Shall we tear down the statues of philosophers?

Image: Hamilton Grimaldi


The radicalism that postcolonial thought brings us should not be limited to recognizing “contradictions” in the so-called classic philosophers, but should touch the very notion of canon and classic.

The resistance of Brazilian philosophy to postcolonial criticism was initially based on the explicit refusal to deal with “sensitive” issues such as racism and misogyny among philosophers repeated as classics. For a long time, works dealing with these themes focused on showing that great philosophers have contradictions, but that they must be extended as peripheral excesses in their systems.

Despite being explicitly racist and Nazi, Kant and Heidegger, for example, are hardly questioned for these reasons in undergraduate philosophy courses. Cases such as that of Locke (trader of enslaved people) and Rousseau (explicitly misogynist) until recently enjoyed diplomatic immunity because they carried the term classic in their identities. Very different treatment in relation to certain issues or approaches that were not even considered philosophy because they were not on the right margin of this canon. However, in the face of postcolonial studies and feminisms, this comfortable posture began to be unsustainable.

Thus, albeit with timidity, Brazilian philosophy was forced to at least listen to other areas in whose fields postcolonial discussions involve a heightening of the debate that passes, for example, through unimaginable postures in the great undergraduate philosophy courses in the country like having an Afro-centered list of bibliographical references or only containing women, while courses are still frequently found in which references are only made up of men and whites. Those listening to the area still don't seem to want to give up the classics, obviously European and American, and it is at this moment that another strategy comes into play to keep the classics... classics. The image not rarely used for this type of strategy is the following “let's not throw the baby out with the bath water”. That is, a necessary critique of these philosophers should not imply their elimination from the canon.

The questions I would like to ask are the following: what is the baby? What is the water? Who's playing the baby? These questions orbit around a common axis, namely: there is an implicit definition of what philosophy is and what in philosophy is, ultimately, untouchable from the point of view of its function in the history of philosophy. Let's not throw away the classics. Let's leave the statues of the great philosophers standing. It is what asserts, in part, the Brazilian philosophical community formed, frequently, in the thought of these philosophers. They are theses and texts that multiply, keeping in common a disposition to provide an answer to a possible failure or contradiction of these philosophers or distinguished citizens to endorse that they are often in fact illustrious. The community even seems to accept that universals can get out of the philosophical arena, but not universal philosophers.

From this perspective, it seems that we know more European philosophy than we minimally read the philosophy produced in Brazil. The excuse before was that philosophy was the expression of the universal, despite the fact that philosophers never hid that it was actually a matter of their surroundings, as in the emblematic case of Heidegger who said without shame that the German people are a metaphysical people. In fact, it seems difficult to sustain – at least without some embarrassment – ​​philosophy as this abstract universal, but its address in undergraduate courses seems to be the same: always above the equator. This is the reason why articles and theses, which already exist and have a strong impact on these issues, hardly appear in the bibliographic references of undergraduate courses.

Brazilian female philosophers initiated an important part of the most substantial change when, in a network, they opened spaces for women who, thanks to the male canon, were considered less capable of doing philosophy or simply silenced. However, the centrality of European and American philosophy remains dictating the course of Brazilian philosophy to the point that Angela Davis gives us a kind of corrective when asking why we Brazilians and men treat it with such reference, reading its texts and producing from them , and we are silent in the face of thinkers like Lélia Gonzalez whose texts are practically non-existent in the bibliographical references of philosophy courses in Brazil. Not to mention the philosophy of indigenous and African peoples whose ontologies are central to understanding other paths of thought; closest to the equator.

To return to the American philosopher's question, the answer I would offer her is that not only are we still not willing to give up the classics, but we always defend them in the face of any attack, since much more texts are produced in Brazil to defend philosophers than texts that radicalize a reflection on the philosophical bases that connect these thinkers to positions that nowadays we hardly accept.

The radicalism that postcolonial thought brings us should not be limited to recognizing “contradictions” in the so-called classic philosophers, but should touch the notion of canon and classic without compromising itself. beforehand with saving or damning a thinker. Postcolonialism doesn't just invite us to criticize the posture of classical philosophers as if everything had, in the last analysis, to revolve around them and always placing them at the center of philosophy. His greatest contribution is to question the very notion of the classic. What is it for? Or again: who does it serve?

It will not be easy for the generation of female philosophers like mine, formed, as I said, in this canon, to open the frontiers of philosophy more radically, but I believe it is our duty not to reproduce the concept of classic as a way of repeating the voice of same authors who appear mostly in our bibliographical references. If we are not going to demolish the statues of philosophers, for the most varied reasons, and that may be understandable to some extent, that our decision does not imply the impossibility of future generations to place at the center of philosophy those who have always been outside, even its margins.

*Erico Andrade is professor of philosophy at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE).



See this link for all articles