A black professor of philosophy argued in the Spring 2023 issue of Liberties magazine that European Enlightenment legacy belongs to the whole world, including Africa, regardless of its origin.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement originating in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries that gave rise to many modern ideas, including the scientific method and the principle of rulers needing the consent of the governed.
It “affirm[ed] that freedom and the possession of reason…are essential to human identity,” Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwo, who teaches political thought at Cornell University, wrote in an essay in Liberties magazine entitled “The African Case for the Enlightenment.”
“There are many reasons for us, contemporary Africans, especially scholars and other intellectuals, to embrace the [Enlightenment], Táíwò (pictured) wrote.
“Regardless of how we account for the genealogy and the pedigree of the Enlightenment, I submit that, with all its limitations, a world in which its core elements are in place would be a superior world to the one we inhabit, and not only in Africa,” he said.
When scholars write as if ideas come in colors or are indissolubly linked to certain geographies, cultures, or epidermal [related to skin] inheritances one should be suspicious. Doubtless, ideas emerge in certain contexts, yet when all is said and done they really emerge in individual thinkers’ minds, albeit in conversation with others.
If this be granted, even if we say that the Enlightenment project and the ideals that it fostered were undiluted emanations from European minds, it is a giant step to saying that this alone suffices to make them unavailable for appropriation by non-Europeans. Similarly, it would be just as implausible to suggest that only under compulsion, enslavement, conquest, or other non-voluntary methods could non-Europeans come to have such ideas become a part of their world.
Only if we racialize it and color it “white,” Caucasian, essentially European, not even Eurasian, only if we regard its provenance as the most important thing about it, can we call the Enlightenment project a strictly parochial inheritance that other racial groups must shun or, if they embrace it, find a way to justify such an orientation …
To the extent that the ills that Enlightenment ideals were designed to heal are replicated anywhere in the world, at any given time, why would we forbid those confronting and suffering from similar woes from laying hold of what their fellow humans elsewhere have offered as remedies in their own locations? After all, humans have always borrowed and ‘appropriated’ from each other, and an unreasoning insistence on purity is the path to extinction for civilizations.
Even more, the framing of the Enlightenment as a “white” imposition on Africans and others ignores the contributions African people have made to it since the nineteenth century.
“Does availing ourselves of modern tools make us into permanent subalterns, or an inferior race, or people who have never contributed to the world’s progress?” Táíwò wrote. “There is no basis for such a conclusion.”
“If we are set on securing for Africans a better life than we have right now, can we afford to ignore these tools? Of course not.”
Read the whole essay at Liberties.