African Philosophy

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edit classify history index African Philosophy

African Philosophy is a disputed term used in different ways by different philosophers. Although African philosophers spend their time doing_work in many different areas, such as Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, and Political Philosophy, a great deal of the literature is taken up with a debate concerning the nature of African Philosophy itself. Though this is often criticised (with some reason) as being sterile and self-absorbed, it can nevertheless provide useful insights into the nature of Philosophy in general.

In traditional African Philosophy, harmony and peace are bound with the African cultural world-view. There is a focus on participation and integration, with no division between Humanity and Nature. Imagination, intuitive experiences, and personal feelings guide African Philosophy through oral traditions, rather than logical_analysis, as in the West. The life-force permeates the whole Universe in African Philosophy, and Matter and Spirit are inseparable. The Soul is the individual will, or thought, and when compatible with other individuals, it is pure and there is peace and harmony. Higher forces, such as God, directly influence the lower, and Nature is a collection of the life-forces.

Pre-Modern African Philosophy

The history of Philosophy in Africa before the Modern period must be divided into two main parts, defined by geography - North Africa, and the rest of the Continent. This division is in turn based on two related factors: interaction with cultural and religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the development of a written language.

Sub-Saharan Africa

We start with yet another distinction: that between philosophers and Philosophy. Paulin J. Hountondji has argued that, without a written language, “thousands of Socrates could never have given birth to Greek_Philosophy... so thousands of philosophers without written works could never have given birth to an African Philosophy” [1]. That is, even if we take a broad definition of “philosopher”, such as Joseph I. Omoregbe’s, whereby a philosopher is one who “devotes a good deal of his time reflecting on [ fundamental questions about human life or the physical universe] and who frequently and habitually does this“[2], there is still a gap between the disconnected set of such philosophers’ thoughts, and the interconnected continuity that we should call a philosophical tradition. Put simply, even if there had been African philosophers, there was no African Philosophy.

The alternative view starts from an alternative notion of Philosophy; if we take a Philosophy to be a coherent set of beliefs about the nature of the world and the place of human beings in that world, then few if any cultures lack a Philosophy. Such a Philosophy doesn’t depend upon the existence of specific people who philosophise, so even using Omoregbe’s general definition, this view at least allows for the possibility that there has been an African Philosophy but no African philosophers.

It should be emphasised that there is no debate concerning the fact Africans practiced philosophical thought: Indeed, given the nature of Humanity, it is difficult to see on what basis a denial would rest. The standard view of the rise of philosophical (and of scientific) thought is that it probably required a certain social structure, one in which, for example, a significant part of society had the leisure to think and debate. Even given this necessary background condition, there is a complex set of factors needed. The claim that Africa developed no Philosophy, then, is merely the claim that the right conditions for philosophising were not present.

There is at least one example of a pre-modern sub-Saharan philosopher in Omoregbe’s sense: Anthony William Amo was taken as a slave from Awukenu in what is now Ghana, was brought up and educated in Europe (earning Doctorates in Medicine and Philosophy), and became a professor at the universities of Halle and Jena.

North Africa

Philosophy in North Africa has a rich and varied history, dating from Pre-Dynastic Egypt, and continuing through the birth of both Christianity and Islam. Arguably central to the ancients was the conception of “ma’at”, which roughly translated refers to “justice”, “truth”, or simply “that which is right”. One of the earliest works of political Philosophy was the Maxims of Ptah-Hotep, which were taught to Egyptian schoolboys for centuries.

More recently, North African philosophers made extremely important contributions to Christian Philosophy and Islamic Philosophy. In the Christian tradition, Augustine of Hippo was a cornerstone of Christian Philosophy and Theology. He lived from 354 to 430 CE, and wrote his best known work, The City of God, in Hippo Regius, (now Annaba, Algeria). He challenged a number of ideas of his age including Arianism, and established the notions of Original Sin and Divine Grace in Christian Philosophy and Theology.

In the Islamic tradition, Ibn Bajjah philosophized along Neo-Platonist lines in the 12th century C.E. The purpose of human life, according to Bajja, was to gain true happiness, and true happiness is attained by grasping the Universals through Reason and Philosophy, often outside the framework of organised Religion.

Ibn Rushd philosophised along more Aristotelian lines, establishing the philosophical school of Averroism. Notably, he argued that there was no conflict between religion and Philosophy, and instead that there are a variety of routes to God, all equally valid, and that the philosopher was free to take the route of reason while the commoners were unable to take that route, and only able to take the route of teachings passed on to them. Ibn Sab’in challenged this view, arguing that Aristotelian methods of Philosophy were useless in attempting to understand the Universe, because those ideas failed to mirror the basic unity of the Universe with itself and with God, so that true understanding required a different method of reasoning.

Modern African Philosophy Candidates

The Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka has distinguished what he calls four trends in modern African Philosophy: “EthnoPhilosophy”, Philosophical Sagacity, Nationalistic-Ideological Philosophy, and Professional Philosophy. In fact, it would be more realistic to call them candidates for the position of African Philosophy, with the understanding that more than one of them might fit the bill.

EthnoPhilosophy & Philosophical Sagacity

EthnoPhilosophy involves the recording of the beliefs found in African cultures. Such an approach treats African Philosophy as consisting in a set of shared beliefs, values, categories, and assumptions that are implicit in the language, practices, and beliefs of African cultures; in short, the uniquely African world-view. As such, it is seen as an item of communal property rather than an activity for the individual. One proponent of this form, Placide Tempels, argued in Bantu Philosophy that the metaphysical categories of the Bantu people are reflected in their linguistic categories. According to this view, African Philosophy can be best understood as springing from the fundamental assumptions about reality reflected in the languages of Africa.

An Ethnophilosophical approach seeks to unearth the philosophies of non-Western cultures through the study of oral traditions, analysis of linguistic categories[3], social structures[4] and Religion. EthnoPhilosophy also adds new perspectives to the body of knowledge in philosophy by considering the philosophical meanings in texts from non-Western cultures that have been traditionally excluded from the philosophical canon.

Therefore, an “Ethno-philosopher” holds that all people practice Philosophy, and believes that the study is incomplete if limited to the Western_traditions. An example of such an Ethnological approach can be found in the work of E. J. Alagoa of the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, who argues for the existence of an African Philosophy of History stemming from traditional proverbs from the Niger Delta in his paper “An African Philosophy of History in the Oral Tradition”. Algoa argues that in African Philosophy, age is seen as an important factor in gaining wisdom and interpreting the past.

In support of this view, he cites proverbs such as “More days, more wisdom”, and “What an old man sees seated, a youth does not see standing”. Truth is seen as eternal and unchanging (“Truth never rots”), but people are subject to error (“Even a four-legged horse stumbles and falls”). It is dangerous to judge by appearances (“A large eye does not mean keen vision”), but first-hand observation can be trusted (“He who sees does not err”). The past is not seen as fundamentally different from the present, but all history is contemporary history (“A storyteller does not tell of a different season”). The future remains beyond knowledge (“Even a bird with a long neck cannot see the future”). Nevertheless, it is said, “God will outlive eternity”. History is seen as vitally important (“One ignorant of his origin is nonhuman”), and historians (known as “sons of the soil”) are highly revered (“The son of the soil has the python’s keen eyes”).

Another more controversial application of this approach is embodied in the concept of Negritude. Leopold Senghor, a proponent of negritude, argued that the distinctly African approach to reality is based on Emotion rather than Logic, works itself out in participation rather than analysis, and manifests itself through the Arts rather than the Sciences. Cheikh Anta Diop, on the other hand, while agreeing that African culture is unique, challenged the view of Africans as essentially emotional and artistic, pointing out that Egypt was an African culture whose achievements in Science, Mathematics, Architecture, and Philosophy provided a basis for Greek Civilization.

Critics of this approach argue that the actual philosophical work in producing a coherent philosophical position is being done by the academic philosopher (such as Algoa), and that the sayings of the same culture can be selected from and organised in many different ways in order to produce very different, often contradictory systems of thought. One can imagine trying to develop an English Philosophy of Mind by collecting proverbs and idioms such as “I’m in two minds about that”, “He’s out of his mind with worry”, “She has a mind like a sieve”, and so on.

Philosophical sagacity is an Individualist version of EthnoPhilosophy, in which one records the beliefs of certain special members of a community. The premise here is that, although most societies demand some degree of conformity of belief and behaviour from their members, a certain few of those members reach a particularly high level of knowledge and understanding of the world-view in a culture; such people are Sages. In some cases, the Sage goes beyond mere knowledge and understanding to reflection and questioning and become the targets of philosophical sagacity. Critics of this approach note that that not all reflection and questioning is philosophical; besides, if African Philosophy were to be defined purely in terms of “philosophic sagacity”, then the thoughts of the Sages couldn’t be African Philosophy, for they didn’t record them from other Sages. Also, on this view the only difference between non-African Anthropology or Ethnology and African Philosophy seems to be the nationality of the researcher.

Critics argue further that the problem with both EthnoPhilosophy and Philosophical Sagacity is that there is surely an important distinction between Philosophy and the history of ideas. No matter how interesting the beliefs of a people such as the Akan or the Yoruba may be to a philosopher, they remain beliefs, and not Philosophy. To call them Philosophy is to use a secondary sense of that term, as in “my philosophy is ‘live and let live’”.

Ethnophilosophers attempt to show that African Philosophy is distinctive by emphasizing the “African” and ignoring the “Philosophy”. Their main rivals, the professional philosophers, adopt the view that Philosophy is a particular_way of thinking, reflecting, reasoning, that such a way is relatively new to much of Africa, and that African Philosophy must grow in terms of the philosophical work carried out by Africans, applied (perhaps not exclusively) to African concerns. The risk here, of losing the traditionalism, is by no means unavoidable, and many African philosophers have successfully avoided it, including Kwame Anthony Appiah, Kwame Gyekye, Kwasi Wiredu, Oshita O. Oshita, Lansana Keita, Peter Bodunrin, and Chukwudum B. Okolo.

References and Further Reading

  1. Hountondji, p.106; quoted in Kwame, Introduction, p.xx
  2. Omoregbe, p.4
  4. Precolonial Black Africa: A Comparative Study of the Political and Social Systems of Europe and Black Africa from Antiquity to the Formation of Modern States. by Cheik Anta Diop (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press Edition, 1987)

  • Peter O. Bodunrin Philosophy in Africa: Trends and Perspectives (1985: University of Ife Press)
  • Kwame Gyekye An Essay of African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (1995: Temple University Press) ISBN 1-56639-380-9
  • Paulin J. Hountondji African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (1983: Bloomington, Indiana University Press)
  • Samuel Oluoch Imbo An Introduction to African Philosophy (1998: Rowman & Littlefield) ISBN 0-8476-8841-0
  • Safro Kwame Reading in African Philosophy: An Akan Collection (1995: University Press of America) ISBN 0-8191-9911-7
  • Joseph I. Omoregbe “African Philosophy: yesterday and today” (in Bodunrin; references to reprint in Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze [ed.] African Philosophy: An Anthology (1998: Oxford, Blackwell))
  • H. Odera Oruka [ed.] Sage Philosophy [Volume 4 in Philosophy of History and Culture] (1990: E.J. Brill) ISBN 90-04-09283-8, ISSN 0922-6001
  • Tsenay Serequeberhan [ed.] African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (1991: Paragon House) ISBN 1-55778-309-8
  • Placide Tempels, La philosophie bantoue (Bantu Philosophy), Elisabethville, 1945, Full text in French here.
  • Kwasi Wiredu Philosophy and an African (1980: Cambridge University Press)
  • Kwasi Wiredu [ed.] A Companion to African Philosophy (2004: Blackwell)

External Links

Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article “African_philosophy” and the Pseudopedia article “Ethnophilosophy” under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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