Can Non-Europeans Think? by Hamid Dabashi

Hardcover, 344 pages
Publisher: Zed Books (April 2015)
Language: English
Selected by Tank

In his latest book, Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, asks what happens to thinkers who operate outside the European philosophical pedigree. Dabashi argues in this powerful polemic that they are invariably marginalised, patronised and misrepresented. Challenging, pugnacious and stylish, Can Non-Europeans Think? forges a new perspective in postcolonial theory by examining how intellectual debate continues to reinforce a colonial regime of knowledge, albeit in a new guise. 

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Can Europeans Read?

“Fuck you, Walter Mignolo!” With those grandiloquent words and the gesture they must have occasioned and accompanied, the distinguished and renowned European philosopher Slavoj Žižek begins his response to a piece that Walter Mignolo wrote in conversation with my essay “Can Non-Europeans Think?” Žižek is quite eloquent and habitually verbose: “Okay, fuck you, who are these bloody much more interesting intellectuals…? Let’s say I was not overly impressed.”

What was the reason, you might wonder, for the eminent European philosopher’s outburst: why so intemperate a reaction? What had Walter Mignolo said to deserve such precise elocutions from a leading European thinker? 

A simple question

In January 2013 I published on the Al Jazeera website the playfully titled essay “Can Non-Europeans Think?” The essay soon emerged as one of the most popular pieces I have written in my academic career. It went viral on the internet, to the degree that a polemical essay on philosophical thinking can go viral. It received more hits than anything I had ever written on that website. It had touched a nerve and people began to read and reflect on it far beyond my own limited reach or expectation when I wrote it. That piece is now the title of this book, which points to a mode of thinking I have marked as beyond the limits of the condition called “postcoloniality”. This book comes together, in effect, as a declaration of independence, not just from the condition of postcoloniality, but from the limited and now exhausted epistemics it had historically occasioned. Here you will perhaps have detected a cautious searching for the paths ahead, for a condition and urgency of thinking beyond coloniality, beyond postcoloniality, and thus above all beyond the explicit or implicit presence of a European interlocutor looking over our shoulder as we write. 

And there precisely was the rub! Soon after the publication of my essay, Santiago Zabala, a research professor of philosophy at the University of Barcelona, responded to it. He did so in the belief that I had written it in response to a piece of his and thus felt obligated to reciprocate. This response to my essay, though quite welcome, seemed a bit odd to me, for I had not written it in response to his, but rather had just used something he had written earlier as a hook on which to hang my argument. He appeared to have taken offense at my essay, thought I was accusing him (and by extension other European philosophers) of Eurocentricism, and in turn took the fact that I had mentioned the eminent Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci as an indication that I was completely out to lunch, accusing him of something with which I was myself afflicted! It was a very bizarre response indeed to a charge I had never made. In general I find the charge of Eurocentricism punishingly boring, have no interest in the inflated argument, and consider the entire diction of Zabala’s piece rather juvenile, akin to the schoolyard pissing contest I had left behind in my high school back in Iran decades ago. 

  • Can Non-Europeans Think?