Souleymane Bachir Diagne

Alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Ph.D (Doctorat d’État) in philosophy at the Sorbonne (1988) where he also took his BA (1977). His field of research includes Boolean algebra of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature.

Souleymane: My name is Souleymane. Souleymane Bachir Diagne. I’m a Senegalese philosopher. I’ve taught twenty years in Senegal, after finishing my higher education in France, and in 2002, I crossed the Atlantic again and went to the United States, where I taught Philosophy, first at Northwestern University in the suburbs of Chicago, and then now, I live in New York, where I teach Philosophy and Francophone studies at Columbia University.

Nerina: Thank you for your time and great to speak with you. How did you get into philosophy?

Souleymane: That’s a really good question, because there is some chance, always, in the choices we make. When I finished high school and when I first traveled out of Dakar, in my country Senegal, and went to France to study, I was hesitating between two different paths; one of them would have made me an engineer by now, because I was admitted in a school of Engineering named INSA – Intitut National des Sciences Apliquées -, which was in Lyon, and I also was admitted to go to what is known in the French system as classe préparatoire, these elite paths where students prepare for entrance into école normale supérieure, the system of Grandes Écoles, as it is known in France. The first choice would have meant becoming an engineer, the second choice would have meant becoming a philosopher, and I decided for Philosophy after a while. It took me a while to make that decision, and now I’m very happy I made that decision; that was really what my life was about, being passionate, having feeling this passion for Philosophy, reading texts that I loved, explaining them and writing somehow from them in doing research in the field I had chosen.

Nerina: You had to choose between two completely different paths. What is the relationship between science and philosophy, in your opinion?

Souleymane: What I do is, in fact, not separate them, so the reason why I do not ask myself what is the difference between the two is that I do not separate them in the first place.

Let me give you an example, a precise example of my own work. As I said, I started working in the field of logic, history of logic and mathematical logic, and the author I worked on, George Boole, the British logician and mathematician, who actually invented our binary system, the 0 and 1 that we use in the language of our computers, was an invention of Boole. Something that people do not know is that his project was philosophical in the first place; he wanted to make Aristotelian logic more efficient by using the language of Algebra, and in so doing, he created the scientific object that would be called the Algebra of Boole and that we are using in our computers. So this interpenetration, I would call it, this interaction between science and philosophy is very important, so this is why I believe that the Humanities and the so called ‘Exact Sciences’ should never be separated. After all, it is one human mind which needs, at once, scientific procedures and artistic and humanistic values, and these should be together.

Nerina: What does it mean, being a philosopher in the 21st century?

Souleymane: It’s complicated, what does it mean to be a philosopher? Well, let me answer that question by letting you know what my experience was, and I said I was always between science and philosophy, mathematics and philosophy. The way in which I reconcile those two passions that I had, was when I finished, when I was going to choose a topic for my dissertation in Philosophy to work in the field of Algebra, of Logic, so I wrote a dissertation and my first two books, the first two books that I published, were both in the field of algebra, of logic, so that’s one way of answering your question, to be a philosopher may mean to be a philosopher of science, a historian of science, which was what a did.

And then I went back home, I went back to Senegal, and of course I was going to teach philosophy. My goal, going back home, was to create in the Department of Philosophy in Dakar, a strong curriculum in History, Philosophy of Science, Sociology of Science, because that was my fundamental training, and I did that, I created that curriculum back home. But then, at the same time, you had all the debates going on, and that is what it means to be a philosopher; you cannot be a philosopher in the same way you are a natural scientist or a physicist, etc, etc; which means that you pay attention to what is going on. Your thinking is also one way of intervening; you intervene in the public square, in some respects, or at least something of the debates going on around you find an echo in your thinking. So I could not just decide that ‘Ok, I’m a specialist in philosophy of science, this is what I’m going to do’. I had to be part of the debates that were taking place at that time.
And so one aspect was the question of philosophy in Africa, what does it mean to philosophize in the African continent, to philosophize (indiscernible, 7:02) the problems in Africa. To give you an example, what does it mean to look at African art in its difference from European art, for example. So, those were the debates going on, and I started taking part. The 90’s had been years of transition towards democracy, and so the thinking was about African democracies, what does it mean to make these countries democratic, what kind of institutions were to be designed, so this was a very exciting time for someone to think philosophically about the problems facing Africa.

Another aspect was also the question of religion. I went back home in the early 1980’s, and this was the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, and political Islam as we know it now was very much on the scene, was very much on our screens and our newspapers and so and so forth, and Senegal is a Muslim country, so that was an aspect of the debate as well, what connection should we have now, where’s the intellectual and spiritual tradition of Islam, which is not known and of which philosophy is an important part. So I decided, also, in addition to my more technical teaching in philosophy of mathematics, to teach the history of philosophy in the Islam world, and to intervene in some respect on the debate surrounding Islam today. So, this is a very long answer, but that is for me what it means to be a philosopher. Again, not just chose a path, a specialty and work in that specialty narrowly defined, but being ready to go different ways, to change and to adapt, also, to the discussion about what is going on around you.

Nerina: Religion and philosophy. They are considered by many people be opposite ways to see life. How do you see it? Is there a contradiction?

Souleymane: Well, sure, one could say, defining things in these broad brushes, that on the one hand religion is really about faith, and even blind faith; you have to believe in something, you have to believe without evidence, you have to believe in things that you cannot see, that you cannot touch, that are not for your sensible grasping or even for your human understanding, on the one hand. And then you have philosophy, which is based on reason, rationalism, and proof and evidence. So it would be simple to just oppose the two and say that religion is one thing and philosophy is a very different thing, but now if you look at the history of religions themselves, you can see how, from within religion, there is a need to philosophize; that was the birth of Islamic philosophy, for example.

You cannot just decide that everything has been said once and for all by a revealed text; even the text you have to read it. So you can never be in the situation where you say ‘This ends philosophical questioning and I have the answers now’; you have to build your answers, you have to keep them open, you have to understand how open they are and how open they remain, because it is really, truly, your own human duty to examine. One important Muslim philosopher (indiscernible name, 11:28) has said ‘He who does not doubt, does not examine, and he who does not examine, doesn’t believe’, and this is probably the best single sentence to explain why philosophy is necessary to religion itself and how the connection between the two is really an internal relationship and not an external relationship between two very different things.

Nerina: You mentioned that, as a philosopher, you have to take part in the discussions that take place in the public sphere. Right now, it is religion in focus, and not always in a positive way. How do your books participate in the general discussion?

Souleymane: We live in times where, paradoxically, religion is so present in our lives. I mean, if we open our television sets, we see religion everywhere, and many terrible, violent, unbelievable things being done in the name of religion, and at the same time, we are so ignorant about religions in general, because years and years of so called secularism has made religion something that is not known anymore.
You know, even independently form the political situation that we are living in, and the security questions that religions and fanaticism, rather that religion, by the way, are posing, there’s an ignorance of religion. I mean, younger people are even incapable of reading works of art because they just don’t know who the people represented in art are, and most of the time these are religious characters, biblical characters that you find in paintings and so and so forth. But what it means, also, in particular for Islam, which is probably the religion nowadays associated with violence and everything. It is a terrible thing, and people need to be reminded that this religion was not born yesterday, and it is the religion of one billion and a half people, and it is a spiritual and an intellectual tradition.
So there is a need to make that tradition known, primarily for younger Muslims, for Muslims themselves, and this is what led me to the decision to teach also the tradition of philosophy in Islam, and this is the decision that led me from there to use my teaching for many years and make it a book, and I believe that that book, by precisely reminding people of what this intellectual and spiritual tradition that we call Islam, that we should be knowing as Islam is, this becomes de facto, a kind of intervention in the public square to, again, make Islam known and, primarily, known to Muslims themselves.

Nerina: And your books somehow change the narrative about the history of philosophy, right?

Souleymane: Absolutely. It is important for philosophy, for the discipline of philosophy in general, to sort of decolonize itself, as I would call it, because philosophy has been constructed as a uniquely European phenomenon, and this has happened very recently, actually. Traditionally, historically, philosophers in Greece or in Europe before the contemporary modern times never really thought of themselves as being the unique philosophers that humanity has ever seen; this is something that happened almost around the beginning of colonialism, that Europe defined itself has the heir of Greek philosophy and the continent of philosophy par excellence, and decided that philosophy was really the defining feature of Europe, so African philosophy could not exist; philosophy could not exist anywhere else outside Europe.
So this changed, because the history of philosophy is just not supporting such an idea if you look at who is the heir of Greeks. Many people have been the heir of the Greeks; Greek philosophy was appropriated by the Islamic world, so you have a tradition of philosophy in Islam that we do not know; this is something that I decided to teach, to let my own students know, because we were a department of philosophy in a Muslim country and we needed to know about that tradition as well, and I mean, human beings are naturally inclined towards philosophy, because human beings, by definition, know that they are mortal, they bury their dead, they look up to the sky, and they ask themselves about the destination of humanity, what it means to be human, what it is be born, what it means to die, and so and so forth. So philosophical thinking and philosophical wisdom exist everywhere, so we have to think about that and reconstruct the history of philosophy in such a way that it ceases to be this uniquely Western history of thought, and that is a very important aspect of my work as well.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that your students have to learn?

Souleymane: You know, to just give you my experience, among the class that I teach in my university, Columbia, I have one class on history of philosophy in the Islamic world, where I introduce my students to classical Islamic philosophy, form 9th century to 13th century, and then also modern questions and so on. I also teach a class that I call African Literature in Philosophy, where I look at what is being written in Africa and what are the problems being debated by African intellectuals and philosophers, and I also teach, of course, general history of philosophy and philosophy of logic, as I’ve always done. And when my students have the feeling that they are more of what Islam is, or that they are more aware of Africa in terms of the intellectual production of the continent – Africa not just being a subject of conversation associated with diseases, problems, epidemics and so on so forth, but what are Africans thinking and writing now, what have they been thinking and also writing – it is not known that, for example, you have a long tradition of written edition in Africa; Africa is generally associated with orality, and people are now discovering all the manuscripts in Timbuktu, for example, that this is not true. And when they become aware of that, when they change their mind about what they thought, or what they thought they knew about the topics that I’m teaching, I think that I have done my job as an educator.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Souleymane: Well, I dream of a society that would not be fragmented into what I call ethno-nationalisms, which is unfortunately what we have today. It is not just that there is a kind of stiffening of identities where people are fighting in the name of their religious identities or their national identities and so and so forth. It’s not just religion, but even in the field of politics we can see that. What I call ethno-nationalism is, as well, all these movements, extreme right movements, that we are calling populism. We should call them tribalism, because that is what it is, and my dream is the reconstruction of the philosophical and ethical idea of one humanity, which means hospitality.
Let’s look at the crisis of migrants that we have nowadays, refugees and migrants. They are met with what the Pope has called the globalization of indifference. The Pope is appalled and is always reacting against what he sees as indifference to human suffering, because we are so fragmented and thinking about ourselves and people who look like us, have the same religion, have the same skin color, and so and so forth. We are losing sight of the ethical general idea of humanity, in general. And that is the foundation for common life, that is the foundation for building together our Earth, that is the foundation of having the sense that we are one, our Earth is one, and the we should come together and take care of it.
This was, for example, something we saw during the Paris agreement on our environment. This was a wonderful metaphor for the idea of humanity being one, and looking in the same direction and taking care of our common home, which is our Earth. Unfortunately, we have seen the forces of fragmentation come again, when the United States, for example, just decided that they are going to, you know, come out of this common agreement and so and so forth. So that is, somehow, what I think is important, and will be the ultimate goal of all the different aspects of my work, working really to what’s, you know, this general idea, this universal idea of one humanity.

Nerina: How can we reconstruct our notion of humanity?

Souleymane: This is long-term thinking. In the short term, it has to be played on the political ground; we have to resist this type of populism. I believe that we have to fight for that ideal of a world of social justice, where you do not just have a global capitalism indifferent to human suffering and to that kind of fragmentation that I have described.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Souleymane: Well, I’ve had for a long time the dream of, you know, all young people have that dream, of changing the world, and I was thinking of doing science, I was thinking of having the discovery that would change things on Earth and things like that. Growing up, you learn to be much more humble than that, and you just ask yourself ‘Ok, am I, right now, touching the lives of people and changing things in my own sphere of influence?’, because, if you are in my position, obviously you have some influence on certain number of people. So my dream is to be able at one point to ask myself honestly that question and be able to answer that yes, I did that, and I realized that wish of making difference in the lives of a certain number of younger people.

Nerina: What is life about?

Souleymane: For me, life is about love; in other words, the force of life. I believe in the force of life. If I have to define myself in terms of my philosophy, I would say that I am very much a vitalist, in the sense that I believe in the force of life, and I think that the force of life is the same as the force of love. That this world has been created out of love as an open ended, always emerging cosmology; that this world is something that human beings have to invent an reinvent all the time, and that the energy they use, the force they use for that, which is the force of life, is the same as the force of love. So, for me, that is the sort of cosmic significance of love, it is also the personal significance of love. It is because the world itself is a creation of love, and that its movement forward is the movement of love, that our individual lives are always about love.

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation, and thank you for watching, thank you for listening and thank you for sharing. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any suggestion. Keep wondering, and see you next time again. Bye and ciao.

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