Volume 7, Number 2 (Spring 2004)
ISSN 1094-902X

 

 

 

 

Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy. By Paget Henry. New York, London: Routledge, 2000. Pp.Xiii + 304. $90.00, cloth; $26.95, paper.

Paget Henry’s book fills an important intellectual void. It articulates the distinctive Afro-Caribbean philosophical consciousness within the wider framework of African, European, and Afro-American philosophical traditions. Henry must be commended for his intellectual courage and ability to create a text on the subject of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. His affirmation of the tradition, life of reason, of Afro-Caribbean philosophy scandalizes those, past and present, who have a vested historical interest in the profound enmeshment of Caliban’s reason, being, and consciousness in Prospero’s, both characters from William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Henry’s work unmasks these notions in a well-organized, comprehensive text that covers Afro-American philosophy in the modern world and offers direction for the future. Comprehensiveness renders the text guilty of omissions and detailed treatment, in parts; the result of selection. It is doubtful, however, whether inclusion of those omissions would have significantly altered the fundamental nature of Caliban’s Reason. The main goal of Caliban’s Reason is to reverse the liminality to which people of African descent, along with their traditional philosophical and religious traditions, have been assigned in the modern world. The telos of Caliban’s Reason is to re-assign the destiny of people of African descent in the modern world. Consequently, Caliban’s self-reflection, philosophizing, is of necessity, critical. Caliban’s philosophy, in this regard, has tremendous significance for the creation of democracy and the democratic institutions in the modern world. Its goal is Caliban’s humanization.

Imagining the enslaved, disenfranchised Amerindian, and later African non-person as the descendants of Caliban figures them as having no self autonomy or philosophy of their own. Paget Henry’s work overturns this misrepresentation. It asserts that there has been the phenomenon known as Afro-Caribbean philosophy. In response to Tim Hector’s question, "Where is our philosophy?", Paget Henry replies with a text that affirms that "Caribbean philosophy has been carefully embedded in the practices of nonphilosophical discourses almost to the point of concealment" (xi). In other words, Caliban’s reason has been imbedded in the pains and conflicts of Caribbean life. In essence Caliban’s Reason is the answer to the question of the meaning of Caribbean existence. Socratically, it is a response to interrogation of existence without which life is not worth living. Artistically, according to Bob Marley, it is the result of self-reflection to the imperative, "open your eyes and look within, are you satisfied with the life you are living?" On the one hand, Prospero must legitimate the subaltern condition to which he subjects Caliban. On the other hand, Caliban’s resolve is to get his island back. In his quest for liberation, and psychic re-integration, Caliban must be prepared to go, intellectually, spiritually, and otherwise, where he has not been before. Caliban’s Reason is therefore an exercise in intellectual excavation and/or recovery. The work of recovery, whose purpose is to transcend the invisibility and non-recognition in which Afro-Caribbean identity is buried, is the process or form of a double excavation. It is the re-construction or creation of a new architecture of Afro-Caribbean being in relationship to self, history, and the world, which calls for new regional epistemes, discursive frameworks, is significant to Henry’s work. First, it is the excavation of the tradition as a whole. Second, it is excavation of Afro-Caribbean philosophy.

The conjuncture between history and existence is evident in Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Caliban, which refers to the character in Shakespeare’s work The Tempest, plays on the term cannibal. Caliban is the Other constructed by Eurocentric totalizing intellectual hegemony in order to legitimate conquest of non-European peoples at the dawn of the modern era. Prospero, who represents the Eurocentric perspective, has worked magic on Caliban and enslaved her/him. From Prospero’s perspective, philosophy must legitimate domination. From Caliban’s it must, depending on Caliban’s resolve, promote historical and self liberation. Since Henry’s work is also, of necessity, a history of Afro-Caribbean philosophy, Caliban, the incarcerated Amerindian/African psyche, is an appropriate historical and existential point of departure for answering the question of Afro-Caribbean philosophy. Caliban’s Reason, argues Henry, is the long answer to the question of Caribbean existence; an existence in which African slaves and their descendants were displaced from their ancestral homeland, religion, philosophy and culture. It describes in detail an implicit style of philosophizing that has been embedded in other Caribbean discourses such as ideological, literary, and religious production. These interdiscursive locations gave Caribbean philosophy only limited visibility. This limited recognition, reduced to naught in the cases of Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean philosophies by clouds of racist invisibility that descended over them during the colonial period, resulted in Caliban’s marginalization in Caribbean and global society.

The poeticist and the historicist are the two, apparently conflictual, dimensions or traditions in this process of excavating a post-Caliban archeology of being. The philosophical discourse of poeticism analyzes the motives and mythopoetics of white and black subjectivities. Historicism’s philosophical discourse analyzes institutions of racial domination and the conditions for their political transformation (161). Following the processes of excavation, Henry focuses intensely, though not exclusively on the school of Afro-Caribbean historicism (xi-xii). Afro-Caribbean historicism is further subdivided into Pan-Africanists and Marxists. Henry’s desire, however, is to bridge the divide between members of the poeticist and the historicist schools. The goal is Caribbean integration. To Henry, the responses of the Caribbean imagination to its social crisis have been both historicist and poeticist. These discursive responses belong together. Conjointly, they constitute the total Caribbean response to the trauma of colonization. They have appeared together in many major Caribbean thinkers only to separate in one direction or the other (112-113). Caribbean history testifies to the radical tension between fusion and diffusion in Caliban’s consciousness in her/his struggle for self-reformation. Henry does a fine job, though his use of technical, psychological language might cause some readers to lose interest on occasion, in showing the inner struggles of Caliban’s ego as it wrestles to overcome the historical alienation experienced in the modern world. Caliban must make an autonomous decision on the matter and be prepared to enter regions that Caesar never knew (143).

Caliban’s Reason is written in a very scholarly, intellectual, intense, and insightful fashion. Henry's mastery of the major modern European philosophical traditions, including more contemporary ones, his ability to critically analyze them in relationship to Afro-Caribbean philosophy is noteworthy. This causes the reader to patiently make way through the text, carefully follow the provocative arguments and authorial reflections, and to sense the need to read, revisit, or exercise hermeneutical suspicion with respect to Western philosophy, especially with regard to the liminality of traditional African religions and philosophy. As far as Henry is concerned Caliban cannot be redeemed without proper re-appropriation of her/his African heritage.

In part, Caliban’s Reason has an authority because it is written in an Afro-Caribbean voice with an apparently deep concern for Caliban’s rehabilitation. The voice of Caliban’s Reason articulates the pain, the constant wrestling with the threat of non-being associated with that pain, at the center of Caribbean existence since 1492. What emerges, as Henry takes the reader through Caliban’s Reason, is the determination of the oppressed consciousness, Caliban’s, to create freedom reconstitute identity, transform history, and constitute a new world in response to the tragedy of slavery and colonialism. The goal of Caliban’s Reason is not only to show the Afro-Caribbean contribution to Caliban’s ego-formation, of reformation, but to situate that contribution with relationship to Afro-American, and African contributions to that struggle, within the context of the modern world which made Caliban, along with his/her African heritage, invisible. This world misrepresented and allowed Caliban cramped spaces for development. Despite some progress in the academic world, Caliban’s philosophic discourse remains a subtext. A major goal of Caliban’s Reason is to maintain visibility, give direction, suggest strategies and project the future concerning the re-mapping of Caliban’s existence. Paget Henry is right in sensing that visions of human wholeness, individually and collectively, will come to disappoint until, and unless, Caliban’s reason is truly integrated into the philosophic discourses which name the future.

The organization of Caliban’s Reason reflects the way in which the author seeks to unfold the work’s argument. Following the preface, the book seeks to develop its subject matter with an introduction and ten chapters, divided into three parts, followed by conclusion, notes, and index. The arguments of Caliban’s Reason unfold in three basic parts. The first part, sampling the founding texts, examines a number of founding texts to establish a number of basic themes and concerns. These include the nature of the African philosophical heritage and the primary claims of the poeticists and historicists. The second part, unity, rationality, and Africana thought, consists of three intermediary reflections that take up some important issues in and around Afro-Caribbean philosophy: its relationships to poststructuralism, to Afro-American philosophy, and to Western concepts of rationality. The third part, reconstructing Caribbean historicism, is an in-depth focus on the historicist’s school and the major problems confronting it (18).

In the earlier chapters Henry examines the peripheral, categorical, and existential dynamics that produced the negation and invisibility of Caliban’s reason. He then traces the return to visibility by identifying some important philosophical contributions that have emerged from Caliban’s thought. Included are C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Wilson Harris, Sylvia Wynter, with a multitude of background voices in the textual landscape. Henry shows how each problematized the question of being, or non-being, and defined new paradigms of postcolonial being. His critical evaluation of James, Fanon, Harris and Wynter in terms of what they make of African Traditional Religion and Philosophy in Caliban’s quest for self-repossession is well worth the reading. Henry then brings his interrogation of James, Fanon, Harris and Wynter into dialogue with the African-American philosophic tradition (chap. 6). He draws on the important philosophic contributions of Cornel West, Lucius Outlaw, and Lewis Gordon. The chapter’s purpose is essentially to thematize commonalities between Afro-Caribbean and African-American Philosophy. Afro-Caribbean and African-American Religious Traditions, the discursive foundations of Afro-Caribbean and African-American Philosophy simply because they were the initial expressions of Caliban’s resistance to dispersion and colonization. Henry argues that the initial set of counterchallenges must have been formulated primarily in the discourses of traditional African religions. These were supported by responses in the more auxiliary discourses of African magic, ritual, song, and philosophy. These discourses sustained African ego formation and hence the ones that Africans were able to reproduce in America and the Caribbean. (157-158).

In further tracing the return to visibility by identifying some important philosophical contributions that have emerged from Caliban’s thought, Henry deepens the critical dialogue between Caliban’s thought and contemporary Western philosophy. He takes up the problem of rationality in contemporary Western societies from the perspective of the most liminalized of Caliban’s discourses: the traditional African heritage. From this perspective he addresses two sets of problems: The blind and excessive growth of technocratic rationality in Western societies and the difficulties these societies have experienced in renewing certain types of meaning-and world-constituting practices vital for their ethical and normative foundations. Methodologically he does so through an Africana critique of Habermas’s communicative response to the problem of Western rationality (167). Henry concludes that "the crucial point that emerges from this liminal underside of Western rationality is that Habermas needs the reconciliatory rationality of myth as an ally ...to overcome the bad-faith strategies that empower the blind one-sidedness of the project of technocratic reason." Essentially, Henry is arguing that, for Habermas’ communicative project to be effective, it must be radically inclusive, rather than exclusive, empathetic, rather than comparative. The point is relevant to the study of Black Religion and Theology as well as ecumenism. In the development of the modern, in which technocratic rationality became dominant (165), Traditional African Religion and Philosophy, was classified as primitive and backward. Since modern theories of religion, and the comparative study of religions, in the West refracted its scientific imperialism it was an easy step to make toward the West making Caliban, along with her/his religion invisible. Unless this prejudice is reversed it will be impossible for genuine communication to take place. Real dialogue cannot occur since the event will not be the meeting between equals. At the table Caliban will be theorized as savage and unequal. In chaps. 8, 9, Henry further interrogates Caribbean historicism to excavate its stance toward Caliban. Caribbean historicism has developed in two major directions that quite often have been at odds with each other. First was the Pan-Africanist tendency, which placed the emphasis on racial liberation and the cultivating of strong ties with Africa and Afro-America. Second was the Marxist tendency that stressed class liberation and solidarity with proletarian and other class-dominated groups (197). On reflection, "we examined some of the practical and technical problems confronting Caribbean historicism. These problems developed in relation to two basic trends: the need for the region to insert itself more competitively in an increasing marketized, technified, and still white-dominated world economy; and corresponding declines in the performative capabilities of Caribbean states. These two factors have created crisis situations for Caribbean historicism, in both its racial and Marxists variants. Consequently any attempt at reconstructing this tradition must address these practical problems (247;269).

With respect to ego-formation, or subjective reformation, the work goes beyond the Reformation and Modern periods in raising the question what it cost for Caliban to renew him/herself. Henry’s work, in witnessing to this fact, salutes Caliban, and charts trajectories of Afro-Caribbean Philosophy related to Caliban’s quest to recover subjectivity. Religion has been a foundational discourse in this respect. Caliban must recover her/his roots, heritage, to refashion/refresh/repossess her/himself. This is a major insight on Henry’s part. He emphasizes it throughout his work, including his critique of James, Fanon, and Habermas.

Regrettably, a work of such significance has no bibliography. The endnotes, essentially references, do not compensate for the omission. Henry’s valuable work, which has drawn on other scholarly works, should have had a bibliography to give, amongst other things, a field for further reading and study of the issues raised in his book. Caliban’s Reason is a work of stewardship since it critically, analytically, yet appreciatively, revisits the diverse, specialized work of various thinkers in the making of the modern Caribbean. It provides a comprehensive look at the way philosophy has functioned in the Caribbean. This achievement provides an intellectual context for imagining the future. Afro-Caribbean philosophy arises from the consciousness of an imploded African existence that has been racialized and colonized by Europeans and other expressions of imperial totalizations in the Caribbean basin (98). The ongoing task of Afro-Caribbean philosophy is to reverse the pattern, and legacy, of imploded existence. Religion is, and will continue to be, an indispensable part of Caliban’s reconstructive project. Arguably, contemporary religious expressions in the Caribbean will reflect Caliban’s response to continued implosions of his/her world.

At times this reader felt that Henry lost his grasp of the historical Caliban in his study of Caliban’s thought. However, this might well not be the case. Invisibility has been part of Caliban’s problem. Caliban’s presence and reason have been before Western eyes throughout the modern period. As Henry suggests, earlier problem of the color-line made Caliban invisible. Today, technological imperialism further threatens Caliban’s invisibility and the renewal of her/his culture. Tragic has been the failure to recognize Caliban in the modern world. Marginalization of the African heritage, in the academy and other Western, and non-Western institutions, will create civilizational fault lines. They will lead to further tragic experience of the breakdown of community, the original sin, from Caliban’s perspective. Because Caliban is a product of the modern world her/his reason is instrumentally significant in the construction of a post-modern world. Henry’s work, Caliban’s Reason, is an excellent contribution in challenging us to bridge the chasm between chaos or community. Caliban’s Reason is a reminder that Caliban, and his descendants, have a charge to keep, to liberate themselves from historical invisibility. Each generation must shoulder Caliban’s struggle. If it is to have a future it must excavate Caliban’s reason, and ancestral heritage, from the wreckage of history. Caliban, the historian, has known what it means to live with "one’s back against the wall." Caliban, the poet, facing the same historical reality, has spoken in the face of the void. Hence, Henry’s concern for union/communion between the historicist and poeticist traditions in Afro-Caribbean philosophy, emphasized in the final chapters and conclusion of his book, is Caliban’s call for the creation of community and integration in the Caribbean and the world. Within community Caliban will transcend invisibility and philosophy will serve peace.

Leslie R. James, DePauw University


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