Philosophy’s Troubled History and the Calls to Decolonize

Being critical of one’s world has never not been a necessary prerequisite for the possibility of any kind of freedom. Time worn mantras and accepted wisdoms of the day are the mental lubricant that facilitate the perpetuation of a barbaric order. While we reassure ourselves that this is the best of all possible worlds the daily utilization of fellow human beings as objects on behalf of the powerful is disrupted only by lethal calamities of ever increasing magnitude.

However, contrary to the narratives produced by a self-justifying culture industry, the resistance and subversion of the brutality of material interests that occurs at all levels of society is skewed towards the bottom. All the witty politicians and snarky intellectuals, whose every defiant utterance sends the national media apparatus into a frenzy, are in reality more complicit in the monstrosities they criticize than the supposedly manipulable masses of ordinary people. In prisons, reservations, colonias, workplaces and homes, any given moment sees the totality of the struggles and dynamics that sustain an international order of pillage, toil, and unequal distribution played out at a microcosmic level. When the atoms of this gargantuan organism balk and skitter, a new form of world is produced—when talking heads and intellectuals balk and skitter someone on Twitter gets offended.

Nevertheless, historically it is the exceptionally intellectual domain of Philosophy that portends critical knowledge of “The Good Life.” Through intensive meditation and experimentation, we are told, one may arrive at a deeper understanding of one’s situation in the universe and thereby work out a method for a virtuous and ethical practice of living. And yet, all is not well in the house of Philosophy. On the one hand, with the rise of industrial and informational society, the infinite proliferation of philosophies has spread the word so thin as to be completely devoid of content. Listicles and “innovator” talk produce more “philosophies” of this, that, and the other, than one can keep count of. What becomes of the “love of knowledge” in a society in which information is as useless and ubiquitous as pennies?

On the other hand, more profoundly, the centuries long struggle of the peoples colonized, marginalized, silenced, and exploited by history’s gruesome victors has chipped away at the cement of untruth to reveal a deeper flaw in Philosophy’s claim to exclusive knowledge of The Good Life. Namely, that The Good Life espoused by so many legions of Anglo-European men is founded on, and sustains, a barbarism of a more irrational, cruel, and global magnitude than the supposed savagery of the “uncivilized.”

Plato, for instance, stood atop the mountain of ancient slavery as he wrote lectures about morals. Descartes, after serving in the Dutch States Army, would go on to formulate a mathematical physical system that played its part in the european military revolution before meditating on the properties of a piece of wax. Kant helped articulate the theories of race used to justify the genocide and colonization of Africa and the Americas, as he parsed out the difference between the sublime and the beautiful. Hegel praised the conquests of Napoleon as the “World Spirit” on horseback and theorized Europe to be the temporal completion of history as he contemplated art. John Locke, himself economically imbricated in the slave trade, crafted the theories used by the United States to justify a slave master’s absolute right of life and death over his slaves, as he philosophized about the meaning of the universe. The list goes on. In all cases, however, Philosophy as we know it has not only been complicit with dominating power but the same wise sages who espouse the good life also ensure that none—save their own ethno-social milieu—shall live to realize it.

Such is the perspective that has driven and resulted from decolonization efforts across the world. From the choice of the Incan Emperor Atahualpa to throw the conquistador Pizarro’s Bible in the dirt, to the Haitian slave revolution, to the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, the struggle of indigenous Americans to resist the invasions and destruction wrought by Europe and its “Good Life,” has produced the possibility of more holistic knowledges—knowledges rid of the epistemological fetishes produced and perpetuated by colonization. So, in what state does such devastating reversal of the supposed foundation of Philosophy even leave it in?

This is an open and developing question—one that has been opened up and developed recently by an emerging body of thought from Latin America that seeks to read History against the Euro-centric grain of a colonized time and space. Instead of beginning with the erroneous foundation myths of the world of Europe, which upon consideration have been revealed to be drenched in blood and bad faith, Decolonial theory opts to begin with the complex and violent reality of colonization and its lingering effects on how subjects in the Americas and beyond think about themselves and others. Colonization did not erase an old world, nor did it create a new one—instead, we are left with the incomplete pieces of both, and the question of what to do with them.    

Join philosophers María del Rosario Acosta López, Omar Rivera, Lori Gallegos, and Eduardo Mendieta from across the Americas on Friday September 1st at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio for the conference “Decolonizing Philosophy: Latinx and Latin American Perspectives.” The conference will consist of three presentations on the topics of decolonizing time, space, and dialogue, and will conclude with a keynote by professor Eduardo Mendieta on the critical geographies of reason. Both those new to the idea of decolonial philosophy, as well as those more familiar, are invited to attend this free event. For more information, contact Colin McQuillan, Ph.D., at

Cover Image, “Escuela Primaria Rebelde Autonoma Zapatista” is licensed under CC by 2.0