The call to decolonise knowledge is absolute, and so should not be motivated on relativist grounds, says UJ’s Prof Veli Mitova

Professorial Inaugural address: Professor Veli Mitova

It is an uncomfortable truth that much of what we call ‘knowledge’ is shaped by colonial history. This includes scientific theories, the correct medical treatments, and the historical record. ‘Knowledge’ in these areas has illegitimately ignored African thought. So how do we decolonise knowledge? One popular idea is that we treat different perspectives as providing different, but equally legitimate accounts of what knowledge is.

In her inaugural address How to decolonise knowledge without relativism, Prof Veli Mitova argued that such relativist thinking far from supporting, in fact, subverts, the call to decolonisation.

Once we adopt relativism, she reasoned, we commit to the idea that there are no objective truths, no fact of the matter about anything. However, this means, she urged, that there is no fact of the matter about what decolonisation requires either.

Colonialism has inflicted objective wrongs on many people around the world. “These wrongs must – objectively must – be redressed. Essentially, decolonising knowledge is tied to the epistemic wrongs of colonialism, to the ways that it has marginalised and silenced knowledge systems that don’t dovetail with its own”, she elaborated. “It involves reclaiming the right to think and theorise from our point of view rather than from the one unjustly imposed on us by colonialism”.

She concluded: “The imperative to decolonise is an absolute one, and so cannot be supported by relativist arguments. There is no way of understanding relativism in such a way that it is both plausible and provides a good foundation for decolonising knowledge. We should decolonise knowledge absolutely instead.”

Professor Mitova’s inaugural address took place in the University’s Council Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Tuesday, 12 November 2019.


Veli is a Professor and Head of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg, a co-founder of the African Centre for Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, and the South African team leader for the international Geography of Philosophy Project.

Between 1996 and 2000, she studied Philosophy, Literature and Maths at Rhodes University, where she also obtained her Master’s in Philosophy (with distinction) in 2002. She received her PhD (without corrections), after three years of rain, from Cambridge University in 2007.

Before joining UJ in 2015, she proved that the world doesn’t have it in for philosophers, by managing a nine-year feat of postdoc-ing: at Rhodes (2007-2008), Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México (2009), and the Universität Wien (2009-2015).

Veli is an epistemologist by training, and used to trade in rather abstract ideas on reasons for belief. But nowadays she finds it increasingly exciting to cross over to ethics, harnessing her epistemology work into the service of our South African concerns. At the moment, she is thinking about the decolonisation of knowledge and epistemic injustice, under the auspices of a Newton Advanced Fellowship for the project Epistemic Injustice, Reasons, and Agency.

She is the author of Believable Evidence (Cambridge University Press 2017), which received the UJ Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Book Award in 2018. And she is the editor of The Factive Turn in Epistemology (Cambridge University Press 2018), Epistemic Decolonisation (Special Issue of Philosophical Papers, 2020) and Relativism (Special Issue of Inquiry, 2020).

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