Author: Philippa Simmonds
“I think, therefore I am”
Descartes, a Frenchman residing in the Netherlands, published these words in 1637 in his “Discourse on Method”. Simultaneously, the Dutch East India Company was at the height of its power in Indonesia- violently suppressing the indigenous populations to secure lucrative trade in spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
“I think, therefore I am”– because I am capable of doubting my existence, I must be thinking, therefore I must exist. This concept became foundational to Western philosophy- before Descartes, knowledge only came from God (i.e. the Church). With this realisation, the philosopher paved the way for a new understanding of the world, in which knowledge was created by individuals.
Professor Adrián Groglopo led Day 2 of the Decolonising Global Health seminar on 2nd October. An Argentinian academic based at the University of Gothenburg, and project leader for DENOR, he presented a detailed lecture setting out the philosophical underpinnings of Western science. Demonstrating how the work of philosophers such as Descartes and Hegel contributed to the justification of the colonial project, he talked about how “thinking” was an activity reserved for Europeans. Foreigners and colonial subjects did not think, and therefore did not “exist” or have a history. Mbembe describes the theories derived from this European tradition as “…a particular anthropological knowledge, which is a process of knowing about Others – but a process that never fully acknowledges these Others as thinking and knowledge-producing subjects.”
Sarah Zarhdani from Together Against Racism summarised how universities were complicit in the colonial project during her introductory speech: “Universities that were established during the colonial era would provide colonial officials with knowledge of the people they had power over. This is really important to understand. The university institution itself became an extended arm for colonial endeavours, and it became a well functioning actor through which the rationale and the logic of domination could be extended.” The latter point echoes Bhambra, Gebrial, and Nişancıoğlu’s work on decolonising the university.
Adrián also explored Eurocentrism, a concept taught in our global health curriculum. Other theories and definitions were less familiar; for example, “the coloniality of power” refers to the process of social and universal classification of the world’s population around the idea of “race”. “Epistemic responsibility”- a key message in the lecture- means taking responsibility for the reality you have created through your beliefs and interpretations of events.
As global health students in Denmark, we are often products of “Western” culture and education systems. We therefore have certain ways of understanding the world; viewing ourselves as rational, our perspective as universal. When we see problems in other (“Non-Western”) countries, these are often explained as “cultural” instead of “political”. Epistemic responsibility, then, means accounting for these unseen norms and biases; and how they might affect your decision-making. This harks back to Mica’s “Listen, reflect, acknowledge” framework taught on the previous day. Adrián also made use of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s well known TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, and participants enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the talk briefly in relation to what they had just learned.
At this point, I’d like to note that my positionality as a white Scottish woman informs my understanding of Mica and Adrián’s teaching. In Scotland (as in many Western European countries), there exists a great deal of denial and ignorance about our participation in colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. This has recently been brought into the spotlight by institutions such as Glasgow University.
As a “global healther” with a biomedical background, Adrian’s lecture was very enlightening for me. However, those with a social science background might have found him covering familiar historical lessons. This is the nature of lectures aimed at a multidisciplinary audience; for some the concepts will be well-known, while for others they are completely new. This was reflected in the feedback we received from participants.
Unfortunately, Day 2 did not quite reach its denouement; Adrián’s slides explicitly linking the decolonisation movement to global health were omitted due to time constraints. Like some of the participants who took time to give written feedback, I would have preferred a clearer connection. However, an understanding of the foundational philosophy of science and of decolonisation is extremely valuable, and we can certainly apply these lessons in our studies. While we are all keen to move from theory to action and take practical steps towards decolonising global health, this seminar demanded that we pause and reflect on some fundamental concepts. How do we know what we know? How have our institutions been complicit in producing and reproducing colonial structures? And how is our understanding shaped by our cultural backgrounds?
Those hungry for more tangible connections will find much food for thought in this blog post by Renzo Guinto. He sets out a loose framework for decolonisation in terms of the analysis, institutions and processes of global health. Furthermore, these 10 crowdsourced ideas by Madhukar Pai give practical advice on how to break the pattern of neocolonialism in global health consulting practices.
As Sarah Zarhdani pointed out: “You don’t need to look very far; just look at your own curriculum, and look at who is present as well as who is absent. Who is the ideal student in your teacher’s mind, when they provide you with what to read?” For those of us who are students, we have many opportunities to question and disrupt colonial narratives in our own courses, and to demand curricula that strive towards a truly “global” perspective.