Philosophy Phridays – Colonialism

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Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Colonialism.

Colonialism is one of the trickier things for philosophers to discuss. Part of that is because of the inherent difficulties of the subject matter. It combines history, sociology, psychology, economics, international relations, military tactics, and a whole host of other things. Part of the difficulty is that anything anti-colonial tends to disrupt the universalism that philosophers like so much (Universalism in the sense that truths are universal). But the biggest reason for the difficulty is the embarrassment. There are tons of famous, otherwise admirable philosophers who couldn’t see non-European people as anything but backward or savage.

The article starts by distinguishing colonialism from imperialism. Basically, colonialism is when lots of people from one country go out and settle in another country while staying loyal to the home country. Imperialism is when one country conquers another, but doesn’t send it’s people to live there. Other than where the conquerors choose to live, they are very similar.

Colonialism has been around for thousands of years and is not just a European thing, but European Colonialism has been the most significant in shaping the modern world and post-colonial studies, so that is the focus of most of the article. For hundreds of years, European thinkers mostly defended colonialism. The chief rational was that colonizing a land was a civilizing influence on those people who lived there. Sometimes civilizing was overtly religious, they wanted to bring the Christian faith to people who didn’t know the gospel. Sometimes civilizing was economic involving the ideas of property rights and such. And sometimes it was political, such as spreading democracy. These defenses of colonialism don’t really hold up because the indigenous people were mostly much worse off after colonization.

John Stuart Mill was fairly typical. He recognized the barbarity of colonization in practice and condemned it. He enumerated reasons why a land being governed by a foreign government was a bad idea. But he also believed that commercial society was what allowed people to flourish and by having countries like England bring commercial societies to new lands, they were helping those lands. The bad effects of colonialism were due to poor execution, according to Mill.

One thing I learned from this article was that Marx saw colonialism as a progressive force rather than a bad thing. Marx viewed history as a process. A feudal economy had to progress to a capitalist economy before the revolution could happen and everyone could be happy in a communist society. He saw colonialism as speeding that process. I think it’s funny that Marx, the hero of the left, was fine with colonialism while Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, actually argued against it.

After World War II, post-colonialism took over in academic circles. It was led mostly by Marxist thinkers and focused on the way colonial powers exploited their colonies. It is frequently pointed out that most of the social sciences are dominated by a European way of looking at things which makes self-determination by indigenous peoples almost impossible. Recently, people have started to criticize post-colonial theory for adhering to a progressive attitude to history. That was the kind of thinking that justified colonialism in the first place.

Now there is a field of indigenous scholars. They deal with questions like how much should an indigenous people participate in the practices of the colonial power in order to reform those institutions. They also ask whether accommodationist policies for the purpose of reconciliation actually benefit the indigenous people. Some call for an “indigenous resurgence.” This is the idea that the evils of colonialism will continue until indigenous people separate from their oppressors and go back to their traditional ways of doing things.

This is a tough topic to handle in a short piece. I hope I did it some justice, but I’m not sure I did. Certainly don’t quote me if you’re writing a paper on the subject. But I definitely recommend reading more about colonialism and post-colonialism and indigenous studies. It will change the way you look at things.

Kohn, Margaret and Reddy, Kavita, “Colonialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

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