News & Politics

London College Students Fight to Remove 'White Ideas' From Philosophy

Image via Shutterstock, the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Students at a college in London reportedly called for the removal of white philosophers from the study of philosophy. The students responded that they never wanted to remove white philosophers from the curriculum, but only aimed to “decolonize” the school and fight central ideas in Western philosophy.

“We are launching a campaign to examine this and we hope to host a series of events looking at how we can establish a ‘decolonised university,'” the student union at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) announced on its website. “Decolonising SOAS will be in collaboration with UCL’s Why Is My Curriculum White Campaign which garnered national press for its examination of UCL’s ‘Pale, Male and Stale’ curricula.”

On Sunday, Britain’s Daily Mail reported that “students at a University of London college are demanding that such seminal figures as Plato, Descartes, Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell should be largely dropped from the curriculum simply because they are white.” The Daily Mail reached out to Ali Habib, a member on the SOAS governing board of trustees, but he declined to comment.

The organization “Decolonising Our Minds” attacked the paper for harassing Habib, and denounced the report as utterly false. “Reporters from The Daily Mail went to Ali’s house, harassing family members on his position on ‘Decolonising the curriculum,'” the organization wrote in a statement. “This behaviour embodies an abhorrent journalistic ethic, whereby students of colour with a particular politics, are targeted by the press.”

So asking for a comment now constitutes harassment? But it gets better. “The article written regarding the ‘Decolonising SOAS’ campaign written by The Daily Mail misconstrues key tenets of the campaign,” Decolonising Our Minds added. “There are no references to ‘dropping white philosophers’ in the educational priorities of the SOAS Students’ Union or in the campaign aims. We are unsure where The Daily Mail received this information. Lazy journalism can have disastrous consequences for students of colour.”

It is true that the SOAS student union never mentioned Plato, Descartes, Kant, or Russell. But the students laid out two goals for philosophy, one of which hinted at their desire to remove all white philosophers from the curriculum:

To make sure that the majority of the philosophers on our courses are from the Global South or it’s [sic] diaspora. SOAS’s focus is on Asia and Africa and therefore the foundations of its theories should be presented by Asian or African philosophers (or the diaspora).

If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint. For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so called “Enlightenment” philosophers wrote within.

This grudging language — “if white philosophers are required” — suggested that, if the student union had its way, no white philosopher would be required for study. Hence the Daily Mail‘s coverage. Perhaps the paper should not have reported on the student union’s demands as if they explicitly called for the rejection of white philosophers, but this conclusion is far from “lazy journalism.”

Perhaps more egregious, however, was the student union’s underlying complaint against Western philosophy. These anti-colonial activists don’t just want to critique, minimize, or reject specific “white” philosophers — they want to reject the basic ideas undergirding the study of truth laid out in the grand tradition of philosophy.

“One of the key aspects of this campaign is for us to examine the ways in which Western philosophy puts a specific conception of Man at the centre,” the student union explained. “This enables the myth of ‘universal truth’ as being a body of knowledge that has dictated the current colonial structure of the world we live in today. The campaign will be looking at ways SOAS as an institution can incorporate other forms of knowing and grant the same credence to metaphysical and transcendental systems of knowledge from the Global South as it does to systems of knowledge that have emerged from Western Europe.”

Yes, the SOAS student union rejected even “the myth of ‘universal truth.'” The difficulty with doing this — even in the name of pursuing other philosophical systems from the Global South — is that if there is no universal truth which people from other countries can agree upon, then there is nothing one system can teach another.

The nut and kernel of Western philosophy isn’t that the great thinkers were white — that is, literally, racist — but rather that human beings (regardless of race) are rational, political animals, as Aristotle taught. That means it is possible for people to discuss ideas rationally, and come to an agreement — or at least, an understanding of their differences.

If there is no “universal truth” for people to mutually discuss and discover, no rational basis to expect human beings can discover an absolute reality, then philosophy is rather meaningless. It all becomes an exercise in power — convincing people to think the way you do.

This actually is a philosophical position, advanced by deconstructionist thinkers like Jacques Derrida. The difficulty is, if you accept this position, your preference for philosophical systems from the Global South is nothing more than a desire for the Global South to rule over the minds of others. This is just as bigoted and indefensible as the alleged colonialism these activists wish to oppose. They replace one irrational domination for another.

“This suggests ignorance and determination not to overcome that ignorance,” philosopher and English knight Sir Roger Scruton told the Daily Mail. “You can’t rule out a whole area of intellectual endeavour without having investigated it and clearly they haven’t investigated what they mean by white philosophy. If they think there is a colonial context from which Kan’t Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.”

The vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, Sir Anthony Seldon, also attacked the SOAS student union. “There is a real danger political correctness is getting out of control,” Seldon told the Daily Mail. “We need to understand the world as it was and not to rewrite history as some might like it to have been.”

Even the head of SOAS’s Religions and Philosophies department, Erica Hunter, attacked the union’s viewpoint as “rather ridiculous.” Hunter told the Daily Mail, “I would firmly resist dropping philosophers or historians just because it was fashionable.”

This is far from the first time social justice warrior (SJW) activists have advocated for the removal of “white” education. In April 2016, Stanford University students rejected a petition to require the study of Western Civilization. Last June, students at Yale sent a petition to the English department requesting the removal of two required courses on the “Major English Poets.” In October, a student in South Africa actually called for the rejection of science in favor of “black magic” and “witchcraft.”

It may be noble and right to oppose colonialism — the imposition of control on other peoples. But rejecting the great ideas of Western philosophy, literature, and even science, for whatever reason, is to accept a new kind of fashionable ignorance. Thinkers outside of Western Europe are also worthy of study, but in order to listen to each other and come to agreement on the nature of ultimate reality, thinkers must accept the idea of universal truth, an idea established by Western philosophy.

The argument is not that European or Western philosophers are better than other philosophers because of their race. Indeed, most philosophers are in the Western tradition because it was that very tradition that invented philosophy. Accepting that tradition — and building upon it, whatever your race — is not racist, but intelligent.