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Two virtues, then, are sought after here: one, to be particularistic enough to be capable of knowing ourselves; and two, to be universalistic enough to be capable of knowing others. Or perhaps these are two sides of the same virtue. – Kwasi Wiredu

Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Colonial Contact and the Claim to Know Better
  4. Moral Contact as the Adoption of an Attitude of Abstraction
  5. Philosophical Fieldwork as Intellectual Contact
  6. Modern African Thinking in Global Normative Context
  7. Conclusion

THIS article is about the idea of philosophical fieldwork as a possible corrective to our current state of ignorance regarding the thoughts and views of distant others in the context of global normative theorising. By ‘philosophical fieldwork’ I mean a type of conceptual discovery—philosophical as non-empirical fieldwork. By ‘distant others’ I do not mean the ‘global poor’ but our academic peers who work within moral and political contexts distinct from ours and whom we tend not to consult in our global theorising: distant intellectually as much as geographically.1

The particular distant peers I have in mind here are African. I am interested in how African theorists might think about the idea of a possible global normative order. However, I shall not be asking what they make of this or that substantive global issue that currently exercises our attention—human rights, say, or global resource allocation, or international conditions of state legitimacy. Instead, my interest is in how, in general, African thinkers conceive their normative contexts and philosophical predicaments, and what implications their philosophical thinking about their contexts may have for theorising the possibility of a global normative order. My particular focus on Africa has no hidden agenda: it is simply a distant context with which I am relatively more familiar than I am with others—though I also believe that, for reasons sketched below, our moral ignorance about African thinking has a specific source that may have a particularly damaging impact on current global normative theorising.

The idea of philosophical fieldwork as a type of conceptual research arises from observing two trends in the literature. The first is the growing pre-occupation with practical problem-solving in favour of theoretical inquiry into the conceivability of a (practically feasible) global normative order. The second is the continued reliance on intuitively familiar moral values and attendant political principles. While early theoretical extensions of Rawls’ domestic theory of social justice to the global domain demonstrated some awareness of the need to re-think a changing—possibly stateless—global order, current discussions increasingly offer normative input in relation to specific policy issues that take the existing order more or less as given.2 This retrenchment from abstract to applied theorising reflects a desire to make a palpable difference to urgent problems of global deprivation. Global normative theorists are keen to shed any association with ‘armchair philosophising’: they cite global statistics, engage UN officials, consult aid organisations, and bring empirical research findings to bear on normative analysis and argument.

Despite this emphasis on hands-on engagement, underlying assumptions about moral values and related political principles remain surprisingly unrevised. Little distinguishes global theorists’ normative background assumptions from those of their domestically focused colleagues. Global theorists have largely been content to transfer guiding norms and principles of liberal political morality from familiar domestic terrain to unfamiliar global settings. They proceed on the assumption that these values and principles, if not true absolutely, are nonetheless widely shared, or reasonably acceptable, or sufficiently abstract in general conception to be adaptable to divergent contexts. Where there is a turn away from reliance on the standard fare of liberal morality—freedom and equality, rights and autonomy, legitimacy and justice—it is to the statutes and conventions of existing international law, especially international human rights law, the ratification of which by states is conveniently taken to indicate de facto value overlap or agreement.3

The above are merely trends: not all global theorising is either exclusively policy-focused or wholly beholden to a domestically conceived normative framework. Nor is all policy-focused normative theorising irrelevant, or every intuitive value assumption misjudged, in the context of global normative thinking. Still, the growing preoccupation with policy-led thinking reinforces reliance on the normatively familiar. Together, these trends set the parameters of global normative theorising as a species, increasingly, of applied liberal morality. Within these parameters certain questions are eclipsed, the pertinence of which may otherwise seem acute. Why should a nominally global debate be conducted exclusively within the terms of Western political theory? Why are normative theorists so concerned to engage powerful international agents and so disinterested in engaging distant peers intellectually? Why the evident desire to influence global policy-making and the apparent lack of interest in finding out what—and how—distant others think?

Intellectual engagement with distant others is not easy. Once mooted, the idea seems self-evident: of course, we should talk with distant others! Yet numerous barriers stand in the way. One such are historically ingrained claims to knowing better. A second is the comfort of the philosophically familiar—of reliance on value schemes within which we are simply wont to theorise. A third is unease about the unknown: we may discover less overlap in fact than we presumed in theory. In what follows I build a case for the idea of philosophical fieldwork that engages with these barriers.4 I consecutively introduce and discuss three stylised modes of interpersonal contact with distant others—colonial, moral, and intellectual—where the limitations of each preceding mode generate the demand for each succeeding mode.

Section II begins with colonial contact, describing historical instances of early European encounters with distant others. These encounters’ increasingly disdainful tone culminated, in the African context, in a distinctively moralising form of colonial conquest, the underlying prejudicial legacies of which may be with us still.5 In response, and by way of possible remedy, Section III draws on aspects of Kant's writings to introduce a form of moral contact that demands an attitude of abstraction from intuitive beliefs and value assumptions about distant others, recommending cautious and limited contact. This proposed attitude of abstraction clears the way for the idea of philosophical fieldwork based on intellectual contact in Section IV. Section V illustrates the possible bearing of philosophical fieldwork, with reference to the philosophical writings of Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye. Section VI concludes.

Note: I here theorise the possibility of intellectual contact with distant academic peers. I am not here concerned with relations between peoples, nor states. The modes of contact proposed are interpersonal and intellectual, not institutional and political. This is reflected in my focus on the moral heritage of Enlightenment travel writers in Section II, on Kant's interpersonal hospitality right in Section III, and on potential philosophical fieldworkers’ intellectual comportment in Section IV.

Colonial Contact and the Claim to Know Better

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Colonial Contact and the Claim to Know Better
  4. Moral Contact as the Adoption of an Attitude of Abstraction
  5. Philosophical Fieldwork as Intellectual Contact
  6. Modern African Thinking in Global Normative Context
  7. Conclusion

Philosophical fieldwork as the idea of finding out what and how distant others might think about a possible global normative order assumes that distant others can and do think. It assumes that they take an interest in global normative theorising and that they have something to contribute to it. These are innocuous assumptions: no morally respectable person today professes the belief that Africans, for example, don't or can't think. The legacies of that once standard assumption nonetheless run deep. Until recently, the belief that Africans can't or don't think was widely accepted. Even today, popular misconceptions abound about Africa's perennial intellectual underdevelopment.6 In academic circles, too, an implicit presumption continues to hold sway that Africans don't think philosophically—or, at any rate, that they lack a tradition of philosophical thinking. Unlike the Confucianism of Chinese philosophy or the Vedic tradition in Indian philosophy, sub-Saharan Africa has no written philosophical tradition to point to as evidence of indigenous intellectual sophistication. We appreciate that it would be morally unacceptable to assume anything other than that, just like anyone else, Africans do and always have thought philosophically. Still, we note the derivative character of modern African thinking and quietly draw conclusions from this.7 We know nothing about the intellectual and political circumstances of post-colonial African philosophising. The historically engendered requirement to retrieve a pre-colonial oral tradition and to translate it into a written framework fit for modern African contexts is not a predicament familiar to us.8

Similarly, the suggestion that Africans think much about global justice may seem to us questionable on the face of it. African academics seem pre-occupied with issues of state-building, not with state-transcending forms of political organisation. They focus on domestic and intra-regional analysis and comparison, at most considering the continent's relation to the rest of the world. This seemingly inward orientation is understandable given Africa's still recent colonial history and consequent need for internal consolidation. But it once more confirms our impressions of Africans as ‘lagging behind’. However, Africanists routinely emphasise the continent's distinctive vulnerability to international economic and political developments.9 African domestic policy-making often appears all but dictated by external agents and developments. While the African dynamic of interaction between domestic and international factors differs from European or North American dynamics, and while African academics process this dynamic differently, the assumption that they are not cognisant of, or show no interest in, the global political context is indicative of an overly parochial view about what it means to be so interested and engaged.

In sum, implicit assumptions about African backwardness remain widespread. This prejudicial attitude is not intended—but this is little reason not to suspect its continuing hold on us. In the context of global normative theorising, our historically inherited image of Africa has disturbing implications. Consider Crawford Young's path-breaking comparative study of the African colonial state. According to Young, the distinctiveness of Europe's jointly agreed colonisation of Africa in the late nineteenth century lay in the moralising nature of its justification. Earlier forms of colonialism tended to subjugate and denigrate native populations for ulterior reasons—control of territory, opportunities for economic exploitation, export of surplus populations. By contrast, the justification for the European partition of Africa was driven by a peculiar logic of intra-European cultural competitiveness: the most enlightened nations possessed the most overseas territories whose subject populations it was their self-appointed task to civilise.10 If the ‘dark continent’ was seen as offering fertile grounds for imaginary civilising missions, this was partly because it was the last landmass available for colonisation: that very fact nurtured perceptions of the continent's backwardness. Enlightenment theorising about non-European peoples played an important reinforcing role. The contemporaneous travel literature portrays a continent filled with tribes, indolence, sickness, and animistic beliefs, providing—wittingly or otherwise—a justificatory basis for colonial civilising missions.11

Oddly, while strong philosophical affinities are routinely affirmed between Enlightenment universalism and current global normative theorising, the period's moral ambivalence towards non-Europeans is neglected in the literature. For insights into modern imperialism and its abiding moral and intellectual effects one must turn to historians of ideas.12 An especially rewarding source is Russell Berman's analysis of individual Enlightenment travellers’ written accounts of their excursions.13 I shall briefly juxtapose two of Berman's accounts of face-to-face encounters—one friendly, the other hostile. The modes of interpersonal contact Berman describes and analyses serve my purposes here: his recapitulation of the gradual shift from essentially mutual to increasingly disdainful interaction offers insight into the gradual sedimentation of prejudicial beliefs about non-Europeans.

Berman's first case describes a chance encounter in 1773 on the South Island of New Zealand between two groups: the explorer James Cook, accompanied by the young German travel writer Georg Forster, ran into a small group of native inhabitants—a man and two women. Upon mutual discovery, both groups attempted communicative contact. While Cook's attitude displays early signs of an attitude of disdain, Forster renders the local group's behaviour in terms intelligible to him. The focal point is a dance performed by one of the women upon the strangers’ departure. The ‘protocolonist’ Cook belittles what he witnesses; by contrast, Forster interprets the woman's dance, which he takes to be directed at her male companion, as an instance of a universal code governing intimate relations between the sexes. According to Berman,

For Cook, Dusky Bay is a cartographic fact, a latitudinal item to be entered in the charts and, at best, a way station of solely logistical import for the continuation of an exploratory undertaking that moves along lines drawn from point to point on an empty sea. For Forster, it is an aesthetic experience as well as a natural fact – and more too, since at Dusky Bay an epochal human encounter transpires. The scientist Cook measures geometric space whereas Forster encounters a life world.14

Berman does not repudiate Cook's ‘scientism’ in order to embrace Forster's anthropological romanticism; his concern is to trace, rather, what he calls the ‘dialectical development’ of simultaneously particularising and universalising Enlightenment impulses in the context of early exploratory expeditions. The South Island meeting was not for either party ‘a confrontation with wildly exotic alterity’ but represented ‘a less than ideal, but much more than failed, communication of worldly enlightened thinkers with other human beings, arguably worldly and enlightened’.15 There was ambivalence, but no outright hostility.

Contrast this with a second and much later of Berman's cases: the British 1868 military skirmish against Tewodros, King of Ethiopia. The immediate objective was the liberation of a group of European explorers, who had been taken hostage by Tewodros in reaction to Britain's diplomatic failure to respond to a written request to Queen Victoria for clarification of the visitors’ intentions. While Tewodros would have released the prisoners in return for a suitably cordial exchange of letters between royals, the British omission to respond at all signalled contempt for the ‘black emperor'—as subsequently confirmed by Britain's decision to adopt the military rather than the diplomatic route out of a minor crisis:

For Forster, Dusky Bay was new but never strange. For the travellers in Abyssinia, nothing is ever really new. But it is all always strange, no longer belonging to a sphere of experience for which one might ever develop empathy. The insistence on absolute otherness is implicated, here, either in a compulsive destructiveness, leading to the king's death and the razing of Magdala, or in an equally compulsive effort to integrate and equalize: the king's eight-year-old son, Alamayahu, was taken to England and sent to school at Rugby, where he died in 1879 and was buried at St George's Chapel in Windsor.’16

The contrast between Forster's encounter of ‘lifeworlds’ and the Abyssinian explorers’ insistence on ‘absolute otherness’ is instructive. Granted, nearly a hundred years separate the two events. Each took place in a different location with different protagonists and under different circumstances: the first was a seemingly fleeting chance encounter, the second an exploratory expedition that culminated in an act of military aggression. The two cases nonetheless mark extreme points in a historical trajectory within which erstwhile cautious, but essentially mutual, efforts at contact gave way, seemingly ineluctably, to the studied refusal to engage as a prelude to eventual conquest. In the case of Africa, Europeans’ conscientious cultivation of attitudinal disdain played an unusually central justificatory role. The moralising tone of the civilising project turned the subjugation of Africans into an end in itself. The denigration of Africans’ moral and cultural status, the attempted destruction of existing political structures, the invention of ‘tribes’ characterised by imagined strengths and aptitudes to suit different colonial services and offices, and the hierarchical categorisation of the races were constitutive of the moral and psychological colonisation of persons more than territory.17 Nor did these practices represent the excesses of a small number of colonisers out of step with their morally more refined compatriots at home. Moralising colonial practices found justificatory support in Enlightenment thinkers’ general thematisation of non-Europeans’ cultural and moral inferiorities: an underexplored historical legacy that remains of moral and philosophical relevance today.18

Moral Contact as the Adoption of an Attitude of Abstraction

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Colonial Contact and the Claim to Know Better
  4. Moral Contact as the Adoption of an Attitude of Abstraction
  5. Philosophical Fieldwork as Intellectual Contact
  6. Modern African Thinking in Global Normative Context
  7. Conclusion

The point of the above discussion is neither to vilify Enlightenment morality nor to invoke a picture of an undisturbed pre-colonial African pastoralism. It is to consider the possibility of continuing prejudicial legacies in the context of current global normative theorising. Take Berman's concluding assessment:

Empire and Enlightenment were intertwined from the start. The mobilization of public support for colonial engagement through the antislavery movement was couched in terms as humanitarian as those familiar from contemporary, post-colonial reengagement in Africa and elsewhere. From the age of discovery to the counterinsurgency at the end of the colonial era, European expansion has relied on the collaboration of intellectuals, the carriers of Enlightenment, just as modern, post-Enlightenment intellectuality has presupposed a universalised space in which a transcendental (sic) reason could claim global validity.19

Berman intimates the ‘intertwinement’ not only of empire and Enlightenment but also of Enlightenment and current humanitarianism. His is not a causal claim: the Enlightenment did not ‘cause’ empire. ‘Intertwinement’ implies, rather, a dialectic of mutual reinforcement. But if empire and Enlightenment were intertwined in myriad implicit ways, and if Enlightenment and current humanitarianism are intertwined in myriad implicit ways, empire and current humanitarianism, too, may be intertwined. Given our philosophical debt to the Enlightenment, it is not inconceivable that, along with universalising ideals, we have inherited attitudes of cultural and moral superiority that continue sub-consciously to inform much of our reasoning in relation to distant others.

This is not a pleasant thought but is, to the contrary, likely to encounter resistance. The general proposition is hardly contentious, that the past informs the present—our study of history depends on that assumption. Yet the proposition that the prejudices of the past may continue to inform current normative theorising implies moral censure. I do not contend that we knowingly hold or deliberately subscribe to our intellectual predecessors’ moral prejudices. The fact that we experience discomfort at the very suggestion indicates that we think something wrong with those attitudes. This hardly shows that we could not possibly have absorbed prejudicial ways of thinking about distant others, which we would repudiate were we fully aware of them, but which have become so ingrained into the structure of our thinking as to render it difficult for us to recognise them as prejudices. I have in mind not particular, well-formed, or well-targeted prejudices, but implicit, historically sedimented background assumptions of the kind Achebe describes in his encounter with the kindly gentleman, or of the kind that surface in the school child's view of Africa or in graduate seminar attendees’ ruminations about global justice: I have in mind attitudes such as those displayed by smiling check-in assistants at international airports, when they assure you that your luggage will be quite safe in transit from one Western airport to the next but is sure to get lost the minute your plane touches African tarmac.20

Perhaps none of us are in fact in the grip of underlying sub-consciously held, historically inherited prejudices. Perhaps each of us has a clean slate: possible, even if improbable. Whether or not any of us are prejudiced is irrelevant. Morally, the mere possibility that we may be gives us reason for greater circumspection in our normative theorising in relation to distant others. If the assumptions and value attributions we knowingly make may be informed by prejudicial attitudes we hold unknowingly, we should exercise restraint in relation to our consciously endorsed value assumptions. For if the subconscious underlay could be be infested, this might affect our explicitly held views and assumptions.

I call caution in relation to our explicit value assumptions, given a possible prejudicial underlay adoption of an ‘attitude of abstraction’. In the remainder of this section, I elaborate on this notion by drawing on Kant's model of formal moral contact between strangers. Kant shared his period's prejudices towards non-Europeans, though he considerably modified his views over time, possibly influenced by his series of exchanges with Georg Forster on issues of race and cultural difference. By the time he published Perpetual Peace and Metaphysics of Morals, Kant had substantially reformed his earlier views on race and Europe's relationship with non-Europeans.21 Whether or not his late change of mind exculpates Kant is an issue I set aside here. I simply lift one aspect of Kant's body of thought from its wider philosophical context in order to ask how we might adopt an attitude of abstraction in our engagement with the views and thoughts of distant others.

Consider, then, Kant's reformulation of traditional hospitality rights into a formal right to attempt contact with strangers. It comes in the wake of Kant's increasingly critical assessment of European commercial behaviour overseas. Perpetual Peace introduces the ‘right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility so long as he behaves in a peaceable manner’ in response to ‘the inhospitable conduct of the civilised states of our continent’, including the ‘appalling injustice which they display in visiting foreign countries and peoples.’22 The Doctrine of Right speaks of ‘the right of each to offer to engage in commerce (Verkehr) with any other’ as a ‘cosmopolitan right’, seeing it as grounded in ‘the possible union of all nations with a view to certain universal laws for their possible commerce’.23

Kant's right to attempt contact is a cautiously formulated moral precept that affords visitors no claimable substantive entitlements against hosts. In this, it distinguishes itself, conceptually and normatively, from the hospitality rights of natural law theory.24 Consider Kant's specification of the concept of a right in general as pertaining to an external, formal, strictly reciprocal relation between two (or more) persons:

The concept of right has to do, first, only with the external and indeed practical relation of one person to another. Second, it does not signify the relation of one's choice to the mere wish (or need) of the other, but only a relation to the other's choice. Third, in this reciprocal relation of choice no account at all is taken of the matter of choice. All that is in question is the form in the relation of choice on the part of both.25

‘External’ contrasts with the ‘inner’ morality of Kantian ethics; ‘formal’ refers to the non-substantive nature of Kantian rights entitlements. Crucial presently is the focus on ‘strict reciprocity’. A rights claimant can bind his addressee ‘to no more than he can in turn bind him’.26 To claim a right against another is therefore to predicate of him equality in moral status. It follows that we cannot intelligibly raise rights claims against those whom we simultaneously treat as morally inferior. Once the formal reciprocity requirement of a Kantian rights claim in general is brought into focus, it becomes obvious why Kant condemns as ‘Jesuistic’ colonisers’ abuse of traditional hospitality rights, endorsing as consistent with rights China and Japan's closed border policy following aggressive European attempts at contact based on appeals to a right to such contact. On the Kantian analysis, no coloniser can intelligibly claim a right to colonise. If to claim a right against another is to predicate equality in moral status of her, then to raise such claims against those whom one considers one's moral inferiors is to abuse the moral language of rights. It is to pass off as ‘moral’ acts that are the opposite of what they are claimed to be.

The limited reach of Kant's critique should be acknowledged: it has force only against those who seek to justify their mistreatment of others. Indeed, Kant's critique may have no immediate force against those who claim a duty to colonise: its immediate target is colonialists’ abuse of traditional hospitality rights. Even so, Kant's critique puts severe pressure, by implication, on moralising acts of colonial aggression in general.27

Here, however, I am primarily interested in the positive implications of Kant's reciprocity requirement. What form might attempts at contact take that do respect the reciprocity constraint, and that advance the offer of contact in a manner that does acknowledge hosts’ equal moral status? Kant speaks of ‘peaceful if not friendly’ contact between visitor and host. Here what I call an ‘attitude of abstraction’ comes into its own.28 Peaceful contact is less intimate than friendly contact. This need not make it less demanding. On the contrary, peaceful contact may well be more demanding than friendship. Friendship is associated with personal intimacy, mutual understanding, and shared values. If contact between strangers is to be peaceful if not friendly, the implication is that we should expect features we typically associate with friendly contact to be absent in the case of peaceful contact. Peaceful contact demands that contact be attempted despite lack of personal intimacy or intuitive understanding and in the absence of shared values. Contact between strangers is a demanding kind of moral contact that one seeks to maintain in the face of value distance and disagreement.29

What can sustain the attempt at contact in the absence of shared values, projects, and commitments? It can only be the reciprocity constraint itself. The fact of value disagreement does not entitle either party to resort to hostilities so long as the reciprocity constraint—acknowledgement of equality in moral status—remains in play. The latter must remain in play so long as claims to the ‘rightfulness’ of attempting contact remain in play. The contrast with Forster's encounter of a ‘lifeworld’ is instructive here. Forster, we saw, renders the dancer's comportment intelligible to himself by translating her behaviour into a courtship code familiar to him from his own cultural context—an act of value translation that enables him to acknowledge her as his moral equal. Though Forster's willingness to translate compared favourably with Cook's incipient attitude of cultural disdain, Kant's demand to attempt contact as if among moral equals (despite acknowledged value divergence) raises second thoughts about Forster's strategy. What if Forster had been unable to translate the woman's dance into terms culturally available to him?30 What if the dance had appeared to him so outlandish—high rhythmic leaps in lieu of regular dainty steps—as to seem too uncouth for Forster to be able to detect in it any semblance of eighteenth century ballroom etiquette?31

Forster may have been lucky: the dance happened to be one he was able to translate into his own cultural frame. Yet value translation may fail: there is no guarantee that we always can render a stranger's practices and value commitments acceptable to ourselves by translating them into our own terms.32 If we make moral contact conditional upon value translatability and convergence, then, when translation fails, moral contact will not occur. Kant's hospitality right does not require value translation as a condition of peaceful contact. This lack of reliance on shared values may make things harder, not easier: if lack of value convergence is not a morally acceptable reason for refusing or breaking off contact, we must find ways of making contact in the absence of value convergence.

Although value proximity eases moral interaction, it also invites the mistaken thought that moral interaction depends on value proximity. The search for value proximity can distract from a proper focus on reciprocal status acknowledgement as the decisive mark of successful moral contact.33 Where substantive commitments are shared, moral contact seems effortless. As in the case of friendship, those who share a value scheme have an intuitive understanding of their legitimate expectations of one another. Yet acknowledgement of formal equality in status is not premised on value overlap or convergence. If we take the proper mark of moral engagement to be reciprocal acknowledgment of equality in moral status, overlap or divergence of values is a side-issue. Indeed, we can think of value overlap or divergence not as the essence of moral contact but as a means to it. Value overlap oils the wheels of moral contact under some conditions—friendship, say. Accommodation of value distance and disagreement is the discipline, by contrast, of moral contact between strangers.34 While culturally proximate persons may employ value overlap as a means to articulating reciprocal acknowledgement of moral standing, culturally distant persons may employ acknowledgement of value distance to much the same effect: both are mere means to getting talking.

Consider a visitor who arrives on some foreign shore, acutely aware of his cultural disorientation. Daily interactions that were routine to him at home are now a nightmare of impossible social negotiation. His cultural disorientation and related sense of vulnerability place this visitor in moral need of cultural guidance. A morally attentive host takes him in hand and discretely inducts him into basic terms of social interaction: socially appropriate forms of greeting, the etiquette of good table manners, the cultural semantics of this or that physical gesture. These cultural practices are of no moral significance in themselves. Neither expects the newly acquired social conventions to become second nature to the visitor: both understand that his conformity to them is limited, temporary, instrumental. What is morally significant is the mutual attempt at contact in acknowledgement of cultural distance. Though visitor and host remain culturally apart, they make moral contact through the employment of cultural conventions as a means to that end. Here we have an instance of peaceful contact between strangers premised on reciprocal acknowledgment of equality in moral status despite acknowledged value distance.

Philosophical Fieldwork as Intellectual Contact

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Colonial Contact and the Claim to Know Better
  4. Moral Contact as the Adoption of an Attitude of Abstraction
  5. Philosophical Fieldwork as Intellectual Contact
  6. Modern African Thinking in Global Normative Context
  7. Conclusion

Over the last two sections I have moved from the moral history of colonial contact and its prejudicial legacies to a Kant-inspired model of formal moral contact based on what I have called an ‘attitude of abstraction’ from substantive value commitments in favour of reciprocal acknowledgement of equality in moral status. In this section and the next I shall elaborate and illustrate the idea of philosophical fieldwork, building on Kant's moral formalism. My focus will be on structures of philosophical thinking, not on areas of substantive agreement or disagreement. I shall argue that different structures of philosophical thinking are intelligibly conceivable, and that acknowledgement of structural differences between our and distant others’ philosophical thinking is normatively significant.

The idea of philosophical fieldwork arises, recall, from observing two trends in the literature: claims to practical relevance on the one hand, and reliance on familiar value commitments on the other hand. There is an incongruence between the stated concern for the plight of the ‘global poor’ and the apparent lack of interest in distant others’ own assessment of their political contexts and philosophical predicaments. Global normative theorists should take an interest in what and how distant peers might think, from within their particular contexts, about issues of global justice. They might well think nothing of or about such issues, deeming them irrelevant or misconceived in relation to their own contexts and concerns. Alternatively, they may have distinctive proposals about this or that issue of global concern—human rights, say, or global distributive justice, or issues that have entirely escaped our notice. Either result would be an important discovery at substantive levels of global theorising. Here, however, I want to focus on the question of how distant others may differently conceive their particular social and political contexts, and what differences at the level of general philosophical conceptualisation may imply for global normative theorising. My sense is that exchange and discussion at substantive levels of theorising may be premature—that such discussions may be premised on underlying background assumptions about philosophical method and salience that may themselves require airing.

Interest in different structures of thought is fairly abstract. The question naturally arises: why fieldwork? Fieldwork is ordinarily associated with empirical research programmes: it is work done in and about distant places. To find out how distant others think, one surely need not travel: surely, reading their work should suffice! Perhaps so, but mere reading, insofar as it proceeds on the basis of familiar background assumptions, may reinforce rather than challenge settled philosophical intuitions.35 What is needed is reading against the grain: reading in the hope of exposure to the philosophically unfamiliar. The idea of philosophical fieldwork is meant to signal a preparedness to step outside one's comfort zone conceptually rather than physically.

The idea of philosophical fieldwork is not entirely new. In ‘A plea for excuses’, J. L. Austin describes as an instance of ‘philosophical fieldwork’ his resolve to exchange reliance on the settled terminology of academic philosophy for analysis of ordinary language. There is, he believes, ‘gold in them thar hills’.36 In leaving behind the language of the schools, and in going digging in the neglected field of ordinary language, Austin hopes for conceptual discoveries by which to rejuvenate philosophical debates that he believes have gone stale. In the present context, too, the concern is with conceptual discovery and philosophical rejuvenation in the domain of global normative theorising.

But there is a difference, too. Austin's fieldwork takes place on home ground. Not, admittedly, on the home ground of academic philosophy as he knows it. Nonetheless, Austin researches his own context, that is, ordinary English. By contrast, the idea of philosophical fieldwork as here employed has to do with exposure to distant others’ philosophical thinking. This may seem to beg familiar questions. Philosophical fieldwork in one's home language may be contentious for all sorts of reasons, but it does not raise intelligibility worries. Yet the idea of distant others’ different thoughts—worse: different structures of philosophical thinkingtends to usher in worries about incommensurable ‘conceptual schemes’. It might seem that acknowledging that distant others may theorise the philosophical salience of their contexts differently from the ways in which we theorise ours is conceding that the very structure of their thinking may be all but unintelligible to us.37

Distant thought is not unintelligible merely in virtue of being different. It seems reasonable to assume that those who are distant from us geographically and culturally are likely to conceive of and reflect on the realities of their social worlds and natural surroundings in ways that differ from how we conceive of and reflect on our social realities and natural environments. It seems reasonable to expect perceptions of philosophical salience to differ from context to context, and to expect differing perceptions of philosophical salience to give rise to different methodological decisions that yield correspondingly different substantive conclusions. Distant philosophical thinkers will reasonably cut the physical world and moral universe at joints that reflect their particular philosophical concerns and diagnoses. Yet while it seems reasonable to assume all this from the outset (and perhaps find out to the contrary as one goes along), there is little reason also to assume, from the outset, that in so far as distant others think about their contexts differently from the way in which we think about ours, their thoughts must therefore be unintelligible to us.38

The idea of philosophical fieldwork implies the rejection of philosophical relativism understood in terms of incommensurable and mutually unintelligible ‘conceptual schemes’. Difference—linguistic, cultural, or philosophical—does not equal unintelligibility. Indeed, if the objective of philosophical fieldwork as here conceived is engagement with distant others’ different philosophical thinking, there has to be a presumption of intelligibility in principle. Perhaps relativists deem this a futile presumption: all this shows is that relativists are unable to engage in philosophical fieldwork as here conceived.39 But does the rejection of philosophical relativism not entail the endorsement of philosophical universalism: the idea, that is, of there being some single or unified truth or reasonable position, however abstractly conceived, that all apparently divergent philosophical viewpoints must converge upon in order to count as such? And if universalism is accepted, does this not render philosophical fieldwork redundant? Again, this is too quick. In so far as it strives for general validity, there may be a universalising telos to philosophical theorising. Even so, the rejection of relativism does not entail a commitment to universalism. It is one thing to deny that difference in thinking equals unintelligibility of thought, another to claim that there are no ‘real’ differences of thought other than those that end in mutual unintelligibility. We do not all think alike just because we manage to render ourselves intelligible to one another.

I reject the supposed incommensurability of divergent conceptual schemes not on the basis of implicit universalistic commitments. That would be to reduce difference to sameness. I am interested in the intelligibility of abiding difference. I reject incommensurability because I claim that we can—and should—appreciate the intelligibility of distant others’ distinctive conceptualisations of their particular contexts, including the intelligibility of their attempts at philosophical abstraction and generalization out of those particular contexts.40 There is at least one area of philosophical inquiry within which it is routinely thought that different contexts give rise to different philosophical concerns, methods, and theories without threat to either intelligibility or potential generalizability. This is the history of philosophy.41 Students of the history of philosophy are comfortable with the alternative availability of intelligibly divergent philosophical perspectives, methods, and theories—all of which, from different contexts and perspectives, aspire to general philosophical validity.42 Students of the history of philosophy treat such differences as sources of philosophical inspiration and enrichment.

Take the philosophical relation between Hume and Kant on causality, for example.43 The standard assumption is that anyone who wants to come to grips with Kant on causality as ‘necessary connection’ has to understand Hume on causality as ‘constant conjunction’: this in part because Kant is thought to have solved Hume's problem. Of course, Kant at best solved the problem Hume's account presented him (Kant) with. The nature of Kant's ‘solution’ is wholly unacceptable to any confirmed Humean: Kant's solution is one, at best, from within the perspective of transcendental idealism. But the fact that Kant's solution to the ‘Humean’ problem of causality is relative to Kant's philosophical method hardly shows Hume's philosophical position to have been unintelligible to Kant. Indeed, each of their perspectival approaches to the problem of causality do not even show, as is sometimes suggested, that Hume and Kant were talking past one another. On the contrary, Kant engaged with and learned something from Hume that was philosophically useful to him despite enduring philosophical differences between them. Moreover, the permanently unsettled disagreements between Hume and Kant have taught succeeding generations of thinkers that different philosophical perspectives on the problem of, say, causality are intelligibly available.

One may protest that Hume and Kant belong to the same philosophical tradition, so Kant was of course able to engage with Hume's thought. The same cannot be said of the relation between global normative theorists and their African peers. As we shall see below, this last point is highly contentious. But so is the first point. Did Hume, the naturalist, and Kant, the transcendental idealist, belong to ‘the same philosophical tradition'? Or was Kant able to make use of Hume's thoughts because he chose to read around a bit? Kant might easily have decided that Scotland was too removed from Prussian academic life for him to need to concern himself with Hume. It is because Kant troubled himself to read the distant Scot that we can now think of them as belonging to the same philosophical tradition.

But there is a difference, one might retort, between alternative philosophical theories that succeed one another historically and those that contend with each other at any given point in time. Diachronic philosophical diversity is non-troubling, synchronic diversity is not. This objection presupposes a ‘march of truth’ conception of philosophy that implies, implausibly, that Kantianism philosophically displaced Humeanism and was displaced by Hegelianism in turn. And yet Humeanism remains alive, distinctive, and well. If we can grant the intelligibility of divergent philosophical theories that succeed each other in time without replacing each other merely in virtue of that fact, we can equally grant the intelligibility of divergent philosophical theories that co-exist side by side: the temporal dimension adds nothing philosophically (except, perhaps, for certain Hegelians). We can plausibly be asked to make the effort to think of ourselves as now standing in a relation to our distant peers that is not dissimilar to the one we must assume Kant to have stood in with regard to Hume, in order to make sense of our assumption that Kant learned something of importance from as philosophically different a thinker as Hume.

I have spent some time batting back the unintelligibility worry not because I think it a serious philosophical worry but because issues of relativism seem rapidly to get raised as soon as issues about geographical and cultural ‘otherness’ are discussed. On reflection, unintelligibility cannot be the worry in the context of global normative theorising: global normative theorists have long assumed their own philosophical positions to be intelligible to distant others. Here, the issue is not unintelligibility so much as lack of reciprocity. Given that we assume our thoughts to be intelligible to distant others, why not return the courtesy? I suspect we think the latter unnecessary. I suspect that we tend to view all contending philosophical perspectives except our own as parochial.44

Critics might be tempted to call such presumptive assumptions of universalism an Enlightenment conceit. However, I suspect that some such tendency is a hazard of philosophical thinking in general. Given philosophical theories’ aspiration to general validity, each is teleologically constrained to think of itself as at least potentially less parochial than its competitor theories, whether the latter precede the former in time or not. Each philosophical theory, to count as such, must aspire to non-parochialism even whilst remaining fully aware of its unavoidably parochial beginnings as an abstraction out of a particular philosophically salient context.45

There is nothing wrong with reflexively aware philosophical parochialism. If the view from nowhere is unavailable to us, philosophical parochialism is unavoidable. Reflexive awareness of one's own unavoidable parochialism can serve as whetstone to the endeavour towards relatively greater non-parochialism. Although we cannot but begin our philosophical theorising from within the contexts we happen to find ourselves in, we can strive towards more inclusive philosophical understanding by way of taking sideways cognisance of the endeavours of contending philosophical theories. What is problematic is unselfconscious philosophical parochialism—that is, a parochialism that simply assumes the general validity of its parochial position. The refusal to take a sideways look at contending philosophical theories as a check on one's own (unavoidable) parochialism is a form of philosophical dogmatism. And while all philosophical positions, being more or less unselfconsciously parochial, are threatened by dogmatism, the politically more dominant among them may be especially susceptible to it.

It is hard for politically dominant philosophical theories to be reflexively aware of their own unavoidable parochialism. For one thing, given their political dominance, such theories have no apparent practical need to acknowledge the parochialism of their philosophical beginnings. Paradoxically, however, theoretical dogmatism of the kind described may issue in practical unintelligibility. To see this, assume the non-availability of a philosophical viewpoint from nowhere.46 All philosophical theories then have unavoidably parochial beginnings in some particular context. This is no bar in itself to potentially greater levels of abstraction and possible generalizability. The latter requires, however, sideways interest in neighbouring philosophical theories with similarly unavoidable parochial beginnings. Such sideways engagement need not yield agreement or convergence: one learns most from those with whom one disagrees. While looking sideways does not guarantee agreement, the failure to do so all but guarantees a slide into philosophical dogmatism. Dogmatism may yield practical unintelligibility in turn. Practical unintelligibility results from the application of a philosophical theory's substantive deliverances to contexts inadequately grasped, conceptually, by that theory. Practically unintelligible philosophical proposals dogmatically presume that they are action-guiding in the contexts relative to which they are proposed, but they actually fail to be.

Global normative theorists may find it hard to think of the debate's politically dominant philosophical theory—liberalism—as anything other than genuinely non-parochial and hence as practically intelligible across divergent contexts. It may be useful, therefore, briefly to illustrate ways in which even philosophical theories with an historically certified pedigree of universal validity are abstractions out of particular context and thus unavoidably parochial in their philosophical beginnings. Consider the widespread use of what I shall call particular ‘field-settings’ in contemporary liberal moral and political theorising. I have in mind the use of ordinary life examples as a means for probing, clarifying, or vindicating erstwhile philosophical intuitions. In contemporary liberal theory, field settings model ordinary life situations involving ordinary persons; alternatively, field settings constitute so-called ‘crazy examples’ involving fat men, tunnels, and trolleys. Both types appeal to underlying conceptions of normative normalcy: ordinary life settings are designed to confirm, crazy examples to confound those expectations. Both type of examples are, of course, abstractions from actual contexts. But even as abstractions, they bear the stamps of their particular background contexts.47

Precisely because they are abstractions from particular contexts, a theorist's deliberate alteration of field settings can jolt his audience out of philosophical complacency. A good example is Amartya Sen's replacement of ordinary liberal field settings that involve ‘Jack and Jill’ doing Jack-and-Jill-type things with protagonists bearing exotic Indian names who face moral problems in exotic locations.48 The intended effect on Sen's largely Western and liberal audience is an initial sense of incongruence followed by theoretical adjustment. Sen arrives at his distinctive capabilities approach, and can persuade his audience of its plausibility, because he successfully demonstrates a lack of initial fit between standard liberal theory and changed background context—a demonstrated lack of fit which justifies adjustment at the level of theory. Acknowledgement of relative parochialism is no bar to generalizability so long as adjustments are made in the light of the acknowledged parochialism. Sen's capabilities approach is now widely seen as a liberal theory that is applicable in principle to developmental and non-developmental contexts alike. At least on a sympathetic reading, Sen rescued standard liberal theory from the threat of philosophical parochialism by first exposing, and then extending, the limits of its contextual reach.

None of this is to suggest that global normative theorists should engage with distant others’ philosophical theories in order simply to absorb them into their own favoured perspectives. I have drawn attention to Sen's strategy of philosophical extension to make the negative point that global normative theorists should not presume the non-parochialism of their philosophical perspectives. The important conclusion to take from the discussion in this section is that it is worth looking sideways philosophically as a necessary check on unavoidable parochialism. Whether or not such sideways looks end in plausible convergence, absorption, or agreement is a side issue.

Modern African Thinking in Global Normative Context

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Colonial Contact and the Claim to Know Better
  4. Moral Contact as the Adoption of an Attitude of Abstraction
  5. Philosophical Fieldwork as Intellectual Contact
  6. Modern African Thinking in Global Normative Context
  7. Conclusion

In the last section, I introduced the idea of philosophical fieldwork as the attempt to make intellectual contact with distant others’ philosophical theorising from their particular contexts. I described such fieldwork as a form of conceptual discovery and in that context rejected standard worries about the mutual unintelligibility of distinct conceptual schemes. At least in relation to global normative theorising, the real worry is not theoretical but practical unintelligibility—that is, the foisting of practical recommendations upon distant contexts on the basis of merely presumptive claims to universal validity or generalizability. The remedy to presumptive universalism lies in sideways looks at distant others’ alternatively available philosophical theories. The telos of such sideways looks should not be convergence or absorption, but appreciation of and learning from intelligible difference. In this final section I want to offer an illustration of the kind of sideways philosophical learning that I have in mind in the context of global normative theorising. I draw on the writings of Ghanaian philosophers, Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, focusing once more on structures of thought over substantive issues of agreement or disagreement.

Recall my earlier comment that much modern African theorising strikes us as derivative and contrived. Its very designation as African philosophy seems, moreover, to have parochialism inscribed into it. Indeed, the denomination ‘African philosophy’ invokes an image of philosophical unanimity among African thinkers. However, modern African philosophy is no more parochial or univocal than philosophical thinking elsewhere. The absence of an indigenous written philosophical tradition made drawing on diverse external influences imperative—European as well as Islamic. At least methodologically, African philosophical thinking is aligned with modern Western theories to a far greater extent than is generally recognised.49 Within post-colonial African thinking three broad methodological approaches can be distinguished: modern analytic, Marxist perspectives, and what I shall call ‘Africanism’. Africanism—a variant of philosophical relativism that insists on the uniqueness of African ways of thinking—is a reaction in part to the colonial experience; Marxist perspectives reject the perceived parochialism of Africanism; attempts to integrate analytic methods with indigenous value commitments repudiate Marxism's political subtext. Wiredu and Gyekye both work in the analytic tradition; unintelligibility worries are certainly out of place in relation to their writings.

Early modern African thinking was deeply politicised. Many among the founders of modern African philosophical thinking—Leopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere—led their respective countries to independence. Their abiding significance as first generation modern African thinkers lies in their clear perception of the moral and political need for intellectual re-assertion after a prolonged period of conscientious colonial denigration. This philosophical pre-occupation continues. According to Wiredu, ‘Africans are engaged not only in social and economic reconstruction but also in cultural reconstruction.’50 Wiredu rejects the equation of modern African philosophy with ‘folk philosophy’. Every culture has its folk philosophy: if modern African thinking draws on its oral traditions more heavily than Western philosophers do, this is because of the absence of exposure, for complex historical reasons, to a written philosophical tradition—what Wiredu calls ‘classical philosophy’. Contemporary African philosophical thinking is nonetheless modern in both methodological styles and thematic orientations (though these themes are of course typically modern African, not modern Western).

If we take seriously Wiredu's distinction between folk philosophy, classical philosophy, and modern philosophy, the peculiar challenge for modern African thinkers lies in bridging the chasm between folk and modern philosophy in the absence of historically available reliance on a written tradition. On the one hand, the need to retrieve elements from folk traditions in order to reconstruct these from the perspective of modern African concerns stems from a particular post-colonial lacuna: ‘the African youth, more or less bereft of the security of traditional orthodoxies, stands in need of a new philosophy.’51 On the other hand, the necessary reliance on extraneous methods of analysis makes this local project of philosophical retrieval and reconstruction one that can potentially help enrich the global stock of philosophical knowledge.

Wiredu is not the only African thinker to pursue a simultaneously inwardly and outwardly directed project: inward in its concern to establish a modern African philosophical tradition, outward in its endeavour to demonstrate the latter's potential to contribute to global philosophical thinking in general.52 Some of the frustrations accompanying this dual endeavour are noteworthy: ‘African nationalists in search for an African identity, Afro-American in search for their African roots and foreigners in search of exotic diversion—all demand an African philosophy fundamentally different from Western philosophy. Obviously, the work of contemporary African philosophers trying to grapple with the modern philosophical situation cannot satisfy such a demand.’53 On this account, modern African philosophy does not seek to return to imaginary pre-colonial roots but nor, on the other hand, do African thinkers seek an uncritical assimilation of modern African philosophy into Western philosophical paradigms: if modern African philosophy is to make an original contribution to philosophical thinking, what it has to say must be both accessible and distinctive.

In the present context, it is not the study of particular substantive problems that are of interest, but Wiredu's diagnosis of structural challenges. The view of modern African philosophy as circumstantially constrained to skip a phase in philosophical development—the requirement to leapfrog from folk to modern philosophy in the absence of the benefits of an intervening ‘classical’ period—draws out an important structural contrast between modern African and Western theorising. While there have been crises and resultant conceptual shifts in the history of Western philosophical thinking—the massive conceptual rupture between medieval Scholasticism to modern scientific thinking springs to mind—we nonetheless generally think of Western theorising as having enjoyed a fairly continuous history.

I want here to use Gyekye's philosophical employment of timelines to represent Wiredu's diagnosis of the structural contrast between current African and current Western philosophical thinking. Gyekye employs a timeline to make a different if related point; I shall turn to it in a moment. For now, take Wiredu's distinction between folk, classical, and modern philosophy, and plot these onto an imagined Western philosophical timeline. The Western philosophical timeline starts with a horizontal, because comparatively static, stretch of folk philosophy—inflected in the West, perhaps, by dogmatic-ecclesiastic influences. It begins to rise at a steady incline during the classical period when printing made possible the dissemination and critical analysis of contending written arguments over time and space. More recently, the line levels out again, albeit at a fairly high plateau of philosophical sophistication, where it continues more or less horizontally in a position of intellectual and political dominance that makes it impervious to outside philosophical influences and susceptible to a related kind of dogmatism.

Turn now to the African philosophical timeline. It, too, initially stretches horizontally, marking a prolonged period of self-sustaining but relatively insulated and hence relatively unchanging pre-colonial oral tradition. It then suffers sudden severe rupture, going into steep decline and languishing during the prolonged period of colonial denigration, before picking up again, post-independence, now increasingly on an incline to mark a sense of intellectual re-assertion.

Two philosophical timelines: one generally uninterrupted and on a continuous incline until relatively recently when it levels out in a position of dominance; the other largely horizontal historically, then going into sudden steep decline before picking up on the other side of the chasm, increasingly on an incline. Of course, these are highly stylized timelines. But imaginatively contrasting different structures of contextually inflected philosophical thinking can draw to our attention the fact that distant others do theorise out of particular contexts that give rise to distinctive philosophical questions and concerns. To illustrate, let me turn to Gyekye's work, which further complicates Wiredu's diagnosis. Gyekeye employs a timeline to illustrate his distinction between ‘culture’ and ‘tradition'—two terms frequently used interchangeably. A ‘culture’ represents the set of practices and beliefs held by a given social group at any point in time. A ‘tradition’ is that subset of practices and beliefs that endures over time. The rate of change in cultural practices and beliefs is considerably faster than that of traditional practices and beliefs; Gyekye reckons that it takes at least three generations for any particular cultural practice or belief to become part of a group's tradition properly so called.

What is the point of Gyekeye's distinction? It constitutes a philosophical reflection, I believe, on a frequently noted phenomenon in modern African societies. This is the extreme resilience of traditional structures in the face of frequently volatile political conditions. That resilience is itself a consequence of colonial impact. Under colonial rule, traditions went underground, being in some cases literally locked away. This was a protective measure on the part of the colonised—traditions were rendered inaccessible to colonial overlords, who were presented with images of ‘culture’ instead.54 Yet while this protective measure preserved traditions from colonial seizure, it also removed them from official public life, contributing to their stagnation.55 For Gyekye, therefore, any modern African philosopher who wants to re-connect folk philosophy with the modern African condition must examine the interplay between tradition and modernity, not that between culture and modernity.

Gyekye's fine-grained analysis thus represents a complication of Wiredu's general diagnosis of modern African philosophical predicaments. While there is the challenge, on the one hand, to bridge the gap between folk philosophy and modern philosophy in the absence of an historically intervening written tradition, there is also the need, given colonial legacies, to differentiate within folk philosophy between deeply held traditional practices and beliefs and superficially adopted cultural beliefs: unless one takes that distinction seriously in the African context, one runs the risk of practical unintelligibility.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Colonial Contact and the Claim to Know Better
  4. Moral Contact as the Adoption of an Attitude of Abstraction
  5. Philosophical Fieldwork as Intellectual Contact
  6. Modern African Thinking in Global Normative Context
  7. Conclusion

What are the implications of the idea of philosophical fieldwork as set out and illustrated over the last two sections? A couple of reminders: first, the entire argument here has been about the nature of our moral and intellectual relations with our distant academic peers. My concern has not been to theorise interstate relations, or relations between the global rich and the global poor, or relations between North and South. Second, the idea of philosophical fieldwork as here set out does not introduce a new philosophical method or global normative research programme but advocates a certain philosophical attitude: an attitude of genuine and sustained curiosity about and interest in what—and how—distant others think. Accordingly, ‘lessons learned’ are not of a substantive or policy-oriented kind but concern the nature of global normative theorising itself. My basic claim is that, at least with respect to our relationship with distant peers, our current way of going about global normative theorising is morally and intellectually inadequate.

More specifically, the aim of the present argument has been twofold. First, to suggest that current modes of philosophical interaction with distant others indicate implicit historical continuities: we still, by and large, fail to engage on reciprocally equal terms. Presumably, this is not intentional; nor, presumably, is it mere oversight. Although intellectual engagement is possible, it is not easy given genuine philosophical differences as well as deeply uncomfortable historical legacies. But we must learn to engage. Prudence aside, there is no good reason to expect distant others to take an interest in what we have to say about their predicaments if we are unwilling to return the courtesy. Of course, prudence, rightly understood, is in fact a very important consideration. Given the political dominance of the Western philosophical perspective, we have a special obligation of intellectual engagement on reciprocally equal terms. Given political dominance, practical policy proposals will continue to flow from West to South. In the absence of reciprocal intellectual engagement, the practical unintelligibility of such proposals is virtually guaranteed. Take Gyekye's distinction between tradition and culture. How many of us are aware of the philosophical relevance of that distinction in the African post-colonial context? How many well-intentioned global policy proposals are likely to be pitched, given our resolute ignorance, at superficial culture rather than underlying tradition? How much political distortion is morally well-intentioned but theoretically misguided global normative theorising likely to effect in such situations? If we are serious about practically intelligible normative theorising, we should be sufficiently prudent to seek theoretical guidance from those likely to be far better informed than us about relevant background contexts.

But prudence for the sake of practical intelligibility is not the only, and perhaps not even the most important, pay-off of intellectual engagement. There is conceptual pay-off, too. Return to Wiredu's diagnosis and my two imagined philosophical timelines: I have presented the Western timeline as levelling off, at a fairly high plateau of philosophical sophistication, and the African post-colonial timeline as increasingly on an incline. If we superimpose the two timelines onto each other, they will intersect at some point. Perhaps the African timeline will cross and surpass the Western timeline. We smile at this thought now, to be sure: but it is by no means inconceivable. However, the important issue is not, in the end, which timeline will surpass which, but that they are brought to intersect. The important point is to strive for philosophical intersection in order to experience, as Austin says, ‘the fun of discovery, the pleasures of co-operation, and the satisfaction [perhaps, eventually] of reaching agreement’.56

  1. 1

    I borrow the term ‘distant others’ from Onora O'Neill, Bounds of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), though I am here concerned with our relationship with distant academic peers, not with distant others more generally.

  2. 2

    Thomas Pogge's work exemplifies the general shift from theory to practice. Contrast Pogge's early writings, including Realizing Rawls (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989) and Cosmopolitanism and sovereignty’, Ethics, 103 (1992), 4875 , with his more recent work, including Thomas Pogge, Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric (Cambridge: Polity, 2010). See also Pogge's applied work on the pharmaceutical industry. Others have followed Pogge's shift from theory to practice. See Leif Wenar, ‘Property rights and the resource curse’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 36 (2008), 232. More recently, see Joshua Cohen, ‘Mobile for development meets design thinking’. Public Lecture at London School of Economics, June 2012.

  3. 3

    Cf. Charles Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). For some reservations about practice-based theorising about human rights, see Katrin FlikschuhOn the cogency of human rights’, Jurisprudence, 2 (2011), 1736.

  4. 4

    I have encountered resistance to the thought, explored further below, that global normative theorising may be informed by prejudicial modes of thinking about distant others. My own view is that this is only to be expected. Prejudicial thinking is hardly peculiar to global normative theorising. Most human interaction can only take place on the basis of more or less generalizing assumptions persons make about one another. This becomes pernicious only where reflection on the likelihood of prejudicial underlay is censored.

  5. 5

    The history of colonialism and related issues of reparative or global distributive justice is a sub-theme in much global normative theorising. See Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), 126, 91–117; Mathias RisseHow does the global order harm the poor?Philosophy and Public Affairs, 33 (2005), 349376; Lea Ypi, Robert E. Goodin, and Christian Barry, ‘Associative duties, global justice and the colonies’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 37 (2009), 103135; Catherine Lu, ‘Colonialism as structural injustice: historical responsibility and contemporary redress’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 19 (2011), 261281. I am not here concerned to ask which duties of justice, if any, descendants of former colonisers owe descendants of the former colonised. My principal concern is to consider what historical reasons may prevent us from engaging with our distant peers and what we might do to remedy the situation.

  6. 6

    Consider the opening anecdote of Chinua Achebe's An Image of Africa (Harmondsworth, Mddx.: Penguin, 1983): ‘In the fall of 1974 I was walking one day from the English Department at the University of Massachusetts to a parking lot. It was a fine autumn morning such as encouraged friendliness to passing strangers. Brisk youngsters were hurrying in all directions, many of them obviously freshmen in their first flush of enthusiasm. An older man going the same way as I turned and remarked to me how very young they came these days. I agreed. Then he asked me if I was a student too. I said no. I was a teacher. What did I teach? African literature. Now that was funny, he said because he knew a fellow who taught the same thing, or perhaps it was African history, in a certain community college not far from here. It always surprised him, he went on to say, because he never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff, you know. By that time I was walking much faster. “Oh well”, I heard him say finally, behind me: “I guess I have to take your course to find out.” ’ Achebe's example is not an isolated case. Children in Europe (and no doubt elsewhere) are still routinely inducted into African backwardness at school. My seven year old talks about Africa as a place where there is no water, no electricity, and where everyone is always hungry. In his mental map it is the most distant of places: humans are so powerful, he tells me, that they could round up all the lower animals and ship them off to some far-flung place: Africa, say. Similarly, I have had well-meaning graduate students unselfconsciously refer, in global justice seminars, to ‘African tribes’ as exemplifying all that is wrong with modern Africa.

  7. 7

    Or not so quietly: the editor of a major academic journal roundly remarked to me, ‘the trouble with African philosophy is that it is so bad’. See also Kwesi Yankah, ‘Globalization and the African scholar’, Reclaiming the Human Sciences and the Humanities through African Perspectives, ed. H. Lauer and K. Anyidoho (Accra: Sub-Saharan Press, 2012), vol. 1, pp. 6064. To reiterate: stereotyping is practically unavoidable. Nor do we stereotype only Africans. Africans in turn stereotype Americans and Europeans. It is nonetheless worth asking what functions the stereotyping of particular groups or persons may fulfil in particular normative discourses, including global justice discourses.

  8. 8

    Cf. Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); Kwame Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). For further discussion, see Section V below.

  9. 9

    Cf. Ralph Austen African Economic History (London: James Currey, 1987); Jean-Francois Bayart, ‘Africa in the world: a history of extroversion’, African Affairs, 99 (2000), 217267; Christopher LaMonica, ‘Africa in international relations theory: addressing the quandary of Africa's ongoing marginalization within the discipline’, Reframing Contemporary Africa: Politics, Culture, and Society in the Global Era, ed. P. Soyinka-Airewele and R. K. Edozie (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010), pp. 351374.

  10. 10

    Crawford Young, The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 4376, 244–92. Intra-European cultural competition was more decisive in relation to the colonisation of Africa than settler politics, geo-political expansionism, or economic profit motives. A driving force behind the formal partitioning of Africa was Leopold III, King of Belgium, who did harbour dreams of an African Eldorado. Having founded his ‘International African Association’, he sought the support of an initially reluctant Queen Victoria to help rally ‘those most interested in bringing civilisation to Africa. There is an important task to be undertaken here, to which I would feel honoured to contribute’; quoted in John Reader, Africa. A Biography of the Continent (Harmondsworth, Mddx.: Penguin 1997), p. 523. Though Britain did not initially respond to Leopold's overtures, the desire not to be left behind in the scramble eventually won out. Given reluctant home populations who begrudged the financial commitment, European powers were under pressure to offer an indefeasible rationale for colonisation: the civilising argument provided it. Cf. Young, The African Colonial State, pp. 173179; also Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 9094.

  11. 11

    Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is an influential source. Ostensibly an exposé of the brutality of conquest and plunder in the Congo, Conrad's novel simultaneously ingrained in Western consciousness an image of the continent's own moral darkness. Cf. Achebe, An Image of Africa. See, relatedly, A. Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (London: Pan, 1998).

  12. 12

    Cf. Bernard Semmel, The Liberal Ideal and the Demons of Empire: Theories of Imperialism from Adam Smith to Lenin (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment Against Empire (Princeton University Press, 2000); James Tully, ‘On imperialism’, Public Philosophy in a New Key, James Tully (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), vol. 2, pp. 125222; Anthony Pagden, Lords of all the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France 1500–1800 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). For an exception to the general neglect of the history of liberal colonialism in the normative literature, see Duncan Ivison, Post-Colonial Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

  13. 13

    Russell Berman, Enlightenment or Empire. Colonial Discourse in German Culture (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1998).

  14. 14

    Berman, Enlightenment or Empire, 26.

  15. 15

    Ibid., 28.

  16. 16

    Ibid., 79. Henning Mankell offers a powerful fictionalised account of child abduction from misguided humanitarian motives in Daniel, trans. S. T. Murray (London: Vintage Press, 2011). Mankell's story of a young Herero boy abducted and subsequently abandoned by a 19th century Swedish biologist has allegorical intent: misguided humanitarianism is by no means an attitude only of our past.

  17. 17

    Cf. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Harmondsworth, Mddx.: Penguin, 1967).

  18. 18

    The racism and related claims to moral and cultural superiority of Enlightenment giants—Hume, Kant, Hegel, J.S. Mill, and so on—is well known, but is little thematised philosophically in current mainstream philosophical thinking. See, however, Andrew Walls (ed.), Race and Racism Modern Philosophy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

  19. 19

    Cf. Berman, Enlightenment or Empire, p. 203.

  20. 20

    Cf. footnote 5. The airport example relates a recent personal experience.

  21. 21

    Cf. Pauline Kleingeld, Kant and Cosmopolitanism: The Philosophical Ideal of World Citizenship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), ch. 4, pp. 92123. Contrast Robert Bernasconi, ‘Who invented to concept of race? Kant's role in the Enlightenment construction of race’, Race, ed. R. Bernasconi (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 1136.

  22. 22

    Kant, ‘Towards perpetual peace’ (8:358), Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. M. J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), Vol. 5. Unless otherwise specified, all further citations from Kant's works are taken from this volume. Page references are to the Prussian Academic edition pagination, which is reprinted in the margins of Gregor (ed.), Cambridge Edition of the Works.

  23. 23

    Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals (6:352).

  24. 24

    Cf. Georg Cavallar, The Rights of Strangers: Theories of International Hospitality, Global Community and Political Justice since Vitoria (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2002).

  25. 25

    Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals (6:230).

  26. 26

    Ibid., 6:238. By contrast, Kantian duties of virtue do not demand strict reciprocity. For more extended analysis, see Katrin Flikschuh, ‘Justice without virtue’, Kant's Metaphysics of Morals: A Critical Guide, ed. L. Denis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 5170.

  27. 27

    But contrast Arthur Isak Applbaum, ‘Forcing a people to be free’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 35 (2007), 359400.

  28. 28

    The following paragraphs are indebted to Onora O'Neill, Bounds of Justice, pp. 186202.

  29. 29

    My claim is not that we can fully achieve an ‘neutral’ attitude towards others, only that we can and should be more circumspect about the assumptions we unselfconsciously make about others.

  30. 30

    On cultural and philosophical translation, see Donald Davidson, ‘On the very idea of a conceptual scheme’, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1984), pp. 183198. Relatedly, W. V. Quine, ‘Ontological relativity’, Ontological Relativity and other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 2668.

  31. 31

    Cf. Mankell, Daniel, p. 46: ‘I try to teach [my Kalahari houseboy] to dance the polka. But he refuses. They prefer to leap. I've tried to explain that God doesn't approve of leaping people. God is a higher being, higher than me, but we have the same view, that if there is dancing to be done it should take place in regular forms, in 3/4 time or 4/4 time. But they continue to leap and wiggle the most unexpected parts of the body.’

  32. 32

    For powerful critique of attempts at cultural translation that end in misrepresentation, see Okot p'Bitek, A Short History of African Religions in Western Scholarship (New York: Diasporic African Press, 2011).

  33. 33

    Cf. O'Neill, Bounds of Justice, pp. 191197.

  34. 34

    Compare Kant's discussion of the relation between morality and culture, with special reference to hospitality rights, in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Perspective (7: 277282).

  35. 35

    I do believe that physical exposure to different contexts can be conducive to appreciating the intelligible distinctiveness of others’ moral and philosophical thinking. Of course, travel need not have this effect—as the Abyssinian expedition illustrates. Still, and although I cannot discuss this here, physical exposure to distant contexts is likely to be conducive to conceptual fieldwork. See, insightfully, Michael Jackson, Life within Limits: Well-Being in a World of Want (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

  36. 36

    John Austin, ‘A plea for excuses’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 57 (1956/7), 130, at p. 9. Many thanks to one of the journal's reviewers who alerted me to this source.

  37. 37

    Cf. Quine, ‘Ontological relativity’. See also Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958).

  38. 38

    Cf. Davidson, ‘On the very idea of a conceptual scheme’; relatedly, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: Penguin, 2006).

  39. 39

    Some readers may find that my remarks on the intelligibility of different structures of philosophical thinking jar with my rejection of Forster's efforts at translation of different value schemes. In fact, I want to drive a wedge between translatability and intelligibility: we need not ‘translate’ to find others’ ways of thinking intelligible.

  40. 40

    Cf. Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), especially pp. 1133.

  41. 41

    I am grateful to Mat Coakley for fruitful discussion on the relation between diachronically and synchronically different philosophical theories.

  42. 42

    Cf. Allen Wood, ‘What dead philosophers mean’, Unsettling Obligations (Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 2002), pp. 213244.

  43. 43

    Beautifully explored in Lewis White Beck, Essays on Kant and Hume (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

  44. 44

    Thanks to one of this journal's reviewers for pressing me to come clean on the issue of parochialism.

  45. 45

    Cf. Wiredu, Cultural Universals, pp. 4560.

  46. 46

    This should not be too hard: Rawlsian constructivism is the currently dominant example of a philosophical method that denies the availability of the view form nowhere.

  47. 47

    Cf. Onora O'Neill, ‘Abstraction, idealization and ideology’, Ethical Theories and Contemporary Problems, ed. J. G. D. Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 5556.

  48. 48

    Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 5456.

  49. 49

    Olúfémi Táíwò, ‘Post-independence African political philosophy’, Companion to African Philosophy, ed. K. Wiredu (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 243260.

  50. 50

    Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, p. 59. See also A. G. A. Bello, ‘Some methodological controversies in African philosophy’, Companion, ed. Wiredu , pp. 263273.

  51. 51

    Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, p. 30.

  52. 52

    Wiredu's work focuses on epistemology and the philosophy of language. For a similar approach in relation to moral and political philosophy, see Kwame Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity. For issues in the metaphysics of personhood in Western and African philosophical thinking, see Segun Gbadegesin, ‘An outline of a theory of destiny’, African Philosophy, ed. L. Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 5168.

  53. 53

    Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, p. 46.

  54. 54

    After their defeat by the British in 1900, the Ashante of modern Ghana, for example, hid away the Golden Stool—the symbol of Ashante unity as well as spiritual and political authority—thereby ensuring the clandestine survival of traditional authority throughout colonial times.

  55. 55

    See, importantly, Peter Ekeh, ‘Colonialism and the two publics in Africa: a theoretical statement’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 17 (1975), 91112.

  56. 56

    Austin, ‘A plea for excuses’, p. 1.