Sub-Disciplinary Focus on African Philosophy


Sub-Disciplinary Focus on African Philosophy

Welcome to the last article of this module, where we will be reflecting on the sub disciplinary focus in African philosophy. African philosophy, like philosophy in general, can be sub-divided into different branches.

In this article, four branches of African philosophy, along the lines of the core divisions of general philosophy, shall be examined, in order to see and understand the peculiarity of the African dimension to these branches.

These branches are African Metaphysics; African Epistemology; African Ethics and African Logic.

The major outcome that is intended in discussing the sub-disciplinary focus on African philosophy is that the student should understand and be familiar with the branches of African philosophy, that these branches are, to a considerable extent, a replication of the branches of philosophy in general, what distinguish these branches from their content in Western philosophy.


Sub-Branches of African Philosophy

1. African metaphysics

Metaphysics is the term used to describe “the investigation of the ultimate principles, causes, origins, constituents, and categories of all things. Scholars generally agree that metaphysics is the most profound aspect of African philosophy, and its very core.

This is understandable, given that the matter of existence and existents, causes and effects, as well as modes of existence, constitute the heart of philosophy, as whatever is to be reflected on, must of necessity first exist, in order to be studied.

Since contemporary African philosophy can be said to have begun with Placide Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy, it might be expedient to start from his ‘African metaphysics’ and proceed therefrom, disregarding his often condescending manner of describing Africans.

Describing how the Bantu (and, by extension, the African – for he sometimes uses these terms interchangeably in the work, along with terms like ‘primitive’ or ‘native’) ontology apprehends the matter of cause and effect, Tempels says, They have a different conception of the relationships between men, of causality and responsibility.

What we regard as the illogical lucubration of "gloomy Niggers", what we condemn as greed, exploitation of the weak, are for them logical deductions from facts as they see them, and become an ontological necessity.

He points out how European studies of ‘primitive’ religion has characterized it as consisting in ancestor worship, magic, and so on, “until finally it was discovered that primitive peoples originally had a faith in and a worship of the supreme Being, the creative Spirit.”

About this, he goes on to say: What has been called magic, animism, ancestor-worship, or dynamism – in short, all the customs of the Bantu – depends upon a single principle, knowledge of the Inmost Nature of beings, that is to say, upon their Ontological Principle. For is it not by means of this philosophical term that we must express their knowledge of being, of the existence of things?

Tempels identifies what has been translated as the vital force as the most fundamental principle in African ontology, that which constitutes the basis of all existence.

He says: Certain words are constantly being used by Africans….This supreme value is life, force, to live strongly, or vital force.… The Bantu say… that their purpose is to acquire life, strength or vital force….

In every Bantu language, it is easy to recognize the words or phrases denoting a force, which is not used in an exclusively bodily sense, but in the sense of the integrity of our whole being…. When they try to get away from metaphors and periphrases, the Bantu speak of God himself as "the Strong One", he who possesses Force in himself. He is also the source of the Force of every creature.

Following Tempels, Alexis Kagame identified being with vital force. More rigorously than Tempels, he distinguished, a là Aristotle, four categories of being: Umuntu: "the human being," Ikintu: "a thing," Ahantu: "somewhere," and Ukuntu: "the manner," which includes seven of Aristotle's categories (quantity, quality, relation, action, emotion, position, possession) instrumental for his hierarchy of vital forces.

Scholars like Leopold Senghor, John S. Mbiti, Alexis Kagame and others believe that the African is ontologically constituted to have his being in relation with other beings – God and spirits, nature, other human beings (dead, living and the unborn), etc.

Thus, in contrast to Rene Descartes’ dictum, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), Mbiti says, “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.” This being-in-relation of African ontology leads to what is popularly regarded today as the hierarchy of being.

In most African societies, there is a hierarchy of being, with the Supreme Being at the top and followed by the lesser deities, spirits, ancestors, the living humans, the unborn, vegetation, and the elements. Relating the idea of vital force to the hierarchy of being.

 Tempels says, for instance: (T)he Bantu speak of God himself as "the Strong One", he who possesses Force in himself. He is also the source of the Force of every creature…. The spirits of the first ancestors, highly exalted in the superhuman world, possess extraordinary force inasmuch as they are the founders of the human race and propagators of the divine inheritance of vital human strength.

The other dead are esteemed only to the extent to which they increase and perpetuate their vital force in their progeny. In the minds of Bantu, all beings in the universe possess vital force of their own: human, animal, vegetable, or inanimate.

According to Tempels, When the Bantu thus indicate human categories, they do not envisage a classification based upon accidental differences, but rather a gradation in the essential quality of men in accordance with the intensity of their vital force.

In African thought, being is dynamic existent. The term ‘in-relation’ might be seen to sum up the African conception of life and reality, in which being is not separated from force as its attribute.

Thus in a sense, we can say that African metaphysics would define being as “that which is force” or “an existent force”, as against Western metaphysics which defines “being” as “that which is” or “a thing, in-so-far as it is”. God, for the African, is the Great Force. Causality in African thought can be seen in terms of interaction of forces.

In African thought, created beings preserve a bond one with another in an intimate ontological, causal relationship. There is interaction of being with being; that is to say, of forces with forces, transcending mechanical, chemical and psychological interactions.

Forces either strengthen or weaken one another. Causality in African thought is not exclusively mechanical, though it definitely involves that. In this regard, while making reference to J. O. Sodipo’s “Notes on the Concept of Cause and Chance in Yoruba Traditional Thought,” Bodunrin points out: Scientific causal explanations cannot explain certain features of some occurrences.

Thus, while the wetness of the road, the ineffectiveness of the brakes and driver’s carelessness, etc., may explain why accidents generally happen, they cannot explain why it has happened to a particular person, place and at exactly the time it happened.

The African concept of being is a vital force since being is not static but dynamic and is thought to be alive.

In other words, every being is endowed with force; reality is an inseparable mixture of “mind” and matter; and all forces are in constant interaction. There is a hierarchy of forces concatenated in an all-pervading universe.

2. African Epistemology

Epistemology is, in simple terms, the theory of knowledge. It is the discourse on knowledge that seeks to understand and determine the possibility, extent and conditions for our knowledge claims.

African epistemology, for Tempels, consists in the discernment of the nature of beings, of forces: true wisdom lies in ontological knowledge…. God knows.

He gives man "power" to know.… There is, therefore, the force of knowing, just as there is a force of willing. Therefore men have the power of knowing…. True knowledge, human wisdom, then, will equally be metaphysical: it will be the intelligence of forces, of their hierarchy, their cohesion and their interaction.

Wiredu contends that, when epistemology is approached from an African perspective, it becomes clear that certain assumptions that undergird Western epistemology do not constitute necessary conditions for the human understanding of the issues involved. He makes particular reference to Rene Descates’ ‘cogito, ergo sum’.

John Mbiti, in Wiredu’s estimation, has implied that the cogito “betrays an individualist outlook, to which he has counterposed what he takes to be the African communalist axiom….” At a more fundamental level, however, Kagame’s response to the cogito demonstrates that it would be unintelligible to an African:

But by far the most conceptually interesting African comment on Descartes’ claim was that by Alexis Kagame who pointed out that throughout the Bantu zone, a remark like ‘I think, therefore I am’ would be unintelligible, for the verb ‘to be’ is always followed by an attribute or an adjunct of place: I am good, big, etc., I am in such and such a place, etc.

Thus, the utterance “…therefore, I am” would prompt the question “You are … what … where?” Kagame’s point holds very exactly in the Akan language also….On further analysis, Wiredu demonstrates that existence, which is the core point of the cogito, is, to the Akan, intrinsically spatial; in fact, locative.

To the Akan, without the locative element of a statement like “I think, therefore I am”, all meaning is lost. “It is scarcely necessary,” he concludes, “to point out that this is diametrically opposed to Descartes’ construal of the particular cogitation under scrutiny,” for Descartes’ statement implies primarily that to be and to exist in space are completely different from each other.

The point of all this is not primarily to dispute with Descartes or to prove him wrong, but that, when philosophical problems are analyzed from a perspective that does not share the categories of the milieu in which the problems are construed, the unexamined presumptions that accompany them become starkly obvious.

In this same regard, Barry Hallen and J. Olubi Sodipo (1997) have argued that the English word “know” does not translate unproblematically into Yoruba, since “mo”, the nearest Yoruba approximation, still requires eyewitness acquaintance.

Furthermore, the investigations of Hallen and Sodipo into Yoruba epistemology have revealed that, for the Yoruba, justified true belief (JTB) does not suffice as a condition for knowledge.

In other words, the conditions for a valid knowledge claim are more stringent in Yoruba thought, as there is a fourth condition: an eyewitness acquaintance with what is claimed to be known. Senghor’s negritude implies that, epistemologically, the African is able to acquire knowledge of objects by interacting with them, as against the detached, clinical epistemic disposition of Europeans. This he calls ‘knowledge by embrace’.

Commenting on Senghor, Wiredu says, (H)is Negritude is, of course, a philosophy of black identity. Senghor argued that black people had a particular way of knowing, determined by their psychophysiology, which may be described as knowing by participation.

In contrast to Western ways of knowing, which, he said, analyzes the object, breaking it into pieces; so to speak, African cognition proceeded by embracing the object.

The basis of this, of course, is found in the African ontology in which Senghor and some others hold that the African is a being-in-relation.

Commenting on the difference between Western and African epistemologies, Isaac Ukpokolo says, The dynamics of the western position largely rest on an ontological conception that separates the object of knowledge from the subject.

In contrast to the western view, the African epistemological notion is that other variables, like the condition of being of the cognitive agent and environmental and social factors, play a role in the process of cognition and ultimately define and justify the cognitive claims of the agent.

An African Theory of Knowledge upholds the view that there is a distinct way in which the African mind perceives, understands and justifies its epistemic claims.

It should be pointed out, however, that, even though environmental and other factors may influence an individual’s perception and understanding of reality, this should not in any way imply that the African is incapable of objective perception or knowledge, as that would open up the avenue for characterizing the African as being, at least, mentally different if not inferior.

Also read: Orientations in African Philosophy

3. African Ethics

Ethics is essentially about the rightness or wrongness of human conduct or action. It is the philosophical study or discourse on morality. Morality is a key factor in the stability of any human society.

As Wiredu points out, Morality in the strictest sense is universal to human culture. Indeed, it is essential to all human culture.

Any society without a modicum of morality must collapse. But what is morality in this sense? It is simply the observance of rules for the harmonious adjustment of the interests of the individual to those of others in society.

This, of course, is a minimal concept of morality. A richer concept of morality even more pertinent to human flourishing will have an essential reference to that special kind of motivation called the sense of duty.

Morality covers the entire range of human behaviour that is involved in one’s relationship with oneself, with other persons and with the world as well.

According to J. A. I. Bewaji, Morality and ethics in Western and non-Western societies have similar importance in that human social and interpersonal behaviour is under the necessity of the adjustment of interests among individuals for attaining the general well-being of the community.

Wiredu elsewhere makes a case for a specifically African ethics since, according to him, Africa today, living as it does in a cultural flux, is plagued by the superimposition of Western conceptions of the good upon African thought and conduct, such that “it may well be that many of the instabilities of contemporary African society are traceable to this circumstance.”

There have been disputes about certain fundamental aspects of ethics as regards Africa. For instance, some scholars believe that Africans have no morality. Some others hold that African morality is based on appeals to the supernatural.

Yet some others see African morality as a set of dos and don’ts that have no strong theoretical basis. While one may argue for or against each of these positions, the truth seems to lie in the fact that there are elements of each in African morality. But what seems indubitably obvious is that African morality is, to a considerable extent, communitarian.

For Wiredu, African conceptions of morals would seem generally to be of a humanistic orientation. He says further, correspondingly, what is good in the more narrowly ethical sense is, by definition, what is conducive to the harmonization of those interests.

Thus, the will of God, not to talk of that of any other extra-human being, is logically incapable of defining the good. This is a position also taken by a number of other scholars, including Oladipo and Gbadegesin. Africans see a relationship between morality and the ontological order.

Everything is associated and coordinated under the all-embracing unity of the “vital force.” In judging his conduct, the African takes into consideration the fear that he is not alone; that he is a cog in a wheel of interacting forces.

He knows that the most important thing in his action is not how it affects him personally, but how it affects the world order, the spiritual republic outside of which he does not exist as a muntu; outside of which he is like a planet off its orbit: meaningless and non-existing. His life is not his own: it belongs to God and the community. The strengthening of this life, its preservation, is in the hands of his ancestors and elders.

In the life of the community, each person has his place and each has his right to well-being and happiness.

Therefore, what to do and what to avoid in order preserving, increase and strengthen the vital force in him and others of his clan, constitute morality. Bantu moral standards depend essentially on things ontologically understood. It follows that an act will be accounted ethically good if it can be adjudged ontologically good and by deduction assessed as juristically just.

The African ethical theory is metaphysical ethics in one sense and ethical communalism in another, where an individual takes into consideration the community of vital force in deciding the goodness or evil of his proper actions.

The connection between epistemology and ethics (or morality) in African philosophy was underscored by Barry Hallen and J. Olubi Sodipo when the explain that, because of the problem of establishing the veracity of a knowledge claim in which one does not have first-hand experience, one has to depend on the character of the informant.

According to Hallen, The moral underpinnings to this discussion of Yoruba epistemology become evident once one recognizes that the primary source of propositional or secondhand information in an oral culture is other persons.

For, if that is the case, knowledge of those other persons’ moral characters (iwa) – their honesty, their reliability as sources of information – becomes a fundamental criterion to evaluating the reliability of secondhand information obtained from them.

African ethics is therefore, in many ways, like ethics elsewhere.

However, a distinctive feature of African ethics is that it is communitarian in nature, and whatever will be considered good must be something that furthers the good of the community.

4. African Logic

Logic concerns itself with reasoning, as well as the rules involved in determining a process of reasoning as either sound or unsound. The relevance of African logic is easily seen in the fact that African philosophy, at least in part, is a reaction against the charge that Africans are irrational and pre-logical.

If this is the case, a primary task of African philosophy would be to demonstrate that Africans are indeed logical, even if their reasoning may not necessarily follow the same pattern as the Europeans.

Following the work of Evans-Pritchard on ‘Witchcraft and Magic among the Azande in Africa’, Peter Winch supports the conclusion of the former in disagreeing with the claims of Lucien Levy-Bruhl.

Levy-Bruhl had claimed that ‘primitive’ peoples have practices which differ from those of Westerners in that they (the ‘primitives’) have minds the structure of which is not suited to logical thought.

Against this, Evans-Pritchard argues that ‘primitive’ peoples do not, in one sense, think any differently from Westerners. Where they differ is not so much in thinking differently as in appealing to different principles of explanation, since a ‘primitive’ would, in the event of a rainfall, make reference to the activity of witches rather than to natural causes.

A savage, according to Evans-Pritchard, is not being illogical in explaining the occurrence of rainfall by referring to the activity of witches. This is because logic has to do with the validity of inference and not with the truth or falsity of premises.

A valid inference is one in which the conclusion would be true were the premises true, the truth of the premises being irrelevant. Now if one holds that there are beings such as witches who are responsible for producing rainfall, one is being perfectly logical in explaining a particular occurrence of rainfall by referring to their activity.

 Along this line of thinking, Bodunrin says, In one sense, a system of beliefs is rational if, once you understand the system, individual beliefs within it make sense; in other words, if one could see why members of the society within the system would hold such beliefs as they do in fact hold. And a belief system is logical if, once you identify the premises or assumptions upon which the system is based, individual beliefs would follow from them and can be deduced from them alone.

Victor Ocaya in his “Logic in the Acholi Language” argued that the Acholi language, spoken in Uganda, “has all the elements sufficient for the business of logic.” Because of the affinity between Acholi and a number of other Luo languages in Uganda, the Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania, what holds for Acholi, as far as the logicality of its linguistic structure is concerned, might also be said to hold for those other languages. It has to be pointed out those attempts to transpose Western, formal logic into an African language structure is likely to fail woefully. For one thing, it is likely to suffer a fundamental inadequacy in word-for-word translations.

For another, language structures often play important roles in the analysis of a logical proposition. How, for instance, does one identify a copula in a language in which a ‘copula’ is embedded in either the subject or the object? But even if we succeed in making a complete transposition, how African would the resultant work be? It is sufficient to accept that any sane African would affirm that a thing is what it is, and not something else (the law of identity); that it is impossible for a thing to be and not be at the same time (law of contradiction); and that a thing either is or is not – there being no middle ground (law of excluded middle).

And if that is the case, then the myth of Africans being illogical or pre-logical has been exposed for the self-seeking hoax that it is.


Also read: The Idea of African Philosophy

Conclusion on Sub-Disciplinary Focus on African Philosophy

This article has examined the sub-disciplinary aspects of African philosophy, paying attention to African metaphysics, considered to be the heart of African philosophy; African epistemology in which it is shown that how something is known is, among other things, a function of how one relates with the entirety of reality; African ethics, whose distinctive feature is its attention to communal good; and African logic, by which we know that it is an exploitative excuse to claim that Africans are pre-logical.

The following points have been made that there are African philosophy equivalents of the more general branches of philosophy and  that each of these branches has points of convergence and divergence from their equivalents in ‘mainstream philosophy’.

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