The geopolitics of knowledge and the colonial difference

Version originale de art91, rub43

In December of 1998 a workshop on “Historical Capitalism, Coloniality of Power, and Transmodernity” took place at the Fernand Braudel Center, at Binghamton University. The workshop was organized by Ramón Grosfogel and Agustín Lao-Montes and featured presentations by Immanuel Wallerstein, Anibal Quijano, and Enrique Dussel. Each speaker was asked to offer an update on their work and to elaborate on the respective concept attributed to them. Reflecting on “transmodernity,” Dussel made a remark that I take as a central point of my argument. According to Dussel, postmodern criticism of modernity is important and necessary but not entirely sufficient. The argument was developed by Dussel in his recent short but important dialogue with Gianni Vattimo’s work, which he characterized as a “eurocentric critique of modernity” (Dussel 1999: 39). What else can there be beyond a eurocentric critique of modernity and eurocentrism? Dussel responds to this question with the concept of tranmodernity, by which he means that “modernity” is not a strictly European but a planetary phenomenon to which the “excluded barbarians” have contributed, although their contribution has not been acknowledge. Dussel’s argument resembles the South Asian Subaltern Studies project, although it comes from the legacies of earlier colonialisms (Spanish and Portuguese). Transmodernity also implies – for Dussel – a “liberating reason” (“razón liberadora”) that is the guiding principle of his philosophy and ethic of liberation. The dialogue between Dussel and Wallerstein, between philosophy of liberation (Dussel 1994) and world system analysis (Wallerstein 1987) and between liberation of philosophy (Dussel 1996; 1999; Apel 1996) and opening the social sciences (Wallerstein et. al., 1996; Wallerstein 1999; 137-156, 220-252) have two things in common. One is that they are both critical of capitalism, neo-liberal markets and formal democracy. The other is that they both (along with Quijano) conceive modernity as unfolding in the sixteenth century with capitalism and the emergence of the Atlantic commercial circuit. However, there is a break between Wallerstein on the one hand and Dussel and Quijano on the other. And the break is that they stand at different ends of the colonial difference. In other words, the colonial difference presupposes “spatial epistemological breaks” that disrupt the calm waters of the chronological waters in which Michel Foucault cast historical changes. Thus, the need for the geo-politics of knowledge is precisely to account for the spatial epistemic breaks from the perspective of coloniality. That is to say, from the hidden and silenced histories from the colonial horizon of modernity. To explain this intuition is the main trust of this paper.

Dussel’s remarks about postmodern criticism can also be applied to Wallerstein’s conception of “historical capitalism” in that historical capitalism is a eurocentric critique of capitalism (Wallerstein 1983). By introducing the notion of colonial difference I will be able to expand on Dussel’s notion of “transmodernity” and Quijano’s “coloniality of power.” Furthermore, I will compare the three approaches to “Eurocentrism” (Dussel 1995, 1998; Wallerstein 1997a; Quijano 1997) and, toward the end of the article, I will introduce Slavoj Zizek’s own take on “Eurocentrism from the left” (Zizek 1998). My first step then will be to distinguish two macro-narratives, that of Western Civilization and that of the Modern World (from the early modern period (e.g., the European Renaissance) to today. The first is basically a philosophical narrative, whereas the second is basically the narrative of the social sciences. Both macro-narratives have their positive and negative sides. While some celebrate Western Civilization, others criticize its logocentrism. Similarly, modernity has its defenders as well as its critics. Dussel is located in-between both macro-narratives but his criticism derives from both the internal criticism of Western Civilization and the internal critique of the modern world, as in world-system analysis (Wallerstein 1987, 1997a). As a philosopher, he is attuned to the first macro-narrative, the macro-narrative of Western Civilization and its “origins” in Ancient Greece. As a specifically Latin American philosopher, he has always been attentive to the historical foundation of the modern/colonial world in the sixteenth century. He shares these interests with Wallerstein and Quijano, both of whom are sociologists. However, Quijano and Dussel share the Latin American colonial experience or, rather, a local history of the colonial difference. Wallerstein, instead, is immersed in the imperial difference that distinguishes the philosophical critique of Western Civilization, in Europe, and the sociological critique of modernity in the U.S. Basically, then, the geopolitics of knowledge is organized around the diversification, through history, of the colonial and the imperial differences. But is above all the colonial difference that created the conditions for the emergence of “the epistemic double consciousness.” Conceptually, then, there is a logical connection between coloniality of power, the colonial difference and the emergence of epistemic double consciousness. The colonial difference was–from the sixtenth to the twentieth first century–the mechanism for the subalternization of non-Western knowledge. The epistemic double consciousness of “how to be an African philosopher” (see Eze, below) or an “Indian historian” (see Chakrabarty, below) comes forward. The monotopic episteme of modernity is confronted by the pluritopic episteme of coloniality. Finally, the epistemic double consciousness is not a position advocating “anti-modernity.” On the contrary, it an episteme of the border, or border thinking, enacted from the perspective of coloniality. Let me further specify the distinctions I am introducing here.


The concept and image of “modernity” is not equivalent to that of the “modern-world system.” There are several differences between the two. First, “modernity” is associated with literature, philosophy, and the history of ideas, whereas “modern world-system” is associated with the vocabulary of the social sciences. Secondly, this first characterization is important if we remember that both concepts, since the 1970s, have occupied defined spaces in academic as well as public discourses. During the Cold War, the social sciences gained ground within cultures of scholarship, in the U.S., particularly in relation to the relevance purchased by area studies (Fals Borda 1971: Wallerstein 1997b, Lamber 1990: Rafael 1994). Consequently, “postmodernity” is understood both as a historical process in which “modernity” encountered its limits, as well as a critical discourse on “modernity” which was housed in the humanities, even though social scientists were not deaf to its noise (Seidman and Wagner, eds., 1992). Thirdly, “modernity” (and obviously “postmodernity”) maintained the idea of Western Civilization in its pristine imaginary “development” from ancient Greece to eighteenth century Europe, where the bases of “modernity” were laid out. In contrast, the conceptualization of the “modern world-system” does not locate its “beginning” in Greece. Furthermore, the concept of the “modern world-system” underlines a spatial articulation of power rather than a linear succession of events. Thus, the “modern world-system” locates its beginning toward the end of the fifteenth century and links it to capitalism (Braudel 1949; Wallerstein 1974; Braudel 1979; Arrighi 1994). This spatial articulation of power, since the sixteenth century and the emergence of the Atlantic commercial circuit, is what Quijano theorizes as “coloniality of power” (Quijano and Wallerstein 1992; Mignolo 2000).

Borrowing the word “paradigm” for explanatory convenience, I would say that “modernity” and the “modern world-system” are indeed two interrelated, although distinct, paradigms. The advantage of the latter over the former is that it made visible the spatiality of Western history in the past 500 years, along with the need for looking at modernity and coloniality together. “Modernity” places the accent in Europe. Modern world-system brings colonialism into the picture, although as a derivative rather than a constitutive component of modernity. Modern world-system, in other words, does not make visible “coloniality” as a necessary complement to “modernity.” It is Quijano’s merit to have shown “coloniality” as the overall dimension of “modernity” and, therefore, distinguishing “coloniality” from “colonialism.” Quijano’s has also brought to light that the emergence of the Atlantic circuit during the sixteenth century made coloniality constitutive of modernity. If modernity is chronologically located in the eighteenth century, coloniality becomes derivative. Thus, the Iberian foundational period of capitalistic expansion and coloniality is erased or relegated to the middle ages as the Black Legend as the enlightenment construction of the “South” of Europe testifies (Santos 1998; 161-192; 369-454; Cassano 1995). In this scenario first comes modernity then colonialism and coloniality becomes invisible. Quijano and Dussel made it possible not only to conceive the “modern/colonial world-system” as a socio-historical structure coinciding with the expansion of capitalism but, also, to conceive coloniality and the colonial difference as loci of enunciation. This is precisely what I mean by the geopolitics of knowledge and the colonial difference (Mignolo 2000a and 2000b).

The eighteenth century (or more exactly, the period between approximately 1760 and 1800) was dominated by two distinctive shifts. First, there was the displacement of power in the Atlantic circuit from the South to the North. Secondly, the main concern in Europe, from the Peace of Westfalia (1648) until the end of the eighteenth century, was nation-state building rather than colonialism (Anderson 1975). England, France and Germany were not yet colonial powers in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries and when they became so, they mutually reinforced nation building with colonial expansion, particularly since the nineteenth century. Secondly, the strong preoccupation, in the North, of the Europe of Nations placed colonialism on the backburner, so to speak. “Colonialism” was a second concern for nations such as England and France, whose presence in the Americas was commercial rather than evangelistic, which comprised a major part of Spain and Portugal’s project. France and England did not have at that point, in the Americas, a civilizing mission to accomplish, as they would have in Asia and Africa after the Napoleonic era. Current conceptualizations of “modernity” and “postmodernity” are historically grounded in that period. The second stage of modernity was part of the German restitution of the Greek legacy as the foundation of Western Civilization.

Although there is a discussion whether the “world-system” is 500 or 5000 years old, I do not consider this issue to be relevant. It is relevant, instead, that the “modern/colonial world-system” can be described in conjunction with the emergence of the Atlantic commercial circuit (Mignolo 2000a), and that such conceptualization is linked to the making of “colonial difference(s).’ The colonial difference, in short, refers to the changing faces of colonial differences throughout the history of the modern/colonial world-system and brings to the foreground the planetary dimension of human history silenced by discourses centering on modernity, postmodernity, and Western civilization.


Despite coming under serious criticism, dependency theory has not yet lost its poise. It is capable of holding its own in the middle of a critical tempest because its critics addressed the conceptual structure of dependency, not its “raison d’etre.” The fact that dependency at large was and is the basic strategy in the exercise of coloniality of power is not a question that needs lengthy and detailed argumentation. The fact that with the current stage of globalization there is a “Third World” included in the “First,” the inter-state system and the coloniality of power organizing it hierarchically has not vanished yet. The main point is not whether the distinction center and periphery is as valid at the end of the twentieth century as it was in the nineteenth century. If dependency in the modern/colonial world-system is no longer structured under the center/periphery dichotomy, this does not mean that “dependency” vanishes because this dichotomy is not as clear today as it has been in the past. On the other hand, “inter-dependence” is a term that served to re-structure coloniality of power around the emergence of transnational corporations (MacNeill, Winsemius and Yakushiji 1991). What Anibal Quijano terms “historico-structural dependency” (Quijano 1997) should not be restricted to the center/periphery dichotomy. Rather, it should be applied to the very structure of the modern/colonial world system and capitalistic economy.

Dependency theory was more than an analytic and explanatory tool in the social sciences (Cardoso and Faletto 1969; Cardoso 1976). While “world-system analysis” owes its motivating impulse and basic economic, social and historical structure to dependency theory (Dussel 1990: Grosfogel l996 and forthcoming), it is not and could have had the political dimension of dependency theory. Dependency theory paralleled decolonization in Africa and Asia and suggested a course of action for Latin American countries, some 150 years after their decolonization. As such, dependency theory made a historical contribution that world-system analysis could hardly have made. World-system analysis operates from “inside” the system while dependency theory was a response from the “exteriority” of the system — not the exterior but the exteriority. That is to say, the outside is named from the inside in the exercise of coloniality of power. Dependency theory offered an explanation and suggested a course of action for Latin America that could hardly have been done by world-system analysis. “World-system analysis” in its turn did something that dependency analysis was not in a position of doing. That is, world-system analysis introduced a historical dimension and a socio-economic frame (e.g., the modern world-system) within the social sciences, thus displacing the “origin” of history and cultures of scholarship from Ancient Greece to the modern world-system. The emergence of the social sciences in the nineteenth century (Foucault 1966, Wallerstein et. al., 1995) was indeed attached to the epistemic frame opened by the second modernity (French Enlightenment, German romantic philosophy, and the British industrial revolution). World-system analysis responded to the crisis of that frame in the 1970s, when decolonization in Africa and Asia, and the changes introduced by transnational corporations, brought to the foreground the active presence of a world fare beyond Western civilization. The irreducible (colonial) difference between dependency theory and world-system analysis cannot be located in their conceptual structures but in the politics of their loci of enunciation. Dependency theory was a political statement for social transformation from Third World countries while world-system analysis was a political statement for academic transformation from First World countries. This difference, implied in the geopolitic of knowledge described by C. Pletsch (1981) is, indeed, the irreducible colonial difference. The difference between “center” and “periphery”; between Eurocentric critique of Eurocentrism and knowledge production; the difference between the silence of those who participated in building the modern/colonial world but that have been left out of the discussion. I have been referring mainly to Dussel and Quijano because of the very structure of the workshop to which I am referring. I could easily bring other similar examples, Franz Fanon being the chief example (Gordon 1995; Sekyi-Out 1996).

The impact of dependency theory on decolonization of scholarship in Latin America was immediate and strong. In 1970, the Colombian sociologist Orlando Fals Borda published an important book entitled Ciencia Propia y Colonialismo Intelectual (Intellectual Colonialism and Our Own Science) that today echoes an extended concern of cultures of scholarship in Asia and Africa. The scenario is very simple: Western expansion was not only economic and political, but also educational and intellectual. The Eurocentric critique of Eurocentrism was accepted in former colonies as “our own” critique of Eurocentrism; socialist alternatives to liberalism in Europe were taken, in the colonies, as a path of liberation without making the distinction between “emancipation” in Europe and “liberation” in the colonial world. Quite simply, the colonial difference was not considered in its epistemic dimension. The foundation of knowledge was and still is offered by the history of Western civilization in its complex and wide range of possibilities, provided that the conceptualization (from the right and the left) remained within the language frame of modernity and Western civilization. Fals Borda’s book is still valid for keeping in mind a current dilemma in cultures of scholarship. In fact, Fals Borda’s early claims for the decolonization of the social sciences prefigures the more recent claims, made by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, from Portugal, in his argument “toward a new common sense” (Santos 1995). Granted, Santos is not promoting Colombia and Latin America. However, the marginality of Portugal, as the “South” of Europe, allows for a different perception of the social sciences than one may have from the “North.”

While Wallerstein argues for the opening of the social sciences, assuming the need to maintain them as a planetary academic enterprise, Fals Borda’s early concerns are with the very foundation of the social sciences and other forms of scholarship. In other words, the planetary expansion of the social sciences implies that intellectual colonization remains in place, even if such colonization is with good intention, from the left and supporting decolonization. Intellectual decolonization, as Fals Borda intuited, cannot come from existing philosophies and cultures of scholarships. Dependency is not limited to the right. It also derives from the left. The “postmodern” debate in Latin America, for example, reproduced a discussion whose problems did not originate in the colonial histories of the sub-continent but in the histories of European modernity.

The project that Enrique Dussel has been pursuing since the early 1990s is an indirect continuation of Fals Borda’s early argument for intellectual decolonization (Dussel compilador, 1994 and 1996). Philosophy of Liberation, as conceived by Dussel since the late 1960s, is another consequence of dependency theory and the intellectual concerns that prompted its emergence. One of Dussel’s main concerns was and still is a philosophical project contributing to social “liberation” (I will return to the distinction between “emancipation” and “liberation”). His latest book (Dussel 1999) is the consequence of a long and sustained philosophical, ethical, and political reflection. Fals Borda’s argument was concerned not only with a project in the social sciences for the liberation of the Third World; rather, it concerned a project of intellectual liberation from the social sciences and, in the case of Dussel, of philosophy. Here again is the irreducible colonial (epistemic) difference between leftist social sciences projects “from” the First World and liberation “of” the social sciences (and philosophy) from the Third World.

The logic of this project, from the colonial difference, has been formulated in Dussel’s confrontations between his own philosophy and ethic of liberation and Gianni Vattimo (Dussel 1999). In one short but substantial chapter (“‘With Vattimo?’; ‘Against Vattimo?'”) Dussel relates Vattimo’s philosophy to nihilism and describes nihilism as a “twilight of the West, of Europe and of modernity” (Dussel 1999: 34). In closing this section (and immediately after the previous sentence), Dussel adds:

Has Vattimo asked himself the meaning that his philosophy may have for a Hindu beggar covered with mud from the floods of the Ganges; or for a member of a Bantu community from Sub-Saharan Africa dying of hunger; or for millions of semi-rural Chinese people; or for hundreds of thousands poor marginalized in the suburban neighborhood like Nezahualcoyotl or Tlanepantla in Mexico, as populated as Torino? An aesthetic of “negativity”, or a philosophy of “dispersion as final destiny of being”, is enough for the impoverished majority of humanity? (Dussel 1999: 34).

At first glance, and from someone reading from the wide horizon of continental philosophy, this paragraph could be interpreted as a cheap shot. It is not, however. Dussel is naming the absence locational thinking, obscured by the universalization of European modernity and capitalism as well as their internal critique, such as Vattimo’s. Indeed, what is at stake in Dussel’s argument is not just “being” but “the coloniality of being,” from whence philosophy of liberation found its energy and conceptualization. It is simply the colonial difference that is at stake. Dussel’s point comes across more clearly in the second section of his article on Vattimo, when Dussel underlines the discrepancy between the starting points in both projects. As is well known, a room looks altered if you enter it from different doors. Furthermore, out of the many doors through which one could have entered the room of philosophy, only one was open. The rest were closed. You understand what it means to have only one door open and the entry heavily regulated. Dussel notes that the starting point for a “hermeneutic ontology of the twilight” (Vattimo) and the “philosophy of liberation” are quite different. Dussel framed this distinction in terms of the geopolitics of knowledge: the first is from the North, the second from the South. The South is not of course a simple geographic location but a “metaphor for human suffering under global capitalism” (Santos 1995:506). The first discourse is grounded in the second face of modernity (industrial revolution, the Enlightenment). The second, that of philosophy of liberation, is grounded in the first face of modernity and from the subaltern perspective, i.e. not from the colonial/Christian discourse of Spanish colonialism, but from the perspective of its consequence. That is, repression of Amerindians, African slavery, and the emergence of a Creole consciousness (both white/mestizo mainly in the continent, and black in the Caribbean), in subaltern and dependent positions. From this scenario, Dussel points out that while in the North it could be “healthy” to celebrate the twilight of Western civilization, from the South it is “healthier” to reflect from the fact that 20% of the planet population consumes 80% of the income of the planet.

It is no longer possible, or at least it is not that obvious that, to “think” from the canon of Western philosophy, even when part of the canon is critical of modernity. To do so means to reproduce the blind epistemic ethnocentrism that makes difficult, if not impossible, any political philosophy of inclusion (Habermas 1998). The limit of Western philosophy is the border where the colonial difference emerges, making visible the variety of local histories that Western thought, from the right and the left, hid and suppressed. Thus, there are, on the one hand, historical experiences of marginalization no longer equivalent to the situation that engendered Greek philosophy and allowed for its revamping in the Europe of Nations, emerging together with the industrial revolution and the consolidation of capitalism. Thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Rigoberta Menchú, Gloria Anzaldúa, Subramani, Abdelkebir Khatibi and Edouard Glissant among others have initiated these new “philosophies”. Consequently, two points should be emphasized.

The first is the relation between places (geo-historically constituted) and thinking: the geopolitics of knowledge proper. If the notion of “being” was invented in Western philosophy, “coloniality of being” cannot be a continuation of the former. Because of coloniality of power the concept of “being” cannot be dispensed with. And because of the colonial difference, “coloniality of being” cannot be a critical continuation of the former (a sort of post-modern displacement) but a relocation of the “thinking” and a critical awareness of the geopolitics of knowledge. Epistemology is not a-historical. But not only that: It cannot be reduced to the linear history from Greek to contemporary North Atlantic knowledge production. It must be spacialized in its historicity bringing the colonial difference into the game. The densities of the colonial experience, to which Franz Fanon has so greatly contributed, are the location of emerging epistemologies that do not overthrow existing ones, but that build on the ground of the silence of history. In this sense, Fanon is the equivalent of Kant, just as Guaman Poma de Ayala (Adorno 1986), in colonial Peru, could be considered the equivalent of Aristotle. One of the reasons why Guaman Poma de Ayala and Fanon are not easily perceived as equivalents of Aristotle and Kant is “time.” Since, the Renaissance–the early modern period or emergence of the modern/colonial world–“time” has functioned as a principle of order that increasingly subordinates “places” relegating them to “before” or “below” from the perspective of the “holders (of the doors) of time.” An arrangement of events and people in a “time” line is also a hierarchical order, distinguishing primary sources of thoughts from interesting or curious events, peoples, or ideas. “Time” is also the point of reference for the order of knowledge. The discontinuity between “being and time” and “coloniality of being and place” is what nourishes Dussel’s need to underline the difference (the colonial difference) between continental philsophy (Vattimo, Habermas, Appel, Foucault) and philosophy of liberation.

Dussel’s insistence on the “punto de partida diferente” (“distinct starting point”), in relation to Vattimo, could be supported by arguments made by Native American lawyer and intellectual Vine Deloria Jr. and by Robert Bernasconi, an expert philosopher in Continental philosophy.

Vine Deloria’s reflections on space and time (sacred places and abstract and symbolic time) touch upon and make visible the irreducible colonial difference that Dussel emphasizes in his philosophy of liberation. In both Deloria and Dussel, there is a need to draw the limits of Western cosmologies. Although this is done from the experience of a Native American and from a descendent of European immigrants in Latin America, the colonial difference is entrenched in their distinct experiences. Of course, European immigrants in former colonial worlds, like Argentina, do not have the “same” experiences as Native Americans or Amerindians. However, both groups experience the colonial difference that can be either narcotized or revealed. They both choose to reveal and think from it.

Deloria makes a simple, albeit fundamental, point: “Conservative and liberal, terms that initially described political philosophies, have taken on the aspect of being able to stand for cultural attitudes of fairly distinct content. Liberals appear to have more sympathy for humanity, while conservatives worship corporate freedom and self-help doctrines underscoring individual responsibility. The basic philosophical differences between liberals and conservatives are not fundamental, however, because both fit in the idea of history a thesis by which they can validate their ideas” ([1972 1994: 63). One could add “socialist” to conservative and liberal, thus completing the political-ideological tripartite distribution of the late nineteenth century North Atlantic political and ideological spectrum. These three varieties of secular political ideologies are also in the same frame of Christianity. For all of them, time and history is the essence of their cosmology.

Furthermore, Deloria adds, when the domestic (e.g., in the U.S.) ideology “is divided according to American Indian and Western European immigrant, however, the fundamental difference is one of great philosophical importance” (Deloria [1972, 1994: 62). The “fundamental difference” is indeed the “colonial difference” since it is not just a case of incommensurable cosmologies or worldview but a difference articulated by the coloniality of power. Consequently, the two are historically and logically linked to each other in a relation of dependency. This is a dependency related to the universality attributed to “time,” in domestic ideology, and the particularity attributed to “place” in the same movement. “Place” of course is not naturally particular but historically so according to the location attributed to “place” by hegemonic discourses, assuring the privilege of “time” and “history.”

Now, I am not proposing here that some merging of time and space, which we could term “SpaceTime” from one side of the domestic ideology (either the Western European immigrants or the social sciences) will solve the problems created by an overwhelming discourse of time, history, progress, and development. The terrain of epistemology is not far removed from the map Deloria traced from the domestic political ideology (e.g., liberals and conservatives, to which I added socialists). Wallerstein has traced the map of modern epistemology, which was first divided between science and philosophy (and the humanities), or in effect between the “two cultures.” Later on, this division was bridged in conflictive ways by the emergence of the social sciences, with some of the disciplines leaning toward the sciences (economy, sociology, and political sciences) and others toward the humanities (cultural anthropology, history). Wallerstein described two basic concept of SpaceTime in the social sciences: the “geopolitical or episodic spacetime” and “eternal spacetime” (Wallerstein 1991). The first alludes to the explanation of the present and particular. The second alludes to what is valid across time and space. After indicating the limitations of these two types of spacetime, Wallerstein underlined other dimensions that the social sciences have left out of consideration. These include the “cyclical-ideological spacetime,” the “structural spacetime,” and the “transformational spacetime” (Wallerstein 1997). Arguing in favor of considering these new dimensions in the future of the social sciences, Wallerstein advances the arguments, and the hope, for a “new unifying epistemology” that will overcome the classic divorce between the sciences and philosophy (or the humanities), leaving the social sciences in an uncomfortable middle ground. If this is possible, what will be left out? In this case, it would be the entire space of the colonial difference to which Wallerstein, like Vatimmo, is blind.

Let me begin my explanation by quoting Deloria: “Western European peoples (and of course later U.S. people) have never learned to consider the nature of the world discerned from a spatial point of view.” ([1972 1994: 63). The consequences of such a statement, which once again underlines the colonial difference, are enormous for religion, epistemology, and international relations. Time and history allowed for global designs (religious, economic, social, epistemic) that emerged as responses to the need of a given “place,” and which were assumed to have universal value across time and space. The “experience,” in which global designs emerged, has been emptied when a given global design was exported and programmed to be implanted over the “experience” of a distinct place. However, this project (that was the project of modernity from Renaissance Christianity to contemporary global market) is no longer convincing. “Space generates time, but time has little relationship with space” (Deloria ([1972 1994: 71). Consequently, the universal ideology of disincorporated time and history reached the point in which space and place can no longer be overruled. The world, therefore, is not becoming, nor can it be conceived as, a global village. Instead, it is a “series of nonhomogeneous pockets of identity that must eventually come into conflict because they represent different historical arrangements of emotional energy” (1994: 65). Therefore, the question is no longer a new conceptualization of spacetime within a Kantian paradigm, with space and time as invariants but their discontinuity on the other side of the colonial difference. I am thinking here about space/time without such a name (e.g., Pachakuti among the Aymara people in the Andes) on the other side of the colonial difference that the Kantian model made invisible (see, for instance, Medina 1992: 41-61; Bouysse-Cassagne and Harris, 1987; Deloria [1972 1994 and Mignolo 2000c). Wallerstein’s re-conceptualization of spacetime remains within the “domestic ideology” of Western cultures of scholarship, with the assumption of their universal scope, valid for all time and all societies. Deloria’s radical conceptualization of “time” and “place” situates the discussion elsewhere, beyond the social sciences, not looking for an epistemology that will unify the “two cultures” but for an epistemology that will be built on the irreducible colonial difference. The consequence is the right to claim epistemic rights from the places where experiences and memories organize time and knowledge.

Dussel’s dialogue with Vattimo’s philosophy goes in the same direction, albeit from different motivations. There is a “partial” agreement between Vattimo and Dussel, as one could imagine a similar “partial” agreement between Deloria and Wallerstein. The important question, however, is that of the irreducible epistemic colonial difference on which Deloria and Dussel build their claims for the future of ethics, politics, and epistemology that can no longer be built on categories and premises of Western philosophy and social sciences. While Deloria’s argument could be taken as an indirect argument to decolonize (and not just to open) the social sciences (as the claim made in Latin America by Colombian sociologist Fals Borda in the early 1970s I mentioned above), Dussel’s argument is a direct claim for decolonizing philosophy. According to Dussel, “An Ethic of Liberation, with planetary scope ought, first of all, ‘to liberate’ (I would say decolonize) philosophy from Helenocentrism. Otherwise, it cannot be a future wordly philosophy, in the twenty first century” (Dussel 1998a, 57).

The irreducible colonial difference that I am trying to chart, starting from Dussel’s dialogue with Vattimo, was also perceived by Robert Bernasconi in the challenge that African Philosophy puts forward to Continental Philosophy. Simply put, Bernasconi notes that “Western philosophy traps African philosophy in a double bind: either African philosophy is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no distinctive contribution and effectively disappears; or it is so different that its credentials to be genuine philosophy will always be in doubt” (Bernasconi 1997: 188). This double bind is the colonial difference and it creates the condition for what I have elsewhere called “border thinking.” I have defined border thinking as an epistemology from a subaltern perspective. Although Bernasconi describes the phenomena in a different terminology, the problem we are dealing with here is the same. Furthermore, Bernasconi makes his point with the support of Afro-American philosopher Lucius Outlaw in an article entitled “African ‘philosophy’: deconstructive and reconstructive challenges” (Outlaw 1987). Emphasizing the sense in which Outlaw uses the concept of “deconstruction,” Bernasconi at the same time underlines the limits of Derrida’s deconstructive operation and the closure of Western metaphysics. Derrida, according to Bernasconi, offers no space in which to ask the question about Chinese, Indian, and especially African philosophy. Latin and Anglo-American philosophy should be added to this. After a careful discussion of Derrida’s philosophy, and pondering possible alternatives for the “extension” of deconstruction, Bernasconi concludes by saying: “…even after such revisions, it is not clear what contribution deconstruction could make to the contemporary dialogue between Western philosophy and African philosophy” (1997: 187). Or, if a contribution could be foreseen, it has to be from the perspective that Outlaw appropriates and which “denaturalizes” deconstruction of Western metaphysics from inside (and maintains the totality, a la Derrida). That is to say, it has to be a “deconstruction” from the “exteriority” of Western metaphysics, from the perspective of the double bind that Bernasconi detected in the interdependence (and power relations) between Western and African philosophy. However, if we invert the perspective, we are located in a particular deconstructive strategy that I would rather name the “decolonization of philosophy” (or of any other branch of knowledge, natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities). Such a displacement of perspective was already suggested by Moroccan philosopher Abdelkhebir Khatibi, which I have discussed at length elsewhere (Mignolo 2000a). However, certainly Bernasconi will concur with Khatibi in naming decolonization as the type of deconstructive operation proposed by Outlaw, thus maintaining and undoing the colonial difference from the colonial difference itself:

The existential dimension of African philosophy’s challenge to Western philosophy in general and Continental philosophy in particular is located in the need to decolonize the mind. This task is at least as important for the colonizer as it is for the colonized. For Africans, decolonizing the mind takes place not only in facing the experience of colonialism, but also in recognizing the precolonial, which established the destructive importance of so-called ethnophilosophy (Bernasconi 1997: 191).

The double bind requires also a double operation from the perspective of African philosophy, an appropriation of Western philosophy and at the same time a rejection of it grounded in the colonial difference. Bernasconi recognizes that these, however, are tasks and issues for African philosophers. What would be similar issues for a Continental philosopher? For Europeans, Bernasconi adds, “decolonizing the colonial mind necessitates an encounter with the colonized, where finally the European has the experience of being seen as judged by those they have denied. The extent to which European philosophy championed colonialism, and more particularly helped to justify it through a philosophy of history that privileged Europe, makes it apparent that such a decolonizing is an urgent task for European thought” (Bernasconi 1997: 192).

My interest in developing at certain length Bernaconi’s position is not of course that of repeating the authoritative gesture of a North Atlantic philosopher validating the claims of African philosophers. Quite the contrary, it is Bernasconi’s humble recognition of the limits of continental philosophy, from inside continental philosophy itself, in which I am interested. By recognizing the colonial difference, Bernasconi breaks with centuries of European philosophical blindness to the colonial difference and the subalternization of knowledge. Credit should be given to African philosophers for successfully raising the issue and projecting a future, taking advantage of the epistemic potential of thinking from the colonial difference. Credit should also be given to Bernasconi for recognizing that here we are in a different ball game, where the contenders although in sportive friendship, have different tasks and goals.

This is precisely the point that Dussel has been trying to make since his early polemic dialogue with Appel, Ricoeur, Habermas (Dussel, ed., 1994), and more recently with Vattimo. However, Dussel is in a more similar position to the one defended by African philosophers than to the position articulated by Bernasconi. Like Outlaw (1987) and others, Dussel calls for a double operation of deconstruction-reconstruction, or better yet, decolonization (to use just one word that names both operations and underlines the displacement of perspectives, tasks, and goals), which is a claim from the subaltern position in which Latin American philosophy has been located by Western philosophy. Dussel’s assertion for a philosophy of liberation is both a liberation of philosophy and philosophy as an instrument of decolonization. Dussel is clearly underscoring Vattimo’s blindness to the other side of modernity, which is coloniality: the violence that Vattimo (or Nietsche and Heidegger) attributed to modern instrumental reason, the coloniality of power enforced on non-European cultures that have remained silenced, hidden, and absent. The colonial difference is reproduced in its invisibility. Dussel’s claim for decolonization, for an ethic and philosophy of liberation, is predicated on a double movement similar to the strategy of African philosophers. On the one hand, there is an appropriation of “modernity” and, on the other, a move toward a “transmodernity” understood as a liberating strategy or decolonization project (Dussel 1998a, 39) that, according to Bernasconi, includes everybody, the colonizer and the colonized (Bernasconi 1997: 191).

I have emphasized philosophy, however, what I said about it applies to the social sciences as well. It is a commendable move to open the social sciences but, as Dussel said about Vattimo, it is not enough. Opening the social sciences implies that the social sciences will remain in place, be exported to places whose experiences do not correspond, or correspond partially and as far as “modernity” revealed its other side, “coloniality,” in non-European locations. Like in the case of philosophy analyzed by Bernasconi, social sciences in the First World trap the social sciences of the Third World in a double bind. Either the social sciences all over the planet are similar to North Atlantic social sciences such that they do not make any distinctive contributions, or they are not social sciences and social knowledge is not being recognized. Social scientists from the “Third World” have not raised their voices as loud as philosophers did. Yet, they have not been silenced either as the example of Fals Borda and Quijano in Latin America, and the South Asian Subaltern Studies group illustrate. We may not subscribe today to the recommendations made by Fals Borda in the 70s. However the solution that Fals Borda suggested should not be an excuse to dismiss the problem he raised. Or, if you wish, the solution suggested could be read as a way of raising the problem rather than as a solution that we would expect to be valid today. The belief that social scientists with good will toward social transformation will be endorsed by the “people” whose interest the social scientist claim to defend would be difficult to sustain today. First of all, this is because the “people” (e.g., social movements of all kind) do not need intellectuals from outside to defend their interests. Secondly, the “transformation” of knowledge (and social transformation of course) to which the social scientist could contribute is located not so much in the domain of the “people” as in learned institutions and the mass-media. Certainly, there is a wealth of knowledge that has been subalternized by modernity/coloniality, but that knowledge is not necessarily in the minds or the interests of the “people,” whose interests in turn may not coincide with those of the social scientist.

In any case, Fals Borda’s perception of the double “diaspora of brains” in the Third World remains valid today. “Brains” are not being stolen when a social scientist leaves a country in which there are limited research conditions and moves to a country and institution with better resources. Instead, this happens when the social scientist remains in a country under limited research conditions, reproducing or imitating the patterns, “methods,” and above all, the questions raised by the social sciences under different historical and social experiences. This is another version of the double bind in which North Atlantic scholarship and sciences placed the production of knowledge, and which reproduces the coloniality of power. If opening the social sciences is a good step but hardly enough, “indigenous sociology” (Akiwowo 1999; Indigenous Sociology 1999) is also an important contribution, yet does not carry the radical force articulated by African philosophers or by philosophy of liberation. Insofar as it remains sociology, to be “indigenous” solves only part of the problem. In order to be decolonized, sociology, and the social sciences, must be submitted to the double movement of appropriation and radical criticism from the “indigenous” perspective to the point of revealing the colonial difference in the social sciences. Sociology, even with its opening (Wallerstein et. al., 1995), cannot do the job. Like Derrida’s deconstruction, North Atlantic social sciences are reaching the limits of the colonial difference, the space where alternatives to philosophy and the social sciences are necessary.


The previous discussion set the frame and stage for a shorter treatment of “historical capitalism” and “coloniality of power” in relation to “transmodernity.”

Wallerstein’s concept of “historical capitalism,” (introduced in the early 1980s) complements his earlier key notion of the “modern world-system.” Instead of the structure and the law of capital accumulation studied by Marx, Wallerstein focuses on its historical expansion and transformations. Wallerstein characterizes the economic system identified as capitalism by its purpose: capital accumulation and, as a necessary consequence, self-expansion. The second aspect is its historical emergence, which Wallerstein locates somewhere in fifteenth-century Europe. These first two features presuppose that (a) until the fifteenth century, in Europe and the rest of the world, there existed economic systems that were not capitalism; (b) the emergence of capitalism supplanted and erased all other “previous” economic organization. Consequently, Wallerstein’s first characterization of historical capitalism is hampered by the conceptions of linear time and “newness” which are two basic presuppositions of capitalistic ideology and modern epistemology. In other words, the assumption that once something new emerges, everything previous to it vanishes does not leave much room for maneuver beyond current market philosophy.

The linear conception of time (logically necessary for the notion of “progress”) that Wallerstein identifies as a third basic characteristic of historical capitalism, along with its “newness,” works toward an image of capitalism as a totality that erased all other existing economic alternatives from the face of the earth. In a sense, it is true that capitalism began to overpower all other alternative economic organizations it encountered in the history of its expansion, from the fifteenth to the end of the twentieth century. On the other hand, it is not true that overpowering also means erasure. What is missing in Wallerstein’s conception of historical capitalism is its urgencies in the “exteriority” of capitalism. By “exteriority,” I do not mean the “outside” but the space where tensions generate once capitalism becomes the dominant economic system and eliminates all the possibilities of anything “outside” of it, but not its “exteriority.” Wallerstein’s conceptualization of historical capitalism presupposes a totality without “exteriority.” I would say that transmodernity and coloniality of power are to historical capitalism what Levinas’ philosophical relections on “being” are to Heidegger’s being and time. The analogy is appropriate because of Dussel’s translation of Levinas’ “exteriority” to the colonial experience (Dussel 1975). The analogy is also relevant because of the parallels between the fracture in the narrative of Western Civilization, between Greek and Jewish philosophical traditions, on the one hand, and the fracture between modernity and coloniality in the narrative of the Modern/Colonial World-System, on the other.

Wallerstein’s frame for historical capitalism, as well as Arrighi’s (Arrighi 1994), allows us to tell the story of imperial conflicts and, consequently, to identify the imperial difference (e.g., the difference in the “interiority”) of the system (Wallerstein ([1983 1995, second chapter, the “Politics of Accumulation”). However, it leaves the colonial difference out of sight, in the very obscurity in which capitalistic expansion placed it and where capitalistic expansion goes together with violence, physical as well as epistemic. Consequently, Wallerstein’s notion of historical capitalism goes together with his criticism of the social sciences and his predisposition to “open” them. Yet it maintains the social sciences in an overarching epistemic totality that parallels the overarching totality of capitalism. Alternative economies in tension with capitalism as well as alternatives to capitalism have no place in Wallerstein’s conception of the social sciences, in which the very notion of historical capitalism is founded.

Since the colonial difference is blurred in Wallerstein’s notion of historical capitalism, it is impossible to foresee the possibility of thinking from it, or of thinking the tensions between capitalism and other economic organization as well as the possibilities of thinking alternatives to capitalism from subaltern perspectives. There are several possibilities open to the future, of which I would only underline some with the purpose of making visible the colonial difference, its epistemic potential, and the alternative futures it allows us to imagine. Otherwise, more refined analysis of historical capitalism will contribute to reproduce the idea that the power of capitalism, and the desire for expansion and accumulation, eliminates all possible difference. This is the risk of “opening” the social sciences without questioning and replacing their very foundations, as Fals Borda (1970) and Santos (1995; 1998) have been arguing. I suspect also that Dussel’s and Quijano’s arguments point toward “decolonizing rather than opening” the social sciences.

Could we say that capitalism puts alternative economies into a double bind, similar to what Continental philosophy did to African philosophy? Could we say that alternative economies shall be either similar to capitalism (and disappear) or be condemned to remain so different that their credentials as genuine economies will be in doubt? I think that the analogy can be defended and that there are several grounds on which the argument can be built. First of all, there is the survival, through 500 years, of Amerindian economies in which the goals are not accumulation and expansion, but accumulation and reciprocity. When accumulation goes together with reciprocity (Quijano 1998) its meaning changes. The final orientation is accumulation for the wellbeing of the community rather than for the wellbeing of the agents of accumulation and expansion without regard to the interests of the community. Remembering the emergence of capitalism as an economic system, as outlined by Wallerstein, may help make this idea more concrete. Capitalism emerged as an economic system from a subaltern perspective: the commercial bourgeois class felt constrained by the power of the Church and landlords. The French Revolution, which Wallerstein highlights so much as the moment in which the geo-culture of the modern world-system (and historical capitalism) finds its moment of consolidation, was indeed a bourgeois revolution. Therefore, the Russian Revolution, as its counterpart, remained within the logic of capital accumulation and expansion, and proposed that the ruling agents be the workers rather than the bourgeoisie. The struggle for power between liberalism and socialism concluded with the victory of the former. Socialism was not able to replace the desire that nourishes and makes capitalism work: the desire for accumulation and possession is stronger than the desire for distribution that was the socialist alternative, although within the logic of capitalism. The colonial difference remained equally valid for an expansive capitalism under the name of liberalism and civilization or socialism and liberation. Socialism, therefore, was not placed in a double bind by capitalism, as African philosophy was by Continental philosophy, since socialism emerged as an alternative “within” that changes the content of the conversation and maintains the terms of capitalistic production.

If the analogy between philosophy and economy can be maintained, it is necessary to look for economic organizations that have been cornered by the capitalist expansion and that today can offer alternatives to capitalism. When I say “economic organizations,” I am not referring to a different “logic” of economic organization as much as to different “principles” and “philosophy” of economic production and distribution. The problem, therefore, is not so much a technical one generated by the industrial revolution, as it is the “principle” and goals that generated the industrial revolution. Consequently, if changes in the principles and goals are possible, they would have to start more from the appropriation and twisting of the uses of technology more than in its reproduction, which is in the hand and control of those who will not voluntarily relinquish control. For that, a fundamental re-orientation of philosophy is necessary. At this point, it is easy to understand the analogy “philosophy and capitalism,” as long as we leave open the space between “economy” and “capitalism” and are constantly aware of the colonial difference that capitalism erases by establishing equivalence between the two. In reality capitalism and economy both presuppose different principles. Originally, economy meant “administration of scarcity” while capitalism implies “accumulation of wealth.”

“Historical capitalism”, as conceived by Wallerstein ([1983 1995) and narrated by Arrighi (1994), occludes the colonial difference and, even more, the necessity of looking at capitalism from the other end, i.e. from its exteriority. This is an exteriority that cannot only be narrated from the interiority of the system (as Wallerstein does very well) but that needs its own narrative from its own exteriority. At this point, “opening” and exporting the social sciences to analyze historical capitalism will no longer do, since such a move will reproduce the occlusion of the colonial difference and with it, the possibility and necessity of looking at capitalism otherwise as well as thinking otherwise than capitalism. Quijano’s notion of coloniality of power offers, precisely, this opportunity. Yet before focusing on coloniality of power, I would like to make a few comments about “racism” and “universalism” conceived by Wallerstein as substantial aspects of historical capitalism.

Wallerstein’s integration of racism and universalism into the picture of historical capitalism is perhaps the most radical aspect of his conceptualization. Racism, said Wallerstein, “has been the cultural pillar of historical capitalism” ([1983, 1995: 80) and “the belief in universalism has been the keystone of the ideological arch of historical capitalism” (81). How are racism and universalism related? The ethnicization of the world in the very constitution of the modern/colonial world-system has had, for Wallerstein, three major consequences. The organization and reproduction of the work-force that can best be illustrated by the link, in the modern/colonial world, of “blackness” with “slavery” was absent of course in Aristotle, who went through a substantial transformation in sixteenth century theological and legal discussions. Secondly, Wallerstein considers that ethnicization provided a built-in training mechanism for the workforce, located within the framework of ethnically defined households and not at the cost of the employers or the state. But what Wallerstein considers crucial is the third consequence of the ethnicization of the workforce, institutional racism as the pillar of historical capitalism:

What we mean by racism has little to do with the xenophobia that existed in various prior historical systems. Xenophobia was literally fear of the ‘stranger.’ Racism within historical capitalism had nothing to do with ‘strangers.’ Quite the contrary. Racism was the mode by which various segments of the work-force within the same economic structure were constrained to relate to each other. Racism was the ideological justification for the hierarchization of the work-force and its highly unequal distributions of reward. What we mean by racism is that set of ideological statements combined with that set of continuing practices which have had the consequence of maintaining a high correlation of ethnicity and work-force allocation over time ([1983, 1995: 78; italics mine).

Universalism, as the ideological keystone of historical capitalism, is a faith as well as an epistemology; a faith in the real phenomenon of truth, and the epistemology that justifies local truth with universal values:

Our collective education has taught us that the search for truth is a disinterested virtue when in fact it is a self-interested rationalization. The search for truth, proclaimed as the cornerstone of progress, and therefore of well being has been, at the very least, consonant with the maintenance of hierarchical, unequal, social structure in a number of specific respects. The process involved in the expansion of the capitalist world-economy [… involved a number of pressures at the level of culture: Christian prostelyzation; the imposition of European language; instruction in specific technologies and mores; changes in the legal code [… That is that complex processes we sometimes label ‘westernization’, or even more arrogantly ‘modernization’, and which was legitimated by the desirability of sharing both the fruits of and faith in the ideology of universalism ([1983, 1995: 82).

It cannot be said of Wallerstein that he, like Vattimo or Habermas, is blind to colonialism. Wallerstein is not engrained in the Greco-Roman-modern European tradition in which Continental thought is prisoner. The politics of location is a question valid not only for minority epistemology. On the contrary, it is the keystone of universalism in European thought. Cornel West’s perception and analysis of the “evasion of American philosophy” speaks to that politics of location that is not a blind voluntarism but a force of Westernization (West 1989). Although the U.S. assumed the leadership of Western expansion, the historical ground for thinking was not, and could not have been, European. The “evasion of American philosophy” shows that tension between the will to be like European philosophy and the impossibility of being so (West 1992). The logic of the situation analyzed by West is similar to the logic underlined by Bernasconi vis-à-vis African philosophy. The variance is that the evasion of American philosophy was performed by Anglo-Creoles, displaced from the classical tradition, instead of African-Natives who felt the weight of a parallel epistemology.

The social sciences do have a home in the U.S. as well as in Europe, which is not the case for philosophy. But the social sciences do not have necessarily a home in the Third World. Therefore, while “opening” the social sciences is an important claim to make within the sphere of their gestation and growth, it is more problematic when the colonial difference comes into the picture. To open the social sciences is certainly an important reform, but the colonial difference requires also decolonization. To “open the social sciences” is certainly an important step, but is not yet sufficient since “opening” is not the same as “decolonizing,” as Fals Borda claimed in the 1970s. In this sense, Quijano’s and Dussel’s concepts of coloniality of power and transmodernity, are respectively contributing to decolonizing the social sciences (Quijano) and philosophy (Dussel) by forging an epistemic space from the colonial difference. Decolonizing the social sciences and philosophy means to produce, transform, and disseminate knowledge that is not “dependent” on the epistemology of North Atlantic modernity–the norms of the disciplines and the problematic of the North Atlantic–but that, on the contrary, responds to the need of the colonial differences. Colonial expansion was also the colonial expansion of forms of knowledge, even when such knowledges were critical to colonialism from colonialism itself (like Bartolome de las Casas), or to modernity from modernity itself (like Nietzche). A critique of Christianity by an Islamic philosopher would be a project significantly different from Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity.


Wallerstein, Quijano and Dussel have in common their debt to dependency theory. They are apart (although not enemies) because of the epistemic colonial difference. Quijano’s concepts of “coloniality of power” and “historic-structural dependency” contribute to emphasize this complicity, similar to Dussel’s arguments “with Vattimo” and “against Vattimo” at the same time (Dussel 1999).

To understand Quijano’s “coloniality of power”, it is first necessary to accept coloniality as constitutive of modernity and not just as a derivative of modernity–that is, first comes modernity and then coloniality. The emergence of the commercial Atlantic circuit in the sixteenth century was the crucial moment in which modernity, coloniality, and capitalism, as we know them today, came together. However, the Atlantic commercial circuit did not immediately become the location of Western hegemonic power. It was just one more commercial circuit among those existing in Asia, Africa (Abu-Lughod 1989, Wolf 1982), and the commercial circuit of Anahuac and Tawantinsuyu in what will later become America (Mignolo 2000). Modernity/coloniality is the moment of Western history linked to the Atlantic commercial circuit and the transformation of capitalism (if we accept from Wallerstein (1983) and Arrighi (1994) that the “seed” of capitalism can be located in fifteenth century Italy), and the foundation of the modern/colonial world system.

In the previous paragraph, I have purposely mixed two macro-narratives. One I will call the “Western Civilization macro-narrative” and the other the “Modern/Colonial World System Narrative.” The first emerged in the Renaissance and was consolidated during the Enlightenment and by German philosophy in the early nineteenth century. As such, this macro-narrative is tied to historiography (the Renaissance) and philosophy (the Enlightenment). The second macro-narrative emerged during the Cold War as it is linked to the consolidation of the social sciences. The first macro-narrative has its “origin” in Greece, the second in the “origin” of the Atlantic commercial circuit. Both macro-narratives are founded in the same principles of Western epistemology, and both have their own sort of double personality complex (double side). For instance, the narrative of Western Civilization is at the same time celebratory of its virtues and critical of its downside. In the same vein, “modernity” is often celebrated as hiding coloniality and yet is critiqued because of coloniality, its other side. Both of these macro-narratives can also be criticized from “inside” (Nietzche, Heidegger, Derrida, Wallerstein, Gunder Frank, etc.) and from the exteriority of the colonial difference (Dussel 1995, 1998, Quijano 1992, 1997). “Coloniality of power” and “historico-structural dependency” are key concepts in Quijano’s critique to the above macro-narratives from the exteriority of the colonial difference.

Quijano singles out “Latin America” and the “Caribbean” as places in which a double movement is constitutive of its history: a constant and necessary process of “re-originalization” that goes together with the process of its repression. The double process indicated by Quijano is the inscription of the colonial difference and the consequence of the coloniality of power. Coloniality of power should be distinguished from “colonialism,” which is sometimes termed the “colonial period.” “Colonialism” is a concept that inscribes “coloniality” as a derivative of modernity. In this conception, modernity is first with colonialism following it. On the other hand, the “colonial period” implies that, in the Americas, colonialism ended toward the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Instead, coloniality assumes first that coloniality is constitutive of modernity. As a consequence, we are still living under the same regime. Today, coloniality could be seen either as the hidden side of “post-modernity” and, in this respect, “post-coloniality” would designate the transformation of coloniality into global coloniality in the same way that post-modernity designates the transformation of modernity into new forms of globalization. Or it could designate a critical position of modernity from the perspective of coloniality and the colonial difference, similar to postmodernity understood as a critique of modernity from inside modernity itself. In brief, “colonialism” could be removed from the picture after the first (U.S., Haiti, Latin American countries) and second (India, Algeria, Nigeria, etc) waves of decolonization, whereas coloniality is alive and well in the current structure of globalization. Thus, Quijano observes:

En el momento actual ocurren fenómenos equivalentes (a aquello ocurridos desde el siglo xvi, agregado de WM). Desde la crisis mundial de los 70s. se ha hecho visible un proceso que afecta a todos y a cada uno de los aspectos de la existencia social de las gentes de todos los paises. El mundo que se formo hace 500 años está culminando con la formación de una estructura productive, financiera y comercial que tiende a ser más integrada que antes. Con una drástica reconcentración del control de poder polìtico y de recursos (1997: 113).

Changes did not encroach equally upon diverse societies and local histories. Modernity/coloniality and capitalism went through different phases in their common history. However, coloniality of power is the common thread that links modernity/coloniality in the sixteenth century with its current version at the end of the twentieth century. For Quijano, coloniality of power is a principle and strategy of control and domination that can be conceived as a configuration of several features.

The idea of “race or “purity of blood” (as it was expressed in the sixteenth century) became the basic principle for classifying and ranking people all over the planet, redefining their identities, and justifying slavery and labor. In this manner, a matrix of power wasconstituted on several grounds:

the existence and reproduction of geo-historical identities, of which Kant’s ethno-racial tetragon (Africans are Black, Americans are Red [Kant was thinking of the U.S., Asian are Yellow and Europeans are white [Kant 1792) was the eighteenth century version of early Spanish classifications of Moors, Jews, Amerindians, Black Africans, and the Chinese;
the hierarchy established between European and non-European identities, as Kant’s example so eloquently illustrates;
the need to transform and design institutions that would maintain the coloniality of power structured and implemented in the sixteenth century, which became an internal aspect of modernity and capitalism; and that internal aspect was precisely the coloniality of power.

Consequently, modernity/coloniality or, if you wish, the constitution and history of the modern/colonial world system, is at the same time a structure in which the “historico-structural dependency,” as structure of domination, is the visible face of the coloniality of power. Now, not only is such a historico-structural dependency economic or political; above all, it is epistemic. Quijano adds:

En el contexto de la colonialidad del poder, las poblaciones dominadas de todas las nuevas identidades fueron tambien sometidas a la hegemonia del eurocentrismo como manera de conocer, sobre todo en la medida que algunos de sus sectores udieron aprender la letra de los dominadores. Asi, con el tiempo largo de la colonialidad, que aún no termina, esas poblaciones fueron atrapadas entre el patrón epistemológico aborigen y el patrón eurocéntrico que, además, se fue encauzando como racionalidad instrumental o tecnocrática, en particular respecto de las relacaiones sociales de poder y en las relciones con el mundo en torno (1997: 117).

Coloniality of power worked at all levels of the two macro-narratives, “Western Civilization” and “Modern World-System,” that I mentioned earlier. The colonized areas of the world were targets of Christianization and the Civilizing Mission as the project of the narrative of Western Civilization, and they became the target of Development, Modernization, and the New Market Place as the project of the Modern World-System. The internal critique of both macro-narratives tended to present itself as valid for the “totality,” in the sense that it is configured by the “program” of Western Civilization and the Modern World-System. The insertion of the word “colonial”, as in the “modern/colonial world system” makes visible what both macro-narratives previously obscured: that the production of knowledge and the critique of modernity/coloniality from the colonial difference is a necessary move of decolonization. Otherwise, “opening the social sciences” could be seen as a well-intentioned reproduction of colonialism from the left. Similarly, a critique of Western metaphysics and logocentrism from the Arabic world may not take into account the critical epistemic legacy and the memory of epistemic violence inscribed in Arabic language and knowledge. Historic-structural dependency, in the narrative of the modern/colonial world system presupposes the colonial difference. It is, indeed, the dependency defined and enacted by the coloniality of power. Barbarians, primitives, underdeveloped people, and people of color are all categories that established epistemic dependencies under different global designs (Christianization, Civlizing Mission, Modernization and Development, Consumerism). Such epistemic dependency is for Quijano the very essence of coloniality of power (Quijano 1997).

Both Quijano and Dussel have been proposing and claiming that the starting point of knowledge and thinking must be the colonial difference, not the narrative of Western Civilization or the narrative of the Modern World-System. Thus, transmodernity and coloniality of power highlight the epistemic colonial difference, essentially the fact that it is no longer advisable, nor urgently necessary, to think and produce knowledge from the colonial difference: that is, from the borders of the two macro-narratives, philosophy and the social sciences (not only from the South Atlantic [Latin America and Africa and the South Pacific [Africa and Asia, but also from the South of Europe). The consequences of this are gigantic not only for epistemology but also for ethics and politics. I would like to conclude by highlighting some of them in view of future discussions.


I have mentioned that Wallerstein, Quijano and Dussel have dependency theory as a common reference; and my previous argument suggested that while Wallerstein brought dependency theory to the social sciences as a discipline, Quijano and Dussel follow the political and dialectical scope of dependency theory. The epistemic colonial difference divides one from the other. Of course, this does not place one against the other but underlines the colonial difference as the limit of the assumed totality of Western epistemology. That is why “to open the social sciences” is a welcome move, but an insufficient one. It is possible to think, as Quijano and Dussel (among others) have, beyond and “against” philosophy and the social sciences as the incarnation of Western epistemology. It is necessary to do so in order to avoid reproducing the “totality” shared by their promoters and their critiques. In other words, the critiques of modernity, Western logocentrism, capitalism, Eurocentrism and the like performed in Western Europe and the United States cannot be valid for those who think and live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Those who are not white or Christians, or that have been marginal to the foundation, expansion, and transformation of philosophy, social and natural sciences, cannot be satisfied with their “identification” and “solidarity” with the European or American left. Nietzsche’s (as a Christian) criticism of Christianity cannot satisfy Khatibi’s (as a Muslim and Maghrebien) criticism of Christianity and colonization. It is crucial for ethics, politics, and epistemology of the future to recognize that the “totality” of Western epistemology, either from the right or the left, is no longer valid for the entire planet. The colonial difference is becoming unavoidable. Greece can no longer be the point of reference for new utopias and new points of arrival, as Slavoj Zizek still believes, or at least sustains (Zizek 1998).
If Wallerstein, Quijano, and Dussel have dependency theory as a common reference, they also share their critique of Eurocentrism (Wallerstein 1997; Dussel ([1992, 1995,) 1998; Quijano 1992, 1997). However, their motivation is different. Quijano’s and Dussel’s critiques of Eurocentrism respond to the overwhelming “celebration” of the discovery of America, which both scholars read not only as a Spanish question, but also as the “beginning” of modernity and European hegemony. Both coincide in the fact that Latin America and the Caribbean today is a consequence of the North Atlantic (not just Spanish and European) hegemony. Wallerstein’s critique of Eurocentrism is a critique of the social sciences: “Social science has been Eurocentric throughout its institutional history, which means since there have been departments teaching social science within the university system” (1997: 93). Thus, Wallerstein’s critique of Eurocentrism is one of epistemology through the social sciences. Quijano’s and Dussel’s critiques come to Western epistemology through coloniality of power from the colonial difference.

Clearly dissatisfied with recent criticism of Eurocentrism, Zizek made a plea for Eurocentrism from the left. I do not think that Zizek had Wallerstein, Quijano and Dussel in mind. The first is a social scientist, and Zizek seems more concerned with post-structuralist (philosophical and psychoanalytic) debates. Quijano and Dussel are thinkers from Latin America, who write primarily in Spanish, and Zizek has not given any signs of being interested in or even familiar with them. In fact, he seems more concerned with the U.S. and identity politics, which for him is the negation of politics proper. Consequently, he asks, “is it possible to imagine a leftist appropriation of the European political legacy (Zizek 1998: 988; 1999: 171-244)”? I will not discuss here whether identity politics is the end of politics or whether there are arguments that can justify a plea, from the left, for identity politics parallel to the plea for Eurocentrism performed by Zizek. I hope to discuss the issue elsewhere. For the time being, I prefer to concentrate on his argument about “universalism” and “globalization” to justify his leftist appropriation of European political legacy to invent new forms of re-politization after the crisis of the left and of identity politics filling the gap. “The political (the space of litigation in which the excluded can protest the wrong or injustice done to them) foreclosed from the Symbolic then returns in the Real in the guise of new forms of racism” (Zizek, 1998: 97). Racism, however, is not “returning,” as it has been the foundation of the modern-colonial world, to which the “modern-postomodern political” has been blind. As Franz Fanon pointed out, for a “Negro who works on a sugar plantation…there is only one solution: to fight. He will embark on this struggle, and will pursue it, not as the result of a Marxist or idealistic analysis but quite simply because he cannot conceive of life otherwise than in the form of a table against exploitation, misery and hunger” (Fanon 1952, 224). Of course, this is simply because he or she is a “Negro.” We know that the equation “Negro = Slave” is a feature of the modern/colonial world and that this equation was part of a larger frame in which the ethno-racial foundation of modernity was established. The basic events were Christianity’s victory over the Moors and the Jews, the colonization of the Amerindians, and the establishment of slavery in the New World. One could argue that “postmodern racism emerges as the ultimate consequence of the post-political suspension of the political, of the reduction of the state to a mere police agent servicing the (consensually established) needs of market forces and multiculturalist, tolerant humanitarianism” (Zizek, 1998: 97). Or one could argue that the postcolonial, after the 1970s, re-installed the political in terms of ethnic-antiracial struggles, in the U.S. as well as Europe.

However, this is not the point I want to stress, although it was necessary to make it in order to get to the main thread of my argument. Since Zizek sees in multiculturalism and racism the end of the political, he looks for an argument that would point out the path for a return to the political. His argument cannot avoid globalization, and he makes a move to distinguish globalization from universality. This is precisely where the leftist appropriation of European legacy takes place. Zizek alerts us to avoid two interconnected traps brought about by the process of globalization. First, “the commonplace according to which today’s main antagonism is between global liberal capitalism and different forms of ethnic/religious fundamentalism”; second, “the hasty identification of globalization (the contemporary transnational functioning of capital) with universalization” (1998: 1007). Zizek insists that the true opposition today is “rather between globalization (the emerging global market, new world order) and universalism (the properly political domain of universalizing one’s particular fate as representative of global injustice).” He adds, “this difference between globalization and universalism becomes more and more palpable today, when capital, in the name of penetrating new markets, quickly renounces requests for democracy in order not to lose access to new trade partners” (1998: 1007). One must agree with Zizek on this point. The problem lies in the projects on which we embark to resist and propose alternatives to capitalist universalism. Zizek has one particular proposal, which is preceded by a lengthy analogy between the U.S. today and the Roman Empire. Allow me to summarize this analogy, since it is a crucial part of Zizek’s argument.

Zizek describes the opposition between universalism and globalization, focusing on the historical reversal of France and the United States in the modern/colonial world system (although of course, Zizek does not refer to world-system theory). French republican ideology, Zizek states, is the “epitome of modernist universalism: of democracy based on a universal notion of citizenship. In clear contrast to it, the United States is a global society, a society in which the global market and legal system serve as the container (rather than the proverbial melting pot) for the endless proliferation of group identities.” Zizek points out the historical paradox in the role reversal of the two countries. While France is being perceived as an increasingly particular phenomenon threatened by the process of globalization, the United States increasingly emerges as the universal model. At this point, Zizek compares the United States with the Roman Empire and Christianity: “The first centuries of our era saw the opposition of the global “multicultural” Roman empire and Christianity, which posed such a threat to the empire precisely on account of its universal appeal” (1998: 1009). There is another perspective from the past that could be taken: France, an imperial European country, and the U.S., a decolonized country that takes a leading role in a new process of colonization. This perspective places the emphasis on the spatial order of the modern/colonial world system, instead of the linear narrative that Zizek invokes by going back to the Roman Empire and locating it in “the first century of our era.” To whose era is he referring? This is not exactly an era that can be claimed without hesitation by Wallerstein, Quijano, or Dussel, for example, not to mention Amerindian and Afro-American intellectuals. However, what matters here is that in Zizek’s argument, what is really being threatened by globalization is “universality itself, in its eminently political dimension” (1998: 1009). The consequences, manifested in several contradictory arguments and actions, are countered by Zizek with a strong claim for sustaining the political (struggle) in place of the depolitization that is the challenge globalization poses to universality. Here is Zizek’s triumphal claim of “true European legacy”:

Against this end-of-ideology politics, one should insist on the potential of democratic politicization as the true European legacy from ancient Greece onwards. Will we be able to invent a new mode of repoliticization questioning the undisputed reign of global capital? Only such a repoliticization of OUR predicamente can break the vicious cycle of liberal globalization destined to engender the most regressive forms of fundamentalist hatred (1998: 1009).

Zizek here identifies the “true European legacy”, and a few pages earlier he refers to “the fundamental European legacy.” However, at the end of the paragraph just quoted, he alludes to “forms of fundamentalist hatred” as if the “fundamental European legacy” was excused and excluded from any form of “fundamentalism.” Zizek’s plea totally ignores the colonial difference and blindly reproduces the belief that whatever happened in Greece belongs to a “European legacy” that was built during and after the Renaissance–that is, at the inception of the Atlantic commercial circuit and the modern/colonial world. In fact, all the examples Zizek quotes in his arguments are consequences of the emergence, transformation, and consolidation of the modern/colonial world (the formation and transformation of capitalism and Occidentalism as the modern/colonial world imaginary, Mignolo 1999). However, Zizek reproduces the macro-narrative of Western Civilization (from ancient Greece to the current North Atlantic), and casts out the macro-narrative of the Modern/Colonial World in which the conflict between globalization and universality emerged. Since he does not see beyond the linear narrative of Western Civilization, he also cannot see that diversality rather than universality is the future alternative to globalization.

Let me explain. I see two problematic issues in Zizek’s proposal. One is that Greece is only a European legacy, not a planetary one. If we agree that solutions for contemporary dilemmas could be found in Greek moral and political philosophy, we cannot naturally assume that “from Greece onwards” is linked only to “European legacy.” The first issue here would be to de-link Greek contribution to human civilization from the modern (from the Renaissance on, from the inception of the modern/colonial world) contribution. Thus, Greek legacy could be re-appropriated by the Arabic/Islamic world, which introduced Greece to Europe, and also by other “legacies”: Chinese, Indian, Sub-Saharan African, or Amerindian and Creole in Latin America and the Caribbean not as a European legacy, but as discontinuity of the classical tradition (Mignolo 1992). One of the consequences of this perspective would be “diversality as a universal project,” rather than the re-inscription of a “new abstract universal project,” such as Zizek proposes. I do not feel anymore like enrolling (or requesting membership) in a new abstract universal project that claims a “fundamental European legacy.” I assume that there are several “good” alternatives to the increasing threat of globalization and, of course, “fundamental European legacy” is one of them. I am not talking about relativism, of course. I am talking about “diversality as universal project,” a project that is at the same time an alternative to universality and that offers the possibilities of a network of planetary confrontations with globalization in the name of justice, equity, human rights, and epistemic diversality. The geopolitics of knowledge show us the limits of any abstract universal, even from the left, be it the planetarization of the social sciences or a new planetarization of a “European fundamental legacy” in the name of democracy and re-politicization.


The main thrust of my argument was to highlight the colonial difference, first as a consequence of the coloniality of power (in the making of it) and second as an epistemic location beyond right and left as articulated in the second modernity (e.g., liberal, neoliberal; socialism, neo-socialism). The world became unthinkable beyond European (and later, North Atlantic) epistemology. The colonial difference marked the limits of thinking and theorizing unless modern epistemology (philosophy, social sciences, natural sciences) was exported/imported to those places where thinking was impossible (because it was folklore, magic, wisdom and the like). I argued that Quijano’s “coloniality of power” and Dussel’s “transmodernity” (and the critique of Eurocentrism from this perspective) at the same time imprint the possibilities of thinking from the colonial difference and of opening new perspectives from and to the left. Quijano and Dussel move beyond the planetarization of the social sciences (Wallerstein) or the re-inscription of a new abstract universality (Zizek) and contribute to the making of diversality of a universal project. As such, they join forces with South Asian Subaltern Studies (Chakrabarty 1992), with “negative critique” as proposed by African philosophers (Eze 1997, Bernasconi 1997), and with Khatibi’s “double critique” (Mignolo 2000a), that is, of Islamic and Western fundamentalism at the same time. The “tertium datur” that Zizek is seeking, cannot be found by Khatibi “in reference to the fundamental European legacy” but in an-other thinking, an-other logic that cannot avoid the planetarization of European legacy, but that cannot rely only on it. “An-other logic” (or epistemic double consciousnes or border thinking from the perspective of subalternity) goes together with a geopolitics of knowledge that regionalizes the “fundamental European legacy,” locating thinking in the colonial difference and creating the conditions for diversality as a universal project.


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Mignolo Walter

Est le nom de plume de William H. Wannamaker Directeur du Centre d' études de la globalisation et des humanités de l'Université de Duke aux USA Parmi ses récentes publications : The darker side of the renaissance : literacy, territoriality and colonization (1995), Local histories /global designs coloniality subaltern knowledge and border thinking (2000.) Il est également coéditeur de Népantla : Views from south ( 2000)