Engaging with a Global Form of Life: On teaching Africana Philosophy

Engaging with a Global Form of Life: On teaching Africana Philosophy

—by William M. Paris

How the work of African American and Africana thinkers helps students grapple with the complexity of the world

Working on philosophical problems drawn from African American, Caribbean, French, and German traditions, I have always considered my work in some sense “global.” Not the whole globe, mind you. But given that my areas of inquiry concern political injustices in the contexts of empire, colonialism, and racial apartheid, some notion of the globe and its empirical history have always proven intrinsic to the way I approach philosophy. I not only see historical figures as embedded within specific historical situations but also try to analyze how those situations were often more complex than these individuals realized.

For instance, in my first semester here at the University of Toronto, I taught an Africana Political Philosophy course for undergraduates. In one unit of the class, we covered African American thinkers writing in the aftermath of the failure of Reconstruction. We canvassed the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, Claudia Jones, Hubert Harrison, and A. Philip Randolph as they all, in their own manner, attempted to come to grips with why racist violence was increasing in the face of formal (though) partial equality. I tried to get my students to understand the disappointment and despair these men and women felt on realizing that the accomplishment of the world-historical effort to abolish institutional slavery left a world in which “race” seemed more alive than ever. Race science proliferated, imperial wars continued, domestic terrorism against Black and Brown folks crystallized, and amid all this, an increasingly global market was turning formal freedom into conditions of material deprivation.

Nevertheless, this disappointment and despair forced philosophy to change as these men and women sought to understand their newly emerging society, explain its causal structure, and renew normative arguments for freedom and equality. They often did not agree, and would forcefully argue against one another, but they all shared a commitment to grasping how the world was. I wanted my students to see both the arguments these men and women were making as well as understand the world that provoked these arguments. In practice, this meant that students learned to read an argument on its own terms and how the argument inevitably elided or misconstrued complex phenomena.

For instance, at the turn of the twentieth century, Du Bois, an African American philosopher and social scientist, was convinced that the roots of racism could be found in widespread ignorance and a lack of effective moral suasion. His most famous writing from this period, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), is in part an appeal to the consciousness of white people who he assumes do not know any better. Racism, for the young Du Bois, was a cognitive error that had become a habit—and thus could be undone through sympathy and knowledge. Du Bois somewhat reduces the complexity of racism to a problem of misrecognition rather than objective social relations, or what I call “form of life.” None of this takes away from the extraordinary depth and accomplishment of Souls, but it does bring out his specific assumptions in attempting to understand race after the formal abolition of slavery.

Racism is thus a product both of global, impersonal processes and of irrational desires.

Compare his turn-of-the-century position with his ideas after World War I. Published in 1920, Darkwater analyzes that war as a necessary outcome of European nations competing with one another for access to natural resources in Africa and dominance in the world market. Furthermore, racism seems to Du Bois to find its seat in unconscious affects and emotions, rather than in our reflective capacities. Racism is thus a product both of global, impersonal processes and of irrational desires. Du Bois comes to realize that these two spheres of social life cannot be corrected with appeals to consciousness. And so his philosophical commitments changed as the complexity of the global world came more into view.

I had worried, before I transitioned to the University of Toronto, how well my work would “translate” in Canada. After all, I think there is sometimes the misperception that African American philosophers are somewhat parochial, universalizing the social relations of “race” as if they worked the same everywhere. But studying these men and women provides the reader with references not only to ancient Greek philosophy, Roman political traditions, and German Idealism but also with interrogations of the relationship between philosophy and social science, aesthetics and epistemology, and metaphysics and politics. In other words, African American and Africana philosophers very much resemble what are considered “traditional” philosophers, even though their questions, methods, and historical resources may differ. I mean to say: these figures were never concerned with only race; they took themselves to engage with a broader form of life, to tackle universal questions.

Yet I was pleasantly surprised to find that my students needed no convincing that this type of philosophy was relevant to their experiences. They immediately grasped the effort to understand the complex world in which one lives. It did not seem to me that “race” or their identities presented any barrier to their willingness to learn and understand. My suspicion is that students already understand themselves to be caught up in global forms of life before they enter the classroom; the work is developing the tools to decipher what this means.

To engage this type of work requires real intellectual humility alongside one’s critical capacities. Nowhere did this point emerge more clearly than when I watched my students engage with the political, aesthetic, and metaphysical arguments of Marcus Garvey and his variant of Black nationalism. I marveled at my students’ sensitivity to the historical context of U.S. life in the 1920s and their defense of Garvey’s aesthetics of individual self-determination. At the same time, they ably raised important critiques about the limits of his political vision and the shortcomings of his metaphysical concept of race. In other words, they managed to productively engage the thinking of a Jamaican immigrant to the United States in a historical context far removed from their own because they took his philosophy as part of a global form of life.

In Search for a Method, Jean-Paul Sartre (1957) claims that a “philosophy is developed for the purpose of giving expression to the general movement of society.” I have always comported myself to philosophy and its “global” questions in this way. I take philosophy as an active form of life that attempts to make clearer the social and historical dynamics in which we live. Philosophy has never seemed to me an activity that is at home within itself; rather, it appears contiguous with the broader movements and fates of the world. This may make its object of inquiry more complex, perhaps more opaque. Yet it does have real stakes. If I can get my students to feel invested in those stakes, even if only for a semester, then I will have considered my philosophical activity a success.

William M. Paris is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy, with research interests in Africana philosophy, philosophy of race, political philosophy, and critical theory. He seeks to demonstrate how the work of Africana scholars can lead to a deeper understanding of contemporary conflicts. His manuscript “Black Critical Theory and the Epistemology of Utopia” argues that utopia is an essential precondition for political critique and generating knowledge.