“Therefore, the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because (Negroes) have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals”.[i]
A reprehensible view, without doubt. An odious opinion that is deserving of censure. Yet, does it taint the entire system of thought of the thinker and the philosophical tradition that he was part of? If yes, then Ibn Khaldun and Arab-Islamic philosophy must be condemned and rejected for being racist and supremacist. One could also take several passages in isolation from the Quran and condemn the entire Islamic intellectual heritage for being fundamentally sexist – as many Western right-wingers or ‘New Age Atheists’ are wont to do. Such blanket condemnations are challenged for being philosophically unsound, historically inaccurate, or just plainly prejudiced, and rightly so. It is, however, a pity that Plato, who lived several centuries prior to the Islamic thinkers, can be easily faulted for not complying with twenty-first century standards of political correctness.
In his recent article at the Philosophical Salon, Crispin Sartwell relies on many such reductionist arguments and anachronistic fallacies to paint the whole of Western philosophy as an ideology of white supremacism, by assuming that the dominance of dualism in Western thinking is the culprit. If Sartwell were more familiar with the philosophical traditions of Asia, he might have found a stronger defense for dualism in the Dvaita tradition of Madhavacharya. If he were more familiar with Western philosophical traditions, he would have known that one of the strongest proponents of nondualism was Hegel, who is incidentally mentioned in the arbitrary list of philosophical racists Sartwell opposes.
The other major issue that perturbs Sartwell in the Western tradition is the conceptual ill-treatment of non-human animals, which he believes would lead to the consideration of some segment of the human population as animals. But anthropocentrism is not specific to Western philosophy; it is constitutive of the entire Abrahamic tradition. If animalizing the Other, as in the case of anti-Black racism in the US, is an outcome of Western philosophy, could one also say that the branding of the entire Bangladeshi population as less than humans by the occupying Pakistani forces, who committed genocide and mass rapes against the natives, is an outcome of Islamic philosophy? In the latter case, the Pakistani army was motivated by the Maulanas of the home country to commit these atrocities, against Bangladeshi Muslims and Hindus, in the name of Islam. I would be much interested to know if any Klansman was motivated to lynch Black people by Cartesians or Kantians.
Buddhist traditions generally agree on the importance of pradnya (reason/knowledge), sila (virtue), karunya (compassion), and maitri (love for all creatures). Yet, this did not prevent declared Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka and Burma from committing genocide against the Tamils and the Rohingyas, respectively. In these countries, Buddhist monks have been at the forefront instigating violence against other communities. One such Burmese monk even was named by Time as the face of Buddhist terror. In India, many sects of Hinduism do not have an anthropocentric approach to life. Hegel recognizes this when he notes that the Hindus look at parrots, cows and apes as incarnations of God, but man is stripped of ‘steadfastness of free individuality, of personality, and freedom.’[ii] If this is to be taken as Hegel’s Eurocentric snobbery against Indian traditions, Marx commented in a similar vein ‘these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances’.
In the current political scenario in India, a Hindu majoritarian government is aggressively pushing vegetarian practices while lower castes and Muslims are lynched on the suspicion of consuming beef. Following Sartwell’s logic, cannot these atrocities in India, Sri Lanka or Burma also be attributed loosely to ‘Asian Philosophy’? Political theorists Rathore and Mohapatra note that Hegel’s critique of the ‘central farcical and corrosive tenets of Brahminism’ was shared by radical anti-caste crusaders in India like Phule, Ambedkar, and Periyar.[iii] Incidentally, these thinkers were hugely inspired by the Enlightenment. Ambedkar went so far as to say that the Brahmins, the Indian elite castes, were incapable of producing a thinker like Voltaire.
Ancient Greek philosophers did think of their tradition as unique and exceptional. But what is unique and exceptional about this phenomenon? In places where they were in power, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist philosophers taught their own systems as supreme. Why should Plato and Aristotle be expected to conform to standards that Adishankara or Dogen, who came much later, did not? Ancient Greeks did have a contemptuous view of outsiders. But so did ancient Persians, the Chinese, the thinkers of the Golden Age of Islam, and the Vaishnavites of medieval India. To trace a line from Plato to NATO makes as much sense as holding al-Biruni responsible for al-Baghdadi.
Sartwell can greatly benefit from a read of Sankar Muthu’s excellent work Enlightenment Against Empire. Muthu argues for acknowledging the pluralism of the Enlightenment, and the varied possibilities that it may contain, including anti-colonialism. Recognizing the historical limitations of European thinkers, he nevertheless says that ‘the commitments of Diderot, Kant, and Herder to moral universalism, cultural diversity, partial incommensurability, and the delegitimization of empire are not fundamentally in tension but rather reinforce one another.’[iv]
A good deal of nuance is required before making grand statements on philosophy, be it European or non-European. However, while white supremacy places the white man at the centre of all things good, white guilt places him at the centre of all things evil. If one holds Manifest Destiny to be the redemption of the world, the other blames ancient Greek and Roman thinkers (who had neither a concept of whiteness nor Westernness as we know it today) for the colonization of Africa. Western philosophical (and psychoanalytic) thinking has the tools to dismantle both the claims of supremacy and the dramatic performance of guilt. Fanon, an arch-anticolonialist if there was one, said in the conclusion of The Wretched of the Earth ‘All the elements for a solution to the major problems of humanity existed at one time or another in European thought. But the Europeans did not act on the mission that was designated them.’ Acting on that mission means taking responsibility for the future, not imagined pasts. Self-flagellation may sell for a while, but it is no substitute for critical self-introspection. The latter is the true legacy of Western philosophy, the Enlightenment in particular, and the only good offence against white supremacy.
[i] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. (Trans. Franz Rosenthal, Ed. NJ Dawood). Princenton: Princeton University Press, 2005, p.117.
[ii] G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History. (Trans. J. Sibree). New York: Dover, 1956, p.141.
[iii] Aakash Singh Rathore and Rimina Mohapatra, Hegel’s India: A Reinterpretation with Texts, New Delhi: OUP, 2017, p.32.
[iv] Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment against Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003, p.268.