Emancipation of the Colonized: Critique of Reason in the 20th and 21st Centuries

June 2018
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Ukraine’s efforts to transform into a nation-state after the dissolution of the USSR claimed a fundamental difference between the newly established republic and the empire that did not cease to exist. Introducing this conceptual framework into the post-socialist area remains problematic: to what extent the system of domination within the former Second World can be analyzed in terms of classical colonialism? An exemplary case in this regard, Ukrainian decommunization, demonstrates the lack of a strong theory behind the implemented policy. An effort to establish a narrative of the post-Soviet exodus, in this respect, requires a precise vocabulary to fulfill the task of emancipation using the tools of critical rationality developed within the project of Enlightenment.

The legacy of the European Enlightenment was undermined since the end of the World War II. Destructive criticism of rationality developed by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) left reason dethroned. Writing on the edge of time with roasting historical argumentation, the leaders of the Frankfurt School summarized the outcome of human history as the return to barbarism. Such a conclusion put into question the whole history of implementing the project of Enlightenment, as well as its grounding principle of emancipation.

Although speaking on behalf of humanity, in their criticism Horkheimer and Adorno referred exclusively to the European tradition of rationality. Even in exile in the United States from Nazi Germany, their narrative constituted an integral part of the so-called West dominating the rest of the world. The tragedy of European history, in this case, determined the destiny of rationality for the whole world. The question, thus, consists in the validity of such a verdict: whether it is possible to assert that a part can speak on behalf of the whole.

Immanuel Kant and the Age of Criticism

To answer this question, it is necessary to reconsider the initial principles of the Enlightenment developed at the end of the 18th century. Immanuel Kant, whose well-known essay is perceived to be a climax for the discourse of the European Enlightenment, developed an exemplary account on this matter. His definition of enlightenment— “the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority1 — established a task to be fulfilled by each individual on his or her own. Requiring some courage, enlightenment gives a person a chance to become free through implementing rationality as a grounding principle for her or his actions.

The nature of this task is of major importance. It refers to Kant’s main contribution to the philosophical tradition his system of critical rationality. Whereas his three Critiques were published within a decade between 1781 and 1790, the genre as such developed only in the second half of the 20th century. Despite the verdict of Horkheimer and Adorno, the “age of enlightenment” (as put by Kant in the essay mentioned above) or the “age of criticism” (as in the Critique of Pure Reason) came to existence due to the emergence of about two dozen Critiques of Reason since the year 1960.

It was Jean-Paul Sartre, whose Critique of Dialectical Reason followed the Kantian genre of philosophy. He legitimated the dialectical domain of rationality in addition to the three of Kant’s Critique: theoretical, ethical, and esthetical. It was the real beginning of the age of criticism proclaimed almost two centuries before. This rebirth of critique established a unique tradition of rationality being disintegrated into separated spheres. Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), which became a blockbuster in Germany and was translated into dozens of languages, shows this disintegration in the most impressive way.

Whereas Sloterdijk’s Critique is the exemplary account of an unhappy lot of post-Enlightenment rationality, there are four significant narratives on the above-mentioned matter of emancipation. These narratives performed the task prescribed by Kant in a peculiar way: they gave a voice to the people outside the so-called West that denied them a right to implement rationality on their own. In their Critiques, Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Biko Agozino, and Achille Mbebme legitimated four domains of reason aiming to get rid of their subordinated position by finally speaking on their own behalf.

Critique of Arab Reason

In the year of 1982, the three-volume Critique of Arab Reason was published in Beirut by Mohammed Abed al-Jabri. It made a fundamental shift in the perception of rationality because of the division of reason based on cultural and historical peculiarities. According to al-Jabri, there are three forms of reason: Arab, Greek, and modern European. Each of them was a product of a respective civilization aimed to describe rationality as an instrument of developing the rules for human cognition. The emancipatory discourse on Arab reason may thus be developed through its critique because of historical and cultural diversity.

Al-Jabri based his argument on the contrast between Arab and Western (both Greek and modern European) rationality. The fundamental difference consists in the relation between theoretical and practical domains of reason. Whereas in the case of the latter, ethics is based on knowledge, for Arab reason it is vice versa: knowledge is based on ethics. The fulfillment of the main function of Arab rationality —“to convey its bearer to good conduct and prevent him from committing evil”2 — is the key to understand its very essence. The mode of cognition here is not of synthesis but rather analysis: to find a path to God by using reason as the instrument.

This approach towards implementation of rationality, according to al-Jabri, caused a cultural lag between its Western and Arab domains. While historical progress in Europe resulted in a capitalist system, it did not happen in the Muslim world due to a kind of misuse of reason. It was a choice of religious legitimacy instead of the reflexive and critical approach developed in modern Europe. Describing capitalism as “the daughter of rationality”3 , al-Jabri postulated the task to rewrite Arab-Islamic cultural history with a critical spirit. In other words, to fulfill the task of emancipation relying merely on one’s own reason.

Critique of Postcolonial Reason

This line was followed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose Critique of Postcolonial Reason emerged in 1999. Aiming to give voice to a subaltern speaking on his or her own behalf, Spivak develops a reflexive account on the matter of critique as such. The peculiarity of this task consists in the mode of existence of an autochthone whose knowledge can hardly be described in the Kantian terms of critical rationality. For Spivak’s narrative, the concept of critique has quite a different meaning — “the structures of production of postcolonial reason.”4 And what exactly made this domain of rationality postcolonial?

In the answer to the primary question of her study, Spivak starts with the analysis of European rationality claiming its universal status for the whole world. Three figures are of essential importance here: Kant, Hegel, and Marx. The contribution of “the last Three Wise Men of the Continental (European) tradition”5 was inherently imperialistic: none of the narratives developed by them was aware of the non-European subject of cognition. The main character of this study, the native informant, has neither a place nor a voice within any of claimed-to-be universal, but at the same time exclusively, European narratives of rationality.

For Spivak, the key to this problem consists in applying deconstruction (of Derrida’s sort) towards the aforementioned versions of reason. She reconsiders the initial principle of the project of Enlightenment – the reflexive critique of the intending subject applying it to the cultures on the margins and peripheries. Formulating it as “a development from within the aftermath of the Kantian Enlightenment,”6 Spivak enables the subaltern to use its tools for the sake of his or her own emancipation. In this regard, after the scope of the project of Enlightenment has been extended, its fundamental claim of individual emancipation is put in force alongside the boundaries of the so-called West.

Critique of Imperialist Reason

Another Critique in this line is Biko Agozino’s Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason published in 2003. Approaching the domain of critical rationality from the area of criminology, the Nigerian scholar developed an analysis of the implementation of rationality towards practices of punishment aiming to decolonize it from imperialist implications of European origin. While originally the ideas of the European Enlightenment “aimed at the liberation of individuals from despotic rule by the forces of nature, religious orthodoxy, and political traditionalism,”7 in case of Africa, this task was performed differently.

The main problem, as formulated by Agozino, is that the colonizers denied a possibility for the colonized to perform the same task of implementing rationality for the sake of liberation. Being European by its very essence, “the Enlightenment denied rationality to the poor, women and people of other cultures who were supposedly still ruled by nature and instincts rather than by reason and (Christian) civilization.”8 The whole system of implementing justice outside Europe was based on this premise – that outsiders did not possess the same faculties of reason making them accountable to completely different sets of rules in criminology.

The main appeal of Agozino – to reconsider the influence of so-called Western doctrines towards the so-called Third World blaming the former for its imperialist nature – points at all the marginal groups that were moved out of the discourse of the norm. In the case of African colonial history, this call reaches a fertile soil of decolonization. No matter how traumatic the history was in the last few centuries, the task to be performed remains quite the same – to get rid of oppression through implementing rationality on the basis of the individual and to use reason and speaking on one’s own behalf.

Critique of Black Reason

The last but not the least Critique within the scope of this examination refers to probably the key topic of postcolonialism – the issue of racism. In 2013, Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbebme appeared to provide an appealing account of the mode of existence of Nègre in the world of contemporary capitalism. “Becoming Black of the world,”9 according to Mbebme, was a logical consequence of the very nature of the world shaped by the conception of race. Blackness here serves as the most vivid example of such a logic being unfolded through the Modern history.

Mbebme points out three main episodes of this unfolding.10 The first refers to the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade since the 15th century, when humans became the objects of capitalist relations. In the second episode, which took place starting from the end of the 18th century with the development of writing and publication, Blackness left its traces in literature and history in an effort to liberate itself from oppression. The third is the contemporary world of globalized capitalism, which brought back all the patterns of distinctions, hierarchies, and separations. The issue of race demonstrates the rigged logic of such a world in the most revealing way.

The task of critical rationality in case of Mbebme consists in bringing back the idea of the world as a whole. Writing in defense of humanism, he postulates the task of building “a world freed from the burden of race, from resentment, and from the desire for vengeance that all racism calls into being.”11 An effort to destroy the existent relations of subordination may bring the end of the race as such. In case of this scenario, the world can truly become universal – as the founding fathers of the Enlightenment were dreaming about it back in the 18th century.

Enlightenment as an Unfinished Project

This brief analysis of the tradition of critical rationality since the second half of the 20th century makes it possible to argue that the project of Enlightenment did not cease to exist after the end of the World War II. Moreover, in case of implementing critical rationality for the sake of decolonization, the fundamental appeal of individual use of reason developed into a specific tradition of inventing its new domains. Borrowing Habermas’s metaphor, the project of Enlightenment may be defined as an essentially unfinished task of implementing rationality for the sake of individual emancipation.

In the case of Ukraine and the region of Eastern Europe more broadly, this task can be developed with regard to the Soviet or, in a wider sense, the socialist experience of the 20th century. A comprehensive study of this type of rationality may bring some insights towards the contemporary status of this region as somehow lost in the transition from the so-called Second World to either the First or perhaps even the Third one. Critique of (Post)-Soviet Reason can be a significant contribution to both the tradition of critical rationality and the history of emancipation in the area.

  • 1.Kant, Immanuel. “An answer to the question: What is enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1996. 17.
  • 2.Al-Jabri, Mohammed Abed. The Formation of Arab Reason, The Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 2011. 26.
  • 3.Ibid., 432.
  • 4.Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Harvard University Press, 1999. xii.
  • 5.Ibid., 111.
  • 6.Ibid., 429.
  • 7.Agozino, Biko. Counter-Colonial Criminology. A Critique of Imperialist Reason, Pluto Press, 2003. 13.
  • 8.Ibid., 21.
  • 9.Mbembe, Achille. Critique of Black Reason, Duke University Press, 2017. 6.
  • 10.Ibid., 2-3.
  • 11.Ibid., 183.
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