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‘Cultures do not exist’

Part II. Sections 4 to 7



4. From ‘holistic culture’ to partial ‘cultural orientations’

Meanwhile the provocative title of this argument, ‘Cultures do not exist’, must not be read as if I wish to banish forever the concept of ‘culture’ from intellectual discourse. Besides, such an attempt would be futile considering the way in which that concept has taken root in the societal discourse of our time, globally and in all walks of life. I am not rejecting the idea of specific forms of programming of human representations and behaviour, — a programming that is specific in space and time, that has an internal systematics, that is not idiosyncratic and limited to just one human being but on the contrary is shared — by virtue of learning processes — by a number of people, yet remains limited to a relatively small sub-set of humanity. This idea is based on undeniable empirical factors that every human being sees confirmed innumerable times in his pre-scientific everyday social experience. Such forms of programming I prefer to call, not ‘cultures’ but cultural orientations, in order to avoid the suggestion that on the one hand they order total human life on a grand scale and yet, on the other hand and at the same time, can be considered bounded, integrated and unique.

                        As long as we admit the situationality, multiplicity, and performativity of ‘culture’ (a number of crucial insights of which a term like ‘cultural orientation’ reminds us), there is no longer a stringent reason to banish the words ‘culture’ and ‘cultural’ from our philosophical conceptual toolbox. The reader may rest assured: if the inaugural address on which this piece is based, was to mark my accession to the Rotterdam chair of ‘intercultural philosophy’, it did not intend to do so by destroying the very notion of ‘culture’ on which ‘intercultural’ is inevitably based, nor by destroying the emerging branch of philosophy designated by that notion.

                        If the cultural is a form of programming, then it would be characterised by a systematic aspect rather than by the absence of systematics. The contradiction between structuralists and post-structuralist resides, among other points, in the post-structuralists casting doubt on the systemic nature of the cultural experience. This contradiction arises, in part, from the erroneous choice of too high a level of abstraction. If one conceives of ‘cultures’ as bounded, integrated totalities that may adequately designated by means of an ethnonym,[1] and within which a human being can lead a complete life from morning to evening and from birth to death, without necessarily crossing into other ‘cultures’, then it would inevitably come to light that the claim of a cultural systematics is an illusion, behind which lies in reality the kaleidoscopic effects of multiple cultural orientations that criss-cross each other simultaneously, and each of which is built on systemic principles that are not informing the others.

                        In earlier centuries the state and a world religion such as Christianity and Islam were often capable of imposing upon this multiplicity of cultural orientations their own hierarchical ordering, resulting in a constellation that might loosely be described as ‘Islamic culture’ or ‘Christian culture’; but today in the North Atlantic the state and world religions are no longer capable of doing so. In the first place there is the specificity of cultural orientations associated with distinct classes, professional groups, levels of education, linguistic communities, religious communities. Even when we limit ourselves to a consideration of those roles that have been acquired by a learning process and that are being played in the public space, we have to admit that practically every human being finds himself at the intersection of a number of different cultural orientations, between which there is often no systematic connection.

                        Take notions of purity. The androgynous tenderness and the psychological immunity to polluting dirt informing my role of a father changing my young children’s diapers has nothing to do with the very different stress on very different conceptions of purity which I invoke in totally different social settings activating totally different social roles and identities on my part: e.g. the histrionic display of anger that I summon when finding a hair in the soup served in an expensive restaurant when I am entertaining a visiting professor from Africa; or the undodging sense of impeccable formal purity with which I yield to the tyrannical syntactic requirements of a computer language when writing computer programmes; or the relish with which I use my fingers as ready-made brushes in my amateur painting; or the stoic resignation with which I have daily braved cockroaches, rotten meat, and mouldy staple food in certain parts of Africa under famine conditions.

                        Cultural systematics do exist within each distinct cultural orientation, but not necessarily between various cultural orientations. Moreover in the context of the contemporary, globalising world there is, in the sphere of private life, nutrition and other forms of consumption, recreation, gender and sexuality, a constantly increasing plurality of life styles at various stages of articulate definition, and all these life styles (each with greater or lesser degrees of distinctness, boundedness, and conspicuousness through a specific name and other boundary markers) yield their own microscopic cultural orientation. The subject who finds himself at the intersection of all these orientations is a fragmented, kaleidoscopic subject to which we would be wrong to attribute a high degree of integration — perhaps it has even disappeared as a subject.[2] It is as if today’s secularised, globalising society has more than any other historical societies furthered the fragmentation of the subject. But in a formal sense the situation in other societies is not fundamentally different in that also these societies consist of the bundling (that is only effected at the level of the complex role behaviour and Ego consciousness of individual participants) of a plurality of cultural orientations between which there is no systemic internal correspondence or coherence.

                        For instance, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the socio-cultural life of the Nkoya people of western Zambia was built up out of the contradiction between two enmeshing cultural orientations: village life, based on autarkic agricultural production and hunting, kinship, and non-violence as the principle governing interpersonal relations; and court life, based on the parasitic, non-productive exploitation of village communities for food, other produce, and human personnel, and governed by the denial of principles of kinship and non-violence.[3]

                        The anthropological approach in terms of the articulation of modes of production[4] could have such a great success in the 1970s-80s precisely because it was the theoretical expression of the empirical fact that also archaic, non-Western societies display not a totally integrated structure but instead a diversity of orderings, each of which having its own systematics, it own distinct internal logic, such as that theoretical approach analysed — no doubt one-sidedly — from the perspective of production.

                        If we could at all speak of a system at the level of society as a whole, then it would certainly not be an all-embracing, holistic cultural system, but a system of economic and political control — and the economic and the political constitute dimensions of social life that scarcely enter the discourse of structuralists, who otherwise have been the prime champions of the systemic nature of culture.

                        The most obvious way of identifying the various cultural orientations that may be discerned within one society, is by searching, within the cultural practices of that society, for consistent (in other words systematic) semantic fields that have a limited extension and whose limitation consists in their being denied, challenged, combated or destroyed by other, adjacent, differently structured semantic fields. It is in this way — by assessing the range of application of specific semantic fields in empirically documented mythical and ritual contexts, and ascertaining where this application became excessively contradictory or came into open conflict with other, differently constructed semantic fields — that I was capable of identifying various religious complexes in the society of western central Zambia, each religious complex as the ideological component of a specific mode of production: ancestor veneration, the veneration of royal ancestors, of the High God, of spirits that are not supposed to be bound to specific localised communities, etc.[5]

                        In this sense, at a much lower level of aggregation than the society as a whole, the distinct cultural orientations do have a systemic character, by definition. Acquiring a cultural orientation through a learning process amounts to programming that systematics onto the behaviour of the individual participants. Of the many cultural orientations that are present in a society, everyone learns a few score in the course of his life, and besides the ethnographer (as well as the trader, the sailor, the diplomat, the itinerant traditional healer, etc.) learns a few that belong to a different society and that are not or hardly present in his own society of origin.

                        ‘Cultures’ in the holist sense do not exist unless as the illusions of the participants. However, social actors in the world today explicitly utilise the concept of ‘culture’, and they do so in the same polysemic and contradictory way in which most indigenous concepts are used by social actors. This is a major reason why the concept of ‘culture’ is hardly useful any more as a technical term for philosophy or empirical social science. Meanwhile, in the hands of social actors, notably for the world that social actors create between themselves, the very concept of ‘culture’ may bring about effects that are horrifyingly real: the Nazist Holocaust; ethnic cleansing in late-twentieth century Europe and Africa; ethnic politics that have led to the absolute erosion of the constitutional structures of many African states today, in a dual process encompassing first their experiences after territorial decolonisation, then their experiences after the democratisation movement of around 1990; multicultural, migrancy and refugee policies in West European states today that rely on the reference to ‘cultures’, in the plural, to greatly emphasise the differences between social actors, but that is incapable of curbing the rising feelings of frustration, insecurity, hatred and alienation in those countries; the rise of a mutual enemy image composed of stereotypical cultural traits separating Middle Eastern Muslim Arabs and North Atlantic Americans.

                        ‘Unreal in existence, real in effect’, is one of the current definitions of the concept of virtuality. The contemporary social experience is full of such virtuality. For instance, the concept of ‘culture’ emerged from the world of science (as an etic term), but via the media and the educational institutions it has transformed itself and begins to reverberate in countless feedback like an ill-adjusted public address system. Members of contemporary, globalising society have appropriated the concept of culture as an empowering emic term, no longer controllable from its original base in science. This is only one example among very many processes of dislocation, where cultural products from a specific localisable provenience are appropriated into subsequent contexts that are rather alien to the original one and largely independent from it; in the process, the original product is transformed, whereas the appropriating contexts can be said to constitute itself through the very process of virtualising appropriation.[6] As an emic term ‘cultures’ (plural) is a virtual concept, that is no longer at place in philosophy or in empirical social science unless in order to be deconstructed there in a bid to lay bare its underlying semantic structure and political implications — always in the hope that also such critical deconstruction (like in the present argument) will find its way to the wider society.

5. The relativity of an empirical perspective

For the philosopher the statement ‘cultures do not exist’ is problematic not in the first instance because of the concept of ‘culture’, but because of the word ‘exist’.

                        The question concerning existence, and the question concerning the possibilities and conditions of knowledge (knowledge about that which exists), are among the most important ones in philosophy. Empirical science is in no position whatsoever to answer these questions for us, for it thrives itself on the basis of specific — albeit usually implicit — choices from among the many possible answers to the questions concerning being and concerning knowledge. If, for instance, one adopts, like in Buddhist philosophy, the position that the reality to which the senses appear to testify, is merely an illusion, whereas the true Being only becomes knowable after many phases (for most people very difficult, or impossible, to traverse) of meditative distancing from the apparently concrete world of the senses; then from such a perspective the idea of empirical science is absolutely absurd; but whereas the Buddhist school of thought dominated China, among other parts of Asia, for centuries (after which it lost its grip on China), in that same country Taoism, as the older and more persistent school, displayed an orientation towards sensory reality characterised by far greater kinship with Western science.[7]

                        Empirical science presupposes a kind of realism: the assumption that there is a reality out there that is not limited to consciousness (although it may be in consciousness that the categories are given with which to gather knowledge of that reality), but that has also concrete, factual manifestation in a manner which is in principle independent from consciousness. The dynamics of empirical science take place between consciousness and sensory perception, between concrete fact and category of thought, and between the individual researcher and the collectivity of researchers. On the one hand the collectivity of scientists that only under far-reaching conditions of method, consistency and conformity admits modes of individual knowledge to the realm of intersubjectivity and thus declares these individual modes to amount to science; and on the other hand there is the social collectivity: the latter’s reception of scientific production is the end goal of such production. As I have stressed in the Preface to this book, that reception is problematic: scientific insights may be built into a society’s collective representations, but then they cease per definition to be scientific, and many collective representations reflect the science, not of today, but of yesterday. On the other hand, collective representations constitute a major distortive influence on individual and collective processes of scientific observation and conceptualisation in the first place.

                        Empirical scientists are seldom conscious of the fact that their professionalised form of knowledge production implies a number of essentially arbitrary choices. They can afford this naïveté since, in the course of the last few centuries in the North Atlantic region, empirical sciences have developed into an institution that, within the society where it is found, has come to self-evident, taken for granted, reflecting, underpinning, and increasingly legitimating, power relations — in ways Foucault more than any other modern thinker has helped us to recognise. And here I do not refer in the first place to such power relations as exist within the world of science itself and as are responsible for the fact that the scientific ‘state of the art’ as accepted by the community of scientists is always a shifting compromise of intra-disciplinary power relations; that is understood. But the power aspect of modern empirical science reaches much further. Such science is not only a nursery for universality claims concerning the reality of the senses — claims such as


     ‘V = i * R’ (Ohm’s law)

     ‘photosynthesis is the source of all energy for life forms on earth’

     ‘all human societies possess some kind of incest prohibition’.


                        Because, in the contemporary North Atlantic, empirical science sets the example of truths that are surrounded with great authority and connotations of universality, and has become a major legitimating force, its example breeds in the minds of contemporary citizens the preparedness to accept other universalist claims, those of a socio-political nature, that are determining the contemporary world to a high degree but that, because of their normative or performative nature, cannot possible be based on empirical science. I mean such ideas as


     the self-evident authority of the modern state and of her principal instrument, the formal organisation

     the self-evidently universal nature (if not in application then at least in allegedly universal applicability) of human rights and of the democratic constitutional form of the state

     the self-evidence and inviolability of the subject, of identity, and of ‘culture’

     the self-evident claim that universalism has primarily sought North Atlantic social, cultural, political and scientific forms to express itself (as in Hegel’s Eurocentrism), which accords to these forms self-evident superiority as underpinning the globally hegemonic project that has characterised the North Atlantic region ever since the sixteenth century.


                        Such self-evidences, far from being scientific, belong to the collective representations which form the preconditions of the North Atlantic social order.

                        Manifestly, empirical sciences is just another cultural orientation among the many other such orientations of North Atlantic society; and it is one of extraordinary importance for the production of the self-evidences that not only determine the structure of our own lives but in which also superiority claims reverberate vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Empirical science posits a form of life that in the last analysis may turn out to be Eurocentric and hegemonic. But at the same time it tries to wrench itself free from this particularistic and regional societal grip by making its methods and techniques highly explicit, refined, and intersubjectieve. This is why radical anti-hegemonic discourses make such a point of advocating epistemological alternatives to current empirical science, for instance in the form of a specifically African epistemology,[8] or by reducing — as in Harding’s approach — current empirical sciences to the status of merely one specific, culturally determined, local form of knowledge (an ethnoscience), in the midst of the infinite number of conceivable ethnosciences from all over the globe.[9]

                        With regard to the type of phenomena that is usually studied by the natural sciences, Harding’s suggestion that modern science is merely an ethnoscience of the North Atlantic region would at first sight appear to be little convincing. No matter how much we may claim that that natural scientific knowledge is arbitrary, local, and potentially subservient to Eurocentrism, yet planes based on that knowledge do not spontaneously crash into the ground as soon as they venture outside the North Atlantic region, watches keep on ticking, the electromagnetic waves generated under this scientific regime turn out to have an apparently unlimited action radius so that they may be transmitted back to earth via man-made spacecraft travelling to the Moon or even beyond Saturn, and biochemical medicine enjoys it considerable (though by no means unlimited) successes all over the world regardless of the cultural and somatic specificity of its practitioners and its patients.[10] Third World revolutionary movements that radically steer away from North Atlantic cultural orientations, acquire and utilise for the furthering of their cause manufactured products (weaponry, aeroplanes, Information and Communication Technology) whose successful use in their hands is manifestly not impeded by these movements’ being alien to, or even deliberately opposed to, North Atlantic cultural orientations. World-view is simply not the decisive factor for science and technology to work: these weapons work just the same in the hands of bandits who operate without explicit ideological positioning and who, thriving in the many pockets of ineffective state control throughout the Third, Second and increasingly even First World today, are responsible for the increasing privatisation of violence.

                        The unmistakable success of North Atlantic natural, medical and technical science as based on the dominant epistemologies informing mainstream North Atlantic academic research and academic practice, does not ipso facto exclude other epistemologies, from other cultural backgrounds, for the description and explanation of natural phenomena — and many such epistemologies have managed to persist for centuries in their concrete practical niches of agriculture, hunting, metallurgy, house construction, magic, therapy. There they apparently offered an attractive mode of explanation that adequately took care of the necessity of survival precisely within the local natural environment which these alternative epistemologies sought to describe and master. Thinking through the plurality of possible epistemologies for the approach to sensory reality is one of the tasks confronting intercultural philosophy. Natural science today finds itself in a field of tension. To a certain extent it is entitled to the claim of being cosmopolitan, universalist, part of the common heritage of mankind. On the other hand it is to a great extent the specific and recent creation of North Atlantic modernity, charged with a heavy hegemonic burden. This applies a fortiori to the social sciences. The phenomena that the latter study are largely the product of human intentionality and signification. And by virtue of this fact any social scientific epistemology will, to a large extent, have an ethnocentric bias derived from the society (still principally the North Atlantic one) from whose midst social science research is being conceived and executed even if the object of research is to be found outside the North Atlantic (as is often the case for anthropology). The specific social-science epistemology employed constitutes simply one specific choice for the construction of self-evidences, which in the society under study would be constructed differently. Whatever poses as an impartial, objective scientific perspective is therefor in the best case the confrontation between two sets of self-evidences of matching strength but different contents; and in the worst case the denial of the value and the rights of the other society.

                        In this context it is risky to appeal to empirical social sciences in order to correct current philosophical approaches of interculturality. Yet this is what I am about to do. Worse still, I will go even further and claim that philosophy itself is much more of an empirical science than philosophers are prepared to admit.

6. Philosophy as empirical science?

It is quite usual that philosophy appropriates elements from the empirical sciences, and even though this kind of interdisciplinary borrowings tends to lag a few decades behind the state-of-the-art in the discipline from which is being borrowed, yet without such appropriation philosophy could not pursue fundamental research into the foundations of the empirical sciences.

                        Some philosophers take the position that the upward flight of philosophy should not be thwarted by empirical ‘so-called facts’. Philosophy may then be conceived as the investigation of concepts, methods of argument, and meanings, and hence as the development (with a precarious balance between innovative originality and intradisciplinary intersubjectivity[11]), the testing out and the administration, of language forms capable of articulating the aporias of the contemporary existence, notably in a way that is not yet furnished by other human practices (empirical sciences, belles lettres, other forms of art, politics and religious discourse). In this conception philosophy is a specific practice whose ontological referent, in the last analysis, is the contemporary social experience (in which however the experience of other points in space and time may reverberate, so that also these past and exotic human experiences should be incorporated in the philosophical exercise). From this point of view it would be hard to defend a totally non-empirical conception of philosophy — even though we had to admit the need for a non-empirical component: for technical research leading to ever better tools in the domain of conceptualisation and logic which do not strikingly reflect an experience that is specific in space and time.

                        Philosophy thus shares with belles lettres the development of language forms that promise a superior insight. However, contrary to the literary writer, the philosopher seldom entirely works for his own account: most philosophical writings thrive on the rendering and interpretation of the thought systems of other explicitly mentioned philosophers and philosophical movements. The sources for the latter constitute an empirical reference that, ontologically, has practically the same status as the data on which literature scholars, historians and cultural anthropologists base themselves. This raises the same questions as to method, disciplinary intersubjectivity, societal appropriation, cultural bias and the resonance of general societal power relations in the production of knowledge. It would be to philosophy’s advantage if, for this life-size empirical dimension of its practice, it would lay a greater premium on method, as a lesser premium on originality.

                        Coming from an empirical scientist who insists on the methods and results of contemporary empirical science as an example for philosophy, my argument here may remind one of that of the physicists Sokal and Bricmont a few years ago.[12] In the most Droogstoppel-like fashion[13] they demonstrate how the appropriation of a contemporary physics idiom has yielded some of the most obscure pages of the most prominent French philosophers. They derive their sense of being right from an experiment that Sokal conducted within the pages of the cultural studies journal Social Text:. There he treated, tongue in cheek, current quantum physics as an esoteric text requiring a post-modern hermeneutics. He reproduced in what he himself considered a nonsensical article the post-structuralist idiom so faithfully that the article was accepted for publication as a serious contribution.[14] Sokal and Bricmont can think of nothing better but to assess the philosophical use of idiom in the light of the conventional meaning of the terms in question in their original physics and mathematics context. This approach smacks of parochialism and essentialism, and is out of touch with the contemporary world at large, where borrowing across boundaries (including disiciplinary boundaries), followed by far-reaching transformative localisation of the borrowed goods at their new destination, is the order of the day. My point of view is fundamentally different from theirs: they do not make the slightest attempt to understand and apply the philosophical use of language in its own intentionality, and they persist in a naïvely uncritical view of their own empirical science, which they simply take for granted as God’s truth, without acknowledging its ephemeral and provisional nature.[15] Sokal’s post-structuralist reading of modern quantum physics, even if intended as a pedantic hoax, may yet turn out to contain more wisdom than its author credits himself with, and certainly more wisdom than Sokal and Bricmont’s debunking of French post-structuralist technical philosophical language. It is precisely the post-structuralist deconstruction of the autonomous subject, of all theoretical positions, which makes it thinkable that an idea, while being in the air and reflecting the contradictions of the age, may inadvertently flow out of the pen of a cynical author who is consciously rejecting that idea.[16]

                        These reflections on the empirical constraints on philosophy have a direct bearing on intercultural philosophy. For intercultural philosophy it is of the greatest importance to realise that rendering the thought of another thinker or of a tradition of thought is an empirical activity with all attending demands of method. In connexion with the literate philosophical traditions of the Ancient Near East, Islam, South Asia and East Asia, the dangers of blundering are limited, for here there exist rich local forms of philological-critical scholarship of great antiquity, and intersubjectivity between local an North Atlantic specialists can only be achieved at the price of the North Atlantic scholars living up to the high, local standards of technical competence and language mastery. This tradition of non-North Atlantic scholarship also makes it possible to expose and overcome such Eurocentric flaws as the empirical perspective directed to those parts of the world may yet contain — as is clearly manifested by the Orientalism discussion.[17] However, when we are dealing with illiterate traditions of thought, then their recording and interpretation is nothing but a specific form of ethnography. It will have to be situated against the background of the accumulated experience, comparative research and technical criticism — as well as the critique of epistemological naïveté and North Atlantic hegemony — of many thousands of ethnographers who in the course of a hundred years have occupied themselves with the empirical handiwork of ethnography. On the first instance, ethnography was nothing else but covering with text those parts of the world that had not yet produced their own text. By a process of initial avoidance of adjacent disciplines which is characteristic of the professionalisation of a new discipline (below we shall point out the same pattern for early anthropology) the emergent fields of intercultural philosophy and African philosophy have tended to ignore this methodological heritage and even dissimulate the empirical status of their activities. If they nonetheless rush to the description of African philosophies the way these are manifest in myths, proverbs, and in the oral pronouncements of contemporary thinkers, — then these intercultural and African philosophers are no more entitled to the benefit of doubt than those ethnographers are who persist in their naïve empiricism.

                         Experienced and well-trained anthropologists, some of the calibre of Marcel Griaule and Victor Turner, made it their life’s work to record — by an analysis of myths, rituals, conflicts, depth interviews, and the practice of everyday life — African patterns of thought and their actual contents, either by an external, etic, process of rendering explicit the systematics that is implicit in their hosts’ patterns of through, or by a more emic method of faithfully recording the pronouncements of local thinkers such as Ogotomêlli (studied by Griaule) or Muchona (studied by Turner). Naturally the ethnographic methods of Griaule or Turner are not above all criticism.[18] The point is however that intercultural philosophers, even without engaging in a methodological discussion with the work of Griaule or Turner, think they know better: Ogotomêlli and Muchona would then be denied the status of ‘real’ ‘sages’, while the institution of ‘the sage’ would yet be claimed to occur throughout Africa, but unfortunately unnoticed by all those anthropologists, who inevitably are to be declared to lack all access to authentic African thought...[19]

                        In such a denial of the potential of cultural anthropology for intercultural philosophy I see an expression — probably unintended — of essentialism and anti-empiricism:


     the claim that there are specifically African essential traits

     that are claimed to be inaccessible to the empirical methods of North Atlantic social sciences

     that only Africans are capable of understanding and articulating

     and whose only trustworthy guardians are the exponents of African and intercultural philosophy

     precisely because the latter take a distance from the canons of empirical (social) science.


                        I do not think that such an attitude renders, in the long run, a service to Africans. Africa, that has produced mankind and that via Ancient Egypt has made a very great contribution to North Atlantic civilisation, will easily survive the encounter with empirical science — with this proviso that this should not remain a form of science imported straight from the North with all its naïveté and Eurocentrism, but that Africans will have to continue to explore their own specific variants of empirical research and its methodological canons.

                        Instead of a rejection of empirical methods in their own practice and in that of other sciences, the anti-empiricist rhetoric among philosophers often takes a different form: that of the careless or ignorant dissimulation of the formidable methodological requirements of valid empirical knowledge production. Thus the appeal to empirical knowledge in philosophical discourse often amounts to statements that are passable at the level of collective representations, but that are insufficiently precise and comprehensive to pass as scientifically grounded renditions of the empirical reality to which the appeal is being made. In regard to such self-evidences as philosophers may claim, essential elements remain out of sight or are swept under the carpet: method, intersubjectivity, the cultural and political over-determination of such self-evidences; thus the value of their arguments is greatly reduced. It characterises intercultural philosophy as a young branch of science that such self-evidences abound there; the habitual approach, in those circles, in terms of a plurality of holistically conceived ‘cultures’ is a case in point.

                        Even more of a short-cut available to philosophers in their avoidance of an explicitly empirical methodology, is that of what I might call canonical botanising. Here the argument proceeds, from the enunciation of a certain phenomenon, not to the painstaking exploration of that phenomenon with the aid of such empirical research as is usually abundantly available — but to the classification of the phenomenon in question in terms of a certain passage in the work of a canonised Great Philosopher; after which the discussion is dominated by the interpretation of that one passage, as if that would sufficiently underpin such self-evidences as have been claimed in the first place.

                        An example is Derrida’s claim[20] to the effect that writing precedes the oral expression, since anything which may be conducive to inscription, from the earliest prehistory of mankind, is already to be defined as writing: a deliberately snapped twig on a branch, an line drawn with the finger in the sand. The deceptive nature of such an argument, if taken literally, does not per se lie in the use of the term ‘writing’ — for one might put oneself on a nominalistic standpoint and accordingly choose one’s definition freely. However, by adopting the contrast between writing and orality, unmistakably conceptual continuity is suggested with the usual definition of writing in the empirical sciences. And from that perspective Derrida’s position is absurd. The origin and the oldest forms of writing are well documented; they have been the subject of hundreds of highly scholarly empirical publications.[21] In this literature we have seen the growth of a consensus as to what constitutes writing, on the basis of a careful weighing of the empirical evidence against the background of progressive theoretical sophistication. This consensus defines a full script as a system, consisting of a finite number of arbitrary, fixed, mutually distinctive and for that very reason mutually related visual elements, which are being used productively (i.e. that an infinite number of combinations may be generated on the basis of a finite number of systematic rules and elements), in such a way that all speech sounds of the specific languages for whose rendering the script is being used, may be represented (more or less adequately) in that script. Such a script represents neither objects, nor ideas, but simply spoken words. In the history of mankind, full writing in this sense has been attested only from the late fourth millennium before the common era, notably from Sumer, Elam, and Egypt. Far more limited precursors of full writing, in the form of pictograms and ideograms, are up to ten thousand years older and go back to the Upper Palaeolithic. Against the background of this empirical tradition it is ridiculously anachronistic to speak of script and writing for the preceding three million years of human history. If we throw overboard the specific characteristics of full writing we can no longer explain the enormous influence that full writing has had on religion, philosophy, science, literature, state formation, law. It is typical of the procedure of canonical botanising that — in favour for one passage from a Great Philosopher — it feels it can ignore the entire, empirically grounded, literature on writing and on the distinctions between types of writing and their implications.[22] Are we not being condescending towards Africans when we pretend that, according to some twisted and indefensible definition, they yet turn out to have writing after all, as if not having writing is the greatest, most dehumanising disaster that could possible happen to a person or to a people? Is such an attitude not somewhat ethnocentric? Strangely, the usual definitions of writing surprisingly allow the African continent (and not just Ancient Egypt) a much more prominent place in the history and distribution of writing than is generally acknowledged.[23] My worry here is not, of course, that apparently undeservingly global recognition would be given to unwritten African traditions of thought. For it has been my life’s work as a literary writer, anthropologist, Southern African diviner-priest-therapist (sangoma),[24] and intercultural philosopher, to further precisely such recognition. No, my worry is that intercultural philosophers (without explicit adequate empirical methods, and insufficiently aware of their own personal problematic of transference even though the latter could be argued to cause them to distort the African material in the light of their own nostalgic of vicariously identity-affirming projections) would claim to mediate African traditions whereas in fact what they were representing are only figments of these philosophers’ imagination, fed more by the North Atlantic philosophical tradition than by an intimate knowledge of illiterate African life.

                        If intercultural philosophers entrench themselves in a concept of ‘culture’ that stipulates a countable plurality of holistic ‘cultures’, and if they approach the empirical dimension of the rendering of other traditions of thought as if no sound methods have been worked out for such as task, then we are well advised to remind them of contemporary empirical insights in ‘culture’ and identity, even despite all reservations we have vis-à-vis the empirical sciences for their implicitly naïve and hegemonic nature.

7. Globalisation and ethnicity

7.1. Nkoya ethnic identity

In myself the awareness that ‘cultures do not exist’ awoke during fieldwork in the Zambian capital of Lusaka in the early 1970s. Here the Nkoya ethnic group constituted a small minority of at most a thousand people, who by means of collective rituals (girls’ puberty ceremonies, possession cults, and funerary ceremonies) managed to maintain a considerable amount of mutual contact and of continuity with the cultural practices of their distant home in the Zambian countryside. One night I visited a puberty ceremony, as I did so often in those days. While I danced around with the crowd and joined in the singing, I was addressed by a Black middle-aged man, meticulously dressed in a smart chalk-stripe three-piece suit, who despite his corpulence and his game leg made fierce attempts to keep up with the dancing rhythm. He said, in inimitable Zambian English:

‘Yesseh Bwana, diss iss áowaa twadísyonaa káwatyaa’ — ‘You see now, Boss, this is our traditional culture’.

Taken-for granted cultural identity but also alienation, performativity (consciously playing a role with deliberately sought after effect), and commodification of ‘culture’ — all united in one person.


In the next quarter of a century I became more and more familiar with the religion and the kingship of the Nkoya, and I ended up as the adopted son of Mwene Kahare Kabambi, one of the kings of this people — at his death in 1993 I inherited the king’s bow and 25 km2 of land. This was the context in which, from 1988, I applied myself to the study of cultural globalisation among the Nkoya in the rural areas, especially the way in which a formal organisation (the Kazanga Cultural Association, an ethnic association articulating Nkoya ethnic identity, and largely administered by successful urban migrants) managed to select and transform the local music and dance into an annual ethnic festival, a consecutive and carefully orchestrated performance named Kazanga. Since 1988, time-honoured genres of local music[25] and dance have been emphatically performed in a format adopted after North Atlantic examples, and before an audience of national-level politicians and other outsiders. The performative nature of this new form of cultural production in the context of the Kazanga festival turned out to be closely related to commodification: in former times this symbolic production had for the participants always derived its self-evident value from the cosmology and the temporal rhythm (in annual seasonal cycles, personal life cycles, and the rise and decline of communities, headmanship and kingships) of the local rural community, but now this value has been dissociated from the local and has become into a commodity, part of the strategies by means of which regional elites seek to acquire power and wealth.

                        Ethnic articulation with performative and commodified means, such as in Kazanga, situates itself in an increasingly politicised space, in which the local cultural orientations have lost their self-evidence by the confrontation with local and global alternative forms of expression, organisation and identity. We would remain absolutely incapable of understanding these processes if we continue to insist on a model of the plurality of distinct, complete ‘cultures’ existing side by side. Instead, the contemporary social science of Africa presents the following discourse on ethnicity.

7.2. The discourse on ethnicity in African studies today

One of the most inveterate popular misconceptions concerning Africa today is the idea that the population of that continent would in the first place have to be classified into a large number of ‘tribes’; each tribe would be characterised by its own ‘culture’, art, language, somatic features, political organisation including ‘tribal chief’, and its own ‘tribal homeland’ or ‘tribal territory’; the later would cause the African continent to be a large patchwork quilt of adjacent, non-overlapping, fixed ‘tribal areas’, between which ‘tribal wars’ are postulated to go back to remote antiquity.

                        The tribal model for Africa has sprung from a number of sources most of which have to be situated not in Africa itself but in the North Atlantic region:


     the preference of colonial governments for clear-cut administrative divisions each coinciding with mutually exclusive territories in the landscape;

     the preference of colonial governments for a model of inexpensive indirect administration, that assumed the existence, in the landscape, of local, indigenous administrative territories coinciding with colonial territorial divisions;

     European views concerning the coincidence of ‘culture’, language, territory and the state — the early modern, particularly Romantic origin of nation formation in Europe;

     the rationalising need, not only among colonial governments but also among industrial enterprises, among the Christian missions, and gradually also among Africans, to label unequivocally the multitude of cultural and linguistic identities at the local, regional and national level;

     while the above factors led to the crystallisation of clear-cut classifications of the African population — mainly on a territorial basis — also African leaders (traditional chiefs involved in indirect rule, early converts to world religions, incipient intellectuals and politicians) seized the opportunity to transform these new labels and classifications into self-conscious units (‘tribes’, ‘ethnic groups’) and to claim, for these units, an identity, a ‘culture’, of their own (although this usually only amounted to the selection of a few distinctive cultural features as boundary markers), and a history of their own; this process is known as ethnicisation;

     in the absence of other social and religious distinctions, these ethnic classifications, and the local and regional contradictions they suggested by virtue of their being bound to a territory, became the incentives for group formation and for competition in national politics;

     formal politics along ethnic and regional lines also led to networks of patronage along which the elites, in exchange for political support, could offer specific advantages to their ethnic and regional followers; the latter had all the more need for these advantages given the increasing failure of the formal institutions of the post-colonial state;

     even so, ethnicity in contemporary Africa retained a situational nature: some situations are far more ethnically marked than others; an increasing number of situations is, by the people involved in them, primarily constructed in terms of other identities than the ethnic identity, notably in terms of religion, gender, class, professional group, national state. Also it very frequently occurs that people in situations that are emphatically ethnically marked (such as migrants in the ethnically heterogeneous context of the modern city) operate alternately, and with success, in more than one ethnic identity; often also one sheds, at a given moment in life, the ethnic identity that one has had from birth — exchanging this identity either for another ethnic identity that has greater prestige or that represents a local majority, or opting for a different, more universalist kind of identity (e.g. Muslim; or socialist) in the light of which the particularist ethnic identity becomes irrelevant. Here a central thesis of contemporary ethnicity research meets the post-structuralist philosophy of Derrida: the idea of the self as forming a unity onto its own, is only a myth.[26]


                        This raises the question as to the existence and nature of precolonial identities in Africa. In precolonial Africa a great diversity of languages, cultural customs, modes of production, systems of domination, and somatic traits could be discerned. Along each of these criss-crossing dimensions identities, in the sense of named categories, could be defined in local contexts. These categories often had a perspectival nature: one could speak of ‘the northerners’, ‘the forest dwellers’, ‘those who seek to dissociate from the state’, depending on the opposite position occupied by the speaker himself. But in other cases the designations derived from localised clans, which furthered the essentialist suggestion of a fixed, somatically anchored identity acquired by descent from a common ancestor. Precolonial states, such as occurred on a grand scale in Africa across several millennia, always displayed a plurality of languages, cultural orientations, modes of production, somatic features, and besides the statal forms of domination they tended to loosely incorporate such local forms of authority (authority within kin groups, territorial groups, cults, guilds, gender organisations) as constituted alternatives to statehood. Not so much control over demarcated territories, but control over people (by means of course of law, violence, and tribute in the form of produce and people), was the central theme of these states. Therefore precolonial boundaries must be conceived of in terms of areas of overlapping of spheres of influence, and not as lines on a map.

                        It has been amply demonstrated that many colonial and precolonial ethnic designations in Africa have no roots in the precolonial past, and therefore must be very recent. The nomenclature of colonial and post-colonial identities in Africa derived to a limited extent from the extensive and complex repertoire of precolonial identities. However, it would be totally erroneous to claim (as African ethnic ideologues, Western journalists, and a declining number of researchers would do) that twentieth-century ethnicity in the African continent has merely been a continuation of precolonial patterns of group formation and group conflict. The above listed characteristics of twentieth-century ethnicity hardly occurred before the colonial state had established itself with its bureaucratic, named territorial divisions.

                        In the contemporary ideological construction of Africa, and in Africa, ethnicity is to a large extent thought as holistic and as bundled: language, cultural customs, modes of production, somatic features, territory, political leadership are then assume to form one integrated package in such a way that a person’s ethnic identity (that person’s ‘culture’) is claimed to determine the total mode of being of that person. Such bundling is a direct reproduction of the bureaucratic rationality that forms the framework for the political in post-modern North Atlantic society. The various cultural orientations involved in a local situation are hierarchically ordered, in such a way that one cultural orientation is privileged above the others, is essentialised, and is considered to be eminently constitutive for one person or for one group; this is the cultural orientation that is subsequently stressed as a result of public mediation. Thus ‘culture’ functions primarily as a performative boundary marker. By contrast, it was characteristic of precolonial identities that the various dimensions along which they could be defined remained detached from one another, were not mutually integrated, and as a result no single identity was capable of developing into a claim of totality that was publicly mediated. Instead the various identities within a region criss-crossed in a gaudy confusion.

                        All this allows us to understand why in their own personal vision of social life, many African have come to consider as an unshakeable reality the very tribal model that we as professional Africanists are rejecting today. Politicians can appeal to this reified and distorted image of social reality in order to lend an ethnic dimension to economic and political contradictions, thus essentialising these contradictions.


Given these historical and political backgrounds, it is difficult to offer a useful definition of ethnicity. However, the following is an attempt in that direction. Ethnicity is the way in which wider social processes have been economically, politically and culturally structured under reference to a plurality of ethnic groups that are distinguished and named within the collective space. A recognised ethnicity is not ‘a culture’, and a national or international political system is not an ‘arena of cultures’. An ethnic group is nothing but an explicitly named set of people within a societal system of the classification and raking of groups. Within the social field (e.g. a society, a nation state) one collectively distinguishes a limited number of such named sets of people, always more than just one. Membership of such a set is considered to be acquired by birth and hence is in principle immutable, but in fact the acquisition of a specific ethnic identity later in life is a common occurrence. Invariably more than one identity is invested in one person at the same time. Within each set, people identify with one another, and are identified by others, on the grounds of a number of historically determined and historically mutable, specific ethnic boundary markers: the ethnic name itself, and moreover e.g. language, forms of leadership, modes of production, other distinctive cultural features, occasionally also somatic features. The ethnic groups that exist within one country often differ from each other only with respect to a very limited selection of cultural features functioning as boundary markers.

                        Concretely this means the following. From a Nkoya village in the heartland of Zambia one may trek (partly on the trail of David Livingstone 130 years ago) five hundred kilometres towards the north, east, west and south without noticing remarkable changes in the cultural, man-made landscape (the villages, the royal courts, the fields, the pastures, the fishing grounds, the hunting groups, shrines, but also ideas about kinship, law, witchcraft, adulthood, kingship, birth, maturation and dead, the world, life after death, God); on one’s journey one traverses a large number of so-called ‘tribal areas’ and language areas such as used to be distinguished in the colonial period. And whereas most local inhabitants will turn out to be multilingual and while the languages of the Bantu linguistic family look alike like Dutch, German and Swedish, after a few hundred kilometres one can no longer effectively communicate using the Nkoya language — but this will only be the case hundreds of kilometres after one has effectively left behind the recognised ‘Nkoya tribal area’ as defined in colonial times.

                        The great regional continuity of cultural orientations, in western Zambia as elsewhere in Africa, is an empirical fact; in a process of essentialisation, ethnonyms and other aspects of ethnicisation have imposed deceptive boundaries upon this continuity — more or less in the way one sticks out nicely shaped cookies with a cookie mould, from a large rolled out slab of dough that has everywhere virtually the same constitution.

[1]       Considering the abundance of ethnonymic reference in his work, this is implicitly the — obsolescent — position taken by Lévi-Strauss and by most anthropologists of his generation. The post-structuralist philosophers have only a limited discourse on other cultural orientations than those which have been bundled in contemporary North Atlantic society.

[2]       Van Binsbergen 1999.

[3]       Van Binsbergen 1992b, 1993 = 1996d.

[4]       Godelier 1975; Hindess & Hirst 1975; Jewsiewicki c.s. 1985; Kahn & Llobera 1981; Meillassoux 1975; Rey 1971; Suret-Canale 1974; Terray 1969; van Binsbergen & Geschiere 1985a, 1985b.

[5]       Cf. van Binsbergen 1981.

[6]       Van Binsbergen 1997f, 1998a.

[7]       Needham c.s. 1961, 1956; Beckh 1961.

[8]         Kaphagawani & Malherbe 1998; MacGaffey 1986.

[9]       Harding 1997, cf. 1994. A rather less extreme form of the same idea underlies: Hountondji 1994.

[10]         Contemporary epistemological insights begin to take a distance from the distinction between natural sciences and humanities (‘Geisteswissenschaften’ that only one or two generations ago was taken for granted (cf. d’Agostino 1993, who bases himself specifically on: Bernstein 1983; Rorty 1979; Putnam 1978, 1981). I myself also make only a gradual distinction between natural and social sciences when it comes to the possibility and desirability of alternative epistemologies.

[11]     On philosophy as an intersubjective activity, cf. e.g. Luijpen 1980, ch. 1.

[12]     Sokal & Bricmont 1997.

[13]     In Multatuli’s Max Havelaar (Multatuli 2001), the masterpiece of this leading nineteenth-century Dutch novelist, Droogstoppel is an extremely prosaic character, a merchant devoid of all feeling for poetry and for the imaginary in general.

[14]     Sokal 1996a. The result was a minor affair in the pages of Le Monde and the New York Review of Books: Boghossian 1996; Bricmont 1997; Duclos 1997; Levisalles 1996; Rio 1997; Salomon 1997; Sokal 1996b, 1996c, 1997; Weill 1996; Weinberg 1996; Weinberg et al. 1996.

[15]     Cf. van Binsbergen 1999g.

[16]     This is incidentally how I came to support the Egyptocentric variety of academic Afrocentrism: I cynically started to write a book-length attack of it (van Binsbergen, in preparation (a)). Cf below, section 11.

[17]     Ahmad 1992; Breckenridge & van der Veer 1993; Clifford 1988a; Lewis 1993; Said 1978; Turner 1994; van der Veer 1995.

[18]     Cf. on Muchona and Turner: Turner 1967; de Boeck & Devisch 1994; Shorter 1972; Papstein 1978. On Ogotomêlli and Griaule: Griaule 1966; Clifford 1988; Copans 1973; Goody 1967; Lettens 1971; Ogono d’Arou 1956; Sarevskaja 1963; the most dismissive reinterpretation of Griaule in the 1990s has been Wouter van Beek’s in Current Anthropology (van Beek 1991).

[19]     Kimmerle 1997; Odera Oruka 1990b.

[20]     Derrida 1967.

[21]     Albright 1966; Bernal 1990; Best & Woudhuizen 1988; Bottéro 1992; de Mecquenem 1949; Diringer 1996; Evans 1909; Gelb 1963; Gimbutas 1991, ch. 8: ‘The sacred script’; Gordon 1982; Hassan 1983; Karlgren 1940; Labat 1988; Lambert 1976; Marshack 1972; Naveh 1982; Parpola 1994; Ray 1986; Schmandt-Besserat 1992; Thompson 1960; Coe 1992; and extensive references contained in these publications. For the anthropological approach to writing, cf. Goody 1968, 1986; Lemaire 1984.

[22]     I am not speaking as an outsider to this field of study; cf. van Binsbergen 1997c, 1997g; and in preparation (b).

[23]     Cf. van Binsbergen 1997c.

[24]     See below, section 9; van Binsbergen 1991.

[25]     Brown 1984.

[26]     Derrida 1972.


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