What STS can learn from reflections on African philosophy

David Kananizadeh

June 27, 2022 | Reviews

A review of Diagne, Souleymane Bachir. 2016. The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa. Translated from French by Jonathan Adjemian. Dakar: CODESRIA.

In this post, I turn to the works of Souleymane Bachir Diagne, particularly to his book The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa for a reflection of what it could mean to decolonize STS. In this book, Diagne does not limit the scope to introducing the reader to African philosophy. More than that, in reflecting on African philosophy, he argues for decolonization as translation in a much broader sense. And in this point, I see his work highly compatible with debates on decolonization within STS.

In its fall 2017 issue, the Catalyst offers a special section on “Engagements with Decolonization and Decoloniality in and at the Interface of STS”. Here, Noah Tamarkin argues that attempts to decolonize science and technology need to be contextualized by being referred to other invocations of decolonial politics that exist in the same times and places, for which Juno Salazar Parreñas puts particular emphasis on the kinds of political imaginaries that become aspirational in these invocations. For Lesley Greens, this entails a broader reflection of our onto-epistemological commitments and a transformation of how we think about what it is to know. In this context, Kristina Lyons shifts focus from symmetrical perspectives aiming at putting science and other forms of knowledge into dialogue to asymmetrical indigenous engagements with science that subvert science’s authority and its parasitic potential. Tania Perez-Bustos explicates this parasitic potential and closes the special section by stating that “certain discourses of decoloniality may run the risk of existing within certain politics of appropriation and decontextualization”, particularly when a certain perspective (language, gender) dominates the discourse within STS debates. Feeding other discourses into debates is dependent on translations – of which we “need to recognize its partiality and its politics of appropriation and circulation” (Perez-Bustos).

It is particularly with this last point in mind that I want to feed Diagne’s “The Ink of the Scholars” into debates on the decolonization of STS. In this book, Diagne explores the relation between philosophy as a universal project and particular African contributions to such a project. In arguing for decolonization as translation, Diagne radically questions Western or African epistemology and ontology as being separable entities, showing instead how they have been generated by long histories of intellectual exchange. Africa has to be acknowledged for being a node in the translatio studiorum, troubling the reduction of that translatio to the route Jerusalem-Athens-Rome-Christian-West, as Diagne explicates elsewhere.

The first chapter “The Force of the Living” centers on Bantu Philosophy, written by Placide Tempels in 1945. At the center of this book, Tempels sees an ontology of vital force that attracts his interest in reasons I will come to in a bit. For him, the Bantu “speak their philosophy in an entirely natural fashion”, they speak in a “concrete fashion” in which words refer immediately to things (Diagne 2016, 22). Here, Tempels mistakenly distinguishes between concrete and abstracts languages – to which Diagne objects: “The reason that there are no concrete languages is because there are no abstract ones. All that we find are abstract uses of the words of language” (ibid., 23, emphasis in the original). It was such an abstraction that the practice of translating Bantu philosophy offered to Tempels the means to articulate the evangelical message’s “original force as a vitalism” (above all, Tempels still was a Franciscan missionary). If philosophizing happens in a language whose grammar molds our thoughts, how to approach philosophy as a universal project? Diagne sees “the route to the future” in “thinking philosophically in translation and in crossing perspectives” (30) (a point he makes with reference to Barbara Cassin and Kwasi Wiredu). That African languages contribute to philosophy as a universal project (as any other language does) is exemplified in Tempels’ translation of the evangelical message through Bantu philosophy. And that is what makes Bantu Philosophy a pioneering work for African philosophy.

The relation between the universal and the particular as translation and plurality as a condition of universality is explored further as Diagne addresses the question of orality in African philosophy and the question of African political thought. Here, questions of origins of thoughts become more and more backgrounded giving way to a focus on how translations refer to an original in many, often creative ways – adding, rejecting, reevaluating, creating something new that in their plurality add up to universality.

What stands out for my attempt to read Diagne into a debate on decolonizing STS is the chapter on African languages’ capacities to reflect on the future. Diagne opposes any assertion that African languages lack the linguistic capacity to address the future (and therefor ‘the African has not fully entered into History’ as Nicolas Sarkozy infamously stated in Dakar in 2007). Instead, Diagne proposes differentiating between two approaches to the prospective – foreseeing and anticipating. Understanding the capacity to address the future to lay in linguistic categories is rooted in misconceiving the future as something to be seen and represented in language. However, “prospective is not a matter of seeing in order to then say what we see; it is engagement in action” (47). After arguing extensively against Gaston Berger, whom he mobilizes as representing the argument that the future is engaged through linguistic categories, it is to him and his reading of Henri Bergson Diagne nonetheless returns, quoting: “the future is no longer what inevitably must be produced, it is not even what will happen; it is what the world as a whole will make.” (Berger 1964, 214; quoted in Diagne 2016, 47).

Let me conclude this review with emphasizing two points I think STS can take from Diagne’s work. Firstly, the hospitality with which Diagne reads Tempels and Berger counters what Lyons has termed parasitic in knowledge practices (i.e. rendering the sources of one’s knowledge obsolete through absorption) and moves toward reconciliation. Secondly, understanding the relation between the universal and particular as translation is of great importance when reflecting the planetary crises we – as humanity at large – are facing. It implies that solutions to these problems cannot be found in so-called non-Western ontologies as such but that instead, we as humanity have to collectively work out our future in translating between and across worldviews and their particular contribution to universal humanity. It is in providing a platform for such translational work that we can situate attempts to decolonize STS.

David Kananizadeh is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology department at the University of Halle, Germany and a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. His PhD project inquires forest ecologies in Sierra Leone as they emerge out of complex interactions between human and non-human actors. He is interested in questions of care and ethics in multispecies encounters and in questions of decolonizing knowledge production.

Published: 06/27/2022