Skip to Main Content

Postcolonial Theory in the 21st Century: Is the Past the Future or Is the Future the Past? (February 2021): Enlightenment Thinking and Postcolonial Theory Western Epistemologies

by Tarique Niazi

Enlightenment Thinking and Postcolonial Theory Western Epistemologies

Postcolonialists reject Enlightenment thought, particularly its humanism, universalism, and putative Eurocentrism in favor of cultural alterity. The most prominent examples include Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Gayatri Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, both Edward Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, and Partha Chatterjee’s The Nation and Its Fragments and Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World. They all dismiss Western epistemologies and their methodological individualism (i.e., what matters is not what you know but how you know it), as articulated in Gandhi’s Postcolonial Theory. By this logic, the mode of knowing comes to dominate the content of knowing, invalidating the whole corpus of Eastern knowledge. Here, former English politician Thomas Macaulay’s dismissiveness of the native knowledge of colonial India, as elucidated in his 1835 “Minute on Education,” is quite instructive. He states that “it is … no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England” (Minute 11). In another comment he scorches all that has been written in the East, claiming that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” (Minute 10).

Borrowing from lauded Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, Spivak’s seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Charles Taylor’s notable works, Hegel and “Overcoming Epistemology” from his collection Philosophical Arguments, call this epistemological arrogance “epistemic violence.” This core critique of Western epistemologies is inherently indebted to the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, particularly Foucault’s 1970 book The Order of Things and Derrida’s 1974 essay “White Mythology,” texts that set out to unearth and disrupt the relationship between knowledge and power. Postcolonialists followed suit to upend this nexus in South Asia, where “vernacular” knowledge was produced and deployed to imperial ends. Macaulay tellingly speaks of this objective in India, writing that the English must “do [their] best to form … a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals[,] and in intellect” (Minute 34). 

This Western representation of the non-Western world, postcolonialists argued, was built into the structures of discursive domination and subordination, which Palestinian American Edward Said calls Orientalism in his eponymous book, which challenged European orientalists’ depictions of the Middle East in the humanities. In it, Said argues that this representation generated a discourse of Orientalism that not only produced knowledge but also the very reality it purported to study. Orientalism was thus crowned a seminal critique of the Western epistemologies that postcolonialists found inadequate to study non-Western people and places, as further elaborated by Chakrabarty, Guha, and Spivak, in their aforementioned volumes.