Transcript: 26. Kai Kresse on the Anthropology of Philosophy

An interview with Kai Kresse (pictured here with Ustadh Mahmoud Mau) who discusses his efforts to do "anthropology of philosophy" on the Swahili Coast.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts. 

PA: One of the publications that we've actually been drawing on in our podcast series is called Philosophizing in Mombasa, which is a book you wrote a few years ago. And in that book you present yourself as pursuing something you call anthropology of philosophy. So since that's your kind of title for what you do, I was wondering whether you could explain what you mean by the phrase. 

KK: Yeah, sure. Thank you. Yeah, so the idea is that if anthropology is the discipline that studies sort of human beings and human nature all around the world, there is something to be said for the case that actually philosophy deserves a particular specific sort of subfield. So if we imagine that philosophy is actually a socially embedded activity of reflection and seeking of intellectual orientation, or orientation generally about the fundamentals of our thinking, knowing and doing, then this is a socially embedded activity that happens all over the world. And we can imagine it happening in all different kinds of cultures and societies. And so in that sense, it is worthwhile for anthropology to cover this, you know, this distinct subfield of human activity and fundamental concern, you know, with a field in its own right. That was the idea. So it's distinct from an anthropology of religion or politics. It's not subsumable to these other existing fields. So in that sense, I was there making an argument for this particular subfield deserving an anthropological focus in its own right.

PA: The idea then would be that just as you could go into any culture and look at, say, their trading practices or the way their families are structured or their religious practices, so you could look at their philosophical practices and do anthropology based on that. 

KK: Not very simply, yes, but of course, in actuality is a lot more complicated and complex because we would have to be able to identify those practices as philosophical and as philosophy. And that is, of course, a difficulty which we can only, you know, overcome by knowing very much many details about the actual social dynamics, interrelations and histories of these people and regions that we are then seeking to talk about. So it's in some sense also a huge challenge to identify philosophy elsewhere where it's very different. So I'm not assuming a likeness or easy similarity across cultures, but I thought that this working definition that I quoted, this fundamental orientation about what one is thinking, knowing and doing is sort of a human concern that we will find everywhere. And we will find them, you know, philosophical discourse or the provision of orientation through reflexive thinking and expression expressed in very, very different ways, not only different languages, but different genres and so on. 

PA: Something else you've said about your own work is that it's been inspired by the Sage Philosophy project of Henry Odera Oruka, which we just looked at in the previous episode. What did you take over from his approach and how does your approach differ from his? I mean, so for example, you were just talking in terms of everybody, like all humans doing philosophy, which sounds sort of like the premise behind the ethno-philosophy research that he criticized. Do you take over his contrast between folk philosophy, which is what ethno-philosophy really studies and Sage philosophy, which is the study of the thoughts and ideas and sayings of particularly wise individuals in the community? 

KK: Yes. I was quite inspired by Oruka's approach. And I, as a young philosophy student back then, I also initially very much agreed with his critique of ethno-philosophy and his insistence also in response to the, you know, also the prejudice of Europeans that Africa would not be able to produce its own philosophers to show that there are, there may be indeed be individual critical thinkers also within the, you know, what we call traditional context or sort of historical, culturally African context that we will find individual critical thinkers there too. So this distinction between the philosophical sages, which for Oruka are these individual critical thinkers who have the additional capacity for him to also criticize the fundamentals of their communal sort of framework of the world and showing of the worldview within which they think and the folk sages who are rather, who are not the critical thinkers, but who are able in kind of reproducing these wisdoms that hold community together and so on. So I actually find this, I find this pairing initially quite useful to think with, although as many critics also have noted and rightfully so, the division in fact then becomes very blurred and it's sort of a, it's a gray field. But I think the gist of Oruka's argument still is a very important one to say, look here, these philosophical sages, there are these individual thinkers, knowledgeable people who provide orientations for others who do something else and something more than producing the iteration of folk wisdoms that has its own merits, but that there is still something else there to be said for this particular group of critics. 

PA: Yeah, I think my way of thinking about it is maybe that folk philosophy and sage philosophy might be two ends of a continuum, so if you have folk philosophy such that you might even go and ask some kids what they've been taught by their parents and their grandparents and they might quote some proverbs to you that they haven't thought about reflectively or critically at all, they just kind of repeat it, but you can think about those proverbs and think, oh, actually that's really insightful, that's really interesting. So if that's folk philosophy, that's the folk philosophy end, and then all the way at the other end, you have the handful of men and women who might be respected as the wisest members of their own communities by other community members, and then those are the two ends of a spectrum and other kinds of philosophical insight might fall somewhere between. 

KK: Yes, I agree. I think that makes a lot of sense to think about it that way also. 

PA: Okay, well, let's talk more concretely about some of the fieldwork you've actually done since you're an anthropologist, not just a philosopher who sits around in armchairs like me. A lot of the fieldwork you've done has been on the Swahili coast of Africa, or maybe all the fieldwork you've done. So can you briefly introduce the region to our listeners and just say something about the research that you've done there? 

PA: Yes. So the Swahili coast is the East African coast from basically southern Somalia to the northern Mozambique, so mainly also the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania. It's been part of Indian Ocean trade connections for millennia. And so it's been very well connected to the Arab Gulf and Western India, and also connected to wider spheres of the Mediterranean and China, so in the early Middle Ages already. And it's been historically a Muslim area from the Islam arrived there around the eighth century and the port towns, the trading towns became Muslim between the 10th and 12th century. And so the region is also characterized by these, if you like, one could say cosmopolitan interactions and very much being part of a wider world that is also reflected in the language Swahili that has integrated a lot of vocabulary, particularly from Arabic, but also then from a whole range of other languages that people were, speakers were in contact with historically, including then the colonial languages of English and German.

PA: Swahili is originally a Bantu language, is that right?

KK: It is, exactly. It is a Bantu language and that is also clearly visible through the grammatical structure and the noun classes and all of that. So it's just, it's been appropriating a lot of vocabulary, but remains a clearly distinct Bantu language. And we should also say that verbal art there has been very important throughout and poetry, a whole variety of genres of poetry and in written as well as oral forms. So this sort of the composition of poetry in written form, but the recital and the sort of public recitals or semi-public recitals and listening processes then remain very important. So that is also interesting. And these sort of poetical commentaries on society accompany basically the historical course, whether it's rivalries between coastal towns who are fighting with each other and certain poets making claims and attacks vis-a-vis each other and responding to each other. So we find practical genres and practical discourse also prominent regarding various aspects of society and people's occupation. 

PA: And one of the phenomena you observed there and talk about in your work is the Baraza culture, where men from the community sit around on benches, I guess, in the streets in front of their houses. And then they have discussions about politics, religion and philosophy. I guess that's the basic idea I took from your description of it, but you can probably describe it better than I can and say why it's interesting and important. 

KK: Yes, for me as an anthropologist who then lived there for a year and who was curious and interested in debates and discussions because that's where the exchange of argument happens, I quite quickly came across these meeting points in the streets in my neighbourhood and elsewhere across where basically groups of neighbours and friends would assemble usually after late afternoon or evening prayers for chats, for exchange of news, but also for discussions. These could sometimes become quite elaborate, technical, fundamental, quite agitated, but also quite intellectual. And so this was for me also an insight into, in a way, the recognition of the social dimensions of knowledge exchange in practice in everyday life. So in a way, one could say these discussions are social performances of the negotiation of knowledge. And within these groups, then we can observe also a kind of peer recognition of those thinkers who are particularly creative and original in their contributions, pinning something down through the kind of comments they give or being particularly witty. And they are regarded and recognized as wise by their peers also through the kind of takes of conversation that we can then follow. And I was allowed and able to, you know, to sit in and listen in, in some of these barazas as part of my field work. 

PA: And they actually use the word wisdom, right? So they use the word, I mean, the Arabic word is hekma, and there's a related word in Swahili, right? 

KK: Yes. Some pronounce it hekma there as well as hekima. So it depends a little bit on where one is on the Swahili coast. Yes, but there's basically a semantic field, we could say of knowledge and wisdom, hekma or busara. There's a Swahili term ujuzi, there is ilm or ilimo. So we have a range of related terms and concepts that kind of overlap and that are sort of meaningful to Swahili speakers and partly, you know, show their kind of trans-regional connection to the Arabic speaking world and so on, or to the Muslim world as such also. 

PA: And how religious is that context? I mean, when they talk about things like politics or philosophical questions, like maybe knowledge, is that typically within the context of kind of theological debate? 

KK: No, that's not necessarily so at all. So these could be very much sort of secular topics or, you know, any kind of topics could pop up during a baraza and be used. And discussions could turn theological depending also on the knowledge and experience of the speakers themselves. But I think with regard to religion, what is important to keep in mind is that basically everyone there would be a Muslim and would, you know, within the framework of their worldview of the kind of Muslim upbringing that they followed in that particular region. So that would inform what they say and would sometimes also frame what they say. But that doesn't mean that discussions are religious or always religious or always have a religious tinge.

PA: Yeah, one of the figures you talk about is Sheikh Abdilahi Nassir, who I guess is a Muslim preacher. Is that right? 

KK: Yes

PA: And a point that you really bring out in your descriptions of him is the fact that he engages in what philosophers would call second order reflection, in other words, reflecting on the nature of beliefs or the nature of knowledge itself. And I have a quote here from something you wrote about him. You said that he “makes the audience think and makes the audience question some of the values and standards and self-conceptions that they would normally take for granted”. Can you say something about how he did that, first of all, and also whether you think that in a sense is what makes his practice philosophical because he's sort of jumping up to this higher level order of reflection? 

KK: Yes, thank you. Yes. So Sheikh Abdilahi Nassir was one of three people who I dedicated a chapter to in my book there. And he was like others. I was pointed to him by people in town, people in the neighbourhood, and also partly scholars who knew of him as someone particularly knowledgeable. And on the one hand, he was, as he said, an Islamic scholar, actively giving speeches, lectures and sermons. But before he had been in the late 1950s, he'd actually been a local politician who had campaigned for coastal independence for a post-independent Kenya, separate independence of the coast. But he had also had a career as an editor and publisher with Oxford University Press and East Africa and later with his own publishing house. Yes, but his way of delivering lectures, speeches was very much marked and characterized by this motive of questioning things, assumptions that people would be taking for granted. And he was in that sense, very much sort of an opposite or contrasting examples to what one would commonly hear delivered by religious lecturers, often quite ideological or very insistent and sometimes slightly sort of dogmatic lectures that would teach something to the others. Whereas here we would have this jesters of an invitation towards the audience to think through certain issues. And he was responding to requests by the audience, for instance, to know more about debates at the time about a new constitution for Kenya and how Muslims would or should or could be integrated in that or the global politics scenario and the role of Saddam Hussein in the first Iraq war. So also some background lectures, but some themes where his sort of knowledge, but also his reflexive capacity would make his audience think more and further about underlying questions that would also be relevant or that he could show to be relevant. 

PA: Yeah, I have to say it does sound a lot like what a philosophy teacher does at a university, probing what the audience and in a university's case, the students think and then challenging their basis on which they think these things and getting them to, I mean, not necessarily insisting that they give up on their beliefs, but probing into them to get them to think about why they believe what they believe.

KK: Exactly. So there was certainly this sort of Socratic moment of questioning and thinking further, maybe in some ways it also reminded me of Kant's expression of the Weltbegriff of philosophy, of this worldly conception that there is wisdom used to think about of what is of necessary interest to everyone. So trying to lead questioning processes to these two sort of big questions of that kind.

PA: And did you have the impression that this was actually having an effect on the audience? I mean, did you have a chance to talk to people about the lectures afterwards and get a sense of how it impacted them? 

KK: Yes. And this was, it was very much appreciated also in a way, this kind of the sober tone he spoke with. Interestingly though, another component came into it because partly his speeches were then also seen by one could say religious opponents because at the same time, Sheikh Abdul-Ainasa was also a figurehead for the Shia convert group of local Muslims. So actually the teachers of the opponent Sunni groups were warning their, how should we say, their community members not to attend these talks because they would be tempted and they would be sort of sweet talked into something else. So they saw this, also the capacity of speaking well by this Sheikh as a kind of danger to their own constituency. 

PA: So far we've been talking about really oral culture. I mean, not oral culture exactly in the sense of some of the episodes we've had recently in the series, you know, proverbs or poems that have been handed down to the generations. But you know, we were talking about discussions being held in a kind of impromptu fashion in the neighbourhoods. We've been talking about lectures delivered by a Sheikh to an audience, but you actually have worked with written documents quite a bit as well. For example, some of your publications have been about poetry. You mentioned that before, the importance of poetry in Swahili culture. You've also published on political pamphlets, which I think is really interesting. So can you maybe say something about how you see these documents as relating to the oral culture and how you see the different contributions, especially at a philosophical level made by written documents, as opposed to your ability to observe oral exchanges as an anthropologist? 

KK: Yes. I very much believe that both the oral and the written are significant for me. And they're both expressions of, you know, discursive reflection of, you know, argumentative or the exchange of arguments, of reasoning processes. And in that sense, we need to be treating them as equally relevant. And in some ways, I would also, or I do also cite here or make use of Karin Barber's approach of what she calls an anthropology of texts, adding that texts very much should be understood as covering both oral and written discursive forms and genres. And her work is in the Yoruba context, in the West African Yoruba context, where she's worked on oral and written forms. And I would say that for the Swahili region, this certainly applies too. We have very significant oral genres and sort of oral texts, if you like, and a significant tradition of written Swahili literature as well for a few hundred years. And there's an ongoing dual relevance of the oral and written discourse. I think I hinted at that already earlier on, where we have a variety of poetic forms that are composed in writing, but meant to be recited, especially this form of long didactic poems called tendi or also tensi. And this is still a very popular form of mediating knowledge, elaborating upon the way the world is. We have classic poems of that form that are still also circulating in recordings, nowadays in digital recordings. And we have new compositions in this form that can cover several hundred stanzas. And yeah, the preferred way of dealing with these poems would be through the recordings and not through the reading, although publications of some of these also exist, but they are then mostly printed versions produced by and for an academic audience. 

PA: Actually one thing that that implies, and in a way it's obvious, but I'm going to say it anyway, is that that contrast between oral and written is actually far too crude because there's lots of different ways of transmitting language. And if you have something like a poem that exists now because it was written down a long time ago, but then someone recites it publicly or then someone records it and maybe you hear it on the radio, it's not really clear anymore whether we're dealing with written or oral culture at all. And actually something else that I was really interested by is that in a book that you've just written that's coming out soon, you talk about even observing the discussions that people have on radio broadcasts like call-in radio and thinking about the discussions that they have in that context, sort of like the discussions you saw in the baraza culture. And that's a really unfamiliar context. I mean, I can't think of a historian of philosophy that I've ever read who was listening to call-in radio and thinking about the debates that they found there. But I mean, why not? Because philosophy could be had in a radio call-in show just as much as it could at a bench in front of a house or a written document.

KK: Yes. And exactly. I think the link to the baraza, which is also one that I explicitly make there, but it is true that we find vivid and sometimes intellectually demanding or morally heavy and important discussions among peers there on the radio that might be very significant and important. And so it's important to cover ways of reasoning and reasons for arguing, as sort of Talal Asad says with a view to the anthropology of Islam, but I think this discursive focus on reasoning exchanges and also idioms and patterns of speech that are used in argumentation. So that was my goal there to try and understand this a little bit better of how discussion and the exchange of arguments generally takes place in different kinds of settings, oral and written.

PA: If I could just ask you one last question, and this is really a question, I guess, about disciplinary boundaries. I work in a philosophy department. You work in an anthropology department. And I can tell you having spent my entire adult life around philosophers, that philosophers do not think that they need to read anthropology as a general matter. And so I'm wondering, I mean, I guess a lot of professional philosophers will listen to this podcast. Do you have a message for students and teachers of philosophy? I mean, what do you think that philosophers can get out of engaging with anthropology? What do you think they should get out of try to get out of engaging with anthropology? 

KK: Yes, thank you. Yes. I think, yes, there is something. And I would first point, I think, to the general, you know, the postcolonial situation that we are all in anywhere in the world from whichever kind of perspective we're talking. And we see currently academia and particularly philosophy institutionally also, I think, under pressure to include philosophical traditions from elsewhere in the world into its institutional coverage. And your series is a great example of that. But I think this is really fundamentally important that there is a necessary transformation process of philosophy to be taking place from a more or less Eurocentric one to one that is inclusive and integrative. Because I think that, you know, if philosophy is really truly and sincerely interested in general insights of human interest, issues that are of necessary interest to everyone, then it needs to actively seek to take on the concerns and insights about what it means to be human or so good or wise from all around the world. Right. In order to be able to provide sort of general kind of statements and reflections on that. And so I think philosophy as an institutionalized academic discipline needs to actively engage with knowledge and fundamental insights in many different languages, forms and idioms from all around the world. So what I sketched out as an anthropology of philosophy, in a way, can take a kind of a mediating role between anthropology or the empirically grounded sciences, if you like, and philosophy as the conceptual discipline or the interest to formulate still general or universal statements, perhaps. So I think philosophy has to reject and constructively overcome its Eurocentric bias in terms of a dialogic pathway of interaction with all the intellectual traditions that there are in the world. And so for this, you know, anthropology or anthropologists who have perhaps also some qualification in philosophy and can speak to philosophers can provide a useful sort of mediating ground or can cover this kind of mediating field, which I think we need to cover. We need to cover the intellectual productions and philosophical reflections from all around the world and integrate them into philosophy in order to be content with, I think, philosophy as the science that seeks to reflect on what it means to be human. And that's, of course, a connecting point, then again, to anthropology. I hope that made some sense. 


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