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Africana Philosophy from Haiti: Firmin's Ironic Critique of Transcendental ldealism in Philosophy of Race and Culture

Africana Philosophy from Haiti: Firmin's Ironic Critique of Transcendental ldealism in Philosophy of Race and Culture


In An Introduction to Africana Philosophy, I argue that Antenor Firmin, the famed nineteenth-century Haitian anthropologist, jurist, philosopher, and statesman, is, along with Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Frantz Fanon, one of the great contributors to Africana philosophy.1 Africana philosophy involves addressing at least three problems raised by the emergence of the African Diaspora in the modem world: (1) the challenge of philosophical anthropology, (2) the quest for freedom, and (3) the metacritique of reason. The first is a consequence of the challenged humanity of black people. A viable response leads to interrogation into the meaning of being human. The second is an obvious consequence of colonialism and enslavement in a world that simultaneously praises freedom. And the last addresses the criteria by which the first and second are assessed. The first, for instance, inevitably leads to questions of standards and the conditions of possibility for human identity and life. The same situation for freedom: What are its conditions of possibility? And more radically, what are the conditions for the reason by which all can be understood?

Firmin’s thought addresses all three themes. An heir of the Haitian Revolution, Firmin’s thought brought to the fore the question of the humanity by which the quest for freedom could be understood and the importance of the forms of reasoning by which the important role of knowledge could be devoted to such efforts. Although this portrait emerges in the overall body of his work, none brings the themes of

Africana philosophy to the fore more powerfully than his magnum opus: De I’egalite des races humaines (“The Equality of the Human Races”), published in 1885 when Firmin was thirty-five years old.2

This classic in Africana philosophy, philosophical anthropology, and historical anthropology emerged through one of the unfortunately typical circumstances of black intellectuals in the Euromodern academy—namely, the neurotic situation of what Frantz Fanon describes as always being where reason runs away.3 Firmin was an invited member of the Societe d’Anthropologie de Paris, which should by definition mean, through a legitimate act of membership, his presence as reason in black. Firmin, however, was privy to a continuous stream of sessions disqualifying the legitimacy of black—and by extension his—humanity and capacity to participate legitimately in the task of reason, with the added insult of his being permitted to attend but not speak in the sessions. Paradoxically, the recognition he was receiving as a scientist or a participant in the scientific enterprise did not translate into the same for him as a human being or a creature of reason, since robbed of voice, his body was there without the gift of his thoughts. What was he to do? Like Fanon three quarters of a century later, he, too, faced the problem of what could be called “unreasonable reason.” His body, reaching out to the social intercourse of reason, found her (reason) refusing to acknowledge him and, at times even worse, preferring to eschew him or to flee. While the body is a locus of appearance—one has to appear somewhere—the added element of what is facilitated by the body, namely, here-there relations, is impeded by the notion that where his body stands, there is proverbially no “there” there. How was he to address this? In effect, he had to reason with this unreasonable reason—he had to wage the battle with reason, in other words, with the onus of having to do so reasonably, for one could imagine what his efforts would be interpreted as otherwise, especially where reason is read in the feminine in French as she. And so he did what lovers of past ages did to woo her, namely, she who has rejected them: write to her, offer her a poetic work of love, and since he wants his beloved to join his quest for a better understanding of humankind, he did so through the composition of a work of science that is also a work of love, The Equality’ of the Human Races.

One of the remarkable things about The Equality of the Human Races is that it challenged what could be called colonial epistemology and intellectual dependency, for then, as for the most part it continues to be today, the presupposition was that black people could offer at most unreflective experience—data—for the proper purveyors of reason to assess or offer resources for study. This presumption led to the unfortunate expectation in the world of research and scholarship that whites offered the theory by which experience was to be understood. That ritual continues, for the most part, in the continued expectation of ideas emerging from Europe through which to study everyone and everything else. The task of decolonization and anti-dependency requires, then, intellectual or epistemic decolonization and independence through taking on responsibility not only for knowledge but also the intellectual conditions, the ideas, for that knowledge.4 5 It was not enough for Firmin simply to demonstrate that Paul Broca and Arthur de Gobineau (among many others), influential formulators of racist social science in his time, were wrong and how they were wrong.6 It was also necessary for him to offer a portrait of what proper and cogent reasoning on such matters should look like and, thus, be.

For the remainder of this article, I will focus on the portion of The Equality of the Human Races addressing this question of epistemic colonization. It pertains to an important insight, which is that epistemic colonization occurs not only in terms of the objects of thought but also at the level of its modes, at the ways by which ideas and concepts are produced. Firmin’s reflections on this problem are extraordinarily prescient, foreshadowing much work in and on the human sciences to come during the second half of the twentieth century and their challenges in the twenty first.

Firmin’s challenge was two-fold. On one hand, he offered a form of what Paget Henry calls a potentiated, double conscious critique of science, where he argued that much of the avowed science of man was not, in the end, scientific.7 Double consciousness is, as W.F.B. Du Bois observed at the dawn of the twentieth century that of seeing the self and reality exclusively through the eyes of the dominating group, which for black was whites.8 Potentiated double consciousness emerges from the articulation and realization of the contradictions of the dominant and dominating perspective. This reasoning relativizes the initially dominating point of view, unmasking it of any claims of legitimate universality. The result is an astute understanding of how particularities pose as universalities. Although arguing in the proverbial wilderness, with his ideas for the most part falling on proverbially deaf ears, Firmin brought potentiated double consciousness to bear on anthropology as a science through posing two important challenges—the first, between how a science presents itself and how it actually is, which requires recognition of the need for it to transcend itself. Second, he raised the important question beneath that of racial study—namely, the problem of human study. But that problem, he understood, is weighted down by a metaphysics premised on a conception of the human being as capable of living and being outside of human relations. In other words, the understanding of a proper human relation !eads to a philosophy of relationality, which, in the end, amounts to the understanding of the complexity of meaning by which a human world is constituted, and that is, in today’s parlance, a philosophy of culture.9 *

The language Firmin uses for the first critique, of the scientificity of scientific inquiry into “man” and races, into anthropo/ogy and what Paul Gilroy calls raciology, is, building on August de Comte,positivism.'0

Firmin’s conception of a positivist approach to anthropology raises a problem subsequently formulated by Du Bois—namely, the problem of studying people as a problem." This is at the forefront of much of Firmin’s critique, wherein the problem of the black becomes the problem itself. From an anti-black approach to the study of blacks, for instance, blacks are queer (out-of-line or unaligned), pathological (non-normative), stubborn (overdetermined) objects of study.12 Anticipating Fanon, for instance, Firmin argued, in his discussion of the education of blacks, that problems become stark where questions of sexual maturation and social responsibility come to the fore because of the lack of coherent conception (and perhaps also fear) of black adulthood; blacks, in other words, are expected to be at best girls and boys.13 A misguided disciplinary approach attempts to squeeze people into the norms of the discipline. “Particularly in the field of anthropology,” he writes, “one must be wary of exclusive specialization, for it narrows the mind’s horizons and renders the intellect incapable of considering every facet of a given reality.”14

Firmin issues the charge of what I call disciplinary decadence, where a discipline or a subfield of a discipline ontologizes itself in an assertion of its completeness and hence reach over all of reality, against the variety of sciences making claim to rigor in human study. Disciplinary decadence is a phenomenon in which methodological fetishism pushes reality to the wayside and ontologizes either a discipline or a specific disciplinary perspective.15 The task, I argue, is to point out the fallacy of certain disciplinary perspectives on the study of human beings and go beyond it in a teleological suspension of disciplinarity. This move involves admitting the incompleteness of one’s disciplinary resources in relation to reality, an idea whose scope by definition exceeds methodological stratification. Presuming one’s method has achieved the godlike act of subsuming reality under its dictates is a fallacy that is also, in theological terms, idolatrous. Reaching further involves a relationship with reality in which one’s disciplinary resources are, at least, humble. One transcends disciplinary decadence for the sake of reality, and, in the specific case of human beings, for the sake of humanity, an idea that would become problematic if expected to fit neatly into a single discipline and methodological framework as the proverbial shoe size that fits all.

Anticipating this critique, Firmin stressed that anthropology, in othei words, while including insights from biology, organic chemistry, and physics, was not reducible to them.16 Firmin’s is a teleological suspension of disciplinarity or transdisciplinarity. In effect, he argues that the human being exceeds the dictates of a singularly disciplinary approach because the methodological resources for the discipline emerged out of the specificity of its object of study, which is often one dimension of human reality instead of the entire human being. The entire human being is, however, metaphorical, since “wholeness” and “completeness” for human beings would require closed subjects that do not comport well with the human capacity for self-reflection as possibility. Thus, Firmin’s philosophical anthropology is non-reductive and raises the question of the human being as a multidimensional reality, where each dimension emerges as a vital relationship with the others.1'

Firmin showed that even ethnography and ethnology, for instance, fall prey to this fallacy of disciplinary decadence. His criticism is that such an approach to the study of human beings in effect puts anthropology into the background.18 Citing Clemence Royer, known, among other things for her rrench translation of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, in support of his position, he argues that ethnography confuses a part of the human being with the whole.19 He also argues that ethnography is more properly cosmological and pertains to the study of peoples, whereas ethnology sets the basis for the distinctions on the basis of race. Anthropology, Firmin argues, goes beyond ethnography and ethnology by problematizing both. He in effect argues for the importance of self-critical anthropology.

The language he uses for the second kind of critique is more complicated, however. For although he is critical of philosophical idealism, he is indebted to that kind of critical philosophy precisely because the anthropological question is, to some extent, a self-reflective critique of man by man, or, as Sylvia Wynter and others have recently put it, the question of the human being impeded by the discourse of man.20 This is, in other words, a condition-of-possibility kind of argument, and Firmin achieves this through a two-pronged negotiation of empirical knowledge and the conditions by which it is possible.

These ideas are ironically known today pretty much as legacies of Kant, where transcendental idealism’s approach of thinking through the conditions for the emergence of forms of knowledge dominates much thought, from the sciences through to the disciplines by which nearly every contemporary practice, including much of recent African philosophy, is intelligible. In philosophy, these conditions ranged from experience to history to materiality to language to signs and symbols to culture.21 But there is a double irony, since such an understanding also preceded Kant in a philosopher ridiculed by Kant—namely, Wilhelm Amo, the philosopher from Ghana who taught at the University of Halle and who was, in his time, more known than Kant until the racial backlash that led to his near erasure from European thought. Amo, for instance, had questioned the legitimacy of mind-body dualism with a relational form of knowledge, and then he wrote a treatise on proper reasoning, the combination of which is a critique of the conditions by which a theory of the human being could make sense.22

On Kant, and by extension Hegel, Firmin writes:

Not only does [Kant] give the word anthropology a meaning and a definition different from those subscribed to by scientists, but he also contests the appropriateness of the term applied to the natural studies of Man.... Ignoring the great philosopher’s opinions, scientists continued to work in their various fields and considering the word anthropology as synonymous with the natural history of Man.... However, on closer examination one undisputable fact emerges: the method used in natural history to study minerals, plants and animals inferior to Man, is not always fruitful when it comes to the study of the last addition to creation. Whereas the inferior beings are programmed essentially for vegetative and animal life, Man is programmed for social life, which he ultimately always achieves by making his own history.23

Firmin later reminds the reader: “Man is the only creature who cannot stand alone. The pride of depressive misanthropy which occasionally inspires such a desire for isolation is nothing but a pathological case triggered by some lesion in the organism. The fact is, Man needs Man in order to develop or even to know his individual personality.”24

The portrait here is a similar critical move along the critique oi disciplinary decadence because Firmin in effect raises the problem oi idealistic reductionism wherein the relationship of science to philosophical reflection needs to be addressed in the study of the human being. At the heart of the Kantian model, which Hegel attempted to correct and expand in his formation of self-consciousness from human conflict, is the rejection of an isolated transcendental subject. This is not to say, however, that transcendentalism is overcome in this argument, since the goal at hand is the condition or conditions of possibility for the emergence of the human being as human subjects. The additions of sociality and history bring, as well, the question of the human world as a rich production of meaning.

Firmin’s contribution to Africana philosophical anthropology and philosophy of science is worthy of attention to those interested not only in Africana transcendental thought but also central questions of theory from what today is called the Global South. Ahead of his time, Firmin brought to the fore an additional element of Africana liberation thought as well: The conception of the human being at work in any liberation struggle must be one in which human possibility is open and therefore also possible.

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