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Debt and Duty: Kant, Derrida, and African Philosophy

Bruce B. Janz
Augustana University College

I. Derrida and the Place of Philosophy

When one thinks of Derrida, Kant, and the university, the work that immediately comes to mind is Derrida’s 1980 paper "Mochlos: or, the Conflict of the Faculties," contained in the volume edited by Richard Rand known as Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties.1 Less known, but also concerned with Kant and the place of philosophy in the university, is his paper "Of the Humanities and the Philosophical Discipline" in the ejournal Surfaces.2 This paper arose from a talk he gave at UNESCO and was followed, two issues later, by a roundtable discussion based on the paper.

Both "Mochlos" and "Of the Humanities" begin with a similar question. "Mochlos" begins, "If we could say we (but have I not already said it?), we might perhaps ask ourselves: where are we?" "Of the Humanities" begins, "I will begin with the question, "where?" Not directly with the question, "where are we?" or "where have we come to?" but "where does the question of the right to philosophy take place?," which can be immediately translated by "where ought it take place?" Similar questions, but not identical: the earlier paper asks, "where are we", while the later paper asks not "where are we" but "where does the question of the right to philosophy take place?"

Where? And what is the answer that each paper gives to the question? In "Mochlos", Derrida outlines Kant’s attempt to position philosophy as a speaker of truth over against the faculties which operate in the interests of an outside interest. "Mochlos" has been much discussed both in Logomachia and elsewhere.3 Derrida, in familiar style, takes a classic (if neglected) text and teases out a new set of meanings than are apparent at first reading. Kant’s point was to position philosophy against the professional disciplines which were sponsored by a higher authority. Philosophy (taken broadly as the liberal disciplines) is regarded as the "lower" faculty which nevertheless has access to the truth of propositions precisely because it acts from freedom, rather than from the imperatives of revelation, the state, or the courts. As such, philosophy should be left alone to pursue its own objectives (rather than be censured by the state), because without some discipline to focus on truth, human reason is not truly represented. The higher disciplines are useful tools to obtain certain goals, but cannot "police" themselves, since they do not have the ability to discern whether their stated ends are the result of reason or simply inclination. So, each faculty brings its unique abilities, not in a war but in a dialectical process that has a similar goal.

Derrida does not of course take Kant’s optimistic progressivism very seriously, nor does he imagine that philosophy has some access to either pure reason or eternal Truth. He chooses to focus on another word: responsibility. Responsibility has nothing to do with keeping the university "pure," in part because there is no "pure" language on which to base it4; rather, it recognises what Kant saw, that there is a conflict in the university between autonomy or reason and action. Kant no doubt thought that philosophy brought clarity to the ad-hoc world of affairs represented by the higher disciplines; Derrida is more likely to invert that opposition, to recognise that action has its own clarity that is undermined by the conflicted language that philosophy engages in. The memorable image that Derrida invokes is of the anthropomorphic university, walking on two feet, each step possible only because one foot is pressing against the foundation of the other foot. Autonomous reason takes off from the grounding of traditional law. Active affairs in the world take off from the performances of language available as an object of inquiry to philosophy. No longer "higher" and "lower," we now have side by side, each moving because of the resistance of the other, each leveraging against the other.

In "Of the Humanities," on the other hand, Derrida is less interested in establishing the place of philosophy in a conflicted academy, and more interested in exploring the ways in which the "cosmopolitical" ideal of Kant’s makes any sense today. Unlike "Mochlos," Derrida looks outside rather than inside the academy. He points out that Kant argues that it is the unsociability of men which nature uses to push us toward constructing artificial institutions, which bring about peace. Our natural unsociability eventually makes possible the ends of reason and the production of the institutions of European modernity. In other words, Kant recognises that philosophy is founded on conflict and division. To go back to philosophy’s origin to discover its purpose cannot therefore be a matter of finding a unified and coherent point. Memory must take into account Greco-European origins, but it must also recognise the conflicted nature of those origins. This means that universalist understandings of philosophy must be resisted (no surprise there), but also it also means engaging philosophy in non-traditional languages, in ways that recognises both the traditional and the new aspects of the problems of philosophy.

The door then seems to be open to African philosophy to find its place. But while the door may be ajar, we must find the way to walk through it.

II. African Philosophy and its Communities

The place of philosophy is in relation to its communities. It has, to use Derrida’s phrase, its debts and duties. Derrida’s contribution is to recognise that truth can be expressed from this place precisely because of the place philosophy occupies, rather than some special faculty of philosophy to apprehend eternal verities. He also enables us to consider the ways in which philosophy does serve to challenge the pretensions of those disciplines which deem themselves to be place-less, or regard themselves as em-placed in such a way as to simply combine their unique talents to solve a difficult problem.

So, what is it to do philosophy in this place? This stands as a counterpoint to the metaphysical questions, usually the first questions asked by African philosophers themselves, which is "What is African philosophy?" or "Does African philosophy exist?" It also stands against the bureaucratic question, the question asked by African universities and politicians when it comes time to restrict budgets and opposition: Is African philosophy good for anything?

Derrida’s answer to "where", for philosophy in general, evokes the image of the human, walking with both right and left feet, bracing each foot against the other to move forward. This figure, of course, is more like a golem than a human being, for it does not have a control centre that gives it grace and agility. There is nothing natural about this being; rather, more like an anti-romantic, larger than life creation, it staggers forward to a destination as yet unknown.

Where. By the time of "Of the Humanities," this golem has a bit more character, and the question of direction is put more broadly. Instead of asking about the place of philosophy in the academy, Derrida through Kant asks about the place of philosophy in the world. Kant wants to imagine a universal (and therefore philosophical) history, but as Derrida points out this project stands in danger of becoming literature, that is, of simply being a representation having no basis in reality. To resist the possibility that universal history or philosophy might just be literature, Kant takes his starting point from the history of Greece and Rome, as opposed to the "barbaric" nations. So, the cosmopolitical becomes rooted in the hegemony of Europe.

So, where is African philosophy, then? It becomes all the more paradoxical, not just as the juxtaposition of a conceptual universal with a geographical particular, but as the juxtaposition of a tradition of thought that does not have its roots in Kant’s story about how we tell our grand history, and how we keep it from just becoming an interesting story with no basis in reality. African philosophy cannot be delivered from the paradox through the ersatz inclusion that is afforded Chinese or Indian philosophy, as its textual history is much less clear, and its potential for conversation with Western philosophy much less obvious. It is outside the "history of reason" that makes sense out of it, and that brings it into the oppositional role that Derrida describes so well in "Mochlos." As Emmanuel Eze has argued, Kant marginalises the African as a postulate of pure reason in his writings on geography.5 So, if African philosophy’s place is to be identified, it seems much more problematic to link it to this grand tale as Kant does. Needless to say, Derrida is not going to remain in this place.

Adding to the problems, however, is that there are layers of "place" that African philosophy encounters. It is one thing to ask about the place of African philosophy, but that question, like all platial questions has many possibilities. If a person was to respond to the question "Where are you?", that person would find many answers that point not only to geotemporal politics ("I am in Alberta," a designation that would not have made sense 1000 years ago, even standing in the same "place" in relation to "natural" landmarks) but also to bodily position (I am at my desk), comportment (I am at work), relation (I am son of Jacob, in my family tree – I have a place in a lineage), spatial designators (I am at a certain longitude and latitude), and origin (I am where I am from). "Where are you?" cannot be asked without also asking "Who are you?" And while neither of these questions affords a single answer and both are always undermined by their binary oppositions, the question "where are you?" in particular gives a plenitude of answers.

This is the problem for African philosophy. Indeed, one might argue it is the problem for any philosophy, but most others live with the accretions of certainty about their own place, such that the plenitude of answers cannot show forth. In this sense African philosophy has a great deal to teach philosophy from the rest of the world. The problem, as I suggest, is that African philosophy is not in no-place, but in a plenitude of places, and many of these turn out to contradict each other. This golem would not walk very far, for it has more than the "right foot" of the higher disciplines to concern itself with. Leverage becomes much more difficult when the other end of the lever is so varied, multiple, and contradictory. African philosophy’s leverage is in its tension, but it can only happen when the whole lever apparatus is in some way continuous with philosophy, part of philosophy’s communities.

To what am I referring? African philosophy finds itself at the heart of an artificial institution that has only a relatively recent history in Africa, and a history that has tended to replicate the methodologies of the West. We tend not to ask whether there is an African physics or biology. We do talk of African sociology and anthropology, although as often as not that refers to an object of study that has its origins in the Western academy. We also speak of African literature and religion; when these are not disguised anthropological designations, they tend to be regarded as expressions of Africanity which beg the question of the nature of that elusive category. African philosophy falls into this sometimes, but it also stands in opposition to these sorts of reductions. It draws on "traditional" African thought in the form of sage philosophy, proverb philosophy, and even ethnophilosophy, yet it stands in uneasy tension to the less critical forms of these as well. In the perennial question "What is African philosophy?", there is really the question: "What place does African philosophy find itself, and where is it made possible?" Derrida shows us the problems of simply relying on tradition; what Derrida does not show us is the way that this African tradition, though fragmented and contradictory, can form a part of the African understanding of the university. The university did not originate in Africa, but just as philosophy need not be in Greek or German to be "authentic," so the African university need not find its unique indigenous origin to avoid being seen as derivative.

African philosophy also finds itself in oppositions within the academy itself. Not only is it both inside and outside an academy whose history is elsewhere, but it is also in tension with other disciplines within that academy. "Mochlos" has already pointed out how this might be possible in the Western context; we might add to Derrida’s gloss on Kant that African philosophy also has to consider its position in relation to other disciplines and the university structure in Africa itself. It not only brings "truth" as reflective critique to those disciplines that operate on the mandate of political authorities; it also must raise to question the position of those disciplines in relation to the Western academy they replicate. African sociology, for instance, may not only make itself useful to a set of political imperatives, but may also attempt to uncritically replicate the methodologies of Western sociology without asking whether they are appropriate for a particular setting. If the methodologies of the social sciences, in particular, are not raised to question, they will continue to be answers to epistemological questions that have their history elsewhere, and do not have an understanding of local knowledge.

And this raises another opposition that African philosophy finds itself in: African philosophy finds itself as a junior member of a discipline that, more often than not, does not acknowledge its existence. While the APA has begun holding panels at its conferences on African philosophy, it is a long way from being accepted in philosophy departments outside of Africa (indeed, sometimes even within Africa) as a relevant and interesting aspect of philosophy. Is it possible that African philosophy is the left foot of Western philosophy, reflectively critiquing it even as it becomes the "higher disciplines" and follows its own political path?

Finally (although not exhaustively), African philosophy stands in opposition to the governments in the countries in which it operates. "What is the use of African philosophy?", ask those who have the power. What they mean is, what use is African philosophy to me, to this government? Can we, for example, find ways of supporting an existing political ideology in such a way that intellectuals will be brought on side? It is no accident that there is a department of government at the University of Nairobi, but not a department of Political Studies. Political studies implies there might be more than one way of reflecting on governance, and that represents a threat to the existing regime. A department of government, on the other hand, studies the current political structure and finds ways to make it more efficient. Kant may have been overly optimistic when he claimed that the lower faculty of philosophy need not come in conflict with the government at all, since it’s conversations are all with the higher faculties, not with the ruling powers.

Can philosophy avoid being co-opted by government in this way? One can imagine that the more philosophy researches traditional structures of conflict resolution or attempts to make clear the critical reflective capacity in traditional societies (which is what sage philosophy does), the more a government could either see this as a threat to be suppressed or a tool to be co-opted. Philosophy may try to take a safe path, by hiding behind Western questions and techniques of thought. This is indeed what has happened in some places. Philosophy may advocate for change along certain ideological lines, which has also happened. Or, philosophy may find a way to act as the left foot to the powers that govern African society itself.

Derrida speaks to this:

There are other ways for philosophy than those of appropriation as expropriation (to lose one's memory by assimilating the memory of the other, the one being opposed to the other, as if an ex-appropriation was not possible, indeed the only possible chance). Not only are there other ways for philosophy, but philosophy, if there is any such thing, is the other way. And it has always been the other way: philosophy has never been the unfolding responsible for a unique, originary assignation linked to a unique language or to the place of a sole people. Philosophy does not have one sole memory. Under its Greek name and in its European memory, it has always been bastard, hybrid, grafted, multilinear and polyglot. We must adjust our practice of the history of philosophy, our practice of history and of philosophy, to this reality which was also a chance and which more than ever remains a chance.6 If indeed philosophy has always been "bastard, hybrid, grafted, multilinear and polyglot," this has not been obvious to all. The teaching of philosophy follows well-worn narratives, and when it comes time to consider the possibility of African philosophy, it simply fits into the narratives that already exist. This narrative, to be sure, glosses over the debts that "Western" philosophy has to other cultures, not to mention other disciplines and modes of thought. But it forces the issue within those who champion African philosophy to either try to construct entirely new narratives (forgetting that hybridity does not disappear just because the scholar wants it to) to show how the narratives of the West are really rooted in African patterns of thought (as if this makes any difference to the one already convinced of the primacy of Western thought), or to show how African thought fits well within existing Western narratives (a strategy that will always leave African thought on the margins of that narrative).

Derrida takes up the question of philosophy outside of Western contexts:

At stake is neither contenting oneself with reaffirming a certain history, a certain memory of origins or of the Western history (Mediterranean or Central European, Greco-Roman-Arab or Germanic) of philosophy, nor contenting oneself with being opposed to, or opposing denial to, this memory and to these languages, but rather trying to displace the fundamental schema of this problematic by going beyond the old, tiresome, worn-out and wearisome opposition between Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism. One of the conditions for getting there - and one won't get there all of a sudden in one try, it will be the effect of a long and slow historical labor that is under way - is the active becoming-aware of the fact that philosophy is no longer determined by a program, an originary language or tongue whose memory it would suffice to recover so as to discover its destination, that philosophy is no more assigned to its origin or by its origin, than it is simply, spontaneously or abstractly cosmopolitical or universal. What we have lived and what we are more and more aiming for are modes of appropriation and transformation of the philosophical in non-European languages and cultures. Such modes of appropriation and transformation amount neither to the classical mode of appropriation that consists in making one's own what belongs to the other (here, in interiorizing the Western memory of philosophy and in assimilating it in one's own language) nor to the invention of new modes of thought which, as alien to all appropriation, would no longer have any relation to what one believes one recognizes under the name of philosophy.7 While the "wearisome opposition" between Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism may be prematurely declared for some, Derrida’s point is important to recognise. Philosophy cannot be determined by a program – this means that African philosophy cannot be regarded as a derivative form of Western philosophy. At the same time, it cannot be required to "invent new modes of thought" in order to establish its legitimacy. It does not have to recover its memory in a European language – despite Heidegger’s contention, Greek and German are not the most basic of philosophical languages.

III. What is it to do philosophy in this place?

Where is African philosophy? While it would be nice to say that African philosophy has been clear about the points that Derrida raises, the truth is that it is far from the case. It was once the case that the central question on the minds of African philosophers was, is there such a thing as African philosophy? It was understandable that this should be such a concern. Philosophers have always tried to begin with definitions. And, apart from that, the historical reality has been that Africans have been shut out of the philosophical world quite deliberately. Kant, Hegel, Hume and others all theorized a racism that served to support European self-perceptions, and at the same time rendered Africans as incapable of reflective thought. This century, a host of anthropologists have done research on the "primitive" mentality, or the "savage mind." If Africans had any possibility of reflective life, Western research bound it by tradition and explained away any glimmer of conceptual thought as derived from outside. Africans, it was argued, had little or no textual record; they had a sense of time that precluded reflection on the distant future; they were incorrigibly religious and traditional; they were more oriented toward emotion than reason. Then, Father Placide Tempels wrote his Bantu Philosophy, and people started thinking of Africans as having a robust intellectual life, albeit uncritical, non-textual, and communally held.

From the time of Tempels, a steady stream of African philosophers have tried to identify the anchor-point for African philosophy, that which would both be universal and also have geographical, racial, or national origins. Tempels’ work has been the controversial point of embarkation on this trip, and as often as not he has been criticised for various aspects of his work. African philosophy has been trying to pack its bags to leave on the trip, and many philosophers have grown impatient with the constant need to define a beginning point before embarking. The question that is not asked, however, is where? Where is African philosophy? Its history is instead that of asking What? What is it, what is its essence, can we define the territory before we leave on the trip? Can we find a foundation? If Derrida has taught us anything, that sort of question is doomed to always leave us packing our bags, and never allow the trip to begin.

As I have argued, African philosophy has multiple communities. This is no surprise; all endeavours of this sort are in multiple communities. So, what is it to do philosophy in this place? Several observations:

1. It is first to take its own history of exclusion into account. African philosophy would not be what it is if it did not come to terms with the place it has been put by the rest of the world. Yet, like any discussion of place, it is not enough to account for history. That is not the only responsibility that African philosophy has, nor is the international philosophical community the only one where debts are owed. And, as Derrida said, simply operating on the basis of the dialectic of appropriation and alienation does not take into account the place of African philosophy.

What is needed is to take seriously the possibility raised by several writers (e.g., David Hoy, Charles Taylor) in discussing Gadamer’s hermeneutics, that theory itself is bound by its own history. This seems so obvious as to be banal, but in fact too often both Western and African thinkers forget this and try to transplant theory without reflection on the place out of which it comes. So, replicating Enlightenment thought, even hermeneutics and other "continental" philosophies extend their reach, either through Western theorists or African theorists. But it is not just any continent that we refer to when we speak of continental philosophy. It has its place. It is a set of answers to a certain set of questions, concerning the development of modernity, science, technology, subjectivity, and so forth. What if the place you find yourself in is different than this? The answer, I think, is that theory has to grow from its own ground.

2. It means to theorise democracy in new ways. Derrida argues in "On the Humanities" that some version of democracy is necessary for philosophical thought to flourish (a position, incidentally, that echoes several African philosophers such as Odera Oruka and Wiredu). One might argue that, in fact, good philosophy has been done in less than democratic situations, and that would be true. However, this is not a quasi-Kantian argument for the conditions of the possibility of doing philosophy, but the direction of philosophy. Critical theory will necessarily democratise, since it will question oppressive structures and modes of self-interest. This is not to say that interesting philosophy has not been done in the interests of the few, but rather that dogged questioning, taking into account the particulars of a place, will yield the seeds of the intellectual undermining of an oppressive regime.

3. Philosophising in Africa means attending to language in the face of essentially technocratic disciplines. In "Mochlos" Derrida suggests that philosophy always attends to truth, and in this way the golem moves. In Africa, this may mean that philosophy can attend to showing the particular limitations of disciplinary answers to Africa’s problems. Specifically, the language that is pressed into service to account for African lives often needs deconstruction. Africa is perhaps more prone than Western societies to be subjected to the ministrations of disciplinary expertise. Economists interpret the problems of Africa as economic problems, with economic solutions, and when these do not work, it is not the method which is the problem but the "uncivilised" and "uncooperative" Africans. Even versions of interdisciplinarity do not help, because they simply try to add methodologies together to address a problem which is itself never really interrogated properly. Instead of the problems of Africa being economic, then, they take the interdisciplinary label "development," and ironically become more intractable because the specific methodologies involved in answering the problem of development become harder to discern.

Philosophy can use the tools of the place, the African traditional setting, to demonstrate that expertise cannot afford to ignore local knowledge. Rather than talking about African traditional knowledge, philosophy can make it possible to dialogue with this traditional knowledge. The purpose is not some romantic regression to the past, as if that will solve the problems, but rather to raise the methodological answers to specifically African questioning, and thereby root real answers in a specific soil while at the same time taking advantage of the wealth of world experience. Philosophy is perhaps uniquely equipped in Africa to do this, but has yet to realise this potential.

4. African philosophy must face up to the question of the relationship between tradition and modernity. It is quite different from ways that the West has taken up the issues, and to this point African philosophy has either ignored tradition or found ways to uncritically mine it. In this place, where tradition is used by some as the object of loathing and by others as the object of desire (two sides of the same coin), philosophy might theorise just how cultural tradition can be taken seriously.

African philosophy is in a unique position, able to draw on the resources of the rest of the world while at the same time able to question its place in a unique way, a way that at least the West has forgotten. Derrida is right, the memory of the West is faulty if it does not recognize the fragmented and conflicted nature of its origins. It is quite possible that the only way that conflict can be recognised is by mediating it through African philosophy. African thought is not worth pursuing only because it can give a window on Western thought, but that is a useful by-product.


1. Jacques Derrida, "Mochlos, or, the Conflict of the Faculties" in Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992: 1-34).

2. Jacques Derrida, Of the Humanities and the Philosophical Discipline: The Right to Philosophy from the Cosmopolitical Point of View (the Example of an International Institution). Surfaces Vol. IV. 310 Folio 1 (1994), Montréal.  For the roundtable discussion based on this paper, see Surfaces Vol. VI. 108 (V.1.0A - 16/08/1996).

3. See, for instance, Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1996); Simon Wortham, Rethinking the University: Leverage and Deconstruction (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).

4. Derrida, "Mochlos", pp. 19-20.

5. Emmanuel Eze. "The Colour of Reason" in Eze, Emmanuel, Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1997.

6. Derrida, "Of the Humanities and the Philosophical Discipline".

7. Derrida, "Of the Humanities and the Philosophical Discipline".

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