A small part of Rene Descartes would, perhaps, approve of the demand for the removal of his work from the curriculum of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. The French philosopher’s (ironically dubious) exhortation to “doubt everything” ought not to be taught, or failing that, “should be taught only critically” according to the SOAS students’ union. Descartes, along with other stalwarts of western thought like Kant, Plato, Locke and Hume are simply too “white” and form part of the colonial architecture of the university system. That students at a university, particularly of a college that focuses on Africa and Asia, are doubtful and critical of the received wisdom of western civilisation shows that they are being trained well. Their argument, however, shows they still have some way to go.
One of the things the “old white men”, among others, have taught the world is how to construct and attack arguments. And one of the most basic fallacies is ad hominem — attacking the person making the argument than the argument itself. For instance, was Kant a product of his circumstances, his moral universalism merely an extension of his socio-geographical location? These questions, as well as more political ones, can be answered if one follows the contours of their writing, not with notions of an inherited morality.
The SOAS students’ union is not wrong when it claims that much of academia, both in the West and their erstwhile colonies carries the imprint of colonialism and imperialism. That tragedy of history, however, is very much at play in the world today. From bureaucracies, to trade imbalances, and yes, even syllabi — the legacy by “old white men” surrounds us. The “oriental” in SOAS, after all, is a term that Europeans invented for the east — it is not a self description. The answer to these injustices, however, must be critical engagement and a push for diversity. It cannot be another “whitewash”.