/The invention of the modern enlightened subject and the advent of the discourse of the African Other subject – Siseko Kosani

The invention of the modern enlightened subject and the advent of the discourse of the African Other subject – Siseko Kosani

Siseko Kosani
University of Cape Town – South Africa

The 16th century, in western Europe, it brought the revolution in thought, historical formation and in social theory in general yet disastrous effects on African continent and the rest of the non-western Europe.  The subject who used to rely on intuitive qualities of the mind to establish truth-value was born in 16th century. Modern subject therefore killed the medieval subject who relied on  the scripture as a tool of enquiry to establish the truth.

The first part of the paper present theoretical foundations of the European modern enlightened subject. The second focus on the advent of the African Other subject in the discourse of colonial modernity.

The importance of the Copernican revolution: From Copernicus to Galileo

This part presents the theoretical foundations of European modern enlightened subject, grounded in the explanation of the Copernicus revolution. Further afield, this part is going to demonstrate how Copernicus revolution. Further afield, the paper is  going to bring it to the fore , to demonstrate, how  Copernicus revolution paved the way for the emergence of the modern science through dismantling the medieval subject albeit Copernicus left the project of invention of the modern subject incomplete that Kepler and Galileo had to finish it[ the invention of the modern subject].  


 Prior Copernican revolution, peoples in Europe understood themselves to be human living under the great cosmology that was finite and limited by the tangent of God above it. People believed heavens were a sacred space and that the heavenly bodies were understood to be pure sacred entities whose light was synonymous with salvation (Tarnas, 1991). What can be glanced from Copernicus revolution is that it thus obliterated salvation from the nature. The sacred notions from nature ceased to exist because of the objective truth of science in lieu to metaphysics. Karl Marx aptly characterized this phenomenon as, “what was once sacred has become prophane”.

Copernicus revolution dislodged cosmology through the scientific revolution. The 16th century scientific revolution destructed the ancient cosmological order qua Cristian Judeo cosmology through the geometrical and mathematical methods of inquiry. The 16th century scientific geometrical and mathematical methods of inquiry were borrowed from Egyptians and Greek scientists. Therefore, it can be said scientific revolution was the retrieval of the Greek and Egyptian geometry and mathematics (Tarnas, 1991).

Copernicus revolution mantra was an attempt to predict the movement of the celestial.  Copernicus acknowledged that a clear mathematical framework that is comprehendible had to be invented. Therefore, Copernicus invented mathematical framework that discarded Aristotelian-Ptolemaic Geocentric model.

Copernicus, therefore, reached a conclusion that Ptolemaic system made it difficult to predict the movement of the heavenly bodies and further posited Ptolemaic strategy failed to establish and to explain the movement of celestial notwithstanding its sophisticated mathematics tool of enquiry (Tarnas, 1991: 248). Copernicus, therefore, reading the ancient literature, established that many Greek philosophers and mathematicians had proposed a moving terrestrial therefore Copernicus was fascinated by the theory of the esteemed sun. Accordingly, Copernicus, advancing Pythagorean and Platonic theory, advanced the theory of a moving earth together with the sun centred universe. This phenomenon is said to be heliocentric model (Tarnas, 1991: 205).

In a nutshell, heliocentric theory entailed the destruction of the notion of the division between the terrestrial and the celestial.  The Catholic church welcomed Copernicus’ findings notwithstanding resistance from the protestant reformist block. The protestant reformist argued that Copernicus revolution contradicted and further polluted the bible and therefore the church for positing terrestrial was moving. (Tarnas, 1991: 252). Copernicus revolution caused a chaos as the whole ancient belief system was falsified bringing to the fore uncertainty and scepticism.

 Copernicus revolution however retained the ancient traditional assumptions. For instance, Copernicus retained Ptolemaic dictum of uniform circular motion. The reason Copernicus retained the ancient traditions was because of heliocentric model. Heliocentric model had complex mathematical application that it inherited from the Ptolemaic mathematical system. Therefore, Copernicus revolution theory of moving terrestrial theory was dismissed as its findings seemed impossible.  Copernicus left problems of the project he initiated to solve inconclusive thus, scientists such as Kepler, Galileo, Newton and Descartes had to complete it (Tarnas, 1991: 255- 257).


Kepler believed in the mystical supremacy of numbers and geometrical forms and further believed sun was the image of God’s head. Kepler was devoted to the harmony of the heavenly spheres and inspired by Neoplatonism motivation.

Kepler’s objective was to establish simple mathematical laws that would help to solve the problem of the planets. Kepler, therefore, concluded that the universe was arranged in accordance with elegant harmonies. Kepler inherited   the correct astronomical observation collected by Tycho De Brahe (Tarnas, 1991: 256).  Contrary to Copernicus, Kepler had simple geometrical figure and simple mathematical equation that helped him to produce results of quality observation.  Kepler was able to outdo the Ptolemaic system; the system that Copernicus reached limitations to transcend (Tarnas, 1991: 255-257). Kepler solution led to the physically account of the heavens as material entities with its motions regarded to be physical same as everyday experience on earth bellow.


Galileo contributions advanced Copernicus’ theory of the heliocentric model.  Galileo created a telescope to the celestial for improved observation and quality results based on evidence to validate heliocentric model. The findings Galileo found validate Copernicus theory of the moving earth and the sun centred universe (Tarnas, 1991).

 Galileo observations further paved the way for a renewed examination of the empirical phenomenon with a critical eye. A new celestial world was opening to the European mind for the exploration. Not only celestial world was opening for observations, rather- likewise withe celestial, terrestrial world was opening for the observations. The opening of terrestrial world gave rise to the notion of explorers that became the midwife of colonialism and colonisation. 

The initiation of the modern subject

In this  part, I will establish the contribution of the scientific revolution and the works of Descartes to the formulation of the modern subject.


Descartes invented the category of the subject and advanced the movement away from the dictum of the Ancient Greek metaphysics started by the scientific revolutionaries. Descartes gave the emerging science its philosophical principles by initiating the modern subject. 

The Cartesian category of the subject gave birth to a new epoch known to us as modernity.

There are six theses to the Cartesian subject: namely, the typological subject, the res extensa subject, res cogitans subject, instantaneous subject, radical doubt or uncertainty subject and the structuralist subject albeit that we are not going to parse on the all here.

The typological subject

Descartes believed that there is an evil genius who exist and whom must die for man to be born. Descartes believed in the idea of creation that there was a God who created the world, He left everything in the supervision of man.

Descartes first meditation observed that typological subject manifest itself in two forms. There is God who is the creator who is Supreme good and the fountain of truth. On contrary, there is an evil genre which is powerful and scheming (Descartes, 2002: 32). Descartes believes that the evil genre has been preying on his sense to deceived him. However, God cannot deceive him due to his qualities of goodness and Holiness (Descarters,2002).

Res extensa of the subject

The res extensa is the extended attributes of the subject are the objective world viz   the matter, the body and the universe. It can be argued that the extended things are the primary measurable objective qualities a la Galileo.  These are things that are subjected to radical doubt (Descartes, 2002: 28).

 Res extensa has the capacity to be determined by a certain shape as it can fill up the void so to exclude other objects from filling that void (Descartes, 2002).

Therefore, res extensa subject can be comprehend senses qua taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing and be moved to various ways by an external entity. Moreover, res extensa, perhaps, it can be argued that is the true subject of observation and scientific knowledge. 

Res cogitans subject

Res cogitans subject in a nutshell the thinking subject qua ego sum subject. Res cogitans, in juxtaposition with res extensa, is the un-extended thinking subject.  Res Cogitans characterised by its capacity to doubt and its capability to think popular known as , cogito ego sum or I think therefore I am. Res cogitans capacity to doubt manifest itself in a manner that it doubts all external sources of knowledge extent  its own body and doubt the existence of God (Descartes, 2002: 69).

Radical scepticism and radical doubt subject

Radical scepticism and radical doubt subject are mutually compatible with res cogitans subject. Radical scepticism seeks to prove the existence of the cogitans over the extensa through doubt.  Radical scepticism to establish truth it must reach indubitability point for it to establish the truth (Descartes, 2002: & ferry, 2010). This subject is visible in the Cartesian cogito, on Marxian notion of the species being, and to Hegelese consciousness/spirit.

During scientific revolution epoch in Europe there was sceptical relativism concerning external sources of knowledge. This was because of the void left by the destruction of the old cosmology of the truth criterion (Ferry, 2010: 275). Therefore, it could be argued that the subject of radical scepticism in the Cartesian subject is an interpellated subject because its doubting does not exist in isolation of its context.

Nonetheless, the genealogy of the scepticism and radical doubt is traceable back to the philosophy of the ancient Greek. The idea of the epistemological doubt, scepticism and the idea of uncertainty emanates from the Greek humanists (Ferry, 2010: 275). This mean that the subject does not merely exist, rather- it is interpolating from traditional and ancient beliefs.

However, when the western scientific subject encountered with the African subject, the western scientific subject dehumanised the African subject. What enabled the western scientific subject to dehumanise the African subject was the discourse of othering the African subject emanating from the scientific subject. In the following part discuss the othering discourse of the African subject.

 The advent of African Other subject

This section examine the classification of human beings in society to arrive at how Aristotelian grids were used to exclude the African corporeal schemer to be radical othered subject.

After having established the western scientific subject it has become apparent that it value differentiating and to signify the differentiation. Moreover, it has become apparent that western world moves in a linear progression.

Modernism as tradition began with a dialectical moment through which Europe superseded other geo-political locations on the globe. Post European geo-political location supersession, non-European locations occupied an antithetical position to European modernity. The non-European peoples were, and are still, regarded as savages, backward, barbarism, as compared to the European cogito. Regarding non-Europeans as the other became a feature of the European gaze to the other subject in a cannibalistic manner destined for violent death (Mudimbe, 1988).

Theories of diversity of the human being as well as their classification tables resulted in the construction of discourses of taxonomy and biology with particular aims of studying physical differences amongst human beings (Mudimbe, 1988: 06). The creation of these discourses was informed by the ideologies of social Darwinism. The advocates of this line of thinking believed that there were human beings who were superior to other human beings.  Linnaes Systema Naturae is an example of a modern classification of the human species or homo sapiens into Europeans, Asians and Africans based on phenotypical differences and animalistic behaviour and/or spirit (Mudimbe, 1988: 09). This system is closely associated with the exclusionary nature of the western discourse of colonial modernity in its scientific and philosophical nature (Mudimbe, 1988: 09).

The discipline of the art in the 18th century was influenced by the philosophical and scientific principles of modernity. In fact, art was the manifestation of the principles of western discourse underpinned by philosophical and scientific principles that marginalised Africans within patterns of symbolic and material realities.

During the 15th century, the first artefacts from Africa made their way to Europe through Portuguese sailors and were kept in safe cabinets of curiosity to be viewed by Europeans (Mudimbe, 1988: 10).

During the 18th century, however, the art came in to further constitute a category of African arts thus symbolizing the difference. Prior to the 18th century, there was no category of difference in the field of art and every artefact that seems to differ from the European art – which is purported to be the standard art was considered to account for the diversity of the category of the same. Artefacts in cabinets of curiosity came to constitute categories of difference.

Art was in fact used to justify enslaving Africans by portraying them as dark creatures, savages and ugly leviathan-like humanoids and therefore in need of Western civilization and Christianity for their redemption.

Mudimbe (1988: 01- 23) outlines the role played by the discourse of art in nullifying the humanity of the black colonized people of the African continent. With arrival of the explorers at the Cape and with their voyagers encounters with the Africans at the Cape with diabolic intentions to distort the image of the Africans. The, voyagers gave a non-human account of Africans to the European artists. European artist in their quest for fame, perhaps, experiencing a struggle to know what was seen by the explorers, they were determined to complete their paintings and used the distorted accounts of the image of the Africans. The intention was to fuel their artistic imaginations (Mudimbe, 1988: 07). They would sometimes return to the Greek Art- with Italian style- to try to find ways to create standards of racial differences espoused by the voyagers (Mudimbe, 1988: 07).


The modern subjects’ representation and the imagination of the African Other

 Foucault (1981: 55) informs his readers that in the 16th century that cogito, qua the modern, subject emerged as the continue with the quote which was prior to experience and all forms of knowledge.  This can be, perhaps, to be considered the passion of the western mind. This modern subject was used as the form of exclusion and was instituted in the discourse of colonial modernity (Foucault, 1981: 55). Mudimbe (1988), the categories ‘Africa’, ‘black’ and the ‘other’ are an invention of a passionate western cogito human who can give meaning to the existence of things and name them. In Foucauldian discourse analysis, madness and difference are constituted by discourses and practices that regulate social normality or acceptance form abnormality and non-acceptance within western society (Foucault, 1981: 56). In the same vein, the categories of Africa constituted by the discourse of colonial modernity and the practices that regulates discourses about the entire African that is seen as abnormal and unacceptable in its entirety in comparison to western society.

 One of such practice relating to the metaphysical subject of modernity is the category of the same or a universalizing variable is history (with small letter ‘h’) as a meta-narrative, i.e., there are two theses of history. One is History and the second one is history. The subject of History is the real human being that has the right to give meaning and naming. The second history is the negation of African subject.

Magubane (2004: 130- 131) discourse analysis illustrate to us what enabled the modern subject   to represent the black colonized. Magubane (2004: 130- 131) state that the colonial discourse was written from the white locus of enunciation which privileged a white settler minority and excluded the black indigenous majority. The discourse of colonial modernity is burdened with representations of black colonized people as an aberration of whiteness with everything that is bad about humanity and the world. Whiteness is being described as ordained to civilize the black colonized savages and stamp out barbarism. This discourse valorised white people and allocated white people with the category of human beings who have the capacity to imagine and to represent (Magubane, 2004: 130- 131).

The institution of the disciplines of African studies and Anthropology, as realities of classification of beings, also account for the representation and the imaginations of the African other (Mudimbe, 1988). The emergence of these academic disciplines was in line with the dominant capitalist ideology closely associated with colonialism (Mudimbe, 1988: 16- 17). From this we can conclude that the emergence of anthropology served colonial interests. To be more explicit, anthropology was instituted to directly serve the interests of colonial modernity and it became a stronghold of colonial domination of the other and maintenance thereof at the level of discourse. Imbued with social Darwinist and mercantile world views, anthropologists started to interpret the notion of savagery and primitiveness (Mudimbe, 1988: 17).

One example of the exclusionary nature of anthropological ideologies was the theory by Turgot during the 1750s which created hierarchies of people from savages to civilized using cultural and linguistic categories. Turgot undertook to determine whether a group of people was primitive or civilized by looking at whether they were a hunting society or a capitalist society (Mudimbe, 1988: 04- 10).

The categories from which anthropologists of the 18th century imagined and sought to represent the other were in line with capitalist ideas of the time. Capitalism is thus quintessentially the need for European economies to penetrate virgin lands with the purpose to enlighten the savages and primitives (Mudimbe, 1988: 18). It is from this capitalist world view and Western experience that anthropology represented and imagined the African other subject.

Fanon (1967: 18 – 19) informs us that to assume a language is to assume a culture. For the black colonized peoples who have  been reduced to a state of nothingness with their linguistic categories reduced to that of animal state and culture to a state of wildness in the jungle therefore for the black colonised peoples  to speak the language of the colonizer fluently is to be close to human. Thus, in South Africa the emergence of black nationalism was informed by the black intelligentsia fighting for inclusion in modernity and civil society. Peter Abraham (1954), together with others in South Africans during the anti-Apartheid struggle- inspired by W. E. B Dubois- aspired to talented tenth notion unlike the nationalist who were fighting for the inclusion to modernity and civilised society. 

The entire experience of colonial modernity was of physical and spiritual violence thus metaphysical calamity for the black colonized people. The role of colonial discourse in this calamity was to objectify the corporeal schema of the colonized into an object of scorn and hate (Fanon, 1967: 110- 111).

Black people are observed not to have ontological categories to utilize in their defence as a result of the way they have been represented by the colonial subject of modernity in the history of western modern discourse (1967: 110- 111). Discourse has its systems of exclusion that seeks to regulate it (Foucault, 1983: 52- 54). When  Africans tried to utilize discourse  they are still marginalized because of their supposed cannibalism,  primitive cultures and customs that are not in line with civilization and they are furthermore  reminded  they do not have the representative and imaginative qualities of the modern rational subject thus do not possess ontological categories (Fanon, 1967: 110- 111).

 In effect, the argument goes, according to colonial-modernity, black people do not possess ontological categories and philosophical categories that mitigate in their favour as human beings or cogito. Therefore, black people in the history of colonial discourse and experience do not have the metaphysical categories to assert their humanity from the interiority of the discourse of modernity and thus they fail to be human beings through the text and through language.


This article has explained the Copernican revolution in modern science and stated its importance in the initiation of modern subject. Therefore, it has focussed on the advent of the modern subject and the advent of the African other in the discourse of colonial modernity and the role played by the Copernicus revolution. Therefore, this article has argued that Copernicus revolution opened space for the subject of scientific methods of inquiry and the destruction of the old cosmology that meant a movement from metaphysics to scientific methods of inquiry.

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