Epistemology through Swahili novels: From “philosophies of origins” to “writing the future”

Key information

3:30 PM to 5:00 PM
Russell Square: College Buildings

About this event

Dr Alena Rettová

The Tanzanian writer and philosopher Euphrase Kezilahabi said that the African writer must "take a destructive rather than a deconstructive stand vis-à-vis the Western philosophy of value and representation", a philosophy at the heart of which he identifies the "tragic epistemology of Western man" informed by "the categories of Subject/Object". Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet and first president of the independent Senegal, also saw epistemology at the core of the difference between the West and Africa, a distinction he correlated with that between white and black skin colour. To Senghor, Western epistemology is based on distance and separation while African knowledge rests on embodiment: knowledge is a bodily experience of identity between the knower and the known.

Epistemology remains at the centre of the African philosophy debate. It is also the axis around which theories of identity and emancipation elaborated in postcolonial studies  revolve. In these debates little attention has been given to the potential contribution of discourses outside the scope of visibility of these theoretical disciplines, such as those found in literatures in African languages. This talk addresses this omission and outlines perspectives on this debate which are present in novels in African languages. Swahili novels, for example, offer an array of epistemological positions, from an endorsement of Western science and its underlying positivist epistemology in the writings of the founding father of the Swahili novel, Shaaban Robert, via challenges to the subject-object dichotomy in an epistemology of indeterminacy and/or complementarity, to projections of a redemptive, emancipatory epistemology that collapse the subject-object dichotomy and refute the view of literature as representation.