After the decline of the West : decolonization and the critical philosophy of history in France and North Africa

Date

2023-04-12

Authors

Savage, Dillon Bradley

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Abstract

The work of investigating and reconstructing historical events does not bear any obvious relation to that of formulating theories of historical development or asking metaphysical questions about history’s meaning and direction. Yet every historian must make choices about which facts to highlight and how to represent and arrange them, and these choices have definite theoretical stakes. Elaborating these stakes and exploring their implications is one of the tasks of the critical philosophy of history, a mode of thought I examine in this dissertation by connecting it to French decolonization in North Africa. As this connection helps us understand, the critical philosophy of history also entails an essentially political task: judging and condemning the past in order to allow new life to emerge.

For North African intellectuals, decolonization was an occasion to rethink history and reimagine the future. How to break free of histories defined by foreign domination without being reduced to passive victimhood or completely renouncing France’s significant cultural influence, which continues to mark the region? This question was central to the political and intellectual work of anticolonial nationalists for much of the twentieth century, taking on particular urgency for a broad public after World War II. I examine the resulting discussions and debates in order to contribute to a reframing of twentieth-century French intellectual history, which I seek to extend beyond the hexagon and onto new conceptual ground.

The dissertation consists of four chapters following a loose chronological organization: the first two chapters begin with the interwar period—when mounting anxieties about Western decline coincided with heightened anticolonial agitation—and the second two focus on the era of decolonization. Chapter 1 examines the life and work of Mohand Tazerout (1893-1973), an Algerian-born intellectual best known for his translation into French of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. In chapter 2, I develop my conception of the critical philosophy of history by reading works by the French political philosopher Raymond Aron (1905-1983) alongside a critique by his Moroccan student, the historian Abdallah Laroui (b. 1933). Chapter 3 delves more deeply into Laroui’s work through a reading of his first book L’idéologie arabe contemporaine (Contemporary Arab ideology, 1967). Chapter 4 considers the postwar revival of interest in the medieval North African historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun among Maghrebi and French anticolonial intellectuals. I conclude with a brief reflection on one of the dissertation's central themes, the concept of historical or cultural rebirth.

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