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(Un)blocking the way to the discussion table

‘Tracing the metanarrative of colonialism and its legacy’ is one of the shortest and sharpest chapters in Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations. Teri Merrick, a professor of philosophy at Azusa Pacific University, argues that Kant and Hegel’s version of how we know things sets up Western modern science as the arbitrator of truth. She writes, ‘This places an undue burden of proof on non-European indigenous peoples to prove that their perceptions and judgements must be considered when attempting to forge a consensus on issues of joint concern’ (loc 1635). Here’s a great quote:

As [Robert] Brandom explains, holding others accountable to normative principles for ascribing objective validity to perceptions and assertions is tantamount to recognizing them as fellow rational beings: “Taking something to be subject to appraisals for its reasons, holding it rationally responsible is treating it as someone: as one of us (rational beings).” Miranda Fricker, in her groundbreaking work on epistemic injustice, also argues that routinely failing to take people’s testimony seriously or failing to see them as possible purveyors of objective knowledge is treating them as less than fully human: “To be wronged in one’s capacity as a knower is to be wronged in a capacity essential to human value.”

The problem is that the conditions that Kant and Hegel establish for recognizing individuals and peoples as would-be objective knowers practically guarantee that only “scientifically minded,” white, male, Christian Europeans will be treated as one of us. (loc 1679)

The Kant-Hegel metanarrative is a promising story on one level: it contains a ‘public scrutiny test’ which suggests that ‘pursuing objectivity is an inherently social practice’. All kinds of people can participate in knowledge-making, can’t they? But Merrick reveals this story as one which has barred others’ presence from the discussion table — and contradicted its own standard in the process. ‘Clearly, Kant and Hegel never checked to see if their reasoning about women and non-European peoples was considered valid by those people’ (loc 1865).

Is the story fatally flawed? It has certainly been used — by us — to socially lethal effect.

More than merely striving for our own epistemic humility, we need to work towards epistemic justice, to be people of an open table.

Categories: History Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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