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INVISIBLE WORLDS SUB-SAHARAN AFRICAN COSMOLOGIES IN A CONTEMPORARY PERSPECTIVE In the preface to the first edition of Critique of Pure Reason, the German philosopher Immanual Kant (1724-1804) argued that, “Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer” (Potter 1993:188). It is perhaps relevant to ponder whether Kant was correct in assuming that those crucial questions, which ‘transcend’ human powers, by themselves remain unanswerable. In many Euro-American societies, there is a tendency to think of the cosmological foundations of existence based on the Greek notion of kosmos as the ‘ultimate principles and/ or grounds of the phenomenal world and the human place in it’ (op.cit.:4). While such cosmological principles are considered fundamental to existence, they are also paradoxical in nature; by retrospectively searching for the cosmological foundation of human life, we are faced with the infinite regress of a cause searching for its own cause. Recalling the well-known fable of the turtles standing on each other’s backs all the way down, infinite regress is, in a sense, the manifest consequence of a cosmological thought that tries to think through its own conditions of possibility. INVISIBLE WORLDS Considering the paradoxical nature of Euro-American cosmological thought, it is quite remarkable that sub- Saharan African cosmologies have for so long been exoticized as the radical ‘Other’.1 A few centuries ago, European travelers visiting the continent were not able to find holy scriptures, sacred buildings or organized forms of priesthood and therefore concluded that Africans had no religious or spiritual life at all. Much later, colonial administrators discovered ‘ethnic religions’ as integral to local cultural traditions, e.g. regarding Yoruban or Zulu religions, but they were still reluctant to consider these as parallel to European religious belief systems. As have been documented by anthropologists working in Africa, the 59 By Morten Nielsen MORTEN NIELSEN is an associate professor at Aarhus University and the coordinator of the interdisciplinary research network Urban Orders (URO). Since 2004 he has been working in Mozambique doing ethnographic research in peri-urban areas of Maputo as well as in rural areas of Cabo del Gado, the northernmost region. He has published on issues such as urban aesthetics, time and temporality, materiality, relational ontologies and political cosmologies. His monograph Bricks of Time. Inverse Governmentality Through Informal Housebuilding Projects in Maputo, Mozambique is forthcoming with Berghahn Books, Oxford & New York.


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