Black Issues in Philosophy: Response to “Australian Continental Philosophy”

At the end of November into the first week of December 2017, I had the good fortune of participating in the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP) conference in Hobart, Tasmania.  It was an intellectually rich, professionally creative, and politically diverse meeting for which I had the honor of being invited by Timothy Laurie and Hannah Stark as a keynote speaker.

In my keynote address, I offered reflection on the important ritual of acknowledging the ancestral people of the land.   What happens to a world in which rejection of descendants entail the erasure of becoming ancestors?    It’s a matter on which I have written on the academic study of ethics and moral philosophy in my book Disciplinary Decadence: Living thought in Trying Times.  I also reflected on what my colleagues such as, in Canada, Glenn Coulthard, author of Red Skins, White Masks, John DuFour in the United States, and the various Indigenous and First Nation peoples on North, Central, and South American side of the planet would say.

It was not my first time in Australia, and I’ve also spent a little time in New Zealand five years earlier at the invitation of the Maori Association of Social Science.  Though I witnessed the ritual of acknowledgment in those other visits, there was something different about it this time.  I have between my first and recent visits thought quite a bit about what I call the decolonization of normative life.

My trip to Hobart was also my first to that part of the world at the invitation of a non-indigenous group.

There were many things I appreciated about the ASCP conference.  I loved the first-day postgraduate session in which I had the good pleasure of meeting so many wonderful students, junior academics, and, among us senior scholars, the extraordinary Michelle Boulous Walker, who was the first of several great mentors of various students I was to meet over the course of the week.

Michelle Boulous Walker, Remy Low, and Timothy Laurie in post-graduate/development day session discussing navigating institutions and professional wellbeing.

Another major scholar, Moira Gatens, was celebrated in one of the best tributes I have witnessed students giving a mentor.  As the Tasmanian weather changed by the hour, the auditorium fell into a humid, sweltering heat, yet not a single member of the audience left. We were enthralled from witnessing two and a half hours of sustained engagement with Gatens’s ideas.  I learned so much about her work from that session that it even had me returning to some of my studies of Spinoza!

Moira Gatens, Timothy Laurie, Simone Bignall, and Louise Richardson-Self in special session on the work of Moira Gatens.

I enjoyed the many sessions on a wide array of topics ranging from discussions of ethics, time, and metaphysics to creative syntheses such as Fanon on Benjamin on dialectics (presented by Anisha Sankar), decoloniality in philosophy of the city (Tony Fry), resilience and agency among sex workers (Lauren McGrow), precarious time (Briohny Walker), portraits of indigenous children (Joanne Faulkner), the cosmopolitan ethics of Negritude in a meeting of Césaire, Deleuze, Senghor, with insights from Spinoza (Simone Bignall), and too many to mention here.

Thrilled by my time with that intellectual community, appreciating what its members were clearly trying to achieve, I encouraged a reflective piece from one of the participants, Bryan Mukandi.  He is a junior scholar and physician who had migrated to Australia and recently completed his Ph.D. in philosophy there.   Young scholars are the future, and one of the missions of this blog series is to provide opportunities for them to express their ideas.

Additionally, although this is a blog of the American Philosophical Association, we live in an interconnected global environment in which transcending parochialism fosters knowledge.  After all, it’s not as though the United States has a pristine history and present with regard to its treatment of Indigenous and First Nation peoples.

Mukandi and I are, as well, Africana philosophers in countries where Native peoples speak but are seldom heard outside their own communities.  In Australia, there is the additional meeting of “black” and Indigenous.  Mukandi, raised in Zimbabwe, offers an awareness of and sensitivity to being treated as alien in one’s ancestral land.  His blog piece, “Australian Continental Philosophy,” initiated a valuable correspondence.

It struck me that the responses to Mukandi’s reflection raised issues of interest not only to those who specialize in what is generally known as “continental philosophy” but also to those working in academic philosophy across the globe.   Among them are the formulations and problematics of study and the challenges of building institutions for their study.   I see this first-hand in the many institutions with which I work.   After Hobart, I spoke in South Africa and Senegal.  These issues are debated in those countries as they are in the United States, Canada, and many across the Americas.  In one exchange on Mukandi’s article, I remarked:

The key problem is the word “continental.”   If what is meant is Euro-continental, that should be stated in the way I suggest [that it is more appropriate to use] “Euro-modern” instead of “modern.”  Australia is, after all, a continent, and one could as well use the term “continental” to refer to its unique history and set of ideas.  The same [is so] for Africa, South America, etc.  [I recommended Nelson Maldonado-Torres’s insightful essay, “Toward a Critique of Continental Reason: Africana Studies and the Decolonization of Imperial Cartographies in the Americas,” published in Not Only the Master’s Tools, ed. by Jane Anna Gordon and me (NY: Routledge, 2006), pp. 51–84.]  Here is how bad it can be.  I just received the latest issue of journal published in Francophone Africa.  Its three opening articles raise problems of translation and concepts of ethnicity in Africa.  Its remaining eight articles, all written by African philosophers, focus on canonical figures.   Who are these figures? Hegel, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Heidegger, Marcel, and Popper.  Since the Francophone world is dominated by Euro-continental philosophy, that journal exemplifies the problem [under discussion here] beyond Australia.  This is a debate unique to what is called continental philosophy.   Though it’s more hidden in what is called “analytical philosophy” (many proponents presume philosophy is European), the claim comes to the fore in academic societies such as the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP) in Australia and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) in the USA.   I think putting this debate out in the open would be a good thing.

Studying European canonical figures in philosophy is not in and of itself problematic.  Doing so as the only legitimate exemplification of studying the history of philosophy or what it means to do philosophy, especially at the expense or exclusion of other traditions, is another matter.  Addressing that issue is one of the missions of Black Issues in Philosophy.  It is with that in mind that this installment of Black Issues welcomes an opinion letter by Simone Bignall and an addendum with some corrections from Bryan Mukandi.

Lewis R. Gordon

 

Opinion

By Simone Bignall

As someone who has for decades worked professionally against colonialism and governmental racism and alongside Indigenous academics and activists, I understand the views expressed by Bryan Mukandi in his blog post.

I certainly do not dispute the problem of whiteness in Australian philosophy, or in the academy and Australian society more widely. However, I do think Dr. Mukandi’s criticisms are more than a little unfair on the critical intelligence and ethical sensibility of many members who comprise the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP) and I would like to alert readers to a number of things left unsaid in his blog.

First, the ASCP is in fact acutely aware of the issue of “place.” You can see this in the focus of the ASCP-linked book series published by Rowman and Littlefield. The expressed statement of purpose of this book series is as follows:

Continental Philosophy in Austral-Asia” explores and showcases the diverse ways in which European philosophy has been interpreted and put to use according to the contexts and questions particular to life in Australia, New Zealand and Asia. How does European thought find itself at home in Australasia, and connect to climates, societies and peoples other than those in which it found its first foothold? Taking seriously the commitment to historicity and place found in the continental tradition, authors in this series challenge the centrality of European culture and forms of life, to ask how the various social and political impasses in which Australasian countries have become entrenched owe their provenance to European modes of thought and of life. They show how continental philosophy may help to think beyond such impasses; and moreover, how regional perspectives can contribute new insights to the issues and concepts defining continental thought itself. “Continental Philosophy in Austral-Asia” presents new critical perspectives on philosophical methodologies practiced globally, thereby opening continental philosophy to novel imperatives and trajectories.

The first book published in this series was a reflection on Australian colonialism.

The ASCP is a relatively young intellectual society, which came into being around 1995. Its primary purpose was to support Continental Philosophers in our region in the context of the institutional dominance of the Analytic tradition, a feature that remains evident today in the constituency of the Australasian Association of Philosophy.

It is far less easy for Continental Philosophers to find careers in the Australasian Philosophical academy, vis-à-vis our Analytic counterparts. Most of us find positions outside of Philosophy: in Literature, Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, History, etc. This complexion means that many ASCP members are particularly sensitive to concepts and politics of “difference”—which has long been a focus of work within the Society.

The ASCP website indicates it is expressly and publically committed to “the development of a pluralistic Australasian philosophical community, linking those working in diverse institutions, disciplines, and areas of inquiry, and encouraging productive and collegial relations between postgraduate students and professional academics and researchers. The Society actively supports principles of gender equity, encouraging the participation of women in philosophy at a professional level, and is further committed to fostering the dialogue between diverse philosophical and cultural traditions both within Australia and internationally.”

Discussions of race and colonialism at ASCP meetings did not commence only when Professor Lewis Gordon gave his recent keynote address at our annual meeting; in fact, in 2005 Robert Bernasconi also delivered a keynote on the philosophy of race.

The conference archives indicate that speakers of color have appeared on the conference program since its beginnings, and sessions on race and gender have always been included in ASCP conferences; indeed this is mandated in our conference guidelines as part of a formal commitment to equity and diversity in the ASCP and in the Academy. Thus, the ASCP has in fact provided—consciously and conscientiously—an intellectual space for the philosophical investigation of race and colonialism.

Notwithstanding, the ASCP is well aware that Black and Indigenous students of Continental Philosophy are greatly underrepresented in the Society and in the philosophical academy more broadly, and its members and leadership have been taking deliberate steps to promote inclusivity of the discipline. In this regard it shares concerns with sister organizations such as the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) in the United States. When she was a keynote speaker in Australia in 2015, Professor Amy Allen participated in a dedicated Equity and Diversity Panel at the ASCP conference to share insights about initiatives taken in the U.S. to combat racism and sexism in the academy and increase inclusivity in philosophical societies.

The ASCP book series, our E&D activities and reports, the special consideration we give to race and gender when assessing applications for bursaries, and themed conferences such as the 2017 conference in Hobart, can make valuable contributions that potentially over time create shifts in the attitudes and habits of professional Philosophers. And yet, in view of the slowness of the structural changes these initiatives have been seeking to encourage, many of us who have been involved for some time in leadership roles are cognizant of our overall lack of influence over the interests, attitudes and values of scholarly research in the region. Indeed, it seems unfair to criticize or to rue the Eurocentrism of the ASCP (and its meetings) when the study of Continental European Philosophy is its purpose for existence.

Many ASCP members also participate in cognate scholarly societies such as the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia and the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association. However, in contrast to these organizations, the ASCP’s specific strategic need to assert the particularity and relevance of Continental Philosophy in Australia, against the Analytic tradition, means that the primary focus of the ASCP is, necessarily and unsurprisingly, on Continental Philosophy.

Our Society includes a main body of members who are interested in understanding and developing key aspects of thought within the European tradition—and many of these members do not take race and colonialism, or Continental Philosophy’s relationship with non-European traditions, as their focus—although many of us do. Our keynote speakers therefore likely always will include globally renowned Philosophers who value and work specifically on key thinkers and traditions of thought in Continental European Philosophy (Hegel, Heidegger, Arendt, Deleuze, Derrida, Irigaray and so forth).

Even so, one of the distinctive characteristics of the ASCP is that it also takes European thought as a target for critique, not only from the perspective of feminism but also from the perspective of non-European traditions, including Asian Philosophy and African Philosophy, by postcolonial scholars who engage rigorously with European Philosophy.

It is true that we have not yet had an Indigenous Philosopher as a keynote, though Professor Nakata has been asked to participate in an ASCP conference. The ASCP certainly is not resistant to the notion of Indigenous Continental Philosophers in Australia, and in fact actively encourages the involvement of Indigenous academics as potential members, speakers, and conference delegates. However, the continuing overwhelming whiteness of the Society indicates that these efforts have not so far been as fruitful as hoped. In fact, we have often found that philosophers and other scholars working predominantly in non-European traditions are more interested in pursuing (or reviving after colonialism) their own systems of thought or pursuing general critiques of colonialism than they are in engaging deeply with European systems. This affects the potential for involving such thinkers as ASCP keynote speakers.

For example, Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson is an undisputed leader in the field of critical race and whiteness studies and, like Professor Irene Watson, on many occasions she has been a keynote speaker on these matters and on Indigenous concepts of Being and Law in Australia and elsewhere. To suggest otherwise devalues the significant reputation and celebration these thinkers enjoy in Australia. But Professor Moreton-Robinson’s work, though philosophical in nature, does not engage deeply with Continental European thought and for this reason she has not so far been invited as an ASCP keynote. While I admire her work and reference it in my own scholarship, it is evident that she considers Western thought” in its entirety as party to the colonial enterprise of individualist white possession. She is not herself interested in exploring how Western thought is actually a very diverse affair including significant traditions of non-possession and anti-imperialist concepts of non-sovereign and relational being (evident, for example, in the Cynics, in Husserlian intersubjectivity, in much contemporary Continental political thinking, and in European socialist-anarchist and pacifist philosophy).

 

Dr. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Distinguished Professor and Dean of Indigenous Research and Engagement at the Queensland University of Technology.

As part of a responsible approach to equity and diversity considerations, the ASCP holds that it is not uncomplicatedly appropriate or desirable for conference organizers to request the participation of Black or Indigenous speakers who engage peripherally with Continental thought but whose interests and specific expertise lies with alternative philosophical traditions. This would, of course, fail to meet the requirements of a keynote speaker at a meeting of expert Continental Philosophers. But, equally worrying, it also would put such speakers in the unenviable and unfair position of having to defend themselves against a large audience of such experts; or else require them to engage more fully with Continental European thought than they actually wish to or have use for. Lewis Gordon was invited to speak as a keynote at the most recent ASCP meeting because he brings together Africana Philosophy and Continental Philosophy in critical and mutually productive ways, and is expert in both. And he is a brilliant orator!

Overall, then, I would like to ask participants in this forum to appreciate how the ASCP, while a relatively young scholarly society in Australia, has expressed a set of pluralist ambitions extending over the past two decades. While not exempt from the institutional racism and sexism that accompanies the origins of the imperial modern Western University and the discipline of Philosophy, the ASCP certainly is not the enemy of equity and diversity.

The ASCP takes as its reason for being the study of Continental Philosophy, and very often (though not always) this includes a critical analysis of European systems of thought and their complicity with racism and colonialism and other kinds of exploitation. In my view and in my experience, the ASCP is well aware of its challenge to provide a specialist forum for Continental European thought, while resisting and critiquing the racism and sexism and associated privilege that has long attended this tradition.

This is something the ASCP Executive is mindful of, and which we do try to encourage in our formal policies and programs, our book series, our membership, in dedicated conference streams, in the E&D workshops we convene, and in our effort to invite diverse keynotes who engage comprehensively with the Continental tradition. It is therefore quite possible to see the recent meeting in Hobart, where Professor Gordon was a keynote speaker, not as an anomaly for a Society entrenched in racist hostility and inhospitable to speakers of color but rather as the successful materialization of the ASCP’s formally expressed and long-professed commitment to the social principles of equity and diversity.

Obviously there is far more for the ASCP to do, and whiteness remains a significant issue for our Society and for Australian society more generally, but I think it misrepresents the nature of the problem and obscures the potential for remedy when this effort remains unacknowledged or is denied. It conveys the (false) impression that the ASCP is self-unaware of its defining Eurocentrism and its place in a world indelibly marked by European imperialism, and is hostile to diversity and so perhaps is not a place Black academics can ever occupy happily, or even would want to inhabit.

I hope to have indicated that this suggestion is demonstratively unfair and in fact potentially reinforces the condition of alienation and exclusion that defines the problem of whiteness in the first place. I acknowledge and respect that most of my Indigenous colleagues have more pressing interests and more urgent concerns than involvement in the ASCP and the study of European thought, which in Australia and elsewhere has been imposed as a colonial focus to the detriment of Indigenous knowledge systems.

However, in my opinion, a possible remedy to the problem of whiteness in Australian Continental Philosophy is for Black and Indigenous philosophers who are interested in European Thought to take seriously the ASCP’s formal and publically expressed commitments to equity and diversity; to hold the Society accountable to these principles; and to become actively involved in its governance and development. Enrolled members can nominate for roles on the ASCP Executive Committee, and, with the support of their University as a host institution, each year a committee of general members volunteers to organize the annual conference.

Full participation in a society is in many ways a continuation of the struggle of oppressed peoples for equitable enjoyment of their human, civil and social rights, which in Australia has gathered pace since the 1967 Referendum. It also echoes, from a distant time and another place of the European empire, the clarion call of the resistance fighter Toussaint Louverture. In 1801 he held the thinkers and architects of the Continent to account when he claimed for colonized Haitians the humanist principles of liberty, equality and fraternity enshrined in the French Revolutionary doctrine of the Rights of Man. In this spirit, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage readers of this forum who are involved in the study of Continental Philosophy to take up membership of the ASCP, to become actively involved in the Society’s activities, and to share with current ASCP members in the ongoing task of the decolonization of European thought.

 

Simone Bignall recently retired as Chair of the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy and now serves as an Equity and Diversity Officer on the ASCP Executive Committee. She is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Policy, based in the Office of Indigenous Strategy and Engagement at Flinders University of South Australia. Her book publications include Postcolonial Agency: Critique and Constructivism (2010); Deleuze and the Postcolonial (2010); and Agamben and Colonialism (2012). She is currently completing a work titled The Excolonial Event: Ethics after Enjoyment, which brings strains of Continental Philosophy into alignment with some Indigenous Australian and other non-European philosophies, to conceptualize a program of resistance to ongoing problems of settler-colonialism and conflicted perceptions of entitlement to (stolen) land in Australia.

 

Addendum with Correction

By Bryan Mukandi

The 2017 ASCP conference in Hobart was brilliant. I regret that in my blog post on 26 December 2017, I didn’t highlight the fact that the conference organizers, led by Hannah Stark and Timothy Laurie, both invited Lewis Gordon, and then worked incredibly hard to create and hold a particular kind of space. It was one that centered discussion of coloniality and decolonizing our practice in what, to my mind, was a radical departure from previous conferences.

I also regret making a factual error. I had asked some senior academics who have been involved with the ASCP since its inception if they could remember another keynote who wasn’t white, and they couldn’t. That’s no excuse for getting the facts wrong, and the fact remains that Gordon is the second person of color to keynote at the ASCP, not the first. That said, he’s the second person in about 20 years. I realize that he isn’t the second to be asked, but I recall not too long ago, there was an event with an all male lineup of speakers. I believe an organizer explained that although invitations to speak had been extended to some women, those invitations had been declined. The consensus, at least among those with whom I discussed the incident, was that the matter of invitations being declined doesn’t justify the eventual lineup.

The question of who is available and the expertise of speakers vis-à-vis the expertise and expectations of the audience is the more significant one. Underpinning it, in my opinion, is the question, “What is Continental Philosophy in Australia?” I don’t think the answer is (necessarily or exclusively), “The study of works written by European thinkers/writers/philosophers.”

At one of the panels at the conference, Max Deutscher, one of our philosophical “elders,” made the comment that there was a time when the question of what Continental Philosophy in Australia ought to be was a pressing one among some philosophers. Max went on to say that he doesn’t think Continental Philosophy here should be a European “thing,” and that perhaps it’s time to make the question front and center. But even if it was decided that Continental Philosophy here is the study of Continental European Philosophy in Australia, rather than the study and “production” of Continental Australian/Australasian Philosophy, whatever that is or may be, there remains a hermeneutic question. On what basis, and on whose grounds, are those texts to be studied? The study of “canonical” European texts, using interpretive frameworks derived from European thinkers, even when “inclusive” in terms of who is invited to participate in the project, remains to my mind a colonial project nonetheless.

I don’t know yet what my position is in regard to Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s work and ideas. But I do think every philosopher who studies in Australia ought to grapple with her work during the course of their studies. I think her “I Still Call Australia Home,” for example, should be a canonical text here, given that it is as philosophically rich and troubling and thought-provoking a work on sovereignty as is Thomas Hobbes’s, Jacques Derrida’s, V.Y. Mudimbe’s, and Achille Mbembe’s—other thinkers who inform my own thinking on the subject. Moreover, I think Moreton-Robinson points to a philosophical practice that is less closely fettered to European antecedents and more closely tied to “what calls for thinking” here, now, than the aforementioned.

Regarding the issue of “the participation of Black or Indigenous speakers” more broadly, the individual who seamlessly traverses various philosophical traditions is exceptional. When selecting invited speakers, our approach should not only be for a high standard but also mindful to the dangers of “the exception.” The exceptional shouldn’t be the standard imposed on philosophers of color when that clearly isn’t the standard imposed on white philosophers. There have been plenty of white keynotes who present work that is at best unremarkable. I’m sure we can all also recall keynotes where we had to endure someone speaking about something that few in the audience understood or could follow. I am willing to sit through esoteric, uninteresting, and poorly delivered keynotes given my understanding of the rationale behind a keynote address:

  • To honor a speaker and in so doing commend their work as being of great importance to the body hosting the conference
  • To provide the audience an opportunity to learn, and again, to learn something deemed by the organizers as being of great importance.

If that’s the case, then there are several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander thinkers, and philosophers of color more broadly who would make excellent keynotes at future ASCP conferences, depending of course, on how the question of what constitutes continental philosophy here is answered.

 

Bryan Mukandi has a medical degree from the University of Zimbabwe and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Queensland, where he works as a lecturer in medical ethics. His research interests revolve around how me make sense of others and ourselves, and how that affects our health well-being.

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