Asking the Best Questions About Epistemology, Adam Riggio

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College,

Riggio, Adam. “Asking the Best Questions About Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 31-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by Juan Antonio Segal via Flickr / Creative Commons


My response to Jim Butcher’s piece carries a little extra authority because, as Digital Editor, I approved its publication in the first place. I say this not to disavow the authority of my role, but to acknowledge it.

For a web platform’s editor to have okayed and published a piece that he is about to critique explicitly, is an inherently problematic position. It was already an inherently problematic position to publish an essay that so directly critiques the priorities of post-colonial research in a platform that has become more explicitly allied with post-colonial research since I took over as editor.

Context: The Problem of Platforming

My own position as an editor who both approves and critiques is also difficult, thanks to an intriguingly awkward coincidence. I live in Toronto, where a well-heeled, prestigious intellectual debate series just hosted a high-profile conversation between David Frum and Steve Bannon over the future of Western politics.

Frum, the former speechwriter and policy developer for George W. Bush, was and remains a vocal advocate for spreading democracy by the barrel of a rocket launcher, as he was when he wrote the famous “Axis of Evil” speech for Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address. He took the liberal, progressive side, contrary to Bannon’s advocacy of open nationalism.

Protestors outside the venue during the event, who faced disproportionate violence from police and security guards, were primarily motivated by a principle with which I largely agree: No Platform.

No Platform is the refusal to cede your venue to people advocating particularly violent or exclusionary ideologies. The principle considers that there are two reasons for refusing a platform for people to air these views. One is that ceding a platform lends dignity, respect, and prestige to morally repugnant ideas. The other is that it shifts the popular limit of politically and morally acceptable discourse so that what was widely considered extremist 15 years ago (using democracy promotion as an excuse to invade a country of millions on fraudulent pretenses, as Frum did) as perhaps a touch conservative but not that bad.

The No Platform principle, however, is all-too-often depicted as an expression of cowardice, fragility, or weakness of the personalities and principles of those who refuse platforms. This disingenuous image suggests, when its proponents do not state explicitly, that progressive moral and political values are weak because they cannot stand up to the challenge of debating an opposing viewpoint.

It is, however, nationalism and similar ideologies based on authoritarian domination that erodes democratic institutions and enforces violent caste / race hierarchies, that are the genuinely weak ones. Such ideologies do not gain adherents through genuine reason. They instead play on resentment and disingenuous insults about opponents, including resentments of the historically marginalized, to seduce people with feelings of natural superiority and displays of power to control and suppress people who are different than they are.

The Scope of a Claim to Be Universal

I open my response to Butcher’s article with this prologue, so that you can understand why a common reaction to his piece is to wonder why he was given a platform to begin with. The common progressive reaction to critiques of post-colonial theory such as Butcher’s is to deny them the legitimacy of a platform.

I was okay with the publishing of Butcher’s piece because, despite and because of its flaws, it remains a valuable misunderstanding of post-colonial thinking. Butcher’s essay displays a common initial reaction of many Westerners to post-colonial challenges to the scientific and educational institutions and traditions that emerged from Europe’s Enlightenment period.

He is in good company, such as Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker. He is also in bad company, such as Jordan Peterson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Richard Dawkins.

Butcher’s fundamental philosophical error is mistaking a challenge to the Enlightenment tradition’s own specific claim of universality for a challenge to the very possibility of universality in knowledge. Here is an example from my own philosophical influences that I hope will contribute positively to explain this point.

That James Madison himself was a slave owner does not invalidate the philosophical strengths and concepts of his Federalist Papers. That he wrote the most philosophically insightful Federalist Papers likewise does not invalidate the moral and political violence of his having owned slaves or conceived the infamous and grotesque “three-fifths compromise” that precisely quantified the institutional sub-humanity of American slaves for census and taxation purposes.

European powers’ military-economic imperialism in the Atlantic slave trade and their colonization of the Americas fuelled European industrialization. European industrialization fuelled the growth of European scientific enterprise. The Enlightenment project began when this colonization process was already a century underway.

Popular morality that dehumanized Africans as slavish and Indigenous as savage was largely shared by the main intellectual and political leaders of the Enlightenment. The claims to universality of those who began the Enlightenment tradition were already corrupted by the ethical / political presumption that such universality required conformity to the specifically European (or Western) approach to universal knowledge.

Contemporary post-colonial research focuses primarily on demonstrating the falsehood of this necessity, the presumption that achieving the universal exclusively requires adopting the European-designed model whose crucible was the Enlightenment tradition.

When Knowledge Weds Itself to Terror

This presumption of exclusiveness is false. Even given the concept in post-colonial theory of different knowledge traditions constituting “multiple worlds” or “plural worlds,” the presumption of exclusiveness is false. Throughout his essay, Butcher presumes that taking differences in knowledge traditions to constitute multiple worlds of knowledge functions to exclude those worlds from each other.

The problem with Enlightenment traditions of science is not that they believed that universality in knowledge was possible. It was that they mistook the European approaches to knowledge as necessarily and exclusively universal. The European culture of science that descended from the Enlightenment was so economically and ideologically wedded to colonizing imperialism that the presumptions of what constituted properly universal forms of knowledge themselves justified the imperial enterprise.

The presumption of exclusiveness is the imperialist framework of thinking that post-colonial knowledge practices work to overcome. All the diversity of knowledge production methods in every non-Western culture was excluded from recognition as a legitimate method of knowledge production throughout the popular culture of Western societies. The British Empire was one of the worst offenders in its scale of influence around Earth, the intensity of its exclusionary rhetoric, and its ingenuity in building legal and military institutions to destroy and exclude all forms of knowledge that differed from the model of the Western Enlightenment.

In my own country of Canada, the Indian Act laws governing physical movement and removing political rights from Indigenous people created a residential concentration camp network in our Native Reserve system. This refusal of citizenship rights operated in concert with the national residential schools system, which forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families and communities, imprisoning them in boarding schools where teachers forced them through violence to forget their languages, cultural stories, and identities.

The United Nations recently declared, correctly, Canadian institutions of Indigenous governance to be machinery of a centuries-long act of genocide.

All of this was justified as the benevolence of English government educating Indigenous people to become proper citizens capable of learning at all. This is the intensity and seriousness to which European and broader Western institutions excluded ways of life from public legitimacy as knowledge producing cultures.

Misunderstanding “Decolonize”

In presuming that post-colonial thinkers themselves exclude all knowledge produced in scientific traditions and disciplines linked with imperialism-justifying ideologies, Butcher himself accuses post-colonial theory of colonialism.

Post-colonial thinkers who understand the fundamental point of post-colonial thinking do not consider their mission to exclude Western culture’s knowledge production traditions and methods from legitimacy as European empires did to others. Such exclusion is itself one of the central methods and principles of the imperialism that post-colonial thinking aims to identify.

Given the pervasiveness of exclusionary or delegitimizing attitudes toward Indigenous knowledge traditions in many academic disciplines for so long, it is naïve of anyone to think that any decolonizing process would be simple. Every practice in a scientific discipline should be scrutinized ruthlessly.

No territory should be exempt from the search for which practices presume their own exclusive correctness. This includes conceptual development, empirical research and interpretation methods, the popular images of the discipline, and how the university departments where all this work takes place carry out their daily work, hiring, tenure and promotion decision processes.

Butcher can say that the Enlightenment concept of universality, conceived abstractly, includes a plurality of sources, traditions, and methods of knowledge. All that he may say will not repair actual, concrete practices.

A memory of a man, frozen in stone, can no longer take issue with how others use his words.
Image by Ade Russell via Flickr / Creative Commons


Epilogue: Unseemly Rhetoric

Butcher unfortunately leans on several rhetorical devices to make his point that have been widely discredited, due to their frequently occurring in racist right-wing trolling culture. Here is the most stark example.

He refers to Martin Luther King’s universally famous “I Have a Dream” segment from his speech at the March on Washington, to deride post-colonial theorists as themselves opposing genuine equality.

This has been a common tactic among the racist trolls of the United States at least since the 2012 murder trial of George Zimmerman. King’s words were often used to invalidate anti-racist advocates as themselves being anti-equality, as the quote was the rhetorical centrepiece of an argument that they wished to refuse Zimmerman a fair trial.

It did not matter to the trolls that the trial’s critics wanted us to explore, understand, and reject the ideologies that enabled Zimmerman to perceive Trayvon Martin as a dangerous threat to his neighbourhood, instead of a teenager being a jackass. King was quoted as a rhetorical means to use a superficial conception of equality to make more complex conceptions of equality appear hypocritical.

For Butcher to end his essay with such an appeal is, at best, terribly naive. Readers can easily imagine what it would be at worst. At worst, you need only consider what Steve Bannon and people like him propagate throughout popular culture today. But I am sure that Butcher would not consider himself so malicious in his intent.

Contact details:


Butcher, Jim. “Questioning the Epistemology of Decolonise: The Case of Geography.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 12-24.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2015.

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2 replies

  1. In response to Adam’s comments on my article:

    First, Adam argues that the article is aimed at postcolonialism. It is in fact a critique of decolonialism and a call for debate with reference to geography. Some decolonial theorists argue that postcolonialism was inadequate, or at least only partial, precisely due to its drawing upon ‘western’, Enlightenment influenced epistemology or writers.

    Second, Adam argues that the article is wrong to claim that decolonialism stands against the universality of knowledge, and that the issue is instead an exclusive claim to universality that emerged in the west around the Enlightenment.

    It’s a moot point. Some decolonial theorists seem hostile to the notion of universality per se (see reference to Sundberg / Blaser in the article). Decolonial writers generally emphasise the ‘pluriversal’ character of knowledge gained through diverse ‘ways of knowing’. Mignolo refers to ‘diversality as a universal project’(i). Grosfoguel argues that ‘a truly universal decolonial perspective cannot be based on an abstract universal (one particular that raises itself as universal global design), but would have to be the result of the critical dialogue between diverse critical epistemic/ethical/political projects towards a pluriversal as opposed to a universal world’ (ii). Mbemba suggests that the ‘university’ could be replaced by the ‘pluriversity’, in which ‘knowledge can only be thought of as universal if it is by definition pluriversal’ (iii). He argues that the pluriversity ‘embraces [universal knowledge] via a horizontal strategy of openness to dialogue among different epistemic traditions.’

    As I made clear in the article, an openness to different traditions is important. But on what basis do we judge these epistemic traditions? How would students attending Mbemba’s pluriversity, as opposed to the university, judge the diverse systems of knowledge and their respective results? The assumption of a shared human capacity to understand the world through reason was central to the Enlightenment, particularly the radical Enlightenment, those thinkers who looked beyond the prejudices of their time and tried to apply its ideals consistently. Without that assumption, how can we, as individuals and as a society, try to decide what is an advance on what was previously known? How can we move from a ‘horizontal strategy of openness’ towards judging what is true, efficacious or profound? Put another way, on what basis do we debate and revise the canon (a principal aim of the decolonise movement)?

    My contention is that we live in a world of diverse historical experience, but that knowledge has the capacity to transcend that. An idea or its originator may be ‘western’ by geography or by nationality, but that in and of itself says little at all regarding the veracity of that idea or its utility in addressing a philosophical, social or practical problem. The same holds for ideas and writers from anywhere in the world. Human reason enables all of us – when we have the opportunity and resources to do so – to develop, understand, question and discuss diverse ideas. Colonialism leaves a legacy of poverty and a lack of development that certainly inhibits the ability of millions to be a part of that.

    Third, Adam seeks to associate my critique of decolonialism with racism and reaction through his references to Steve Bannon, right wing trolls and his suggestion that because a lawyer apparently invoked Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech to gain some rhetorical advantage over his opponents, my invocation of King may be ill judged. Adam asserts that I refer to King’s speech in order to ‘ … deride post-colonial theorists as themselves opposing genuine equality’.

    The reference to King is in the context of a defence of Enlightenment universalism. I am not in the business of deriding anyone for their views, nor assuming or implying malign motives. King was well versed in philosophy. He called directly and explicitly for the universal values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence to be acted upon. In doing so (as my article argues) he was in a very long tradition of people and movements invoking universal values associated with the Enlightenment in pursuit of liberation for the oppressed, and in pursuit of truth.

    Decolonialism is a perspective to be debated, which is precisely what Adam and I are doing here (and I am happy to take up his invitation to debate further on his podcast). As I argued in the article, decolonise should not be a moral imperative, the questioning of which invites consideration of censure and suspicion on the basis of guilt by false association with colonialism (as Adam’s comments confirm it does amongst some). As it happens, some of the most convincing critics of decolonialism today – those I identify with – come from the left politically, and historically many opponents of colonialism have held views at odds with decolonialism with regard to the Enlightenment’s epistemological legacy.

    (i) Mignolo, W. (2002) The Zapatistas’s Theoretical Revolution: Its Historical, Ethical, and Political Consequences. Review (Fernand Braudel Center): Utopian Thinking, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 245-275. Retrieved from:
    (ii) Grosfoguel, R. (2008) Transmodernity, border thinking, and global coloniality
    Decolonizing political economy and postcolonial studies. Eurozine. 4 July. Retrieved from:
    (iii) Mbembe, A. (undated) Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive (text of public lecture given at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic
    Research (WISER), University of the Witwatersrand). Retrieved from:

  2. What Butcher and Riggio have in common is more important than their disagreements. Both oppose all forms of oppression. Both agree that what they call “knowledge” and what I prefer to call “symbolic representations of reality” can be used both to legitimate acts of oppression and to legitimate acts of liberation.
    Dick Moodey

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