Updated: May 6
When I began college in a philosophy program in Brazil, I heard from a young professor, who was beloved by all students and seen as a promising scholar: “Philosophy is something that began in Athena that has been made in Greek, Latin, then in French and German. Anything that does not engage in this tradition and languages is not philosophy.” I took two courses with this professor, one in Hegel and another in Kant. One month before ending the second course, he left the university for a fellowship in Paris and we had a substitute professor, called from his retirement only to fill the gap. The young professor and promising scholar was extremally excited with this opportunity in Europe, according to him the real place to do philosophy.
At the time, at the age of 18, I believed him. More than that, I took seriously this advice, making it my own. I embraced it as an obligation: I should learn classical Greek, Latin, French, and German. Except for German, I fulfilled this obligation quite well, with years studying Greek and Latin. I even went to France, as him, to improve my French and to develop research about a French philosopher. Somebody reading this essay might say: “You are thankful for this professor who inspired you to learn these languages.” It is good to learn these skills, but the real issue is: what is behind it?
The answer to this question is very complex, but whatever direction you go to address it, you can’t escape from the history of colonialism of Western nations and their sense of superiority that has shaped a colonial mentality. This mentality is present in the minds of colonizers and colonized. This mentality operates in different ways in both oppressors and oppressed. On one hand, there are those who see themselves and everything related to their culture and tradition as superior. Consequently, anything non-Western is inferior. On the other hand, there is a sense in those from the former colonies that the Western worldview, culture, epistemology and so on are superior to what is originally and traditionally created in the global south. Hence, philosophy, as a critical thinking about immanent and transcendent realities can only be developed within the Western paradigm grounded on the Hellenistic epistemology. This is what I see between the lines (or behind) of my former-professor’s statement.
ANPOF, a Brazilian Association of Graduate Programs in Philosophy, has published a series of short essays about this colonial mentality. In one of them – entitled “Cognitive Colonialism: Examining the Retinas of the Brazilian Philosophy Community” by Murilo Seabra, a snapshot of his book Oftalmopolítica: um problema com a visão da filosofia, published last month in Brazil – presents, with empirical evidence, the epistemological and cognitive racism that exists among Brazilian professors and graduate students in philosophy programs.
Seabra says: "The Brazilian academic philosophy community tends to give on a scale of 0 to 10, an average of 0.96 points more for the same text when it is signed by a French fictional author instead of a Brazilian fictional author." This is a result of an experiment, which essays were submitted to professor and doctoral students for their evaluation. An essay was submitted “written” by a French author and then a similar essay by a Brazilian author. (I believe that if the same experiment were applied in other countries and disciplines, the result would be similar.)
He adds: "Perhaps the most disturbing result of this research is that the Brazilian academic philosophy community routinely uses double standards. When a text that escapes the disciplinary limits of academic philosophy is signed by a French, it is perceived as original, while a text signed by a Brazilian is no longer perceived as original but as an error in its development. It is as if the same work of art was considered beautiful when attributed to a European artist and ugly when attributed to a Latin American artist. "
Seabra shows with an experiment what author likes Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire affirmed about a colonial oppression present in the mind of former-colonized people. The popular imagery of Brazilians names it “complex of vira-lata,” that is actually a concept created by Nelson Rodrigues to refer to “the inferiority in which Brazilians put themselves, voluntarily, in comparison to the rest of the world.” Vira-lata (literally means turning-can) is an expression to refer to a street dog, that has no breed, because it is a mix of many (mestizo), and nobody wants to have one. However, paradoxically, people like a vira-latas, feeding them on street, but keeping them there. A vira-lata’s dream is to be a breed dog, for it is the one way to live in a house with its beloved owner. Although this is part of the Brazilian imagery, this complex of vira-lata is a good metaphor for the relationship between countries from the global north (where the rich and former-colonizing powers are with their self-understanding of superiority for being the Western culture) and the global south with countries historically exploited through a process that included destruction of their own traditions and epistemology. People from the global north like vira-latas from the south, provide some food for them, offering opportunities to some individuals. They like experiencing some of cultural elements from the south, such as music and food, but at the end of the day, the north wants to keep the south in the streets, that is, in under-development and cultural, social, and economic dependency. Meanwhile, people from the global south keep dreaming of the superiority of the north, taking anything from there as superior and, in many cases, feeling ashamed of their non-Western features and traditions.
In a technical way, Seabra says: "So we don't just suffer from cultural, academic, or epistemic colonialism. We also suffer from cognitive colonialism. That is, Eurocentrism affects our thinking." Considering one particular group, ironically a community known for having critical thinkers, he adds: "The Brazilian philosophy community does not think that French thinkers simply have greater potential than Brazilian thinkers. What they think is that Brazilian thinkers are inferior to French thinkers even when they perform exactly the same way."
In another essay, now commentating a new book of João de Fernandes Teixeira, Filosofia Jabuticaba: Colonialidade e Pensamento Autoritário no Brasil, Murilo Seabra stresses that Teixeira is frank by affirming the Brazilian philosophical community is “skeptical about its own intelligence: it judges itself as able of absolve knowledge, but is not able to produce one.” The Brazilian philosophical community is one of the largest in the world, but nobody reads what Brazilian writes, nor the Brazilian themselves. “Although we religiously quote French, Germans, English, and Americans, they do not return the kindness. They don't quote us. They don't read us. Admiration is not reciprocated. But if we don't quote what they write about the world, life, politics, society or conscience, our bibliographies will be judged incomplete – and our articles will be rejected by reviewers and editors. The reverse is not true.”
And he continues: “We do not need to turn our backs on the intellectual production of hegemonic countries. We don't need to repay the discourtesy. They have interesting things to say. But we do need to strengthen the dialogue with countries that, like Brazil, has marginal position in the economy of knowledge. Europe is not synonymous with the world. We must build bridges with Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America.”
It took me years to realize that I needed to free my mind from this colonized mind. Certainly, this is an imperfect process that will continue until the last day of my life. I started to realize this necessity when I engaged with impoverished communities in their fight for justice. Contradictory enough, while I was learning those Western languages, I was challenged by another professor, who knew my humble origin, as a first-generation college student, and my service among marginalized communities. He was teaching in a philosophy program, but his doctorate was in theology. He was a former priest, who served poor communities in Brazil during time in the priesthood. The experience among the poor opened himself for a new kind of knowledge, that was not systematic and full of references from Western philosophers and theologians. This professor challenged me to read Brazilian authors, such as Paulo Freire and Henrique Claudio de Lima Vaz, and bring what I was learning from them to dialogue with the people from the communities I was serving outside college. At that time, I didn’t understand the power of this experience, that I was beginning a process of liberation from a colonizing mind. I realized that only many years later. I am now in this painful and imperfect process, an ongoing endeavor that began there, among the poor, while I was also being indoctrinated by the superiority of the Western epistemology.
Philosophy and theology are not something restricted to the Hellenistic, Jewish-Christian epistemology, and worldview. The valid epistemology is not only the one of the modern Western sciences. Honestly, if you close yourself in this epistemology and only read authors from Europe and the USA, you are missing an opportunity to develop your mind, learning new and original things, and contributing to reproducing an epistemological colonialism that sustains the current model of relationship with the earth and the other, that is, a model of domination and exploitation. This model has created oppression and injustice in the world and has placed us in this ecological crisis.
P.S.: Today, consciously I decided to move my scholarly work away from the engagement with works that are considered superior by the Western academy. I decided not to do philosophy and theology in Greek, Latin, French, and German. Deliberately, I engage primarily with authors from the global south and people outside the academic community, such as the poor and indigenous communities. I read, as much as I can, authors that even my fellow Brazilians don’t read much. I publish in Portuguese and Spanish. And I began to learn Guarani. But I am still using English and publishing in language of the imperialism, working in a US university. The process is painful and imperfect: my contradictions and me, waiting for mercy.
*Alexandre A. Martins is 2021-22 Hubert Müder Chair in Health Care Ethics at the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics - SLU; an assistant professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, USA. Author of several articles and books in social ethics, bioethics, and global health, such as Covid-19, Política e Fé: Bioética em diálogo com a realidade enlouquecida (Gênio Criador, 2020); The Cry of the Poor: liberation ethics and justice in health care (Lexington Books, 2020)