mars 2, 2024

Reports from Abroad: Dr. Mouhamadou El Hady Ba

20 min read
Reports from Abroad Dr Mouhamadou El Hady Ba | StirlingPhilosophy

This series questions and complicates what ‘reporting from abroad’ can mean in a globalised world that faces interconnected and local crises alongside forces grappling with how to liberate our beings from oppressive structures rooted in past and present (neo)colonialism and imperialism. We can take this as a chance to collectively and constructively consider both broader and different conceptions of philosophy than those more widely studied within USA institutions and culture—and consider the conditions that shape such studies around the globe by APA-related thinkers. We can learn how local institutions and global contexts shape the possibilities of research, speech, and our visions of philosophy.

Meet Mouhamadou El Hady Ba: 

Mouhamadou El Hady Ba is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cheikh Anta Diop University, where he also originally studied undergraduate and graduate philosophy. He received his Masters of Cognitive Science in a Computer Science Department at Paris-Saclay University (then Paris Sud Orsay, or Paris XI), worked for a few years in the industry, and studied for a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at the Jean Nicod Institute under François Recanati. This past academic year Dr. Hady Ba visited the Philosophy Department of the University of Connecticut at Storrs as a Fulbright Research Scholar, and, now back in Dakar, retains an affiliation as an Associate Research Scholar at the University of Connecticut.

Dr. Ba further reflects: “I used to see myself as a hard-headed scientist. I thought that philosophical problems were puzzles to solve using our best scientific theories, and so I have always worked at the frontier between philosophy and the sciences. I benefited a lot from my undergraduate degrees in Dakar: even though I specialized in logic and philosophy of science (specifically physics), the philosophy degree required students to have a thorough knowledge of the so-called ‘continental tradition,’ and to read African and Islamic philosophy (unfortunately with less focus on East Asian traditions). Participating in local debates in Dakar shifted me to work on questions outside my specialization and with different conceptions of knowledge, which brought me to write my book on the epistemology of the Global South. I am also working on two more ‘classical’ projects: one on knowledge-first epistemology, where I argue that knowledge cannot be factive; and a second on what recent research on animal cognition can teach us about human nature. I would certainly not have been interested in the epistemology of the Global South if I weren’t based in Senegal or at least in Africa. Had I stayed in France or moved to another western country, I would probably have continued working at the frontier between science and philosophy, and wouldn’t have been drawn into debates about non-scientific forms of knowledge. The latter two projects are more in line with what I studied in France and would have continued if I had moved directly from Jean Nicod to an American University..”

Please describe the research that is your primary area while in (or reason for being in) Dakar, Senegal. 

For a very long time, I was convinced that location didn’t matter. I wanted to have an objective understanding of human nature, and thought that the sciences were the way to attain this: ask philosophical questions and then use the resources and methods of science until they appear to reach their limits—then go further. Of course, I was absolutely wrong. Coming back to Senegal from France, I could not escape very concrete problems that a philosophical outlook helped me see and address. Thus, rather than pursuing research in philosophy of mind, epistemology, or philosophy of language, I then focused on philosophical problems pertaining to Africa’s situation. The local philosophical community was interested in questions like the place of the African continent in a globalized world, the problem of underdevelopment, African unity, and the universality (or lack thereof) of scientific norms and methods. I ended up working on these questions as well as on more technical questions related to my primary area of specialization and interest: cognitive science. 

Living in Dakar, I became so caught up in debates about the nature of knowledge that I decided to take some time off to research a book about the so-called ‘epistemologies from the South.’ I used to dismiss such research and didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I am still very suspicious of most research in this area because it confuses ideology with philosophy, and sometimes aims to get rid of objectivity and standards of rationality. However, I am now convinced of the value of work being done in this area as it deals with an extremely important topic, regardless of ideology. In Senegal, as in many African societies, endogenous knowledge has been almost totally destroyed by enslavement and colonization. Following Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji, I use ‘endogenous’ rather than ‘indigenous’ knowledge because endogenous knowledge is whatever knowledge the group perceives as being part of its cultural heritage. It is not reducible to indigenous knowledge. The latter is strictly of local origin. Whereas an adopted exogenous knowledge can become endogenous, it can never become indigenous.

African endogenous systems of knowledge—embedded inside a metaphysical explanation of life and the universe—were transmitted via secret societies and myths. I argue that our abandonment of that metaphysical framework used to produce and justify knowledge shouldn’t compel us to deem that knowledge irrational. Conversely, re-discovering this endogenous knowledge does not require us to uncritically accept its metaphysical or even epistemological underpinning. I am increasingly convinced that an epistemological study of local knowledge could uncover useful discoveries. For example, there is a wealth of knowledge being lost about the use of local plants like neem (azadirachta indica), niprisan, or aloe ferox to cure or prevent health conditions as serious as cancer or sickle cell disease. An epistemological study of endogenous knowledge could kickstart a movement that would greatly enrich scientific domains like pharmacology or ecology. Trying to make sense of local knowledge in discussions with colleagues who, on ideological bases, promoted all things African helped me see that, if we keep the right distance, we can bring these traditions and their contents into conversation with the scientific realm with a continued critical eye. I think I would never have become open to endogenous systems of knowledge if I hadn’t returned to Senegal where I have been able to participate in local epistemological and philosophical discussions.

How did you come to be doing research in Dakar, whether happenstance, long-term goal, or a quick vital decision, for example?

Born and raised in Senegal, I have exclusively attended public schools. While doing my Ph.D. in France, I decided I had a duty to go back to Senegal to work for at least 10 years in the public university system. Hence, as I finished my degree, I went back to look for a job. Fortunately, the Teachers College of my alma mater and our flagship national university, Cheikh Anta Diop, hired me. 

How does being in Dakar at the Teachers College of Cheikh Anta Diop support your research?

We are overwhelmed with teaching and administrative work, and the university is not very rich. There is very little available funding for research, as there is almost no public money for it, and it is hard for us to compete for private grants given that most have nationality or residency conditions such that only people affiliated with universities from the Global North can compete. So, we faculty create our own research environment. We manage to use part of our salary to get our research done, and friends from Northern universities sometimes help us access bibliographic resources. The absence of competitive funding has the strange advantage of giving scholars freedom to select their research independent of contemporary fashion. Scholars can cross more boundaries. So, I think choosing to come back to Senegal gave me freedom I would not have had if I stayed in a country where academic funding is more structured. 

For example, my last four papers are about the philosophy of quantum mechanics, animal cognition, and whether living in an oral society has important cognitive consequences. I can write about and research my varying philosophical interests because of the freedom of choice afforded from lacking funders’ confinements. Discussions with colleagues in Senegal give me research ideas I would not dare explore if I were in another location that might have more constraints and expect scholars to publish in a narrow field. Thanks to this openness, I came to write the book I am currently finishing about the epistemology of the Global South. Being here gives me ideas and emboldens me to explore them, but the working conditions make getting research done and accessing reputable academic presses difficult. 

Did you consider other locations for undertaking this research, and what were the deciding factors that brought you to this location now?

I received a Fulbright Scholarship to go to the US to work on the mentioned book. I spent the 2021–2022 academic year at both the University of Connecticut and Columbia University, where I worked respectively with Lewis Gordon and Souleymane Bachir Diagne. Without this time off and the help of these mentors, I wouldn’t have been able to focus on the requisite research. I find working at an American university more comfortable. Having all the necessary resources on hand enables productivity. I am sure, though, that I am more useful to my school in the country of Senegal overall than to the good people of Connecticut or to the students of an Ivy League university. I think that I am making a difference by bringing new ideas and practices to my students in Dakar, hence I do not want to leave Senegal yet, despite suboptimal working conditions. 

How does your current research in Dakar relate to other research, areas of interest, or activities you are pursuing? Please describe them.

My current research interest sits at the intersection of epistemology, cognitive science and political philosophy, arising from my training as a cognitive scientist and philosopher of science as well as my political commitment towards real equality for, and the liberation of, the African continent. I ask questions like: What does it mean to be epistemologically independent? Does it mean going back to locally developed knowledge and adopting it uncritically, or does it mean using the tools we have, including ‘western’ scientific tools, to assess critically our own production? I prefer the latter to the former, I must say. 

To elaborate: There is a region of Senegal that is infested with snakes. There, some families are believed to have the mystical power to make decoctions and talismans that prevent snakes from biting you. Upon examination, their active ingredient is a plant that has repulsive properties for snakes. To accept the discourse of the holders of this knowledge would be to validate a mystical link between their families and the snakes instead of trying to find out the natural causality that explains the effectiveness of their intervention. So being dismissive of endogenous knowledge because it has a mystical underpinning that we do not accept would prevent precious discoveries, while accepting uncritically the explanation given by the practitioner would be the surest way not to understand what is going on scientifically. Epistemology is useful here because it gives us the tools to critically assess local knowledge while taking it seriously. 

How do you see this research contributing to larger philosophical discussions and/or your own future—or current other areas of—research?

From a strictly philosophical point of view, my current research contributes to giving new perspectives on epistemological queries like the proper definition and use of ‘meta-epistemology,’ the specificity of science as a tradition of knowledge, and the role that endogenous knowledge could play in fostering a truly scientific approach of the world. In my current research on the epistemology of the Global South, I argue that we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, and that sound scientific procedure, logic, and method are not antinomic to the rediscovery of endogenous knowledge produced in the Global South. I try to not fall into what philosopher Lewis Gordon calls “disciplinary decadence,” by which he means the fetishizing of scientific methods, while at the same time avoiding the blind acceptance of knowledge produced in the Global South. That is a thin line that philosophers from/of the Global South must walk if they want to be honest and meaningfully contribute to uncovering epistemologies and knowledge produced outside the Global North. 

Who is your intended research audience, and what type of output do you intend to create (for example: one or a series of articles, a new course, contributing to a ‘real world’ project, a book, the development of a centre)? How does being in this location affect your process and output?

My intended audience is triple. First—people working in epistemology and history of science under the analytic framework struggle with problems that my work addresses. For example, the contemporary analytic tradition contains little work on meta-epistemology, and what little exists is not very well done, if I may say so. My project develops a theory of what relevant meta-epistemology should be and how we should do it. This should interest any philosopher of science or any epistemologist working within the analytic tradition.

Second, people working on decolonization/decoloniality frameworks would be interested in my work, which seeks to understand what a real process of epistemic decolonization would be. Most of the time, epistemic decolonization is understood as rejecting what comes from outside. But I argue that underlying or isolated purity is an illusion: all societies benefit from external influences and none can pretend to be free from it. Instead of looking for a return to an idealized past, I uncover modes of knowledge production that stem from our particular social organization in order to offer new lenses for fostering a civilization of holistic knowledge production that does not confuse axiological neutrality with bearing no responsibility. In this tradition, philosophers typically understand the axiological neutrality of science to mean that a scientist does not have to take into account the possible consequences of his or her discoveries. Hans Jonas argued in the twentieth century that we could no longer afford to accept such a conception of the neutrality of the scientist. Traditional conceptions of knowledge or truth in African societies, as Wiredu has suggested, have always placed hand in hand the need for seeking the truth with the necessity to research responsibly.

Third: I appeal to policymakers. If we understand how knowledge used to be produced and transmitted in our societies, we could use these methods in our education system to foster students’ affective ownership of the knowledge being taught, and thus to promote scientific research as well as open reception of knowledge produced elsewhere. In my book, I show that there have always been mathematical traditions in Africa that have also always been transmitted and perfected through games and crafts. We could at least incorporate these games and crafts into the school system to help our students develop their mathematical skills without feeling estranged from the discipline. One such game is awale, a board game that teaches its practitioner not only to develop his mathematical skills but also to cooperate with his opponent in order to produce an outcome that does not humiliate any of the players. 

Please describe the style of writing, steps within research, modes of feedback, and academic community in Dakar, Senegal. 

Having been mostly trained as an analytic philosopher, my writing is generally argumentative and somewhat dry. However, I like to provide a little story that encapsulates and gives a sense of my argumentative goal. I am currently writing a book in French and English at the same time. I am fortunate enough to have friends who read and critique my work in both languages. This is helpful, given that I am not a native English speaker, and they are generally way smarter than I am. I’m also grateful to have been an invited professor at my other alma mater, the EHESS in Paris. I taught an early draft of the book and received feedback from colleagues and graduate students. I’ve also presented parts of the book at the University of Connecticut’s Philosophy Department’s weekly seminars. All this insightful feedback has helped me improve the work. 

What skills do you need to perform research in Senegal in contrast to the USA? Please describe how you have had to adapt your methodologies and style working there and its effect on your approach to philosophy?

If you are an academic in the US or in any other developed country, your professional as well as your social life are organized around your academic work. Your institution helps provide the resources you need to do academic work well enough. Living and doing research in a country like Senegal is nothing like that. You constantly struggle to get the resources you need, be that books, access to articles, or simply a personal computer. Given this scarcity of resources, scholars here end up doing a lot of administrative and secretarial work too. And, of course, there is no escape into an ivory tower when some students have economic problems, cannot pay fees, or simply cannot afford to eat. This total workload is overwhelming. So, we learn to multitask. That’s why most scholars here end up, one way or another, doing political philosophy. There are pressing issues that we can’t ignore. With the difficulty of finding access to recent papers and books, we stay away from the fashionable, narrow, technical questions, and work more on questions relevant to the local context.

Of course, I don’t idealize the life of the scholar in the west. With the corporatization of academia and its acceptance of liberal values, one can’t ignore that most of the work being done in western universities is undertaken by an exploited academic proletariat. The happy few in coveted positions are pressured to produce fashionable work at such a pace that it sometimes produces either unethical acts like plagiarism or publications that simply exist in order to fulfill the bibliometric requirements of the institution, regardless of quality. In Senegal, given that there is less pressure to publish, one can take the time to work and only publish what one deems interesting enough to be shared with the community. 

What are the expectations and the role of philosophy in academic institutions, the culture, and/or the broader public in Senegal? What responsibilities and expectations come along with your research in there?

In Senegal, philosophy is mandatory for all students on an academic track during their last year of high school. So, people generally have fond memories of the discipline, even if they do not end up pursuing philosophy at university. Furthermore, traditionally prominent politicians surround themselves with philosophers. All our presidents have had philosophers as advisers. The broader public and the educated elite generally see philosophers as open-minded people who think outside the box and bring new ideas even to technical domains. Philosophers are co-opted as advisors to a variety of decision-makers, and invited as talking heads by the media. Philosophers are generally respected, and expected to have an informed opinion on political and social issues and to give sound advice when needed. As long as they do so, people do not care about the more technical side of our research. That said, given that Senegal is a very religious country and philosophers have a reputation for being atheists, or at least unorthodox in their beliefs, people are slightly worried when their kids want to pursue philosophy, leading to a mixture of pride and concern—pride because people see philosophers and mathematicians as smarter than the rest, and concern because pursuing philosophy is risking one’s mental health and even one’s soul. 

What interdisciplinary overlap and tools are involved in philosophy in Senegal? What is the disciplinary layout at your institution, and how does that affect your work or compare to doing research in the USA or elsewhere?

Even though most philosophers in Senegal come from the continental tradition, everyone undergoes some training in logic, philosophy of science, and at least one of the social sciences. African and Afro-diasporic philosophy is also mandatory. Breadth rather than specialization is valued here, and people feel free to use tools from different parts of philosophy to solve the problems of interest to them. However, we lack regular exchange venues such as brown bag lunches and colloquia, meaning that sometimes we are ignorant to our colleagues’ work and lose opportunities for collaboration; instead we must actively seek these out. 

Could you compare what it is like to do philosophical research there versus in the USA, and any other locations you’ve done philosophy? How do different countries understand and treat your area of specialisation and research topics?

In France, epistemology is mostly understood as meaning philosophy of science. In the US, the sense is broader but is mostly explored via language, logic, and mind; what Brian Weatherson once called Lemming. Even though I am mostly trained in the analytic tradition, I did my studies in francophone countries. So, I have a tropism for science but a broad definition of epistemology. Coming back to Senegal introduced me to debates about so-called endogenous knowledge and gave me new research objects—be it traditional knowledge in pharmacology, the interplay between metaphysics, religion, and knowledge, or the role that traditional metaphysical beliefs could play in preserving and taking care of the environment in a way that a purely scientific approach could not. This led me to expand my vision of what rationality is and what science should be. 

Even though I am interested in and respect traditional systems of knowledge and practice, I still believe in the importance of having a sound methodology and striving for the truth. I try to combine the advantages of an approach that includes and takes seriously non-scientific knowledge with the advantages of a scientific approach. This puts me at odds with some epistemologists or anthropologists working on the epistemology of the Global South who want to replace the hegemony of so-called western science with the uncritical adoption of endogenous knowledge. It seems to me that the real difference between Senegal and France or the USA on this level is that here, a dialogue is possible between postmodernists and old-fashioned rationalists. I see myself as an old-fashioned rationalist, I must say, and living in Dakar has allowed me to extend my interests to objects of enquiry that I would have otherwise considered irrational. 

Could you talk about an example of ‘equating axiological neutrality with bearing no responsibility’ that you have experienced or encountered directly while working in the analytic tradition and how you responded, and/or how in all your work—generally, with daily methodologies—you aim to practice balancing responsibility with philosophical reflection and research?

It’s telling that the first express formulation of the thesis of axiological neutrality arose in the social sciences as articulated by Max Weber. In the natural sciences, it is so obvious that science is axiologically neutral that there is no need to talk about it really. There is science and there is technology; where science is abstract and neutral, technology is pragmatic. The old Aristotelian distinction between episteme and techne has long been prevalent in dominant western epistemology, placing scientific theory outside the material contingencies of the world even when theorizing about it. My thesis is that the fact/value distinction, so prevalent in western philosophy, has a consequence in epistemology: science is seen as factual and the scientist, as an ethereal entity with no responsibility upon the way his work is used in the real world. This is a dangerous fiction bearing two consequences. First: the myth of the scientist as a lone genius. Second: an adulation of the scientist that shelters him from the consequences of his acts in the real world. A system based on abstracting away the scientist from the flesh and blood reality of the world both gives rise to abuses of power and tolerates the harassment of those who are considered less worthy by those seen as geniuses. My opinion is that this explains why some prominent analytic philosophers have, all along their careers, been harassers and have still been protected by the community that sees them as irreplaceable.   

A contrario, almost all traditional African philosophies share two important ideas: the first is that there is no neutral, independent truth or knowledge. Knowledge is always relational, built by someone in order to fulfill a need. The second is the idea of ubuntu, which expresses that no one is an island. Rather, every human being is the product of the totality of his interactions with his fellow human beings. If so, there can be no lone genius indispensable to the community and of an ontologically different status from his lowly collaborators. Knowledge and philosophies, in such a context, are the byproduct of a collective endeavor to solve the problems the community faces. Of course, individual contributions are important in such a framework, but no one person is more important than the other contributors to the task and everyone’s dignity should be preserved, lest we all lose our dignity. 

In my daily practice, the application of these principles results in the consideration that we should all uplift each other and remember why we do what we are doing. Second, I see myself as a vehicle rather than the creator of ideas. Whatever I write expresses mostly ideas I have shared and discussed with numerous friends and acquaintances who have contributed to the development of my ideas and could rightly claim them as theirs. Most of my friends from university didn’t end up pursuing academic philosophy. I still know what I owe them and consider that the texts I am currently writing are partly due to their influence on me. The same goes for my professors and also my brothers and sisters and their friends, with whom I first discussed books long before I knew what philosophy was. Keeping in mind these influences is humbling.

Do you notice a difference in the sort of critiques or the way they are offered between languages depending upon the languages’ nuanced differences? How do you translate or communicate subtle differences across languages in your work?

Even though I speak four languages and can read two more, the only language in which I am totally at ease with working is French. In French, I learned to write long-winded, syntactically impeccable, argumentative sentences. Working in English is somewhat frustrating, because I am never sure that I am expressing exactly the ideas I would like to convey and I am conscious that some nuances and subtleties of the language escape me. Of course, there is a wealth of allusions and metaphors that I barely seize when reading, and that I would not dare try to emulate when writing or discussing philosophy in English. I try to be more factual and simpler when using English. It is somewhat frustrating, but I don’t think there is anything I can do about it right now other than to continue improving incrementally. My English is decent enough for me to work in this language, but I do not think I will ever be a master of English prose. If I need to communicate subtle nuances in my work, I mostly ask my bilingual or native English-speaking friends about the best way to express the idea I have in mind and work with them to navigate the language. English being the new lingua franca of academia, I don’t think I am alone in this. I suppose that it is more of a problem in the humanities than in the natural sciences. In the humanities, style is as important as substance, and it would probably be better if our colleagues from the English-speaking world spoke more languages well.

Mouhamadou El Hady Ba

Hady BA is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cheikh Anta Diop University. Trained in Dakar as a philosopher, M. Ba holds a PhD in Cognitive Science from The Jean Nicod Institute in Paris. Before coming back to Dakar, Hady Ba has worked on the development of Natural Language Processing tools that uses open-source resources like the web to detect and anticipate security threats. At Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dr. Ba teaches logic, epistemology, philosophy of science and cognitive science and has written papers in epistemology, computer science and cognitive science. Hady Ba is one of the officers of the Senegalese Philosophical Association and has been a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Connecticut writing a book about the Epistemology of the Global South.

Picture of alicehank winham in sunglasses holding one hand up, with only the index finger up.

alicehank winham studied BA Philosophy and Theology at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, where ze is now pursuing an MPhil Buddhist Studies at Lady Margaret Hall through the Faculty of Oriental Studies soon to be renamed the ‘Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.’ Ze focuses on philosophy of logic and language and social epistemology across traditions, including classical Buddhist philosophy and its modern interpreters, feminist philosophy, and the Black Radical Tradition. alicehank is also dedicated to critical pedagogy, philosophies of transformation and liberation, and social and environmental activism, such as through mentoring programmes, publishing journals, and direct action. In philosophy, ze works on expanding our disciplinary and interpretative horizons for a more caring and considered world through and Philiminality Oxford. Ze also works to reflect and act upon zer values through Biblionasium, environmental activism, and Lift Economy’s Next Economy MBA.