The TRUE AFRICA 100 is our list of innovators, opinion-formers, game-changers, pioneers, dreamers and mavericks who we feel are shaping the Africa of today.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a Senegalese philosopher. He has studied at l’École Normale Supérieure, l’Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Harvard University and is currently a professor at Columbia University. He previously taught in the humanities department at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar for 20 years. Professor Diagne was an advisor for education and culture for Senegal from 1993 to 1999.
Professor Diagne is on numerous boards related to the social sciences and mathematics. He is the co-director of Éthiopiques, a Senegalese literature and philosophy journal, and on the editorial board of Revue d’Histoire des Mathématiques published by the Mathematical Society of France, Présence Africaine and more. He has written numerous books such as La fidélité et le mouvement dans la pensée de Muhammad Iqbal (2001) and Léopold Sédar Senghor. L’Art africain comme philosophie (2007).
As a Senegalese intellectual who was educated in France and is now living and teaching in New York, how do you feel one can we learn from others?
In order to learn from others one has to learn to ‘de-centre’ oneself. The only way that one can learn from someone else is to put forward differences that, in some respect, are inhabited. Let me give you an example related to languages. I speak several languages, which means that not only do I have the skill to move from one language to another but somehow I also have the capacity to de-centre myself. This is by looking at my native language, which could be Wolof, or even French and changing perspectives.
What does it mean that we consider our world to be the post-colonial-world?
The capacity to move from one language to another is what I call the capacity to de-centre oneself. And because one has the ability to look at one’s language from the standpoint of a different language, one learns to listen to other people and learn from them. Therefore, moving between languages and living between languages is very important in the process of learning from others.
Learning from others is a very important question nowadays. Let’s take the situation of the world as it is, which is what we call the post-colonial world. What does it mean that we consider our world to be the post-colonial-world? It means that learning doesn’t come from one single culture or language. One easy way to characterise this is to say that you have, in a colonial situation, a kind of imperial language which is supposed to be the language of learning and of truth, and so on. And so everyone has to learn that one language.
Learning becomes a radical symmetrical situation, provided one is able to step out of their comfort zone.
In a post-colonial world, however, you have total equivalence of languages and this is the situation in which one can learn from everything and everyone. In other words, learning becomes a radical symmetrical situation, provided one is able to step out of their comfort zone, of their own understanding and perspective on the world, in order to embrace a different one. It means that one understands what it means for a language to be just one among others. Hopefully, having such an attitude, adopting such a posture, in this situation of learning from others, teaches us some fundamental truth about the time we’re living in; which is what it means to live in the age of globalisation.
How do the current waves of terrorism actually relate to Islam?
Islam is a rich spiritual and intellectual tradition, which is why it is important, today, to emphasise the history and philosophy of Islam. Islam is a religion that has historical depth and it is important to state that the religion of Islam is not what is currently being described on television and on the radio.
Who’s your African of the year?
If I look at my own field, I will think of a philosopher, for obvious reasons and I immediately think of the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu. I think he is very important because he really put African philosophy on the map. He edited A Companion to African Philosophy, and he did a great job.
It wasn’t just about putting together important work but having people network.
Wiredu created a space where African philosophers in the diaspora and mainly in the United States got together and put together this guide. It wasn’t just about putting together important work but having people network. He created in the US what is the equivalent of Présence Africaine had created in Paris after World War II.
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