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‘Cultures do not exist’

Part IV. Sections 11 to 13


11. Against Eurocentrism

Against this background I immediately recognised a kindred spirit in Martin Bernal, the author of the multi-volume book Black Athena: The AfroasiAtic Roots of Classic Civilization.[1]

                        Bernal intends to expose the Eurocentrism that — as he demonstrates — has been at the roots of the North Atlantic study of Graeco-Roman Antiquity over the past two centuries. In Bernal’s opinion, the widespread idea of being heirs to the genius of Greek civilisation, allegedly without roots in any previous non-European civilisation, has played a major role in the justification of European intercontinental imperialism. His central thesis is that we must recognise the African and Asiatic roots of classical Greek civilisation (especially of its language, philosophy and religion) — and in doing so, we would also recognise the non-European roots of major cultural orientations in today’s North Atlantic civilisation, that is increasingly becoming global anyway. Hence the pragmatic title of Bernal’s magnum opus, Black Athena: this title is to indicate that the goddess Athena, although the central symbol of classical Greek civilisation, yet had an origin outside Europe, in Africa. The question is not without interest for philosophers for the principal stake in the Black Athena debate is the claim concerning the non-European origin of the European philosophical tradition.[2]

                        With Black Athena: Ten Years After (1997)[3] I reopened the debate on Bernal’s work, that appeared to be effectively closed after the devastatingly critical Black Athena Revisited.[4] With the new book, Global Bee Flight, I return to Africa in order to investigate the implication of the Black Athena thesis for our Africa research today — and the implication of our Africa research for the Black Athena thesis. Because Ancient Egypt occupies a key position in the debates on Africa’s cultural historical relation to Europe and to the rest of the world, a large section of Global Bee Flight is occupied by an analysis of the mutual interpenetration of Ancient Egyptian and sub-Sahara-African themes, in the way of concepts and structures of thought, myths, symbolism, the kingship, state formation, and productive practices. One absolutely surprising outcome of the book (when I started out I sincerely thought I could prove the opposite to be true!) is my confirmation, without the slightest reservation, of one of the most ridiculed ideas of early twentieth century anthropological diffusionism: Egyptocentrism as a possible model for African cultural history. By the end of the fourth millennium before the common era, Ancient Egypt owed its emergence as a civilisation (contrary to what Bernal thinks to be the case) to the interaction between Black African and Eastern Mediterranean / West Asian cultural orientations. But in the next step my analyses demonstrates that Ancient Egypt, in its turn, did have a decisive fertilising effect not only (as stressed in the Black Athena thesis) on the eastern Mediterranean basin and hence on Europe, but also, in a most significant feed-back process, on Black Africa, right into the nooks and crannies of many aspects of life, including the kingship, law, ritual and mythology. Instead of the patchwork-quilt blanket of mutually absolutely distinct ‘cultures’, as in the dominant view both among scholars and in the modern world at large, what thus emerges in the image of Africa that displays a very remarkable cultural unity. And such unity springs, not from any timeless and somatically-based Black mystique of Africanity, but from clearly detectable historical processes: having first served as a (not: the) major source and subsequently as principal recipient of Ancient Egyptian civilisation, and finally as the recipient of converging Arabian/ Islamic as well as — in the most recent centuries — North Atlantic colonial influences. The general conclusion of Global Bee Flight is a radical, positive and (coming from what looks like a White establishment scholar) unexpected revision of our conception of the place of Africa in global cultural history. Meanwhile there is little reason why the same model of qualified continuity over large distances in space and time would not also apply to other continents including Europe, and to the historical connections between various continents.

                        I have given reasons why (as an apparent reduction of difference to sameness) the argument of the convergence of African cultures (one of the tenets of the recent Afrocentrist movement, and a constant idea in Black consciousness for two centuries) is shunned by post-structuralist intercultural philosophers, but it is strange that this idea of convergence has met with so little acceptance on the part of African philosophers today. Instead they virtually unanimously support the argument of cultural diversity. For instance, with Mudimbe,[5] Appiah shares the condition of being a leading philosopher who, while having been born in Africa, has resisted the temptation to identify with the production of a parochial form of African philosophy and instead produces a cosmopolitan, mainstream brand of thought that is eminently acceptable to most North Atlantic academic audiences, not in the least because it shuns all Afrocentrism and in general takes a reserved, deconstructivist attitude towards any African identity discourse. With reference to the work of the Senegalese natural scientist and cultural philosopher Cheikh Anta Diop, more than with reference to Bernal’s work (which however he does not like any more than he does Diop’s),[6] Appiah rejects the idea of any cultural continuity permeating the African continent today. For this he adduces not the fruits of any independent historical research of his own, but two self-evidences that however are untenable in the light of recent historical research: the claim that Ancient Egypt had only a non-specialised, vaguely articulated philosophy that moreover is unrelated, in substance, with current African cultural orientations; and the claim that we cannot expect to find, in Africa, cultural continuities extending over a period of three or more millennia.[7] In Appiah’s words:

‘If we could have traveled through Africa’s many cultures in (...) [precolonial times] from the small groups of Bushman hunter-gatherers, with their stone-age materials, to the Hausa kingdoms, rich in worked metal — we should have felt in every place profoundly different impulses, ideas, and forms of life. To speak of an African identity in the nineteenth century — if an identity is a coalescence of mutually responsive (if sometimes conflicting) modes of conduct, habits of thought, and patterns of evaluation; in short, a coherent kind of human social psychology — would have been ‘‘to give to aery nothing a local habitation and a name.’’ ’[8]

                        In line with this stress on precolonial fragmentation lies the African philosopher’s Kaphagawani’s thesis on ‘C4’, which is a scientistic formula (cf. C14, the carbon isotope so vital to historical dating) meant to express

‘the Contemporary Confluence of Cultures on the Continent of Africa. This is a postcolonial phenomenon where different cultures meet and mingle to form new, hybrid forms’.[9]

                        In this formulation the emphasis on a plurality of mutually distinct and bounded cultures does give way to a recognition of greater unity, but extreme multiplicity and fragmentation is still held to be the hallmark of the African past, the point of departure. Such unity between African cultures as is being recognised is taken to be the result of the post-colonial phenomenon of globalisation, which allows this view to salvage the concept of a pristine distinctness of a great number of precolonial cultures in Africa. The entire discussion on Afrocentrism (with its Senegalese precursor Cheikh Anta Diop) appears to be lost on the majority of contemporary African philosophers.[10] Afrocentrists like Molefi Kete Asante[11] are scarcely welcomed or cited in the circles of academic African philosophers.

12. To intercultural philosophy as a medium

What then could be the contours of an intercultural philosophy that allows itself to be inspired by empirical research, but that essentially renews and transcends such research?

                        The dialogue is not only one of the oldest philosophical genres, it is also a form of communication that has established itself in the modern, and especially the post-modern, world as the most ideal form: with assumptions of equal contributions from both sides, equal initiative, equal rights, for the participants in the dialogue. One tends to assume that, from a pluralistic perspective, the dialogue offers the best possible conditions for revealing the relevant aspects of a matter, perhaps even revealing truth itself. The word dialogue is often mentioned in the same breath as the word intercultural.[12] Also in my own work I have repeatedly been occupied with the dialogue as a therapeutic instrument for the illumination of personal and group problems and for the attainment of reconciliation, as a principal African social technology.[13] Whoever seeks dialogue is not satisfied with the mechanical, cold juxtaposition of difference; agreeing to disagree, to differ, is a sign, not of dialogue, but of the incapability of arriving at dialogue. The dynamics of dialogue always consist in making contradictions visible, then exploring the conditions under which these contradictions may be transcended in the direction of a new point of view that was not yet available from the very first but that emerges creatively from the very dialogue itself. The true dialogue is a form of implicit reconciliation.

                        The anthropologist Michael Jackson (not to be confused with the once popular singer of that name) is one of the contemporary ethnographers who displays great sensitivity for problems of intercultural philosophy. His inspiration is primarily with Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, and with Merleau-Ponty. With his work Jackson seeks to create a dialogue between people of various cultural orientations:

‘But while my interest lies in the kind of metacultural understanding that Sartre and Merleau-Ponty sought, this should not be construed as a search for the essence of human Being but for ways of opening up dialogue between people from different cultures or traditions, way of bringing into being modes of understanding that effectively go beyond the intellectual conventions and political ideologies that circumscribe us all’.[14]

Jackson’s ethnographic interlocutors do not speak for themselves; Jackson conducts the conversation in his book, and in a form that is not compellingly imposed neither by the people under study, nor by Jackson’s professional habitus as an anthropologist within the North Atlantic society.

                        In which cultural orientation does the ethnographer in fact find herself when she makes pronouncements about the cultural orientation under study: in an African orientation, a North Atlantic one, in both, or in neither? One school of anthropology in which this question has been at the centre of reflection has been the Louvain school, created in the 1980s by René Devisch (one of the people to whom Jackson’s major book Paths Towards a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Enquiry was dedicated). In the texts produced by the Louvain school, a characteristic figure of style has been the following. The writer leaves unspecified who in fact it is who is speaking: the ethnographer, or a characteristic member of the society she describes. Unmistakably, this practice has been inspired by a justified critique of certain hegemonic and objectifying aspects of the ethnographic relationship. In the Louvain case moreover this practice is usually carried by meticulous ethnographic methods and a profound language mastery. Yet one cannot fail to observe that it is impossible to solve the hegemonic problematic of ethnography, by dissimulating that problematic (as the Louvain figure of style seems to do).

                        Therefore, and once again: In which cultural orientation do I find myself when as a sangoma in The Netherlands I offer a Southern African therapy system that is far from self-evident to most of my Dutch clients, but whose being offered by me is neither self-evident to most of my Southern African clients even though they clearly have no objection?

                        Mediating between two cultural orientations means that the mediator provides himself with an interface, a plateau, from which access to both cultural orientations may be gained, but that is yet not to be reduced to either. Intercultural communication is always transgressive, innovative, subject to bricolage. Genuine differences, that are based not on a performative act of will but on the inevitable, inescapable parallel implementation of two opposite and mutually irreducible points of departure, can only be reconciled (in dialogue, love, seduction, trade, diplomacy, therapy, ritual, ethnography, intercultural philosophy) in a way that essentially takes a distance from each of these points of departure and that is not compellingly imposed by either. For this purpose a new frame of reference is conjured up, one that on the one hand confirms both positions (they have to be declared valid in order to make the position of the mediator acceptable), but that on the other hand transcends them, while making reference to a good which for both parties — but not necessarily in the same way — represents a major value. This is in a nutshell the mechanism I sketch in my analysis of African reconciliation; it appears as if the same mechanism helps to elucidate, and to facilitate, intercultural exchanges including intercultural knowledge production — but at the cost, for a long time already recognised by modern hermeneutics,[15] of producing not a faithful representation of the original, but an innovative novel creation whose resemblance to the original may be remote. We continue to be haunted by Kant’s epistemology,[16] distinguishing the allegedly unknowable original from the known and appropriated, but inevitably distorted, mental image we have formed of the original.

                        I see my task as an intercultural philosopher primarily as that of a mediator, striving towards an empirically underpinned and practically applicable theory of cultural mediation. On the basis on inspiration from the empirical social sciences and of introspection based on my own extensive intercultural experiences, I seek to explode the philosophical self-evidences with regard to ‘culture’, in so far as the latter form the point of departure for all thinking about interculturality. I seek to explode the social scientific self-evidences of theory and method by reference to the much greater accumulated experience of modern philosophers when it comes to the handling of concepts and methods of thought; evidently, for this task I shall need the constant support and criticism from my new philosophical colleagues. Interculturality presupposes a medium that cannot be relegated to any of the cultural orientations which are being mediated within it; this opens up a immense space for thought experiments and imagination. On the other hand an empirical orientation means that we resign ourselves to impose limitations in this experimental and imaginary space, not only by explicit and intersubjective procedures, but also by a critical awareness of our epistemology and of its globally available alternatives. The challenges and potentials for intercultural philosophy are boundless, and so is its prophetic responsibility in the contemporary world.

13. Cultural diversity and universality

These considerations lead us to what is, next to the question of humanisation from pre-human ancestors, and the possibility of intercultural knowledge and of intercultural ethics, one of the central questions of the philosophy of culture: Why should there be this fragmentation of cultural orientations, this multiplicity of pattern formation? Is it proper to the human condition? To language? To sensory perception? To thought? To the handling of symbols? To a specific historical phase in the human condition, which perhaps we are at the point of leaving behind us? The latter hardly seems likely, for the predictable stop-gap of every argument on cultural globalisation so far has been the emphasis on the articulation of an ever greater proliferation of separate identities each marked by cultural differences.[17] There is every indication that the philosophy of interculturality will only come of age when she shall have developed a convincing argument explaining the tendency to fragmentation in human collective patterned arrangements.

                        The Ghanaian philosopher Wiredu posits[18] that ‘cultures’ must necessarily contain a universal component because without such a component the communication between ‘cultures’ would be impossible, whereas yet we see (according to him) everywhere around us that such communication is a fact.

                        Exactly the same argument is used by Sogolo against what he considers to be Winch’s extreme relativism.[19] In passing Sogolo appeals to the principle of charity as formulated by Davidson. Sogolo thus applies this principle (as others tend to do)[20] as the deus ex machina of interculturality.[21] In Davidson’s view, consistency is an indication of truth. The principle of charity stipulates that we are prepared to accept for true whatever appears to someone else as true. But underlying this technical logical usage shimmers, not by accent, the more original meaning of charity as love for thou neighbour, the Ancient Greek and early Christian concept of agapè. The intercultural implications of this view are hardly investigated by Davidson, but they amount to the kind of epistemological relativism that was formally pretended by classic cultural anthropology but that in fact — as I argue above — has never materialised in that discipline. My argument on becoming a sangoma[22] makes it clear that it is precisely the principle of charity, in the Davidsonian sense, that almost expelled me from ethnography.

                        Apparently Wiredu’s intuition brings him close to realising the social implications (i.e. Shen’s dilemma) of the problem of ‘cultures do not exist’. Yet Wiredu’s allegiance to the established concept of culture prevents him from offering an adequate solution, yea even from formulating the question with sufficient precision. Admittedly, interculturality would be an impossibility in a situation marked by the coexistence of a number of absolutely distinct cultures side by side, each culture allegedly offering to its adherents a total ordering of their life world. If we find this an undesirable conclusion (and as world citizens at the beginning of the third millennium CE we have no other choice but abhorring such a conclusion) then we have the following ways out:


     either we postulate (with Wiredu) a universal trait in every ‘culture’ (which would enable us to retain the established concept of culture as holistic and bounded)

     or we take a fundamentally relative view of the totality and the boundedness of culture, by postulating that every human situation always involves a variety of cultural orientations, between which there is a constant interplay, both within one person with his many, varied, and other contradictory roles, and between a number of persons in their interaction with each other.


In the first case intercultural communication is the exception, in the second case it is the rule, the normal state of affairs. From my argument it is clear that I prefer the second solution by far.

                        But let us pause a moment to consider Wiredu’s argument. What is, in fact, the evidence that ‘cultures’ — or even, that the far less comprehensive cultural orientations that I would put in the place of ‘cultures’ — do in fact communicate with one another? How would they be implemented to do that? How can we even so much as perceive ‘cultures’? A culture is a highly aggregate, abstract construct (a construct both of the participants, and of the ethnographer), that escapes direct observation precisely as far as concerns its proclaimed totality, for such totality is only presumed and in fact illusory. All that is open to our sensory perception is the concrete behaviour of persons, and the material effects of that behaviour in the form of objects made or transformed by humans. Our fellow humanity enables us — if only after very substantial ethnographic and linguistic investments — to understand this behaviour and these objects in terms of the participants’ intentionality and signification; in this way what we observe becomes more than unpredictable purely individual behaviour: we are capable of discerning collective patterns that persist in more or less unaltered form over a certain period of time — the indications of cultural orientations.

                        Unmistakably, two regimes of pattern formation may influence each other, as anyone can see from the interference patterns that emerge when one casts two stones of unequal weight simultaneously into the water. But this is fusion, not communication; communication presupposes a medium at both sides of which the communicating entities find themselves, in such a way that in communication their being distinct and separate is both confirmed and dissolved at the same time, — we might say that they constitute themselves as different precisely in the process of communication, of communicative union, of sameness.

                        We are used to thinking about ‘culture’ as a context of communication:[23] to the extent to which we share the same cultural orientation, we can communicate with each other. But there is a snake under the grass here: to the extent to which we share the same cultural orientation, there may not even be anything left to communicate; intracultural communication is different from intercultural communication, but it is no less problematic: both forms of communication depart from the premise of a difference that is being reduced by communication.

                        Regardless of the question of whether ‘cultures’ do or do not communicate with each other, it is an empirical fact that the bearers of explicitly different cultural orientations are capable of establishing at least a measure of communication, however defective, between their respective cultural orientations, and these bearers produce their identities and their cultural orientations precisely in the context of that communication. Are we than allowed to reverse the argument and to claim that it is not so much the difference between distinct cultural orientation which makes intercultural communication possible, but that it is the communication itself (the intercultural communication, formally, but now we no longer know what meaning to attribute to ‘intercultural’) which engenders the positions of cultural difference in the first place? Such a view is perfectly in line with the performative and strategic use of claimed cultural difference in the context of the multicultural society. At the experiential level, it is confirmed by the professional experience of the ethnographer outside the North Atlantic multicultural society. For her professional role forces the ethnographer to a communication in the context of which she initially painfully experiences, and tends to reify, cultural differences vis-à-vis the local others; but gradually, as she learns and internalises the host cultural orientation, it loses all exotism for her, as a result of which the initial cultural difference appears as a temporary artefact of the initial communication situation. Frederick Barth’s path-breaking work on ethnicity could be very well summarised in terms of the idea that communication (and in fact all human interaction is communicative) produces cultural difference instead of a pre-existing cultural difference engendering, secondarily, specific forms of intercultural communication.[24]

                        And in the end it dawns upon us that this thought constitutes in fact the oldest recorded theory of ‘culture’: it is the myth that sees in the construction of the tower of Babel (by far mankind’s greatest communicative and collective effort to that date, regardless of whether it was real of only mythical) the origin of all cultural and linguistic diversity. It is remarkable that this myth can be found all over Africa under conditions impossible to explain away by reference to the influence of the two world religions Islam and Christianity.[25] Why would the oldest and most widespread theory of cultural difference no longer be capable of inspiring us?

[1]       Bernal 1987, 1991.

[2]       Bernal 1987; Burkert 1992; Evangeliou 1994; James 1973; Lefkowitz 1996; Palter 1996a; Preus 1992; West 1971.

[3]       Van Binsbergen 1997a.

[4]       Lefkowitz & MacLean Rogers 1996

[5]       Cf. van Binsbergen 2001.

[6]       Cf. Appiah 1993.

[7]       Appiah 1992:161f. For a refutation of these two points, see my Black Athena Alive (in press), especially the contribution by Stricker c.s.; and van Binsbergen, in preparation (a).

[8]       Appiah 1992: 174; cited in approval in: Bell 1997, p. 218f, n. 29.

[9]         Kaphagawani & Malherbe 1998: 209.

[10]     However, see: van Binsbergen 1996a, 1997a. For the reception of the Black Athena discussion among African and African American intellectuals, including Appiah en Mudimbe, cf: van Binsbergen 1997b; Berlinerblau 1999 .

[11]     Asante 1990.

[12]     Cf. Brocker & Nau 1997; Garaudy 1977; Janz 1997; Kimmerle 1992; Kimmerle 1995; Odera Oruka 1990a. In the background this is informed by a dialogical conception of philosophy, going back to Plato and having received a new impetus, in modern times, by Bakhtin and the thought of such great Jewish thinkers as Buber and Levinas; cf. Buber 1962; Levinas 1972, 1973, 1987; and as commentators Bernasconi 1988; Todorov 1981; Thomson 1991; Simons 1992. From more specifically cultural anthropological perspectives, cf. Abbink 1989; Dwyer 1977; Dwyer 1982; Pool 1994; Tyler 1987; Webster 1982.

[13]     Van Binsbergen 1994b, 1995, 1997e; a revised English version of the last article is in press in my Intercultural encounters: African lessons for a philosophy of interculturality; provisional version available at

[14]     Jackson 1989: x.

[15]     Cf. Palmer 1969.

[16]     Kant 1983c.

[17]     Cf. Appadurai 1997; Brightman1995; Featherstone 1990, 1995; Friedman 1995; Hannerz 1992; Robertson & Lechner 1985; Robertson 1992; van Binsbergen 1994a, 1997f, 1998a.

[18]     Wiredu 1996, 1998.

[19]     Sogolo 1993.

[20]     E.g. Procée 1991: 143.

[21]     Cf. Davidson 1984.

[22]     Van Binsbergen 1991, 1998b; an English version of the latter article is in press in my Intercultural encounters: African lessons for a philosophy of interculturality; provisional version available at

[23]     Cf. Baudrillard 1983; Fabian 1979; Leach 1976; Shadid 1993.

[24]     Barth 1969; Govers & Vermeulen 1997.

[25]     Cf. Sasson 1980; Frobenius 1931: 169; Roberts 1973: 30f, 147f; van Binsbergen 1981: 335; van Binsbergen 1992b: 149f, 235. Babel is mentioned once in the Qur’an (2: 96), but as a centre of magic, not of architecture nor of ethnic or linguistic diversity.


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