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Introducing Philosophy into the Caribbean Narrative

Published:Friday | April 27, 2018 | 12:00 AM

In a world driven by technology, philosophy struggles to find relevance. Misconstrued and misrepresented, it is still considered an exercise in rhetoric and abstruse reasoning. But as St Hope Earl McKenzie so well articulates, philosophy, if rightly grasped, can be employed in redefining a broken nation.

While the Caribbean has produced impressive thinkers in a myriad fields, it has failed to produce a systematised body of work that explores metaphysics, ontology, and ethics. And despite the region's sharp religious character, little has been offered in epistemological terms. McKenzie laments the region's brutal past, which robbed a people of fully expressing their aesthetic ideations. Still, we find our philosophical bearing through oral tradition and the religion of African and Indian peoples.

McKenzie recalls his early years pursuing philosophy. It was a lonely journey that demanded more than will and perseverance. Lacking a fertile ground, he used the Caribbean's rich multiplex culture as his laboratory. It is within this unique paradigm that he posed his initial philosophical questions.

In defining philosophy, McKenzie is detailed. Philosophy, he writes, "includes reflections on the nature of knowledge and the ways of knowing (epistemology); the nature of reality as opposed to appearance, and why the difference matters (metaphysics); belief in God; the meaning of life, the nature of evidential relations between propositions and the principles of good reasoning (logos); and the study of how we ought to live (ethic)".

Many of our social problems, McKenzie argues, can be addressed by philosophy. He writes, "Our newspapers and talk shows are full of pronouncements on such issues as the death penalty, homosexuality, violence and corruption, but reasoned philosophical discourse on them is rare." He continues, "Academics interested in the links between culture and development - or underdevelopment - seem locked into the old topics of colour and class, apparently unaware that [philosophy is at] the core of culture, and that ... values should be central to any discussion of developmental issues."


Catalyst for change


No doubt, societies are hamstrung by the 'tyranny of custom.' In promoting reason and critical analysis, philosophy emerges as a the catalyst for change.

Philosophy traverses an infinite landscape nudging us to enquire, explore, and act.

McKenzie is impressed by Marcus Garvey, in particular, the depth of his thesis. While he was not a classical philosopher in the vein of Kant or Nietzsche, Garvey had presented in detailed eloquence, ideas on the nature of man, God, politics, education, aesthetics, and ethics.

In fact, his view on ethics (as an indissoluble part of religion) has become part of the region's ethos.

A practical philosopher, Garvey's work begs for further study.

Caribbean Philosopher also explores the concept of time and its impact on culture. Genocide, slavery, and indentureship have erased the collective memory of a people, resulting in what Edouard Glissant calls "nonhistory."

McKenzie concurs with Glissant that "Caribbean people should repossess their own sense of time and history" and that "it is not good enough to 'enter the history' of the former slave masters and colonisers ... ."

The concept of cultural hinterland, a term advanced by Glissant, is examined. It signifies "an ancestral community of languages, religion, government, traditional values" that were divorced from early Caribbean peoples. McKenzie quotes Glissant on the French Caribbean experience, which is commonplace among the region's divers groups. "The French Caribbean people did not relate even a mythological chronology of this land to their knowledge of this country, and so nature and culture have not formed a dialectical whole that informs a people's consciousness".

What then can we construe from the region's traumatic past? McKenzie responds: "Are there any histories without trauma, repression (in the psychological sense), horror and anxiety? If this trauma is abnormally high, as Glissant advances, then the region's woes could be better explained."

Despite the absence of a linear historical identity, there is a 'submarine' history, a commonality of experiences that can shape the vision and future of its people.


Revolutionary thesis


Later, McKenzie evaluates the overriding thrust of Franz Fanon's revolutionary thesis to Caribbean development.

And the philosophy of religion is also examined in existential terms through the writings of Earl Lovelace and Goodison. In Lovelace's work, suffering is a psychological force that can ultimately facilitate liberation. In the case of Goodison, religion takes on a cathartic, transcendental element.

And of Rastafari, McKenzie writes that the movement can be seen as contributing to the psychological health of Caribbean societies by insisting on the recognition of the historical and cultural links with Africa: by its criticism and rejection of Eurocentricity; and most of all, by its revision of the theological culture of Caribbean societies".

McKenzie concludes by examining literature and art as tools for exploring Caribbean philosophical thought.

Caribbean Philosopher couldn't be more timely. McKenzie agrees that we need a definitive Caribbean narrative that cements our social, cultural, and political aspirations. Other people, with like experiences, he contends, have gained unfathomable strength and homogeneity from such an undertaking.

McKenzie has challenged us to pause, think, and act with deliberation. In an era of social media, we are never starved for information and knowledge. But wisdom is different. Wisdom requires analysis and a judicious mental process that requires patience. Well exercised, it produces societies that are based on clearly defined principles and laws.

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Book: The Loneliness of a Caribbean Philosopher and Other Essays

Author: St Hope Earl McKenzie

Publisher: Arawak Publications, JA

ISBN 978-976-95579-8-7

Available at Amazon

Ratings: Essential