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In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.

When W. E. B. Dubois prefaced The Souls of Black Folk (1903) with the assertion that the "problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," he hit upon a formulation which has seemed more powerfully prophetic the longer the century has proceeded. Indeed, at the rate things are going, it will probably be the problem - or a major one - of the twenty-first century as well.

Yet part of the achievement of Kwame Anthony Appiah's In My Father's House is, first, to take Dubois seriously and then challenge his conception of race and Pan-Africanism, while trying to formulate an alternative way to talk about the phenomena that "race" and "Africa" refer to. Born of a Ghanaian father and an English mother, educated at Cambridge and now teaching at Harvard, conversant in various modern literatures and in literary theory but also trained in analytic philosophy in England, Appiah seems ideally situated to address himself to problems of great moment to intellectuals on at least three continents. He doesn't disappoint. His book combines personal reminiscences of life in Ghana, extended meditations on Africa and Pan-Africanism, and closely reasoned arguments about race and ethnicity, literature and philosophy, and religion and science.

The central purpose of In My Father's House is Appiah's desire to formulate a fresh vision of what unites as well as divides "us" and to assert Africa's place in what Richard Rorty calls the "conversation of culture." In short he is aiming at a new form of humanism. Appiah claims, for instance, that "what the postwar British Africans took from their time in Europe, therefore, was not a resentment of |white' culture" (p. 9), in large part because European penetration failed to shatter African cultures to the extent that it had damaged the heritage of Africans brought to North America. Rather, according to Appiah, African intellectuals tend to see European culture's experience of modernity as something to be learned from, not eternally resented or its value denied. In other words, historical experience can be transmitted across cultural boundaries.

Second, Appiah rejects "racialism," which is the belief that various races manifest particular traits or virtues; "extrinsic racism," which holds that gross physical differences, e.g. skin color, indicate shared capacities or characteristics, e.g. a sense of rhythm or capacity for self-government; and "intrinsic racism," which believes that races, like families, demand loyalty or solidarity, aside from any demonstrable traits. Thus Appiah rejects any form of Pan-Africanism based on extrinsic or intrinsic racial grounds, the position he associates with DuBois and most Pan-Africans. Pan-Africanism's concept of African identity, according to Appiah, was a reaction against European ideas and thus was tainted with the racism of nineteenth-century Europe. There is no purely African commonality of lived experience: "We do not have a common traditional culture, common languages, a common religious or conceptual vocabulary" (p. 26).

But there would be, for instance, a shared Asante identity, since there is a common Asante culture and heritage. To identify oneself with such a group yet to live under institutions originally imposed by the colonizers does not necessarily deprive someone of his or her identity; at best, it adds to one's repertory of skills. In DuBois's terms, Appiah's claim is that we all must realize the "doubleness" of our cultural consciousness and negotiate our way among multiple cultural worlds.

Nor does Appiah fall into the trap of thinking every culture must have what every other culture has in order to count for something. For historical reasons, philosophy at present just is that discourse whose origins and development are "Western." But there is no particular reason why every other culture must have its own particular philosophy. Such is the claim of ethno-philosophers who set up "folk philosophy," which all cultures do have, as a rival to Western philosophy. To Appiah's way of thinking, they simply aren't the same activity. "There is," he writes, "no possibility of not bringing a Western philosophical training to bear" (p. 98).

Put in positive terms, Appiah contends that "unless all of us understand each other, and understand each other as reasonable, we shall not treat each other with the proper respect" (p. 134). This may sound anodyne and cliched; certainly these are hardly words to mount the barricades. But Appiah's hope is earned in the context of a rigorously argued comparison of science and traditional religion. It is important to understand what Appiah means by reasonable: it is the nurtured propensity to learn from experience and beliefs; but more importantly, to be open to the exchange of reasoned arguments. Such arguments justify themselves precisely by reasons, not with claims that "this is the way it's always been done." Indeed, for all their other differences, modern science and traditional religion both aim at "explanation, prediction and control" (p. 120). What Appiah proposes, then, is a kind of "transitional solidarity" or "humanism" (p. 156), one which is pessimistic but not without hope.

Thus, if Appiah challenges Pan-Africanism on the issue of race and racism, he challenges Euro-American postmodernism on the issue of "humanism," which has come to represent all that which postmodernists/poststructuralists reject in the post-Enlightenment world. Rightly concerned with the destructive force of Western racism and racial domination, recent theorists have come to suspect - and usually reject - any claim that there are shared human values (or rights or needs or desires). They reason that such so-called universals have been used to justify the global hegemony of the West, whether under European or American aegis, over the rest of the world. Privileging reason privileges those who define reason as that which describes what they do and believe.

But this rejection of humanism has come at considerable intellectual and moral cost. In positing cultural "difference" and "otherness" as quasi-metaphysical entities, never to be diluted by Western practices or policies, contemporary theory has become tongue-tied and lacking any way to talk about what unites rather than what divides individuals and cultures. Appiah suggests, however, that "we are all already contaminated by each other ... there is no longer a fully autochthonous echt-African culture awaiting salvage by our artists (just as there is, of course, no American culture without African roots)" (p. 155). More acerbically, Appiah also observes that "as intellectuals - a category instituted in black Africa by colonialism - we are always at risk of becoming Otherness-machines. It risks becoming our principal role." But, he adds, "in Africa's cultures, there are those who will not see themselves as Other" (p. 157).

Finally, Appiah's humanism does not depend on any notion of a metaphysically shared essence based on Reason, a coherent self, or a master-narrative of historical progress. These phenomena may or may not be desirable, but they are to be achieved within history, not assumed to pre-exist it. Humanism should be, he writes, "provisional, historically contingent, antiessentialist (in other words, postmodern) and still be demanding. We can surely maintain a powerful engagement with the concern to avoid cruelty and pain while nevertheless recognizing the contingency of that concern" (p. 155). In sum, Appiah is gesturing toward a kind of postmodern humanism which soi-disant postmodern thinkers have given up on.

There are of course all sorts of implications and caveats to be raised about Appiah's In My Father's House. For one thing Appiah can be read to suggest that most forms of the "Great Tradition" vs. "Multiculturism" debate are a waste of time and shot through with bad faith. Both sides exemplify what Jurgen Habermas calls a "performative contradiction." Defenders of a pure Western tradition often do so in the name of openness, experimentation and toleration, while advocates of Afro-centric education usually speak from within the university, a largely Western institution for the transmission of learning. It is as though both positions really think that intellectual traditions or cultures are different because of the presence or absence of some atemporal essence.

But, though I am deeply sympathetic with Appiah's position, the disparities of power at a macro- or micro-level mean that African cultures are still more vulnerable to forced penetration from the West than vice-versa. At times his position can resemble the claim that the rich and the poor can both enjoy free speech, the former exercised from their country houses, while the latter can declaim from their cardboard boxes. What Appiah is trying to combat, I suspect, is the "victimology" and sheer anti-intellectualism present in much of the discourse about cultural difference. But there are real differences in power between political blocs and between individuals. More discussion of the ways such power-disparities create barriers to reasonableness within and between cultures would have been welcomed.

Appiah's book has been, and should be, compared with Edward Said's Orientalism (1978). One hopes that it will have as much influence. But the two works are quite different, though perhaps complementary. Where Said traces the intellectual-political process by which the Orient was constructed by the West, while avoiding much discussion of the realities constructed by Orientalism, Appiah writes from within the construct "Africa"; or better, with one foot inside and one outside. He wants to destroy the racialized Africa of the Western Africanists (and of Pan-Africanists) by exposing the variety of forms of life within the continent. In the process, Africans are granted a degree of agency and activity, of cultural self-determination, which Said seems at times to deny those living as "Orientals."

Most welcome is Appiah's insistence upon complexity - of analysis and of remedy. Though "race" and "tribe" must be resisted as fixed entities, Pan-Africanism as a developing historical entity can be politically creative in some settings, while "self-isolating black nationalism" (p. 180) in Europe or America is a dead-end. Appiah works primarily in the area of philosophy and literature, and thus his position can and should be supplemented by much of the valuable work done in political theory at present. Does his humanism provide the basis for a theory of human rights? Isn't more than sympathy for the oppressed and the suffering necessary to give his humanist vision political bite and appeal? It should not be impertinent to wonder what Appiah's intellectuals have to contribute to the fight against the horrors of famine and AIDS which threaten whole regions of the African continent. Perhaps no more than intellectuals elsewhere. Still, in such an intellectually vigorous and personally moving meditation, these problems deserve some sort of address.

Yet, if one tries to do everything, the result is often nothing in particular. Appiah's In My Father's House deserves the widest hearing and debate for what it does. Perhaps it marks the opening of a new stage in the debate about race and culture which will dislodge us from the rigid positions to which we now seem captive.
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Author:King, Richard H.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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