The New Thesis Eleven

Domination rests to such a degree on the society/nature duality that no liberation struggle will ever succeed unless that duality is overcome.

Descartes Remix (CC)

In 1845, shortly after he published the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx wrote his Theses on Feuerbach. The Theses were his first attempt at building a materialist philosophy that was centred on transformative praxis and radically different from dominant thinking, whose main exponent at the time was Ludwig Feuerbach. The famous thesis eleven, the best known of them all, reads: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The word “philosophers” is used here in a broad sense, as referring to the producers of erudite knowledge, which nowadays might include the whole of humanistic and scientific knowledge deemed basic, as opposed to applied knowledge. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, this particular thesis raises two problems. The first problem is that it is not true that the philosophers’ reflections on the world invariably failed to have any impact in terms of changing it. And even if that was ever the case, it ceased being so after the emergence of capitalism or, to use a broader term, after the emergence of Western modernity, especially from the 16th century onwards. The studies on the sociology of knowledge of the last fifty years unequivocally show that the dominant interpretations of the world of a given period are the ones that legitimize, enable or pave the way for the social changes carried out by the dominant classes or groups.

The best illustration of this point is the Cartesian conception of the nature-society or nature-humanity dichotomy. To conceive of nature and society (or humanity) as two totally separate, independent entities, as is the case with the body-soul dichotomy — two substances, in Descartes’s terminology — and to build an entire philosophical system on such a foundation, is quite a revolutionary innovation. It goes against common sense, since we are incapable of imagining any human activity without the participation of nature in some form or another. This is true about the very capacity and act of imagining to begin with, given its cerebral, neurological component. In fact, if there is nature in human beings — human nature, that is —, it would be hard to conceive of it as having nothing to do with non-human nature. To be sure, the Cartesian conception has plenty of antecedents, from the oldest in the Old Testament (the book of Genesis) to the more recent ones of Descartes’ quasi-contemporary Francis Bacon, for whom man’s mission is to master nature. But it was Descartes who gave dualism the consistency of an entire philosophical system.

The nature-society dualism, according to which humanity is totally independent from nature, just as the latter is totally independent from society, is deeply constitutive of the way in which we conceive of the world and of our presence and rootedness in it, so that it becomes all but impossible for us to think in alternative ways, never mind if common sense keeps reminding us that no part of what we are, think or do can be said to be devoid of nature. Why, then, this dominance and quasi-evidence, both at the scientific and philosophical level, of the total separation between nature and society? It has been fully demonstrated that such separation, however absurd, was a necessary precondition for the expansion of capitalism. Without such a conception it would have been impossible to legitimize the principles of unchecked exploitation and appropriation underlying the capitalist enterprise since it first started. The dualism contained a principle of radical hierarchical differentiation between the superiority of humanity/society and the inferiority of nature. The differentiation was radical in that it rested on a sort of difference that was constitutive, ontological, and inscribed in the plans of divine creation.

This led, on the one hand, to nature being transformed into a resource, unconditionally available for appropriation and exploitation by man for his exclusive benefit. On the other hand, it allowed for everything that was viewed as nature to be appropriated in similar fashion. In other words, nature, broadly considered, came to encompass beings that, by reason of their being so close to the natural world, could not be viewed as fully human. Racism was thus reconfigured to signify the natural inferiority of the black race, and therefore the “natural” conversion of slaves into commodities. That was the conversion Father António Vieira (the famous Portuguese Jesuit of the 17th century) never  mentioned but which is implied in all the other conversions he brilliantly spoke about in his sermons. Appropriation became the underside of the over-exploitation of the workforce. The same happened in the case of women and the reconfiguration of women’s “natural” inferiority, which dated from much further back. This inferiority was eventually converted into the condition for the appropriation and over-exploitation of women, which in their case consisted mainly in the appropriation of unpaid work and family caregiving. In spite of being as productive as the other kind, this type of work was conventionally labeled as reproductive so that it could be devalued, and Marxism never disowned that convention. Since that time, the idea of humanity has necessarily coexisted with the idea of subhumanity — the subhumanity of racialized, sexualized bodies. It is thus possible to conclude that the Cartesian understanding of the world has always been steeped to the marrow in the capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal transformation of the world.

In light of this, the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach raises a second problem. In order to address the grave issues facing the world today — from the outrageous levels of social inequality to the environmental and ecological crisis to irreversible global warming, desertification, shortage of drinking water, the disappearance of coastal regions, extreme “natural” events, etc. —, it is just not possible to imagine a transformative practice for solving these problems unless we are equipped with a different understanding of the world. This new understanding has to reclaim at a new level, the commonsensical interdependence between humanity/society and nature. It has to be based on the notion that between human nature and all other natures there exist relations, not substances; that nature is inherent in humanity and that the reverse is equally true; that it is counterintuitive to think that nature belongs to us unless we also bear in mind that we belong to Nature.

It’s not going to be easy. Militating against this new understanding, and hence new transformation, of the world there are, in the capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal societies in which we live, many deep-seated interests. As I have insistently argued, the building of a new understanding of the world will be the outcome of a collective and epochal effort, which is to say that it will take place as part of a paradigmatic transformation of society. Capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal civilization has no future, and its present state makes that so obvious that in order to prevail it has to resort to violence, repression, wars both declared and undeclared, to a permanent state of emergency, and to the unprecedented destruction of what it continues to call a natural, hence endlessly available, resource. My personal contribution to this collective effort has consisted in the formulation of what I term epistemologies of the South. I do not envisage the South as a geographical place, but rather as a metaphor for the knowledges born in the struggles of the oppressed and excluded against the systemic injustices caused by capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, with many of those who make up the epistemological South leading their lives in the geographical South.

These knowledges have never been recognized as contributions toward a better understanding of the world by the holders of erudite or scholarly knowledge, be it philosophy or the social and human sciences. That is why these groups have been radically excluded. Theirs was, in fact, an abyssal exclusion, the result of an abyssal line that came to separate the world of the fully human, where “only” exploitation is possible (metropolitan sociability), from the world of subhumans, i.e., of disposable populations, where appropriation and over-exploitation are possible (colonial sociability). The line and the resulting divide have been prevalent since the 16th century. The epistemologies of the South seek to reclaim the knowledges that are produced on the other side of the abyssal divide — the colonial side of exclusion — so as to integrate them into broader ecologies of knowledges where they will be in a position to interact with scientific and philosophic knowledge, with the aim of building a novel understanding/transformation of the world. Those knowledges, hitherto subjected to invisibility, ridicule and suppression, have been produced as much by the workers who fought against non-abyssal exclusion (the metropolitan zone) as by the vast populations of racialized and sexualized bodies resisting abyssal exclusion (the colonial zone). By focusing on the latter zone in particular, the epistemologies of the South place an emphasis on subhumans, that is, precisely on those who have been viewed as being closer to nature. Now the knowledges produced by such groups, their extreme diversity notwithstanding, are foreign to Cartesian dualism. On the contrary, they conceive of non-human nature as being deeply embedded in social-human life and vice versa. As the indigenous peoples of the Americas put it, “nature does not belong to us, it is us who belong to nature”. Peasants all around the world do not think very differently, and that applies also to ever increasing groups of young urban ecologists all over the planet.

This amounts to saying that the social groups that have been most radically excluded by capitalist, colonialist, patriarchal society, many of which have been considered to be the remnants of a past now in the process of becoming extinct or whitewashed, are the ones that, from the standpoint of the epistemologies of the South, are pointing toward a future that is not only viable but also worthy of humanity and of all the human and non-human natures of which humanity is made. As part of a collective effort, the epistemologies of the South are a work in progress and this work has hardly begun. In my own case, I believe that so far I have not yet fully grasped all the analytical and transformative richness of the epistemologies of the South I have been putting forward. I have highlighted the fact that the three main modes of modern domination — capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy — work in a concerted manner that tends to vary with the social, historical and cultural context. But as yet I have not paid enough attention to the fact that this mode of domination rests to such a degree on the society/nature duality that no liberation struggle will ever succeed unless that duality is overcome.

Given all this, the new thesis eleven should read something like this: “philosophers, social scientists and scholars in the humanities should cooperate with all those who struggle against domination, so as to generate ways of understanding the world that promote transformative practices leading to the simultaneous liberation of the human and the non-human world.” It is a lot less elegant than the original thesis eleven, but it may prove more helpful.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.

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  1 comment for “The New Thesis Eleven

  1. Lorna Houston
    31 January 2018 at 7:07 am

    This paper is just blowing my mind, very happy to have found such a concise presentation of what i have known for a long time. Thank you Boaventura de Sousa Santos.
    Also very excited to have discovered the CLT, will be enjoying your work and hopefully contributing my thoughts at some point. Peace

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