On Philosophers, Violence, Humour & Tragedy


Qalandar Bux Memon and Asif Akhtar interview Simon Critchley in Naked Punch:

QM – I want to ask you something that is rarely asked of a western philosopher (by which I mean someone who reads predominantly ‘white writers’). What effect do you think European colonialism has had on the tradition of philosophy and on philosophers of the European tradition? We are often told about the fracturing effect of the Holocaust on western philosophy and of the grand role of 1968, but what about colonialism?

SC: For me the history of colonialism is absolutely fundamental for understanding philosophy, for understanding what philosophy might do. Philosophical modernity from the 17th Century onwards is the history of European colonial expansion. To isolate philosophy from colonialism is simply to engage in a form of historical amnesia. Certain philosophers, like Locke, were bound up with the invention of the colonial project. Locke was involved in the writing of the fundamental constitutions of the Carolinas and invested heavily in plantation slavery. And we find many other examples. Modern philosophy has to be understood in relationship to the colonial and imperial projects of European modernity. To turn to the last part of the question—which is for me even more important—I don’t buy into the idea of the Holocaust as a novelty or a breaking of history. The Holocaust is the extension of the logic and practices of European colonialism—specifically French and British colonialism—into the European territory. The techniques of the Holocaust, such as the use of concentration camps, were picked up by the Germans in colonial wars, the Spanish Cuban war of 1896 and the British Boer Wars in South Africa in the early 20th Century. The ambition that Germany had in the 1930s was for their own space, what they called “Lebensraum” (‘habitat’ or, literally, ‘living space’). They wanted their own colonial space just like the French and the British. Africa had already been carved up, North America had been carved up and Asia had been carved up, so the Germans decided that Eastern Europe would become the German colonial domain. I see the Holocaust as simply the extension of the logic of European colonialism and we therefore have to understand the Holocaust as an event in the history of colonialism and to eradicate the idea of it being unique or exemplary just because it took place in Europe. I think this is nonsense, historical nonsense. There is a fantastic book by Sven Lindqvist called “Exterminate All the Brutes”: One man’s Odyssey into the heart of darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, which demonstrates this point in great detail, showing how the Germans picked up and appropriated the military hardware of the colonial project. German anti-Semitism is also peculiar: if any country was going to become a really anti-Semitic regime in the early 20th Century you would have put your money on France rather than the Germany.