To accompany my essay on the ‘decolonizing our minds’ debate at SOAS, the Observer asked me to compile a (very) short ‘alternative’ philosophy book list; alternative in the sense of being broadly non-European and consisting of works or authors of whom people may not have heard but nevertheless are significant in the history of ideas. Being limited to just six books necessarily makes the list arbitrary, but I have tried to find a selection that spans both history and geography, and each work of which is historically important in itself.



Mo Tzu, Basic Writings
(Columbia University Press)

Most people know of Confucius. They should know of Mo Tzu. Though he lived a century after Confucius (Mo’s approximate dates are 468 – 391 BCE), he has claim to be China’s first true philosopher. Unlike Confucius, Mo Tzu engaged in an explicit reflective search for moral standards and gave tightly reasoned arguments for his views. He defended a universalist vision, arguing that the moral interests of strangers are as important as those of our tribe. He proposed a form of what we now call ‘consequentialism’ – the idea that the moral worth of an act should be judged primarily by its effects – remarkably sophisticated for its time. The conservatism of Confucianism, and its cultivation of the moral character necessary to rule, to administer and to follow, won the favour of the Chinese state. The radicalism of Mo Tzu was forgotten and suppressed. Only fragments of his writing remain.



Ibn Rushd, The Decisive Treatise
(University of Chicago Press)

The Andalusian Ibn Rushd(1126-1198),  often known in the West as Averroes, was the last of the great classical Islamic philosophers. Through his commentaries on Aristotle, he became more influential on Western philosophy than on Islamic thought.

Central to Ibn Rushd’s work was the relationship between philosophy and religion, and the insistence on the compatibility of reason and faith. Perhaps his two most important works are The Incoherence of Incoherence and The Decisive Treatise. The first is a response to the great theologian al-Ghazali and his attack on reason in his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers. The second is a defence of the role of reason in a community of faith, in which Ibn Rushd argues that God commands humans to employ reason and not just faith.



Abul Ala Al-Ma’arri, The Book of al-Ma’arri
(New Humanity Books)

Today we have become used to thinking of the Islamic world as insular, hostile to reason and freethinking, and with a single, unquestioned view of God and the Qur’an.  But in the first half-millennium of its existence, especially during the Abbasid period (750-1258), there was within the Islamic empire an extraordinary flourishing of philosophical debate and of freethinking. The most important of the freethinkers was Abul Ala Al-Ma’arri, an eleventh century poet and philosopher, renowned for his unflinching religious skepticism:

They all err – Muslims, Jews,
Christians, and Zoroastrians:
Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
One, intelligent without religion,
The second, religious without intellect.

There are very few English translations of his work. There is the NYU Press’ recently published edition of his Epistle of Forgiveness (sometimes compared to Dante’s Inferno) and this short selection of his poetry.



Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment
(Oxford University Press)

A ground-breaking study of the ‘other Enlightenment’, not the Enlightenment of Locke, Hume, Voltaire and Kant, but that of Spinoza, Pascal, d’Holbach and Diderot, a half-underground movement whose radicalism, according to Israel, has deeply shaped modern conceptions of freedom, liberty, equality and tolerance.



CLR James, The Black Jacobins

Trinidadian-born CLR James (1901 -1989) was one of those towering figures of the 20th century who is all too rarely recognised as such. Novelist and orator, philosopher and cricketer, historian and revolutionary, Pan-Africanist and Trotskyist – few modern figures can match his intellectual depth, cultural breadth or sheer political contrariness.

The Black Jacobins tells the story of the Haitian revolution and of its tragically flawed leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. Decades before historians such as EP Thompson began producing ‘history from below’, James told of how the slaves of Haiti had not been passive victims of their oppression but active agents in their own emancipation. It is a work of biography and social history, not of philosophy. But central to the narrative is the importance of ideas, and especially the ideas of the Enlightenment, as weapons of social transformation.



Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
(Penguin Modern Classics)

Born in Martinique, Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was a psychiatrist and revolutionary, and a key figure in the Algerian struggle for independence. Many of his admirers see him as giving succour to the view that European thought is destructive of non-European peoples and cultures, making him an icon of postcolonial literature. Many of his critics focus on his celebration of violence as redemptive. Fanon’s work is in fact more subtle than either allow. The Wretched of the Earth was his last book, written in 1961, when he was dying of leukaemia, a searing indictment of the dehumanizing trauma of colonialism on the colonized individual, culture and nation.


The top image is one of Érik Desmazières‘ etchings for Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel.

One comment

  1. CB

    Thank you for this list and about to spend a bit of money. I am often a bit bewildered by the narrowness of some of the current ‘debates’ in Western society and how little is known or brought into play even in the most elevated circles.

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