Australian Continental Philosophy

I suspect that just about every Shona child who grew up in the Zimbabwe of the 1980s through to the mid-1990s grew up being reminded of the proverb: ‘Mwana wamambo muranda kumwe.’ The king’s child, when in another kingdom, when elsewhere, is (no better than) a servant. It served as a caution against a sense of entitlement, and it was also a call for cognizance of one’s place.

That the question of place is front and center of an African-Australian early career researcher’s attempt to make sense of Continental Philosophy in Australia is perhaps to be expected. My impression, however, is that beyond questions of my own standing, the question of place is, or ought to be, front and center of Continental Philosophy in Australia.

Allow me to explain. In 1788, a British fleet arrived on the shores of what is now Australia. Part of participation in the project that is “Australia” is joining the communal pretense that time on this landmass began with that arrival. As such, that fleet is referred to as ‘the First Fleet.’ Settlement and colonization of this landmass was predicated on the legal fiction terra nullius. Early settlers simply decided that for legal purposes the land was vacant save for flora and fauna. Indigenous resistance to this fiction was met with extreme force. In 1830 Tasmania, for example, when Aboriginal peoples’ military assertion of Aboriginal presence grew intolerable to the settlers, the “Black Line” was formed. Armed settlers made a line and attempted to walk the length of the island in order to discover and remove Aboriginal men, women, and children. Over the years, as settlers sought to add to Australia’s population through immigration, they were careful to curate their additions carefully. One tool they employed to this end was the enactment of the self-explanatory “White Australia Policy.”  In short, much of the history of Australia, much of the project that is this nation state, has been the transplantation of Europe onto this Oceanic landmass.

What I find fascinating about Continental Philosophy in Australia is that for the most part, it does a far better job of pretending and seriously engaging in the make believe notion of a Euro-Australia than the general public, parliament, or the Rupert Murdoch press. Continental Philosophy here seems more faithful to the national project of transplantation and pretense than most other facets of Australian society. There really is something almost breathtakingly profound about a group of people who think and teach in sophisticated ways on Martin Heidegger’s insights on what philosophers have left “unthought”; Hannah Arendt on the dangers of the failure to think; Louis Althusser on the ideological state apparatus and its relation to the repressive state apparatus; Maurice Merleau-Ponty on place; Jacques Derrida’s form of deconstruction; and so on and so forth while overwhelmingly refusing to think what it means to philosophize here. Simply look up Australian philosophy departments, whether analytical-oriented or Continental, and take a look at which courses are offered, which are not, and who is employed there.

Australia’s pretense has been productive in a number of ways, including the production of a large body of philosophical literature. In comparison, African philosophy has at different periods been bogged down by the question, “What is African philosophy?”

Be that as it may, what has emerged from that at times unproductive debate is an acute cognizance of the fact that thought is embodied, that there can be no love of wisdom that does not grapple with the experiences of the people in that place, and that philosophy has to do with contributing to a society’s attempts to make sense of its place. In Australia, however, what goes by Continental Philosophy, particularly in university philosophy departments, seems overwhelmingly given to the reproduction of Europe, and to the acquisition of some esteem or status imagined to inhere in Europe. More, perhaps, than the rest of Australian society, Continental Philosophy here seems gripped by its own imagined anxiety that outside of Europe is nothing, save perhaps flora and fauna. This, it seems to me, is why we are so reluctant to grapple seriously with the people, work, and ideas that draw on traditions that have emerged in and around this place, and that precede (and follow) European contact. We are comfortable with plurality and fusion with respect to our cuisine but not at the level of ideas or thinkers.

There are and have for many years been, of course, people doing really interesting philosophical work that earnestly grapples with the realities of this place. Typically that work has occurred outside or on the margins of philosophy, but this year’s Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP) Conference, held in Hobart, Tasmania, from November 28th to December 1st, suggests that things may be changing. To the best of my knowledge, one of this year’s keynotes, Lewis Gordon, was the first person of color to deliver a keynote address at the annual conference.

To have the author of Disciplinary Decadence and Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism challenge us to think about racism, sexism, and decolonization in Tasmania marked a profound departure from previous conferences. The tenor of the conference was affected deeply by his presence and his engagement with junior scholars. It comes as no surprise that his invitation coincided with the largest contingent of philosophers of color and white philosophers working on coloniality, decoloniality, and the critical philosophy of race that I have seen at an ASCP event. Nor am I surprised by the energy, excitement and optimism that many of us experienced at the end of the conference.

Now that serious strides have been made at overturning our philosophical “White Australia Policy,” perhaps we will turn our attention to our “Black Line.”  It is embarrassing that we have never had an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander keynote speaker at the ASCP conference, despite the international standing and philosophical contributions of Aileen Moreton-Robinson and Martin Nakata, for example. Then again, Aboriginal scholar Irene Watson will deliver a keynote address at the 2018 Luce Irigaray Circle, which will be held in Canada.

As every great journey begins proverbially with its first step, the success of the recent ASCP is a sign of, in respect to another great adage, what is to be done.



Addendum with Correction


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