Parsing “Decolonisation”

Bert Olivier


This article addresses the fraught question of “decolonisation” at South African universities—what does it mean when students and some academic staff members call for the decolonisation of the curriculum? The issue of legitimate participation in the debate is raised, as well as that of the “incommensurability thesis”—the claim that individuals working within a certain “paradigmatically distinct” theory or within an identifiable discourse, cannot understand those working within other theoretical paradigms, and therefore thwart discussion between pro-decolonisers and those who oppose it. The consideration that, regardless of culture, or race, or gender, all human subjects are linguistic beings, is related to the mutual translatability of languages, and the notion of always being embedded in a cultural life-world. Instead of remaining relativistically imprisoned in the latter, it is argued that the sciences afford people the opportunity to step away from their involvement in this life-world, with its cultural prejudices, to meet one another through a shared terminology and conceptual or theoretical apparatus that enable one to understand the (natural and social) world in a manner that allows intersubjective understanding. The point is made that, for something to be scientific (or “rational”), any human being should be able to “test” or examine, or simply enter into a (sometimes difficult) dialogue about it. Unless these issues are kept in mind, one cannot even begin to discuss the merits of the demand for decolonisation. It is acknowledged, however, that there are “knowledges” that have been (unjustifiably) “disqualified” by Western culture as being “inadequate” in terms of “scientific cognition.” For this reason it is argued that every scholar, scientist or philosopher must be willing to see beyond the confines of privileged Western knowledge to acknowledge these “excluded knowledges” and to affirm that they are epistemic “equals” of, albeit different from, Western knowledge.


culture; decolonisation; epistemology; knowledge; philosophy of science

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Copyright (c) 2018 Bert Olivier

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