The Idea of African Philosophy


The Idea of African Philosophy

Welcome to this article on the idea of African philosophy. In discussing this topic, we shall examine some background information around the debate on whether or not there is African philosophy, after which we shall proceed to examine what African philosophy really is.

Like Western philosophy, African philosophy contemplates the perceptions of time, person hood, space and other subjects. Africana philosophy can be formally defined as a critical thinking by Africans and people of African descent on their experiences of reality.

Philosophy in Africa has had an interesting history and discourse. 

In the twentieth century, particularly since the end of the Second World War, the question of African philosophy became a major issue in philosophy, especially among the African practitioners of philosophy and many other African scholars. 

Some of the central questions about African philosophy have revolved around what genuinely constitutes African philosophy.

In this article, we shall take a look at the background to the discourse on African philosophy, and then attempt a concise survey of definitions of African philosophy, all in the effort to attain an understanding of what African philosophy really is.

In this unit, you will have a fairly good idea of what African philosophy is, the background to the discourse on African philosophy, certain indices for adjudging a work as not just philosophy but, in specific terms, as African philosophy and the meta-philosophical debates as to the existence or character of African philosophy.


Background to the African philosophy

It is important to realize that the debate on African philosophy was in fact a debate over the very humanity of Africans.

Scholars like Peter Bodunrin  acknowledge (even if he does not accept) the honorific connotation of philosophy, such that, to have no philosophy is, for all intents and purposes, to be less than human. 

Many European writers, such as Lucien Levy-Bruhl and E. B. Tylor, have asserted that Africans are ‘irrational’, ‘pre-logical’, ‘concrete’ (as against ‘abstract’), and so on. Given the image of philosophy as the very heart of reason, the contributions of reputable western philosophers to charges like these are particularly damaging.

David Hume for example, says, “There never was civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufacturer among them, no arts, no sciences….”Immanuel Kant throws his weight behind Hume’s opinion and also, according to Emmanuel C. Eze, gives it a transcendental status.

Kant asserts: Mr Hume challenges anyone to cite a simple example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality; even among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between the two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour.

He goes on to make many of his own racist remarks, trying to found them on ‘sound’ philosophical and scientific grounds. 

According to Eze, …some elements in the ‘moral geography’ taught by Kant included expositions on culture, such as the ‘knowledge’ that it is customary to permit theft in Africa, or to desert children in China, or to bury them alive in Brazil, or for Eskimos to strangle them.

Finally, it is the domain of moral philosophy to show, for example, that such actions, based upon unreflective mores and customs, natural impulses (or ‘the inclination to evil’), and/or the ‘commands of authority’, lack ‘ethical principles’ and are therefore not properly (i.e. essentially) human.

Unreflective mores and customs (such as supposedly practiced by the non-European peoples listed by Kant) are devoid of ethical principles because these people lack the capacity for development of ‘character’, and they lack character presumably because they lack adequate self-consciousness and rational will, for it is self-reflectivity (the ‘ego concept’) and the rational principled will which make the up building of (moral) character possible through the (educational) process of development of goodness latent in/as human nature.

Kant says of Africans in particular: The race of the Negroes, one could say, is completely the opposite of the Americans; they are full of affect and passion, very lively, talkative and vain. They can be educated but only as servants (slaves) that are they allow themselves to be trained. They have many motivating forces, are also sensitive, are afraid of blows and do much out of a sense of honour.

Here, we see a suggestion not only that non-white people are sub-human, but also a justification for any treatment applied to them by the whites. This dubious attempt at providing a philosophical rationalization of racism and oppression reached its apogee in G. W. F. Hegel’s The Philosophy of History. Hegel divides Africa into three regions and identifies sub-Saharan Africa as ‘Africa proper’.

Then he says: Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World shut up; …the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night. …

The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas the category of Universality… (The) distinction between himself as an individual and the universality of his essential being, the African in the uniform, undeveloped oneness of his existence has not yet attained; so that the Knowledge of an absolute Being… is entirely wanting. 

The Negro… exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality all that we call feeling if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.

It is against this kind of presumption that African scholars reacted by presenting what they regard as African philosophy. Perhaps, the remarks made by Barry Hallen at the beginning of his book, A Short History of African Philosophy (2002), will help explicate the contention over African philosophy since the twentieth century:

The characterization of Africa’s pre-colonial indigenous cultures as significantly ahistorical in character has been dismissed as patently false. The significance of the word “primitive,” as originally used by non-Africans to type Africa’s cultures, was that those cultures could serve as contemporary exemplars of how human beings had lived in primeval and pristine times, “before” recorded history. This false ahistorical stereotype had profound consequences for Africa’s status vis-à-vis philosophy as an international enterprise.

“Early” human societies anywhere in the world were not thought to have developed the capacity for the intellectual reflection definitive of this supposedly sophisticated discipline.

Therefore Africa’s indigenous cultures were, in both principle and fact, disqualified from occupying a place in the philosophical arena. The response on the part of many African philosophers, scholars, and intellectuals to this falsely a-historical, as well as deeply offensive, typing of the cognitive significance of their civilizations has been sustained and vigorous.

The fact that these efforts have only recently begun to have recognizable consequences in and on the Western academy would probably is cited by those same individuals as further evidence of how profound the influence of this demeaning caricature of Africa’s cultures was on the rest of the world and, in some cases, on Africans themselves.

Commenting on the history of African philosophy in the twentieth century as well as the ideological presumptions against which it had to struggle, V. Y. Mudimbe also says:

At the beginning of the century one comes across expressions such as "primitive philosophy" or "philosophy of the savages" in most ethnographic and anthropological texts which refer to what nowadays is commonly called local or indigenous systems of thought.

Today it is clear that the scientific discourse on Africa was then made up of ideological preconceptions and philosophical speculation on the chain of beings and its history, unproven evolutionary assumptions about cultures and human beings, and, finally, political considerations grounding the right to colonize.

The point, then, is this: if philosophy is the index of rationality, and rationality or reason is the hallmark of humanity the very factor that differentiates it from lower animals then the charge that Africans have no philosophy is tantamount to asserting that Africans are, in fact, no more than mere beasts.

And if that is the case, the theoretical justification for their enslavement, colonization and exploitation is thus established.

It is therefore understandable  indeed, inevitable that Africans would react, not only by arguing that Africans are capable of the kind of rational activity that is regarded as philosophical, but also by showing or demonstrating that Africans have had a philosophy before their contact with the West.

Some African scholars would, in fact, also insist on Africa’s prerogative to decide for it what its intellectual programme should be (and, by implication, what it considers as philosophy).

Complaining against the West’s presumption to dictate what an African intellectual programme should be, Mogobe Ramose says:

The term ‘African philosophy’… tends to revive innate skepticism on the one hand, and to stimulate ingrained condescension on the other.

The skeptic, unswervingly committed to the will to remain ignorant, is simply dismissive of any possibility, let alone the probability, of African philosophy. ...In these circumstances, the right to knowledge in relation to the African is measured and determined by passive as well as uncritical assimilation, coupled with faithful implementation of knowledge defined and produced from outside Africa.

Ramose says further: The question whether or not African philosophy is possible or exists continues to be debated…. The question pertains more to the capability of the African to philosophize…. This is because by their nature…, it is impossible for Africans to do philosophy.

In this way, the question assumes an ontological character: it calls into question the humanity of the African. The question is thus another way of saying that it is doubtful if Africans are wholly and truly human beings. …

Thus in the name of science many spurious excuses were found as to why there could not be and never was an African philosophy. African historical reconstruction is a response and a challenge to this tradition. African philosophy today might be regarded as largely an outcome of the reactions mentioned above.

Also read: Definition and 9 Theories of Ethics

What is African Philosophy?

For a number of reasons, African philosophy is difficult to define. For one thing, it inherits the intractable problem of definition that philosophy itself has.

Besides, the ‘African’ denotation of a philosophy creates further complications, since philosophy, to a considerable extent, is perceived to be universal, dealing with the most general questions.

It is in this regard that Bruce B. Janz points out: More so than other philosophical traditions, African philosophy struggles with a central tension within its very name.

On the one hand, philosophy has tended to contemplate universals, regarding them either as the foundation or beginning point of thought or as the goal of thought, and seeing them as a non-negotiable requirement of philosophy...; on the other, the term ‘African’ designates a particularity.

Even though most African scholars – whether philosophers or otherwise – reject the characterization of Africans as sub-human, there is (or was for a number of decades) a debate over African philosophy among African intellectuals.

While some believe that African philosophy is, in fact, just starting with the emergence of a crop of Africans trained in Western philosophy, some others believe that African philosophy has always existed as long as Africans have been able to reason.

For the former group, the content and methodology of African philosophy is the same as that of Western philosophy, with the only difference that it is being practiced either by Africans or in Africa.

The latter group, however, holds that African philosophy is as old as when Africans began to reflect on fundamental issues around them, and that traditional African philosophy is to be found in the oral traditions of Africa, without recourse to Western methodologies and procedures.

Yet, there is an intermediate group that believes in the canons of Western philosophy but reckon that traditional Africa does supply the material for philosophical activity in the formal sense.

Among the first group (the professionals) is Henry Odera Oruka who contends that: The attempt to state what African philosophy is may be an attempt to give an answer to a question that either has no answer, or that it is still too early for it to need an answer.

It may be also that the question “What is African philosophy?” is nonsensical verbiage like the question: “What is African death?” Oruka seems to imply here that there is no African philosophy because philosophy is the same everywhere, just as death is the same everywhere.

However, it is obvious that he not only acknowledges Western philosophy but also accepts it as the Philosophy, the paradigm of what philosophy in the ideal sense is. And this becomes particularly uncomfortable if we consider Ramose’s contention that it amounts to condescension to have African philosophy, as well as its content or methodology, defined only in terms of how similar it is to Western philosophy.

Oruka accuses the second group (the traditionalists) of trying to eject critical reasoning as a basic trait of philosophy, saying: Some wish to deny critical rationality, at least as it is understood in the West, to African philosophy, claiming indeed that it is precisely lack of critical reasoning that helps to distinguish African philosophy from Western philosophy.

Yet others think that philosophy, whether African or not, is not worth the name if rationality and logicality are ejected from it.

This accusation by Oruka, upon close scrutiny, is quite problematic and inaccurate. While some works in traditional African philosophy are merely descriptive, many are thoroughly critical. But even among those considered to be no more than descriptive, it is doubtful if there is any among them that claims that irrationality is the very soul of African philosophy.

On the contrary, the major purpose of their work is to prove that traditional Africans were just as rational as Euro-Americans.

Of more constructive import, however, is Oruka’s position that whatever is the difference between African philosophy and Western philosophy, “it does not qualitatively lie in the use of reason.

Reason is a universal human trait. And the greatest disservice to African philosophy is to deny it reason and dress it in magic and extra-rational traditionalism”.

Although there are disputes as to what constitutes African philosophy, there is, however, a consensus among scholars that there is an African philosophy.

But what, in general terms, is African philosophy? African philosophy can be seen, depending on which approach we choose to follow, as an attempt to understand reality from an African perspective; or, as an attempt to understand the African reality from a philosophical perspective.

According to Kwasi Wiredu, a foremost African philosopher, 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.

For John S. Mbiti, African philosophy “refers to the understanding, attitude of mind, logic and perception behind the manner in which Africans think, act or speak in different situations of life.

This understanding of African philosophy suggests a traditional (or ethno philosophical) approach to the subject, as emphasis on criticism seems to be lacking.

But to paraphrase A. G. A. Bello, if philosophy, according to Staniland, is “the criticism of the ideas that we live by,” then it goes without saying that African philosophy should be concerned with the criticism of the ideas that Africans live by.

Gbadegesin’s view of African philosophy can be considered quite suitable here: it is quite expressive as it covers the very basic, fundamental elements which should define African philosophy. He says: …African philosophy is first and foremost a philosophical activity and is addressed to issues relating to African realities traditional or contemporary.

By the latter, I mean that it satisfies any or all of the following:

(i) It focuses on African conceptual systems

(ii) It deals with problems and issues African in nature

(iii) it is based on contemporary African experience

(iv) It is a comparative study and analysis of African realities visà-vis other regions of the world.

African philosophy may be defined, ultimately, as the philosophical reflections, either of Africans, or on the African experience. And this would align with the position of P. O. Bodunrin, who declares that African philosophy is simply the philosophical activity of Africans, with that of K. C. Anyanwu, who holds that 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.”

Also read: Definition of Logic, Laws of Thought, Argument, Types of Arguments and Divisions of Logic

Conclusion on the Idea of African Philosophy

African philosophy today is a product of what Mogobe Ramose calls “the struggle for reason in Africa.” It is an attempt by Africans (and some non-Africans) to uphold what is at stake here: the rationality of Africans. And even though there are differences, sometimes significant, in approaches to African philosophy, scholars are generally agreed that there is an African philosophy which implies, in turn, that Africans are not by nature irrational.

And so, this article has highlighted some aspects of this ‘struggle’; the reason for the reaction that has given rise to African philosophy as a conscious, academic exercise and the debate over the nature and content of African philosophy.

In all, we have attempted to understand what African philosophy is in basic terms: as the philosophical reflection on Africa or by Africans.

Contemporary African philosophy is a reaction to European prejudice that characterizes the African as sub-human and therefore incapable of philosophy, which is supposed to be the very index of reasoning (a trait considered to be exclusive only to humans).

Some of those derogatory statements have been highlighted in this unit, especially those by the philosophers Hume, Kant and Hegel.

We have seen how African philosophy constitutes a response to these charges and an attempt to emphasize African humanity.

In trying to understand what African philosophy is, the unit examined the Universalist (as against the particularism) approach to philosophy. Having attended to all these, the unit ended with definitions of African philosophy as well as some basic characteristic traits of African philosophy.

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