The Invention of the Savage: Philosophy’s Colonial Histories

February 24, 2017

Alberto Toscano

Friday, February 24, 5:00PM–7:00PM, Room 7000, SFU Harbour Centre

Co-sponsored by SFU's Institute for the Humanities, Department of EnglishDepartment of HistorySchool of Public Policy, & Department of Sociology & Anthropology

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This talk takes place on the traditional territory of the Coast Salish-speaking peoples, specifically the shared traditional territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), Tsleil-Waututh, xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), and Stó:lō First Nations. 

The history of philosophy has all too often set up a cordon sanitaire around itself, fending off discomfiting reminders of its entanglements with the ideologies and practices of colonialism and empire. In recent years the centrality of racial paradigms and colonial imaginaries to the formation of European philosophy has garnered greater, if still insufficient recognition in the mainstream of the discipline, though often in the mode of liberal correctives rather than more radical interrogations. In this talk I want to revisit two pioneering works in the history of philosophy and of philosophical anthropology that bore the clear imprint of the politics and principles of decolonisation: Sergio Landucci’s I filosofi e i selvaggi, 1580-1750 [Philosophers and Savages, 1580-1750] (1972, new ed. 2014) and Giuliano Gliozzi’s Adamo e il nuovo mondo. La nascita dell’antropologia come ideologia coloniale: dalle genealogie bibliche alle teorie razziali, 1500-1700 [Adam and the New World: The Birth of Anthropology as Colonial Ideology: From Biblical Genealogies to Racial Theories, 1500-1700] (1977). Landucci and Gliozzi’s erudite and combative volumes pivot around the much-debated place of the figure of the ‘savage’ in the constitution of early modern European philosophy and its contribution to the origins of anthropology and comparative ethnology. In the talk I will explore the debate between the two scholars over the precise function of this ‘conceptual persona’ of the ‘savage’ – instrument of colonising knowledge or philosophical fantasy – and reflect on its centrality to the formation of a modern conception of human beings as (differentially) ‘political animals’. I will also try to address the persistence of the figure of the ‘savage’ in contemporary historical, philosophical and anthropological debate (from Deleuze-Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s The Inconstancy of the Indian Soul: The Encounter of Catholics and Cannibals in 16th Century Brazil) and try to address what, if any, contribution the archaeology of philosophy’s colonial histories can play in contemporary debates over the decolonisation of knowledge, and of political life more broadly.


Alberto Toscano is Reader in Critical Theory and Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Theory, Goldsmiths (London, UK). He studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research, University College Dublin and the University of Warwick, from which he received his PhD in 2003. He is the author of three monographs: The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze (2006), Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (2010), and (with Jeff Kinkle) Cartographies of the Absolute (2015). He edited The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics with Lorenzo Chiesa, and has translated several works by Alain Badiou, as well as Antonio Negri, Furio Jesi and Franco Fortini. He is currently working on two book projects, the first on tragedy as a political form, the second on philosophy, capitalism and ‘real abstraction’. He is also preparing two multi-volume edited collections, a Handbook of Marxism(with Bev Skeggs and Sara Farris) and Alain Badiou: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers (with Ray Brassier). He has sat on the editorial board of the journal Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory since 2004, and is series editor of The Italian List for Seagull Books.