Co-Director, African Centre for Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, and Executive Dean, Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg

Academia and Decolonisation

It has become unfashionable to admit that one doesn’t really understand what phrases like “decolonising knowledge” or “a decolonised curriculum” mean. This is unfortunate. The process of coming to understand what decolonisation of knowledge might be is essential to achieving it – and that process is definitely not yet complete.

Decolonisation is not always a welcome concept in some quarters of academia. If curricula and ideas and knowledge are colonised, that means they have been shaped in part by considerations that are political, economic, social, cultural or otherwise tangential to the ideals of academic inquiry.

Admitting a need to decolonise any part of one’s discipline means admitting that it was formerly colonised to some degree. This in turn means admitting that what one previously touted as objective and untainted by the fleeting considerations of worldly affairs was, in fact, mired in them. Academics are much happier asserting that knowledge is power than they are conceding that power is knowledge.

Seen in this light, the decolonisation of knowledge is primarily an intellectual rather than a political project. It attempts to “disinfect” academic activities: to rid teaching, research, and institutional behaviour of influences that have little to do with the fair-minded pursuit of knowledge and truth.

But this is not the only approach. Decolonisation of knowledge is a contested concept. This “disinfecting” or critical model of decolonisation stands in contrast to a line of thought that sees knowledge as relative to a perspective, a cultural context, or something else again.

Decolonisation as cultural relativism

Decolonisation is sometimes presented, not as an attempt to resurrect the dispassionate search for knowledge, but as a rejection of the idea of objectivity, which is seen as a sort of heritage of colonial thinking.

Sometimes the idea is that notions like truth, fact or what “works” are fundamentally western and are imposed on other cultures. At other times, the idea seems to me that facts and truths are local. So what is discovered or expressed in one time or place will necessarily be inapplicable in another.

This line of thinking takes its cue from the fact that if you have sufficient power over someone you can enforce your views on them – or simply kill them if they disagree. Totalitarian states typically adopt policies that involve both silencing and killing dissenters.

Karl Marx famously maintained that

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.

Michel Foucault thought that power and truth are closely related, or even the same thing, which he sometimes called “power/knowledge”.

On this line of thought, the attempt to critically evaluate the opinion of another person or group looks like an exercise in power politics. It’s a short step from there to the idea that, in order to rid ourselves of the effects of a colonial past, we must all desist from asserting our beliefs over others’ beliefs. There is African belief, and European belief, and your belief, and mine – but none of us have the right to assert that something is true, is a fact, or works, contrary to anyone else’s belief.

On this view, to decolonise knowledge is to understand this and so to adopt a certain very broad kind of relativism.

Critical decolonisation

I prefer the first understanding of decolonisation over the second: critical decolonisation over relativistic decolonisation.

One very simple reason is that the kind of relativism I have described is associated with traditions of thought that are European in origin: Marxism and postmodernism. I am sceptical of assertions that these views are of universal application. I worry that some of these assertions may themselves express a colonial heritage.

But I have more substantive concerns, too. One of these is a point made by Ghanaian-British author and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book Cosmopolitanism. Appiah values conversation very highly and rejects relativism in part because it doesn’t motivate conversation. As he puts it:

If we cannot learn from one another what is right to think and feel and do, then conversation between us will be pointless. Relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent.

The great attraction of uncritical decolonisation is that it appears to prevent us coming into conflict with each other. We simply accept that everyone is entitled to their views. But a moment’s thought shows there’s no protection against possible conflict. I might believe I can do things you don’t want me to do. I might even have views about your views.

The trouble is that ideas can conflict by themselves. They can logically contradict each other. They can mandate actions that are mutually exclusive. We might think very differently – but we share the same world.

The risk of being wrong

Critical decolonisation means accepting risk of error. It means considering whether indigenous knowledge systems might contain truths that western science has not accessed. But it also means accepting that in some cases indigenous knowledge systems might be wrong.

Critical decolonisation also means considering whether what we find in the canon of an academic discipline whose history has been dominated by Europe and America is really up to much. This is a very scary and painful question for academics who have devoted their lives to the study of what they have been told are works of genius.

Critical decolonisation leaves room for local knowledge. A policy to improve infant nutrition may work in Tamil Nadu and fail in Bangladesh. The relativist stance says that whether it works depends on your point of view. But this is a poor analysis of this case: it works in one and not the other, whichever place you are looking from.

The better approach is to seek an explanation for the difference: in this case, that the role of mothers in buying and distributing food differs between the two places. One can reject universal truths without endorsing relativism.

If done properly and critically a lot of what we count as great will fall in the process of decolonising knowledge. A lot of formerly unvoiced and unheard ideas will come to light. The process of critical scrutiny is essential to the success of this project – and nobody gets a free pass.