Issues in African Philosophy


Issues in African Philosophy

Welcome to this article where we will be discussing some perennial issues in African philosophy such as the question of identity, relevance and language.

As the discourse on African philosophy unfolds, many issues emerge that occupy the attention of thinkers. Even though these issues are many and varied.

We shall, in this unit restrict ourselves to the three issues mentioned above, which are: the issues of identity, language and relevance.

At the end of this article, the student would have learnt about many issues that African philosophy deals with, among which are the problem of identity, relevance and language, the importance of each of these issues and the core points addressed by each issue.


Issues in African philosophy

Below are the issues in African Philosophy:   

1. Identity

There are those who see the issue of identity as central to the discussion on African philosophy. Anthony Kwame Appiah, for example, sees the African as well as his intellectual efforts and outputs – as being predominantly focused on the question of identity, as distinct from the Western focus on authenticity.

According to him, a central culture of philosophical questions that faces every contemporary African of a reflective disposition centers on questions of identity. A great deal of ethical and political weight is borne by many identities ethnic, national, racial, and continental in the life of modern Africa. And a great deal of modern African literature has naturally had these questions at its heart.

He says further: For there is a profound difference between the projects of contemporary European and African writers: a difference I shall summarize, for the sake of a slogan, as the difference between the search for the self and the search for a culture or, equivalently, as the difference between the search for authenticity and the search for identity.

Philosophy in Africa from the middle of the twentieth century started, and has spent much of its attention, on the question of the African identity. According to Bruce Janz, A perennial concern in African philosophy has been the nature of African personhood and identity.

Is being African in some way unique, qualitatively different from other ways of being human, or is one human first and African (or some other particularization) second? Why does this happen to be important in African philosophy when, apparently, it is no issue elsewhere?

It is because the African had been (and, one might say, continues to be) characterized as being mentally inferior to others, especially the European. In response to this, scholars like Senghor explained that the African is in no way intellectually lower than others, even if he thinks differently from others.

To this effect, Senghor posited that, while the Western way of thinking is clinical and detached, the African engages in ‘reason by embrace’; and while the European employs ratio, the African employs logos and thus ‘participates’ in the object of his intellectual quest.

Many subsequent scholars have objected to this characterization by Senghor. For one thing, it seems to inadvertently affirm what it seeks to deny, which is that Africans are intellectually different, emotional and incapable of reasoning things out in an objective manner.

Others, especially in francophone Africa, question the implication of his position that Africans are a different species of humanity.

If Africans are human, they must share in the strengths and weaknesses of the human reasoning faculty. But one important thing that Senghor and Tempels as well as others like Kagame and Mbiti have achieved is the assertion that Africans are in no way inferior to others as far as the ability to reason is concerned.

Another strand of thought on the African identity involves the implicit racism that is believed to be embedded in earlier studies of Africans by Europeans right up to the twentieth century which have constituted the foundation of present-day intellectual interests in Africa and Africans.

This view, therefore, asserts that an African philosophy that is based on such studies does more harm than good, as it continues the practice of discussing Africans as mere objects or specimens.

It is in this sense that Paulin Hountondji and V. Y. Mudimbe see ethno-philosophy as an extension of an ethnological conversation about Africa that was meant to be between European writers and a European audience, to the exclusion of Africans themselves.

It definitely bothers Hountondji (as it might anyone who cares about identity and originality) that African scholarship is essentially a participation in or sometimes, a reaction to outsiders’ discussions on Africa. 

This tendency for African scholarship to merely be a response to Euro-American ideas is stated by Oyèrónké Oyéwùmi thus: An assessment of African studies… will reveal that it is by and large ‘reactionary’.

Reaction, in essence, has been at once the driving force of African studies and its limitation in all its branches. It does not matter whether any particular scholar is reacting for or against the West; the point is that the West is at the centre of African knowledge-production.

For instance, a whole generation of African historians has reconstructed African history, complete with kings, empires, and even wars, to disprove European claims that Africans are peoples without history.

In other fields, a lot of ink has been spilled (and trees felled) to refute or support assertions about whether some African peoples have states or are stateless peoples.

Now, in the closing years of the twentieth century, arguably the hottest debate in African studies is whether Africans had philosophy before European contact or whether Africans are best described as ‘philosophy less’ peoples.

This is perhaps the most recent phase in an old Western concern with the evolving status of African primitivism, where the indices have moved from historylessness to statelessness and now to philosophylessness.

Whether the discussion focuses on history or historylessness, on having a state or being stateless, it is clear that the West is the norm against which Africans continue to be measured by others and often by themselves.

But if African philosophy, as posited by Hountondji and some others, is nothing but the participation of Africans in philosophy, the question arises: Who is an African? Is the African in some fundamental way different from others, such that his philosophising will be radically different from others’?

These are questions that tend to make the discussion into a vicious circle as they take us back to Senghor and Tempels and their attempts to fashion an equal but different humanity for Africans.

2. Relevance

The issue of relevance has been at the root of the discourse on African philosophy since the 20th century. The question of what difference African philosophy makes to Africa has never been far from the minds of most scholars and students of African philosophy.

And even though there is a wide variety of opinions as far as relevance is concerned, few would disagree as to whether or not African philosophy should be relevant. It is in furtherance of the need for relevance, we can argue, that the earliest twentieth century scholars like Tempels and Senghor carried out their pioneering efforts in African philosophy, arguing for the rationality of Africans.

Thus, for them, African philosophy arose, at least in part, out of the desire to meet some important need, prime among which is the need for relevance. But Senghor’s position has been harshly criticised by some others who, interestingly, equally believe that philosophy has to be relevant in Africa but disagree as to how this is to come about.

According to Marcien Towa, for instance, Senghorian negritude, and ethno philosophy which seeks to perpetuate it, foster the illusion that Africa can offer to Europe a heightening of its soul (un supplément d'âme) before the complete liquidation of European imperialism in Africa.

In reality, no cultural development of any importance will be possible in Africa until she has built up a material strength capable of guaranteeing her sovereignty and her power of decision not only in the political and economic field but also in the cultural. Our inferiority in material terms places our culture at the mercy of the great powers in our time.

From the latter part of the twentieth century, the traditionalist-professional (or, we might say, universalist-particularist) debate predominated African philosophy such that the question of what African philosophy should be, constituted the major content of the discourse.

But for a philosopher like Olusegun Oladipo, the debate misses the point and, by implication, does not have much to contribute to African philosophy or to Africa in general. This is because for him, the problematic that they both address are externally derived.

What we see in the (analytic) position is an attempt to protect disciplinary boundaries as established by Western intellectual practice. And manifested in the (traditionalist) position is a preoccupation with the nationalistic imperative in modern intellectual expression, a preoccupation which has nurtured oppositions such as ‘Africa versus the West’ and ‘tradition versus modernity’. Clearly lacking in both positions is a concerted effort to link philosophical research to contemporary African realities.

Hence, their inability to make significant contributions to self-knowledge in Africa. He goes on to say, the problem surrounding the idea of African philosophy is not that of fashioning an authentic philosophy which will be true to African cultures and traditions.

Nor is it a problem of a division between those who advocate a strong Western orientation in African philosophy and those who take a deviant route….Rather, the problem is that of the extent to which African philosophers can put their intellects in the service of the aspirations and struggles of African peoples.

Oladipo affirms strongly that the commitment of the African Philosopher will neither be to a culture, nor to a discipline, “but in terms of the conscious and sustained application of critical and reflective thinking to various aspects of African life and experiences.”

Other scholars have voiced their concern for a philosophy that has relevance to existential issues in Africa. As already pointed out, the entire spectrum of opinions on African philosophy is involved in the quest for relevance, even if there is no agreement as to what it means to be relevant or how philosophy can be relevant in Africa.

For instance, Segun Gbadegesin says, I am convinced of the reasonableness of the belief that, if philosophy as an academic discipline is to mean anything to Africa in the present situation of its existence, it has to be made relevant to the realities that confront Africans.”

For him, this represents “a foundation upon which a lasting structure of an African philosophical tradition can be built.” Kwame Gyekye also points out how philosophy can make a difference in Africa, with an emphasis on the political situation in Africa, demonstrating how philosophy has actually made the same kind of difference in other climes through history.

And Abiola Irele, in his “Introduction” to Paulin Hountondji’s African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, says, The present focus of African reflection, as dictated by the realities of the postcolonial era, has been the immediate and practical issues of 'development', understood as a process of the accommodation of African lives to the demands of modernity.

It is especially in this connection that the observed divergence between traditional values in Africa and the Western paradigm that governs the very idea of modernity has come to assume a practical importance and to represent something of a dilemma.

In sum, the question of relevance is one that engages the attention of most African philosophers, irrespective of orientation; and it is a legitimate concern, given the difference that philosophy has made throughout human history.

3. Language

The issue of language is a central concern in African philosophy, and many questions have emerged with regard to language in African philosophy.

Such questions include whether it is necessary to philosophies in an African language, or whether it would do to merely make reference to particular African concepts that are relevant to the discourse while the discourse itself is carried out in a cosmopolitan language; whether African languages are suited to the philosophical activity, or they should be given up completely as far as philosophizing is concerned; whether meanings are lost in a significant way when the philosophy of a certain African culture is carried out in another language; whether a language so carries the identity and thought system of a culture that it amounts to a denial or disrespect of the culture to discuss it in a foreign language; and whether our understanding of concepts in Western philosophy will be significantly different if we consider them in an African language.

At the root of these questions is the dual realization that language is important, and that it matters what language one uses to express oneself. In his Bantu Philosophy, Tempels says, since we are going to treat philosophy, we should use the philosophical terminology accessible to the European reader.

As the thought of the Bantu is foreign to ours, we shall call theirs provisionally "the philosophy of magic", though our terminology will not, perhaps, fully cover their thought.

Our terms can furnish only an approximation to concepts and principles foreign to us. Even if we were to employ a literal translation of Bantu terms, we should have to explain to the uninitiated reader the exact force of these native expressions.

We shall, therefore, use English terminology, specifying on every occasion the limitations or extensions by which the received meaning of the terms should be qualified in order to express the Bantu concept exactly.

In his discourse on conceptual decolonisation, Wiredu (who has given a lot of his scholarly attention to what he calls ‘conceptual decolonisation’) points out that the superimposition of foreign categories on African thought came through three principal avenues, the first of which is language, which he calls the “most fundamental, subtle, pervasive and intractable circumstance of mental colonisation.”

He goes on to say: By definition, the fundamental concepts of philosophy are the most fundamental categories of human thought. But the particular modes of thought that yield these concepts may reflect the specifics of the culture, environment and even the accidental idiosyncrasies of the people concerned.

Conceptual idiosyncrasy, although an imponderable complication in human affairs, probably accounts for a vast proportion of the conceptual disparities among different philosophical traditions, especially the ones in which the individual technical philosophers are deeply implicated.

Think, then, of the possible enormity of the avoidable philosophical deadwood we might be carrying through our historically enforced acquisition of philosophical training in the medium of foreign languages.

The implication of this, in our consideration, is not just that we will be avoiding unnecessary ‘philosophical deadwood’ when we conceptualize philosophical issues in African languages, but that we will equally be contributing at a global level to the explication and understanding of the concepts and ideas we employ in philosophy.

Elsewhere, Wiredu points out the conceptual quandary in which trained African philosophers (and, we might say, African scholars generally) find themselves: Now if you learn philosophy in a given language, that is the language in which you naturally philosophize, not just during the learning period but also, all things being equal, for life. But a language, most assuredly, is not conceptually neutral; syntax and vocabulary are apt to suggest definite modes of conceptualization. 

Nevertheless, the starting point of the problem is that the African who has learned philosophy in English, for example, has most likely become conceptually westernized to a large extent not by choice but by the force of historical circumstances.

To that same extent, he may have become de-Africanized. It does not matter if the philosophy learned was African philosophy. If that philosophy was academically formulated in English and articulated therein, the message was already substantially westernized, unless there was a conscious effort toward cross-cultural filtration.

This shows the difficulty of doing African philosophy, even for African scholars themselves, and the resultant conceptual poverty related to it.

Yet, philosophy in Africa is hardly possible (or, at least, fruitful) if the scholars involved are ignorant of African conceptual schemes.

According to Bello, In particular, African languages can be employed in the task of supporting or refuting ‘‘popular’’ (or ‘‘unpopular,’’ if you like) conceptions about African thought and culture. They can also be employed in elucidating the concepts that Africans live by.

Such elucidations can be enhanced by comparing the concepts in question with corresponding concepts in other philosophical traditions. Yet, in the same paper, Bello complains of ‘linguistic inadequacy’ when translating Western concepts into an African language.

However, this does not seem a fundamental problem if one is doing African philosophy. For one thing, the key concepts being dealt with are, to a considerable extent, local; and, for another, importing and adapting foreign terms, where necessary, can be done, knowing that most technical terms in English and other European languages today are of foreign mostly Greek and Latin origin.

Expressing her concern over the marginal status of African languages in African scholarship, Oyèrónké Oyéwùmi says: Yoruba discourse in English is a particularly good place to examine the problems of Westocentricity in the determination of research questions, because scholars of Yoruba origin are very well represented.

As an anthropologist in a recent monograph puts it, ‘Western scholars don’t write about the Yoruba; they write with the Yoruba’. Prepositions aside, the reverse is more the case Yoruba scholars write with the West about Yoruba. This is revealed in the failure to take Yoruba language seriously in Yoruba scholarship—the language is that of West.

The lack of interest in the Yoruba language beyond ‘fieldworkese’ is not surprising, since African studies is one of the few areas in the academy where one can claim to be an expert without the benefit of language competence. African nationalities are said to be based on language groups, but the marginalization of language in African studies belies this fact.

Concerning Africa’s marginal status, Ngugi wa Thiong’o shows forcefully how identity and language are jointly implicated in what he calls the ‘cultural bomb’ of imperialism.

According to him, the effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people's belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.

It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples' languages rather than their own. It makes them identify with that which is decadent and reactionary, all those forces which would stop their own springs of life.

We shall end this section by quoting from Bantu Philosophy, in which Tempels makes a statement about the critical importance of African language and its relation to ontology: One of my colleagues… remarked: "It is odd: these people do not speak as we do: they speak so "realistically".

In fact, primitive language is very "realistic". Their words lead to the real nature of things. They speak "ontologically". The quality of "mfumu" is added to the common humanity of an individual neither by external nomination, nor by singling him out. He becomes and is "mfumu" by endowment therewith: he is a new, higher vital force capable of strengthening and maintaining everything which falls ontologically within his care.

 Also read: The Idea of African Philosophy

Conclusion on Issues in African Philosophy

Even though there are myriads of issues in African philosophy, we have discussed, in this unit, those of identity, relevance and language; and we have seen how these go to the very heart of the enterprise of African philosophy.

We conclude on this note: these issues are important to the discourse of African philosophy; for certain reasons, they have more weight in African philosophy than in other philosophical traditions; and, correctly approached, they contribute not only to Africa’s self-understanding, but also to the general elucidation of issues of a universal nature.

In this article, we have been able to point out that, there are many issues in African philosophy, identity, relevance and language constitute some of the core issues, for the particularists and universalists, identity constitutes an important index for African philosophy and its practitioners, identity in African philosophy has a lot to do with whether Africans are human in the same sense as non-Africans, for relevance, African philosophy has to show how it contributes to resolving the existential issues in Africa and since language is important not only in communication but also in identity and especially in understanding, African philosophy has to grapple with the issue of language.

Also read: Definition, Divisions, and Problems of Metaphysics

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