Afrofeminist epistemology and dialogism: a synthesis (work in progress)

Embodied, enactive and dialogical approaches to cognitive science radically depart from traditional Western thought in the manner with which they deal with life, the mind and the person. The former can be characterised as emphasising interdependence, relationships, and connectedness with attempts to understanding organisms in their milieu. Acknowledgements of complexities and ambiguities of reality form the starting points for epistemological claims.  The latter, on the other hand, tends to strive for certainty and logical coherence in an attempt to establish stable and relatively fixed epistemological generalisations. Individuals, which often are perceived as independent discreet entities, are taken as the primary subjects of knowledge and the units of analysis.

Collins’s proposed black feminist epistemology, hereafter “Afrofeminist epistemology”, opposes the traditional Western approach to epistemology as well as the largely Positivist scientific view inherited from it.  As such, it is worth drawing attention to the similarities between Black feminist thought and dialogical approaches to the cognitive sciences. In what follows I seek to reveal a striking convergence of themes between these two schools of thought. In so doing, I intend to illustrate that the two traditions – cognitive sciences, especially the dialogical approach to epistemology, and Afrofeminist epistemology, specifically, the type proposed by Patricia Hill Collins (2002) – can inform one another through dialogue.

General characterization of classic Western approach to epistemology and the Cartesian inheritance

The classic Western approach to epistemology tends to be monological; meaning it tends to focus on individuals and their cognition and behaviour. When relationships and interactions enter the equation, individuals and their relations are often portrayed as distinct entities that can be neatly separated. Dichotomous thinking — subject versus object, emotion versus reason – persists within this tradition. Ethical and moral values and questions are often treated as clearly separable from “objective scientific work” and as something that the scientist need not contaminate her “objective” work with. In its desire for absolute rationality, Western thought wishes to cleave thought from emotion, cultural influence and ethical dimensions. Cognition, evaluation and emotions are treated as if they are entities that shouldn’t be contaminated. Abstract and intellectual thinking are regarded as the most trustworthy forms of understanding and rationality is fetishized.

In the classic Western epistemological tradition, abstract reasoning is taken to be the highest cognitive goal, and certainty as a necessary component for knowledge.  Since the ultimate goal is to arrive at timeless, universally applicable laws, establishing certainty is pivotal for laying the foundations. Although there are historical antecedents leading up to and contributing towards what is generally regarded as Western tradition – in particular, Plato in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo – Descartes represents the pinnacle of Western thought (Gardiner 1998, Toulmin 1992). The subject as autonomous and self-sustaining entity or a Cartesian cogito, which we have inherited from Cartesian thinking, remains prevalent in most current Western philosophy as well as in the background assumptions of the human sciences. The way the individual self is taken as the unquestioned origin of knowledge of the world and others is a legacy of this tradition (Linell 2009).

Black feminist criticism of dominant approach and the proposed alternative

Contrary to the classic Western epistemological tradition, in Afrofeminist epistemology ethical and moral values and questions are inseparable from our enquires into knowledge. Similarly, knowledge claims and knowledge validation processes are not independent of the interests and values of those who define what knowledge is, what is important and worthy of study, and what the criteria for epistemological justification are (Collins 2002). Such definitions and criteria are guarded fiercely by the institutions and individuals who act as the ‘gatekeepers’ of the classic Western epistemological tradition. This traditional Western epistemology, Collins points out, predominantly represents Western, elite, and white, male interests and values. In fact, a brief review of the history of Western philosophical canon reveals that knowledge production processes and the criteria for knowledge claims have predominantly been set by elite, white, Western men.

Scholars like Karen Warren (2009) have cogently argued that the history of classical Western philosophy has, for centuries, almost exclusively consisted of elite, white, Western European men giving the illusion that Western white men are the epitome of intellectual achievement. Women’s voices and perspectives were diminished, ignored, and systematically excluded from the canon. In her ‘recovery project’, Warren finds that women philosophers nonetheless have made important contributions throughout the history of philosophy and that you find them when you go looking for them. This, to a great extent, remains the case not only in philosophy, but also in much of the rest of the academic tradition. A brief look at any philosophy curricula would reveal that white European male philosophers and their views remain dominant and definitive.

Traditional approaches taken as the “normal” and “acceptable” ways to theorise and generalise about people’s lived experiences means that any other approaches to theorising about groups of people that are not aligned with canonical intellectual currents (often white European male) are dismissed as “anomalies”. For Collins, it is indisputable that different people experience reality differently and that all social thought somewhat reflects the realities and interests of its creators. Political criteria influence knowledge production and validation processes in one way or another.  Collins asserts, in studying Black women’s realities, the typical perspectives on offer have either identified black women with the oppressor, in which case Black women lack an independent interpretation of their own realities, or have characterised Black women as less human than the oppressor, in which case Black women lack the capacity to articulate their own standpoint. While in the first perspective independent Black women’s realities are seen as not their own, in the latter, it is seen as inferior. For that reason, the traditional epistemology is inadequate to capture and account for the lived experiences of black women – hence Collins’ proposal for an Afrocentric feminist epistemology which is grounded in black women’s values and lived experiences.

Black women’s lived experiences are different in important ways. The kind of relationships Black women have, and the kind of work they engage in are notable examples that demonstrate the differing realities and lived experiences. Intuitive knowledge, what Collins calls wisdom, is crucial to the everyday lives and survival of black women. While wisdom and intuitions, as opposed to abstract intellectualizing, might be excluded as irrelevant, and at best, less credible as far as the traditional epistemologies are concerned, they are highly valued within black communities:

“The distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and the use of experience as the cutting edge dividing them, has been key to Black women’s survival. … knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate.” (Collins 1989, p. 759)

The desire for complete objectivity and universally generalisable theories in the dominant Western tradition has led to a focus on abstract analysis of the nature of concepts like ‘knowledge’ and ‘justification’, with little to no grounding of complex lived experience. Its portrayal of reason and rationality in direct contrast with emotions – the former to arrive at pure, objective knowledge –  has led to dichotomous thinking, thus blinding us to continuities and complementarities. Consequently, “reason” has been privileged over emotions. This in turn has impeded emotional and bodily knowledge, what Foucault (1980) calls ‘subjugated knowledge’ often expressed through music, drama, etc., as less important. However, ‘subjugated knowledge’ is crucial and is part of a way of life and survival for black communities. Such knowledge, grounded in concrete experiences and recognised through connectedness, dialogues and relationships, is what is of real value for Black women.

That knowledge claims should be grounded in concrete, lived experience rather than abstract intellectualising is crucial to Collins’s Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Collins’s Afrocentric epistemology prioritizes wisdom over knowledge and has, at its core, black women’s experiences of race and gender oppression. Black women have shared experience of oppression, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and apartheid as well as roots in the core African value system prior to colonization. The roots of Afrocentric epistemology can be traced back to African-based oral traditions. As such, dialogues occupy an important place. Dialogues, so far as the Afrocentric epistemology is concerned, are an essential method for assessing knowledge claims.

This Afrocentric epistemology, grounded in the lived experience of black women, that employs dialogues as a way of validating knowledge claims, stands in a stark contrast with that of the Eurocentric epistemology. Connectedness rather than separation is an essential component of the knowledge validation process. Individuals are not detached observers of stories or folktales, but rather active participants, listeners and speakers and part of the story. Dialogues explore and capture the fundamentally interactive connected nature of people and relationships.

Ethical claims lie at the heart of an Afrocentric feminist epistemology, in contrast to the classical Western epistemology that considers ethical issues as separate from and independent of ‘objective scientific investigations’. Afrocentric feminist epistemology is about employing emotions, wisdom, ethics and reason as interconnected and equally essential components in assessing knowledge claims with reference to a particular set of historical conditions.

Dialogical criticism to dominant approach and its alternative

The dialogical approach to cognitive science – inspired by Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s (1895 – 1975) thinking and further developed by dialogists such as Per Linell (2009) – objects to the dominant Western epistemological approach. Dialogical theories which have roots in the Bakhtin Circle, a 20th century school of Russian thought has had a massive influence on social theory, philosophy and psychology. At the centre of dialogical theories lies the view that linguistic production, the notion of self-hood, and knowledge are essentially dialogic. Dialogical approaches are concerned with conceptualizing and theorizing human-sense making and they do so based on a set of assumptions some of which stand in stark opposition to traditional Western philosophy and science. These assumptions include: individual selves cannot be assumed to exist as agents and thinkers before they begin to interact with others and the world; our sense-makings are not separable from our historical antecedents and current cultural and societal norms and value systems. The interrelation between self, others and the environment are there from the start in the infant’s life and the awareness of self and others co-develop over time; they are two sides of the same process. Classical Western philosophy and science has tried to reduce the world to rational individual subjects in attempt to establish stable universals. The origin of knowledge of the world and of others is the discreet individual person. So far as dialogical approaches go, most traditional Western epistemological approaches are rooted in Cartesian individualism and are monological – meaning, that they only encompass individuals and their cognition and environments. Groups and societies are nothing but ensembles of individuals:

“Individuals alone think, speak, carry responsibilities, and other individuals at most have a casual impact on their activities and stances.” (Linell 2009, p. 44)

Dialogism[1], in contrast, insists that interdependencies, co-dependencies, and relationships between the individual and the world are most fundamental components in understanding the nature of selves and furthermore, of knowledge. The term intersubjectivity captures this concept well:

“The term “intersubjectivity”—or what Hannah Arendt calls “the subjective in-between”—shifts our emphasis away from notions of the person, the self, or the subject as having a stable character and abiding essence, and invites us to explore the subtle negotiations and alterations of subjective experience as we interact with one another, intervocally or dialogically (in conversation or confrontation), intercorporeally (in dancing, moving, fighting, or competing), and introceptively (in getting what we call a sense of the other’s intentions, frame of mind, or worldview).”  (Jackson 2002, p. 5)

Cultures and societies are typically conceived as objective, stable structures so far as Western epistemologies go. Dialogism by contrast conceives cultures and societies as dynamic, living and partly open, with tensions, internal struggles and conflicts between majorities and minorities and different value systems. “Knowledge is necessarily constructed and continually negotiated (a) in situ and in sociocultural traditions, and (b) in dialogue with others; individuals are never completely autonomous1 as sense-makers.” (Linell 2009, p. 46) The individual is not a separate, discrete, fixed and stable entity that stands independent from others, but rather one that is always in dynamical interactions with and interdependent with others. Knowledge claims and knowledge validation processes need therefore to reflect these continual tensions and dynamic interactions.

Concluding remarks: drawing similarities between dialogical approaches and Afrofeminist epistemology

So, what are the implications, if any, of drawing these commonalities between Afrofeminist epistemology and dialogical approaches to epistemology, and their common refutation of traditional Western epistemology? Collins has described Afrofeminist and Western epistemological grounds as competing and at times irreconcilable:

“Those Black feminists who develop knowledge claims that both epistemologies can accommodate may have found a route to the elusive goal of generating so called objective generalizations that can stand as universal truths.”  (Collins 1989, p.773)  

The synthesis (incorporation?) of dialogism with Afrofeminist epistemology is, in a sense, not the discovery of that elusive finding into “objective generalization” or “universal truths” that satisfy both epistemologies. Rather such synthesis, I argue, is a means towards epistemological approaches that aspire to embed Afrofeminist values and dialogical epistemological underpinnings. Such epistemological approaches acknowledge that knowledge claims, knowledge validation processes and any scientific endeavours in general are value-laden and cannot be considered independent of underlying values and interests. A move towards epistemological approaches that acknowledge the role of the scientist/theorist which Barad (2007) captures concisely:

“A performative understanding of scientific practices, for example, takes account of the fact that knowing does not come from standing at a distance and representing but rather from a direct material engagement with the world.”   (Barad 2007, p. 49)

Connectedness and relationships rather than disinterested, disembodied, and detached Cartesian individuals form a central component of analysis. Great emphasis is placed on extensive dialogues and not to become a detached observer of stories. In so doing, individual expressiveness, emotions, the capacity for empathy and the fact that ideas cannot be divorced from those who create and share them need to be key factor for this epistemology. Such is an epistemological approach that aspires to embed Afrofeminist values and dialogical underpinnings.

Knowledge is specific to time and place and is not rooted in the individual person but in relationships between people. Individuals exist in a web of relations and co-dependently of one other, negotiating meanings and values through dialogues. As Bakhtin, pioneer of dialogism has emphasized, we are essentially dialogical beings, and it is only through dialogues with others that we come to realise and sustain a coherent – albeit continually changing –  sense of self. Reality is messy, ambiguous, and complex. Any epistemological approach that takes the person as fully autonomous, fixed, and a self-sufficient agent whose actions are guided by pure rationality fail to recognise the complexities and ambiguities of reality, time and context-bound nature of knowledge. At the core of this proposed Afrofeminist/dialogical approach to epistemology is an attempt to bring values as important constituent factor to the dialogical, intersubjective embodied, in a constant flux person and the epistemologies that drive from it.

[1] It is important to note that individuals do not disappear in dialogism, rather, the individual is a social being who is interdependent with others, “not an autonomous subject or a Cartesian cogito.” (Linell 2009)


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. duke university Press.

Collins, P. H. (1989). The social construction of black feminist thought. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society14(4), 745-773.

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1980). Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Cornell University Press.

Gardiner, M. (1998). The incomparable monster of solipsism: Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty. Bakhtin and the human sciences. Sage, London, 128-144.

Jackson, M. (2012). Lifeworlds: Essays in existential anthropology. University of Chicago Press.

Linell, P. (2009). Rethinking language, mind, and world dialogically. IAP.

Toulmin, S. E., & Toulmin, S. (1992). Cosmopolis: The hidden agenda of modernity. University of Chicago Press.

Warren, K. (Ed.). (2009). An unconventional history of Western philosophy: conversations between men and women philosophers. Rowman & Littlefield.



Solitary confinement deprives dialogicity and therefore deprives a coherent sense of self

solitaryI recently came across this extremely powerful and disturbing 3 minutes video of solitary confinement and given my dialogically informed perspective, it kind of made me reflect (as well as initiate conversations with others ;-)) on the concepts of self, other and world. Solitary confinement, which can be seen as the absence of dialogicity, seems to have a devastating effect on the sense of self and I think, this video is the material affirmation.

I don’t think there can be much disagreement regarding the disturbed state of most of the prisoners in the video. Solitary confinement disrupts our sense of self-narratives for self-narratives depend on having something to narrate as well as an ‘other’ to narrate it to. Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens have described the prisoner in isolated cells as “buried alive” and subjected to “immense amount of torture and agony” through a “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain”. Looking at solitary confinement from a phenomenological perspective, Gallagher (2004), has identified a long list of experiences associated with solitary confinement:

“anxiety, fatigue, confusion, paranoia, depression, hallucinations, headaches, insomnia, trembling, apathy, stomach and muscle pains, oversensitivity to stimuli, feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, withdrawal, isolation, rage, anger, and aggression, difficulty in concentrating, dizziness, distortion of the sense of time, severe boredom, and impaired memory.”

There is little disagreement, if any at all, that solitary confinement is cruel and damaging. However, as Foucault in Discipline and Punish reminds us, the original purposes of solitary confinement, was a way for the prisoner to reflect on his crimes and return into his inner ‘true’ self. Given time to introspect in a solitary confinement, the prisoner was expected to turn his thoughts inward, repent his crimes, and eventually return to society as a morally cleansed citizen.

“Thrown into solitude, the convict reflects. Placed alone in the presence of his crime, he learns to hate it, and, if his soul is not yet blunted by evil, it is in isolation that remorse will come to assail him”

(Tocqueville in Foucault 1979: 237)

At the centre of this viewpoint is an underlying assumption which views the individual as something that exists and is capable of reasoning and functioning in isolation from others – a notion of the individual that is self-sufficient and self-contained where the necessarily interrelatedness of self, other, and world is overlooked. For philosophers such as Gardiner, this individualistic notion of the self is something we have adopted from the Western Christian notion of the soul through Cartesian-inspired philosophies. Contrary to this notion of solitary (which is built upon individualistic assumptions) as a means to come back to the inner self, deprived from contact and interaction with others, the very core of our existence is threatened.

‘‘Just as the body is formed initially in the mother’s womb (body), a person’s consciousness awakens wrapped in another consciousness … Individuality is created by and through others and the Other is part of the self.”

(Bakhtin, 1990)

Coming back to my brief musing, the fact that our sense of self seems to erode when we are deprived of interaction with others reinforces the Bakhtinian dialogical viewpoint that self and others co-develop and are two sides of the same coin. It is through our dialogical and embodied interactions with others that we are able to form and sustain a sense of coherent self. Others are essentially involved at all social and individual lived experiences. Through our encounters with others, we are able to evaluate and assess our own existence. Depriving the person of ‘others’ by subjecting them to solitary confinement, denies that essential additioal external perspective, the means by which a coherent self-image is maintained and the person risks losing the ‘self’ and disappearing into a non-existence.