Philosophers in tattered-shoes: reflections on the moral contradictions of philosophers in South Afrika
The township salon where I cut my hair harbours a cobbler by its gate. The interesting thing about this particular cobbler is that on the numerous occasions that our paths have converged — I have always been struck by the irony that he always seems to be wearing tattered shoes, comparable to those worn by an impoverished nyaope boy or Oliver Twist.
I think the intuitive question to be asked by anyone encountering this particular cobbler is that why doesn’t he apply effort in repairing his own shoes? Why doesn’t he resolve the irony that seems to saturate his person as he mends other people’s shoes? Why does he wallow in the contradiction of covering his feet with torn and stuffed-up shoes?
After all, the cobbler is likely to have the appropriate shoe repair paraphernalia, materials and skills to do so.
This irony-laden encounter with this cobbler has, over the years, evolved into a useful anecdote that scaffolds my attempt to articulate trends in the epistemological and moral standing of some philosophers in South Afrika.
Back in 2017, we saw an interesting drama unravel in the theatre house of philosophy in South Afrika. Following allegations of racism, we saw an exodus of some black philosophers from the Philosophical Society of South Africa (PSSA) and the subsequent formation of the Azanian Philosophical Society (APS) — all in the attempt to reform philosophy in South Africa and make it more organic, by better-situating philosophy within the black lived experience, amongst other things.
One of the critiques espoused by disgruntled black philosophers who left the PSSA was that philosophy departments in South Afrikan universities (as a microcosm of a still colonial academy) remain largely unreformed and Eurocentric in their axis and gaze.
This is a situation I argue to be best captured by the analogy that many a philosopher are still in tattered-shoes.
By this, I suggest that even though philosophical thinking often involves talking about sophisticated actional-moral heuristics (as found in ethics) and what can be said to be socially normative, some philosophers, however, tend to fall short in living up to those ideals.
For example, I once heard a certain white philosopher refer to African students and parents as ‘barbaric’ for ululating at a graduation ceremony. This is one instantiation of a philosopher in tattered-shoes.
Furthermore, following the tattered-shoes that some philosophers are still wearing, it also follows that many philosophy departments, that are constituted by such individuals, also remain unconverted by remaining Eurocentric for starters. This is achieved through having a pedagogy often divorced from the black lived experience and even employing some racist philosophers who doubt the validity and value of anything and everything African. I also implicate situations where there isn’t even a single black full professor in a whole philosophy department — there’s something odd going on there don’t you think?
So what’s up with all these contradictions? Why is it, we must ask, that those who supposedly specialise in ethics, in areas such as deontology, African ethics, consequentialism and virtue ethics — tend to fall short of moral praxis by not practising what they preach in their areas of speciality? Why is it that some white philosophers, for example, by gatekeeping philosophy as it currently is in South Afrika (I can cite many instances of this BTW), often fail in being ethical, and sway away from those actions that could be deemed as philosophically normative? Actions such as being more inclusive and hospital to other epistemological frameworks and philosophical traditions such as African philosophy.
I think there is a deep burden and responsibility resting on us philosophers to do better.
Such a moral contradictory culture amongst philosophers is nothing new per se. Consider someone like Immanuel Kant, who was undoubtedly a categorical (pun intended) racist. Kant’s categorical imperative would be an ethical tool applied to Europeans except blacks/Negroes as he construed them as subhuman, hence denying them rationality — a key idea in the formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative. There are many examples to point to in relaying Kant’s position in relation to the Negroes. Kant even writes about how to lash and flagellate the Negro. This is just substantive proof that Kant was another such philosopher with tattered shoes. Without doubt, there were many moments when Kant, as an ‘ethicist’, fell short of being ethical, as there are clear moments of failure in being ethical in relation to some human beings qua blacks.
The same goes for many prized Western philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrick Hegel, Voltaire, and David Hume, just to name a few. Hume, for example, writes a whole ‘Treatise on Human Nature’ while being the same person that excludes the black (person) from his conception of the human.
The Jamaican philosopher Charles W. Mills once said that ‘a lot of philosophy is just white guys jerking off’. This implies that one can work on (academic) philosophy yet not let philosophy work on them. The result of this is being a philosopher in stuffed-up shoes.
Similarly, in tattered shoes are black philosophers who aren’t doing much to edify the plight of those struggling to decolonize philosophy departments. These ‘black’ philosophers have somewhat of an enchantment with global reputation standards and publishing in ‘reputable’ journals. Their philosophical activity merely centres around research outputs and not rattling the status quo through decolonial gestures. Don’t get me wrong, these aspirations are good and noble. After all, this is what secures one’s bread and butter as a philosopher in academia.
However, I think much efforts need to be exerted on repositioning the place of African philosophy and other black-bodied philosophers in South Afrika. I imagine vanguards of African philosophy such as Mogobe Ramose and Mabogo Percy More’s, who valiantly decided to do African philosophy despite historico-institutional difficulties, did so at a high opportunity cost of often not being accepted into the ‘mainstream’. Today, they are heroes to us emerging black philosophers in the radical black tradition.
It is also unfortunate that there are black philosophers who doubt stalwarts such as of ntate Ramose. I remember one of black philosopher once sarcastically asked me: “But Ernest, who is Ramose?”. I imagine that the guy posed this sarcastic question with the intention of demeaning Ramose as a nobody in terms of ‘global standards’. Even though I may not have responded at the time, years later, I can now only say that Ramose is a decolonizing figure for many of us. Ramose is a black philosopher hero. He and many others have contributed towards leading us to the promised land of African philosophy fully realised.
I think that the words of Karl Marx (another racist scholar by the way), in his eleventh thesis to Ludwig Feuerbach, are highly relevant. Marx once said that “philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world in many ways but the point is to change it”. Here, Marx calls for the usage of scholarship in liberatory ways. I read Marx as making a call to philosophers to change both ourselves and the world.
This series of paragraphs is merely a call for philosophers (myself included) to be more autocritical as there are moments when we find ourselves in shitty philosophical shoes! As epistemic cobblers, we should pay closer attention to our possibly tattered-shoes — and ensure that before we hammer the rest of the world with disciplines such as ethics, that we, ourselves, have been reformed by own epistemic content.