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African Philosophy


Many of the greatest thinkers of the modern era, including David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Jefferson, considered Africans and their descendants to be so intellectually handicapped as to make them philosophical invalids, incapable of moral and scientific reasoning. Thus, prior to the twentieth century, the idea of African Philosophy was, for most educated Europeans and Americans, an oxymoron (Eze 1997, pp. 45).

Moreover, the notion of African philosophy was provocative (in a way that the notion of British or French or German or Chinese philosophy was not) because the cultures of sub-Sahara Africa had no indigenous written languages in which issues were traditionally discussed and examined. Other than the Egyptians and Ethiopians, most African cultures developed a written script only in response to Islamic and European influences. Following the model of European and North American philosophy, one group of contemporary African philosophers has contended that philosophy requires a tradition of written communication, and that African cultures must evolve beyond traditional conceptions expressed in oral forms if they are to develop the levels of critical exchange required for sophisticated scientific and philosophical activities (Wiredu in Mosley 1995, pp. 160169; Hountoundji 1983, p. 106). But others have argued that African philosophy should be sought in the values, categories, and assumptions that are implicit in the language, rituals, and beliefs of traditional African cultures. In this view, African philosophy is a form of ethnophilosophysuch as ethnobiology and ethnopharmacologyone of the many subject areas of ethnology.

African Philosophy as Ethnophilosophy

One of the principal sources of African ethnophilosophy was the French philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl (18571939). Levy-Bruhl taught at the Sorbonne from 1896 to 1927 and was one of the leading ethnologists of his era. He argued that the primary concepts, causal relationships, and modes of reasoning used by non-European people were not the result of scripts developed through academic exercises to conform to the laws of Aristotelian logic. Rather, they were "collective representations" inculcated during rites and rituals as a result of intense affective and psychomotor experiences. The concepts of non-European people were felt rather than understood, mystical rather intellectual, and mediated relationships between both physical and nonphysical modes of being. Every event had not only a physical but a "mystical" significance, and the connections between physical and mystical realities were governed by "laws of participation" that transcended the laws of logic that structured thought in European cultures. In contrast to the law of the excluded middle and the law of noncontradiction, these "laws of participation" allowed things to be both themselves and something else, to be "here" and not here, and to exist both in the present and in the future. Medicine, magic, witchcraft, divination, and communication with the dead were made possible through mystical forces apprehended through "laws of participation" that could not be reduced to "rational explanations" structured by the laws of logic.

In Bantu Philosophy (1945), Father Placide Tempels proposed to articulate the structure of reality implicit in traditional African culture. For Tempels, the basic difference between European and African views of reality was ontological. Whereas the basic constituents of reality in European civilization tended to be things with fixed natures (atoms, minds, bodies), the basic constituents of reality in traditional African cultures were dynamic forces. These forces were organized hierarchically into divine, celestial, terrestrial, animal, plant, mineral (including fire, water, and air), and human forces. Good and evil were made manifest in the use of these forces to amplify or diminish the vitality of human beings. Through medicine, witchcraft, sorcery, and divination, certain individuals were able to manipulate these forces to the benefit or detriment of their communities.

Temple's analysis reflected in many respects the Sapir-Whorf thesis that the structure of a culture's language shapes the way that culture structures reality. In his book Whorf argued that the structure of Native-American languages such as Hopi gave rise to an ontology of fields and forces, whereas the structure of Indo-European languages gave rise to an ontology of discrete things. From this point of view, philosophical principles were implicit in the structure of the language, beliefs, and practices of a culture, whether or not they were stated explicitly by any member of that culture. Tempel's analysis was extended and refined by Father Alexis Kagame of Rwanda and by the Belgian ethnographer Jahnhein Janz.

In his influential book, African Religions and Philosophy (1969), Professor John Mbiti elaborated the view that implicit in African cultures were different concepts of causality, time, and personhood. Every event had both a physical and a spiritual cause, traceable to the influence of a continuum of spiritual beings (consisting of the living, the ancestral dead, deities, and God). Key to understanding this African metaphysic was a concept of time that consisted of an endless past (the Zamani ), a living present (the Sasa ), and a truncated future that returned to the past. Those who had recently died continue to interact with the living for as long as they were remembered, and then they too returned to the Zamani.

One of the major expressions of philosophy as ethnology was negritude, a principal exponent of which was Leopold Senghor. Senghor argued that Africans have a distinctive approach to reality in which knowledge is based on emotion rather than logic, where the arts are privileged over the sciences, and where sensual participation is encouraged over cerebral analysis. For Senghor, the European analyzes reality from an objective distance whereas the African embraces reality by participating in it aesthetically and spiritually. This difference between African and European cultures was, for Senghor, physiologically based and inherited (Senghor 1962). However, for Aime Cesaire, the other principal exponent of negritude, though the differences between African and European cultures were real, they resulted primarily from historical circumstances rather than biological differences (Arnold 1981, p. 37).

Whether biologically, culturally, or historically determined, many have claimed that the African contribution to civilization was invaluable because it was unique and peculiar to Africans. Nationalists in Africa and in the diasporaEdward Blyden, Martin Delany, Alexander Crummell, Ndabaningi Sithole, Kwame Nkrumah, Alex Quaison-Sackey, and Leopold Senghordenied that the African was a degenerate form of the European, and instead held that Africans as a race embodied capacities and potentialities that were different from but equal to those of Europeans. Pan-African nationalists typically held that abolition of the slave trade, slavery, colonialism, and the return of Africans in the diaspora to Africa would reverse the paralyzing effect of European imperialism and make it possible for Africans to develop their peculiar contributions to the evolution of civilization. Africans who chose to remain in the diaspora nonetheless had an obligation to focus inward to develop their peculiar talents so as to address their peculiar problems, rather than looking to Europe for ideas and solutions. From a nationalist perspective, African philosophy should be concerned with articulating those factors that distinguish the African worldview. This orientation rejects the European Enlightenment focus on universal standards of reason, religion, and political development, relative to which every other culture was to be measured. Among European philosophers, it drew its support from Johann Herder, who championed a kind of cultural pluralism that encouraged each race or ethnic group to develop a national character that reflected its peculiar linguistic, historical, and cultural heritage.

Criticisms of African Ethnophilosophy

Many critics of ethnophilosophy deny that the basis of African philosophy should be sought in the structure of traditional African culture, and tend to favor the more universalist outlook of the European Enlightenment. For Kwasi Wiredu, the development of philosophy in Africa should parallel the development of philosophy in Europe, and traditional African thought should not be considered the principal source of contemporary African philosophy any more than traditional European thought (of the Celtic and Nordic variety) is considered the primary source of contemporary European philosophy. Wiredu is critical of the tendency to preserve traditional beliefs and practices even when they have little rational justification or practical utility. He stresses the need to develop written modes of communication, arguing that literacy is a necessary condition of the transition from a prescientific to a scientific world view. In his view, it is likely that literacy will have as great an impact on the oral cultures of Africa as it had on the oral cultures of premodern Europe.

The fight against colonialism in Africa gave rise to many activistssuch as Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Sekou Toure, and Leopold Senghorwho used philosophy for political purposes. But for the critics of ethnophilosophy, postcolonial philosophy in Africa is the era of the professional philosopher, whose interests have been formatively shaped by training in the European philosophical tradition. For the professional philosopher, just because something may have developed by Europeans is no argument against its proving useful for Africans. African philosophers have a pivotal responsibility to domesticate the products of European thought into materials usable by Africans both on the continent and in the diaspora.

But defenders of the professionalization of contemporary African philosophy are also critical of the tendency to automatically reject traditional African institutions and beliefs in favor of modern European ones. A central function of postcolonial African philosophy should be "conceptual decolonization," which means avoiding or reversing the unexamined assimilation of European ideas by African people. The necessity of a decolonization of the African mind derives from the imposition on Africa of foreign conceptual schemes through the mediums of language, religion, and politics. Wiredu, along with Kwame Gyekye (1995, 1997), Marcien Towa, and others, stress that the professional African philosopher must be prepared to utilize indigenous sources of wisdom when they offer viable insights and options. Only by the critical assessment of both modern and traditional sources will Africa develop cultural variants that are not the result of the indiscriminate acceptance of either.

Thus, Wiredu defends professional African philosophers from the charge of inauthenticity, and challenges them with two important responsibilities: domesticating European ideas and adapting them to African needs; and reconstructing traditional African ideas so they are relevant to contemporary problems. With his colleague, Kwame Gyekye, the procedure he suggests for domesticating European ideas is that of translating European ideas into an indigenous African language. If an issue addressed in European languages (e.g., the mind-body problem) makes no sense when translated into one's indigenous African language, then it is likely to be an issue that is peculiar to its European origins, and may produce more problems than it solves when applied within the African context. But one must recognize that this test of relevancy is problematic. For given the multiplicity of languages in Africa, even within a single modern nation state, it is questionable whether what does not make sense in one African language (e.g., Akan, Ga) will also not make sense in other African languages (e.g., Xhosa, Zulu). And what of Africans in the diaspora, whose indigenous language is English or French or Portuguese?


One of the chief criticisms of the ethnophilosophical approach to African Philosophy is its tendency to treat African cultures as if they all must have some essential feature in common. Paulin Hountoundji (1983, 2002) rejects the contention that there is some unarticulated collective philosophy imbedded within folk beliefs that all Africans adhere to, a view he calls "unamism." Too often, he argues, ethnophilosophers intentionally or unintentionally reconstruct traditional beliefs according to categories provided by Europeans to advance European interests. Thus, Hountoundji claims, Tempels' analysis was made in order to help European colonialists devise better ways to rule the Bantu people. The intent was to benefit not Africans, but Europeans. Likewise, it was European racists who characterized Africans as being ruled by their emotions, incapable of logical thought or the ability to effectively plan for the future. Valorizing these traits as definitive of traditional African cultures simply plays into the hands of the racists. In contrast, Hountoundji argues that African philosophy must be a critical literature produced by Africans for Africans. And philosophy, like science, must be a process of continual self-examination and critical reflection that requires a tradition of literacy. Only if ideas are recorded can energy be focused on assessing them rather than merely recalling them (Hountoundji 1983).

Approaches to African Philosophy

Whereas Wiredu and Hountoundji construe literacy as essential to the practice of African philosophy, others such as Odera Oruka (1990), Kwame Gyekye, and J. O. Sodipo insist that active engagement in critical reflection on the beliefs and practices of one's culture is a requirement sufficient for that culture to have a tradition of philosophy. From their perspective, African sages that critically reflect on the assumptions of their culture are just as much philosophers as was Socrates. Thus, one may legitimately consider proverbs to be the result of critical reflection in traditional African thought, their purpose being to provide, not a scripted system of abstract rules, but a situational model to guide concrete action. If one follows the orientation of traditional thought, Godwin Sogolo argues, the point of African philosophy would be more to guide people in how they should interact with the world rather than to provide them with a true understanding of it. Odera Oruka's conversations with Luo sages, Hallen and Sodipo's (1986) conversations with Yoruba Babalawo, and Marcel Griaule's conversations with Ogotemmeli show them to be individuals with levels of critical wisdom comparable to that of Socrates.

the nationalist-ideological approach

Another approach to African philosophy may be characterized as nationalist-ideological, hermeneutical, or liberationist. Its exponents would include Tsenay Serequeberhan, Franz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Amical Cabral, W. E. B. Dubois, Chubba Okadigbo, and Wamba Dia Wamba. In this approach, philosophy takes the lived experience of African people as its starting point, and the lived experience of most Africans revolves around a struggle to cope with the omnipresent effects of European colonialism and neocolonialism. As such, the principle objective of African philosophy must be how to achieve liberation from the injuries imposed by European imperialism. Traditional beliefs are not valuable in themselves, but have merit in modern Africa only to the extent that they contribute to this end. A focus on the past as the source of authenticity diverts attention from the regressive nature of many beliefs and practices, and detracts from a critical posture that evaluates all practices, both traditional and modern, of both African and European origin, relative to their contribution to the liberation of Africa. African philosophy must address the fact that many traditional leaders were installed by European imperialists as mere mouthpieces of colonial rule, and many contemporary African leaders have remained neocolonial puppets, even as they have appropriated the symbols of traditional Africa with the power of the modern state.

In addressing the question of liberation, a central question for many African philosophers is the relative importance of race versus class. Many see race to be as or more important than class in the struggle for African liberation, and they doubt whether the white proletariat will abandon the privileges of white supremacy in order to form a united front with people of color. A case in point is the apartheid regime of South Africans, where poor whites who considered themselves Africans nonetheless insisted on privileges over black Africans. Even when race is secondary, the effects of colonial rule continue to divide Africans along tribal lines. Thus where Africans have replaced Europeans in neocolonial states, it is often tribal differences among Africans that is a source of current problems. As Kwame Gyekye (1997) points out, loyalty to family and tribal affiliations tends to breed nepotism, graft, and corruption when fostered by neocolonial ties. For Franz Fanon, racism was simply a way of justifying oppression by insisting on the inferiority of the oppressed. Africans would gain a sense of agency, he argued, only when, through struggle, they overcame the false separations of race and tribe introduced by colonialism. Africans must devise, through their own initiative, the means to liberate themselves (Fanon 1963). Cabral argued that this would require urban intellectuals to "return to the source" and form alliances with the agricultural peasantry in the fight for freedom from colonialism and neocolonialism. (Cabral 1979)


Afrocentricism is built around the claim that Black Africa's contributions to world culture have been denied in order to further a racist agenda. Afrocentrists take as their patron Cheik Anta Diop, who argued that Egypt was an African culture, and its achievements in science, mathematics, architecture, and philosophy were the basis for the flowering of classical Greek civilization. That the ancient Egyptians were black Africans was freely acknowledged in the ancient world but was denied and misrepresented by modern Europeans in order to justify racism, slavery, and colonialism. Diop uses language, rituals, and practices to trace the origins of the major sub-Saharan African cultures to ancient Egyptian civilization. As such, he denies that Africans are "naturally" more oriented towards the arts than to science and technology. Rather, he claims that European imperialism in the modern era impoverished Africa's resources and stifled it's scientific, technological, and political development. The imposition by Europe of a patriarchal ethical and social structure on an African orientation that was traditionally matriarchal further distorted Africa's social and political development.

the problem with race

Kwame Appiah has mounted a sustained attack on the view that African philosophy should express the peculiar orientation of the African race. He argues in In My Father's House (1992) that, before their contact with Europeans beginning in the fifteenth century, people on the African continent did not view themselves as members of the same race. The notion of the African race was invented by Europeans to justify a generic form of continental oppression. Moreover, Appiah has argued that people should reject the notion of race because there is no biological or cultural basis for dividing humankind into races: there is more variation, he claims, both biologically and culturally, among those characterized as Africans than there is between the average African and European. Thus, the Pan-African ideal of uniting all members of the African race, both on the continent and in the diaspora, is flawed and is itself a form of "intrinsic racism." (Appiah 1992, p. 17) Attempts to identify some set of traits as the essence of the African race are misguided, whether the intent is to denigrate or valorize.

Appiah's views reflect a trend, since the end of WWII, of rejecting racism by rejecting the existence of races. However, within biology and anthropology this orientation is highly contentious. Many, including Diop, reject racial essentialism and racism but insist nonetheless that there are legitimate grounds for recognizing the existence of races. That Africa is the source of all humankind is one explanation for the huge range of variation among its people, who are moreover united by a history of super exploitation and denigration.

the feminist perspective

European philosophy has typically assumed that the interest of males represents the interest of the species, just as it has assumed that European philosophy is the standard for judging all other attempts to do philosophy. Thus, given similar histories of struggling against domination, many feminist philosophers have shared with Africans and African Americans an interest in deconstructing traditional philosophical methods and assumptions so as to expose implicit agendas of domination. Ifa Amadiume (1997) has elaborated Diop's contention that precolonial Africa was primarily matriarchal, but moves beyond Diop to stress the advantages of small political units such as the family and village over large political units such as nations and empires. Other African feminists not only deny that traditional African societies followed the European paradigm of privileging men over women but also consider patriarchy and matriarchy to be European categories imposed to configure Africa on a European standard.

Africa has had its biggest cultural impact on the direction of contemporary European culture, not in the sciences, but in the arts. African sculpture, painting, music, and dance have radically influenced the development of modern European art forms and aesthetic values. But traditional African art forms have differed from modern European art forms in several important respects. Modern art is often displayed in museums as objects to be viewed, not touched. But traditional African art played functional roles in addressing practical realities, and Beauty resided as much in what something did as in how it looked. Music and dance were activities to be participated in, not simply perceived from a distance, and they provided individuals with a model of how to situate themselves in a world in which they played an active role in creating.

The American feminist Sandra Harding has stressed the similarity between the struggle of Africans and the struggle of women against European male hegemony. Other American feminists have argued that values implicit in Africa's practice of the arts may help to develop a better appreciation of the ingredients of the ethical life and reinforce orientations that enhance people's ability to live together. In much of the European philosophical tradition, ethics involves the attempt to articulate principles that should guide and justify the choices one makes. But Cynthia Willett (1995) and Kathleen Higgins (1991) have attempted to ground ethical relationships in the music and dance traditions of the African aesthetic rather than in principles deriving from rational choice or compassionate care. In a similar vein stressing the importance of the aesthetic orientation in African philosophy, Richard Bell (2002) proposes that African philosophy should be conceived as embodied in narrative icons rather than verbal texts. These developments show how African philosophy should not be considered the exclusive domain of men, that it need not take science as its principal exemplar, and that one need not be African in order to address issues of central importance in African philosophy.

The domination of African states by repressive regimes of colonial and neocolonial tyrants has institutionalized violence throughout Africa and its diaspora. The Truth and Reconciliation tribunals of South Africa have provided a novel process for achieving justice. This approach recognizes that the purpose of seeking the truth concerning violence against the people is to seek atonement and reconciliation; and that this is something that is as much needed in dealing with crimes of Africans against Africans as in crimes of Europeans against Africans.

See also Aristotelianism; Enlightenment; Feminist Philosophy; Harding, Sandra; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Hermeneutics; Hume, David; Jefferson, Thomas; Kant, Immanuel; Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien; Mind-Body Problem; Multiculturalism; Racism; Socrates.


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Albert Mosley (2005)

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