Decoloniality article

The Provincializing Work, or What Remains After and Outside Philosophy of Religion

The procession of the Spanish Inquisition in Goa entering the church with standards and banners. Engraving. Photo Credit: Wellcome. Wikimedia Commons.

Rather than being subject to colonization, philosophy of religion has often been an agent of colonial knowledge-production and apologetics. While modern Western philosophy has auto-narrated its projects in terms of equity and emancipation, its impulses to universalization emerged co-terminously with justifications for colonial suppression of non-European populations. Uday Singh Meta describes this violent imposition in Liberalism and Empire. Rather than allowing for equity, Meta writes that such philosophical “generalities make it possible to compare and classify the world…in a single glance and without having experienced any of it.” The consequences of this have been, and continue to be, severe: “But that glance is braided with the urge to dominate the world, because the language of those comparisons is not neutral and cannot avoid notions of superiority and inferiority, backward and progressive, and higher and lower” (20).

Given these formative practices, efforts toward decolonizing continental philosophy of religion should first ask if the task is possible, and to what end? One possibility to contend with is that a “decolonialization” of philosophy of religion might mean divesting from the category altogether. While philosophy of religion, like every academic field, is capable of novel stylization, an urgent question remains: What is at stake in reforming and thereby preserving a discipline that is constituted through and invested in excluding the very perspectives that decolonial practice would seek to affirm?

Another possibility is that a liberatory approach to the history of philosophy of religion might mean the particularization of its major epistemological claims, or what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls “provincialization.” In Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (1999), he writes, “European thought is at once both indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through the experiences of political modernity in non-Western nations, and provincializing Europe becomes the task of exploring how this thought—which is now everybody’s heritage and which affect us all— may be renewed from and for the margins” (17). Because the materialization of European philosophical imaginaries have shaped the world as we know it through its ongoing projects of colonial epistemicide, engagement with philosophy’s legacy is necessary to understanding it.

Chakrabarty’s call to action is simple—to shrink European thought and its universalizing tendencies down to size so as to put them in conversation with marginalized forms of knowledge, practices, and histories. This is done so that the social sciences of our time can give credence to the “normative and theoretical thought enshrined in other existing life practices and their archives” (20)—life practices and archives that have been lost, and presumably will continue to be lost if Eurocentric forms of knowledge-production remain the guarantors of epistemological legitimacy. Despite the clarity of vision, reaching this goal has remained quite difficult for some disciplines, including philosophy of religion.

More recently, scholars in philosophy of religion like Kevin Schillbrack and Thomas A. Lewis have worked to resolve these stubborn tensions. In Why Philosophy Matters to the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa, Lewis provides a helpful survey of contemporary work written under the banner of philosophy of religion, while addressing the discipline’s most pertinent obstacles, one of which is an ongoing tension between historical analysis of religion and attendant concepts, versus efforts towards normative construction. One of the main challenges Lewis seeks to address is “the general lack of conversation between philosophers of religion, on one hand, and those probing the construction of the concept of religion and its consequences for the study of religion” (29). Lewis observes that as a result of this lacuna, the latter scholarship “suffers from a flatted vision of modern Western religious thought inattentive to the depths and extent of debate in the West” over constructions of “religion” and attendant categories like ritual. A way for philosophy of religion to add to contemporary conversations is through normative work, and Lewis observes the tendency in religious studies towards a “suspicion of [philosophy of religion’s] normative claims” (43). Following Chakrabarty, closer engagement with intersecting (sub)disciplines might be a path forward for philosophy of religion and its ability to generate new normative horizons. Such horizons could model the benefits of philosophy of religion that Lewis rightfully notes it can provide.

Thinking with Lewis, a compelling upshot of Chakrabarty’s “provincialization” heuristic is that our normative understandings of social scientific categories like religion should not be separated from a critical account of the harm done through ahistorical reifications. Engagement with the work of scholars like Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Brent Nongbri might be of help here, as they show that the category of religion is a constructed, contingent one, the meaning of which has always been varied and contested. If one finds this work generally convincing, then there is a corollary mandate: that “religion” be understood as a provisional category in the present and future as well, informed by and limited to the vocabularies, grammar, and empirical resources that are available to us. Indeed as these authors have shown, especially Asad and Masuzawa, an analysis of religion’s historicity is necessary for understanding formations of modern colonial subjectivity.

In considering what this provincializing work might look like for philosophy of religion, I turn briefly to  J. Kameron Carter’s critique of Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government in “The Inglorious: With and Beyond Agamben.” While more explicitly concerned with Christian theological concepts, Carter’s approach might serve as one example of the kind of interdisciplinary intervention needed in philosophy of religion.

Carter focuses on Agamben’s argument that early modern theological discourse on human will—specifically, the will to govern and manage earthly activity—increasingly identified human will as a sign of God’s grace. In other words human will is vicariously God’s will. The theological payout of this conceptualization is providential—to bring order to the world, not for the sake of its salvation but only for the increased glory of God. For Agamben, this can be seen in 15th and 16th Jesuit missionary activity, for example. To this end, Agamben is helpful in raising questions about the concrete, historical-material ramifications of this providential disposition toward government, though he doesn’t go quite far enough.

Carter reality-tests Agamben’s analysis against the history of early modern colonialism. In “The Inglorious” Carter asks: If the managerial logic of modern European political economy is co-extensive with a providential theological imaginary that exceeds the formal powers of sovereign territorial states (what Agamben calls “glorification”), does this not render non-European subjects of imperialist imposition and colonial violence “the inglorious”?

The wager of this question is not simply a matter of Agamben’s scope, or what’s being “left out” of the text—he shows that representation of colonial history in Agamben’s project would alter its foundational components. As Carter writes, Agamben provides a blueprint for the process of Europeanization, “while yet repressing the complementary process of non-Europeanization” (81). Projects of “glorification” were also always projects of globalization (80). While Agamben aims for a generalizable account of how “glorification” influenced modern political reason on an axis of sovereignty, this generality belies a deeper fissure on an axis of subjectivity— “glorification” instantiates, and indeed requires, an ongoing “racializing and colonializing, a Europeanizing/non-Europeanizing, social and historical process” (81).

Occlusions of colonial knowledge do not merely render accounts of modern subjectivity incomplete; they render them fantasies.

What I find particularly helpful about Carter’s analysis is that it works “with” Agamben by thinking historically and empirically about the development of modern theological ideas; Carter thinks “beyond” Agamben, however, by challenging the presumption that this genealogy is generally and laterally applicable to all subjects of modern political economy. Rather, Carter contends that if the work of scholars like Saidiya Hartman and Marie-José Mondzain were properly attended to, Agamben’s work could pave the way for an analytic of European/non-European difference as a founding function of modern political economy.

Extending the general logic at play for Carter here, provincializing work can push back the frontiers of European epistemological expansion—frontiers which are always both theoretical and material. In doing so, we can show that occlusions of colonial knowledge do not merely render accounts of modern subjectivity incomplete; they render them fantasies.

Carter concludes “The Inglorious” by invoking the work of Sylvia Wynter, whose research has been tremendously helpful in naming Western theological and philosophical legacies as articulations of one “genre” of humanity—the genre of “Man.” As the modus operandi for providential theology is the will to govern, countless modern philosophical projects were founded on a similar drive to universalization, as Meta has shown in his work. While the category of philosophy is frequently extended to non-European movements and traditions, its institutional representation has remained intractably Eurocentric, further highlighting the need for new genres of thought, new forms of reason, and new modes of human expression.

Carter ends “The Inglorious” by arguing that Agamben’s project would need to turn towards Black studies to generate “a new way of being beyond the (in-)glorious economy of ‘Man’” (86). Similarly, if philosophy of religion is to undergo the needed transformations, the force of its history should be met with a will to provincialize its legacy.

Danube Johnson
Danube Johnson is a PhD candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the entanglements of early modern natural philosophy, Christian political theology, and constructions of race, slavery, and consent in natural rights discourse. She is currently writing her dissertation on Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan

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