Recognizing and celebrating Guyanese philosophy

IN the Diaspora (This is one of a series of fortnightly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guy-ana and the Carib-bean)

By Nigel Westmaas

Nigel Westmaas is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College, New York, and is a former WPA executive member

The recent passing of renowned historian, linguist, anthropologist, and philosopher of the first order, Ivan van Sertima, allows for some preliminary musings on the subject of Guyanese philosophy, its tradition and “acceptance.” Amid all the cynicism, emigration and a multitude of other problems bedeviling Guyana after more than a half century of political and social decline, can one safely raise the issue of a Guyanese philosophical tradition? In spite of the skepticism this might attract, it is important, as Rupert Roopnaraine states in his study of Stanley Greaves, “to celebrate the garden over the ashes” and respond to an often overlooked legacy.  Guyana possesses a history of philosophical enquiry and output rarely acknowledged, perhaps on account of the guilt and division amplified by our pre and post independence condition (if a situation such as “post-independence” still exists).

What exactly is philosophy and can we extend its usage here?  To appreciate philosophy’s use we must eliminate the mystique from the term itself. The Concise Oxford dictionary describes it as 1. Study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence/a set of theories of a particular philosopher/the study of the theoretical basis of a branch of knowledge or existence 2. a theory or attitude that guides one’s behaviour. The term “philosophy” then in its broad sense and tradition is very rich and embraces many areas of learning.

Evidently, the accreditation “philosophy” has for too long been restricted to the domain of mainstream western philosophers like Socrates, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Herbert Spencer, Arthur Schopenhauer or Karl Marx. While Kant, Marx et al are important philosophers and thinkers who should be read and appreciated, they are not the only source of human thinking and philosophy on a global scale. Many local contributions and bodies of work have been unconsciously disregarded because of probable insecurity on what constitutes philosophy and a lack of confidence in the assertion.

But how do we define Guyanese philosophy?

Some time ago, an article in the Guyana media highlighted one source of the unheralded Guyanese philosophical tradition. Terence Roberts, writing in the Sunday Chronicle, identified Wilson Harris as “perhaps the first truly original Guyanese philosopher.” He made his case on the basis of Harris’s “curious prose” and literary work.

In his book Caliban’s Reason, an exposition on Caribbean philosophy, Paget Henry divided philosophers into two spheres, poeticists and historicists. For poeticists, he placed Wilson Harris and Sylvia Wynter (Jamaican writer) and for the historicists, Frantz Fanon and others.  While the Guyanese philosophical tradition presumably holds its own ‘poeticists’ and ‘historicists’, we can also interpret and identify an even broader philosophical tradition.

An affirmation of a Guyanese philosophical tradition must also assert, apart from the western traditional borrowings and ‘accepted’ tenets of ‘philosophy’, the African and Indian oral and linguistic tradition, Amerindian cosmology and the Rastafarian faith among other contributions. Van Sertima was certainly a prime example of one who courageously broke with conventional thinking and presented radical and controversial ideas on the contribution of Africans and native peoples to science, philosophy and general human development even before the European contributions. Amerindian cosmology is part and parcel of the philosophy in the Americas long before Columbus and Cortes appeared on the horizon. Likewise, Amerindian rock paintings, along with the wisdom of village elders, are indigenous founts of philosophy.

It is high time we examine and determine what constitutes a Guyanese philosophy and its main contributors and assemble the material, publish (or re-publish and make available), and include same in national discussion. This might, just might, spark respect for the body of Guyanese intellect and philosophy untarnished by racial, political, and individual insecurity. But the process of exploration and definition of Guyanese philosophy should be wary of empty clichés and claims, intermittent nationalism and the unnecessary measurement of local versus foreign thinking or work.  Few apply ‘local’ German restrictions to a western philosopher like Nietzsche.

Over time, Guyana boasts names drawn from various disciplines (historians, poets, writers, academics, painters, anthropologists). Readers and pundits will have many other insertions of their own, but in no particular order, and of different eras and disciplines, what about the work, printed and unprinted, and contribution to Guyanese thinking from Ivan Van Sertima, Martin Carter, Wilson Harris,  Eusi Kwayana, Janette Forte, Elsa Goveia, Lloyd Searwar, Mary Noel Menezes, John Rickford, Stanley Greaves, Joel Benjamin, Mahadai Das, Richard Allsopp, Jan Carew,  George Mentore, Rupert Roopnaraine, George Simon, Brian Moore, Clem Seecharan, E. R Burrowes, Winston McGowan,  Denis Williams, Mohamed Shahabudeen, Norman Cameron, Donald Locke,  Aubrey Williams, Clive Thomas,  Harold Lutchman, and Walter Rodney, among others?   Surely, these and other Guyanese convey stature in philosophy and intellect, whether national, regional or international?  Critics might suggest this embrace and latitude of local individual talent is too wide for ‘philosophy’. True. The term “philosophy” entails a body of ideas, oral or written, that is restrictive and we might only subjectively classify some in the group (or other names) as philosophers. However, as indicated, philosophy embraces multiple disciplines, and, while acknowledging the difference between general recognition of unsung Guyanese talents and their recognition as ‘philosophers’,  it is only in the evaluation and organisation of the works of these and other Guyanese that those restrictions will become evident and/or other inclusions made. This legacy, the men and women who contributed to Guyanese philosophy (or for safety, Guyanese thinking) should be acknowledged, and perhaps included in subjects and courses in schools, the university and for popular public access and discourse.

Walter Rodney in surveying the cultural and artistic heritage in Guyana once remarked, “things are bad but one must concede that even in the most difficult of conditions great works of art have been produced.”

Can we extend this to the need for recognition and appreciation of Guyanese philosophers and the substantive works present in many fields of Guyanese endeavour?

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