PRINT Summer 2018


Vesconte Maggiolo, portolan planisphere (detail), 1531, lapis lazuli, pigment, gold, and silver on vellum, 36 × 80 3/8".

ONE OF THE MOST innovative Western intellectuals of the twentieth century, Pier Paolo Pasolini, wrote in 1966 that we are often prisoners of sick words. He was talking about words that seem to be full of meaning but are in fact meaningless—or, perhaps more precisely, words that have vague and mysterious connotations but leave us very anxious because of their appearance of stability and coherence. Pasolini mentions three sick words—cinema, man, and dialogue—while insisting that there are many more. I think that Enlightenment is one of them. That we are prisoners of this word has already been shown by Foucault. However, addicted as he was to the idea of power, Foucault failed to recognize that prisoners are never fully imprisoned and that resistance is never solely determined by the conditions the oppressor imposes. After all, the revolutionary accomplishments of the protagonists of the European Enlightenment tell us precisely that. We must start here, where Foucault left us. Will we be able to cure this sick word? I doubt it. But if there is a cure, it will definitely take place against the patient’s will.

If you ask a Buddhist what Enlightenment is, you may get an answer like Matthieu Ricard’s. For Ricard, a monk living in Nepal, Enlightenment entails

a state of perfect knowledge or wisdom, combined with infinite compassion. Knowledge in this case does not mean merely the accumulation of data or a description of the world of phenomena down to the finest details. Enlightenment is an understanding of both the relative mode of existence (the way in which things appear to us) and the ultimate mode of existence (the true nature of these same appearances). This includes our own minds as well as the external world. Such knowledge is the basic antidote to ignorance and suffering.

How different is Ricard’s Enlightenment from the Enlightenment of Kant or Locke or Diderot? Both conceptions imply a rupture with the world as it is offered to us. Both call for a continuous struggle for truth and knowledge, and, for both, the ultimate goal amounts to a revolution—an inner revolution in the case of Buddhist Enlightenment, a social and cultural revolution in the case of the European Enlightenment. Are there continuities between these ruptures so far apart in genesis and outcome? Should we take for granted that we know ourselves when we know the world, as the European Enlightenment promises us, or should we take for granted that we know the world once we know ourselves, as Buddhist Enlightenment promises us? Which is the more impossible task? Which brings more risks for those unconvinced by its promises? Finally, why is asking about the European Enlightenment so much more relevant and controversial today, more than two centuries after its formulation, than asking about Buddhist Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment created the state of nature, and consigned vast swaths of humanity, and vast bodies of knowledge, to it.

The strength of the European Enlightenment is based on two unconditional quests: the search for scientific knowledge, understood as the only true form of knowing and the sole source of rationality, and the effort to vanquish “darkness”—that is, to banish everything unscientific or irrational.The unconditionality of the quests is premised on the unconditionality—the ostensibly self-evident worthiness—of the causes that guide them. And such unconditional causes (or so the logic goes) must lead to unqualifiedly positive consequences for humanity. Herein hides the fatal weakness, the Achilles heel, of such an extreme strength. Relying on a single conception of knowledge and social rationality necessitates sacrificing everything that doesn’t conform. To sacrifice is not merely to make an offering; to sacrifice is to negate something in order to affirm something else. This is the atavistic impulse underpinning the Enlightenment construction of “universal” humanity, which sacrificed some humans by banishing them from the category, like the ancient scapegoat driven into the desert. This explains why human rights may be violated in the name of human rights, democracy may be destroyed in the name of democracy, death may be celebrated in the name of life. What makes the European Enlightenment so fatally relevant, and so in need of constant reappraisal, is that, unlike other Enlightenment projects (such as the Buddhist one), its power to impose its ideas on others is ruled not by those ideas but rather by the idea of power itself—by the imperative to prevail, through violence if necessary, over those unconvinced by supposedly enlightened ideas or disastrously affected by those concepts’ deployment in economic, social, cultural, and political life.

Shakyamuni Buddha with Avadana legend scenes, Tibet, 19th century, pigment on cloth, 33 5/8 × 22 1/4".

The sacrificial nature of the European Enlightenment manifests itself in the way it reasons without reason; the way it presents the options it discarded or the roads it has not taken as proof that no other options, no other paths were possible; the way it justifies catastrophic results as inevitable collateral damage. These operations draw an abyssal line between the bright light of the unqualified good causes and enlightened social arrangements on one side and the deep darkness of silenced alternatives and destructive consequences on the other. Historically, capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy have been the main forces sustaining the chasmic boundary between fully human beings deserving of life and discardable subhuman creatures.

This abyssal line is an epistemic one. Social justice requires cognitive justice, and cognitive justice requires recognizing that the quarrel between science and its foils, philosophy and theology, lies comfortably within Enlightenment epistemology. What needs to be grasped is the fact that these modes of knowledge collectively oppose forms of common or indigenous thought that fall entirely outside the Western paradigm. The colonial as such might be defined in terms of this epistemological terra incognita. As Locke tellingly observed: “In the beginning all the world was America.” Far from representing transcendence of the proverbial “state of nature,” the Enlightenment created the state of nature, and consigned vast swaths of humanity, and vast bodies of knowledge, to it. Cartography, as a discipline, inscribed a precise demarcation of the civilized metropole from the savage lands (American, African, Australian . . .) far away. That “natural” world, per Locke’s geo-temporal logic, also became a “natural” history. The contemporaneity and simultaneity of the worlds of the colonial other became a past within the present.

To arrive at the kind of postabyssal thinking that moves beyond the metropolitan/colonial binary entirely, it is necessary to wage a battle that exceeds epistemic parameters. Hegemonic power can only be confronted by the struggles of those social groups that have been systematically injured and deprived of representing the world as their own. Their knowledges, born in anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-patriarchal struggles, constitute what I call the epistemologies of the South and bring to light other ways of knowing and good living (buen vivir).1 Such struggles are not ruled by counter-Enlightenment principles (the rightist option); rather, they elicit the possibility of a conversation among different Enlightenment projects.They rely on reasonableness rather than on rationality and start from consequences rather than from causes. The notion of cause as the privileged object of knowledge—the idea that our task is to dig down deeper and deeper until we finally arrive at an epistemological bedrock, the causa sui or uncaused cause—is itself an artifact of Western modernity. For the oppressed, an epistemology of consequences makes experience legible and justice possible. And such a mode of knowing has no bedrock—it can elaborate itself endlessly, a baroque structure whose turbulent energies move margin to center, figure nonlinearity, and subvert hierarchy.2 Only in this way can ruins be converted into seeds.

Boaventura De Sousa Santos is professor of sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal and distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South, forthcoming from Duke University Press.


1. Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2014); Boaventura de Sousa Santos, The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming).

2. On the emancipatory potential of the ethos of the Baroque, see my Toward a New Common Sense: Law, Science and Politics in the Paradigmatic Transition (New York: Routledge, 1995), 499–506.