Alterity is a Negative Concept of the Same


  • Grant Farred Cornell University



Philosophical anthropology is a tradition that is as old as philosophy itself, so much so that it might be said to be indistinguishable from philosophy itself. Philosophical anthropology, extending as it does from Socrates to Sartre, best describes the work of V.Y. Mudimbe. Anthropology, broadly conceived as the science that studies human origins, the material and cultural development of humanity (philosophical anthropology concerns itself with human nature, particularly what it is that distinguishes human beings from other creatures and how philosophy allows human beings to understand themselves), is always Mudimbe’s first line of philosophical inquiry. It is certainly Mudimbe’s interest in anthropology that allows him to conduct his investigations into Africa, its modes of thinking, and colonialism and its continuing effects on the continent. Writing on the latter issue in The Invention of Africa, Mudimbe, with his customary deftness of mind, argues that colonialism and its aftermath cannot by itself account for the continent’s extant condition: “The colonizing structure, even in its most extreme manifestations . . . might not be the only explanation for Africa’s present-day marginality. Perhaps this marginality could, more essentially, be understood from the perspective of wider hypotheses about the classification of beings and societies.”[ Making sense of Africa, in Mudimbe’s terms, must begin with a hypothesization that explicates how “beings and societies” come to be classified, the anthropological undertaking par excellence, which also requires a study of the forces that construct, implement and maintain these classifications.