A Process of Learning and Unlearning: A dialogue with Boaventura de Sousa Santos

A Process of Learning and Unlearning: A dialogue with Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

A Process of Learning and Unlearning: A dialogue with Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Meeting Boaventura de Sousa Santos recently in Coimbra was both an honour and a joy. It’s rare to meet someone in academia who seamlessly combines an erudite knowledge with a profound humanity.

Part One


3rd Space: I’d like to start with a background question about your life and work. You’re a distinguished legal scholar from the University of Madison and Warwick. You have a postgraduate diploma in jurisprudence from Berlin. You went to the United States to do a PhD in Sociology of Law at Yale. You became one of the founders of the School of Economics here at the University of Coimbra. And now you are the Director Emeritus of Social Studies in Coimbra. Along with your prodigious studies, you are also one of the founders of the World Social Forum. You have been involved in many important social movements around the world, and you’ve done extensive fieldwork in the favelas in Brazil, and also here in Coimbra.

Could you explain the background to your development and philosophy as a social scientist, and your approach. I know you’ve said that you see it as a process of learning and unlearning, a process of objectivity rather than neutrality. You have brought, in my opinion, a real humanity to the field of sociology. Could you speak about how that developed in your work and way of thinking?

Boaventura: Thank you very much for coming Steve and for asking this background question, because I think it’s always important to see the trajectories of people. I think our knowledge is always embodied knowledge, embodied in a real sense in our bodies, in our ancestors, in our own social class and ethnic base.

I come from a very poor family here in Coimbra. I’m the first generation with a university degree. My father was a chef in a restaurant here. My mother was a domestic person. She prepared clothing for people in our street. I was born in 1940. And so, as you know, that was in the middle of the Second World War. Portugal was something of a neutral country, even though there were more pro Nazis here than anything else.

King Dinis the founder of the University of Coimbra in 1290

For some reason, I was a good student. And at the age of 17, I entered university. At the time Portugal was a fascistic regime. There was not much of a welfare state in Portugal, but there was an important Foundation, the Gulbenkian Foundation, that gave grants to the best students. So, I got a very good grant when I entered university, and I went to the law school, because my mother thought if I became a lawyer, I would probably make some money to help the family. I was very interested in social issues at the time, but sociology was forbidden in Portugal. Salazar, the Portuguese Prime Minister, used to say that sociology was socialism, and therefore it was forbidden. So, I went to law school, and became the first of my close family in Coimbra with a university degree.

I then got a grant from the German government and spent a year and a half in West Berlin at Freie University. I was in the Catholic Residency, because my upbringing was Catholic. I was a very serious practitioner of the religion. But when I was 22 I abandoned the church for political reasons. The Catholic Church was very committed to fascism and colonialism. As students we wanted to discuss the colonial issue, but the Catholic authorities wouldn’t allow us to. I was even forbidden to go to the colonies for a visit. I was angry about that, so I abandoned the religion completely.

When I went to Berlin, it was my first international experience. And my girlfriend was from East Berlin. The Democratic Republic of Germany was, as you know, a Stalinist type of government. So, I had a close-up view of what Stalinism was at the time. Coming from a dictatorship myself, West Berlin for me was freedom. It was democracy.

When I came back to the university in Coimbra, the situation here with fascism was getting worse. I became less and less involved in the legal science of law. I was much more interested in the philosophy of law, with a growing interest in Sociology of Law. In 1969, my wife went to the United States for a PhD in comparative literature with the great Yale Professor, Harold Bloom. One year later I got a grant for Harvard and for Yale, and because she was at Yale, I chose Yale. So, I started my PhD programme. And from then on, I moved from philosophy almost immediately to sociology. And since I had this background in law, I thought that I could combine them.

Being at Yale was a life changing experience for me, because it was the moment of the movement against the Vietnam War. The United States was a very progressive society then. There was the feminist movement, the Black Panther movement, the civil rights movement. It was quite a surprise for me, coming from a dictatorship. And Yale was a liberal college. It was ideal for a person like me that wanted to discuss and make things happen. There were very aggressive conversations, but very intellectual, very free. I really enjoyed that.

The Favelas of Brazil

A year and a half later I went to Brazil for my field research. And that was the first important change in my way of thinking. My unlearning really started there. I went to Brazil to do a thesis on the way in which people in squatter settlements organised their own lives. Because they are illegal communities from the point of view of the state, and therefore they have no resources. They have no access to courts and all those public services. So, they have to organise their own societies. They have resident’s associations, and they have their own alternative legal system, not a state legal system. I was very fascinated by that.

Because of my political motivations, which were already very much to the left, I became a Marxist at Yale, because I could see what an unjust society is. The United States on one hand, had this very bright, liberal side. But on the other side it was racist, and a very unequal society. These were inequalities that I had never experienced in Portugal, because almost all of us here were poor and lower middle class. So, I lived in one of the favelas in Brazil for five months. I was doing what in anthropology we call ‘participant observation’. I didn’t do any interviews, I just lived there and talked to people, engaged in their activities and so on. It was a life changing experience. Because for the first time I started seeing the difference between knowledge and information on one side, and wisdom on the other.

The favela of Jacarezinho that Boaventura de Sousa Santos visited

I was coming from an elite school, Yale, and Coimbra in Portugal was an elite school in its own way as well. And we are very proud of our academic knowledge, and our scientific endeavours. And suddenly, I was talking all day with the Umbanda leaders, that is the Afro-Catholic churches, the owners of the bars, with shoemakers, and all kinds of people. And the wisdom that I was getting in conversation, about life, the sense of life, of dignity, the role of religion in our lives, and the kinds of society they lived in was extraordinary. And it was a dictatorship there. It was really a very violent dictatorship then in 1970-71. But they knew everything that was going on, and they were illiterate. They were considered criminals, but they were not. They were decent people living in an indecent condition. So, I learned a lot. I started thinking that there are in fact different kinds of knowledge. Scientific knowledge is only one kind, and it’s very important. But there are other kinds of knowledges as well.

And that was really the beginning of my idea of what I call today, the Epistemologies of the South. I came back to Portugal at the end of 1973, because there was a new school that they were trying to organise, which was the School of Economics. Then suddenly the democratic revolution of the 25th of April 1974 broke out. It was a social explosion of democracy after 48 years of dictatorship. And I became immediately very involved. I founded the School of Economics here in Coimbra, even though I was a sociologist, not an economist, but because there were not many people with PhDs at the time here.

The revolution here in Portugal was quite transformative, both politically and personally for me. Suddenly I was trying to do in the neighbourhood of this city, almost the same work that I had been doing in the favelas in Brazil. In this case, this was a community of peasants, poor small family peasants here around Coimbra. They wanted to build a cooperative, but they didn’t know how to do it. So, they would come to the university, and I would take my students there. And I became myself a member of this cooperative for 12 years. That was basically a second transformation after the squatter settlement in Brazil.

Up to that point I had been forbidden to go to the Portuguese colonies. But when they became independent in 1975 after the revolution in Portugal, some of my African friends here at the University of Coimbra, became the leaders of the new independent countries, ministers and so on. So, they would invite me to come, and I went to Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique, for the first time. And we did lots of research there, in a very, without using that word at the time, ‘post-colonial’ perspective. Because I always wanted binational teams. I wanted the projects to be discussed with them, and to try to have as horizontal relations as possible, which was difficult.

The World Social Forum

The other very important aspect in my life then was the World Social Forum. During the 1990s, I was already very involved in social movements. Either when I was here in Coimbra, or when I was in the States, and I used to go to Brazil and Latin America to give lectures. Incidentally, that’s how I met Ivan Illich. I met Ivan Illich very early on. I was still a student at Yale, and I was fascinated by him. He liked me a lot, and I liked him a lot.

Ivan Illich, the author of De-schooling Society

I got to know lots of leaders from Brazil and Latin America, particularly from Brazil and Chile, because they were in exile after dictatorships there. And there were fabulous people. Paulo Freire came by, Francisco Julião of the peasant leagues was there, some ministers of Salvador Allende, and many others.

So, they invited me to come when they organised the first World Social Forum in 2001. I was already known among the social movements, and over the years I had learnt to provide formulations of my scientific knowledge in a way that could be understood by ordinary people. So, in a sense, I had a style for my books and a style for conversation. I had to conduct lots of seminars with indigenous people, with landless movements, with women’s movements, etc. So, I became one of the influential public intellectuals in the World Social Forum. I attended all the Forums between 2001 and 2016. And we are now having a very nasty debate about the future of the forum, because it’s almost dead, but we are still discussing it.

In any case, it was really life changing, because that’s when my Western-centric knowledge finally collapsed. Being at the forums in Mumbai, in Nairobi, in Dakar, with thousands of people, hundreds of social movements, organisations that spoke different languages, different narratives of liberation. I remember that the Dalits in Mumbai didn’t even speak Hindi. But they danced, and through dance, we could understand their struggles…for land, dignity and respect basically. And I was fascinated by the diversity, the epistemic diversity of the world. I felt that Eurocentric knowledge, even the critical Eurocentric knowledge, which the most accomplished version of was Marxism, was not enough. It was not about throwing this away, but trying to combine it with other theories, with other kinds of knowledge.

The World Social Forum in Goregaon, Mumbai 2004

Of course, this was beyond the pale of our established form of thinking, which was only supposed to interact with other forms of scientific, philosophical, and theological knowledge. But never popular, vernacular, co-operative, peasant, indigenous knowledge. But that was my passion. And that’s where I learned a lot about life, about nature. There was a long transformation that started from there. By 2009, I gave the first or most complete formulation of what I call the Epistemologies of the South.

The Epistemologies of the South

3rd Space: Can you explain, what is the fundamental idea behind the Epistemologies of the South?

Boaventura: Well, it’s basically the idea that in-between all the theoretical ideas, if people are honest, there are existential bifurcations of life, those particularly intense types of life experiences that change your life and your understanding of the world. They are qualitative moments. Those qualitative moments are what the Greeks used to call the Kairos. It’s not the Chronos, which is the normal way we look at time. It is the Kairos. These moments that I have described in my life were really kairotic types of moments of transformation. So, I came slowly to see through these kairotic experiences, that what counts for most people in such an unjust society, is not just class, which I was trained to see. I was becoming more and more attentive to the questions of race, of sexism, the caste system of course in India. Because the World Social Forum would put me in contact with all these different forms of domination.

So, the first thing for me was to unpack Marxism, to decolonize it and show that in fact, capital class is not the only form of domination, but ethnic, racial and sexual background and gender issues are as well. The caste system operates with colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism together, as political religion also does in the Middle East. I started to think that probably the most basic and intensive knowledge that is developed by people is to the extent to which they resist against domination. Because to be resistant, is to get involved in a struggle. It doesn’t have to be an organised struggle as a movement or whatever. In our own life, you have to go beyond reality as it exists. Reality is not just what exists, it’s what should exist…for you. Therefore, this is the potency.

A great German philosopher, Ernst Bloch, called this the not yet , the noch nicht. Things that are not yet there. So, I think the idea of emancipation, of liberation, is always a kind of struggle for something that we are entitled to, we deserve it, but we don’t have it, and we have to struggle for it. So, the Epistemologies of the South are basic older knowledges that are born in struggle, against capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. All these three main dominations are very internally diversified. Colonialism is of course racism, but it is also expulsion of indigenous people from the territories. It is xenophobia. Even Islamophobia is a form of colonialism. Colonialism, for me, is ontological degradation.

The Abyssal Line

So, I came to see that in struggle, that’s when knowledge is produced, because you have to be innovative. I concluded that Western-centric, even Marxist knowledge, to the extent that it is not linked to struggle, establishes what I call an abyssal line, which is invisible but it’s radical, that divides humanity into two types of humans. The full human being that is protected by law, by the state, by the markets, by human rights and the subhuman. The ones that drown in the Mediterranean. They are 20,000 of them in recent years, but nobody pays attention. There is no political crisis. But of course, if they were fully human, if they were German citizens, or American citizens, or British citizens, there would be a major political crisis. But they are immigrants, brown people, Islamic people, they are subhuman. Franz Fanon used to call them the zone of non being. He has influenced me a lot in in this phase. By the way, this year, the Caribbean Philosophical Association, granted me the Franz Fanon Life Achievement Award. I was very pleased to receive this award.

I worked a lot in the past with liberation theology. I was a very good friend of a great Bishop in Brazil who was a liberation theologian. These were people who were trying to understand from below what liberation was, and trying to combine Western-centric Christianity with all the other traditions of liberation on the ground. Some of these were Afro descendant cosmovisions, or indigenous cosmovisions. So, this interculturality was very close to my own experience, and particularly the knowledge produced by people that are not entitled to know, that are not supposed to know. Whatever they know is irrelevant, is dangerous, is superstition, and should be destroyed. And in fact, it was very often destroyed. And that’s why I came up with a neologism. ‘Epistemicide’. That is to say, the destruction of knowledge.

3rd Space: And the invisibility of the abyssal line is so striking. We don’t see it.

Boaventura: We don’t see it. We have been so trained and brainwashed in the idea that we are free and equal. The French Revolution ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity…of course, we all believe in that. The problem that I have with the liberals is they think that this is reality, and for me, it’s a project. I wish we were free and equal, and that fraternity existed. But it doesn’t. It’s a project. Why is it a project? Because of the domination of colonialism capitalism, and patriarchy, and the abyssal line they have created between fully-humans and sub-humans.

The liberal ideology is so much with us, since Locke and Hobbes and so on, that we are not able to see when we look at a person from an abstraction. But if our child wants to marry someone who is black for example, we might say we are not a racist, but we don’t like it. If you are a policeman, you can put your knee on a black guy for eight minutes, like George Floyd. But if he is white, you cannot imagine it. If we see a black person walking on the street, and we move to the other side out of a sense of security. We do that subconsciously, because we are so saturated, so brainwashed in racism, in differentiation.

And even in the Asiatic world, Brahmins can’t even touch a Dalit. They build their house in such a way that the wind that comes from the Dalit’s house does not cross over to them. So, we live in racist and sexist societies, even though our ideology or our law schools are trained in universal human rights. That’s why this has remained invisible. But once you pay attention to what the courts do, to what the police do, to what professors do, to what the state does, you know that there are people and sub-people, and they are not treated the same way.

So, the Epistemologies of the South is the alternative against war, in my view, against the destruction of life, the waste of social experience. What moves me more than anything, is when I meet such wise people and receive such wisdom from our conversations. But society blocks their flourishing. It allows them to survive, but not to flourish. That’s why I’ve always been so involved in social struggles. So that’s the idea behind the Epistemologies of the South. And what I’m surprised by is that the necessity of epistemic diversity is catching the imagination of younger people at universities. We have loads of invitations from universities from England, from Oxford, from Cambridge…not from the professors, but from the students.

The Epistemologies of the South Programme in Coimbra

3rd Space: It does seem like there is the beginning of a recognition that there’s something deeply wrong with global culture. It seems like there’s just the beginning of it, with young people in particular.

Boaventura: That’s right. They have a sense of it. It is the sentiment that Greta Thunberg started with, to move millions of young people with the idea that the world is going to end. All Marxist’s said, look it’s so difficult for us to imagine the end of capitalism. And now these children are saying probably the world will end, not capitalism – the world! And they are moved to go to the streets, to protest. So, I think that’s the beginning. And that’s why I think the extreme right, the elites, the conservatives, the reactionaries, have noticed that much better than the progressive parties, and are reacting.

3rd Space: It’s interesting how you speak about the global north and the global south as not being geographic distinctions, but rather as two sides of the abyssal line, and how the abyssal line can appear in so many different guises.

Boaventura: It’s pervasive. There are many people here in Europe that experience the abyssal line every day. I usually give the example of an immigrant woman or even non-immigrant. She lives in a restaurant with a contract and therefore is what I call within the metropolitan sociability, this side of the line, the side of protection. She may get a lower salary for the same type of work that a fellow male worker does, but she can have a union, she can have some protection, she can go to court and so on. But when she leaves the restaurant after the workday and goes home, this woman may be assassinated or violently treated by an aggressive partner. So, in that movement she’s crossing the abyssal line from full humanity to sub-humanity.

I see it with my black students in Brazil. They live in the favela. They are at the University of Rio de Janeiro and there is not really a visible racism there, not at all. But when one of these students leaves the university, and goes back to the favela, as I often tell the story, the student is stopped sometimes three times by the police until they reach the favela, and the police want to inspect their backpack. And every time they just have a computer in there, nothing else. The third time the student asks the policeman, why are you checking me and stopping me? And the policeman tells him, it’s nothing against you personally. It’s because you fit the profile of people that we have to inspect whenever we meet them. So, this student is crossing the abyssal line from an area in which he is fully human, to an area in which he is subhuman. It is like the Indian woman in the public transportation in Mumbai, all of us have experienced what that scene was like. When I was there in 2006 when they still had mixed carriages on the trains, sexual assault was almost normalised. So, at that moment, the same women that were our colleagues in the World Social Forum, on the train were being treated as subhuman.

3rd Space: Exactly, and in India now because young women are getting well educated, and are getting good jobs and so forth, to men they are seen as a threat. So again, they are often in that position of crossing the abyssal line in the same way.

Boaventura: Probably the most radical critique I make against Western thinking is the abyssal line. And I’m criticised very often by people, because they live so much in the protected zone of society where we live, that they cannot imagine that there are people for whom democracy doesn’t make any sense, because they have never experienced it. And one of my main points is that colonialism was not over with independence. We live in colonial societies. They say Boa, come on, colonialism is over. And I say, ask the indigenous people, or the Afro descendant people everywhere, or peasants, if colonialism is over? Because in my experience in the seminars we held in the 90’s and early 2020’s with indigenous people in Ecuador, Bolivia, and then in Brazil, and Colombia, it was obvious that colonialism wasn’t over. In some cases it got even worse, after the European colonialists left. Because of what we call today – ‘internal colonialism’. So, it’s very difficult to break this hegemony. But I’m not surprised that younger people see it. I hope that they start from there.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos in the favela in Rio

Part Two

Colonialism, Capitalism and Patriarchy

3rd Space: Perhaps you could elaborate on how colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy work together? Because obviously, we are still so much in a position of dominance globally in the West. At the same time, we are very removed psychologically from the realities of as one example, the effects of climate change. Right now, we can see this in our relationship to the terrible floods in Pakistan.

Boaventura: In Bangladesh as well.

3rd Space: There has been a very clear mandate that the West needs to provide climate finance to the Global South, but we are still not doing it. And this is played on by the right-wing press making a point of not covering in the way they should, these disasters that are happening. So, all of this keeps adding to the way in which we maintain this colonialist mindset, and how colonialism, capitalism, which is a very important one in this – how we’ve maintained the position of being dominant, despite the so-called end of colonialism – and of course, patriarchy. And how this work together in maintaining the hegemony of the West.

Boaventura: On the empirical level, it’s very easy to see. I noticed this most recently with the pandemic. I tried to explain this in a book which has been published in Portugal with the English edition published by Routledge coming out. It is titled, From the Pandemic to Utopia – the Future Begins Now. I explain that we are not out of the pandemic period. On the contrary, we are entering a period of intermittent pandemics.

I try to demonstrate that against the common view that the virus was democratic, it was not. It was global, but not democratic. Because the most vulnerable people, who had already experienced prior pandemics of hunger and poverty and so on, were the most affected by it. I documented that in the countries where capitalism became more aggressive as a result of the pandemic, racism and sexism became also more aggressive. I start with France and the UK, because in the UK it was very clear that because of the lockdown feminicide and domestic violence increased dramatically in some cities. So, it was not a Third World type of issue. It was here at the core. So, when one of these three, colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy, gets more aggressive, they work together and support each other. Why is that? Because since the 16th century, capitalism cannot sustain itself without colonialism and patriarchy. Because in Marxist terms this would be the labour theory of value. There are certain parts of the value of labour that have to be highly devalued, because if all labour in the world were equally valid, the profitability of capitalism would go down, and it would make infinite accumulation impossible. So, at any stage sectors of the population’s work has to be highly devalued or non-paid, usually racialised or sexualised populations.

The first example of course, was slave labour. It was highly developed, because it was the person that was sold not the labour force. Then, look at the women in Bangladesh that make our clothes. When they are 35 or 40, they are blind most of them, because of the intensity of visual labour. We live today in an economy of exhaustion, that is destroying the bodies of the workers, very often by the ideology of self-enslavement, that happens also in the protected society. Because the workers are losing rights, and if labour loses rights, then people are being sent to the other side of the abyssal line.

For me today, the most interesting thing is to analyse the movements of the abyssal line in any given society. I see the abyssal line like this. On one side, there is the protected sector or metropolitan sociability, and on the other, the colonial. I see the abyssal line moving in such a way that metropolitan sociability is shrinking and colonial sociability is expanding. Through this gradual movement of the abyssal line, less and less people are fully protected. And more people are being thrown into discardable populations. Through Labour without rights, without protection and without stability, we are creating sub-humans.

3rd Space: Yes, and there’s more and more regulation getting dropped in every direction.

Boaventura: In every direction. So, I think the drama of our time, in my view, is the following. While the three main modes of domination work together, the resistance is fragmented. There are many feminist movements that have been racist, and pro-capitalist. There are many trade unions have been racist and sexist. Many anti-colonial movements have been sexist and pro-capitalist. I’ve noticed this very dramatically in my work in the World Social Forum. Our struggles are usually divided. I’m an ecologist, I’m a feminist, I’m an indigenous person and so on. And across the movements, there is no understanding. And that’s why most of my work today is what I call ‘intercultural translation’.

Intercultural Translation

3rd Space: That seems like a critical part of the solution. And I imagine it’s not easy.

Boaventura: Not easy at all. For instance, in the late 90s, I remember spending two days in Lima in Peru, in a meeting in which we decided to bring together two social movements that could not understand each other at all and would never join the same struggle against the government, against social injustice. Why? One was a feminist movement and the other an indigenous movement. The feminist movement felt that the indigenous people were the most male chauvinist pigs of the world, even worse than white people. And the indigenous people felt that the feminists were all lesbians, and being a lesbian was something wrong for them against the family. So, we brought them together for two days.

Our purpose was for the two groups to be together in the same demonstration. It was a lot of work quite frankly. But it was really fascinating because what we achieved at the end of two days was that the indigenous people knew that not all feminists are lesbians. And that after all, lesbianism is a sexual orientation, like any other, and people are not less people because they are lesbian, or gays or whatever. And for the feminists, they came to know that within the indigenous movement, there was a feminist movement of which they were not aware, because these feminists were all of them white middle class people from Lima. So, they didn’t know that there was an indigenous movement of women that were struggling for liberation within the indigenous community, with a different concept. Not the concept of equality, but one of complementarity. The kind of totality which is much more holistic than the binaries of feminism. But we’re different. So, we need to try to come together through these forms of intercultural inter-knowledge, and to build what I call the ecology of knowledges.

3rd Space: Yes, that is what I wanted to ask you. What is the approach we should be using to respond to this oppression of the global north? Because the basis of our thinking is so embedded in binaries, and is so fragmented, it goes completely against the possibility of thinking in a holistic way. This issue of cultural translation is huge and very challenging, because it requires something of the human being to enter into a form of thinking or an understanding that is entirely different from one’s own. So, the whole question of what it means to really be able to make room for the other, and another way of looking at things, seems fundamental to that process.

Boaventura: I think that there are two ideas that should guide us. First, I think that intercultural translation is key. It’s a complex type of procedure, but it’s based on the idea that there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice. That is, if there is not more of a balance among different knowledges, there is no way of bringing about social justice. Why? Because different knowledges develop different ways of representing the world. Representing the world as our own is the only way that we have to transform it, according to our aspirations. I have to know that this world belongs to me, and therefore, that I have the capacity to change it according to my own aspirations.

What we did with colonialism was in fact, to rob most of humanity of their own capacity to represent the world as their own. As Amilcar Cabral who has influenced me a lot, the liberator of Portuguese colonialism said, with colonialism we were forced to abandon our history and to enter a foreign history. So, the idea of cognitive justice is essential. But how do we achieve it? Well, I think the first idea is something that you also cannot understand from a Western perspective. That is that recognition comes before cognition.

3rd Space: Can you explain what you mean by that?

Boaventura: Re-cognition means to recognise or cognise again, right? What I’m saying is that I have to look at you, and in spite of the fact that I don’t know what you think, what you want, I have to recognise you as a possible partner with me. I always look to the priests in the favelas, because whenever someone was suffering, they wouldn’t care whether he was Catholic, or she was Catholic or Protestant, or a prostitute. She’s suffering, she’s bleeding, or he is bleeding, so we have to help. That is to say, the presence comes before representation. I must recognise that you are someone of worth, a dignified entity with whom I should have some kind of dialogue. A person before I even know you. And in order to recognise you, I need to understand that my culture and my understanding is incomplete. If my culture gives me all the answers, why should I talk to you?

3rd Space: That’s a very big part of it, isn’t it?

Boaventura: Absolutely.

3rd Space: Because we’re so convinced that we have all the answers. One of the reasons we don’t listen to anybody else, is because we think we know better, we know more.

Learned Ignorance

Boaventura: And whatever is not knowable by us is not worth knowing. What fascinates me is that colonialism has impoverished not only the world in terms of the other knowledges that have been suppressed, but it has impoverished Western thinking as well. This is quite a heretic type of position, but I take full responsibility for it. I think that before colonialism, despite the elitism and religious background, even in Europe, there was more of a universality on a horizontal understanding of the other. For instance, currently I’m publishing an article for a British Journal published by Hurst, it’s by Muslim colleagues from Pakistan that live in London, called Critical Muslim. I go back to the 14th century here in Europe, with a philosopher Nicholas of Cusa, who in 1441 published a book in Latin, De Docta Ignorantia, which means ‘Learned Ignorance’. Because usually we are ignorant in a way that we don’t know that we’re ignorant.

Nicholas of Cusa

I think the arrogant ignorance of the West is that probably it does not perceive itself as ignorant, because anything that does not fit its own model of knowing, is not worth knowing. So, this is the ignorant ignorance. But then there is learning, which is being conscious of not knowing. The more you know the more you know that you don’t know. And the more aware you are of your incompleteness, the more reliable is your knowledge. Because Nicolas of Cuza had no problem citing on a horizontal basis a spiritual scholar from Islam called Al-Ghazali from Persia. He was one of the most famous scholars there. I was surprised that in the 15th century, they were reading each other. And then suddenly from the end of the 18th century onwards, all “the others” are seen as savages, as inferior.

A great German physicist, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker was Director of one of the Max Planck Institutes (at Starnberger see). Between 1987 and 1988 there were two directors, one for the natural sciences and the other for the social sciences. The director for social science was Jurgen Habermas, and Von Weizsacker was the director for the natural science. And we met at lunch to have a discussion. And it was interesting that it was this physicist that said, look in science we can only respond to questions that we can formulate in scientific terms. But, he added, this is quite a limitation, and we are not aware of this fact. And then he asked the hard questions, the very important questions, as we were around the table. Questions that cannot be formulated in scientific terms. What is happiness? What is the sense of life? Why are we here? Are our ancestors with us? And even more…What is the meaning and the sense and the purpose of doing science? That is not a scientific question.

So, anything that you cannot formulate in scientific terms, there is no way of responding to in science. That’s why science is very good for information and knowledge, and very poor for wisdom. So, for the ecology of knowledges for intercultural translation, where does equality come from? Is there someone who may have very little of the type of knowledge or information that we have, but may provide us with so much wisdom?

An Ecology of Knowledge Systems

The ecology of knowledges is different from a mere dialogue between knowledges. Ecology is the coexistence of different systems that are mutually enriching, and not self-destructive. Ecology is the way in which you can interact systems and they change, respond, react, but in a way that is mutually productive. Ecology is the transformative dimension of the dialogue, where knowledge is changed.

3rd Space: Right. And it’s objective, in the sense that some forms of knowledge are suitable for certain things, and other forms of knowledge, have their own strength in other areas. So, by working together, they enrich each other. Because I was thinking about what you said how in the West, we have so denigrated our form of thinking. We’ve excluded so much, so many different ways of understanding the world that we’ve exhausted our particular form of knowledge, and now we’re seeing the results of that, so dramatically across the world. Whereas, what you’re describing has to do with in a way, the nature of truth, of objectivity, of what is the right way to respond to life. So, in a sense there’s an objectivity to that. For example, our relationship to the natural world. We are in a global crisis as a result of alienating ourselves from the natural world and using it only as a resource. So, I’m just struck by how enriched the world would be if we were able to incorporate an ecology of knowledge systems.

Boaventura: Yes, absolutely. Because I think it is both an epistemological and a political issue. Take an example. If I want to go to the moon, I need scientific knowledge. If I want to know the biodiversity of Amazonia, I need indigenous knowledge, because they are the ones that know the plants and everything. For different purposes, different types of knowledge. It so happens that we in Western thinking only value the objectives that can be reached by technological knowledge. And that’s why we are suffering in the way we are. That’s the reason for this ecological catastrophe. I think as Nicholas of Cusa would say, absolute truth is beyond our capacity, because it’s divine, so to say. What is human is the search for truth, not Truth. But it is multifaceted, it is so diverse. There are different ways of approaching it. So, I think if we look at the multifacetedness of the search for truth, we can be enriched.

We are doing this for two reasons. One, is because indigenous people, after all the failures of development, have become more visible. And today there are sections of the United Nations, forums in which the indigenous people have their voices heard. And so, they are much more visible. But they’re also more visible because you can see the consequences of the destruction of nature that we have been producing, this metabolic rift, as Marx used to say, between nature and capitalist labour, that destroys nature. And that’s why in this most recent book that is being published by Cambridge (Law and the Epistemologies of the South), the last chapter is on the rights of nature. The idea that a river may have human rights. So, we need to revolutionise legal theory, so that this becomes a kind of a jurisprudence.

A Fight Against Incommensurability

Intercultural translation is not about complete transparency. It is a fight against incommensurability. But at the same time there are limits. For instance, when I’m dealing with indigenous people about rivers, I follow the conversation, and we are in the same struggle. But I can see that I cannot understand the spirituality of them. Because I was trained to see that God was up there, while for them, whatever is divine and transcendent is embodied in nature. So, the idea that there’s a river or a mountain, in Ecuador, the mountains are sacred, is something that I can relate to. But deep in my mind, it’s difficult to see the sacredness, to experience it. But once you know you have limits, and your partner also probably has other limits, you can enter a real conversation, without ever achieving completeness, because there is no complete type of knowledge. Because again, that is the realm of the Divine, absolute. But we can at least be more aware of our incompleteness. And the fascinating thing about human beings is that the more incomplete you are, the more full you are. Because you are more aware of your humanity as a limited living thing that has to live with others.

The sacred river in New Zealand that was given legal rights

Human life on the planet is 0.01% of the life of the total life of the planet. So, we are a tiny minority of life on the planet, and we have been trying to destroy the planet. So, the Gaia hypothesis is a very good hypothesis, that says that probably the planet will go on without us. Because we are a small portion of the life of the planet and we have been so arrogant, that we cannot figure out that this is such a tragedy. But, because we are now confronted with this catastrophe, all these other knowledges that were considered rubbish and superstition, all of sudden become serious, and we can pay attention to them. So, I think this is a time, as you were saying, the beginning of a transition. This transition is cognitive and epistemic, that’s what my task is, what I see as my task. It will always be political because you can never advance in this without an anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle. But if I can see that the land and the nature is my mother, I cannot destroy it. I can use it, but I cannot destroy it.

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Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

2 Responses

  1. Fascinating! What a rich life that de Sousa Santos has lived, and to start or be in the midst of many social movements globally.
    He has provided so many new terms for an ecology of knowledge.
    We need a glossary.
    I cannot comment more and must re-cognize what has been written.

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