I studied philosophy in the Netherlands in the 1980s. Almost no one criticized the western-oriented curriculum. Recently, however, scholars have begun to question how philosophy can leave so many non-western traditions of thought aside. The field’s non-inclusiveness has become a topic of serious debate. Those who venture outside of the white, paternalist, Western mainstream, have to do their research without the aid of traditional disciplinary support. For instance, more knowledge of foreign languages is required, as is a great deal of historical, sociological, and even geographical research.

My philosophy teachers in the Netherlands triumphantly proclaimed that the ancient Greeks had invented all the sciences and wisdom that are at the basis of civilization—including, of course, philosophy. The history of philosophy, we were taught, began with the Greeks. They were the “great thinkers” we discussed in class.

In my first year, a fellow student, a practitioner of classical yoga who had studied the Vedas, asked the professor, “But what about Indian philosophy?”

“Indian philosophy is not really philosophy. It is essentially religious mythology. It could better be described as wisdom,” came the reply. In other words, real philosophy, and a really scientific outlook, dawned only in ancient Greece. My fellow student, who wrote a paper on possible Indian influences on Plato, left the program after only two years.

Voices that question the imperialistic aspects of classical philosophy have slowly gained influence. For example, Frantz Fanon’s influential books, entitled “Black Face, White Masks” and “The Wretched of the Earth,” challenged the imperialism of Western thought. There were also those who criticized the colonialist nature of philosophy from the inside, like Jean Paul Sartre. And there were hybrid insider-outsiders like Jacques Derrida, who according to his recent biography, called himself a “black, very Arabic Jew.” Derrida called the universalist discourse of Western philosophy an instance of “White Mythology.”

In addition, Afrocentric (or “Diopian”) philosophy is gaining traction. This school of thought is named after the Senegalese scholar Cheich Anta Diop, who shook up the learned world when he claimed, some sixty years ago, that the ancient Egyptians—the forebears of ancient Greek thought—were not semi-white, but black. However, a substantial portion of Afrocentric research is in French and therefore goes unnoticed in the Anglo-American world.

A rare example of a researcher willing to cross boundaries for the sake of understanding African traditions of thought is Eric S. Ross. Born in Turkey and educated in Canada, he is an associate professor of geography at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. A former geographer who completed his Ph.D. in Islamic studies, Ross has an excellent perspective on Afrocentric research in English and in French. He also draws on Arabic and West-African sources in his research. I got to know his work only recently, through an article of his in the International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies. In that article, he argues against the view that “Africa has been […] in a passive role, as simply receiving Islam.” He shows that, on the contrary, Islam has been influenced by black African theologies, including those of the ancient Egyptians. In making this argument, Ross is criticizing the Western view of Africa, pointing out how it has been molded by the colonialist perspective of its authors.

Ross says it was Hegel who first authored the idea that African peoples knew no real civilization, since they had “no history.” Hegel himself wrote in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “[Africa] is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” (Hegel conveniently spares the ancient Egyptians, saying that they belong not to Africa but to the “Asiatic or European World.”) As Ross observes, there are political motives for Hegel’s obvious lie: consciously or not, the “Great Thinker” was trying to justify enslavement of Africans “as a means of bringing them out of the ahistorical night into the day of self-conscious history.”

Along those same lines, the so-called “Greek miracle”–the idea that the ancient Greeks invented modern science and philosophy—is actually the result of Egyptian and other influences. Ancient writers themselves relate how Greek thinkers “traveled to Egypt to learn in its temples”—among them Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras, who studied in the temples of Heliopolis, Memphis, and Thebes. And Plato himself, the great ancestor of Western philosophy spent thirteen years as a student in Heliopolis. Plato’s vast influence on the Abrahamic, monotheistic theologies of the middle ages would then really be the passing on of ancient Egyptian (and hence black) theological views.

Reading Ross’s article helped awaken the slumbering discomfort I always felt about the philosophy I learned in university. It showed its partiality. Afrocentrist research strives for a higher level of cosmopolitanism and adds another partial view (“-centrism”) to the dominant one. It invites readers and researchers to question their assumptions. Adding other strands and sources of knowledge will bring us a more inclusive philosophy. We have to cross the boundaries even of philosophy as a discipline, be willing to question its methodology. This is hard work, but it should be done. Doing so will help Westerners liberate themselves from oppressive frames of thought they’ve inherited—even those they might not have been aware of.

The effects of colonization last. For example, some years ago I visited an “open day” for choosing a school for my children, in my hometown of Leiden, the Netherlands. I sat in a classroom filled with twelve-year-olds and a few parents. The French teacher asked the pupils which French words they already knew and the children answered.

“Why are these words part of our Germanic language?” she asked.

The answer she gave was, “Because these words come from Latin, and we were once colonized by the Romans.” It then dawned on me why many of the best European schools require the learning of ancient languages, Latin and Greek—languages that are never spoken in real life, and haven’t been in use as scholarly languages for three hundred years. Still these are part of our language, and still they are the gold standard, reflecting the hold our long-dead colonizers still have on our cultures.

The west can learn in more than one way from Africans, Asians, and Indigenous peoples all over the world. We can learn from those who have struggled with the physical, psychological, and epistemological effects of imperialism. We can enrich our knowledge and take down the shutters of our own colonized views.

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About The Author

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PhD in Philosophy from University of Amsterdam

Angela Roothaan received her Masters in Philosophy at Leiden University and her PhD at the University of Amsterdam. After several temporary positions as a teacher and researcher of philosophy, she was awarded tenure as assistant professor at VU University Amsterdam in 2002. A passionate writer, she has published five philosophy books in Dutch and many academic articles, which always probe the intersections of science, ethics, spirituality and politics. She also writes a blog with the aim to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower.