The top international conferences in my field of human geography have championed the decolonise cause in recent years. It has been presented as a moral imperative, rather than simply a new perspective. This is commonplace across the humanities and social sciences.
It is, as decolonise advocates argue, healthy to adopt a critical attitude to the geographical canon. It is also productive to look beyond the accepted sources of wisdom for ideas, and that may mean looking afresh at societies and individuals outside of the western tradition. But many decolonise advocates make a broader claim: that today’s geographical canon reflects a particular western outlook, falsely presented as a universal way of knowing the world. This understanding emphasises both colonialism in the modern era and inequality today as products of different systems of knowledge, rather than of prevailing social relations or political interests. But I would argue that a humanist approach to knowledge has more to offer anyone seeking to tackle inequality and differential access to the process of producing knowledge.
Knowledge or Systems of Knowledge
One of the consistent claims of decolonise advocacy is that knowledge can be western, Eurocentric, colonial or imperial. This is not just a question of highlighting a close link between knowledge and western or colonial interests. It is well established that our understanding of the world has developed through and been utilised in the service of partial, often brutal, interests. Halford Mackinder, eminent British geographer of the nineteenth century, regarded his craft as central to Victorian Britain’s colonial mission.
Rather, what is at issue is epistemology: how we decide what is true or what represents an advance on what was previously known. Do the ideas, theories and techniques that today’s social scientists have inherited constitute a universal tradition of human knowledge to be passed on, built upon and critiqued or are the ideas, theories and techniques themselves, as geographer Sarah Radcliffe argues, part of a western tradition “saturated in colonialism.” The ascendency of the latter view over the former underpins today’s demands to decolonise the curriculum.
Decolonialism or decoloniality—the philosophical outlook closely connected with decolonise advocacy—holds that diverse systems of knowledge existing in colonised societies were undermined by western conceptions of rationality, universal rights and sovereignty, beliefs that were in turn inextricably bound up with the injustices and horrors of colonialism. Decolonial theorists argue that, whilst colonialism may have ended, coloniality persists in the denial of the veracity, worth and contemporary relevance of those other knowledge systems.
Audre Lorde’s argument that “the master’s tools will never demolish the masters’ house” is sometimes invoked by decolonial thinkers to argue for the futility of basing one’s opposition to contemporary injustice upon western ideas or traditions of knowledge. Decolonial theorist Ramon Grosfoguel argues that the western conception of universal rights is part of a “western global design,” which entrenches inequalities between Europeans and non-Europeans. This is striking given that almost all liberation struggles over last 250 years have invoked this same conception of rights.
In place of Enlightenment-influenced universalism, decolonial theory proposes a pluriverse with “multiple ontologies” or “different realities” that “bring themselves into being and sustain themselves even as they interact, interfere and mingle with each other” under asymmetrical circumstances. These different realities can be known and understood in different ways, through culturally and historically specific epistemologies. The philosophical question Is there but one world or are there many? is answered clearly here: many.
It is important to distinguish between a plurality of ideas, influences and cultures and a pluriverse of ways of knowing or of realities. The former is uncontentious—openness to ideas from other societies is progressive. Cities and ports have played an important role in the mixing of cultures and ideas, and have often been the drivers of scientific and social advances. Scientists have learned much from traditional practices, and have been able to systematise and apply that knowledge in other contexts. Reviewing curricula to consider including different concepts, theories and techniques is worthwhile.
But a pluriverse of ways of knowing has far greater implications, as it posits diverse systems of knowledge, linked to place and race.
Universe or Pluriverse?
Knowledge qua knowledge is not tied to place, person or context in the way decolonialism assumes: it is not the product of a pluriverse, but of a diverse universe of experience. That universe comes to be known through conversation across time and space, albeit a conversation conducted in the context of inequality. Unequal access to the conversation and creation of knowledge is a problem. But disaggregating human knowledge into knowledges, plural, fails to address it.
Human societies are defined by the capacity to act upon the world in pursuit of their ends, and to reflect upon their role in doing so. Geography—earth writing—a term first used in 300 BC by scholars in Alexandria, is part of that humanistic tradition. From Herodotus mapping the Nile in 450 BC to today’s sophisticated Geographical Information Systems, geographical knowledge has facilitated action.
How elites act is a product of their political and economic goals. But the knowledge and techniques developed provide the basis for subsequent developments in knowledge, often in quite different circumstances and to different ends. Knowledge and techniques cross boundaries—the greater the capacity for travel and trade, the greater the exchange of ideas about map making, agriculture, navigation and much else.
Fifteenth-century explorer Prince Henry the Navigator acted in the interests of the Portuguese crown and instigated the slave trade, but was also a midwife to modern science. He was intrigued by the myth of Prester John, yet he also helped debunk the myth of seamonsters. His discoveries led people to question the idea that knowledge comes from the external authority of a god. Science began to decentre mysticism and religion, a process that was consolidated during the Enlightenment. Geographical knowledge—including the knowledge that you are in no danger of sailing off the edge of the world and that sea monsters are not real—is useful to everyone, irrespective of Portugal’s leading role in the slave trade. The knowledge was discovered by a colonialist, but was not—as decolonial theory would have it—colonial knowledge.
Darwin’s Origin of Species has all the features of what decolonial theorists call western or imperial knowledge: an association with the military (The Beagle was a military ship) and the use of other societies for data gathering without their consent or involvement. The voyage was funded by the British state, who were engaged in colonial domination. Scientific voyages were closely linked with imperial ambition.
Yet Darwin’s theory established our understanding of evolution. As an explorer sponsored by the British imperialist state, who had benefited from a good education, Darwin was clearly better placed to make this breakthrough than the native inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands—he had privilege and he was white, two terms often used by decolonial activists to question the authority of truth claims. But The Origin of Species is still a groundbreaking work.
So, while it is important to study the people, societies and interests involved in the production of knowledge, is also important to see the universal potential of such knowledge, a potential downplayed by the calls to decolonise. For such activists, knowledge and even techniques are tainted by the times in which they were developed and by the individuals who developed them.
In deciding what should be taught, we should re-evaluate contributions from a variety of sources, whose involvement in the production of knowledge may have been restricted by national or racial oppression, poverty and lack of access to resources. However, this does not imply a pluriverse of systems of knowledge.
Defending the Enlightenment Legacy
Decolonialism involves a misreading of the Enlightenment view of human knowledge. Many Enlightenment thinkers articulated ideas that were revolutionary in two ways: they viewed humanity as central—reason and scientific understanding were replacing religious and mystical views of the world; and they advocated natural, universal rights to freedom from subjection by others.
However, these ideas emerged within a world of interests, prejudices and limitations. Those thinkers pointed to the possibility and desirability of human equality and freedom—in a world that was neither free nor equal and far from becoming so.
The American Declaration of Independence (1776) states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Like the French Revolution’s 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, these words were drafted by people complicit in slavery.
Yet they also elucidate a rational and moral basis for equality, which has inspired struggles for equality ever since. In his famous “I have a dream” speech of 1963, Martin Luther King called the Declaration a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir”: “This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The geographical knowledge that was harnessed and sometimes even developed to oppress also provides the basis for postcolonial governments to progress. Cartography developed in the imperialist west. It was used to chart bombing missions during the Vietnam War. Yet modern Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and advances in agricultural science are utilised today to enable a sovereign Vietnam to look to a better future.
The Declarations were both of a time and place and transcendent of that time and place. This is also true of sound geographical knowledge. We should judge its worth by its ability to help us understand and act upon the world today.
Theories should be judged on their capacity to explain and predict, concepts on their ability to illuminate, and techniques on their efficacy. That they should be judged on the basis of the identity of their originators or the circumstances of their origins undermines the pursuit of truth as a universal, human project.
The idea that the knowledge and rights associated with the west cannot form the basis of the liberation of the non-west is untrue. The anti-colonial and anti-racist movements of the past explicitly drew on the philosophy of the western Enlightenment.
Decolonialism and Liberation
Presenting decolonialism as a moral and political imperative linked to liberation leaves little room for alternatives which become, a priori, immoral and contrary to liberation. In its advocacy of a pluriverse of systems of knowledge, there is one knowledge claim that is eschewed—the claim that knowledge from any source can be universal.
South African academic Brenda Wingfield has argued that: “What’s really important is that South African teachers, lecturers and professors must develop curricula that build on the best knowledge skills, values, beliefs and habits from around the world.” She fears that the rhetoric of decolonise will isolate South Africa from cutting edge science and reduce South African scholars’ access to the most advanced knowledge whatever its source—knowledge they could utilise to address local issues. Decolonising knowledge could hinder liberation from poverty and more equal involvement in the global production of knowledge about our shared world.
The best geographical knowledge and techniques should be available to everyone. In judging which are the best, origin and context are secondary considerations.
Academics and universities could certainly more effectively challenge the marginalisation of parts of the world in the production of geographical knowledge. There is plenty that could be done: truly reciprocal academic exchanges, funded by western universities (who can better afford this); more joint attempts to solve problems facing southern governments; increased funding for twinning with under resourced universities in the south; an unconditional undertaking to share knowledge, training and resources with academics in the south.
We should prioritise the relationship between knowledge and resources from the best universities in the world (wherever they are located) and the sovereignty of the south.
None of this necessitates the decolonisation of geographical knowledge. Instead, it requires us to think afresh about the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality and about how geographical knowledge can help us understand and improve our common world.