Abstract and Keywords
This article begins with a brief discussion of what makes one an Afro-Caribbean philosopher. To be classified as an Afro-Caribbean philosopher does not require that one satisfy racial or ethnic essentialist criteria. Being an Afro-Caribbean philosopher is a matter of being intimately grounded in the tradition of Afro-Caribbean philosophy and, more broadly, the Afro-Caribbean intellectual tradition. Being grounded in the tradition of Afro-Caribbean philosophy requires that one critically engage the canonical texts constituting this tradition and the problems and questions that constitute this tradition. The article then turns to a multidimensional exploration of Afro-Caribbean philosophy in an attempt to review some of the main elements constitutive of this tradition of thought.
Writing about Afro-Caribbean philosophy is a highly complicated affair due to the complexity of the idea of “Afro-Caribbeanness,” on the one hand, and the concept of “philosophy,” on the other hand. Analytic philosophy has gained hegemony in the English-speaking world, and while it does not consist of “a single, universally agreed-upon, precise definition,” it was deeply motivated by developments in mathematical logic that sought to reduce philosophy to a priori logical analysis. On the other hand, Afro-Caribbean philosophy more closely resembles a naturalized philosophy precisely because Afro-Caribbean philosophy has borrowed much from less formalized disciplines. Indeed, Afro-Caribbean philosophy represents an interdisciplinary model of philosophical praxis precisely because Afro-Caribbean philosophy is the focal point of a constellation of overlapping marginalities and overlapping intertextualities. This site of intersection reveals the struggle by Afro-Caribbean philosophy to claim disciplinary identity, institutional visibility, discursive autonomy, and epistemological credibility. Nonetheless, there is the lingering assumption that the circumstances of Caribbean history preclude the possibility of philosophy taking roots in the Caribbean. Naipaul is of the view that “The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies” (Naipaul 1969, 29). One implication of Naipaul's position is that there is no Afro-Caribbean philosophy. However, since I disagree with Naipaul's negative conclusion, I will briefly discuss what makes one an Afro-Caribbean philosopher before launching into a more detailed discussion of Afro-Caribbean philosophy.
(p. 490) To be classified as an Afro-Caribbean philosopher does not require that one satisfy racial or ethnic essentialist criteria. Resisting the obvious urge to appeal exclusively to racial or ethnic criteria, my view is that being an Afro-Caribbean philosopher is a matter of being intimately grounded in the tradition of Afro-Caribbean philosophy and, more broadly, the Afro-Caribbean intellectual tradition. Being grounded in the tradition of Afro-Caribbean philosophy requires that one critically engage the canonical texts constituting this tradition, and engage with the problems and questions that constitute this tradition. Furthermore, another criterion of being an Afro-Caribbean philosopher requires that one be adequately integrated in the circuits of Afro-Caribbean philosophy, which means that one publishes scholarly work in relevant journals, attends conferences, and holds membership in scholarly organizations dedicated to the Afro-Caribbean intellectual tradition.
This essay will engage in a multidimensional exploration of Afro-Caribbean philosophy in an attempt to review some of the main elements constitutive of this tradition of thought. This brief study is by no means a thoroughly exhaustive overview of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. For, in addition to leaving out certain well-known areas of critical discussion, the focus will be mainly in the English-speaking Caribbean. Contestability, it seems, is inescapable.
Abandoning Misconceptions about Afro-Caribbean Philosophy
Let us begin by examining certain misconceptions about Afro-Caribbean philosophy that develop precisely because of a failure to appreciate the complexity of Afro-Caribbean philosophy.
It is easy to reduce the intellectual production of marginalized groups to biography or spontaneous ideology. But Afro-Caribbean philosophy is neither a “victim discourse” nor a “resistance discourse” that articulates the rage and desire for recognition of Afro-Caribbean subjects. Afro-Caribbean philosophy is not a tribalist manifesto concerned with cataloguing the worldview of the Afro-Caribbean community. Nor should Afro-Caribbean philosophy be construed as a “fashionable, Marxist-evolved revisionism” (Walcott 1998, 56). Finally, we must avoid representing it through the concepts and categories of the dominant philosophical traditions. Inevitably, efforts to reduce Afro-Caribbean philosophy, the Other, to the sameness of a universal discourse entangle Afro-Caribbean philosophy in a dialectic of recognition where it must contend with either invisibility or hypervisibility. Afro-Caribbean philosophy “should not be ghettoized into closed discursive boxes which marginalize [it], making [it] specific and unique only to what has loosely been called “the black experience” (Bogues 2003, 1).
(p. 491) Contextualizing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy
These warnings not to simplistically reduce Afro-Caribbean philosophy should not preclude appropriately situating Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Afro-Caribbean philosophy is indeed unique, but its uniqueness bears the scars of an exceptional history. We must recognize that Afro-Caribbean philosophy is a discursive singularity precisely because of its origins. Chamberlin writes:
Blacks in the West Indies are not the only people with a history of oppression. But theirs is a special history, bringing with it a grim inheritance of someone else's images of difference and disdain, images that for five hundred years have conditioned their special and sometimes desperate need to determine for themselves who they are and where they belong. (Chamberlin 1993, 28)
In another context, George Lamming has also underscored the peculiar circumstances of Caribbean history. He writes:
[T]he word colonial has a deeper meaning for the West Indian than it has for the African. The African, in spite of his modernity, has never been wholly severed from the cradle of a continuous culture and tradition. It is the brevity of the West Indian's history and the fragmentary nature of the different cultures which have fused to make something new; it is absolute dependence on the values implicit in that language of his colonizer which has given him a special relation to the word, colonialism. (Lamming 1992, 34–35)
Afro-Caribbean philosophy seeks to work through the dense complexity of this historical reality (Henry 2000). Hence, Afro-Caribbean philosophy cannot claim a pure origin but must be seen as philosophical activity taking place in the context of the Caribbean legacy of slavery and colonialism. This context is amplified by a distinctive inheritance that offers us an intercultural model of philosophy beyond the traditional binary of particularity and universality. Modernity serves as a transcendental opening for the emergence of Afro-Caribbean philosophy, marking the rise of both a specific universality (European) and a particularity (Afro-Caribbean) that dialectically sustains this universality, even as it calls it into question. Bogues writes:
What is often elided is that the overarching framework for modernity's emergence was the rise of racial slavery, colonialism, and new forms of empires; that the conceptions of “rational self-interested subject” were embedded in a philosophical anthropology of bourgeois Enlightenment and Eurocentrism. (Bogues 2003, 2)
Critical engagements with the legacy of slavery and colonialism and their brutal intrusion into modernity constitute one of the core problems within Afro-Caribbean philosophy.
(p. 492) Contesting Modernity
Let us probe more deeply the connection between Afro-Caribbean philosophy and modernity (Bogues 2003). To the extent that the underside of modernity consists of the legacy of slavery and colonialism, a legacy premised upon notions of racial superiority, race emerges as an inescapable feature of modernity. Here, we should think of race in the socio-ontological sense, as a category of inclusion, as well as exclusion, complicit in the structuring of modern political arrangements. Closely aligned with the socio-ontological reality of race is the existential reality of blackness. Blackness, within the context of modernity, designates the lived reality of those who are bioculturally identified as descendants of Africans. Clearly, then, issues of race, blackness, slavery, colonialism, and modernity are canonical problems propelling the development of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Indeed, partly because of this set of issues, Afro-Caribbean philosophy has been tasked with responsibilities aptly described by Walcott:
What would deliver [the Caribbean subject] from servitude was the forging of a language that went beyond mimicry, a dialect which had the force of revelation as it invented names for things, one which finally settled on its own mode of inflection, and which began to create an oral culture of chants, jokes, folksongs, and fables; this, not merely the debt to history, was his proper claim to the New World. (Walcott 1998, 15)
The significance of Walcott's view for Afro-Caribbean philosophy is the idea of the creation of a new language for the renaming of things. This burden of utilizing the ontological resources of language, as will be discussed later, clearly suggests a distinctive trajectory that amplifies the uniqueness of Afro-Caribbean philosophy.
Afro-Caribbean Philosophy and the Nature of Philosophy
Engaging the idea of Afro-Caribbean philosophy requires critical involvement with a metaphilosophical inquiry regarding the nature, origin, scope, and objectives of philosophy. On the Afro-Caribbean view, philosophy is not about making hair-splitting distinctions and abstractions; nor is it the pursuit of abstract metaphysical questions or detached speculation that is alien to the materiality of human existence. There is no exaggeration in holding that Afro-Caribbean thinkers share Randall Collins's insights about the connection between the history of philosophy and philosophy itself. Collins states that the “history of philosophy is to a considerable extent the history of groups. [N]othing but groups of friends, discussion partners, close-knit circles that often have characteristics of social movements” (Collins 1998, 3). Outstanding groups of Afro-Caribbean thinkers certainly lend credence to this (p. 493) view. Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon were interlocutors from the French Caribbean; George Lamming, C. L. R. James, George Padmore, Kamau Braithwaite, Sylvia Wynter, Elsa Goveia, Wilson Harris, and Derek Walcott were interlocutors from the English-speaking Caribbean; and currently, Lewis Gordon, Paget Henry, and Charles Mills are representative of thinkers whose work has been strongly influenced by the discipline of philosophy. Even in those cases where these thinkers were not interlocutors, their intellectual development was profoundly shaped by the work of earlier generations of Caribbean thinkers.
From another perspective, Afro-Caribbean philosophy is also constituted by what Brian Stock has called textual communities: “microsocieties organized around the common understanding of a script” (Stock 1990, 23). Indeed, Afro-Caribbean philosophy's indebtedness to literature and history explains its interpretive struggles over literary and historical texts. Paget Henry has insightfully maintained that Afro-Caribbean philosophy “has largely been social and political in nature and concerned with problems of cultural freedom, political freedom, and racial equality. In the texts of this philosophy, history and poetics assume an ontological status as the domains in which Afro-Caribbean identities and social realities are constituted” (Henry 1993, 12). Viewing Afro-Caribbean philosophy from the perspective of textual communities explains the emergence of a Caribbean collective consciousness supported by the reading and interpretations of texts. Stock claims that “[i]n textual communities, concepts appear first as they are acted out by individuals or groups in everyday life. Only later, and within norms structured by texts, is there a collective consciousness” (Stock 1990, 13). Clearly, the forging of a collective consciousness has amplified the dominance of history for many Afro-Caribbean thinkers. For these thinkers, philosophy is not descriptively identical with its history but, rather, is to be understood through reference to its own historical development, so that philosophy then cannot be an ahistorical and acultural discursive practice. But it would be misleading to embrace an exclusive historicist characterization of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to characterize it as a form of radical empiricism, thereby understanding it as a courageous affirmation of experience in all of its untamed intensity and irreducible pluralism and flux. Furthermore, to frame Afro-Caribbean philosophy in generic terms as a radically empirical philosophy is to underscore its resistance to strategies of transcendence that escape material life.
In the context of the deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence and of foundationalism and realism, Afro-Caribbean philosophy, although not reducible to mere history, cannot be practiced independently of history. Such a philosophy earnestly situates philosophical ideas and habits within the flux and flow of our concrete lives. This puts Afro-Caribbean philosophy in solidarity with conceptions of philosophy that view truth, knowledge, and objectivity as the products of intersubjective agreement and not as matters strictly dependent upon faithfulness to an independent reality. This move away from seeking to reflect a reality totally independent of human language and concepts underscores the importance of understanding the self-legitimizing practices of distinctive human communities and the Afro-Caribbean form of life.
(p. 494) Models of Afro-Caribbean Philosophy
With the preceding background in place, it is appropriate to narrow the focus of this essay to an examination of some models of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. This exercise will reveal the ways in which Afro-Caribbean philosophy has been shaped by the circumstances of Caribbean reality. It would be incorrect to claim that mathematics, logic, or the natural sciences have served as the dominant structural model for Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Whereas some other traditions of philosophy have sought to erect philosophy on deductive models of argumentation, as well as the methods of the natural science, this has not been the case with Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Note, however, that this development does not indicate that Afro-Caribbean philosophy rejects argumentation and analysis. Indeed, although embracing argumentation and analysis, it has primarily utilized discursive styles of thought that were inspired by alternative models of human cognitive activity.
Afro-Caribbean Philosophy as Critical Ethnophilosophy
Patrick Goodin construes Afro-Caribbean philosophy as concerned with articulating the lived reality of the Afro-Caribbean subject (Goodin 2000). On Goodin's view, Afro-Caribbean philosophy will be a philosophy of existence in the sense of focusing on the style of existence common to Afro-Caribbean peoples. “Afro-Caribbean philosophy,” writes Goodin,
as a sub-division of Africana philosophy, must articulate itself out of its own sociopolitical/historical matrix. It must work its way to philosophy through a comprehensive understanding of its sociopolitical historical existence and not simply take over categories from the dominant group. It must self-consciously raise the question of what it means for an oppressed people to engage in the practice of philosophy. (Goodin 2000, 151)
Goodin makes a substantive case for an Afro-Caribbean philosophy by building upon Anthony Appiah's critical reflections on ethnophilosophy, for he shares Appiah's view that we should distinguish between philosophy, on the one hand, and what passes for philosophy but is really not philosophy, namely, ethnophilosophy, on the other. Whereas philosophy, in the proper sense of the term, is a normative undertaking, ethnophilosophy is descriptive and, accordingly, fails to qualify as proper philosophy. Appiah writes that “‘ethnophilosophy,’ [is] the attempt to explore and systematize the conceptual world of Africa's traditional cultures. This amounts, in effect, to adopting the approach of a folklorist or ethnographer: doing the natural history of traditional folk-thought about the central issues of human life” (Appiah 1992–1993, 17–18). Appiah claims that the ethnophilosophy that plausibly qualifies as true philosophy is critical ethnophilosophy. True philosophy, for Appiah, is an activity “in which reason and argument play a central role” (Appiah 1992, 86).
(p. 495) Goodin appropriates Appiah's strategy in order to offer his own insights about what constitutes a legitimate Afro-Caribbean philosophy. He maintains that critical ethnophilosophy should play a decisive role in Afro-Caribbean philosophy because of “the important issues raised by colonialism and postcolonial social and economic development and … the issues raised by race vis-à-vis justice” (Goodin 2000, 146).
Afro-Caribbean Philosophy as Philosophical Anthropology
Afro-Caribbean philosophy has also at times modeled itself as a form of philosophical anthropology. Because of the complex historical reality of the various religious, cultural, and social encounters among the various groups of people in the Caribbean (African, European, Indigenous, Asian), the Caribbean reality has provided the opportunity for critical reflections on the question of human existence. Indeed, Frantz Fanon (1967), Sylvia Wynter (2000), Lewis Gordon (1995b, 2000), and Paget Henry (1999–2000) have addressed the question of human existence precisely because of the existential callaloo of differences and similarities that were inconsistent with the ideal of rational self-interested individuals liberated from the burdens of religion, culture, and history. Furthermore, there is the immediacy of cultural diversity, the amazing hybridity of culture, religion, and music that flow from this tantalizing mixture and interaction of diverse peoples. This reinforces the project of critically reflecting upon the question of human existence.
Let us examine two treatments of Afro-Caribbean philosophy as philosophical anthropology.
Lewis Gordon's Existential Phenomenology
Lewis Gordon's work is of major significance within the context of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. He describes his own texts as “situated in what may be called black radical existential thought” (Gordon 2000, 22). Existential phenomenology, for Gordon, is the act of employing phenomenological analysis to investigate beings capable of raising questions about their own existence. He is drawn to existential phenomenology precisely because he wants to avoid the crude practice of using an abstraction “to avoid the human being in the flesh” (Gordon 2000, 43).
Gordon adds an additional layer of signification to his understanding of existential phenomenology by placing it within the broader context of postcolonialism, thereby situating phenomenology inside the scope of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. He describes his “existential phenomenological” approach to African-American and [Afro-Caribbean] philosophy, “[as] postcolonial phenomenology. It is a form of Afro-Caribbean phenomenology that comes out of the convergence of black existential thought and creolized forms of phenomenology” (Gordon 2006, 20).
Gordon grounds his existential phenomenological project in a critical investigation of black self-formation, focusing on historical strategies of racialization that have variously shaped this process. Implicit in this project is the acknowledgment of the (p. 496) asymmetrical material relations between blacks and whites. Consistent with his existential phenomenological project, he concentrates on the ontological (constitutive) dimensions of everyday black and white egos. This focus on the ontology of black and white ego formation is not a descriptive psychological task but a normative (critical) inquiry into the relations between these two ontologies. The relations between these ontologies have been dominated by a struggle for ontological space, namely, the space to claim creative human agency, to posit oneself, and to achieve this self-positing.
Gordon utilizes Sartre's notion of bad faith to anchor his take on the antagonistic relations between black and white egos. Bad faith, among other things, is the phenomenon of human beings evading their freedom, treating themselves as objects rather than as subjects. When operating in bad faith, human beings seek to evade or deny their lack of completion by presuming that they do not have to make choices. This tendency to deny incompletion leads to the pretense of completion, namely, the belief that one is indeed a well-integrated, fully present, self-contained, and autonomous self.
Gordon clarifies how race is manifested as significant within the context of self/other relations between whites and blacks. He maintains that race is inescapable precisely because “race has emerged, throughout its history, as the question fundamentally of ‘the blacks’ as it has for not other groups. It is not that other groups have not been ‘racialized.’ It is that their racialization … has been conditioned in terms of a chain of being from the European human beings to the subhuman on a symbolic scale from light to dark” (Gordon 2003, 37). In a racialized world, the battle for ontological space has taken the form of whites viewing themselves as complete and autonomous selves and as being in complete control of ontological space that is not available to blacks. Whites compensate for their own ontological failures and anxieties by instituting practices of racism that deny blacks authentic space. Whites become fully determinate subjects, whereas blacks remain deficient beings lacking ontological fulfillment. Indeed, Gordon maintains that white antiblack racism usually takes the form of a “projective non-seeing” of blacks. Black invisibility in an antiblack world leads to the disappearance of black humanity, and blacks come to be seen as lacking the agency that whites possess.
Gordon laments the fact that colonialism and racism have respectively functioned as “existential deviations” for blacks, negatively disrupting the project of black self-formation. Gordon's project of existential philosophy focuses on black self-formation and on the dynamics of bad faith that have contributed to the battle for ontological space.
Frantz Fanon: Afro-Caribbean Philosophy as Sociogenesis
Fanon explores the philosophical implications of the Afro-Caribbean reality through alternative phenomenological and psychoanalytic categories (Fanon 1967). He situates his thinking outside traditional ontological approaches to the study of human (p. 497) beings in favor of existential modes of interpretation and understanding. Furthermore, he provides us with a style of thinking called sociogenesis, which is more pertinent to the situation of the Afro-Caribbean subject. Sociogenesis is not an ontological approach to the study of human reality but, instead, focuses on the human responsibility for human institutions. Sociogenic features of things are essentially the meaning-constituting or meaning-signifying features of social existence.
Fanon's preference for the existential dimensions of human beings is ultimately directed at the methodologies of the European human sciences. He is critical of them precisely because they violate the singularity of the individual to the extent that they become infatuated with abstract methodological approaches to human beings. In this case, the European human sciences declare war on the Other. These approaches focus upon etiological features of generic individuals or individual species but not on the activities that provide insights about human beings as creators of meaning and values. Fanon, hence, favors a sociogenic approach to human beings, an approach rooted in the fact that human beings are interpretive, as well as valuing, beings. They are not things whose activities can be captured within nets of causal relations and causal explanations. According to Lewis Gordon:
Fanon poses … the question of Man, the anthropological question, to remind all of us that one cannot legitimately study man without remembering that desires and values emanate from him and shake the contours of investigation. For Fanon, this amounts in one instance to the methodology of what he calls, a ‘sociogenic’ approach, an approach standing outside of phylogeny and ontogeny, an approach that involves the understanding that the problem and interpretation at hand must be addressed ‘on the objective level as on the subjective level.’ (Gordon 1995b, 9)
The European human sciences fail to register the collective singularity of blacks. Ontology becomes complicit with imperialism and, by extension, also conspires in the obliteration of ethics to the extent that ontology, in denigrating existence, exalts the human subject (white subject) but discards the black subject (the Other). Gordon quotes Fanon:
In the weltanschauung of a colonized people there is an impurity, a flaw that outlaws any ontological explanation. Someone may object that this is the case with every individual, but such an objection merely conceals a basic problem. Ontology—once it is finally admired as leaving existence by the wayside—does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man. (Fanon 1967, 109–110)
While agreeing with Fanon, Gordon confidently maintains that it is imperative for any attempt to construct a human science seeking to capture the lived experience of the black to appeal to the sociohistorical reality of black existence. Such efforts, according to him, should emerge from the core of sociogenesis, namely, realize that in considering black existence, historical, social, and cultural forces should not be ignored (Gordon 1997, 44).
(p. 498) Afro-Caribbean Philosophy as Anticolonial Intellectual Production
Afro-Caribbean philosophy is also a mode of anticolonialist intellectual production. Within this discourse, Afro-Caribbean thinkers utilize the language and the philosophy of their former colonial masters to undermine the system of racial and class oppression grounded in the idea of the superiority of Europe.
Anthony Bogues seeks to develop the idea of a black radical tradition of thought, expanding upon this idea of Afro-Caribbean philosophy as anticolonial intellectual production. Bogues's point of departure is his claim that “[t]here exists a deep political practice in [Afro-Caribbean] political thought that connects the lived social and political experiences of [Afro-Caribbean subjects] to the categories of political thought” (Bogues 2003, 21). Bogues does not model his conception of Afro-Caribbean philosophy on the traditional conception of philosophy as a sovereign discipline investigating transcendental questions. Indeed, on Bogues's view, it is not the aim of Afro-Caribbean philosophy to discover, analyze, and defend the fundamental principle of X such that X is understood as some universal phenomenon. Put differently, Afro-Caribbean philosophy does not limit itself to an exploration of the conditions of possibility of truth, knowledge, or experience. Afro-Caribbean philosophy's turning away from the traditional infrastructural concern of philosophy leads Bogues to construe Afro-Caribbean philosophy as a heretical and prophetic activity. Bogues writes that, for Afro-Caribbean philosophy, “‘heresy’ means becoming human, not white nor imitative of the colonial, but overturning white/European normativity” (Bogues 2003, 13). Afro-Caribbean philosophy, hence, is heretical not because it seeks to promote falsity but, rather, because it challenges the conceptual regime of the dominant tradition of philosophy. It appears heretical when judged by the categories and concepts of the very tradition that it challenges. Indeed, Afro-Caribbean philosophy must dialectically struggle with the Western philosophical tradition as it seeks to address the conditions of its own possibility as connected to the rise of Western modernity. It must critically engage this tradition.
For Bogues, Afro-Caribbean philosophy is “engaged in the creation of counterhegemonic texts” (Bogues 2003, 13). As such, Afro-Caribbean philosophy will not need to seek recognition from the dominant Western tradition, even as it acknowledges its own emergence from a context determined by Western modernity. The ambivalent relation of Afro-Caribbean philosophy to Western modernity is aptly captured by Bogues: “[Afro-Caribbean philosophy as] radical intellectual production is not simply reducible to an application of western modernity … instead it is a critique of, and oftentimes a counterdiscourse about, the nature of western modernity” (Bogues 2003, 9).
Regarding what he calls the redemptive prophetic voice of Afro-Caribbean philosophy, Bogues maintains that it consists of those “who constructed a set of practices and rationalities that sustained Africans in the diaspora … ” (Bogues 2003, 16). He attributes at least three elements to the prophetic stream of Afro-Caribbean philosophy: divination, healing, and prophecy. Within the prophetic tradition, (p. 499) knowledge is gained by nonrational means, namely, through revelation and dreams. Similarly, individuals within this tradition are often engaged in healing practices, and, finally, this tradition is also redemptive in the sense that “prophecy functions as a form of social criticism, a redemptive discourse that argues for the ending of colonial and racial oppression” (Bogues 2003, 19). Bogues attributes other significant features to the redemptive stream of Afro-Caribbean philosophy, citing its unique use of language. Indeed, Bogues underscores “its creative usage of language to describe social conditions and affirm their humanity. In these instances [language] becomes a weapon, a chant, and an invocation beating against the walls of oppression as well as an ‘illocutionary force’” (Bogues 2003, 20). Finally, Bogues claims that the redemptive stream creates a “counter symbolic order.” He maintains that the “[t]he creation of a symbolic order that then overturns the hegemonic racist or colonial order is not only a semiotic challenge but also, importantly, a battle for human validation” (Bogues 2003, 20).
Clearly, critical engagement with Western modernity is a core concern within Afro-Caribbean philosophy. This critical engagement is not a simplistic rejection of Western modernity but involves a double encounter with Western modernity: first, it engages it as an orthodoxy, and second, it offers a critique of it in order to develop different sets of political and social categories. Here, Afro-Caribbean philosophy seeks to promote alternative conceptions of things that might otherwise be rendered impossible by colonial reason. Afro-Caribbean philosophy resists the colonialization of reason as an exclusive prerogative of Europe.
Afro-Caribbean Philosophy as Ethics
Afro-Caribbean philosophy is also an ethics. By this, I do not mean that it follows traditional ethical theory in seeking to discover universal and formal principles of right conduct. Rather, Afro-Caribbean philosophy is modeled on a conception of ethics grounded in responsibility for the other. In this regard, faced with the hegemonic reign of the dominant Western philosophical tradition, Afro-Caribbean philosophy seeks to create a space for the Other, which is not immediately reducible to the concepts and norms of the Same. As a model of ethics, Afro-Caribbean philosophy is against “the subjugation and the marginalization of heterogeneity by self-centralizing, monolithic models” (Mackey 1993, 5).
Closely related with this emphasis on otherness and ethics is Afro-Caribbean philosophy's relation to music. Music enjoys the distinctive role of facilitating access to alternative realities, and this characteristic has motivated its influence as a model of social and epistemological dissent. Again, because of the infusion of music within Caribbean culture, musical influence has also affected philosophical activity in the region. The inherited African musical traditions—reggae, jazz, calypso, and salsa—have indelibly cross-fertilized Afro-Caribbean philosophy (Brathwaite 1967a, 1967b, 1968). The prevalence of music as a cognitive model has been noted by Mackey. He writes that music “serves many black writers as both a model and a highwater mark (p. 500) [sic] of black authority, a testament to black powers of self-styling as well as to the ability of such power to influence others” (Mackey 1993, 7).
Having reviewed various models of Afro-Caribbean philosophy, it is now appropriate to expand the focus of this study to consider some of the main currents in contemporary Afro-Caribbean philosophy.
Main Currents in Afro-Caribbean Philosophy
Let us briefly review the most recent attempts to impose a canonical structure on the diverse texts and thinkers within Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Paget Henry titles his text Caliban's Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy. This act of naming is significant for, in referring to the character Caliban in the Shakespearean play The Tempest, a play about colonialism, Henry is announcing to us that Afro-Caribbean philosophy is metaphorically Caliban's response to Prospero, the character who teaches Caliban his language. Here, an Afro-Caribbean philosophy will not be captive to the language and logic of Sameness, identity, and totality but will speak in its own voice, the voice of the Other.
Not surprisingly, Henry situates Afro-Caribbean philosophy outside the closed discursive space of universalistic conceptions of philosophy. Philosophy, he claims, “is neither absolute nor a pure discourse. It is an internally differentiated and discursively embedded practice, the boundaries of which will continue to change as work in other fields requires the taking up of new philosophical positions” (Henry 2000, 3).
Similarly, Henry's construal of Afro-Caribbean philosophy does not fall prey to any insidious particularism that would “ghettoize” Afro-Caribbean philosophy. While advocating an intertexual strategy, Henry appropriately situates Afro-Caribbean philosophy within the project of decolonization. Accordingly, he writes that Afro-Caribbean philosophy is “a radically decolonized philosophical practice that [should] adequately meet the current postcolonial demands of the region” (Henry 1998, 25). The expectation is that such a philosophy will be concerned with the decolonialization of Afro-Caribbean consciousness, with decentering ways of thinking premised upon alien assumptions of life, and axioms of existence.
Consistent with the theme of doing philosophy from the underside of modernity, Henry articulates three important reforms that must be undertaken to facilitate the flourishing of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. He suggests that we change the patterns of creolization that are characteristic of Caribbean philosophy. To this end, he favors a process of creolization that is consistent with the aim of creating “a creole philosophy whose identity is closer to those of Caribbean literature, dance, theatre, calypso, reggae and other creole formations” (Henry 1998, 25). He demands that Afro-Caribbean philosophy be “capable of thematizing its own concerns, making distinct discursive contributions to knowledge production in the region. (p. 501) The time has come for Caribbean philosophy to declare its independence from its historic intertextual subordination to ideological production” (Henry 1998, 26). Finally, Henry demands that there be a change in the intertexual address of Afro-Caribbean philosophy by making it a new critical writing. As a new critical writing, Afro-Caribbean philosophy will “help to link the founding categories of the subject in disciplines such as political economy and history to those of the arts, making dialogue and translation possible along these and other lines” (Henry 1998, 27).
Therefore, Henry, while delicately balancing the divide between intercultural and intracultural conceptions of philosophical activity, describes Afro-Caribbean philosophy as “an intertextually embedded discursive practice, and not an isolated or absolutely autonomous one. It is often implicitly referenced and engaged in the production of answers to everyday questions and problems that are being framed in nonphilosophical discourses” (Henry 2000, 2).
In charting his conception of Afro-Caribbean philosophy, Henry is not interested in sanctioning a hegemonic discourse premised on fuzzy notions of authenticity, and he clearly underscores the internal debates constitutive of the Afro-Caribbean philosophical landscape. In doing this, Henry identifies two schools of Afro-Caribbean philosophy: poeticism and historicism. He explicitly states that “Afro-Caribbean philosophy has concentrated its ontological efforts on the poetically or historically constructed nature of social reality” (Henry 1993, 12). Henry defines the poeticist tradition as a group of thinkers (Sylvia Wynters, Wilson Harris, Edouard Glissant) who claim that questions of identity, ego formation, and self must be resolved before there can be any constructive change in Afro-Caribbean society. Put differently, they claim that the conceptions of self and consciousness that infuse Afro-Caribbean literature are productive sources for existential and ontological change. Derek Walcott, who is perhaps one of the fiercest critics of historicism, but an enthusiastic supporter of poeticism, writes that:
In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemics or evaporates in pathos. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force. This shame and awe of history possess [thinkers of the Caribbean] who think of language as enslavement and who, in a rage for identity, respect only incoherence or nostalgia. (Walcott 1998, 37)
Walcott clearly does not favor history as the basis of philosophy. Rather, he favors a philosophy rooted in the infinite resources of consciousness that are facilitated by the creative and the imaginative use of language.
On the other hand, the historicists (Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore) argue that external institutional change is the precondition to any meaningful transformation of consciousness of self within Afro-Caribbean societies. Here, the main idea is that social transformation directly connected to political economy must be seen as antecedent to the flourishing of a (p. 502) healthy Afro-Caribbean subjectivity. Poeticists favor projects that are attentive to the immateriality of consciousness, whereas historicists favor projects focused on overhauling the material structures of production, distribution, and consumption.
There are two other main currents of thought in Afro-Caribbean philosophy. One popular, but often misunderstood, school is negritude. The leading architect of negritude was Aimé Césaire (Césaire 2001). Many thinkers have chosen to interpret negritude as a vulgar nationalism premised upon the equally absurd notion of racial essentialism. According to these interpretations, negritude championed the idea of a unique African racial essence that explains the peculiar personality, aesthetic, and psychology of Africans and their descendants (Soyinka 1976). These complacent and simplistic readings of negritude, including Sartre's more positive reading (Sartre 1976) of negritude as an antiracist racism, fail to appreciate the more serious epistemological thrust of negritude. In this regard, Césaire utilizes negritude to critique Cartesian rationalist epistemology but does so in a language that deflates the sovereignty of reason. Hence, Césaire's more sophisticated conception of negritude does not uncritically suggest a celebration of blackness for purposes of racial pride. Instead, it works through this early positing to force a more critical rethinking of the Eurocentric monopoly on human cognition (Arnold 1981).
Another school of thought that has attracted the attention of Afro-Caribbean thinkers is existentialism. Indeed, we can find traces of existentialism in the early phase of Afro-Caribbean creative writing, when the consciousness of Afro-Caribbean subjects was ablaze with the idea of freedom and revolt against colonialism.
Lewis Gordon has made major contributions to black existentialist thought with his Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (Gordon 1995a) and Existentia Africana (Gordon 2000), which have motivated Afro-Caribbean philosophy to escape its theoretical stasis. According to Henry,
Gordon emerges as an important Caliban figure taking the claims of [the] old Caribbean voice in new philosophical directions and into new terrains. As such, it has brought new ideas and challenges to the field of Afro-Caribbean philosophy—a philosophy that has been dominated by its schools of … historicism and poeticism. [A]fro-Caribbean philosophy has tended to shy away from the existential and transcendental domains of experience that are so prominent in Gordon's thought. (Henry 2000, 146)
George Lamming appropriates the basic existentialist thesis of the radicality of human freedom. His well-known novel In the Castle of My Skin is considered a text that testifies to the “fusion of philosophy to experience” (Butler 1982, 39). Butler adds that “In the Castle of My Skin is the work where existentialist philosophy was first applied to personal experience” (Butler 1982, 38). Although other Afro-Caribbean writers flirted with existentialism, Butler maintains that “[f]ar from being frivolous or fashionable, Lamming's use of existentialism is experiential and functional…. The single intention running through all six [of] Lamming's novels is to depict man's rejection of freedom as he meekly accepts a definition given him by the Other, or to show him accepting that existential freedom and creating his own actions” (Butler 1982, 38).
Memory, Imagination, and Trauma
Because Afro-Caribbean philosophy utilizes available cognitive resources, memory and imagination have played major roles within Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Indeed, imagination is appreciated as a sphere of contestation, conflict, and struggle. Derek Walcott boldly proclaims that “the imagination is a territory as subject to invasion and seizure as any far province of Empire” (Walcott 1988). History, memory, and imagination are important within Afro-Caribbean philosophy precisely because of the need of Afro-Caribbean subjects to escape modes of thought and frames of consciousness that entrap them in notions premised upon the hopelessness and debilitating experience of the Afro-Caribbean reality (Webb 1992). The prospects of working through the violence and trauma of Caribbean history are considered impossible because the victims of this history are wounded beyond repair. However, cognitive paralysis and epistemological stasis are not the inevitable inheritance of Afro-Caribbean subjects precisely because there exists, within Afro-Caribbean philosophy, a keen appreciation of the art of “appropriating a de facto situation by endowing it with figurative meaning.”1 This emphasis upon transcending brutal material events through figurative transformation is insightfully addressed by Wilson Harris, who underscores the importance of imagination for the development of a philosophy of history that is adequate to the Caribbean reality. Harris insists upon the role of the arts in this project of fashioning a philosophy of history inspired by the arts of the imagination (Henry 2004). This, indeed, is one unique feature of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Harris writes:
I believe that the possibility exists for us to become involved in perspectives of renascence which can bring into play a figurative meaning beyond an apparently real world or prison of history. I believe a philosophy of history may well lie buried in the arts of the imagination. (Harris 1995, 18)
The primary motivation propelling Harris's belief in the emancipatory and redemptive capacity of the imagination is his belief in the possibility of a new “architecture of cultures” (Harris 1995, 20). Ultimately, then, Harris seeks “to free the Caribbean of a reductionist historiography that imprisons it in its deprivations” (Mackey 1993, 169).
Afro-Caribbean Philosophy and Postmodernism
Another issue that has played a crucial role in Afro-Caribbean philosophy is its involvement with postmodernism (Benítez-Rojo 1996; Glissant 1992; Henry 2000, ch. 5). Here, I will be using “postmodernism” loosely to include poststructuralism (p. 504) and deconstruction. As to be expected, the postmodern turn is, to a large extent, preoccupied with the structuring role of language. Afro-Caribbean thinkers, such as Sylva Wynters, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant, have variously engaged postmodernist modes of thought. Here, I will limit my discussion to Glissant.
Glissant has followed postmodernism in its resituating of the subject, rethinking of history, and phenomenological investigations of the concept of the Other. His involvement with postmodernist thought is not intended to sanction any nihilistic celebration of the death of the subject and the end of history or to exoticize the Other, but rather, to move beyond the conceptual stasis of the notions of the subject and history as they have been constituted by modernity.
Glissant's involvement with postmodernism is in the cause of creating alternative conceptions of subjectivity and history. Aware of the unique circumstances of the Caribbean situation, he questions the idea of a fully self-rational subject who serves as the transcendental ground of truth, knowledge, and meaning. Instead of embracing the idea of a fully self-rational subject whose consciousness qualifies as the authority of knowledge, Glissant favors the idea of a collective subject. The structuring elements of Afro-Caribbean consciousness are not the products of the psychological idiosyncrasies of isolated individuals or transcendental structures of consciousness but emerge from “landscape, community, and collective unconscious” (Dash 1992, xiii). Furthermore, in displacing the Cartesian ego cogito as a model for the Afro-Caribbean subject, Glissant locates the Afro-Caribbean subject in ongoing linguistic and cultural practices.
Glissant's oeuvre in general and Caribbean Discourse in particular are predicated on a dislocation or deconstruction of the notion of individual agency in a post-Cartesian, post-Sartrean sense. There is a constant deflation of the solemnities of the self-certain subject in Glissant's critique of the longing for inviolable systems and pure origins, the sovereignty of self-consciousness, the solipsism of the structuring ego. In Caribbean Discourse Glissant is equally explicit on the limitations of the structuring, transcendental ego: ‘man is not the privileged subject of his knowledge; he gradually becomes its objects…. He is no longer the mind probing the known-unknown…. The collective “We” becomes the site of the generative system, and the true subject. (Dash 1992, xii–xiii)
Not surprisingly, Glissant displaces the linear, hierarchical view of history that considers European culture as the highest evolutionary expression of culture. Again, Glissant is not denying history in the sense of ontologically renouncing the events of the past. Rather, he seeks to dethrone a conception of history that places Afro-Caribbean subjects at the periphery of history and that withholds from them the right to structure their own narratives of temporal existence (Taylor 1989). Indeed, Glissant refers to the presence of a nonhistory in the Caribbean as the “dislocation of the continuum, and the inability of the collective consciousness to absorb it all” (Glissant 1992, 62). Glissant rejects the Hegelian conception of history, a totalizing conception of history premised on the idea of the necessary development of freedom. History as the necessary development of freedom is, for Glissant, not an indisputable truth but the object of horrific desire. Glissant writes:
(p. 505) ”History ends where the histories of those peoples once reputed to be without history come together.” History is a highly functional fantasy of the West, originating at precisely the time when it alone made the history of the world. If Hegel relegated African peoples to the ahistorical, Amerindian peoples to the prehistorical, in order to reserve History for European peoples exclusively, it appears that it is not because these African or American peoples “have entered History” that we can conclude today that such a hierarchical conception of the “march of History” is not longer relevant…. It is this hierarchical process that we deny in our own emergent historical consciousness, in its ruptures, its sudden emergence, its resistance to exploration. (Glissant 1992, 64)
Metaphor in Afro-Caribbean Philosophy
An important characteristic of Afro-Caribbean philosophy is its extensive use of rich metaphors. This extensive deployment of metaphor should be explained in terms of the importance of language in Afro-Caribbean thought and philosophy. Kamau Brathwaite has indicated that “it was in language that the slave was perhaps most successfully imprisoned by his master, and it was in his (mis-)use of it that he most effectively rebelled” (Brathwaite 1971, 237; Lamming 1992). Derek Walcott also underscores the importance of “renaming and finding new metaphors” (Walcott 1992, 25) in order to ground Afro-Caribbean existence. Whereas mainstream philosophy views metaphor as alien, Afro-Caribbean philosophy recognizes that Caribbean subjects have endeavored to grasp the rhythm of their existence through the agency of metaphor. Rejecting a representationalist view of language, Afro-Caribbean philosophy is concerned to produce new descriptions of things, as well as to institute self-legitimizing narratives. Here, we must understand metaphoricity as producing images to frame various characteristics of the life-world. Metaphoricity is not the opposite of conceptuality, but is intimately involved with illuminating the constitutive features of lived reality.
A plethora of root metaphors has infused Afro-Caribbean philosophical discourse: Anancy, Caliban, creolization, cross-culturality, fragments/fragmentation, hybridity, mestizaje, scar/wound, schizophrenia, submarine, and twilight. Chamberlin has called attention to Brathwaite's use of the metaphor of creolization to frame the historical, social, and cultural dynamic of racial interaction within Caribbean society (Brathwaite 1971, 1985). According to Chamberlin, when “Brathwaite uses the term creolization to describe the interaction between languages and between peoples, he is underlining its literary and political as well as its linguistic integrity” (Chamberlin 1993, 82). In another context, Ramazani describes the metaphor of scar as used by Walcott (Walcott 1990) as signifying “cultural convergence in the Americas without effacing its violent genesis” (Ramazani 2001, 61). The character Caliban has also played a dominant role in framing Afro-Caribbean intellectual activity, particularly the epistemological sovereignty of the Afro-Caribbean subject (Henry 2000; Bogues 1997). Bogues writes that the
(p. 506) character [Caliban] in Shakespeare's 1623 play The Tempest has become representative of the thought of the “native” radical intellectual. C. L. R. James himself, in the epigraphs to Beyond a Boundary, invokes Caliban as the representative figure who, having learned the master's language, pioneers “into regions Caesar never knew.” The Caribbean political novelist George Lamming, in Pleasures of Exile, … uses Caliban as representative of an anticolonial figure who contains “the seeds of revolt.” (Bogues 2003, 15)
Lastly, Glissant describes Brathwaite's use of the metaphor of the submarine as indicative of the complex interplay of cultures in the Caribbean. In particular, he interprets this metaphor as signaling a rejection of uniformity and an embrace of difference. Glissant writes:
We are the roots of a cross-cultural relationship. Submarines roots: that is floating free, not fixed in one position in some primordial spot, but extending in all directions in our world through its network of branches. We, thereby, live, we have the good fortune of living, this shared process of cultural mutation, this convergence that frees us from uniformity. (Glissant 1992, 67)
This essay has not examined every possible aspect of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Developments in Afro-Caribbean religion and sociopolitical movements have not been covered. However, I hope it has succeeded in capturing some of the excitement and flavor of Afro-Caribbean philosophy.
Bibliography and Suggested Readings
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