Souleymane Bachir Diagne: "No Civilisation is an Island"

The lecture hall was full and the subject suited the occasion perfectly: universality and plurality. Invited on 2 September 2021 to mark the opening of the academic year for undergraduate students at Sciences Po, Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne treated his newly reunited audience to a vivid and thought-provoking lecture. His theme was the highly topical issue of the tension between withdrawal into oneself and aspiration to the universal. Diagne champions a “lateral universal” as an urgent imperative of our time.

When plurality erupts onto the world stage

“We attribute to freedom of thought the utmost importance”: in her introductory remarks, President of the FNSP Laurence Bertrand Dorléac set the tone by reminding Undergraduate College students of the university’s core values. At Sciences Po “all, or almost all, languages are spoken and […] all ideas and opinions are welcomed, so long as they are well-founded, well-reasoned and expressed with a rigorous objectivity that respects the rules of the art of discussion.”
This set the tone for a lecture on “the universal in a plural world”, which Diagne began by looking back at the 1955 Bandung Conference, “a historic moment in which postcolonialism became an eruption of plurality on the stage of world history”. For the Columbia University professor, this assembly of decolonised countries marked “the thunderous beginning of a new era” and projected “the image of a future world that would no longer be composed of a single centre surrounded by the rest as its periphery”.
Yet philosophy was ahead of history. Seven years prior to Bandung, Professor Diagne noted, Jean-Paul Sartre had “captured the spirit” of the conference in Black Orpheus, his preface to Léopold Sédar Senghor’s seminal anthology of poetry. Besides featuring “all the themes we understand as part of the postcolonial decentring process”, contained in the anthology is the recognition that, in Sartre’s words, “[f]or three thousand years, the white man has enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen” and “that Europe is now merely a province of the world”.
What contributed to that shift? “Traditionally, plurality and multiplicity were rejected in philosophy”, Diagne reflected. Bandung stated that the time had come to “rethink universality after the eruption of plurality on the stage of history and prove that it extends beyond Europe alone.”

 Championing “a universal of translation”

The Senegalese scholar went on to map out the controversies engendered by this groundbreaking eruption of plurality. On the one hand, there was the reactionary thought of Emmanual Levinas, which hinged on the premise that a universal could only proceed vertically from the centre, necessarily the West. On the other were those like Merleau-Ponty, who understood that “we can no longer live in a world in which the universal is dictated by a single culture that overrides all others: we must move towards a universal of negotiation, of translation.”

Professor Diagne next cited Aimé Césaire, who wrote in his famous Letter to Maurice Thorez in 1956: “There are two ways to lose oneself: walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the ‘universal'”. Is it possible, asked Diagne, to seek what Césaire called a “universal enriched by every particular” and Immanuel Wallerstein “a genuinely universal universalism”, in the spirit of Bandung? “Or rather, is universalism always a weapon of war against pluralism and multiculturalism? My answer is to reconcile the postcolonial world of Bandung with the ‘universal as horizon or translation’”, Professor Diagne explained.

Moving beyond the rifts opened up by this postcolonial moment, he put forth an alternative stance: “either you take the relativist view and say that each culture is an island: hence translation is impossible. Or you believe in translation – in a lateral universal – and you believe that translation is the best possible translation of the universal.”

“Enclosing one’s culture by saying ‘this belongs to me’ is absurd”

During a lively discussion with students gathered in the lecture hall or following online, the philosopher and intellectual historian expanded further on this central notion of translation. He presented it as a continual process: “there is always room for the untranslatable. But an untranslatable is not something we are unable to translate, it is something we do not stop translating.” On the issue of contemporary debates surrounding cultural appropriation, Diagne made clear his firm disagreement with attempts to “guard the borders” of a culture and language. “The idea of enclosing one’s culture by saying ‘this belongs to me’ is absurd.”

Professor’s Diagne’s defence of a horizontal or lateral universal, in which “no civilisation is a island closed in on itself”, resonated strongly in a lecture hall filled with aspiring actors of the political, social and international sphere. “The idea of a universal of translation” he summarised, “is about rebuilding a public sphere in which we all speak to one another and against one another.”

Echoing the words of Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, who invited students to enter into dialogue “with their friends as much as their enemies”, the philosopher affirmed that “it is possible to argue, certainly, but in the same language.” “The idea that some experiences are incommunicable constitutes a total dead end,” he stressed. “Championing a lateral universal and a universal of translation is one of the urgent imperatives of our time.”

That message had no trouble hitting its mark among an audience of 150 different nationalities, listening through their own simultaneous translation headphones. It is sure to be a rich source of inspiration to the students over the course of their studies.

The Sciences Po Editorial Team

Find out more

Souleymane Bachir Diagne is Director of the Institute of African Studies and Professor of French and Philosophy at the University of Columbia. His field of research includes history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature. Read full bio.

Works by Souleymane Bachir Diagne in the Sciences Po Bookshop catalogue.

See the full programme of inaugural lectures for the start of the academic year 2021-2022.

All you need to know about the Bachelor of Arts programme at the Undergraduate College.

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