February 1, 2021

The End of the Cognitive Empire

Camilo Ardila Arévalo, a CRITIQUE Fellow, interviews Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos about his book, The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South (Duke University Press 2018) and his multifaceted work on critical epistemology, emancipatory struggles and pedagogies, and the future of the university.

CAA: I would like to start asking you about your most recent work. In one of your recent interventions, you made a thought-provoking interpretation of the current global health crisis. If I understood you correctly, we should consider the Covid-19 pandemic as the real inauguration of the 21st century. Can you elaborate a bit more on that idea and how it relates to your most recent work – as far as I know, you are about to launch a new book? What are those patterns the global health crisis has revealed or exacerbated?

BSS: Historians have been alerting us to the fact that centuries, and much less millenniums, do not begin on the first day of the first year of the century or millennium. For instance, Eric Hobsbawm argued that the XX century began with the First World War and the Russian Revolution. In the same vein, the XIX century began not in 1800 but around 1830, with the First Industrial Revolution. We are dealing with events, phenomena, that are going to condition the life in the following decades. They inscribe themselves as new markers of social life in history. That was indeed the case of the Industrial Revolution, the case of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. I argue in a book I just published – it will be out in English, but it is already published in Portuguese, Spanish and soon in Italian – titled The Future Begins Now. From the Pandemic to Utopia – that this pandemic marks the beginning of the XXI century. Other events have been mentioned as decisively marking the following decades. For instance, the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 and the global financial crisis of 2008. I think that none of these events, important as they are, is so decisively new as to be considered inaugurating the XXI century. I think the pandemic is because the XXI century is going to be marked by the increased vulnerability of human life in our planet. Connected as it is with the ecological crisis, global warming, etc., the pandemic is the marker of a new structural fragility of human life on the planet. The scientists have been claiming, with very good reasons, that even though there were pandemics throughout the human history, there is a specific connection between this pandemic and the destruction of nature, the unprecedented extraction of natural resources, the destruction of the vital cycles and regeneration rhythms of rivers, forests, and animals caused by capitalist development. We speak of a new extractivism, which indeed is as old as colonialism, but has now an unprecedented intensity and extensity due to the technology that is being used to extract natural resources. The ecological crisis has been with us for some time. What is new is the series of events that reflect the crisis’ dangerous acceleration and the vulnerability and uncertainty it is bringing to human life. I think the pandemic is the marker of that. I have been arguing that the virus is a cruel pedagogue. I do not think this virus is our enemy. In fact, viruses and bacteria are fundamental for our life. The pandemic is rather a message from mother earth, from nature. Its pedagogy is cruel because it is trying to teach us something by killing people, by destroying human life. This pandemic is a dramatic sign of the extent to which human life on the planet is not sustainable in the way it is being managed these days. The pandemic marks a qualitative difference, for the worse, as regards the vulnerability of human life. Remember that human life is 0.01% of the life on the planet and, in spite of this, our models of capitalist development have contributed to destroying all the other forms of life in the planet. Our way of conceiving nature as an inert thing at our unconditional disposal, the Cartesian concept of nature, is completely at odds with the conception of nature of Spinoza – the idea of nature as natura naturans, nature as the source of life, as the giver of life. The pandemic shows that the Cartesian conception of nature is reaching the point of a final crisis. From now on, we either go on with the Cartesian conception of nature or we change and adopt Spinoza conception of nature. The question is: does nature belong to us (Descartes) or do we belong to nature (Spinoza)? Only adopting Spinoza’s conception of nature, will we be able to survive in the planet in the long run. The pandemic is showing, at this juncture, is that the model of capitalist development is not sustainable anymore and some decisions have to be made. That is why I think that the pandemic is the marker of the XXI century. It dramatizes the fragility and unsustainability of human life on the planet if nothing is done to reverse the current models development.

That is why I think that the coronavirus marks the beginning of the XXI century. It is going to be a century marked by two contrasting and contradictory experiences of human life. On one hand, a sense of omnipotence, of full control of life, being generated by the fourth industrial revolution – artificial intelligence, robotics, internet, 3D printing, robotization of labor – all this dramatizing the power of human creativity over the ways of living, both human and non-human. On the other hand, an evolving intermittent pandemic period and the extreme fragility it creates, as the pandemic involves risks for which there is no insurance available. The acute moment of the pandemic may go away, but probably a new pandemic will come in, or a variation of this virus, possibly even more destructive. We are entering a period of intermittent pandemic and are faced with a dual, almost schizophrenic, image of social life – the power of technology to control human and non-human life, on the one side, and, on the other, the extreme fragility of human life on the planet. The idea that the planet could very well go on without us, if human life becomes unsustainable, is very unsettling. This is the new human condition, so to speak, that in my view is going to characterize the XXI century.

CAA: In one of your recent books, you seem to portray a more optimistic picture of the future. I am talking about The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming Age of Epistemologies of the South (2018). An important part of your work has been dedicated to interrogating dominant forms of knowledge production and their tendency to underestimate, even deny, epistemic contributions from the Global South. I would like to ask you more about this aspect of your academic work. What are, in your opinion, the most relevant unacknowledged contributions of the Global South to philosophical, social and political debates? Why are these contributions unacknowledged in dominant discourses in Europe and the United States, for instance? Some scholars even argue that it is potentially misleading and counterproductive to put much emphasis on different forms of knowledge as, for example, capitalism with its devastating effects or the environmental degradation we live in are arguably universal phenomena.

BSS: Yes, I have been emphasizing that the paradigm of modern science is reaching a critical point of development. It may seem strange to say this in the midst of the pandemic when all breaking news is constantly reporting on the new vaccines and the new epidemiological data. But I am referring to the longue durée, to an historical phenomenon, a secular trend. This trend is related to my answer to the first question. I surmise that the specific model developed from the XVII century onwards is coming to an end. Why do I say that? If we go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and more recently to the German physician Carl von Weizsäcker, we realize that science is run by a narrow pragmatic rationality, focused on efficient causality which does not allow us to ask about the ultimate meaning of science, the question of why we do science. This paradigm of science avoids all the ultimate questions. After all, modern science emerged as a form of knowledge that was intent to free human beings from religion, from theology, that is, from ultimate questions. Therefore, the questions about the meaning and the purpose of life, and of human life in particular, were considered nonscientific, for science considers as relevant, that is to say, scientific, only the questions that may be scientifically responded. This means that whenever science does not know how to answer the question, it declares it as irrelevant because it is not scientific. So, the meaning of life, the ultimate sense of happiness, is not a scientific question. Rousseau asked whether science was contributing to our wellbeing and his answer was no, a very polemic answer in the XVIII century. Now, particularly after Hiroshima, all these questions have been often asked. For a long time, I have questioned the positivistic paradigm of science in order to show the internal plurality of science. My stay in the late 1970s at the Max-Planck-Institut zur Erforschung der Lebensbedingungen der wissenschaftlich-technischen Welt in Starnberg was decisive for me to engage with alternative theories of science. This Institute was directed by Carl von Weizsäcker and Jürgen Habermas. My fundamental finding was the idea that what prevails as a dominant theory of science in a given period is not based on scientific arguments, but rather on other (social, economic, political) arguments. So, it was a type of reflection that was not based on the applications of science, but on science itself. This question was dealt with as the internal plurality of science which, later on, became much more prevalent due to feminist epistemologies – Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, and many others. They successfully claimed that there were different ways of doing science, and these different ways could not be differentiated as one being more scientific than the other. They could be questioned as starting from different premises, which were not made explicit. This internal plurality became a greater field of discussions against scientific positivism, a debate that became very intense after the so called Sokal Affair. A debate in which I was much involved. I edited a book on this topic: Cognitive Justice in a Global World: Prudent Knowledges for a Decent Life. Lexington Books 2007.

But, soon after, there was a turn in my epistemological thinking. I moved from the idea of internal plurality to the idea of external plurality, to the idea that science is a valid knowledge but not the only one. There are other valid kinds of knowledge, the validity of which cannot be ascertained by science because, from the point of view of science, they are not scientific, and therefore, not valid. Their own validity can be ascertained by their own criteria, therefore, if there are different knowledges in the world with different claims of validity, the question becomes: valid for whom and for what purposes? It became clear to me that, if I want to go to the moon, I need modern science and technology; but if I want to know the biodiversity of Amazonia rainforest, I need indigenous knowledge. For different purposes, different kinds of knowledge. This question led me to the idea that probably these different ways of knowing based on different premises may sometimes cooperate. They are incommensurable in many ways, but there are levels at which they can cooperate and be articulated. In my view, this articulation would probably be the main solution for many of the problems that we are facing about the crisis of alternatives for social transformation in our society.

This inquiry into the external plurality of science and the idea of the coexistence or co-presence of different kinds of knowledge was not a mere epistemological feat or discovery. It was based on my sociological research among indigenous peoples, afro descendent, and urban slums communities in Africa and Latin America. I could have a really close contact with communities that are very knowledgeable and wise but on the basis of ways of knowing other than what is considered mainstream science. Their wisdom about life, their conceptions of nature, progress, or happiness impressed me very much. Dignified people living in undignifying conditions, due to the capitalist, colonialist, and patriarchal domination prevalent in our societies. This kind of wisdom – for instance, the ways in which they would solve conflicts among them – led me to expand my epistemological inquiries. In fact, modern science, particularly after the XIX century, when modern science became a productive force for capitalism (after the Industrial Revolution), the so-called developed societies became very aggressive in destroying, in neglecting all knowledges other than scientific knowledge. This process of destruction of knowledge had started in the XVI century with the European expansion, with colonialism. And if you consider that indigenous people, for instance, in the Americas and in other regions of the world, had their own knowledges, then we can say that from genocide to forced conversion to Christianity an immense epistemicide was perpetrated. I formulated the concept of epistemicide to show that the destruction of people went along with the destruction of their knowledge.

On further reflection, I came to the conclusion that the quest for global social justice must be premised upon the quest for global cognitive justice. This stance has nothing to do with relativism or with an anti-science stance that can be detected in some currents of postcolonial thinking. The centrality of social and cognitive justice calls for the centrality of the struggle against injustice since our societies are structurally unjust. With this premise I have been developing the idea of the epistemologies of the south, epistemologies focused on validating knowledges born in struggle. (Epistemologies of the South, Routledge 2014; The End of Cognitive Empire, Duke University Press 2018)[1].

All these knowledges are valid to the extent that they may also contribute to those struggles. This is a very difficult point to make since it involves discussing epistemology as politics and politics as epistemology. But I invite you to have a deeper look into our reality that has been conceived of as built on neutral epistemologies. For centuries we have been promoting the validity of science alone – and look at the situation in which we are. We are on the verge of an imminent, fatal ecological crisis; we are facing a concentration of wealth as never before, we are facing the possibility of another nuclear war. If Rousseau were with us, he would have even more reasons to think that science as it is now is not contributing to our well-being. You may answer that all depends on the application of science. In part, yes, but in part it depends also on the fact that, by focusing exclusively on science, we have ignored other ways of knowing and other ways of being, different epistemologies and ontologies that might have cautioned us about the consequences of having a blind faith in just one type of knowledge. We have neglected the epistemological diversity of the world, and that has impoverished our possibilities of liberation.

I start from the fact that since the XVII century (and probably today more than ever) humankind is ruled by three forms of domination: capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. Against conventional Marxian views, I hold that capitalism does not exist without colonialism and patriarchy. Free salaried labor among equals, which is the basic social form of labor of capitalism, cannot sustain itself in society without the co-presence of highly devalued labor or non-paid labor. The two latter forms of labor are provided by racialized and sexualized bodies. Racialization of bodies is at the core of colonialism. This type of labor has taken many different forms: slavery, forced labor, indentured servitude, immigrant labor, “labor ‘analogous’ to slave labor”. The sexualization of bodies is at the core of patriarchy; women have provided the so-called “reproductive labor”, care labor. An abyssal line has been drawn between non adjectivized and adjectivized bodies, the latter carrying with them the stigma of an ontological capitis diminutio. A radical and radically invisible separation between two forms of sociability: metropolitan sociability and colonial sociability.

The epistemology that I have been promoting aims at strengthening the struggles against this complex domination, believing that the struggle for social justice cannot succeed without cognitive justice. It involves recognizing the validity of different ways of knowing, many of them produced in the colonial zone in struggles for liberation. The epistemologies of the south are not anti-science, because science is, of course, a valid knowledge. I am a scientist, a social scientist, and have nothing against science, except its claim of having the monopoly of valid knowledge. Besides, science is not the only valid way of knowing. I have been involved in social movements in which the presence of different knowledges is taken for granted. For instance, the movement/campaign against agrotoxics, that is, against the use of dangerous chemicals (pesticides, insecticides) in industrial agriculture. In this struggle, we bring together not only the scientific knowledge of engineers, biochemists, agronomists, but also peasant and indigenous knowledges, the popular knowledge of the communities that know by experience how this poisonous agriculture and transgenic seeds are destroying their health and life, contaminating the waterways, producing lung cancer and brain tumors. Scientific knowledge and popular knowledge are brought together in this struggle. They form what I call an ecology of knowledges. It is a very complex issue. I dedicated a full book – The End of the Cognitive Empire – to this issue. This epistemological stance involves also methodological and pedagogical issues. The epistemologies of the south compose a third paradigm of knowledge. The first, the Hegelian paradigm, is knowledge after the struggle – the owl of Minerva flies at dusk; the second, the Marxian paradigm, is knowledge before the struggle, to prepare the working class from becoming a class für sich, and not simply a class an sich. But, in my view, both models have brought us to deadlocks. That is why we are at the beginning of this century plagued by a sense of theoretical exhaustion and a lack of alternatives. I don’t think that the problem is with alternatives, the problem is with the ways of knowing and valorizing such alternatives. We do not need alternatives, we need an alternative thinking of alternatives. The epistemologies of the south highlight the fact that the monopoly of valid knowledge held by modern science contributes to obscure the fact that the relative wellbeing of the people in Europe and in the USA (where most advanced science is produced) is premised upon the violent extraction of resources, the net transfers from the global South to the global North, which are multiple times superior to the economic transfers from the North to the South. The extraction of wealth under different forms, from the global South to the global North, continues. This is colonialism combined with capitalism, the global South at the service of the global North. Most people in the global South go on conducting their lives according to their ancestral ways of knowing, very often mixed with Eurocentric ways of knowing. Their knowledges, an intrinsic component of their struggles against domination, are potentially a valid contribution to the understanding of the world and to its progressive transformation. To give an example, indigenous peoples and peasants are telling us that the Cartesian conception of nature, underlying modern science, is leading the world towards an ecological disaster. According to them, we belong to nature rather than nature belonging to us. They are Spinozian. They are showing the way of the future, since only their conception of nature is sustainable in the future. These peoples apparently are part of the past since they are less developed in terms of the hegemonic conception of linear time. In fact, they are more advanced in their conception of nature as mother earth. This does not mean that we should have a romantic view of the indigenous people or the peasantry, or much less that we want to be indigenous or peasants. Nothing like that. What is at stake is the recognition that their ways of being may contribute to our liberation, to the sustainability of life and the planet. Their ways of understanding nature are not good just for them, they are good for us as well. It is not by chance that 75% of the biodiversity of the world exists in indigenous and peasant territories. They have been the guardians of biodiversity. Without biodiversity, we cannot survive in the planet. They are our guardians, so to speak.

Capitalism and colonialism have been intent on destroying all these other ways of knowing. The epistemologies of the south are the epistemological dimension of the resistance against this destructive status quo, epistemologies at the service of the struggles, of liberation against capitalism, against colonialism and against patriarchy.

CAA: In The End of the Cognitive Empire, you reconstruct some examples of postabyssal pedagogies. I was wondering if you can elaborate a bit more on the links between dynamics of knowledge production, epistemic pluralism and postabyssal pedagogies. The point here seems to be that some forms of knowledge reproduction can be used as an oppressive tool by reinforcing structures of domination, whereas other pedagogical experiments, I am thinking here about pluriversities or subversities, make room for a more open dialogue that has an enormous potential for emancipation. How to come to terms with the idea that education can be oppressive and emancipatory at the same time? Can you tell us more about feasible alternatives to the current system of knowledge production and reproduction?

BSS: I divide the book, The End of the Cognitive Empire, into three parts: epistemologies, methodologies, and pedagogies. I think that the task of building an ecology of knowledges, as a way of strengthening the struggles against domination by bringing together scientific knowledge with popular, vernacular, knowledges, which are internally very diversified, calls for different methodologies and different pedagogies.

The concept of ecology of knowledges is different from dialogue knowledges. I adopted the concept of ecology of knowledges to highlight my struggle against relativism. I have no romantic idea either about science or any other ways of knowing. I have been working with popular movements all my life and I have experienced lots of situations and conceptions in which these popular knowledges are oppressive. They are sometimes even colonialist, and they are usually patriarchal. But I have also seen that in these communities there are struggles against this situation, even if they are not visible to outsiders. The colonial way of understanding that there are other ways of knowing was formed in two steps. First, their existence was ignored and, if acknowledged, such knowledges were deemed irrelevant, superstitious or dangerous. Second, once the study of such knowledges was taken more seriously, there was a tendency to conceive of them in a monolithic way, as if all the indigenous peoples thought alike. The extreme diversity of such knowledges and cultures was lost and with it the idea that some versions of them are more liberating than others.

By bringing together these other different knowledges and scientific knowledge, the ecologies of knowledges allow to maximize the positive contributions of all of them to strengthening social struggles against domination. Furthermore, the idea of ecology means that, by bringing such knowledges together, they will be transformed. We know that some indigenous knowledge is patriarchal. For instance, ancestral knowledge often prevented women for having land tenure, even though they were the ones that cultivated the land. The ecologies of knowledges allow us to question those issues by recourse to other knowledges coming together, questioning in particular whether such patriarchal rules contribute to strengthen or to weaken social struggles against domination. The ecology of knowledges is a highly transformative process of all the different knowledges that are involved in it, modern science included. This complex epistemological proposal calls for different methodologies of enquiry, of research. Our modern science methodologies are based on several premises. Two of them are particularly relevant in this context.

First, the idea that objectivity is the same as neutrality. Objectivity means following methodologies that have been accepted as granting reasonable and reliable results. Neutrality, on the other hand, means that, in case of political or social conflicts, it is impossible to take sides or to make evaluative judgments. For the epistemologies of the south, objectivity is fundamental. Neutrality is impossible and, if possible, it would be reprehensible. We have to build strategies of objectivity without neutrality because, if the epistemological undertaking is aimed at liberating society from forms of domination, then the important thing is to question which side you are on. To be neutral is to admit the possibility that we are neither with the oppressor nor with the oppressed. In a society such as ours, when you say that you are not with either side, you are siding with the oppressors.

The second premise is the distinction between subject and object. Modern science transforms subjects into objects in order to do research. Because it is knowledge about and not knowledge with. Is it possible to develop knowledge by creating subjects, new subjectivities? The collaborative methodologies that are today already being practiced in many different ways in different fields are showing the possibilities of developing knowledge in a way that neither equates objectivity with neutrality nor abide by the subject/object distinction.

This is complex, and I dedicate a couple of chapters on collaborative methodologies, which involve other understanding of the body, a deeper experience of the senses, a different distinction of insider/outsider, etc.. As there are many complex issues involved, they call for different pedagogies, post-abyssal pedagogies, more dialogical, based on proximity and on intercultural translation.

Our education is a banking education, as Paulo Freire used to say. The teachers deposit knowledge on the students as they deposit money in the bank, as if the students were a kind of tabula rasa. Our students bring in the knowledge of their families, of their communities. It is crucial that they acquire new knowledges and question the knowledges they came in with, but they should not be forced to despise or to forget their ways of knowing altogether. All systems of knowledges are also systems of ignorance. All systems of knowledge are incomplete and they differ in part as to the different types of ignorance they produce. We go back to the medieval philosopher Nicolaus of Cusa and his theory of “docta ignorantia”, according to which he claims precisely that our aim should be learned ignorance – knowing the limits of our knowledge. The possibility of neglecting, of ignoring other ways of knowing is not an epistemological issue, it is a question of power, sufficient power to neglect or ignore other ways of knowing. This is more a political question than anything else.

I think that education may be liberating if it is a pedagogy, edifying popular education. Edifying, because it is based on an intercultural conception of ethics, and politics of liberation, of inclusion. This is probably more important in Europe that anywhere else, I think. We have not yet decolonized our universities, we still go on in our philosophy departments, in most cases – there are wonderful exceptions – teaching our students as if philosophy started with Greece, the ancient Greece, when we know that philosophizing is such an ancient and diversely located activity. Philosophy in ancient China and India, in Euroasia, preceded our western philosophy, which, by the way, came to us through the mediation of Islamic philosophy. The epistemologies of the south aim at deepening democracy, cognitive democracy. Epistemicide was the other side of genocide. The ecologies of knowledges are the condition for democratizing society at a deeper level. At a level in which inclusion is not exclusionary. I think that claiming a pluriversity of knowledges, of pedagogies, and methodologies means to expand the present, that is, not to waste social experience. Imagine all the social and cultural experience that is now being drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years. Europe has allowed for more than 20000 people to drown in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe. They were lost lives. But how much knowledge was equally lost, how much social experience was lost? We should focus on epistemologies that contribute to not wasting these social experiences and to valuing and celebrating the epistemic, political and social diversity of humankind. This is exactly on the antipodes of the extreme right ideologies that are growing in Europe these days.

CAA: In The Idea of Latin America (2005), Walter Mignolo argues that the concept ‘Latin America’ has been part of a vocabulary that defines former colonies in European terms and thereby denies the legacies, contributions and even presence of indigenous and black communities. Some scholars even prefer to use terms like Abya Yala instead of Latin America. This made me think, while reading The End of the Cognitive Empire (which I enjoyed so much!), about the inherent limitations of calling into question Eurocentric forms of knowledge production through languages and categories inherited from Europe. Your book deals with some decolonial categories with a socio-political impact in recent years, such as ubuntu, sumak kawsay or pachamama. What are the criteria for some of these concepts to be recuperated in the text of new constitutions and legal discourses, for instance? And more importantly, is it still possible to advance an emancipatory agenda with the conceptual tools inherited from the oppressor?

BSS: One of the privileges of the colonizer is to name. Naming is a privilege of power and, of course, most of our names, names that we use, are colonial names in colonial languages, even to express non-colonial realities. Decolonizing linguistic practices and conventions is a very complex question and even a hotly discussed issue, particularly in Africa today. The national languages versus the vehicular languages, such as English, Portuguese or French. Positions differ. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, for instance, from Kenya, working and teaching in the USA, pleads for the recovery and for the use of non-colonial languages in Africa. He, himself, as a writer, has written in some national languages in Kenya. Chinua Achebe, another African writer, from Nigeria, takes a different stance. For him the colonized have appropriated the colonial language and, in a sense, have transformed it. According to him, the English language today is not the English of the United Kingdom, it is a different English and the ex-colonized have a right to use it as much as the ex-colonizer. The same position was taken in Mozambique by Samora Machel and by the liberation movements after the independence in 1975, when they claimed that Portuguese was the vehicular language through which they could understand across different regions and languages of the country while respecting and recognizing the other national languages.

The debate on the status of the different languages is now also an important debate in South Africa and in Latin America, particular in countries with a very strong presence of indigenous peoples, particularly in Bolivia, where they are the majority of the population. In some countries there are official systems of bilingual education. But the issue you are raising is a different one. It is about the concepts and conceptions themselves, not just the language in which people communicate, but rather the terms they use to conceptualize reality. For instance, nature in Quechua is pachamama, but pachamama is not nature, is mother earth literally. It is a concept of nature completely at odds with the western Cartesian concept of nature, as I mentioned above. Superficial linguistic translations are not up to the task of intercultural translation, since apparently equivalent terms express different conceptions of reality. That is why both in Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide (Routledge 2014) and in The End of the Cognitive Empire I dedicated several chapters to intercultural translation. Intercultural translation is a decisive strategy to create the ecology of knowledges and to fight against epistemicide.

The inquiries into the intricacies of linguistic and intercultural translation have become more prevalent in the last two or three decades as theoretical formulations of struggles and grassroots movements that have been reclaiming their own languages, cultures, and philosophies as a precondition to represent the world in their own terms. And they have often claimed that their national concepts are not easily translatable, if at all, in colonial languages. Philosophers, like Kwasi Wiredu, from Ghana, have shown that many propositions of Cartesian philosophy cannot be adequately translated in Akan, his native language. On the other hand, there are many philosophical ideas that he can express in Akan but not in English. Similarly, the concept of ubuntu is a complex ethical, philosophical, and cosmological conception prevalent in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. It conveys the idea of a collective identity founding any meaningful individual identity: I am because you are, because our ancestors and our gods equally are. It can be argued that we find the same idea in western philosophy. For instance, Martin Buber’s dialogical philosophy of ich und du or Martin Heidegger’s mitsein. But there are deeper ontological and cosmological differences. The concept of sumak kawsay, which in Quechua means good living, buen vivir in Spanish, has a spiritual or sacred dimension that gets lost in translation. Such dimension, however, is crucial to account for the possibility of a river or a mountain to be conceived of as sacred. Our difficulties in conceiving a river as sacred stem from the religious conceptions (Christianity) at the source of Eurocentric western philosophy. This is not a new problem. At the beginning of the XX century, Mahatma Gandhi was very much aware that the national languages in India were very important to keep the cultural identity of India. For instance, according to him, the concept of independence in English didn’t convey the richness and depth of the hindi concept of hind swaraj. The concept of swaraj is a much deeper concept of independence than the concept of independence because it means not just political, but social, economic, philosophical, cosmological, religious identity.

These discussions are part of the recovery of the epistemic diversity of the world and the construction of the epistemologies of the south. The latter’s aim is to enrich and expand rather than to reduce and exclude. Occasionally, some of the decolonial scholarship reveals a kind of abstract hostility to western philosophy which I think is counterproductive. I learned from Amílcar Cabral, a great leader of liberation movements against Portuguese colonialism, that the colonized should not throw away all the knowledge brought in by the colonizers because some of this knowledge could be very useful for the liberation struggle. But the colonized should be the ones to decide which kinds of knowledge brought by the colonizer they were interested in keeping and which kinds they should discard. As we can see, no trace of relativism or of principled anti-science.

This is the pragmatic attitude that we should assume in relation to all kinds of knowledge. Because no knowledge has all the solutions, no single system of knowledge comprises all the knowledges of the world. It is the plurality that counts. The recovery of non-colonial, non-western conceptions is in no way a nostalgic exercise. It does not consist in looking back into the past as past. In fact, the indigenous people say that the best way of looking into the future is to look backwards. This is a concept that you also find in Walter Benjamin. To value ancestral knowledges is only important to creating one’s own futures. It is a quest for the ownership of the future, a future that is not dictated by western-centric ideas of development and progress. You can conceive the world as your own so that you can transform it with more autonomy. The recuperation is, in essence, also transformation.

Indigenous people that resort to these concepts are not looking for the original concept in ways of life that do not exist anymore. After all, you use these concepts side by side with laptops and cell phones. The same with non-indigenous people. When we use these concepts, we are trying to create solidarity, epistemic solidarity, ecologies of knowledges to strengthen the liberation struggles that are of common interest. There is nothing nostalgic about it, in the vein of the love for ruins in the European XVII and XVIII centuries. This was a glamorization of the ruins, the nostalgia of a past, a golden past which in the Renaissance was the Greek and Roman antiquity. There is nothing of that now. To capture this new attitude, I have coined the concept of ruins-seeds. This is one of the three main forms of the sociology of emergences. The other two are counter-hegemonic appropriations and liberated zones. Counter-hegemonic appropriations are subaltern, insurgent appropriations of hegemonic concepts such as democracy or human rights, and liberated zones. are communities – such the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico or the eco-socialist feminist community of Rojava in the Kurdistan – that managed to organize their lives in their own ways with a considerable independence vis-à-vis the capitalist, colonialist, and patriarchal society. The ruins-seeds may exist together with the other emergences. Their specific feature consists in the use of ancestral knowledges and practices in a strategic way, integrating them in an emancipatory agenda. It is amazing how after so many centuries of destruction, of exclusion, and pillage of resources, the indigenous people, the peasants, the African communities, the afro-descendant’s communities outside Africa still survive in their territories with their cultures, even when they live in urban settings. Not only that, they are showing the way forward if we want to save the planet.

CAA: Finally, I wanted to ask you about your views on academic activism. Alongside other scholars, you have sent public letters and joined activities in support of diverse struggles in the Global South. More recently, you signed a public letter denouncing the systematic killings of social leaders, human rights and environmental activists in Colombia. Your voice is often associated with academic activism not only in theory but also in practice. What would you say is the role of academics in a world of exclusion, inequality and in some cases discursive/physical attempts to exterminate the other?

BSS: I consider myself a rearguard intellectual, not a vanguard intellectual. I work with social movements, social organizations, of the popular classes, working from behind, helping, facilitating, being at disposal, but never trying to lead anything, any struggle, or show the way, as western intellectuals very often do, particularly leftist intellectuals. I do not see myself in that position because the avant-garde theories had failed so utterly in the last 100 years. I do not think we should be very proud of avant-garde theories. Still, many theorists go on producing theory that in their sense respond to the needs of the social classes, groups of people that they do not know and have no contact with.

In order to be consistent with my epistemological proposal, I have been trying to have one foot in academic life and one foot in activism, working with social movements or organizations. Now, the pandemic has altered that a little bit, but I always try to have a kind of a distribution of my time that ideally is 50% for writing books and working at universities, and 50% with social moments, social causes that may advance the struggles of people. I think this is our social responsibility. The public university is under attack, under siege, because it is the only site today in which we still can produce – in spite of all shortcomings – critical, free, plural and independent knowledge. Neither the extreme-right, laic or religious extreme-right, nor neoliberal capitalism tolerate that. We witness these types of attacks on the public universities all over the place. But we also witness opposite movements requesting that the university be more socially and interculturally responsible. In recent years, I have been working with students and faculty involved in decolonizing the university, decolonizing knowledge, the curricula. In the UK, I have been participating in movements in Bristol, Glasgow, London (Birkbeck college), Warwick. Most recently, I have been working with education students at Cambridge, discussing what I call the post-abyssal pedagogies, the pedagogical dimension of the epistemologies of the south. The paperback edition of my book Decolonizing the University: The Challenge of Deep Cognitive Justice (Cambridge Scholars Publishers, 2020) just came out.

For too long, particularly in Europe, we have been teaching the history and the knowledge of the winners of history, as told by the winners. The knowledge and the history of the losers has vanished or, if told, it has been told by the winners. It is time for us to have a more balanced view. We need more cognitive justice. The reason why I speak of the epistemologies of the south and not so much of decolonizing is because decolonizing is a negative, deconstructing enterprise. This is a crucial dimension of our work but it does not suffice; the constructive moment of valuing alternatives is equally important. The critique of western-centric knowledge has been done. What amazes me is the inertia of dead ideas. In spite of being fully criticized by very responsible scholarship, western-centric ideas go on controlling our departments, our textbooks. Such control is, above all, a question of power. I would also like to mention that the decolonial approach is exclusively focused on decolonizing, on colonialism. I do not think that contemporary forms power are limited to colonialism. As I said above, it is colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy.

The epistemologies of the south I have been proposing for more than ten years are mainly focused on strengthening the social struggles for liberation. Western-centric ways of knowing may be very valid in these struggles when we integrate them with other knowledges, other ways of knowing. All this must be anchored in the social struggles. You have to be there. And you have to be prepared to run risks by being with the struggles. Wherever you are there are always people struggling against oppression, and you should really try to work with them even if you are at the university. Otherwise, the university will be soon a capitalist enterprise like any other, whose market value is defined by rankings, students will be consumers and teachers, workers or, more nicely, collaborators. If we fail our social responsibility, the university as we know it will have no future.

[1]See also my co-edited book (with my colleague Maria Paula Meneses), Knowledges Born in the Struggle. Constructing the Epistemologies of the Global South, Routledge 2020.