Regular Paper Submission for Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy

An Outline of Methodological Afrocentrism

Abstract:  Methodological Afrocentrism is offered as an antidote to the intellectual colonialism that undergirds and serves to legitimate political and economic colonialism.  This paper, first, explains what is meant by “intellectual colonialism” and how it adversely affects the reading of Africa philosophy by its insistence that Africana philosophy be read and evaluated by reference to European traditions and standards; second, it delineates the central features of “methodological Afrocentrism,” especially its insistence that Africana philosophers be read strictly within the context of Africana traditions; and, third, it illustrates the method, and how it aims to overcome intellectual colonialism, in the reading of the African American thinker W. E. B. DuBois.


            I begin with a challenge.  The American Philosophical Association recently disclosed that over the last five years only 1.1% of all Ph.D.s in philosophy were awarded to Africans or African Americans, exactly the same percentage as in 1980!  Moreover, philosophy continues to be the discipline in the academy in which African Americans are least represented.  I challenge anyone to offer publicly a non-racist explanation for this condition.  By “non-racist” I mean an explanation that neither is itself racist--for example, does not suggest that African American students are inferior in some way--nor admits racist attitudes or practices in the profession.

Methodological Afrocentrism is intended as an antidote to the intellectual colonialism that undergirds and serves to legitimate political and economic colonialism.  In the following I will, first, explain what I mean by “intellectual colonialism” and how it adversely affects the reading of Africa philosophy; second, delineate the central features of “methodological Afrocentrism”; and, third, illustrate the method, and how it aims to overcome intellectual colonialism, in the reading of the African American thinker W. E. B. DuBois.

            Among the conditions of colonialism is that the colonized must speak, if they are allowed to speak publicly at all, through the language and conceptual schemas of the colonizer; they must thereby validate, as a prerequisite for speaking publicly, both in form and in substance, the colonizer’s mode of intellectually enframing the world, reinforce the colonizer’s worldview and rationality as the universally valid ones.  That is, in order to speak the colonized must flatter the colonizer and in the process, simultaneously, denigrate his or her own cultural traditions.

Indeed, European efforts to legitimate philosophically its colonialist practices were rooted largely in the presumption of a universal reason, of which Europe further presumed itself to be the most advanced expression.  Those being colonized then were imagined to lie either at the earliest dawn of that reason or altogether outside its history.  Colonial powers, thus, as the self-proclaimed vanguards of such reason, imagined and projected themselves as the liberators of non-European “savages,” freeing them from their unreason by placing them under, not their (the colonizers’) interests and fancies, but the rule of the one true and universally valid Reason itself.  Hegel’s pronouncement regarding Africa is perhaps the most blunt:  “Africa …. is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. … What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature.”[1]  (To the best of my knowledge, it was William James who, as co-founder, along with Jane Addams, of the Anti-Imperialist League and outspoken critic of American imperialism, first identified the intimate connection between the universal reason presumed by Western science and philosophy, on the one hand, and Western colonialist practices, on the other.)  Colonizers thus self-righteously believed themselves to be not oppressors but saviors, transforming the presumably “irrational,” “lazy,” “inefficient,” “unproductive” darker races into efficient instruments of rational economic production, within growingly global markets.  Colonizers could thus imagine themselves not as privileged but as “burdened”—bearers of “the white man’s burden.”  As the king presumes to speak for his entire kingdom, so colonizers presume to speak for all humanity, that the way they see and order things is the way in which all creatures who wish to be deemed “rational” and “civilized” must see and order things:  the eyes and mind of the colonizer are assumed to be the eyes and mind for all (rational) humanity.

Moreover, colonizers proceed in a prior fashion; that is, they feel no need to verify empirically their universal judgments, no need even to ask those of other cultures, “How does the world appear to you?” prior to making their sweeping pronouncements:  after all, they, as the vanguards of universal reason, are the measures of all things.  For example, Kant saw no need actually to consult and to listen to non-Western peoples in advancing his anthropology and theory of race, nor did Hegel think it even relevant to talk to African people prior to forming his judgment, quoted above, that they played no role in the historical unfolding of universal Spirit.   Instead, colonizers presume, as the loci of universal reason, that how they see and order the world must be how all rational beings see and order it, or at least ought to see and order it:  there is, therefore, no need to ask, because those who experience matters differently must be, a priori, just plain wrong, irrational.  Protests by the colonized are taken merely as evidence of their erroneous views and undeveloped rationality: they, the colonized, simply do not understand.

Intellectual colonialism is clearly visible even in recent African philosophy:  African students of philosophy, studying at universities built by the colonial powers and upon European models, have been required to learn in the colonizers’ languages and to master the texts of the European cannon.  Any attempt to articulate one’s own native wisdom tradition, if it is to be allowed at all, has to be by reference to European concepts, thinkers, and texts, and always, of course, still in the colonizer’s language.  I take certain efforts of Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyeke to articulate elements of traditional Akan philosophy by reference to European thinkers to exemplify such intellectual colonialism.  The first, in his Cultural Universals and Particulars:  An African Perspective,[2] utilizes John Dewey’s pragmatic instrumentalism as a means for comparing concepts in Akan and European traditions; the second, in his  An Essay on African Philosophical Thought:  The Akan Conceptual Scheme,[3] explains Akan concepts by comparison especially to Aristotelian notions of “soul” and “virtue.”  Both works aim to legitimate African philosophy by arguing its participation in universal reason, thereby affirming the Eurocentric assumption of such a reason and European accounts of it.  In other works, Wiredu at least clearly identifies the limitations of efforts to interpret African philosophy through European concepts and languages.[4]

There are three principal, undesirable effects of attempting to articulate African philosophies via European traditions.  First, colonizers mistakenly assume indigenous people are using their, the colonizers’, words in the same way that they do.[5]  Second, European thinkers are unchallenged and reaffirmed in their common belief that European philosophy is the standard for philosophy universally.  Third, as Robert Bernasconi has shown, drawing from the work of Lucius Outlaw, African philosophy is placed in a double bind.  To the extent that it asserts similarities with European traditions, it reinforces the prejudice that native traditions contribute to philosophy little or nothing unique or original, that the latter’s best insights can be found already, and expressed generally in a much more sophisticated manner, in the European cannon, that indigenous wisdom is, at best, a mere shadow of what one finds better expressed in European texts.  On the other hand, to the extent that African thought asserts its difference from European philosophy, it casts itself outside of philosophy altogether:  it is deemed “unphilosophical.”  In either case African philosophy “effectively disappears.”[6]

Intellectual colonialism rules, too, the study of African American philosophy, although it is perhaps more hidden than in the case of African philosophy.  It is manifest most strongly in the general tendency in the philosophic profession to see African American philosophy mainly as an offshoot and variation of Euro-American philosophy, rather than as rooted principally in Africana traditions.  African American philosophy thus appears as a colony of Euro-American thought and thus under the latter’s authority, administration, and jurisdiction.  There are at least three sources for this error.  First, there is simply the extreme, general ignorance of Africana intellectual traditions, and such ignorance then forms the basis for the widespread belief that there simply are no African philosophical traditions.  (How many in the philosophical profession can name even a single African philosopher?)  Second, that African American students are required by the academy to master the European canon as prerequisite for study of their own traditions and must articulate their interests in Africana philosophy by reference to that canon, for example, in the writing of theses and dissertations, reinforces the presumption that African American philosophy is largely derivative from the Euro-American tradition and thus is rightly measured by reference to it.  Moreover, this cannon often tells Africana students that they are incapable of understanding the texts they are reading or even of doing philosophy, by virtue of their simply being African.  Third, while the African student of philosophy still enjoys living access to his or her native African language, and hence to the conceptual schema it manifests, the conditions of slavery in America deprived the African American student generally of such access:  African slaves in America who spoke the same language were systematically separated, to prevent their conspiring in their native tongues, and their speaking in African languages was strictly forbidden by law and the whip.  That Africans brought to America were forced to speak English, though, has created in European America generally, and within professional philosophy in particular, the illusion that African Americans employ English terms in the same manner as European Americans and that they have no living connection to their African heritage:  African Americans thus appear as standing in need of becoming more Europeanized, to fill the presumed cultural, spiritual void that either, ala Hegel, was presumably there all along, or, in the relatively more liberal understanding, was created by the conditions of slavery.  Other academic disciplines, such as religious studies, English literature, and art history have long understood that African Americans’ lack of access to their native languages has not radically severed their ties to traditional modes of thinking and cultural expression:  rather, they understand how African Americans have appropriated European modes of expression to articulate their own cultural life.  It is well understood within religious studies, for example, that the use of Christian language and symbols by African American churches is quite different from their use in Euro-American Christian churches, that African Americans use such language and symbols in ways that are more consistent with and expressive of their own cultural traditions and for their own purposes.  Euro-American philosophers, however, tend to assume that African American philosophers use the standard stock of philosophical terms and concepts as they do, rather than in ways that are more consistent with Africana traditions, historical experiences, and purposes.  Let one example suffice for now:  it is often assumed that when African American authors, such as David Walker, Henry Garnet, or Frederick Douglass, appropriate Enlightenment political terms, such as “freedom,” “liberty,” and “rights,” that they intend them in the modern European, individualistic sense of personal freedom, personal liberty, and personal rights, and that they thus embrace all the anthropological and ontological assumptions entailed in such notions.  However, the Africana tradition does not presuppose such individualism; rather, speaking within it one is more likely to be referring to the freedom, liberty, and rights of a people, of one’s community, in achieving its own collective ends.

The results of this tendency to project European-American understandings and purposes upon the texts of African American philosophies and of this failure to understand African American philosophers within their own cultural histories and traditions, are that African American philosophy is viewed primarily as derivative from Euro-American philosophy and not rooted in Africana traditions, and hence that African American philosophers contribute little if anything to philosophy in America.  Thus, Frederick Douglass appears something like a black Thomas Paine; W. E. B. DuBois, as a black Marx or pragmatist; Alain Locke, as a black John Dewey or Josiah Royce; Martin Luther King, as a black personalist, a black Bowne or Brightman.  The above, I submit, are among the primary reasons why African American philosophers often feel alienated from American philosophy generally and from professional associations for American philosophy, such as the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy:  they are experienced as colonialist enterprises.

Under “methodological Afrocentrism” I propose two strategies for liberating Africana philosophy from intellectual colonialism.  The first of these strategies I describe here only briefly:  references to race in the canonical texts of European philosophy, which one is generally trained to push aside, to ignore, as merely expressive of the writer’s time, and even not to see at all, are brought forward, taken seriously, as integral to the author’s corpus, and used as a lens through which to interpret that corpus as a whole.  Emmanuel Eze’s “The Color of Reason:  The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Anthropology”[7] provides a good example of this first prong of the method.  Eze shows how Kant’s discussions of race, which are both numerous and extensive, are not peripheral but central to his anthropology and hence integral to his whole critical project.  As Eze concludes,

It is clear that what Kant settled upon as the “essence” of humanity, that which one ought to become in order to deserve human dignity, sounds very much like Kant himself:  “white,” European, and male.  More broadly speaking, Kant’s philosophical anthropology reveals itself as the guardian of Europe’s self-image of itself as superior and the rest of the world as barbaric.[8]

What becomes abundantly clear through such a rereading of Kant and other central authors in the European canon is that the modernist effort to define the nature of “reason,” as the essence of humanity, is intimately bound up with Europe’s desperate effort to justify morally its colonialist practices, including the slave trade:  if the capacity to reason is taken, as it was, as the mark separating those who might morally be colonized and enslaved from those who may not, then the entire defense of colonialism and slavery must rest upon the prevailing definition of “reason,” and who has the authority, the power, to define it.  As Outlaw has correctly noted, what is as stake in Kant’s, Hegel’s, and others’ accounts of “reason” is a struggle over the very meaning of humanity,[9] and, set within the context of colonialism and the slave trade, that means who may rightfully colonize and enslave and who may rightfully be colonized and be enslaved.  Efforts to disentangle supposedly purely “philosophical” concerns from their political contexts are dishonest if not outright racist, insofar as they conceal the racist agendas in which Western philosophies have participated and are implicated.

This strategy of re-centering the European canon around those passages concerning matters of race is analogous to feminist efforts to reread that canon by recentering it around matters of gender.  Such a recentering includes taking comments about and uses of gender, including gendered language, seriously and as integral to a thinker’s corpus as a whole—for example, Aristotle’s treatment of women and the gendered character of his notions of matter and form, which one is trained, in traditional philosophical education, largely to ignore as irrelevant, are seriously examined.  Such feminist scholarship, long resisted by the masculinist academy, is now widely accepted, as evidenced by Lilli Alanen’s and Charlotte Witt’s anthology, Feminist Reflections on the History of Philosophy,[10] and Pennsylvania State University Press’s extensive series, Re-Reading the Canon.

The second strategy of methodological Afrocentrism demands, in the name of philosophical, hermeneutical rigor—and not as some sort of ideological agenda—simultaneously, first, the bracketing or suspension of all possible influences and parallels between European and Euro-American thinkers, on the one hand, and Africana thinkers, on the other, and, second, the interpretation of Africana authors strictly within the traditions of Africana thought itself, reserving discussion of such bracketed connections with European thought for a possible, future, post-colonial time, when Africana thought is no longer compelled by the profession to legitimate itself by reference to European traditions, texts, and authors.  Following this strategy, whenever Africana authors employ seemingly standard terms of the European tradition, one refrains—again, rigorously—from assuming that the Africana uses are continuous with European ones; that is, one refrains from assuming that Africana authors must speak to Europeans and that Europe thus rightfully controls what can and cannot be said with its words:  one instead attempts to understand the terms within the context of Africana traditions themselves and how they have been appropriated for the purposes of African people.  I see nothing especially radical in this second part of the method.  It is merely the extension of sound, well-accepted hermeneutical principles to Africana thought:  one refrains, as rigorously as possible, from imposing and projecting the norms within one’s own culture’s discourse upon another.  This second strategy is perhaps best explained through an extended example:  reading the works of W. E. B. DuBois.

How does one Eurocentrically trained in philosophy tend to read and to contextualize DuBois?  I suggest the following tendencies.  First, one tends to notice that DuBois studied most closely with William James while at Harvard and thus look for a) the continuation of influences upon James, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, into DuBois, b) traces of pragmatism in DuBois’s thought, and c) connections to other pragmatists, such as John Dewey.  Cornel West unfortunately reinforces this reading of DuBois in his The American Evasion of Philosophy.  Second, one imagines some semblance of Hegelian dialectics, for example, in DuBois’s notion of “double consciousness,” despite the fact that DuBois explicitly denies any connection to Hegel, that James instilled in him a deep suspicion of Hegel, and that “double consciousness” knows no happy synthesis.  Third, one notices a foreshadowing of Sartrean existentialism, for example, the objectifying power of the “gaze,” again especially in the notion of “double consciousness.”  Fourth, one emphasizes, even over-emphasizes, DuBois’s Marxism, ignoring DuBois’s careful efforts to articulate the limits of Marxist analyses in the understanding of race, the independence of race and racism from economic factors, and the utter inadequacy of Marxism as a revolutionary program, based in class solidarity, for African people.[11]  Fifth, one utterly disregards, perhaps as mere rhetoric, DuBois’s frequent and emphatic appeals to “Africa,” “Egypt,” and “Ethiopia,” and the need for African Americans to see their thinking, self-understanding, and libratory efforts as essentially tied to those of Africans.  In all of the above, the aim seems clear:  to make DuBois European, to purge him of all that is African, to incarcerate him within the European tradition and canon, and thereby to reaffirm Europe as the standard for philosophical discourse in general and Africa as subordinate to its standard, if not outside that discourse altogether.

Methodological Afrocentrism, by contrast, would contextualize DuBois’s thought strictly within Africana traditions and would take seriously and emphasize such features of and influences upon DuBois’s thought as the following—and these are only but a few of what we might list:

·        He kept himself thoroughly current regarding the African anthropology of his day.

·        He was familiar with and inspired by the large body of African slave narratives.

·        As part of his family legacy, his great great grandmother, Elizabeth “Mom Bett” (or “Mumbet”) Freeman, ended slavery in Massachusetts by arguing for her own freedom, on the basis of slavery’s violation of the principles in the Declaration of Independence, and she served as an inspiration to DuBois to the end of his life. [12]

·        He drew further inspiration from slave revolts in Haiti and in the U.S., by Gabriel, Vesey, Turner, and others.

·        He was thoroughly familiar with 19th-century African American nationalists, such as David Walker, Henry Garnet, Edward Blyden, and Martin Delaney, and with other African American radicals, including assimilationists such as Douglass.

·        Pan-African nationalists Alexander Crummell and Henry McNeal Turner were far more DuBois’s mentors and exerted far more significant influences upon him than all of his Harvard professors combined, including James.

·        His often heated exchanges with Marcus Garvey helped to move him increasingly toward Black Nationalism.

·        He was in constant dialogue with Pan-Africanists such as Kwame Nkrumah.

·        He incessantly referenced and appealed to Africa—Egypt and especially Ethiopia, as the Africa that best resisted colonialism—as the principle source for the soul and spirit of African Americans.

·        He repeatedly claimed that the destiny of African American peoples lies with the future of Africa.

·        Above all, DuBois constantly asserted that, despite his biraciality and European education, his identity was first and foremost African:  “I felt myself African by ‘race’ and by that token was African, and an integral member of the group of dark Americans who were called Negroes.”[13]

In the above and in many other such ways, DuBois connected his thinking with his Africana heritage, far more than with European thought and traditions, and it is principally within the latter that we, in accord with methodological Afrocentrism, must contextualize his thought.

            I have thus suggested, first, how intellectual colonization in philosophy has undermined the position and understanding of Africana philosophy in and by the philosophic profession.  Second, I offer an outline of a modest remedy for such colonization, in the form of “methodological Afrocentrism,” which I take to be consistent with standard principles of fair textual interpretation.  And, third, I have offered an example of the method, in the reading of the works of W. E. B. DuBois.


[1] Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York:  Dover, 1956), p. 99.

[2](Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1996), esp. Chs. 2-4.

[3](Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[4] E.g., “How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought,” in African Philosophy:  An Introduction, ed. R. Wright (Washington, DC:  University Press of America, 1977), and Conceptual Decolonization in African Philosophy:  Four Esaays, ed. Olusegun Oladipo (Ibadan, Nigeria:  Hope Publications, 1995).

[5] Barry Hallen, “African Meanings, Western Words,” African Studies Review 40, no. 1 (1997):  1-11.

[6] “African Philosophy’s Challenge to Continental Philosophy,” in Emmanuel Chukwudi Ezi (ed.), Postcolonial African Philosophy:  A Critical Reader (Cambridge, MA:  Blackwell, 1997), p. 188.

[7] In Eze, pp. 103-40.

[8] P. 130.

[9] On Race and Philosophy (New York:  Routledge, 1996), pp. 54-59.

[10] (Dordrecht, The Netherlands:  Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004).

[11] I think here of his famous decree that:

                American Negroes do not propose to be the shock troops of the Communist Revolution, driven out in front to death, cruelty and humiliation in order to win victories for white workers.  They are picking no chestnuts from the fire, neither for capital nor white labor.

“The Negro and Communism,” The Crisis 38 (Sept. 1931), reprinted in The Oxford W. E. B. Du Bois Reader, ed. Eric J. Sundquist  (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 408.

[12]“The Concept of Race” (1940), in Du Bois Reader, p. 85.

[13] Ibid., p. 86.