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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Can Non-Europeans Think?

Can Non-Europeans Think
A woman looks at a giant sculpture featuring a pile of books by famous German writers and philosophers opposite Berlin’s Humboldt University 10 May 2006. JOHN MACDOUGALL/ AFP.

Youssef Sharqawi

Can Non-Europeans Think? This is a question that transcends the immediate level to a philosophical one that is both condescending and provocative at the same time. It is one of many attempts to elicit counter-knowledge to that of the colonial system of knowledge and its complicit texts with the methods of domination.

Some Europeans have delegated themselves on behalf of the whole world because other races are incapable of thinking themselves. That was the outcome of egocentrism and Eurocentrism until the European became the essence while everyone/everything else became the other.

The article and book of the Iranian-born thinker Hamid Dabashi, entitled Can Non-Europeans Think?, stems from his reading of a beautiful compliment on the famous European philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in which he says: “There are many important and effectual philosophers today: Judith Butler in the United States (a product of the European descent of philosophy), Simon Critchley in England, Victoria Camps in Spain, Jean-Luc Nancy in France, Gianni Vattimo in Italy, Peter Sloterdijk in Germany, and Slavoj Žižek in Slovenia, not to mention other philosophers who work in Brazil, Australia, and China.”

The European character is evident, and the tendency toward things the writer calls “today’s philosophy” is clear. Žižek bases his claim on both the Western subject and time, which are the exclusive property of Europe. China and Brazil are mentioned undoubtedly as sites of other philosophers, worthy of mention, “but it is clear that none of them has a name that makes it worth mentioning beside these European philosophers.”

What about other thinkers, then? What about those who work outside the European philosophical dynasty, whether they think in the European languages they inherited from their colonizers or their native tongues? What about those in Asia, Africa, or Latin America? These thinkers who later acquired the worthiness of the name and perhaps the title of “public intellectual” are not unlike Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault, whom Žižek introduced in his article as his predecessors. Are they South Asian or African thinkers? Or are they thinkers in the same manner as these European thinkers?

The same ethnological view of intellectual tendencies in the Arab and Islamic world is evident: There is Azmi Bishara from Palestine. There are Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Michel Kilo from Syria. There is the endless list of outstanding thinkers.

After Dabashi published his article, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona, Santiago Zabala, responded to it with a counter-article. It seemed that he had received a great insult because of it, thinking that the latter accused him and the rest of the European philosophers of Eurocentrism.

Soon, Zabala’s colleague at the university, Michael Marder, joined him and wrote another article against Dabashi. These young European philosophers were so conscious of their being European philosophers that they felt the responsibility to assemble to defend themselves against the coloured boy who had dared to encroach on their territory.

Dabashi found it amusing, as he was not addressing any European philosopher in his article. Even the title was in jest. But they think that anything that happens in this world is exclusively about them.

Why should Europeans not be able to read, even when we write in the language they understand? According to Dabashi, they cannot read because they – as Europeans – are caught in the draining metaphor that yearns for its past. Again, they refer what they read to that trap and to what they already know. Thus, they are unable to see that it is something they do not know. They are trying to refer the world to what they know.

In other words, Eurocentrism is the most vital motive that prevents Europeans from reading things written outside their boundaries. Since the writings of Immanuel Kant, which considered Europe a subject of knowledge, while the rest of the world constitutes objects of knowledge. This tendency deepened with Hegel‘s writings on the sun of the West as the end of cosmic thinking. That is what resulted in a kind of sense of superiority and possession of the world of thoughts. Thus, they do not need to read what we – the others – produce as a part of knowledge, we cannot think on our own, and everything that comes out of us remains “just a dance”, as the European philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas says.

European philosophers such as Zabala and Marder claim to have the authority of their ancestors. They deal as if anything, anyone said, anywhere, had to revolve only around them! They think that their philosophy is the philosophy and their thinking is the thinking, while everything else is “just a dance”.

Eurocentrism today, says Dabashi, is completely over. Europeans, of course, have a European flair and see the world from their old-fashioned point of view, and why don’t they? They are the heirs of multiple dissolved empires, and they still carry deeply inside the delusional arrogance of those empires. They have the imperial arrogance that enabled this European tendency to produce promoters and propagandists like Žižek, who represent the illusory memories of when the West asserted its confidence, cosmic feeling, and inclusiveness.

But this inclusiveness no longer exists. People of all climates and continents move – freely – toward their worldly multiculturalism claims, and with it the innate ability to think outside the dungeons of Eurocentrism, which still brings them the illusory pleasure of thinking of themselves as the centre of the universe.

Sources

  1. Dabashi, H., “Can Non-Europeans Think?”, Zed Books, London, 2015 (English)
  2. Ghashi, M., “Can Non-Europeans Think?”, Doha Magazine, Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage, Qatar, 2018.

 

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Dima Elayache
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