Sage Philosophy

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Sage philosophy is a body of knowledge attributed to wise men and women in communities and is regarded to be philosophically significant for both its content and its critical approach to the sustenance and growth of knowledge at the communal level. Although the term came into use rather recently in the course of African philosophers' appraisal of the nature and relation of philosophy to the indigenous traditions of their communities, questions that have emerged from debating the nature of sage philosophy are applicable beyond the postcolonial confines of African scholars' efforts to revise, redefine, and align disciplinary contents and practices to the recovery of their cultural values. For example, because sage philosophy raises such questions as the separation between critical thinking and popular belief, its discussion could resonate with analytical methods that rely on the analysis of popular conceptual assumptions and ideas as expressed either in ordinary language or in the language of professional communities. In these senses, analytic practices appear constantly to seek conceptual clarification by comparing and contrasting specificand, therefore, sometimes specializeduses of terms to their appearances in other domains. Discussions of sage philosophy might also be relevant to theories about the social underpinnings of scientific knowledge advanced by the American historian Thomas Kuhn (19221996). He explains that a revolution occurs in scientific theory only when it is determined that a new explanation has made a complete break from a previous paradigm; this is, in a sense, a discussion of how radical critical thinking relates to a more popularthat is, communally held or communalizedmindset or framework from which it becomes disentangled by virtue of a critical engagement with it.

From a historical standpoint, sage philosophy connects with other voices and perspectives in the postcolonial discourse through its claim, however more implicit than it is an open expression, that Africans' creation of knowledge in the present moment of Africa's history cannot ignore those voices that give the present a sense of relevance and validity by bridging it with the past to form a continuum.

Historical Origins

Conceived, defined, advanced, and defended by the late Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka (19441995), the idea of sage philosophy has its historical origins in two separate but related colonial factors: first, the general disparaging colonial attitude that Africans were incapable of abstract thinking; and second, a vicious rivalry between different European religious denominations for control over Africans' minds and souls. On the one hand was a Protestant skepticism about Africans' capacity to philosophize, and on the other was the guarded Catholic belief, formed out of long years of training young Africans in ecclesiastic philosophy as part of their priestly education, that Africans could grasp some philosophy if it was appropriately tailored to have some resonance with their indigenous worldviews. Needless to say, Africans pursuing the study of philosophy as a secular and purely academic goal were rare in the colonial education system.

At the University of Nairobi, the Department of Religion and Philosophy (founded in 1970) was headed by Stephen Niell, an ultraconservative retired Anglican bishop. His deputy was Joseph Donders, a younger Catholic priest who doubled as a professor of philosophy at a local National Seminary. Convinced that Africans were not gifted for abstract or logical thinking, Niell had reluctantly offered Oruka employment as a special assistant, to ensure Oruka did not get a regular appointment despite his possession of a doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Specifically, Niell instructed Donders not to assign Oruka any logic classesas Africans had no idea what that was, let alone being able to explain or teach it.

By the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, anglophone Africa was still basking in the positive reception of John Mbiti's African Religions and Philosophy (1969) and of the slightly older translations of Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmêli (1965) and Placide Tempels's Bantu Philosophy (1959). But as much as they were popular for a variety of reasons, these texts also clearly stated just what people like Niell would have liked to hear and to show in support of their skepticism regarding Africans' tuning to academic philosophy: that African modes of thought were deeply grounded in their mythical representations of reality. With this background, Oruka's project, simultaneously personal and professional, was definedto erase the two levels of myth surrounding and possibly even blocking the practice and growth of African philosophy. One level was established by the previously mentioned texts, by virtue of leaving many complex African myths and other representational forms unexamined and unexplained but presenting them intact as philosophical knowledge. The other, made possible by the first and created by people like Niell and their followers (both local and otherwise), was that Africans could not think philosophically.

Relation between Sage Philosophy and Popular Myths

Oruka's 1972 article "Mythologies as African Philosophy" marked the beginning of his project of dismantling the mythological constructs in African philosophy. Although otherssuch as Franz Crahay, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, and Paulin Hountondjishared similar concerns and produced similar arguments, these were veiled from Oruka by Africa's linguistic divide. Oruka argued that myths could not be substituted for philosophy for their lack of the subject and of the critical method. While Oruka recognized the universal presence and usefulness of myths at the cultural level, he claimed, like his contemporaries cited above, that the conflation of the two only in reference to Africa could lead to a harmful confusion. Like Crahay, he at least partially contended that philosophy builds on, even at the same time as it also "takes off" from, the cultural plain that for every thinker constitutes the sourcing field. At the same time, however, Oruka insisted that his separation of philosophy from mythology did not amount to the erroneous inference, once made by some critics of the essay, that philosophy was a monopoly of the academy in the narrow sense of a discipline practiced exclusively within the confines of its academic definition and control.

This double separation has not been easy. The key problem has been the contrast between the logical soundness of the argument and what is perceived to be the weakness of the examples accumulated as illustrations of the logical claim. For example, in contrast to Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmêli, which, in Oruka's view, presents the commonly shared knowledge of Dogon worldview through the folk sage Ogotemmêli, the protagonists of Orukas' sage philosophy think as independent and critical-minded individuals. While folk sages know and teach the common wisdom of their communities as a way of both keeping traditions and group identity and protecting them from breach, philosophic sages, in a Socratic fashion, stir up this quiet in the interest of truth and inquiry. The philosophic sages are guided by their realization and admiration of the view that there are many aspects of culture that are neither rationally acceptable nor practically compelling for every member of the communities where these are operative. Thus, they share with others in the community only some selective customary practices and beliefs or some aspects of them. In the everyday negotiationthat is, explanations and determination of courses of actionover issues in the community, these independent-minded persons were a source of new knowledge and the change that issued therefrom.

According to the philosopher Kwasi Wiredu, such independent and critical thinking was available in varying forms in communities and was the basis of frequently protracted disputations among elders, for example, in search of a consensus over different matters that required disputative negotiations. Thus, contrary to popular belief regarding knowledge at the communal level, it is precisely in regard to the importance of consensus on matters of common good that disputation and careful navigation through different opinions was crucial. Needless to say, such matters were not adjudicated without the input of those members of community who were well regarded for their excellent independent opinions. Africans often object to suggestions that some specific individual's opinion be sought on an issue under scrutiny: "Why seek so-and-so's opinion when he never has a personal view to anything? He only follows other people like sheep do." At the very least, such an observation about other people's character of mind suggests that independent thinking is not only accepted in African cultures, but it is also encouraged and admired as a virtue. Once in a while such independent-minded wise persons acquired some infamy and notoriety for stubbornness, especially in the eyes of those other persons whose opinions or justifications might have been the subject of the sage's criticism. History illustrates that outstandingly critical individuals in society only rarely enjoy comfort with thoseusually in the majoritywhose views stand in opposition to their own.

According to Oruka, for a person to be regarded a sage philosopher, one not only will be a catalyst to change within his or her community, one will also have to be a significant contributor to the growth and sustenance of the moral ideals of the community. In this context, the criterion for a moral ideal, according to the sage, is not that it match the historical belief of the community but that it satisfies an acceptable idea of right, fairness, and respectfulness toward all those who are involved or may be affected by its practical application. Imagine the conjectural case where, for purposes of satisfying a local ritual requirement, custom dictates that a man and his baby son spend a night or two in an improvised structure outside his regular house. While the majority of the family group insists on the performance of the ritual according to custom, mindless of the weather uncertainties in the middle of the wet season, the sage among them steps in to object. According to her, custom provides guidance to desired behavior; it is not an end unto itself. Thus, she advises, calls for the performance of ritual need to take into consideration the view that because rituals are meant to give us a sense of reconciliation between a chain of ideas as we believe they relate to our practices; they are meaningful only if we do not cause harm to people in the course of performing them. In this case, she added, the performance of ritual as called for is likely to expose those involved, especially the baby son, to circumstances detrimental to their health. Hence the performance of the ritual would be counterproductive, and so unreasonable and unallowable. Such would be a circumstance where the sage would endeavor to subject a customary requirement to a rational appraisal and be committed to a view considered by her to be rationally superior to the traditional position. According to Oruka, the sage can sometimes have only a private disagreement with customary principles and that would be sufficient to define her as a person who relies on the dictates of rational appeal. Also, disagreement with commonly held knowledge is neither a condition nor a defining rational character of the sage. Because she is a member of the community, she probably agrees with and abides by many of her community's maxims and ways. Thus her uniqueness emerges in those circumstances of need for exacting principles or reasons in matters requiring theoretical clarification and understanding. Faced with such a need, the sage can agree with custom but largely on the basis of independently concurring with the view expressed in a customary principle or the justification for one.

Worried that the ethnophilosophical texts of Tempels, Griaule, the Rwandan philosopher Alexis Kagame, and several others who merely baptized the anonymous traditional world-views as philosophies may have justified the harsh but equally mythical criticisms like that of Niel, Oruka's endeavor was to separate the thoughts of individual thinkers at the traditional level from the collective traditional beliefs. The criterion set by Oruka for the qualification of the individual sages' views as philosophical thinking was not their mere variance from the communal beliefs of the sages' own groups but also a theoretical account provided by the sage as the foundation of his or her own view. Accordance or discordance with a group's views was, for Oruka, a factor that could not by itself satisfy the philosophical character of a sage's knowledge. The sage attends to the rationality of views rather than to the judgment of the group, although the sage always hopes that everyone sees and accepts the grounds that make his or her position the better one. This criterion, in Oruka's view, is precisely what qualifies Socrates (c. 470399 b.c.e.) as a philosopher. And while the criterion favors the classification of both Socrates and Paul Mbuya as philosophers, for example, it disqualifies Griaule's Ogotemmêli from being one (Oruka, 1991, p. 4950).

In response to the question whether the one-time interviews with the sages was sufficient for the detection of their philosophical groundings, Oruka makes the following observation: "Some of the Greek sages are known and treated as philosophers for having made only one or two utterances. Thales, for example, is known to have said that 'everything is made of water,' and Heraclitus that 'strife is the truth of all life'" (1991, p. 2). Of course this is not correct. The selection of historical textual representation by historians of philosophy may have led to the impression that Oruka holds. But there are large collections of pre-Socratic texts that have been translated into modern languages and that show that there was much more than the specific topics historians have overwhelmingly focused on in order to create the image of a unilineal growth of the discipline generally and of specific topical issues. Hermann Diels's collection, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1903), is a good example of the contrast between what more there isand could be if they were recovered in their complete formsof the pre-Socratic period and what some historians have biasedly used. To be sure, Oruka uses the pre-Socratic example only as an explanatory tool, given that he too, like the ethnophilosophers that he partly wanted to correct, wrote largely for a European audience. As for their relevance to local societies, a case can be made that not only does Oruka's project aim at establishing the claim that the sages are philosophers in their own right, but it also teaches that there are many things to learn from careful consideration of the teachings of different experts in indigenous communities. In other words, that a local philosophical tradition can ensue out of dialogues with the sages, especially with the sage philosophers, whether directly through dialogical interviews or indirectly by cogitating on the philosophical import of their assertions. This recognition of the philosophical worth of traditional thinkers is the basis of the work of Barry Hallen and John Olubi Sodipo, now in two volumesone epistemological (Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy, 1997, by Hallen and Sodipo), the other ethical and aesthetic (The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: Discourse about Values in Yoruba Culture, 2000, by Hallen). In both, Hallen and Sodipo bring traditional thinkers, the onisegun or medical experts, into the enterprise of expounding and elucidating traditional thought of an African people, the Yoruba, as it relates to the conception or idea of knowledge in both cognitive and moral senses. Oruka counters Hallen and Sodipo that because the onisegun only expound and elucidate the traditional thought of the Yoruba, they are certainly very wise, but they are not philosophers. He thinks that the onisegun, who are deliberately kept anonymous by Hallen and Sodipo for reasons of privacy, are like Ogotemmêli, whose presentation, however complex and amazing in details, was exactly what every wise and well-trained Dogon person was expected to know (1990, pp. 910).

On the issue of literacy, Oruka is quite correct: literacy alone, in and of itself, does not constitute a measurement for philosophizing. Yet this is really not the point. Philosophy is characterized by some form of "tradition": that is, by a sustained discursive inquiry rather than by just an expression of ideas, however scattered and unrelated among themselves, or however they may be at variance with some societal belief. Those who defend literacy (see, e.g., Goody; Popper; and Bodunrin) make the minimal claim that literacy contributes to the sustainability of a discourse by making it possible for all those who are or wish to be involved to critically engage in it with regard to a specific issue whose point of reference remains accessible. Thus, while the pre-Socratics may have offered little to regard as philosophy, the worth of the little they are alleged to have uttered lies in how reference to them by later thinkers made them the subject matter of wider and growing commentaries, interpretations, and, why not, even reaffirmations and re-elaborations. It is the possibility of a revisit of older texts that, for example, enables Martin Heidegger (18891976) to attempt to reestablish what he calls the proper understanding of Being.

As a discipline that aspires so much to clarify concepts and ideas as representations of reality, the task of philosophy includes conceptual analysis as a means to attain clarity and precision in understanding. So, in fact, the reason why the pre-Socratics have lost their worth is precisely that the scattered utterances in themselves do not lead to much, if anything, except via their re-interpretations by later philosophers. Thus reference to them may be crucial, but it is largely indirect.

It turns out, then, that Oruka was right in claiming that literacy per se does not constitute philosophy. Nor, conversely, would orality, in and of itself, be a hindrance to philosophizing. Critics of the attribution of philosophical thought to Africans who were not formally schooled in the discipline held the generalizing view that oral cultures are incapable of producing or enhancing the growth in their individual members of the virtues of skepticism that these critics considered pivotal to philosophical thinking and inquiry. However, as argued by Oruka, Wiredu, Hallen, and Sodipo, philosophizing requires much more than the mere medium of its expression. For indeed, when considered together with other factors, each can be a medium by which ideas are made known and their defense elaborated. Nor does mere variance of opinion from some popular belief by itself constitute philosophy. But variance becomes an important characteristic of philosophy through a sustained critical inquiry that includes the testing of such an opinion against its real and possible rivals. Traditional palavers, negotiations, and other forums of public debates and deliberations provided the contexts for such testing. Such forums uncovered and enhanced the development of great communal orators as much as they did those individuals with succinct analytic mental skills. Analysis of the procedures of these forums could yield insight not only into how ideas were processed at the traditional level but also into the role and esteem accorded the personal skills of oration and debating.

But the rise of pluralism and the crisis of foundationalism in the late twentieth century introduced and require a fresh reading of sage philosophy. As one takes stock of what has happened in African philosophy from the 1980s through the turn of the twenty-first century through the aid of such compelling titles as Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Decolonising the Mind (1986) and V. Y. Mudimbe's The Invention of Africa (1988), there arises the possibility of reading Oruka's idea of sage philosophy as part of the wider (postcolonial) critique and rejection of the Eurocentric idea of a comprehensive framework in which philosophical reflection must take place.

Out of the postcolonial discourse Oruka draws two implications. First, the irreducible plurality of values and cultures that issue into a plurality of forms of reflection makes it possible for him to call for an end to the unjustified Western monopoly of philosophy, and especially of the monopoly of the institutional mode of its production. Hence such plurality removes the monopoly of philosophy from the confines of the academy. But while he emphasizes this plurality, Oruka does not draw from it the view that informs the ethnophilosophical texts: that the nature of social organization within which African philosophy is produced distinguishes it from all others by making it a consensual or, as he calls it, a communalized commodity (1991, p. 8). Also, like Wiredu, Oruka did not believe that pluralism opened doors to relativism. Rather, again like Wiredu, he believed in the possibility of recasting the philosophical task as an invitation to a philosophical conversation both across cultures and between the professionals and the solid thinkers of the traditions.

In the wake of the emphasis of the plurality of forms of knowledge, the idea of sage philosophy becomes an interesting and important channel for identifying, understanding, and articulating the philosophical task through a comparative contrast of different epistemic fields. Hallen and Sodipo's work does this, as does Wiredu in Philosophy and an AfricanCulture (1980) and in Cultural Universals and Particulars (1996), in the course of discussing the concepts of mind, the person, truth, democracy, human rights, and other matters pertinent to philosophical thought and practice. But above all, sage philosophy addresses the crucial question of who produces knowledge in the modern hierarchized social formations. In pursuit of the underpinning elements of an African epistemic field, Oruka originally classified Africans' practice of philosophy into four trends, listed as ethnophilosophy, nationalist-ideological philosophy, professional philosophy, and philosophic sagacity. In Sage Philosophy (1991), Oruka makes additions to this list to bring the number of the trends to six, including hermeneutic philosophy and artistic or literary philosophy. It is important to note that Oruka did not see these trends as separated in a strong sense. He thought of them as reconcilable by means of a comprehensive account. Such a comprehensive account, he thought, could be offered only by the professional philosophers. "No one thinks in a vacuum" is a tenet that appears to have been central to Oruka's view of this comprehensive account of the trends in African philosophy. The technical work of professional African philosophers, who are themselves also sages at a different level, should find its grounding and discursive context in the frameworks provided by the other three trends (Oruka, 1991, p. 2). He did not think of the trends as differentiated by value on a scale that runs from bad to best. Rather, they complement each other in constituting specific fields of knowledge.

Sometimes the proposed method for identifying a sage reads as problematic, as when Oruka says, for example, that "the best judge [of who qualifies as a sage] must be the community from which the person hails. The researcher [however,] must follow up the guidance of the community and be capable of assessing those alleged to be sages and dismissing others" (1991, p. 3). So, after all, it is the professional practitioner who produces the sage according to his or her institutionalized definitions of the categories of knowledge. Several other critics of the modes of executing the sage philosophy research have adequately covered other methodological problems (see, e.g., Keita; Bodunrin; and Oruka, 1991; several others are also reprinted in Oruka, 1991, and also noted by van Hook).

The significant merit of the idea of philosophic sagacity is to be found, at least in part, in a combination of what Mudimbe has called "the geography of a discourse" and the decentering implications of the Tanzanian politician Julius K. Nyerere's idea of ujamaa (the social and moral view that lasting good stems from recognition of the basic interdependency and ultimate unity of all human endeavors and goals). The idea of sage philosophy suggests that professional philosophers ought to take sufficiently into account the problems posed by the sages in the course of their conversations, not just once, but always. This engagement, Oruka believed, would erase the current division of African philosophical discourse into two opposed spaces of tradition and modernity. According to Mudimbe, the view of binary opposition between modernity and tradition can be justified only through the false representation of the latter as static and prehistoric. In his view, however, "tradition (traditio ) means discontinuities through a dynamic continuation and possible conversion of tradita (legacies). As such, it is part of a history in the making" (p. 189). Like Mudimbe, Oruka too postulates that an African tradition of philosophy will be hard to establish in an influential way "if it ignores the past and traditions. But the continent will equally be handicapped if it abandons science and logic, in the so-called Western sense, as things that are un-African" (1991, p. 26). It would be a tragedy, Oruka argued, as has happened in Great Britain, if the intellectual elite of society were to succeed in imposing its views on the masses.

By proposing to narrow the opposition between the academy as the institutionalized production center and the rest of society as the location of pure consumers at the periphery of the academy, Oruka strips the academy of its colonial definition and status. And he does not limit this stripping to the practice of philosophy. Rather, he sees it as a project to be expanded to all other disciplines and institutions whose processes find their justification and principles of procedure in colonial epistemological formulations and assumptions. His views as expert witness at the now-famous (or, for some, infamous) civil case over the Kenyan lawyer Silvano M. Otieno's body in 1987, and on several other related issues thereafter, clearly define Oruka's opposition to the naïvete with which many people, African and non-African, intellectual professionals and ordinary people, regard the idea and process of "modernization." Particularly relevant was his reply to the presiding judge's question as to whether he, Oruka, as a modern, well-educated (Western-educated) analytic philosopher and professor of philosophy, believed in the (assumedly traditionalby which was apparently implied "primitive") idea of ghosts and their vengeant powers. He responded thus: "there is no reason, your honor, for me to deny [or affirm] the existence of ghosts and their vengeant powers." The statement quickly acquired notoriety more for its perceived arrogance than for the analytic savvy that the judge had unwittingly evoked. In a 1989 article about the case, Oruka gave an analytic appraisal of the naïvete and contradictions of the accusations leveled at him following his testimony regarding belief in spirits.

According to Oruka, one of the most injurious blows colonialism dealt on Africa was to make Africans to think and believe that the label "traditional," applicable to their pre-colonial values, had the negative connotations of evil, brute, irrational, and so on, and hence were to be rejected (1989). Nowhere else, he observed, was "the distinction between tradition and modernity in any given culture [equitable with the] distinction between the outdated and the novel " (1989, p. 80). Why should Africans judge their participation in or practice of an antiquated European value or practicesuch as reading Shakespeare or listening to Mozart's or Beethoven's musicas "modern," and some of their own people's still-valued musical traditions as "outdated"? Or why should Africans regard the reverence of Jesus, who died two millennia ago, as "modern," while tribute to an ancestor who died one year ago as "outmoded"? With these questions and considerations, Oruka appears to ask with surprise the criteria for defining the boundaries of reason with regard to cultural encounters. To be specific, listening to Mozart and reading Shakespeare had been cited in the Otieno case as legitimate indicators of Otieno's avowal of "modernity," and therefore repudiation of his own local traditions, including the requirement that he be buried in his parents' still-standing homestead. In response to his own questions, Oruka observes: "In the naive sense of the term modern, such a person is [judged] modern just because the cultures associated with Shakespeare or Mozart are European. And to be European [or, when you are not one, to mimic anything European by origin], it is naively conceived, is to be civilized and modern" (1989, p. 81).


It is clear from this brief descriptive account of some of the things Oruka stood for that African philosophers are faced with crucial issues and pertinent questions as they critically appraise and define their participation in the wider global philosophical conversation. The influence of Oruka's work is to be seen in both the numbers and research interests of local, regional, and international scholars he inspired to work closely with him, whether or not they agreed with his positions. As a true scholar who believed in the historical spirit of philosophy, Oruka frequently supervised and directed dissertations that sometimes argued strongly against his positions.

See also Philosophies: African ; Wisdom, Human .


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Diels, Hermann. Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. 3 vols. Berlin: Weidmann, 1903. Reprint, Berlin: Weidmann, 1964.

Eboussi Boulaga, Fabien. "Le Bantou problématique." Présence Africaine 66 (1968): 440.

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Graness, Anke, and Kai Kresse, eds. Sagacious Reasoning: Henry Odera Oruka in Memoriam. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Lang, 1997. This is an excellent and exceptional text that carries Oruka's essays and interviews as well as essays on him and his work. Of particular importance are the essays by Oruka's former students who were his chief disciples and collaborators in the sage philosophy project.

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D. A. Masolo