will attempt to develop addresses the "resonance factor" of postcolonial subjectivity in Continental philosophy. This, too, may be considered an issue of inclusion, but the type of inclusion to be considered is of a wholly different kind. The question here concerns the effects, if any, on the Western subject, of the consequences of Western colonization of other continents and peoples. This kind of question requires that we take a critical view of Western history in its colonialist expansionist phases. The purpose of the criticism is not to reject the past or to attempt to annihilate its consequences but to shed a critical light on practices in which we are engaged today. These practices are both, to some extent, a product of the past and ways of acting that define the way we look at the future.

As we enter the twenty-first century, there is much discussion about ongoing processes of "globalization." The world is interlinked together via technology, mass media and communications networks, economic agreements, and political conventions in ways that call for an analysis of Western ideological and philosophical constructs as these interact with subjects in both western and nonwestern societies. Closer to the field of Continental philosophy, the question deals with the construction of postcolonial subjects and the latter's interpellation process with the philosophical tradition that calls itself "Continental." It asks of the specialist in Continental philosophy to begin to think, or to imagine, what it is like to read French and German philosophy in a world where readers are located at multiple points throughout the world. In this view, if "identity" is considered a cultural construct, then the "subject" of philosophy cannot be presumed to sustain a homogeneous set of metaphysical characteristics (whether these characteristics are represented in the form of a Kantian self or a Heideggerian Dasein). Postcolonial critical theory, challenging the cultural location of the Continental thinker, raises the basic question: is there a difference between European philosophy and Eurocentrism? Can one be a Continental philosopher and a critic of Eurocentrism simultaneously? Is one to think that unless a philosopher specifically states something to the contrary, to teach Continental philosophy is to support and defend Eurocentric thought?

I will briefly define Eurocentrism as the cultural presumption that European thought and values-however these are defined-contain the essence of civilized or rational thought.' I should clarify that my critique of Eurocentrism in the context of doing philosophy is contextual rather than absolute. What I am after is not strictly Eurocentrism as such, but any pattern of thinking and acting that takes for granted the cultural and scientific hegemony of procedures and values established in the most powerful nations of the earth. That European nations-or at least some of them, like France and Germany-have occupied this position of power over others is a fact of history, just as Britain and the United States have dominated Anglocentric thought and cultural projects throughout the world. …

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