Existential Philosophy and Antiracism

An Interview with Lewis R. Gordon

in Sartre Studies International
T Storm Heter East Stroudsburg University, Pennsylvania

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Lewis R. Gordon is Professor of Philosophy (and Head of the Department of Philosophy) at the University of Connecticut. His two most recent books are Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization (New York: Routledge, 2020) and Fear of Black Consciousness (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022). Since his first monograph, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (1995), Gordon's many writings have challenged Sartre scholars to move beyond narrowly Euro-centric ideas of reason, humanity, and existence. The existential philosophy pioneered in Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (a revision of Gordon's 1993 Ph. D. dissertation), placed the issue of antiracism at the heart of the study of existence. A prolific and highly visible philosopher, Gordon's writings have inspired an explosion of interest in Africana Existentialism, an open-ended, creolizing philosophy. In the interview below, Gordon outlines the existential situations that face us today. How is human liberation possible given the soul-killing forces of white supremacy, capitalism, and ongoing colonization? Gordon insists on the importance of antiracist institution building, including the transformation of white spaces, especially in academic journals, at conferences, and in university philosophy departments. Importantly, Gordon reminds us that Sartre was one of the few European writers to offer “a genuine engagement with Black intellectuals.” Like Sartre's famous assertion that “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Gordon's message is that Black Existentialism is a Humanism. Challenging the Euro-centric notion that human existence is an abstract, color-less category, Gordon teaches us a new way of thinking and listening. Misguided by parochial notions of human reason, many white (and/or non-Black) philosophers have closed their minds and ears to the calls of Black liberation, thinking they have nothing at stake, or that they must remain mere “allies.” Gordon's work shows us a different path: Black liberation is a universal ethical injunction. Existential philosophy dissolves the supposed contradiction between action and theory, between universal and concrete, between ally and freedom fighter. Done properly, existential philosophy is, in Gordon's words, “a form of epistemological decolonial practice.”

Contributor Notes

T Storm Heter teaches Political Philosophy, Jewish Philosophy, and Africana Philosophy at East Stroudsburg University. He has published widely on Sartre, including Sartre's Ethics of Engagement (Continuum, 2006), and has been a long-standing member of the North American Sartre Society, serving variously as president, treasurer, and executive board member. He recently published The Sonic Gaze: Jazz, Whiteness, and Racialized Listening (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). Having gone to college with the help of a debate scholarship from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, Heter created and directs a debate league, the Frederick Douglass Debate Society of Pennsylvania, for underserved students across the state.

Lewis R. Gordon is Professor and Head of the Department of Philosophy at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa; and Honorary Professor in the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University, South Africa. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization (Routledge) and Fear of Black Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Penguin Books in the UK) with German translation, Angst vor Schwarzem Bewusstsein (Ullstein Verlag). A new edition of his first book, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism is forthcoming with Humanities Classics.

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Sartre Studies International

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Existentialism and Contemporary Culture


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