Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Formal Africana Philosophy is a Cosmopolitanism.


Image result for Saint Augustine
Saint Augustine - "Lord, grant me a sound
and complete axiomatic  system, but not yet."
In the fifth book of his Confessions Saint Augustine says that realising that secular natural philosophers could give well confirmed mathematical explanations of astronomical events helped convince him that the Manichaes were wrong. I was struck by this early record of the importance of mathematical reasoning to an African philosopher, and it got me thinking. After all, I like to joke that I am simultaneously the world's best and worst formal Africana philosopher (for the record and in fact, this is only half true: Wiredu is clearly the world's best formal Africana philosopher). What does that actually mean? Is there anything to the notion of formal Africana philosophy?

In particular, is there anything more informative than: a formal philosopher who is also an Africana philosopher? Kwame Appiah, for instance, has worked on the epistemic underpinnings of Ghanaian folk belief and, separately, on the semantics of conditionals - and is in the About sense mentioned here thereby a formal philosopher, and hence a kind of formal Africana philosopher. But is there more to say than this? Well, I think there might be. But I want to note that the more demanding notion that I shall be discussing is only, so to speak, a sufficient condition for being a formal Africana philosopher. So I am not trying to define the notion, since I'd personally be happy to count somebody a formal Africana philosopher on that very thin basis alone, and am open to there being other possibilities.

To get a sense of what I mean, one way to be an Africana philosopher is to explore distinctive concepts or worldviews that were developed by people of recent African descent in order to illuminate their own experience or (de re) those of people of recent African descent.

By `explore' I mean to indicate any project of analysis, synthesis, or explication, that takes African concepts or worldviews as its source material. By `concepts or worldviews' I mean to indicate very broadly the sorts of things philosophers discuss, rather than any technical or more refined idea of what they might be. So discussions about knowledge, justice, beauty, truth are all examples of discussions about concepts for this purpose. And discussions about utilitarianism, the A-theory of time, and theism are all discussions about worldviews for this purpose. By `developed to illuminate their own experience...' I mean that said concepts or worldviews must be things that at least some persons of recent African descent endorse or think can be used as part of true and informative descriptions of some part of the world they take to be significant.

The `distinctive' qualifier is a fudge, to avoid a certain kind of triviality. Without it, maybe literally just any exploration of any concept or worldview would count in, given the actual diversity of belief on the continent and in the diaspora. Yet we recognise that if some concept were especially developed by someone who is themselves an Africana philosopher, or if some worldview is much more likely to be held by people on the African concept or the African diaspora, it is of the right sort. As I shall return to, the fact that there is something a bit arbitrary about the geographic qualifier strikes me as to the point. The reasons one might be interested in Africana philosophy qua Africana philosophy strike me as similar to the reasons one might be interested in ancient Greek philosophy or 19th C. European philosophy or etc - sociological or historical, or for reasons of felt kinship, or some quirk of how one came into the field, but in any case not because there is some shared idea(s) unifying the work of this sort.

Even setting aside how unsatisfactory the fudge is, this sufficient condition has some odd consequences. While I said "recent descent" to avoid triviality, as stated it still counts in (i) work by or about North African philosophers, and (ii) the recent descendants of European colonisers. Personally I take (i) to be a good consequence, (ii) to be a somewhat unwelcome consequence but something that I can live with.

And one way to be a formal philosopher is to use the tools of mathematics to draw out structural elements of the kinds of concepts or worldviews philosophers are interested in.

By this I mean: despite the claims of certain particularists, I take it that no concept (or worldview) is entirely sui generis or cut off from implications beyond those immediately intended in any given usage. For instance, if I say Accra is hotter than Dublin then I am committed to the claim that if Dublin is hotter than London then Accra is hotter than London. This in virtue of quite general facts about the hotter than relationship. Those quite general facts can be spelled out and arranged into a system. By such means we can learn non-obvious consequences of our beliefs, or bring to light underlying similarities between apparently disparate concepts, or expose tempting but fallacious inferences that use the concept or appeal to the worldview.

Putting this together therefore, one way of being a formal Africana philosopher is to use the tools of mathematics to draw out structural elements of those distinctive concepts or worldviews developed by people of recent African descent in order to illuminate their own experience or (de re) those of people of recent African descent.

Formal Africana philosophy thus seems to me one concrete way of manifesting a certain kind of cosmopolitan sensibility. Like Appiah, I am a fan of cosmpolitanism. I really do think that all under Heaven are owed equal moral regard, and all have something to contribute to the commonweal, and it is both possible and desirable to construct a shared culture based around these claims. Formal philosophy, on this understanding, is something that draws out aspects of ideas or worldviews that are very general, that exhibit patterns or structures that are widely shared, and which puts these generalities to use in developing our thought.

The long traditions of Africana thought have developed concepts that exhibit mathematically tractable patterns, and adapted them to the particular purposes and worldviews of Africa and the diaspora. Formal Africana philosophy displays what is general in them, and in so doing facilitates making global comparisons, and shoring up argumentation by analogy or mathematical proof. Formal Africana philosophy conspicuously refutes the old Eurocentric lie that only European thought has developed ideas which are appropriately universal or universalisable.

Formal Africana philosophy takes a category that is rather particularistic and shows how it too partakes in the most general shared culture humanity has yet produced. There is a famous passage in The Souls of Black Folk wherein Du Bois describes how it feels for him to participate in high culture. It goes:
 I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?
I think formal Africana philosophy at its best (i.e. in Wiredu) captures something of exactly this sentiment. And while I lack Du Bois' literary flair I dare say formal Africana philosophy does so in a somewhat purer fashion. Since, rather than doing so by amalgamating Africana thought to the achievements of elite European men, formal Africana philosophy lifts us above the veil through the universal language of mathematics, common property of all.

Formal Africana philosophy is thus one little way of ensuring that the ideas of thinkers from the African diaspora are given due regard, and may take their place and contribute their effort in the universal culture under construction. This is not the only, nor anywhere near the most important, contribution of Africana philosophy, or formal philosophy, to either universal culture or local projects. But it is a contribution, and one I am proud to make.


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