Globalizing Political Theory and the Role of the Particular

von Dorothea Gädeke

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Doing Global International Relations”.printsymbol


Globalizing International Relations (IR) is a requirement built into the very construction of the discipline itself: IR does not merely aim to investigate international, that is, interstate relations in their own right. What IR claims to study, through the study of international relations, is the global. The resulting tension between a particular, state-centred lens of analysis and the potential plurality of social realities this lens does not capture raises the question of what ‘the global’ is and what it really means to study ‘the global’? As a political theorist, I see my discipline, political theory and philosophy, confronted with a somewhat similar challenge, even though the claim to ‘the global’ might not in the same way be the object of the discipline itself.

Still, it was political philosophy’s turn towards issues of global relevance that put the question on the table most sharply. Why, one might wonder, is the discourse on global justice predominantly a debate within Anglo-American political philosophy? ‘They’ who arguably need ‘our’ help, do not seem to be part of the discourse. Why is that the case? Is it due merely to ‘us’ not listening to ‘them’? Or is it also related to the way that issues of global justice are framed and addressed within Anglo-American political philosophy – and thus ultimately, to the way ‘we’ conceive of ‘our’ own position in this discourse or rather, the way ‘we’ are oblivious of our own positionality? Thinking about these questions made me start studying African Philosophy and finally brought me to the University of Johannesburg where I am currently a visiting researcher, struggling to find a way to engage with African Philosophy while being a white (female) European. Before turning to this challenge, let me start with some reflections on the role of the global in my discipline and some approaches of how to globalize it.

Political Philosophy and the Claim to the Global

While political theory and philosophy have increasingly made claims to the global – just think of the burgeoning debate on global justice I already mentioned – the reference to the international or global does not seem to figure amongst the constituent features of the disciplines itself. In fact, one might think that it is merely in light of the political realities of globalization that political theory needs to extend its reach by thinking about politics in the global realm; after all, if it did not, it would fail to address one, if not the most important feature of politics in the 21st century. If, by contrast, contemporary politics were predominantly local or regional in scope, political theory would not have to engage the global at all. In that sense, it seems, globalizing political theory is merely an imperative following from a certain kind of political realities; in contrast to IR, political theory itself may well be understood and practiced without reference to the global. Why then does political theory and philosophy face the challenge of globalizing itself? I will distinguish four reasons for globalizing political theory and philosophy, two political and two philosophical ones.

A first set of reasons is, in fact, political: On a weaker, pragmatic version of this view, it is precisely the political realities we are facing today that force us to rethink how to theorize politics in a way that allows for capturing the increasing global interconnectedness of formal and informal political processes. This pragmatic argument obviously only holds for political philosophy as it is based on the global nature of the object of political philosophy. A stronger, anticolonial version of the political rationale, however, is of broader relevance. It maintains that it is in light of the history of colonialism that we need to reassess concepts and ideas so as to understand and help transform ongoing forms of neo-colonialism, not just in the political realm but also within academia and philosophy itself.  On this view, it is not new political realities but rather the ongoing history of colonialism that calls for broadening the perspective. And the aim is not merely to account for this ongoing political reality but rather to critically interrogate and ultimately transform the philosophical traditions of the West since they have been deeply entangled with legitimizing both colonial conquest of the past and neo-colonial politics of the present. In spite of their different scope, both, the pragmatic as well as the anticolonial reason for globalizing political theory and philosophy are political in that they refer to the global nature of the political context of doing philosophy that matters either as an object of inquiry or as a context for philosophical practice.

A second set of reasons for globalizing political theory is philosophical in that it starts from the nature of philosophical enquiry itself. Philosophical enquiry strives for the global in terms of striving for general, that is universal validity. This holds for political philosophy as well as for any other subfield of philosophy – at least according to the dominant understanding of philosophy within the Western tradition. The philosophy of human rights, for instance, seeks to show that and in how far they are universally valid – or if not, that and in how far they are not, again, a statement that is claimed to be valid generally. Even concepts that do not refer to an explicitly universalizable content claim to yield knowledge that is of transcontextual validity. Just think of a Schumpeterian conception of democracy: It does not give an account of how democracy works in the US but rather aims to show what democracy is all about, generally speaking.  In that sense, political philosophy’s claim to the global runs deeper than in IR: The global is not just the object of enquiry that in turn calls for developing suitable methods, concepts and theories to capture its complexity. The global may be understood to denote the claim to the abstract, to transcontextual, general validity of philosophical arguments.

Yet, in spite of this claim to the ‘global’ inherent in philosophical inquiry, it is far from clear in how far this implies a call for globalizing philosophy. The crucial question is: How can philosophy make universally valid claims given that it is itself to some extent situated in particular socio-historical contexts? To what extent does philosophical knowledge rely on philosophical methods of argumentation that secure its transcontextual validity? And to what extent does philosophy have to rely on intercultural exchange in order to generate valid philosophical propositions?

Answering this latter question in the affirmative will provide a strong epistemic reason for globalizing philosophy. On this epistemic argument, nothing short of globalized philosophy will be able to generate philosophical knowledge proper because the general validity of propositions can only be established through intercultural exchange. The alternative view maintains that philosophy indeed has a method of argumentation that secures transcontextual validity, independent of by whom and where it is done. After all, Kant famously never left his native Königsberg and yet, produced a body of work that proved to be one of the most influential in the history of philosophy. Holding this position does not necessarily dismiss the importance of globalizing philosophy. Engaging with other traditions may well contribute to broadening and thus enhancing our philosophical knowledge. Yet, while knowing other philosophical traditions will allow for a better understanding of the history of philosophy and might help raise new questions of philosophical interest, the philosophical enquiry as such does not depend on any exchange with others. This hermeneutical rationale is obviously weaker than the epistemic consideration; it highlights the advantages of globalizing philosophy but does not consider them essential for doing philosophy.

Viaggio Botswana 2010

„Wisdom is like a Baobab Tree. No one individual can embrace it.“ (Photo copyright: Alessandro, CC BY 2.0)

Intercultural vs. Comparative Philosophy?

Having distinguished four grounds for globalizing philosophy, the pragmatic, the anticolonial, the hermeneutical and the epistemic one, a second, closely related question to ask is how to globalize political philosophy. The answer depends in parts on why this is considered a worthwhile or even required enterprise in the first place. Questioning the nature of philosophy’s claim to produce knowledge of general validity in light of contributions and experiences from other parts of the world has certainly not been at the core of philosophy in the Anglo-American or European tradition. Quite to the contrary. However, there are two approaches that call for opening up the Western canon of philosophy by engaging with philosophical traditions from other parts of the world. Arguably, the older one is comparative philosophy, which dates back to the end of the 19th century and has succeeded in establishing itself as a separate, albeit marginalized subfield of philosophy in some Western universities (it is, however, a recognized subfield within Chinese universities). Comparative philosophers seek to broaden the philosophical canon by studying texts from philosophical traditions other than the one familiar to themselves, presenting them to their own audience and comparing them to their own tradition. Globalizing philosophy, on this view, means deeply immersing itself in the texts from another tradition, and developing the necessary specialized linguistic, historical and cultural knowledge. The aim, ultimately, is to rewrite the history of philosophy as a global history of philosophy through comparative studies of other philosophical traditions. It thus broadly follows the hermeneutic rationale.

Interestingly, comparative philosophy mainly engages with Chinese, Japanese and Indian philosophy. Comparisons with African or Latin-American or other non-Western traditions are rare. In fact, the entry on Comparative Philosophy in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy only references work comparing Western and Asian thought. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy only contains an entry on “Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and Western”. Generally speaking, the approach could be extended to include other traditions. The comparative perspective, however, does not seem to address the tension between the claim to general validity and the situatedness of philosophical enquiry. Comparative philosophy merely aims at gaining a more complete picture of the history of philosophy by adding other bodies of literature. It does not necessarily seek to challenge the way philosophy is done beyond including some other traditions into the canon. Hence, critics of comparative philosophy argue that merely studying texts from other traditions in comparative perspective still treats those other traditions as objects of ‘our’ studies, thereby reproducing colonial attitudes, instead of investigating the intercultural conditions of such an endeavour as an object of enquiry as such.

This is what intercultural philosophy sets out to do. Developed most notably within the German-speaking philosophical community by Vienna-based philosopher Heinz Kimmerle and Franz Martin Wimmer, intercultural philosophy is committed to investigating the processes of communication between diverse philosophical traditions themselves. It starts from the idea that the claim to universal validity can only be made in a trans- or multicultural perspective, as it requires some kind of overlap. Wimmer describes this perspective as a polylogue, a form of communication that allows for mutual exchange and influence without any reservation – and thus going beyond mere dialogue that only allows for restricted mutual influence. Such a polylogue elicits a reciprocal process of mutual understanding that turns objects of enquiry into subjects of enquiry. As a rule of thumb, Wimmer suggests that philosophical claims that have not been produced by philosophers from at least two different cultures should not be taken as valid. Hence, globalizing philosophy is an imperative that affects all parts of philosophy, not just a particular subfield engaged in comparative thought. It is motivated by the anticolonial and the epistemic reason for globalizing philosophy, maintaining that in order to make valid claims, philosophy needs to proceed in an intercultural way. Yet, it remains somewhat unclear, how exactly and to what extent a polylogue indeed plays an epistemic role in producing valid philosophical claims. After all, merely attesting to the empirical fact of shared beliefs as such does not provide grounds for philosophical validity. The polylogue may certainly be considered as a deeply philosophical exercise in and of itself insofar as it allows for challenging the very methods of enquiry through an open exchange that does not settle on what counts as philosophy and what does not. But this does not seem to imply that it is a necessary condition for making valid claims in the first place.

Comparative Political Theory: New Wine in Old Bottles?

Even though hardly ever referenced, this divide between comparative and intercultural approaches in philosophy is reflected in recent debates in political theory on an emerging subfield somewhat unambiguously called comparative political theory (CPT). In fact, the debate on CPT developed more in response to the reconfiguration of political science after the end of the Cold War. Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that history had come to an end with the triumph of liberal democracy (1992) and Samuel Huntington’s claim that the clash of political ideologies will be succeeded by a clash of civilisations that will divide the world into civilizational blocs opposing each other (1996) provided the intellectual climate for the appearance of a new subfield that set out to formulate an alternative to both, confrontation and liberal triumphalism. Yet, already Fred Dallymayer and Roxanne Euben, who were the first to use the term Comparative Political Theory in 1997 (see here and here), pursued very different approaches: Dallmayer emphasizes the crucial importance of dialogue. His work is motivated both by the contemporary political constellation of the “global village” and by the epistemic concern about the philosophical claim to the general. Euben, by contrast, emphasizes the importance of drawing on various traditions to better understand particular political phenomena. She analyses Islamic fundamentalism and its appeal as a movement on its own terms, not just as the consequence of socio-economic factors. Her work is thus situated against the narrow perspective of comparative politics and seems to be motivated more by the hermeneutic and pragmatic rationales.

This divide between an “engaged” version of CPT, which aims at transcending difference through dialogue and a “scholarly” approach, studying concepts and ideas from other traditions in their own right (March 2009, 534), which reflects the divide between comparative and intercultural philosophy, still characterizes the field. The debate revolves around the question, what aim CPT should pursue and in how far it should be comparative at all. Andrew March, for instance, criticizes the emphasis on cross-cultural dialogue as “zoological, that is a civic act rather than a theoretical or philosophical” (March 2009, 550) and defends a strict comparative methodology that takes inspiration from comparative politics. Leigh Jenco, by contrast, emphasizes the importance of studying different methods of inquiry, not merely substantive ideas, in order to avoid merely adding “culturally diverse voices to established parochial debates” (Jenco 2007, 741). These methodological debates on how to globalize political theory and in how far this implies comparative work offers a large and refined variety of different approaches that go well beyond comparative philosophy and also formulate alternatives to intercultural philosophy, calling for radically decentering political theory altogether and thus dismantling neo-colonial hegemonies within political theory itself. What is striking, however, is that CPT reproduces the narrow imaginary of comparative philosophy: Most of the work published within the field engages with Islamic, Indian or East-Asian political theory. African Political Theory, by contrast, is widely neglected.

The Debate on ‘African Philosophy’ and the role of the particular 

The neglect of the African tradition within both comparative philosophy and CPT might seem curious. After all, in contrast to Anglo-American or European philosophers, contemporary African philosophers are always already confronted with the two major, fundamental issues that the challenge of globalizing philosophy raises: the nature of philosophical enquiry on the one hand and the way of how to engage with other philosophical traditions on the other hand. African philosophy reconstituted itself as an academic discipline in an academic environment that readily took the Western canon as given. The question thus is not whether to engage at all but rather how to do so. While Western philosophy still seems to struggle with recognizing other philosophical traditions and take them seriously as a source of philosophical knowledge, African philosophy as an academic discipline had to start from the valuing of others, fighting for recognition of its own philosophical tradition. Some reactions to this post-colonial predicament focus on uncovering traditional African philosophy, trying to shield out or counter the influence that came with colonialism. Some concentrate on the destruction of the European canon, exposing its racist and sexist foundations and thus challenging its claim to be a source of valid philosophical knowledge. Others, in turn, seek to find ways of moving beyond the outright rejections of one in favour of another tradition by constructively engaging with the multi-faceted heritage African Philosophy faces today. Thus, in contrast to Western philosophy, for African philosophy the question of how to engage ‘the global’, that is, other philosophical traditions, is not a minor somewhat marginalized debate, but one that goes straight to the core of philosophical reflection.

Yet, the initial reaction to the colonial constellation still seems to ground the view that African Philosophy is either philosophy – and thus general – or African – and thus not philosophy.  In response to the colonial view of Subsaharan Africans as not being able to produce abstract philosophical knowledge, some scholars set out to highlight the philosophical knowledge contained within the worldviews of Sub-Saharan Peoples. The book Bantu Philosophy (1945), written by Belgian missionary Placide Tempels is often cited as the foundational publication of what was to become labelled as ‘ethnophilosophy’. Tempels describes how the notion of a vital force serves as the foundation of the worldview of Bantu-speaking peoples – with the aim of proving that Africans do produce philosophical thought, even if not in written form. In the wake of his work, other scholars, including those of African origin, engaged in systematic philosophical articulation and study of the worldview of particular Subsaharan African peoples. Some, such as Paulin Houndondji, however sharply criticized ethnophilosophy for rendering African societies “a voiceless face under private observation, an object to be defined and not the subject of a possible discourse” (Hountondji 1996, 34). In fact, ethnophilosophy studied what was to be called ‘African Philosophy’ more as an object of anthropology rather than as a contribution to a discourse within philosophy as an academic discipline. And hence, ironically turning Tempels intentions around, African philosophy in general became to be identified with contextualized worldviews hardly lending themselves to the sort of generalizations expected of philosophy as an academic discipline.

Whichever approach African philosophers take, they still face the challenge of establishing that there are African ideas and concepts that are different from what has been brought forward in the Western tradition without being dismissed as not doing philosophy altogether. In highlighting the difference and thus the cultural rootedness of their approach to philosophy, they resist, so the argument goes, making any claim to general, cross-cultural validity – and thus seem to give up on the idea that philosophy is to produce general knowledge  (a related issue is raised in the debate between IR and Area studies). Thus, what is at stake in the debate on African Philosophy is precisely the nature and unity of philosophy as an academic discipline itself: If African Philosophy is indeed contextualist, particularist in nature, how can it produce philosophical knowledge of transcontextual validity, that is, how can African thought be philosophical thought? If, by contrast, African Philosophy does produce ‘general’ knowledge, why do we need the qualifier ‘African’? Why not merely call it ‘philosophy’? This way of posing the challenge, however, hardly acknowledges any space for reinvestigating what the nature of philosophical enquiry is and what role the particular plays in generating claims of general validity.

Conclusion: The pitfalls of ‘doing’ African Philosophy and the Crucial Role of the Particular

Studying African Philosophy does not bring non-African scholars any closer to what it means to globalize philosophy – at least not in a straightforward way. In fact, working on African Philosophy as a white philosopher who has been educated and still works in a European academic institution means confronting a fundamental challenge: how can you write about it being a white European? Facing this challenge might seem ironic; in fact, it seems to turn precisely those reasons that ground the need to globalize political theory and philosophy back against any effort of actually doing so. The fact that we live in a globalized world that emerged from a history of colonialism and still reproduces its legacy calls for engaging with other tradition, so as to capture this complex global political reality and overcome neo-colonial forms of domination. Yet, engaging with African Philosophy as a white scholar readily arouses the suspicion that there is a hidden agenda of once again usurping the African tradition by subjecting it to Western standards. This holds both for comparative as well as for intercultural approaches. And even if this suspicion is deemed unfounded, the anti-colonial rationale for globalizing philosophy still provides reason to question this very endeavour: After all, as Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement against racist oppression emphasized, liberating the mind from the domination of the whites requires blacks to rally together and redefine themselves, rewriting their history and rediscovering their traditions and values. What role then do white scholars play in this endeavour? Doesn’t the anti-colonial rationale require precisely letting Africans define what African Philosophy is, while calling on whites to critically engage with their own superiority complex?

As a philosopher, one might accept such a politically motivated rationale for questioning the role of white scholars in African Philosophy and yet resist the idea that there is any deeper philosophical reason for such caution. After all, while it makes a political difference who writes about whom under post-colonial conditions, one might wonder: does it also make a difference with regard to philosophical content? Interestingly, however, the hermeneutic and epistemic rationale calling for globalizing philosophy also warrant caution. What if African Philosophy is indeed different from Anglo-American or European Continental Philosophy precisely with regard to the importance it accords to the particular, to the lived experience of a worldview that is spiritual to an extent that can hardly be grasped by discussing propositional content alone? How can a philosopher who never shared this lived experience ever engage with it without in turn misinterpreting central concepts? The hermeneutic and epistemic question thus is: Does African philosophy require the lived experience in order to fully grasp its content? Or can it be fleshed out in propositional terms, making its insights available to philosophers from other parts of the world? How can a cross-cultural dialogue generate valid claims if the participants do not fully understand each other?

One may, however, go on and ask: Is this challenge particular to African Philosophy? Is African Philosophy really distinct in according the particular a special importance? Or does philosophy generally face the challenge of cashing out lived experiences in terms that make it accessible to people not sharing this experience – and thus, ultimately, articulate a claim of general relevance? After all, Western feminists have also emphasized the situatedness of claims to knowledge in criticizing universalist pretension of the male Western tradition. Thus, African philosophers writing under post-colonial conditions might simply be more aware about their own positionality than philosophers in the Anglo-American and European tradition are.

In that sense, confronting the challenge of interrogating one’s own position vis-à-vis other traditions, and becoming aware of the role that the particular plays in one’s own reasoning and understanding of philosophy through the engagement with other traditions might be the first and most important step towards globalizing political theory and philosophy. This does not mean we have to agree on whether to take a comparative or an intercultural approach. It does, however, also require leaving open the question of what philosophy is, to some extent. Ultimately, we cannot know what philosophy is without doing philosophy by asking this very question. Thus, we cannot know what globalized philosophy will be without engaging in a globalized philosophical practice.


Dorothea Gädeke is a postdoctoral researcher in political theory and philosophy at Goethe University Frankfurt where she is a member of the Leibniz Research Group Transnational Justice. Currently she is a visiting fellow at the Philosophy Department of the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Her research focuses on structural injustices, global Justice and development, Neorepublicanism and Critical Theory, and Comparative Political Theory and African Philosophy. Her book “Politik der Beherrschung. Eine kritische Theorie externer Demokratieförderung” is forthcoming with Suhrkamp in 2017.


Further Readings on TRAFO:

Antonia Witt, Felix Anderl, Stefan Kroll, Philip Wallmeier (2016), Clues, Careers, and Curricula – Doing Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Amitav Acharya (2016), Developing Global International Relations: What, Who, and How?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Anthoni van Nieuwkerk (2016),  Reflections on (not so) International Relations … and what scholars from the Global South can do about it, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Frank Mattheis (2016), New metres for a wider world: interregionalism and Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Catherine Baker (2016), South-East European Studies in the ‘House of International Relations’, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Amaya Querejazu (2016), Andean Cosmovision and Global Governanc,  TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Tim Rühling (2016),  Is there a Chinese understanding of International Relations?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Jochen Kleinschmidt (2016), Global IR and Academic Authorship in Latin America: Why Inclusion Is Not a Panacea, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Anna Grindle (2016), Global Learning in Northern Ireland: Challenges, Successes and Opportunities, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.



Citation: Dorothea Gädeke, Globalizing Political Theory and the Role of the Particular, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.11.2016,


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