Why a Humanities Lab in Angola? A Few Remarks on Critical Thinking and the Relevance of a ‘Public Humanities’ Concept

Catarina Gomes Agostinho Neto University
Abstract: This working paper is structured around five topics: (i) a brief summary of Angola’s contemporary history and a presentation of Angola’s main human development indicators; (ii) a brief presentation of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Agostinho Neto University (Luanda); (iii) a more detailed presentation of CIESO (Centre for Sociological Studies and Research) and its main activities and projects; (iv) a presentation of the Humanities Lab project and (v) the Humanities Lab project’s philosophy.

. . . What the true philosopher says is not ‘something’ true but rather something necessary or liberating. —Susan Sontag on E. M. Cioran (Sontag 1998)[1]

Thus we might understand ‘I know’ as a way of recognizing the fact that we belong to this humanity of ours because we are born and are condemned to live together. . . . What does matter is being born together. —V. Y. Mudimbe (Golan et al. 1999)

Pode mesmo a gente saber com a certeza, como é um caso começou, aonde começou, porquê, praquê, quem?. . . Ou tudo que passa na vida não pode-se-lhe agarrar no princípio, quando chega nesse princípio vê afinal esse mesmo princípio era também o fim doutro princípio e então, se a gente segue assim, para trás ou para a frente, vê que não pode partir-se o fio da vida, mesmo que está podre nalgum lado, ele sempre se emenda noutro sítio, cresce, desvia, foge, avança, curva, para, esconde, aparece . . . —Luandino Vieira, A estória do ladrão e do papagaio

I. Brief summary of Angola’s contemporary history

Angola’s armed struggle for liberation against Portuguese colonial rule started in 1961 and ended in 1975 with the proclamation of Angola’s independence. Thus, the country was one of the last African nations to gain independence.

However, it is important to reflect critically on the history of Angola’s independence. The liberation struggle soon was marked by the influences of global power relations in the context of the Cold War. One important effect of this situation was the inability of the three main liberation movements to foster an understanding, and to organize a common front, not only for the country’s independence but also for its postcolonial development. Naturally, the emergence of the main three liberation movements, FNLA (Frente Nacional para a Libertação de Angola), UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola), and MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola), is not due only to the interventions of Cold War actors. Instead, these movements emerged from a complex set of factors, based on which one could emphasize how Portuguese colonial rule actively produced differentiation and competition between communities and social segments. Thus, for many authors, the armed struggle for liberation was soon accompanied by the dynamics of a civil war between the rival movements (Messiant, 1994, 1995; Mabeko-Tali, 2005).

In fact, in 1975, two different independences were declared: one by MPLA and the other by a frail coalition between FNLA and UNITA, which crumbled in the space of a few months. Following the downfall of the Bicesse peace accords, which envisaged a national government of reconciliation with shared powers, MPLA gained control over the state apparatus and the government. When in power, MPLA installed a uniparty Marxist political system and simultaneously continued military efforts to control the entire territory occupied by FNLA and UNITA. In this perspective, independence was marked by two factors: a long, violent civil war and an authoritarian regime of centralized power characterized by (neo)patrimonial rule. Both have had a strong influence in what may be called the ‘local political culture.’

The concept and practice of public humanities emerge as a challenge for an active and accountable involvement of humanities

In the mid 1980s, this power system faced a crisis, mainly because of the decline of income from the oil industry. Alongside this economic crisis, which produced large-scale famine and aggravated the consequences of the civil war, the international community pressured the regime to embrace economic and political liberalization. This resulted in economic reforms adopting an open market economy and political reforms adopting multiparty politics through democratic elections (Vidal and Andrade, 2006).

In 1992, the first general elections were organized. A Government of National Unity and Reconciliation, formed by the three rival former movements, was established. But in that same year the war was resumed, and long peace negotiations were unsuccessful in stopping the conflict. This led to a long humanitarian disaster and to destruction of the country’s limited infrastructure. To give you an overall idea, it is estimated that between 1992 and 1997, a hundred thousand people died and seventy thousand were victims of exploding mines. Twenty percent of the population became refugees. In 1997, the Human Development Report from the UN calculated that 1.2 million people were displaced; half of the displaced people were children under the age of fifteen, and one million children were directly exposed to the violence, as victims or as soldiers. Historians Wheeler and Pélissier (2004) estimated that eight hundred thousand people had died from 1994 to 2004, and four million had been displaced.

The end of the civil war was not the fruit of peace negotiations. It had a military resolution. In April 2002, MPLA troops succeeded in killing Savimbi, the leader of UNITA. The Government of National Unity and Reconciliation was again put in place under the hegemony of MPLA, and a calendar for new elections began to be discussed in an attempt to secure peace and to fulfill the previous peace accords.

In 2008, the second general elections were organized, and the MPLA won with 81.76% of the vote. This overwhelming victory allowed for a constitutional revision that consecrated a presidential regime marked by a strong concentration of powers.  The last elections took place in 2012, and again MPLA won, with 71.84% of the vote. Nevertheless, one should note that about 40% of voters did not turn out to vote and that Angola was experiencing social protests against the regime that were inspired by the Arab Spring.

One shouldn´t overlook the significance of these protests and the influence of the events that took place in North Africa and in the Middle East. Adopting a much-needed historical and comparative perspective, Samir Amin argues that the revolts associated with the Arab Spring, such as those that marked Latin America two decades earlier, share important features. In fact, while those movements can assume different forms (from an explosive criticism against local forms of authoritarian rule to a direct critique of the neoliberal model of development adopted by emerging countries), they coincide with social criticism against new forms of imperialism based on capitalist and financial monopolies and manifested in rising world inequalities (Amin 2014).

On the other hand, nowadays, a significant economic and social crisis is affecting the country due to the recent fall in oil prices. This ‘crisis’ experience is far from new.[2] Even in the context of peace and in a golden age of investment supported by high oil revenues, the development of fundamental sectors, such as education and health, has been below the average public investment in sub-Saharan Africa (above 6% of the GPD) (CEIC 2013b, 35). If one engages in an exercise of analyzing public expenditure, one can recognize that the pattern of public investment since 2002 reveals a certain downplaying of social needs—an observation that could sustain a critical meditation on the meaning of the ‘peace dividend’ (Coletta, Kastner, and Wiederhofer 1996; Gupta et al. 2002).

Overall, the most recent public data on human development in Angola show us a challenging scenario. In 2009, 60% of the population lived on less than 2 USD per day (INE 2009), and in the same year, for every 1000 births, 161 children under the age of five died (UN-PNUD).[3] In 2011, the Human Development Index (HDI) of Angola was 0.486, and the country was number 148 on the list, in the category of countries of very low development (UN-PNUD ). The multidimensional poverty index was at 77.4%; in 2011, life expectancy at birth was 51.1 years; the average number of years spent in school was 4.4. In 2012, Angola’s HDI was calculated at 0.524, and in 2013 it was estimated to be 0.526 (UN-PNUD ). And, finally, according to INE, (INE 2009), between 2006 and 2010, Angola’s Life Satisfaction Index was 4.2, where 0 is the least satisfied and 10 is the most satisfied.

II. Faculty of Social Sciences, Agostinho Neto University, Luanda

Agostinho Neto University is a public university initially created by the Portuguese around 1962. It is dispersed throughout the Angolan capital, Luanda, in different buildings, and it includes different faculties, such as engineering, medicine, law, and economics.

Until 2012 the university had a joint faculty of humanities and social sciences. Due to recent reforms this faculty was split in two: one for humanities, where one can find a degree in philosophy, and the other for social sciences. The Faculty of Social Sciences is thus quite recent. It offers degrees in History, Anthropology, Political Science, Sociology, Social Psychology, Communication and Media, and Marketing and Public Administration.

Student profiles

Because the university is a public institution, students who attend classes during the morning and afternoon periods don’t have to pay any fees. This means that a vast majority of the students come from low- and very low-income families with poor educational backgrounds and with poor access to essential tools such as reading material and the Internet. A significant number of students work at formal and informal jobs to make ends meet, and many have a familial responsibility to contribute to the household income. The majority of the students have gone through the public education system, which is still quite frail in terms of access and quality. Thus, these students face a number of difficulties, namely in literacy. Most of them read only in Portuguese.

Education’s challenges

As in many other contexts, the African higher education system is currently confronted with global demands for market-oriented policies. In addition to the expected difficulties associated with democratization processes, this trend (which will be further discussed later on) produces several effects. These become perhaps especially, although not exclusively, visible in contexts such as postcolonial Angola. These include

  • a normative view of education for employability with decreasing focus on its emancipatory and empowerment character;
  • the production of ‘an illusion of emancipation’ to recover Paulo Freire’s thought (v.g., 1985) associated with an increasing individualization of risks, vulnerability and precarious life projects as analyzed by Ulrich Beck (1992) and Judith Butler (2006), amongst others; and
  • a superficial engagement in the critique of knowledge coloniality, which tends to be reinforced by the trend toward disqualifying humanities and social sciences.

Three main challenges can be easily outlined:

  1. Investing in the improvement of students’ profile.
  2. Investing in creativity, in critical thinking, and in empowering dimensions of education.
  3. Developing an operational concept of public humanities that is able simultaneously to promote the two aspects mentioned above and also to enhance social engagement in terms of citizenship and locally oriented development strategies.

III. Brief overview of CIESO

Created in March 2015, the Centre for Sociological Research and Studies (CIESO) is a research studies centre of the University Agostinho Neto’s Social Sciences Faculty.  According to the general legal framework, CIESO is a public and collective entity with scientific, cultural and administrative autonomy.

Albeit directly associated with the sociological domain of inquiry, CIESO aims to reflect upon contemporary challenges to the fields of social sciences and humanities. Those challenges have a global character and include the demand for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to reinforce inter-cultural dialogues in the context of globalization. Given the central focus on inter-cultural dialogues, its general goal can be summarized as follows.

CIESO’s global orientations

  • To promote and expand inter-cultural dialogues in the context of globalization toward an inclusive and participatory process of knowledge construction aimed at a comprehensive and multidimensional understanding of contemporary social life in different places of enunciation and experience
  • To promote the development of knowledge production in social sciences and humanities in dialogue with epistemological diversity and decolonial debates
  • To contribute to an inclusive and just social development through fundamental and applied research

CIESO’s methodological orientations

  • To promote interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research through the investment in national human resources and the development of national and international networking settings for collaborative research
  • To reinforce scientific collaboration within the Faculty’s community and to enhance the relationship between teaching and research
  • To develop instruments and theoretical, analytical and methodological approaches able to produce a multidimensional understanding of contemporary social life, especially in postcolonial contexts
  • To disseminate scientific knowledge by making it available to the general public

CIESO’s lines of research

In order to mobilize people around the project, an informal humanities group was created. The research lines correspond basically to the main fields and interests of participants in that group. As the center develops, they can be expanded. These lines of research are summarized below.

Epistemological diversity and knowledge production in the contemporary world: representation, knowledge, power

Synopsis:  The starting point of this research topic can be subsumed under the heading of a critical analysis of the history(ies) of ideas as well as of an acute consciousness of the historical and cultural contexts of knowledge production. It wishes to interrogate the multiple dilemmas introduced by postmodern, poststructuralist and postcolonial readings with a comprehensive understanding and mutual recognition of historical subjects in distinct places of enunciation. A critical re-visitation of traditions and conceptual universes imposes itself. What is identity? What should one understand as inter-cultural? Is it possible to think in terms of transcendence? What are the implications of transcendence in terms of cognitive, ontological and historical justice? This critical undertaking aims to explore the possibilities of understanding epistemological diversity in terms of communality whereby new positionings and relationships between subjects and communities can be established.  This research topic includes several thematic concerns: the geopolitical dynamic in knowledge construction and coloniality, epistemological diversity, identity discourses, postcolonial positionings, literary studies, philosophy in a hermeneutical and historical approach, and so forth.

Globalization and contemporary societal challenges

Synopsis:  A critical focus on globalization processes, dimensions, and impacts is a necessary point of anchorage in critical analysis and thinking. It requires a trans-scale form of analysis able to put forward the multiple and complex linkages between local, national, regional, and global levels, discourses, agendas, movements, and institutions.  This research topic includes the analysis of emergent forms of inequalities, environmental challenges, supranational and infra-national forms of political action and regulation, social movements and their transnational and extra-institutional dynamics, contemporary cultural productions, etc.

Africa in the world

Synopsis: This research topic includes two dimensions. On one hand, there is the challenge to map and critically deconstruct hegemonic representations of Africa. On the other hand, it aims to construct critically a comprehensive account about the contemporary reality of the continent in terms of its insertion in the world-system and in terms of its own readings of the global and of the critical inputs it receives. A number of topics can be explored, such as state building in a diachronic perspective, a revision of theoretical explanations regarding the African nation-state, the reinvention and actualization of sociabilities, social impacts of development policies, artistic and cultural productions, citizenship and public spheres, dynamics of conflict, experiences of reconciliation and peace building, and so forth.

Sustainability and ethics

Synopsis: The sustainability of life represents today a major concern. In a significant way, it has risen from the awareness concerning the multiple challenges presented by globalization. This topic is linked to a profound critique of development models that cannot distance themselves from an extractivist logic and a classic anthropocentric vision. The sustainability debate is being accompanied by the formulation of ethics positionings that focus on ideas of care toward oneself, the other, the community, and the planet. This line of research occupies itself with ecological awareness, natural resources, pollution and violence, poverty, exclusion and social marginalization, amongst other topics.

Societal reinventions and development

Synopsis:  Privileging synchronic and diachronic perspectives, this research topic aims to explore how key societal dimensions are currently being reconfigured and reconstructed in the context of profound, paradigmatic and conflictual transitions. It is concerned, therefore, with themes such as social bounds, citizenship, politics of identity, alterity and recognition, public/private distinctions, participation, inclusion, social functions of the state, the role of civil society, and so forth. Issues like education, health, justice, and rights are at the core of this topic.

Since CIESO was approved, several small-scale initiatives have beien developed. Those initiatives include the formation of a faculty discussion group on the role of the humanities, the edition of a special issue of the Journal of Citizenship Studies, CIESO’s integration into the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) network, and the planning of research projects involving students, civil society organizations, and local communities, such as those identified below:

  • Children’s Resource Centre, in partnership with the National Children Institute. (coord. Aguiar Cardoso) and Spaces and Sociabilities: What Role for the Social Sciences?, (coord. Tina Abreu). The funding for both projects is currently being negotiated with UNICEF under the ‘Strategy for Research and Studies’ from the SIMSAP/APROSOC—a program funded by the European Union and UNICEF in partnership in the Angolan government.
  • Talking Peace: Experiences and Narratives from Everyday Life (coord. Catarina Antunes Gomes) and Living Luanda: Experiences and Narratives from Everyday Life (coord. Catarina Antunes Gomes). Both projects are being developed by undergraduate students in the context of two classes, one on Urban Sociology and the other on Conflicts and Peace. The aim is to promote the students’ recognition as knowledge producers, thus engaging them meaningfully and in an accountable and creative manner in their own learning processes.

In relation to these small-scale projects, a few aspects should be emphasized. One, they have an interdisciplinary character. Two, they all consciously seek to invest in methodological creativity and employ bottom-up, participatory approaches. Three, these projects are designed to interact with each other (through, for example, internal seminars), thus contributing to the enrichment of research, teaching, and learning processes and to the fulfillment of the main dimensions of the public humanities concept.

IV. Humanities Lab project

CIESO aims to create a Humanities Laboratory within the Faculty of Social Sciences and in close relationship with the projects mentioned above, as well as with others that are currently being organized with international partners.[4]

Briefly, like other experiences and structures, the Humanities Lab is to be organized around a constellation of research projects bringing together faculty and students from across the humanities and other disciplines, as well as from civil society and local communities. It is designed to foster formal and informal collaboration. Shared, free and accessible technological resources are fundamental to enabling participants to experiment with new research methods, new lines of inquiry, and new ways of engaging with the public.

And here lies the importance of thinking about the productive relationship between the concept of public humanities and the role and the structure of a Humanities Lab.

Its philosophy is anchored in an ongoing critical reflection upon the concept of ‘Public Humanities’ as engaged knowledge produced by the disciplines that occupy related humanities and social sciences fields. For this particular context, engaged knowledge will reflect on issues relating to peace, justice, well-being, creativity and arts, and critical thinking. As will be discussed later, the concept and practice of public humanities emerge as a challenge for an active and accountable involvement of humanities and social sciences, counter-acting an increasingly engrained tendency to depoliticize knowledge and its role in organizing, creating, and projecting communities and futures.[5]

And here lies the importance of thinking about the productive relationship between the concept of public humanities and the role and the structure of a Humanities Lab. As Bruno Latour acutely observed, ’l’epistemologie s’est enfin vraiment démocratisée… Et, une fois de plus, l’expression cogitamus ne sonne pas du tout comme l’ancien cogito’ (2014, 178–179).

The Humanities Lab goals correspond to the global and methodological guidelines of CIESO:

  • To promote knowledge production in social sciences and humanities in dialogue with epistemological diversity and decolonial debates
  • To contribute to an inclusive and just social development through fundamental and applied research
  • To promote interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research through the investment in national human resources and the development of national and international networking settings for collaborative research
  • To reinforce scientific collaboration within the Faculty’s community and to enhance the relationship between teaching and research
  • To develop instruments and theoretical, analytical, and methodological approaches able to produce a multidimensional understanding of contemporary social life, especially in postcolonial contexts
  • To make scientific knowledge available to the general public
  • To contribute to curricular innovation in terms of learning, teaching, and research, challenging the prevailing model of education in small-scale initiatives and experiments
  • To provide a technological and creative structure for research projects and to enable the academic community to work on their materials in a collaborative manner, while promoting creativity in producing outcomes able to reinforce the relationship between the Faculty, the general public, and local communities
  • To engage undergraduates in advanced research alongside faculty and graduate student mentors and collaborators

V. The Humanities Lab project’s framework and philosophy

In a global context where the conceptualization and the role of social sciences and humanities is being questioned and challenged to answer global, regional, and local issues, one can identify at least two main trends. Firstly, the dominance of the neopositivistic outlook on science’s activity and its social functions, which is not a recent trend, has serious implications for the social recognition of the readings, interpretations, and knowledge production that are proposed especially by social sciences and the humanities. The culture of the fact, of the datum, of numerical prediction as a way of taming chance is being ironically consecrated in a global context of increasing vulnerability and unpredictability. One important side effect of such a neopositivistic culture is that, by presenting itself as a disengaged and distant description of realities, it obscures the complexities of social experience and aspirations. Thus, if one becomes seduced by the power of those kind of descriptions, one might confuse a description or a given representation of reality for reality itself. Secondly, the longstanding debate between distinct models of objectivity adopted and developed under the classical hierarchization of scientific knowledge has still the capacity to present itself in academia and in social expectations. Current pragmatic concerns and scientific and epistemological discussions eloquently manifest these implications; one development that crucially questions that form of hierarchy is the debate about knowledge coloniality (v.g., Mignolo 2000).

Let us reflect upon a groundbreaking work that illustrates how the field of humanities is being conceived, challenged, and disputed nowadays. It is entitled Humanities World Report 2015. This work was the result of an extensive and worldwide research conducted by Poul Holm, Arne Jarrick, and Dominic Scott, and it was published recently in open access (2015). This report is especially useful for this presentation because it help us to answer in a systematic manner the question: Why a Humanities Lab in Angola?[6]

Overall, the report aims to ‘assess the worldwide state of humanities’ (Holm, Jarick, and Scott 2014, 1) through the voices of scholars belonging to different ‘places of enunciation’, and thus inscribed in distinct authoritative traditions. At this point, one faces immediately the intensity of the discussion around what disciplines and/or relevant themes constitute the foggy field of humanities. Hence, for example, in case of Africa, the authors identified the following socially relevant themes: ‘Politics’ (nationalism; armed struggle; peace processes; regional studies; mineral resources and their social impacts; democracy); ‘Language’ (language variation and identity; language policy with multilingual populations); ‘Development’ (religion and development; theatre for development; development versus conservation; gender and development; politics and development); ‘Culture’ (popular culture; performance studies; media); and ‘Religion’ (the social role of religion; the role of the church in the process of democratization; religion and development), amongst others. For North America, the categories obtained were quite different. They included ‘The public and private’ (suspicion of governmental programs; issues of privacy, surveillance and social media); ‘Environmental studies’ (protection of the environment; climate change; animal rights; food studies); ‘Globalization’ (the realm of the transnational, the local impacts of global process and the forms of resistance to uniformity, projects with a globalized/ hemispheric context, etc.); and ‘Health’ (bioethics and so forth) (Holm, Jarick, and Scott 2015, 45, 47–48).

One other specific aspect of this study should be mentioned: its focus on humanities research, not just on humanities education. In fact, this represents a subtle but innovative point of view on the dominant approaches to the role, function and value of the field.

Usually, the contemporary challenges that the humanities field faces produce a twofold effect. On one hand, it re-situates humanities in a determined and peculiar position: it has to justify itself. This is a radical effect in the sense that, by demanding an intelligible answer from the field (that is, an answer that can be aptly apprehended by contemporary parameters and representations of knowledge and normative science), it indeed questions the usefulness of the field’s existence. Putting this idea in even more radical terms, one could think that a conceptual link is emerging between the notions of existence and usefulness. The meaning of existence is therefore dislocated from the facticity of its own being and relocated to its explicit function or purpose. These are not new phenomena, especially if one takes into the consideration the critics of the so-called culture of obsolescence, related not only to consumerist culture but also to the paradigm of a society and economy based on information and knowledge. Another side effect of this radical challenge is that it forces the field to adopt a defensive positioning. This reaction manifests itself in two main forms: (a) the attempt to demonstrate the economic value of the field, and (b) the attempt to emphasize its fundamentality for issues such as education, values, heritage, and so forth.

A number of different topics could be introduced at this point of our reflection. One, the adoption of a defensive positioning can be read as an attempt to justify an existence. In this sense, the justification in itself can be seen as a sort of annihilation: one justifies oneself by demonstrating adequacy to a given reality or to the challenger. It is a strategy of survival. Two, the same fact can be interpreted as a sign of a fundamental insecurity, both epistemological (because we are dealing with fields of knowledge) and ontological (in the sense that any recognizable field has constructed for itself and for others a historical identity). Three, this fundamental insecurity, in its turn, can be seen as a demonstration of the vitality of the conceptual link between existence and usefulness. An existence anchored in usefulness does not need justification. It is because it does. Hence, it becomes a proof of the pertinence of the challenge.

  • From a strictly methodological stance, the report’s authors chose to focus on what universities around the world distinguish as a set of disciplines belonging to the humanities. The pragmatic approach that is easily identified here could be criticized as an ‘easy way out’. But, in reality, through this indirect view, the authors can expose the field of humanities in a multidimensional way:
  • By allowing the presence of different places of enunciation and authoritative traditions, the field will not run the risk of being delimited monoculturally;
  • By emphasizing concerns, values, and processes of interrogating, the authors can construct a multi-layered perspective of the field; and
  • Through this methodological option, a common ground for humanities can be unveiled, without distorting or normalizing its plurality and complexity: the common ground of critical thinking.

Thus, we are facing a plurality of viewpoints and concerns that come together under the label of humanities and/or humanities and social sciences. Two remarks should be raised. On the one hand, according to different life and historical contexts, and from different places of enunciation, people engage in hermeneutical and critical dialogues with their own experience, concerns, and aspirations. This a major factor in understanding diversity beyond disciplinary institutionalized borders. On the other hand, a common ground emerges, taking different forms, tackling different issues, while people engage hermeneutically with their own contexts of existence.[7]

Critical thinking

Critical thinking emerges as a common ground in the sense that it represents and operates as the necessary condition for interrogation and for explanation. And it is a common ground because it allows us to take into consideration that, in the humanities, primacy is given to interrogation itself and to the historical nature of explanation, not only to a notion of ‘finding’ that tends to be seen as an absolute. In fact, the value of humanities resides greatly in the consciousness that—as Jill Lepore once put it—‘value’ has a history.[8] Thus, explanation is not just a matter of identifying patterns of causation: it also entails a critical awareness about thinking processes.

The indirect approach to the question ‘What are the humanities?’ first materialized in an interrogation about how scholars and humanists articulate the field’s value. This naturally raised multiple answers, which the authors tried to aggregate in an intelligible taxonomy of values. Interestingly enough, this plausible taxonomy (Holm, Jarick, and Scott 2014, 13) is composed of eight entries: a) intrinsic value; b) social value; c) cultural heritage; d) economic value; e) contributions to other disciplines; f) innovation; g) personal and spiritual development, and h) aesthetic appreciation. Let us reflect upon these entries, since each of them represents an opportunity to articulate, in a systematic manner, the debates that revolve around the initial interrogation: Why a Humanities Lab in Angola?

Why a Humanities Lab in Angola?

If humanities have an intrinsic value, the field is a value in itself and it should be pursued for its own sake. This position also seems to convey a strong sense of identity that is, in principle (although not always), miles away from the defensive positioning already briefly described. The answer is not presented as ‘an answer’, but as a stance, an affirmation, an evidence that requires no explanation—a sort of axiom. This directly challenges the current appeal for humanities to demonstrate its usefulness.

On the other hand, the notion of humanities’ social value highlights its overall benefits for society. These benefits include tolerance, citizenship, social cohesion, decision-making, critical thinking, progress, etc. Therefore, one can here identify immaterial benefits related to values and cultural atmospheres, and also pragmatic engagements that might be able to promote those values and atmospheres.

The social value of humanities translates, therefore, the idea of engaged knowledge. The classical image of the ivory tower of knowledge associates with the previous idea, that humanities is a value in itself, is now replaced by the value in humanities’ active involvement in human affairs—which is also, in an apparent paradox, a classical disposition of the field(s). Clearly, with the notion of social value or active involvement, the idea of responsibility comes to the forefront of any discussion. But the tricky issue is immediately apparent: how to qualify this active involvement? Is it constructed within the freedom of critical thinking?

One last remark has to do with a possible and vulgar bifurcation in the interpretation of what is really the social value of humanities. At a more fundamental level, one can think about social value as that which makes possible and reinforces the collective. The bifurcation becomes transparent when we start to think about the nature and the project of this ‘collective’. The idea of collectivity communicates the reality or the goal of a social bound, that is, of social cohesion. But couldn’t we ask: social cohesion concerning what or around what? Does this social cohesion imply the adherence to a dominant status quo, where individuals are consensually and/but differently positioned? Is it referring to an enlargement of social linkages through the multiplication of recognition modes and the proliferation of pertinent social presences and participations? What is the relationship between critical thinking and democratization processes and social cohesion? Here lies the importance of thinking concretely about the collective and about social cohesion.

A third entry of the taxonomy informs us about the importance of humanities for reasons of cultural heritage. In this perspective, humanities are seen to contribute immensely to the understanding and preservation of cultural heritages. This first-order observation might raise immediately one specific concern: that it legitimizes essentialists’ readings of cultural universes. This concern is overcome when the understanding of cultural heritages or universes is made critically. A second-order observation then imposes itself, and this is especially important in contexts such as postcolonial Angola, where the use of official nationalist history is highly politicized and the debate about an ‘identity politics’, anchored on an essentialist reading of ‘angolanidade’, is quite present in everyday discourses and determines who has the right to belong and speak (Pestana, 2014).

If understanding is freedom of spirit, to recall Gadamer, one should consider the meaning and the goal of critical understanding and also its role in producing reality and horizons of possibility. If it is, indeed, in place, this critical understanding is also directed toward those aspects of human experience that produce violence and oppression and/or those aspects that produce power structures’ legitimacy. If this is the case, then, logically, this entry has an active involvement in human affairs and, hence, is connected profoundly with the previous entry of the taxonomy (v.g., the idea of social value). And if this active involvement is a given, then one should acknowledge and search for humanities’ role in producing human realities and experiences by critically thematizing them and by opening up horizons of possibility. In this sense, what we name and understand as human experience is a product of that activity of understanding and naming. As such, it is integrated in the realm of consciousness via reflection and exploration. That is, it constitutes a new horizon of possibility for being. These are objects of a necessary epistemological vigilance and critical thinking: what and how we name realities and experiences; how we make them available and produce their reality; and how we exclude them and deny them, either in the form of facticity or in the form of consequences and potentialities. Of course, this raises the issue of responsibility as mentioned earlier.

The fourth value mentioned in the report is economic value. By ‘economic value’, the authors mean both the direct economic benefits associated with the main activities of the field, such as publishing, education, and professional training, and also indirect effects related to humanities’ research on economic topics such as rights, welfare, poverty, exclusion, distribution of income, health, justice, employment, environment, etc.

Naturally, this argument can be seen and interpreted as a risk of normalizing the productivity and usefulness of the field. However, the concept of Public Humanities can bring three important contributions. First, it can make people aware that numbers and statistics, and even models of social intervention, communicate belief systems that nowadays inform public policy in fundamental ways. The relationship between expertise and public policy does not necessarily mean that policy will be the product of more inclusive and participatory processes of knowledge production and decision-making. Second, because of its practices of reflecting upon the entanglements among science, society, politics, and so forth, the public humanities concept has the potential to enlarge the social base for knowledge production and decision-making, contributing thereby to the democratization of these processes. As mentioned, bottom-up approaches and dialogues between different systems of knowledge (v.g., formal and informal) are essential elements. The third advantage lies in the creative power of critical thinking.

The fifth value concerns the humanities’ contributions to other disciplines, namely natural sciences and ‘hard’ social sciences. One could think here about multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary issues or, alternatively, about the dialogues between three scientific cultures, as Jerome Kagan (2009) once put it.  According to this interpretation, the world’s complexity can be grasped only through the recovery of an interdisciplinary and, therefore, multidimensional thinking process. Interestingly enough, this attitude might be identified with the subversive provocations of Paul Feyerabend (1987; 1993), who said ‘farewell to reason’ years ago. In saying farewell, for instance, to a colonial, capitalist, and extractivist model of reason, we deal with dissolution of knowledge hierarchization and with a celebration of the historical exchanges between traditions and disciplines.

It should also be strongly emphasized that the subject of contributing to other disciplines discloses the importance of humanities’ epistemological work, namely on critically re-assessing theories and knowledge production’s presuppositions through an ethically guided epistemological vigilancework that has been fundamental for the development of postcolonial analysis (Bates, Mudimbe, and O’Bar 1993).

The sixth value of the author’s taxonomy is especially eloquent in this respect. It concerns itself with the innovation value of humanities, arguing that by focusing on questions of organization and action, the humanities can contribute to a culture of innovation. Once again, this reading is susceptible to two main interpretations. Both dispute the socio-linguistic and value-laden idea of innovation.

If we acknowledge the role of the humanities in producing realities and horizons of possibility through critical thinking…we can identify instances where the humanities presented groundbreaking innovations.

On the one hand, we find an interpretation that is closely linked with current political and economic meanings and usages of the concept of innovation. These emerge from a model that was consecrated in the nineties: the model of an information and knowledge society and economy (Castells, 1997). A brief overview of this model and its usages shows us how its particular conceptualization of knowledge corresponds to its commodification in a global competitive economy. From this we can observe a novel dynamic of the hierarchization of knowledge, based on the distinction between what can be commoditized and what cannot—a distinction that is anchored in the relationship between existence and usefulness discussed above. In this perspective, the humanities presents the potential for innovation if its products or findings are apt to be integrated in market circuits and thereby help to promote a knowledge society in our contemporary global economy. What is left, then, for the humanities is a subsidiary role.

On the other hand, if we detach the concept of innovation from its current meanings and usages, we realize that its fundamental meaning is ‘to effect a change’. If we keep this in mind, if we acknowledge the role of the humanities in producing realities and horizons of possibility through critical thinking, and if we take an historical outlook, we can identify instances where the humanities presented groundbreaking innovations. One might also add the fact that humanities’ role in understanding critically and challenging social realities, practices, and beliefs constitutes a central tenet for the renewal and actualization of social life and human existence in multiple domains: collective action, policy making, and politics of recognition, as well as aesthetics, literature, and arts. And, indeed, the last values included in the taxonomy are related to personal and spiritual development and to the promotion of an aesthetic appreciation and lived experience[9] of existence, mainly through art.

In conclusion

Let us return to the issue of critical thinking as, simultaneously, a common ground of humanities and inherently the possibility of humanities. What is critical thinking? According to the report’s authors, the most common definition is that critical thinking is a technique of questioning and challenging dominant views. Albeit to the point, this definition might be too restricted.

In all the entries of the values’ taxonomy, critical thinking is the condition for the avoidance of coercive normalization. It is the tool through which individuals can sustain democratic control over institutions, societies, and destinies or futures. Of course, this democratic control has to be based on collective arrangements. But these arrangements should not be underlined by an excluding identity principle. Instead, it has to be based on relational resonances between individuals and communities—that is, on recognition of commonalities as well as of specificities. Thus, critical thinking might be better understood as the systematized and exigent attitude of transcendence that is conveyed by the notion of ‘critical ontology’ formulated by Michel Foucault (1997). A ‘critical ontology’ is, therefore, the subtext of humanities’ criticism. Its ‘being-in-the-world’ should correspond to an expansion of horizons of possibility, anchored in cross-learning processes which are not enforced but are simply available as repositories of meanings’ construction processes that can sustain us into the future.

Naturally, other scientific cultures, such as those emerging from natural and applied sciences, do have their own critical reasoning. The question imposes itself, then: is there a difference? Two lines of observation could thus be considered. One, all critical thinking is necessarily cultural and historical. In humanities, there is an explicit recognition of these contingences and their force— an indispensable part of any epistemological meditation and explanation. Two, as Fabien Eboussi-Boulaga, a great philosopher from Cameroon, has clearly explained, in the humanities, critical thinking consists in the exercise or activity of a consciousness seeking to understand itself and its reality in order to actualize itself for itself critically.


  1. I would like to express my deep gratitude: to Deborah Jenson for all her support and for the many and insightful conversations, and to Conal Ho for so kindly reviewing this paper.
  2. For instance, it has been estimated that, between 1970 and 2009, 140 systemic crises have occurred in a total of 50 African nations (Amaral 2014). The author’s primary source is Mezui, Nalletamby, and Kamewe (2012).
  3. This is one of the highest child mortality rates.
  4. I’m in debt to the Franklin Humanities Institute (Duke University) but also to Tina Abreu, Angolan professor and researcher. I’m truly grateful to her for sharing with me concerns, challenges, and so many important projects.
  5. A brief remark must be introduced here. The field of humanities has been an object of open dispute among different disciplines; seemingly, an operative consensus is elusive. The relationship between the humanities and the social sciences is also vividly debated. Both issues are manifested in the plurality of ways in which universities organize their departments, in which disciplines collaborate with each other at different sites and on different occasions, and even in the many ways researchers and theoreticians move across disciplinary borders. This topic will be addressed later on.
  6. Another very interesting document is the report ‘State of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in South African Universities’. But given its specificity, the report does not convey the entire spectrum of realities, institutions, and practices.
  7. From now on, the expression used will be ‘humanities’ (as a singular noun) to facilitate reading and for reasons of brevity.
  8. Reference to the keynote speech given by Jill Lepore ("Countless: The Humanities as a Body of Evidence") at CHCI 2015 conference (Madison, USA).
  9. Here I should also recognize my conceptual debt to Deborah Jenson.


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