Orientations in African Philosophy


Orientations in African Philosophy

Welcome to this discussion on orientations in African philosophy. We shall examine the contents of this topic under four main sub-headings which are:

1. Ethno-philosophy

2. Philosophic Sagacity

3. Nationalist-Ideological Philosophy

4. Professional Philosophy.

The definition, methodology and content of African philosophy are, to a considerable extent, according to how it is understood by different scholars.

Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka has distinguished what he calls four trends in modern African philosophy: ethno philosophy, philosophical sagacity, nationalistic–ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy.

These scholars are, in turn, constituted into different schools (or, more precisely, orientations) on the basis of the similarities of their positions, in broad strokes.

Therefore, we shall be considering the four orientations in African philosophy according to the most popular classification.

At the end of this article, you should be familiar with the four major orientations in African philosophy as classified by Odera Oruka, be able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each orientation, and know how an understanding of what African philosophy is derived largely from the perspective of the orientation one is coming from.


Orientations in African Philosophy

The question of the existence or nature of African philosophy is also implicated in the trends or orientations in African philosophy.

For, to a considerable extent, these trends or schools are divided according to their understanding of what African philosophy should be. According to Bruce B. Janz, “The central concern of African philosophy in the twentieth century, often to the frustration of its practitioners, is over the existence and nature of African philosophy.”

This is especially obvious in the dispute between ‘professional philosophers’ and those who practice what they have designated as ‘ethno philosophy’.

As to this dispute about what African philosophy is, Janz says: African philosophy’s development in the twentieth century is both relatively recent, traceable to some seminal texts, and ancient, drawing on cultural forms that stretch back in time and space. This seeming contradiction can be understood if we realize that philosophy itself is ambiguous.

It designates on one hand a set of reflective practices rooted in culture and reason, which rigorously and critically explicate a life-world, and on the other a discipline in the university, with a set of codes, standards, recognized practitioners, and customs.

Although there are shades of opinion on the subject, the prevailing position is that there are four main approaches to African philosophy.

This position was popularized by Henry Odera Oruka (1978) and it identifies the trends as ethno-philosophy, philosophic sagacity, nationalist-ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy.


1. Ethno-philosophy

This refers to the position that the traditional practices, proverbs, belief systems, folklores and other related things in Africa constitute the content, or at least the basic material, for authentic African philosophy.

According to Segun Gbadegesin, in this sense, it is the philosophy indigenous to Africans untainted by foreign ideas. To attain a deep understanding of this philosophy, then, one needs to go to the roots in the traditions of the people without the mediating influence of the westernised folks.

The term ‘Ethno-philosophy’ was coined by Paulin Hountondji (1976) to describe the work of those who researched into the thoughts and practices of traditional Africa and described their work as philosophy. And it is to Hountondji that ethnophilosophy owes its pejorative connotation and the negative characterisation it has had, especially among francophone African scholars.

For Oruka, Hountondji and Bodunrin, ethno-philosophy is only philosophy in a debased sense since, according to them, what ethno-philosophers try to do is to describe a world outlook or thought system of a particular African community, or the whole of Africa. This is a position that is opposed to seeing philosophy as a body of logically-argued thoughts of individuals.

Ethno-philosophy is best appreciated in the context that it constitutes a first line of defence against the Eurocentric charge that Africans are intellectually inferior and therefore have no philosophy.

It is to this effect that such African scholars as Leopold Sedar Senghor, Bolaji Idowu, Alexis Kagame, K. C. Anyanwu and John S. Mbiti wrote in defence of the dignity of the African.

One might consider as an exception in this regard, the writer who is commonly identified as the pioneer of ethno-philosophy, Placide Tempels, a European missionary working in Africa, who, as already pointed out, was writing for a European audience and essentially advocating that his compatriots take time to understand the thinking that underlies African values and practices.

Practitioners of ethno-philosophy assert that African philosophy is basically the reflection of philosophers on the African reality.

According to K. C. Anyanwu, a vigorous defender of this position, African philosophy should be essentially a “reflection on the African cultural experience, or the exposition of the basic assumptions, concepts and theories which underline African cultural experience and activities.”

A major critique of ethno-philosophy is that it represents a communal position. According to critics, mainly of the professional orientation, there is no ‘communal consciousness’ as such. A position, to be philosophical, has to be individual or personal.

A community is a collection of individuals with individual minds, thoughts and reason. If an idea therefore leads to a communal practice, that in no way implies a communal origin. It is in fact impossible to have an idea or practice that does not owe its origin to an individual. But if its adoption by a community robs it of its philosophical status, then same can be said of the ideas of thinkers like John Locke whose sociopolitical doctrine functions today as the foundation of Western democracy. Gbadegesin says in this regard: Of course, there is no communal thought in the sense of a group mind because there is no group with a single mind. But from this it does not follow that we cannot talk intelligently of the cultural beliefs and values of a people, arising from their common reflections on their common experience.

Other critiques of ethno-philosophy include the charge that it is uncritical (that it merely describes traditional African practices and thoughts); that it is unsystematic (it does not follow standard philosophical procedures); and that it is based on unwritten African traditions – and therefore difficult to track and engage directly.

About the charge that African traditional thought is uncritical (or ‘insufficiently critical’) or anything but perfect, Kwasi Wiredu has this to says: My main unhappiness with the traditionalist approach derives from its insufficiently critical stance. Just as there was an element of implied evaluation in the accounts of African thought offered by the anthropologists and specialists in religion, there is an evaluation implicit in traditionalist accounts.

The difference is only that whereas in the former case, particularly, where the authors concerned were Western scholars, the evaluations tended, by and large, to be negative, in the latter, they have uniformly tended to be positive.

In itself, that is no problem. But there are, among traditionalists, as hinted above, clear indications of impatience with any suggestion, on the part of an African philosopher, that philosophical fallibility might possibly be encountered in the thought of our ancestors or that there might be some aspect of an African culture that could be less than ideal from a philosophical point of view.

Gbadegesin puts his critique thus: If ethno-philosophy is mistaken, therefore, it is in two ways:

First, it mostly describes without criticizing and this does not do justice to the conceptual schemes it elaborates. Second, by assuming that authentic African philosophy can only be the traditional worldviews of the people, or nothing, it presents a narrow view of African philosophy.

Also read: Definition, Divisions, and Problems of Metaphysics

2. Philosophic sagacity

What Oruka calls ‘philosophic-sagacity’ rests on the view that philosophy resides in the minds of individuals. This trend in African philosophy is essentially an offshoot of ethno-philosophy, a response to the professional philosophers’ charge that ethno-philosophy is not philosophy in the proper sense of the word because it is not the product of an individual mind or effort.

It is in this regard that some Western trained philosophers made the effort to identify specific individuals in traditional African societies who, uninfluenced by Western thoughts, either had a good grasp of their community’s ethos and their undergirding rationale, or who had original thoughts that could be regarded as philosophical.

Specific mention is here made of the works of Barry Hallen and J. Olubi Sodipo, as well as Henry Odera Oruka. The former worked together with Yoruba medicine men and other ‘experts’ in Nigeria in order to elucidate the original Yoruba thought on truth and morality, while the latter worked with particular individuals in Kenya to ascertain their specific personal thoughts which sometimes stood at variance with their community’s positions.

The argument is that, in Africa, there are many critical independent thinkers who guide their thoughts and judgments by the power of reason and in-born insight rather than by authority or communal consensus; and that there are men and women uninfluenced by Western thoughts who are capable of critical and dialectical inquiries.

An example is Marcel Griaule’s “Conversations with Ogotommelli” published in An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. Ogotommelli, an indigenous African, is seen with evident philosophic sagacity in the exposition of the secret doctrines of his community.

Efforts are made in philosophic sagacity to ensure that those objections that have been raised against ethno-philosophy are corrected.

Thus, it is identified as the work of an individual, and it is being set down in writing. Besides, the professional philosophers endeavour to ensure that it is critical and expressed in a systematic manner. As an objection to philosophic sagacity, P. O. Bodunrin has pointed out that it is difficult to properly identify the actual author of the resultant work – between the original sage and the trained philosopher who has assisted him to elucidate his thoughts, or between the individual sage and the society whose ideas he tries to expound.

Apart from this, whether the work be identified as that of the traditional sage or that of the professional philosopher, it would qualify as African philosophy simply because it is a work of philosophy which happens to be done by an African or a scholar working in Africa.


3. Nationalist-ideological philosophy

This is basically political philosophy as found in the ideas and discourses related to the African anti-colonial struggle for liberation. The orientation grew out of the need for the emerging class of political leaders in Africa to give a theoretical or philosophical grounding to their ideas, a grounding that, for most of them, was to be found in traditional African ideas about social and political realities.

Thus the nationalist worldview derives from the political reactions of African intellectuals to the imperial domination of Africa. These include the works of leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Leopold Senghor and others. Their purpose was to show that Africans had their forms of government before the European conquest.

According to Bodunrin, It is an attempt to evolve a new and, if possible, unique political theory based on traditional African socialism and familyhood. It is argued that a true and meaningful freedom must be accompanied by a true mental liberation and a return, whenever possible and desirable, to genuine and authentic traditional African humanism.

The raison d’etre for this need to ground the political thought on traditional African models stems from the fact that the foreign models were failing in several parts of Africa, besides the feeling that political independence ought to be accompanied by intellectual independence.

Two important questions should be asked concerning this approach to African philosophy.

The first concerns the rigour and effectiveness of tradition African political systems: how philosophically coherent were they, and how effective were they in the running of tradition African society? There is a popular tendency to be romantic about the African past. But we must ask whether they were, in themselves, flawless. If they were, how come Africans were easily dominated by only a handful of foreigners?

The second question is this: even if they were good and effective for the traditional African society, how fitting are they for the African society today? That the first three trends articulated by Bodunrin and Oruka exist side by side is indubitable, and this is particularly seen in the fact that they obviously aim to produce a philosophy that is distinctly African.


4. Professional philosophy

This has to do with the insistence on the central importance of critical rationality in the activity of philosophy. These orientation habours scholars who see philosophy as a universal discipline with no cultural coloration.

Philosophers of this orientation argue that philosophy, in its strict sense, is being practiced in Africa only by professional, Western-trained philosophers because, for them, all the other orientations do not qualify as genuine philosophy.

Olusegun Oladipo describes them thus: According to those who hold this (predominantly Western) view – P. O. Bodunrin, Paulin Hountondji and, to some degree, Kwasi Wiredu – philosophy is a theoretical discipline like physics, mathematics, and linguistics and so on.

It is universal in character, has a methodology which makes it possible for us to distinguish it from other disciplines, say, anthropology, literary criticism and political science, and even some central problems or questions in terms of which its primary preoccupations can be characterized.

Members of this school posit that what is needed for a work to qualify as African philosophy is for it to be the philosophy in the proper sense, and the product of an African intellectual.

In this regard, Bodunrin (who regards his position as representing those of other members of the school) asserts that, African philosophy is the philosophy done by African philosophers whether it be in the area of logic, ethics or history of philosophy… thus if African philosophers were to engage in debates on Plato’s epistemology, or on theoretical entities, their work would qualify as African philosophy.

In the same vein, Henry Odera Oruka says, …every work that claims to be philosophy is a philosophy only if the contents and the methodology of its inquiry conform to the conception that philosophy is a logical argument, a critical inquiry, a rational speculation or else a synthesis based on a rigorously reasoned-out investigation.

Scholars in this orientation reject ethno-philosophy. For them, philosophy must have the same meaning in all cultures, although the subjects that receive priority and perhaps the method of dealing with them may be dictated by cultural biases and the existential situation in the society within which the philosopher operates.

This orientation in African philosophy obviously has more loyalty to discipline than to culture, with the implication that it lacks an African content or colouration, and can therefore not be distinguished from any other kind of philosophy, except by searching out the identity of its practitioner.

This approach, according to Bruce Janz, constitutes the “pursuit of a pure disciplinary definition of African philosophy that fails to recognize linkages, debts, dynamic movement, and the history of discipline development (which) is too restrictive.”

 As A. G. A. Bello further says, to admit all manner of discussions, for example, of logic and ontology, Greek science and religion, the bundle theory of substance, the a-logicality of immortality, modal metalogic, or theoretical identities (as suggested by, for instance, Bodunrin 1981), into African philosophy will be to miss the point about the “ideological” and existential necessity of cultivating African philosophy.

This is especially because these latter theories, topics, or problems belong to another philosophical tradition, to wit, the philosophical tradition of our erstwhile colonizers.

More importantly, besides the assertion that African philosophy is simply philosophy as practiced by Africans, much of professional African philosophy seems to have been negative, committed largely to pointing out what African philosophy is not.

While it is true that a philosophical problem should have universal relevance, it is equally true that a local or context-based colouration of the same philosophical problem in no way diminishes its universal relevance, but rather enriches it in certain regards. And in view of this, African philosophy can be seen as the African perspective or reflection on problems of a universal status.

According to Sodipo, “When you say ‘African philosophy’, you are drawing attention to that aspect of philosophy which arises from a special problem and the unique experience of African people.”

Also read: Definition and 9 Theories of Ethics

Conclusion on Orientations in African Philosophy

The point to be made from the foregoing analysis is that issues concerning the definition, methodology and content of African philosophy are, to a large extent, construed by different scholars, from the view point of the school or orientation to which they belong.

These groupings are divided according to their understanding of what African philosophy should be and they are united based on the similarities of their positions.

We have identified and examined four different orientations in African philosophy according to the most popular classification by Odera Oruka.

Despite the shades of opinion on how the subject of African philosophy can be approached, the prevailing position is that there are four main orientations to African philosophy. This position was popularised by Henry Odera Oruka who identifies the orientations as ethno-philosophy, philosophic sagacity, nationalist-ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy.

Ethno-philosophy refers to the position that African traditional practices, proverbs, belief systems and folklores constitute the content, or at least the basic material, for authentic African philosophy. Philosophic-sagacity’ rests on the view that philosophy resides in the minds of individuals and that there are specific individuals in traditional African societies who, uninfluenced by Western thoughts, had original thoughts that could be regarded as philosophical.

Nationalist ideological philosophy grew out of the need for the emerging class of political leaders in Africa to give a theoretical or philosophical grounding to their ideas, a grounding that, for most of them, was to be found in traditional African ideas about social and political realities.

Professional philosophy sees philosophy as a universal discipline with no cultural colouration, practised solely by professional, Western-trained philosophers in strict adherence to the canons of critical rationality that define the activity of philosophy as a universal discipline.

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