Much talk of the Enlightenment is rooted in Eurocentric and archaic thought. What is needed is a continuation of the Enlightenment beyond the 16th century.
Ever since I started (re)-teaching myself Igbo, I have been more broadly interested in the intellectual history of Africa. In the course of this pursuit, I came across an Ethiopian philosopher named Zera Yacob. Ethiopia (or Abyssinia) is one of possibly two pre-colonial societies in sub-Saharan Africa to have a written language. The other incidentally being the Igbo, Efik, and Ibibio of Southeastern Nigeria, writing in an ideographic script known as Nsịbịdị. Nsibidi was used for decorative, communicative, philosophical purposes. During the Colonial Era, the writing system was almost wiped out by the British Colonials, in favor of the Latin Writing Script. This is ironic as items decorated with Nsibidi were taken from that part of modern-day Nigeria put into British Museums.
Some weeks ago, I came across a video by user PhilosophyTube — also known as Ollie Thorn — on African Philosophy and the Enlightenment. In this video Ollie discusses Zera Yacob and his seminal work the Hatata, or Inquiry. Yacob wrote this work while in seclusion in a cave, much similar to the seclusion of Sir Isaac Newton. Yacob was escaping the persecution of non-Catholics under Emperor Fasil; Newton, however, was escaping the ravaging Plague.
In the Hatata, Yacob discusses the supremacy of reason, criticizes organized religion, and argues explicitly against slavery. This is in stark contrast to people like John Locke who not only argued for slavery but benefited from it as well, investing in the Royal African Company, a slave trading company established in 1660. It is here where credit is not given properly. Normally, European (male) philosophers are centered in these conversations and yet here is a written treatise by an African (Abyssinian) philosopher making points that would not be made in Western Europe for another century. The examples of Zera Yacob and the Nsịbịdị writing script show that modernism and enlightenment are perfectly capable of existing in contexts wholly decoupled from the West.
About three years before Yacob was born in 1599, another seminal and more acclaimed philosopher was born in a commune in Central France. René Descartes was undoubtedly a brilliant man with his development of analytic geometry, coordinate plotting, and its applications to geometric and ray optics. However, Descartes was not without his flaws. His idea of substance dualism and consequent belief in the soul is probably his most famous detour from reality as we understand it today. However, his epistemology of foundationalist rationalism is more seriously flawed. And it is this belief that has made Descartes so philosophically caustic and I don’t use that word lightly as we will see.
Some months ago I was listening to a lecture by the philosopher Robert Brandom, a protégé of the late Richard Rorty at Princeton. In the lecture Brandom recalls the lamentations of his late advisor over the state of Western analytic philosophy over the course of the last three centuries. The culprit is a Mr. René Descartes whose individualist and atomistic representation of the mind has been a plague on analytic philosophy of the same scale of that which ravaged his native France in the 1620s. Such a notion was also held by arguably more brilliant predecessors of the Western analytic tradition like Bertrand Russell. Apparently, not even 2 a.m. bedroom visitations by a persistently curious Ludwig Wittgenstein could shake it out of him.
At the same time as Russell, other people — like Wittgenstein — thought differently. Not just in Europe, but in different places around the world. Wittgenstein’s argument against private language laid the foundation for Wilfrid Sellars attack on ‘the Given’ in his seminal work Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. However, other societies expressed similar thoughts differently.
Ubuntu turns Descartes’ cogitō ergo sum on its head: sum quod sumus. Our identities aren’t given to us from within, they are given to us from without. Our identities are an intrinsically social phenomenon. Like a language, they cannot be understood privately; they exist relative to a context of other people. This may seem like mere philosophical navel-gazing but it has wide-reaching implications. If the vocabularies we use to describe things are born of a shared collective, then this also extends to the way we think about our own minds! Cartesianism holds consciousness to be without foundation; Ubuntu maintains the opposite view. Cartesianism holds the self to be a rigid entity; Ubuntu holds that such a notion is illusory.
Believe it or not, solitary confinement the current U.S. criminal (in)justice system is also an example of Cartesianism at work. Calvinists and Quakers originally supported solitary confinement as a way of practicing introspection and restoring one’s relationship with God. Such a notion makes sense on the view that God is the sole giver of innate identity and meaning. Today, solitary confinement has come under immense scrutiny, even being criticized by some as a form of torture. People report losing their sense of self and their ability to think coherently. Giving people a space to correct themselves through other people, i.e. rehabilitation, is much more compassionate and in line with the neuroscientific data. But such intuitions about the mind can exist in other cultures as well and can be far more beneficial in the outcomes they produce. It is important to beware of how the mere existence of advanced technology or a high human development index (HDI) can still be lacking in its ability to address systemic issues. The movie Hidden Figures does a good job of illustrating this point.
Understanding the contributions of other cultures to a universal enlightenment stays true to the facts of history and crafts a more holistic understanding of what modernism can mean in different contexts. However, there is a disturbing trend of people whose notion of the Enlightenment is a destination already reached. Such people use the Enlightenment to shame left-wing movements for social progress and change by insisting on a notion of ‘the West’ that has exhausted its endeavors for social, political, and economic change. What is more infuriating is when these movements eventually succeed and their original detractors — usually members of a socially dominant group — jump in to take credit for them.
On an episode of The Rubin Report, conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro discussed his recent book The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great. Shapiro argues that America has a God-shaped hole in its heart that explains the crisis of American politics. He cites philosopher Leo Strauss in centering the moral success of the West on Judeo-Christian values (how original) and distinguishes from other “pagan” cultures and there non-success. Something makes me think he doesn’t realize that there are Muslim countries in the West. Shapiro goes onto say that the intelligibility of the Universe came partly from saying:
“The second is the actual meaning of that: we are made in the image of God. It means that each of us has inestimable value. Now that is something that—again—we tend to think of as perfectly obvious, that we are all valuable human beings. But all was restricted to the tribe for most of human history and we are reverting back to that now.”
I wrote about this towards the end of a previous piece on Jordan Peterson that his worldview falls prey to a myth, the myth of the “good old days” ever really being so good. Most reactionary thought falls prey to this myth and Shapiro is no exception. The US is not reverting back to that, it is rather the ongoing enlightenment project that Shapiro purports to support continuing at an exponential rate, a rate which is disrupting the current social and political order that people like Shapiro enjoy. As Ezra Klein rightly notes, “[w]e’re in a period of massive demographic and social change, and all that change is creating a powerful backlash.”
Such people—like Shapiro—make comparisons to developing nations rather than argue for progress where it is needed but such an impulse is counter to the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement built on disrupting the status quō for a better future. For this reason I have become recently interested in the idea of metamodernism. Europe had the Enlightenment; the interconnected world that we see today has multiple enlightenments. For some people it is fighting against voter suppression while for others it is defying edicts from violent religious fundamentalists and composing love stories. For others it means taking Western European multinational corporations to task on neo-colonial, exploitative, and environmentally destructive policies.
Nnamdi ‘Zik’ Azikiwe, the first President of Nigeria, coined the ideology of Zikism. According to Zikism, African liberation is constituted by five core principles:
- Spiritual balance
- Social regeneration
- Economic determinism
- Mental emancipation
- Political resurgence
Spiritual balance recognizes the right of one to their views. Social regeneration is the dissolution of tribal, religious, and ethnic prejudices. Economic determinism is the self-sufficiency of the African continent. Mental emancipation is the knowledge of African history and the accomplishments of predecessors. Last and most importantly is political resurgence, the regaining of lost sovereignty taken by colonialists. Political resurgence is the most important because it centers these countries against the indelible stamp of the West in these countries. In this way, Zikism cannot be said to be Western as it pits itself against the West’s oppressive remnants in Africa.
Modernization is not a destination reached anymore than scientific truth is a destination reached. Like science, modernization is a process that will never be exhausted. There will always something beautiful to discover about the universe and there will be always be something more uplifting and magnanimous to do for humanity. True enlightenment is a never ending thirst and hunger for addenda to the multitudes of magnificent humanistic enlightenment projects that are taking place right now.
Emeka Ikpeazu is a recent graduate in Electrical Engineering from the University of Virginia. In his spare time he likes to write, go on long runs, watch movies, and listen to classical and jazz music.