Philosophies: African

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Philosophies: African

Ancient Egypt has been offered as a point of origin of African metaphysical speculation. According to the work of Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop, Egypt is to Africa what the Greco-Latin civilization is to the West, and texts such as The Book of the Dead, written more than 3,500 years ago, could play the role of a founding text for a tradition of philosophical thinking on the African continent. Most of Diop's work has been devoted to demonstrating that the history of ancient Egypt cannot be separated from the history of the rest of the continent. The cosmogony of the Dogon people, for example, described by the sage Ogotemmēli and recorded by French ethnologist Marcel Griaule, is a testimony to the cultural and metaphysical continuity existing between the ancient Egyptians and the people living in the region of the Niger River's loop. Thus, the philosophy behind the practice of male and female circumcision is similar to what is found in ancient Egypt: that is, human beings have inherited from their divine origin an androgynous nature; at puberty, therefore, the right ontological order of things commands that the sexes be radically separated through circumcision and excision. Another important element of continuity is to be found in African languages, which, Diop claims, need to be studied in relation to the Egyptian language. In support of this, he presents in much of his work Egyptian philosophical concepts that survived in his native Wolof. Subsequently, Diop's disciple Theophile Obenga has emphasized the continuous presence in African tongues and cultures of the notion of maat, which is central in Egyptian philosophy and means "reality," "truth," "justice," "righteousness," "evenness," or "perfection." In Coptic and in other African languages spoken in Ethiopia, Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Sudan, or Nigeria, recognizable derivatives from maat are indications of the permanence of this philosophical concept in the peoples' worldview as the expression of an African ideal of harmony in society. African philosophy could be characterized as a philosophy of maat.

Diop's views have provoked heated ideological debate, Egyptology being premised on the notion that ancient Egypt belongs to Asia rather than to the African continent, where it is and was situated. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), in particular, insisted that Egypt and North Africa be culturally detached from Africa, the purpose being to erase any indication that what he called "Africa proper" could produce civilization, let alone philosophy, which for him uniquely represented the spirit of Europe.

The Islamic Past

To detach North Africa from the rest of the continent also meant to take out of it the chapters in the history of philosophy written in cities such as Alexandria, Carthage, or Hippo, where St. Augustine, "the most celebrated African thinker in history" as D. A. Masolo presents him, was a bishop in 396. It also meant ignoring the intellectual consequences of the penetration of Islam into Africa, starting in the eighth century, when the graphic rationality of the Muslim religion became part of African life. It is true that, by the end of the thirteenth century, the period of development of philosophy (falsafa in Arabic), which started in the ninth century, was coming to an end in the Sunni world. Still, Aristotelian logic was studied and philosophical thinking remained part of religious disciplines such as theology (kalam ), commentary (tafsir ), and mysticism (Sufism). In many learned centers in the Islamized regions of Africa, scholars in these disciplines have created and developed an African written intellectual tradition, partly concerned with philosophical speculation. The legendary city of Timbuktu is the most famous of such centers. Ahmad Baba, who lived at the end of the sixteenth and in the early seventeenth century, was the best representative of the scholarly elite of Timbuktu. For Muslim scholars, the Saharan desert was not the wall Hegel supposed; they traveled in the Islamic world, North Africa, Egypt, and Arabia for intellectual purposes, often taking the opportunity of the pilgrimage to Mecca to do so. There is in the early twenty-first century a need to assess the importance of a written tradition of African philosophy in Arabic and in Ajami, that is, in African languages using Arabic script. This tradition is still widely unknown because many manuscripts kept in private family libraries are yet to be exhumed, restored, cataloged, and eventually published.

The Beginning of a Discipline

While Egyptian and Islamic components of African philosophy are now being researched, showing the historical depth of the intellectual tradition of speculation on the continent and questioning the received view that African cultures are naturally and essentially oral, the beginning of African philosophy as a discipline and an aspect of contemporary scholarship on Africa came after World War II. The publication in 1945 of Placide Tempels's Bantu Philosophy (in Dutch; it was translated into French in 1949 and English in 1959) was a crucial moment in this process, and so was the publication in 1948 of Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmēli.

Both works represented a break from the colonial negation of African cultures. Ethnologists such as Lucien Lévy-Bruhl had characterized the Africans' approach to reality as prelogical and magical, therefore foreign to any systematic view and organized philosophy; his concept of "primitive mentality" epitomized the face of anthropology as a science of the "other," which justified the "mission" of colonialism to bring civilization and rational thinking to people who were devoid of both. Bantu Philosophy showed a different face of anthropology as it affirmed, beyond the cultural traits, customs, and behaviors studied by ethnographers, the existence of a systematic "philosophy" that gives meaning and coherence to these cultural features. African philosophy as a discipline continuing, questioning, or criticizing the fundamental approach of Bantu Philosophy was born at that time, when Tempels's book was acclaimed by African and European scholars as doing justice to an African tradition of speculative thought.

Major Themes

The concept of vital force is considered characteristic of African philosophy. According to Tempels and to Alexis Kagame, it is a fundamental trait of African thought to hold that the force of life is the supreme value and to posit "being" and "force" as equivalent: such ontology is said to be dynamic. Although Tempels and Kagame limited their description of it to the Bantu peoples, this ontology has been considered valid for other African cultures and regions as well. It is central to the philosophy known as Negritude, defined by one of its heralds, Léopold S. Senghor, as the concept of a specific black identity founded on a core set of values shared throughout the black world.

African religion is an area in which the philosophy of vital force is visible. Contemporary African philosophers have established a general structure of religions other than Christianity and Islam and based on the following elements: a supreme being or force who created the world, which depends on him for its continuous existence; divinities or spirits or forces that are active in the world; ancestors who are the departed elders of the community and whose forces are still active (they have reached after their death the status of spirits, and the custom of pouring libation to them is still alive even in Christianized or Islamized groups); living creatures that are mineral, vegetal, animal, or human forces. All these beings or forces form together a field of interaction. This explains the conventional opinion that the Africans' worldview is essentially religious and indicates why this religiosity has been misunderstood as magical thinking (according to which a "force" can act on another "force" to increase or diminish it, apparently without an actual causal relationship).

African conceptions of personhood and community are to be understood within this cosmology. Many African philosophers hold that at the foundation of African socioethical thought is a communitarian philosophy. John Mbiti, in his African Religions and Philosophy, has thus summarized this notion of a priority of the community over the individual: "I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am." Nit, nitay garabam, "the remedy for a human is another human," is a Wolof proverb that expresses this feature of African humanism and communalistic ethics. But a slightly different form of itnit niteey garabam is also often offered, meaning: "the remedy for a human is human behavior." This play on words is significant. The emphasis is now on the person and on the goal set for individuals to become what they have to be: accomplished humans. The community is ontologically rich in the individuals who compose it and who must realize through it their potential as accomplished persons. This dialectics of the community and the individual is considered by Kwame Gyekye as the basis for an African notion of human rights.

African cosmologies are also said to convey a specific African philosophical concept of time. One very controversial question is whether the future truly exists in African worldviews. After an examination of a few Bantu languages, John Mbiti has stated that, for African people, time is a composition of events and not a frame that remains when the events are taken out of it. The implication is that the past is the most important temporal dimension, while the future barely exists beyond the tiny span ahead, a mere continuation of today's events. Other African philosophers have brought forward counterexamples from other African cultures to argue that Mbiti's account was mistaken and tantamount to the prejudice against Africans as supposedly culturally unprepared to plan, manage time, or project themselves into the future.

African art is a major domain of investigation for African philosophy, as it is arguably in the arts that the greatest contributions of Africa to world culture in the twentieth century have been acknowledged. The use of stylization, the obvious symbolism of art objects that deliberately use disproportion, geometrical figures, and emphasis on certain parts of the body have exercised influence on contemporary art worldwide and are regarded as expressive of an African metaphysics. This is also said of African music and drumming. The metaphysical significance of African dance as a way of participating in the life of the universe is central to Senghor's philosophy of African arts.

The Controversy about the Meaning of Philosophy

The radical rejection of the approach inaugurated by Bantu Philosophy came in the early 1970s from some African philosophers who characterized it as "ethno-philosophy," that is, a systematization of ethnological traits presented as philosophy. Paulin Hountondji and Marcien Towa are famous critics of the idea of a philosophy defined as the worldview of an ethnic group or a whole continent, arguing that philosophy is not the expression of a culture but the very possibility of stepping out of that culture and the unexamined collective opinions it carries in order to develop individual and critical thinking: folk wisdom expressed through proverbs cannot be considered the equivalent of philosophical argumentation, and one cannot speak of African philosophy in the absence of a written tradition because in oral cultures the function of memorizing is so demanding that it makes critical distance impossible. Hountondji also made the point that equating philosophy and culture would mean that everybody shares the same view in a society where unanimity would be a value; consequently, the political danger of legitimizing authoritarianism in the name of philosophical consensus could hardly be avoided. Thus traditionalism could be valued even when oppressiveto women, for example, when it comes to practices such as female circumcision.

The criticism of "ethno-philosophy" has been denounced as accepting an exclusivist Western notion of philosophy that fails to comprehend the challenge African and other speculative traditions present to this view.

For Odera Oruka, beyond the controversy about philosophy lies the task of establishing a program of research in African sagacity. Individual sagessuch as the Dogon Ogotemmēlihave always existed in the different African societies, and these sages can explain, question, and often criticize the elements of the culture, not simply regurgitate them. Such sages are also living today, and their thoughts must be acknowledged and recorded as part of the African philosophical library at large. Another way out of the debate about the meaning of philosophy is for contemporary African philosophers to call for a critical approach to African cultures, not to excavate their latent philosophical content but to illuminate the African context and experience and the task ahead: philosophizing in matters pertinent to the African peoples. Thus Kwasi Wiredu insists on an African orientation in philosophy that would mean conceptual decolonization. The simple test of using African languages to examine concepts such as reality, being, truth, justice, God, self, and reason would be a crucial step toward such a conceptual decolonization.

See also Negritude ; Personhood in African Thought ; Realism, Africa ; Sage Philosophy .


Diop, Cheikh Anta. Civilization or Barbarism, an Authentic Anthropology. New York: Lawrence Hill, 1991. Translated from the French, this work was first published by Présence Africaine, Paris, in 1981. It is the last book by C. A. Diop, who died in 1986.

Eze, Emmanuel. African Philosophy : An Anthology. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmēli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Gyekye, Kwame, and Kwasi Wiredu eds. Person and Community. Ghanaian Philosophical Studies, I. Washington, D.C.: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1992.

Hountondji, Paulin. The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 2002. In this recent book the author presents his intellectual itinerary and softens some of the criticisms he leveled against "ethno-philosophy" in African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (London: Hutchinson, 1983).

Kagame, Alexis. La philosophie bantu-rwandaise de l'Être. Brussels, Belgium: Mémoires de l'Académie royale des Sciences coloniales. Classe des sciences morales et politiques. Nouv. Série., t. 6, fasc. 1, 1956.

Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. 2nd ed. London: Heinemann, 1990 (1st ed. 1969).

Mosley, Albert, ed. African Philosophy: Selected Readings. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1995. Contains Léopold S. Senghor's discussion of Negritude in an article titled "On Negrohood: Psychology of the African Negro."

Oruka, H. Odera. Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy. Leiden, Netherlands, and New York: Brill, 1990.

Tempels, Placide. Bantu Philosophy, 2nd edition. Paris: Présence africaine, 1969.

Wiredu, Kwasi, ed. Companion to African Philosophy. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. Theophile Obenga, who has published extensively on the Egyptian origin of African philosophy, has contributed an article titled "Egypt: Ancient History of African Philosophy." In the same volume are also: Souleymane Bachir Diagne, "Precolonial African Philosophy in Arabic" and D. A. Masolo's "African Philosophers in the Greco-Roman Era."

Souleymane Bachir Diagne

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