April 11, 2024

Coloniality, original sin, and progress

 While rather abstract and far-reaching, coloniality as a concept has historical predecessors within both western and non-western thought. There is something about how different human civilizations in different eras in their encounter with "others" along their borders were chauvinistic, violent, disruptive, and disastrously wasteful of human capital and human potential. The will to power of a particular civilization is experienced at its borders as the imposition of unjust and arbitrary punishments.

To myself as a thinker in 2024 examining and reading the works of decolonial philosophers, and looking at the ethical motivations held in common by these thinkers, I think that the terms "coloniality" and "coloniality of being" -the idea that the legacies of Euro-colonialism remain embedded in our consciousness after the end of formal colonialism- were an attempt to puncture liberal western triumphalism by analyzing western history with a repurposed theological concept of "original sin". This brief essay seeks to examine some of the contradictions of that move and the ideas generated by it.

The decolonial philosopher Anibal Quijano coined the concept of coloniality to analyze the postcolonial legacy of western European colonial expansion. As an idea, it sits uneasily between conservative and religious ideas of tradition and the secular idea of progress and universal history, a reflection of the educational background of its most active proponents who were all steeped in western theological and philosophical thought. The decolonial philosophers contribution to the western discourse of universal history took the form of a critique that is also a synthesis of religious and secular ideas. The emergence of the term "coloniality," and its resonance in secular spaces like the academic humanities, show the resilience of the religious idea of original sin, its transformation by a philosophical school of thought into a secular vision of progress, and the contradictions generated thereby.

With coloniality, original sin ceases being universal and becomes the turning back of claims to universalism into a form of negative particularity historically anchored in the last half millenia of human history. Let me "steel man" the critique they make. Whether one agrees with the decolonial scholars or not, it seems vital not to mistake western civilizational hubris and claims of progress for having really transcended essential human nature, notwithstanding the virtues of the refinements in rationality made by western thinkers. Artists of all kind have well portrayed certain types and dilemmas illustrating the folly and hubris of western man in the grip of his illusion of self-mastery through rationality and progress. It is vitally necessary to also recognize the fallenness and baseness of human motivations in the global expansions of peoples at the western end of the Eurasian peninsula since 1492, instead of merely celebrating them as an instantiation of universal human progress. European colonialism might be thought as the expression and legacy of human fallenness, a desire supercharged into a possibility by a punctuated acceleration in different kinds of technological and material progress of that world region.

If coloniality really does pervade our very being down to its core, this yields a rather pessimistic vision of the possibility of progress, more akin to a conservative religious view of humanity's baseness/fallenness/'at a loss'-ness.
One way the decolonial philosophers reassert a positive and progressive worldview, or some kind of redemption from the prison of coloniality, is through the promise of undoing coloniality through decolonial thought. If our essential natures as humans globally are overwhelmingly shaped by western contexts and ideas mostly of recent provenance (last 500 years), then these can be undone by contesting and challenging these ideas.

Many critiques have been launched against these ideas, particularly the misguided focus on Descartes as the epistemological key to western thought. Here I want to note that the whole theory is beset by unresolved questions resulting from the uneasy merging of conservative and progressive ideals. Simplified from the often high-flowing rhetoric of the theorists, this contradiction is evident in the progressive vision of decolonial theory: that human redemption lies in (contradictorily) undoing the epistemic legacy of the last 500 years. Two questions emerge: about the desirability and the possibility of such an undoing.

First to possibility: I do not think the particular version of coloniality in decolonial theory, nor its proposed philosophical remedies are in the last instance plausible, not least because they exaggerate the influence of philosophers in changing the masses. It is simply not possible to undo the epistemic legacy of such a long period of history, no matter how many thought reforms one engages in. Moreover there is something more permanent in our nature that is older than 500 years. If one abandons a sort of modernist/recency bias, it is evident that large parts of our nature (perhaps more?) have been shaped by not only human-created ideologies pre-1500, but also (still poorly understood) pre-linguistic patterns of behavior as a species in interaction with our early environments. These influences shaped the very structure of our brain and body. Many of our most essential contradictions of conscious existence as humans are grounded in these dynamics which it is not possibly to disavow at the level of concept or epistemology.

To desirability: We ought to preserve the essential pessimism and sense of tragedy inherent in coloniality's critical analysis, which contains a form of wisdom linked to the older idea of "original sin", regardless if we accept the underlying history or cosmology behind that older idea. I cannot help but note that our understanding of human behavior patterns in the above areas have been advanced due to the influence of science; it is not desirable to,undo the western contribution to what is now an epistemic legacy of every human society. Human civilization cannot really afford to part with the material and technical tools of western science and the insights they have garnered into the self and the species. To imagine one can do so is the naive and dangerous side of a romanticism, the "anti-progress" dogma opposed to the dogmas of universalism and progress. There is more than a little elitism in the idea. Knowledge of self for the philosopher requires one to maintain an aloofness from either extreme. We do not need a rather neologistic terminological invention, coloniality, to remain aloof from the baseness and status games of western academia. I think the ideas of "original sin" or "creaturely fallenness" or just some basic recognition of human fallibility, baseness, and selfishness are all more vital concepts for philosophy and social change, than coloniality.


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