There are at least two intertwined issues within the intricate set of critiques in the so-called decolonial debate. The first aspect relates to the ‘who’ of the discourse: who speaks, represents, and occupies spaces. It is reminiscent of the story that Lélia Gonzalez tells in Racism and Sexism in Brazilian Culture about the launch of a book on blackness, which she described as a gathering of white people talking about black people. Everything was meticulously organized so that the black people were invited to sit and listen to what the white people had to say about them. However, someone who was supposed to remain a listener grabbed the microphone to complain, and the fuzuê ensued – a disruption in what seemed to be a well-ordered experience, revealing that something was amiss behind the apparent normality (Gonzalez 2020: 25).
The issue raised in such cases pertains to the fact that institutions and social practices, as they engage in historically exclusionary norms, end up reproducing structural unequality and restricting who may speak and who may be heard. However, this is not solely a matter of representation. A second aspect of decolonial critiques comes into play here. The significance of including narratives that have historically been excluded from educational and research institutions goes beyond providing a space for them to coexist with others. It entails reinterpreting and expanding normative vocabularies to encompass alternative concepts that extend beyond the canonical and established approaches which primarily stem from a modern, Eurocentric worldview, and it is about challenging notions that were assumed to be ‘universal’ (or ‘excellent’) simply because they excluded and silenced others, a phenomenon Sueli Carneiro referred to as epistemicide (Carneiro 2023).
The challenge of epistemic recognition involves acknowledging that a common ground has historically been defined through a prism of epistemic violence - who was able to speak in the name of a 'common' and universal reason. However, this does not necessitate the exclusion of any potential common ground. If a decolonial critique presupposes that there is no possibility of communication or translation between different worldviews, we may make limited normative progress - i.e., in debates about human rights, democracy, justice, moral justification, or addressing the ecological crisis. This is why it is crucial to explore how we can derive a constructive direction from decolonial critiques, aiming for an epistemic reevaluation of the meanings of both ‘common’ and ‘grounds'.
In my book Critique of Affects (Campello 2022), I proposed a distinction between two dimensions of justice (in a somewhat analytical sense, as they are interconnected). The question of recognizing new epistemologies pertains to what I have called first-order justice: to expand the sphere of discourse – the sensible and the sayable – we first need to acknowledge other ways of seeing and saying the world in their potential for epistemic correction. This also applies – in a subtle form of silencing – to the production and reproduction of knowledge based on oral tradition, because such societies were denied from the outset the possibility of taking place in the space intended for written tradition. Consequently, this heritage could not even be included in the canon that was being considered for historical, philosophical excellence.
Revisiting philosophers like Hegel or Kant today does not merely involve challenging exegetic readings of their texts. Instead, it also means recognizing that when they are looking beyond Europe, especially at the African continent and indigenous peoples, they are not ‘structurally’ interested in knowing what these people actually thought. A world history can only be constructed from the perspective of adopting a centre that grants itself the authority to speak for others. Interest in other worldviews is limited to the eccentric, as such discourses remain peripheral, outside the centre of reason. Hence, little effort was needed to justify colonial and enslavement projects as contributing to bringing reason’s majority to these peoples.
It is erroneous to reduce the decolonial discourse to mere personal accounts and experiences, as some misunderstandings of the ‘narrative turn’ might suggest. Contributions from figures like Frantz Fanon or Grada Kilomba have consistently argued the opposite point: the problem of ‘epistemic injustice’ lies precisely in viewing these discourses solely as individual, emotional, and irrational – in other words, as discourses that seem to perpetually reference their own experiences without ever being capable of speaking in the name of the ‘universal’ or ‘reason’. As Kilomba puts it:
As a scholar, for instance, I am commonly told that my work on everyday racism is very interesting, but not really scientific, a remark that illustrates the colonial order in which Black scholars reside: “You have a very subjective perspective”; “very personal”;“very emotional”, “very specific”; “Are these objective facts?” Such comments function like a mask that silences our voices as soon as we speak. They allow the white subject to place our discourses back at the margins, as deviating knowledge, while their discourses remain at the centre, as the norm. When they speak it is scientific, when we speak it is unscientific;
universal / subjective;
objective / subjective;
rational / emotional;
impartial / partial;
they have facts, we have opinions;
they have knowledge, we have experiences.
These are not simple semantic categorizations; they possess a dimension of power that maintains hierarchical positions and upholds white supremacy. We are not dealing here with a “peaceful coexistence of words”, as Jacques Derrida (1981: 41) emphasizes, but rather a violent hierarchy that defines who can speak. (Kilomba 2010: 51–52, emphasis in original)
The struggle for epistemic recgonition entails the potential theoretical advancements that transcend the confines of their specific narratives. Cosmoviews from Amazonian peoples, for instance, speak not only about the Amazon but also from the Amazon to the world, just as philosophy originating in Germany or France did not perceive itself as merely addressing the specific German or French context.
Contributions like those of Ailton Krenak (2020) or David Kopenawa, a Yanomami Shaman (Kopenawa and Albert 2013) are not just of anthropological interest; they should be regarded as new concepts and ideas that can, in fact, offer an important epistemic vocabulary, as Ailton Krenak suggests, for postponing the end of the world. Moreover, they do not need to position themselves in opposition to modernity because they naturally originate from a realm that does not necessitate recognition as antimodern. As anthropologist Peter Skafish asked in the introduction to the English version of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro's Cannibal Metaphysics:
Can anthropology be philosophy? Can it not just contribute to but do, and even aid in reinventing philosophy, in the sense of constructive, speculative metaphysics? And what, in that event, would philosophy be, since most of its best instances begin, end with, and never abandon Western categories? (Skafish 2014: 9)
This sense of epistemic decolonization invites changes that go beyond mere issues of representation. It is not enough to merely include new perspectives if they do not transform our field of visibility, our vocabularies, and our ways of seeing the world. Without the interweaving of ‘who’ and ‘what’, we can make little progress: either we only include, maintaining the same discourses, or the discourses change while the same people remain. In fact, much of what is seen in European institutions capitalizing on the decolonial trend reveals these dilemmas, adding value to their projects with interests in ‘decolonial money’ while simultaneously approaching the decolonization of knowledge from a fetishistic perspective bordering on exoticism.
In order to make room for the normative contribution that comes from this epistemic recognition, there is no need to destroy the statues of philosophers and throw them in the river. Critical engagement is always more productive and less dangerous than cancellation. As in the image that the aesthete Arthur Danto uses concerning the art world: including new objects – indiscernible from an aesthetic point of view – that begin to claim the status of art does not mean we need to remove from the museum what has been seen as a work of art until now (Danto 1964).
We do not need to renounce efforts for common grounds, but they will be all the fairer the more we recognize who historically defined which canons and which epistemologies deserved accreditation. The point is that historically much of what has been produced in the name of these grounds was only possible through an epistemically unjust cut, both in terms of who has the authority to accredit and which discourses can claim the accredited status. The unheard could not even contest this space because they were excluded from what would be recognized as ‘rational’ in the construction of this common ground beforehand.
This is where a second order enters the field of critique and justifications, where, in my view, we do not need to forgo the possibilities of finding common horizons of communicability and sharing. This second order can be fairer if we ensure the political conditions for historically silenced discourses to enter the sphere of epistemic recognition. Finally, a fairer order means , being sensitive to what was instituted as ‘common’ only through exclusion, an appropriation that does not respect what Edouard Glissant has called the ‘right to opacity’ – a sort of ‘ground’ that alludes to what resists domination:
I thus am able to conceive of the opacity of the other for me, without reproach for my opacity for him. To feel in solidarity with him or to build with him or to like what he does, it is not necessary for me to grasp him. It is not necessary to try to become the other (to become other) nor to 'make' him in my image. These projects of transmutation – without metempsychosis – have resulted from the worst pretensions and the greatest of magnanimities on the part of the West. (Glissant 1997: 193)
Carneiro, Sueli (2023). Dispositivo de racialidade: A construção do outro como não ser como fundamento do ser, Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.
Danto, Arthur (1964). ‘The Artworld’, The Journal of Philosophy, 61(19): 571–584.
Gónzalez, Lélia (2020). ‘Racismo e sexismo na cultura brasileira’, in Márcia Lima and Flavia Rios (eds), Por um feminismo afro-latino-americano: Lélia Gonzalez, São Paulo: Zahar, 67–83.
Campello, Filipe (2022). Crítica dos afetos, Belo Horizonte: Autêntica.
Glissant. Édouard (1997). Poetics of Relation, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Kilomba. Grada (2010). Plantation Memories. Episodes of Everyday Racism, München: Unrast-Verlag.
Kopenawa, David and Albert, Bruce (2013). The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Krenak, Ailton (2020). Ideias para adiar o fim do mundo, São Paulo: Companhia das letras.
Skafish, Peter (2014). ‘Introduction’, in Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, translated and edited by Peter Skafish, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 9–36.
Filipe Campello is professor of Philosophy at the Federal University of Pernambuco and senior research fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Frankfurt and is a former Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the New School for Social Research (New York) and visiting professor at the Universities of Bergen and Perugia.