20 Feb

Robert Bernasconi on the relationship between phenomenology and critical philosophy of race

In Kooperation mit dem Journal für Phänomenologie veröffentlichen wir dieses Interview mit Robert Bernasconi, geführt von Marc Rölli, zum Verhältnis von Phänomenologie und critical philosophy of race und Postkolonialismus, u.a. mit Bezug auf bei Sartre, Levinas, Heidegger und Kant.

Marc Rölli: In German-language phenomenology, to this day your work not only on phenomenology but also your work on race and racism is known to many. This is at least partly due to the fact that you were present in the context of the DFG Research Training Group »Phenomenology and Hermeneutics« and the resulting working group »Phenomenology and Recent French Philosophy« at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in the circle of Bernhard Waldenfels. Would you describe to our readers how you found access to the graduate school or the later working group – and how you perceived the cooperations with Waldenfels and his collaborators?

Robert Bernasconi: My first visit to Bochum to be a participant in some workshops of the research group gathered around Bernhard Waldenfels was so long ago that I no longer remember the precise details of how the initial invitation came about. All that I can say is that it was very important for me as a young philosopher to be exposed to the ideas not only of Waldenfels himself, who always asked such insightful questions, but also of the brilliant scholars who were part of that same group. You need to know that during the period of my philosophical formulation in England I was somewhat isolated. To be sure, my supervisor at the University of Sussex, Rickie Dammann, placed a great deal of trust in me, as did my colleagues at the University of Essex where I taught from 1976 to 1988. I owe them a great deal for that, but I was essentially self-taught. For example, I was among the very first to read Levinas in England. To be able to be part of the conversations in Bochum, to be able to engage with people who had read the texts with the same care, was more important to me than anybody there could have imagined. But it was also great fun. I remember a party after the work was done when with what in those days was called a boombox (Ghettoblaster) we danced on the grass surrounding the University. 

MR: That sounds like a lot of fun! In addition to your work on Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas and Derrida, you have published numerous articles and books in the field of work that is nowadays often referred to as »Critical Philosophy of Race«. Could you tell us how you came into this field of research coming from phenomenology? Did your move from Essex to Memphis (Tennessee) have any particular significance in this matter?

RB: You are absolutely right to suggest that it was my move to Memphis that initiated my philosophical work on race. I learned and continue to learn a great deal from the African American graduate students who choose to work with me, but what was decisive for me in the first instance was hearing at first hand about the impact and range of anti-Black racism in Memphis. That arose out of my participation in the life of the Black church in Memphis, in particular the New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, Pastor Melvyn Rodgers. That above all was what changed my life, as well as the direction of my work. (And in passing I should mention how when I took Bernhard Waldenfels to services there, he too was deeply moved, as I had been.) The testimony of racism I heard in the Church, combined with the friendship and openness that the members of the Church showed me, demonstrated the falsity of the racial narrative that was being spread through the White media. It led me to engage in a serious self-examination in which I changed course. I deliberately tried to integrate an engagement with racism into much of the philosophical work I was doing, especially through studies that addressed philosophy’s historical racism and the perpetuation of racism in contemporary institutions. This was possible because I believed at the time that the philosophers you named just now – even with extreme caution Heidegger, as Sartre, Levinas, and Derrida themselves understood­ – had resources that could be used to this effect. It was a conscious decision on my part to make use of the platform I had been given and to try to carry with me into critical philosophy of race what audience I had already had. I did not want my work to separate into two completely different registers.

MR: Would you say that the formation of this line of research in the U.S. (which possibly took place because of the special colonial-historical conditions there) has a model function for the European context and also represents a desideratum for the examination of German-language philosophy with its embedding in European colonial history?

RB: I have noticed that there is a real nervousness about talking about race in academic circles in Europe, but it is essential that philosophers in Europe work to clarify the history of racism in each of their countries and come to understand better how that racism has infected some of the most prominent representatives of the philosophical canon. To be sure, during the last few years I have seen a change especially among younger philosophers. There was a time when people seemed to talk as if Heidegger was an anomaly. But it is clear that the problem is more widespread. So in terms of German philosophy one thinks especially but not only of Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Nietzsche. To reconceive the teaching of the history of philosophy and challenge the canon we must use the resources that are already at hand. Just as in the United States it is coming to be understood that Ottobah Cugoano should have a place in histories of moral and political philosophy, so in Germany space should be given to, for example, Saul Ascher for his critique of Fichte, which in certain respects could easily be extended to include Kant. The historical conditions in the United States are certainly unique, as you say. But the same could be said of Germany. However, there are differences. The great advantage I had, first in Memphis and now at Penn State, were the significant number of African Americans and Africans who wanted to work in critical philosophy of race and from whom, as I said, I have learned so much. They are the people who ultimately should be listened to and I rejoice in the fact that I have in a number of cases helped them ease their way into the professoriate. In Germany diversifying the professoriate faces special challenges.

MR: Saul Ascher is not entirely unknown in Germany. The fact that his book Germanomanie was burned at the Wartburg »festivities« in 1817 is well known to many – though perhaps not much more. But could you say two or three lines about Ottobah Cugoano?

RB: Certainly. Cugoano was a former slave who in 1787 wrote a tract entitled Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery. It was at that time the most radical intervention into the debate about slavery imaginable. It not only called for immediate emancipation, but it also focused on the need to recognize what we today would call collective responsibility. Indeed, he was in fact one of the first to use the noun »responsibility« in the English language. So for readers today it has a philosophical interest even beyond the question of slavery, which, furthermore, to my mind was the most important moral issue of the modern period, even if histories of philosophy almost always ignore it.

MR: Of course, in the context of the Journal’s focus on phenomenology’s relations to the post- and decolonial critiques of philosophy that have been widely discussed, especially recently, it seems natural to ask you how you assess these relations. Could you perhaps share with us your assessment of how you see Husserl’s phenomenology generally situated in the context of colonial issues?   

RB: To be honest, I did not receive a great deal of help from Husserl for an understanding of these issues. When I began working with African American graduate students I was struck by their enthusiasm for Frantz Fanon together with Sartre, especially the late Sartre. That is why in the 1990s I turned to Sartre, whom I had previously dismissed as so many readers of Heidegger before me had done. Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks not only demonstrated the importance of Sartre’s existential phenomenology as a resource for understanding the operation of anti-Black racism, but it also focused on concrete material structures in a way that Sartre was not doing at that time, that is to say, in 1952. In large part because of his increasing focus on the colonial wars Sartre by 1960, when he published Critique of Dialectical Reason, had developed a heavily revised account that addressed colonialism explicitly as a system. If anything, as one can see from Pietro Chiodi’s Sartre and Marxism, Sartre’s debts to phenomenology and to Heidegger in particular were even more pronounced there than in Being and Nothingness because they were at a deeper level. Fanon incorporated some insights from the Critique when in the following year he published The Wretched of the Earth. I will not say more at this point, much though I would like to. I addressed these issues when I was invited to attend the annual meeting of the Deutsche Gesellschaft der phänomenologische Forschung (DGPF) in Hagen in September 2017. A version of that lecture is available in Thomas Bedorf and Steffen Herrmann’s Political Phenomenology.

MR: Could you perhaps explicate in more specific terms for our readers how you describe the relationship between Fanon and Sartre? Many of them know at least the preface that Sartre wrote to The Wretched of the Earth.

RB: The question of their relationship is an especially important one to consider because some readers minimize the importance each has for the other. So many readers of Fanon today want to play down the importance of Sartre for him, in spite of his clear insistence on it. In the same way, readers of Simone de Beauvoir sometimes want to ignore her clear statements that acknowledge Sartre in an effort to make her more independent than she needs to be. These attitudes are relics of the fetishism of the isolated individual thinker. To me, the ideas of both de Beauvoir and Fanon are so valuable in their own right that when commentators refuse to hear those thinkers telling us also to read Sartre, they are diminishing the very thinkers they are trying to honor. Fanon and de Beauvoir are both so original in their own right that they do not need that kind of protection. Of course, Sartre in his philosophy, and it seems in his life too, was poor on women’s issues. And inevitably he has his critics on colonial and racial issues. He did not always recognize his limitations. Nevertheless, Fanon, because of the life he lived, in other words, because of what he made of himself, was able to accomplish what Sartre could only point towards.

MR: Recently, the importance of biography and social identity has been pointed out more often, also for philosophical issues. In university seminars, for example, it is often considered inappropriate for a white man to speak about feminist or post-colonial issues. If, however, he explicitly does not deal with them, this is a sign of ignorance for many. How do you handle this? 

RB: One must first of all understand why this is such a sensitive issue. One can do that simply by listening and being ready to be corrected. I make missteps all the time, although I would like to think not as many as I made when I first arrived in the United States. Clearly one oversteps the mark if, for example, as a white man one attempts to contradict another person’s account of their lived experience of racism and sexism. But that still leaves a great deal that needs to be addressed, such as the history of racism where I believe there is still a lot of work any of us can do, if we are sincere. But I have from the beginning of my engagement with critical philosophy of race, as also with issues around gender, thought that my primary task was, by mentoring graduate students, both African and African American, help them to negotiate the system. They are the thinkers who ultimately must be listened to because they speak from lived experience. But even if philosophy begins in lived experience, it does not end there. Fanon showed us that already in Black Skin, White Masks when he moved from the chapter on lived experience to the discussion of cultural imposition in chapter six.

MR: In 2014, the first three of Heidegger’s so-called Black Notebooks were published. They initiated above all a public controversy about Heidegger’s anti-Semitism. What significance has the discussion of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks had for you?

RB: I am puzzled when people say that the Black Notebooks changed their view of Heidegger. The problems with Heidegger’s politics and his racism were already clear long before their publication. To be sure, there is still a great deal to learn about Heidegger from these volumes. But there is also a lot we need to understand at the same time about ourselves and our own failure as members of a society and an academic discipline that has refused to address racism adequately, especially systemic racism. Our failure has its roots in part in the UNESCO strategy of trying to address racism by denying race as a biological concept. But race was never simply a biological concept. So the initial defense of Heidegger that he did not believe in biological races was beside the point and simply showed how little those commentators understood of the whole variety of positions that his contemporaries, both in Germany and elsewhere, had adopted on race. Until we contextualize him, not only with reference to the Nazi horrors, but also the variety of claims about race that were being made by the politicians and intellectuals that Heidegger was in contact with, we allow ourselves to think that racism is the property of individuals only, that all racisms amount to the same, and that one is either racist or one is not. But racism is sedimented in things, in the system. If we do not differentiate racisms it is impossible to see how deeply one’s racism infects other parts of one’s thought. And by judging him and not ourselves, we are simply expressing our moral superiority. Of course, it is not so hard to think of ourselves as morally superior to a Nazi. But that still leaves undone the task of understanding our own complicity with racism and our own failure to investigate the racism that permeates so many of the canonical philosophers or the institutions for which, as academic philosophers, we work. I have just begun to write a short book on Heidegger’s account of race in an effort to develop an approach along these lines.

MR: Please allow me to return briefly to the biologism issue you raised. In the last few years, I have dealt a lot with the history of (philosophical) anthropology since Kant. In my eyes, racism is also formed in it via the consolidation of the doctrine of race, insofar as it also has philosophical roots. Even if I would admit that the focus on biologism falls short, I think that »race« gains effectiveness primarily as a concept that combines physico-biological determinations on the one hand and psychic-cultural-folk determinations on the other. It seems to me that »race« helps to interpret biological assumptions culturally, and vice versa. Moral inferiority is reflected, as it were, in craniometry – and a flat forehead defines a »race« and at the same time a retarded mind. Obstacles to development, however, justify colonial domination. But perhaps you would also agree with this concretization?

RB: In saying that we must look beyond the biological concept of race I in no way want to underestimate the degree to which philosophers and scientists by developing this concept lent scientific legitimacy to racist systems and racist practices that were already in place. Even more significantly, they helped to take those practices in new directions and to new extremes. Indeed, much of my work in critical philosophy of race has been on entirely that. Your example of the way the appeal to a false biology served colonial systems is a good one. One could also look at the development of a biopolitical racism that became so obsessed with race mixing that, for example, through segregation, societies were completely restructured in an effort to restrict contact between the races. But while I agree with you about the importance of the biological concept of race, I am not one of those who think that racism presupposes the concept of biological races. Once one acknowledges that, then one must turn, for example, to the work done by philosophers like Hegel whose philosophy of history subsequently served to sanction colonialism constructed around a hierarchy of peoples. And it should be noted that some of the most extreme racists today reject the idea of biological races. In doing so they draw on resources that can be traced back to the late eighteenth century. The genealogy of that tendency needs further study and it is something I am working on these days.

MR: We often read in post- or decolonial texts of a necessarily different epistemology that could not be reduced to Eurocentric universalism because of its pluralistic understanding of genuine otherness. The Other that cannot be interpreted egologically would not be identical with the exoticized or orientalized Other. Would you say that Levinas in particular, with his theory of alterity, has provided a philosophical foundation for decolonial critique?

RB: Readers of Levinas know that what he understood by the Other is on an entirely different plane or level from the exoticized Other of, for example, travel literature and novels where differences of culture, history, and materiality are paramount. This second sense of alterity can on occasion be dangerous and so its presence is properly the object of scrutiny. Levinas in his so-called confessional writings describes critically how Jews have experienced being exoticized. There are also his perceptive remarks about the exoticism of art and poetry. But the question of the exotic in Levinas is a difficult one, not least because of some of his own remarks about Africans, and indeed his dismissal of pluralism in Peace and Proximity. For that reason I cannot say that Levinas offers a philosophical foundation for colonial critique. But there is another aspect to your question. I have found myself thinking a lot about exoticism recently and in particular about Édouard Glissant’s complex relation to exoticism that arises from his frequent engagement with Victor Ségalen whose essay on exoticism was important for Glissant. In the work that I am doing now I want to bring Levinas to that encounter. When I do, perhaps I will have a better answer to your question.

MR: In your text »Kant’s Third Thoughts on Race«, you critically object to Pauline Kleingeld’s thesis that the late Kant (e.g., in the context of the sketch of eternal peace) with his idea of cosmopolitanism had definitively left behind earlier positions on race theory. What is your take on the significance of Kant’s racial theory in the »history of ideas«? Would you say that Kant remained attached to the »spirit of his time« (Zeitgeist) in his reflections on »race«? Or are there, in your view, other reasons that led him not only to fix the concept of race philosophically-terminologically, but also to regard non-European »races« by and large as inferior? Reasons that lie in his philosophy – or at least correspond with certain philosophical convictions?

RB: This is a very large and complex set of questions on which to end! I am old enough to remember a time when, at least in the English-speaking world, Kant’s three Critiques were considered in almost complete separation from each other and that, if all three were being taught in any given department, which itself was unusual, they would have to be taught by different faculty members. And at that time the political writings were still largely ignored. So the question of the unity of Kant’s philosophy is at least in the English speaking world a relatively new one and it is no surprise that the writings on race, which Kant scholars are only now beginning to address, have not been fully integrated into our picture of him and his philosophy in the way that they need be. But if you look at the work of Jennifer Mensch or Huaping Lu-Adler, you will get a clear sense of the direction that the best Kant scholarship is taking in terms of seeing how Kant’s writings on race fit in with his other work. As for the significance of Kant’s racial theory for the history of ideas, in 2001 I published an essay called »Who Invented the Concept of Race?« I was referring to the scientific concept of race and I still stand by my answer that it was Kant. Kant was the first to appeal to natural history to claim that racial characteristics and talents were hereditary. Indeed, racial characteristics were defined by him on the basis of their permanence. In his time the predominant view was that those characteristics were the product of climate and so they were subject to change as individuals and peoples migrated. Kant seems to have come up with his definition of race, first published in 1775, in order to reconcile his view about the permanence of racial characteristics with his belief in monogenesis. In this first step he gave what one might call scientific legitimacy to the idea of a strict permanence tied to a belief in a racial hierarchy. In the following decade he integrated this conviction into his philosophy of history: in 1784 Kant’s cosmopolitanism was a platform for insisting on the superiority of Europe, its law. His views on colonialism seem to have shifted somewhat in the 1790s but I see no evidence that he abandoned the concept of race. Indeed in 1798 in his Anthropology he endorsed Girtanner’s reassertion of the very views on race that some Kant scholars claim he had left behind. Of course, nobody can transcend their time, but in his views on race he anticipated and, I believe it can be shown, prepared for, one of the dominant accounts of race that flourished a century later. But this is just one example of the reckoning academic philosophers who persist with teaching the established Western philosophical canon must undergo. This work has barely begun. And let me end by saying, I am not for canceling Kant, Hegel, or Heidegger. Particularly as practicing philosophers we need to study them in order to better understand the racism that permeates our institutions and still shapes our world. Cleansing the tradition of its racism by pretending it was only marginal, in the way that some politicians in the United States want to hide from students the extent to which their country was and still is shaped by racism, only serves to perpetuate it.

MR: Dear Robert, thank you very much for taking the time for this interview!

Robert Bernasconi has since 2008 been Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Philosophy and African American Philosophy at Penn State University. Previously he taught at the University of Essex (1976-1988) and the University of Memphis (1988-2008). He is the author of The Question of Language in Heidegger’s History of Being (1985), Heidegger in Question (1993), and How to Read Sartre (2007). He is the author of numerous essays some of which have just been collected in the volume Critical Philosophy of Race. Essays (2023). He is the editor of three journals: Critical Philosophy of Race, Levinas Studies, and Eco-Ethica.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email