Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
African philosophy is a disputed term, used in different ways by different philosophers. Although African philosophers spend their time doing work in many different areas, such as metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy, a great deal of the literature is taken up with a debate concerning the nature of African philosophy itself. Though this is often criticised (with some reason) as being sterile and self-absorbed, it can nevertheless provide useful insights into the nature of philosophy in general.
One of the most fundamental loci of disagreement concerns what exactly it is that the term ‘African’ qualifies: the content of the philosophy or the identities of the philosophers. On the former view, philosophy counts as African if it involves African themes (such as distinctively African notions of time, personhood, etc.) or uses methods that are distinctively African; on the latter view, African philosophy is any philosophy done by Africans (or sometimes, by people of African descent).
In what follows – for the purposes of an encyclopædia article – it will generally be more useful to take the former view as central, as it is surely the distinctive content and methodology that distinguishes African from other philosophy. (It's perhaps worth pointing out that the vast majority of African philosophy in the former sense will as a matter of fact also count as African philosophy in the latter sense.)
Having said all that, an historical survey is most easily and informatively undertaken by looking at philosophers who were born on the continent of Africa; when we come to the modern era, we shall revert to taking content and methodology as primary. Let us start, though, by looking at ancient African philosophy.
Pre-modern African philosophy
The history of philosophy in Africa before the modern period must be divided into two main parts, defined by geography: North Africa, and the rest of the continent. This division is in turn based on two related factors: interaction with cultural and religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the development of a written language.
We start with yet another distinction: that between philosophers and philosophy. Paulin J. Hountondji has argued that, without a written language: “thousands of Socrates could never have given birth to Greek philosophy... so thousands of philosophers without written works could never have given birth to an African philosophy” (Hountondji, p.106; quoted in Kwame, Introduction, p.xx). That is, even if we take a broad definition of ‘philosopher’, such as Joseph I. Omoregbe's: “a philosopher is one who devotes a good deal of his time reflecting on [ fundamental questions about human life or the physical universe] and who frequently and habitually does this” (Omoregbe, p.4), there is still a gap between the disconnected set of such philosophers' thoughts, and the interconnected continuity that we should call a philosophical tradition. Put simply, even if there were African philosophers, there was no African philosophy.
The alternative view starts from an alternative notion of philosophy; if we take a philosophy to be a coherent set of beliefs about the nature of the world and the place of human beings in that world, then few if any cultures lack a philosophy. Such a philosophy doesn't depend upon the existence of specific people who philosophise, so – even using Omoregbe's general definition – this view at least allows for the possibility that there have been African philosophy but no African philosophers.
It should be emphasised that there is no debate concerning the fact Africans were perfectly capable of philosophical thought. It's difficult to see what basis there could be for a denial of that fact. The standard view of the rise of philosophical (and of scientific) thought is that it probably required a certain sort of social structure (one in which, for example, a significant part of society had the leisure to think and debate), but that even given this necessary background condition, there's a further complex set of factors needed. The claim that Africa developed no philosophy, then, is merely the claim that the right conditions happened not to arise there — that is, it's pure accident.
There is at least one example of a pre-modern sub-Saharan philosopher in Omoregbe's sense: Anthony William Amo was taken as a slave from Awukenu in what is now Ghana, was brought up and educated in Europe (gaining doctorates in medicine and philosophy), and became a professor at the universities of Halle and Jena.
Four candidates for modern African philosophy
The Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka has distinguished what he calls four trends in modern African philosophy: ethnophilosophy, philosophical sagacity, nationalistic–ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy. In fact it would be more realistic to call them candidates for the position of African philosophy, with the understanding that more than one of them might fit the bill.
Ethnophilosophy & philosophical sagacity
Ethnophilosophy involves the recording of the beliefs found in African cultures. Such an approach treats African philosophy as consisting in a set of shared beliefs, a shared world view — an item of communal property rather than an activity for the individual.
Philosophical sagacity is a sort of individualist version of ethnophilosophy, in which one records the beliefs of certain special members of a community. The premise here is that, although most societies demand some degree of conformity of belief and behaviour from their members, a certain few of those members reach a particularly high level of knowledge and understanding of their cultures' world-view; such people are sages. In some cases, the sage goes beyond mere knowledge and understanding to reflection and questioning — these become the targets of philosophical sagacity.
An immediate worry is that not all reflection and questioning is philosophical; besides, if African philosophy were to be defined purely in terms of philosophic sagacity, then the thoughts of the sages couldn.t be African philosophy, for they didn't record them from other sages. Also, on this view the only difference between non-African anthropology or ethnology and African philosophy seems to be the nationality of the researcher.
The problem with both ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity is that there is surely an important distinction between philosophy and the history of ideas. No matter how interesting the beliefs of a people such as the Akan or the Yorùbá may be to the philosopher, they remain beliefs, not philosophy. To call them philosophy is to use a secondary sense of that term, as in ‘my philosophy is live and let live’.
Professional philosophy is the view that philosophy is a particular way of thinking, reflecting, and reasoning, that such a way is relatively new to (most of) Africa, and that African philosophy must grow in terms of the philosophical work carried out by Africans and applied to (perhaps not exclusively) African concerns. This sort of view would be the intuitive answer of most Western philosophers (whether of continental or analytic persuasion) to the question ‘what is African philosophy?’
Nationalist–ideological philosophy might be seen as a special case of philosophic sagacity, in which not sages but ideologues are the subjects. Alternatively, we might see it as a case of professional political philosophy. In either case, the same sort of problem arises: we have to retain a distinction between ideology and philosophy, between sets of ideas and a special way of reasoning.
Ethnophilosophers attempt to show that African philosophy is distinctive by treading heavily on the 'African' and almost losing the 'philosophy'. Their main rivals, the professional philosophers, adopt the view that philosophy is a particular way of thinking, reflecting, reasoning, that such a way is relatively new to (most of) Africa, and that African philosophy must grow in terms of the philosophical work carried out by Africans and applied to (perhaps not exclusively) African concerns. Thus they tread heavily on the 'philosophy', but risk losing the 'African'; this risk, however, is by no means unavoidable, and many African philosophers have successfully avoided it, including Kwame Anthony Appiah, Kwame Gyekye, Kwasi Wiredu, Oshita O. Oshita , Lansana Keita , Peter Bodunrin , and Chukwudum B. Okolo .
(part of this article is based upon Peter J. King's introduction to African philosophy (see link below),used with permission)
References and further reading
- Peter O. Bodunrin Philosophy in Africa: Trends and Perspectives (1985: University of Ife Press)
- Kwame Gyekye An Essay of African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (1995: Temple University Press) ISBN 1-56639-380-9
- Paulin J. Hountondji African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (1983: Bloomington, Indiana University Press)
- Samuel Oluoch Imbo An Introduction to African Philosophy (1998: Rowman & Littlefield) ISBN 0-8476-8841-0
- Safro Kwame Reading in African Philosophy: An Akan Collection (1995: University Press of America) ISBN 0-8191-9911-7
- Joseph I. Omoregbe “African philosophy: yesterday and today” (in Bodunrin; references to reprint in Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze [ed.] African Philosophy: An Anthology (1998: Oxford, Blackwell))
- H. Odera Oruka [ed.] Sage Philosophy [Volume 4 in Philosophy of History and Culture] (1990: E.J. Brill) ISBN 90-04-09283-8, ISSN 0922-6001
- Tsenay Serequeberhan [ed.] African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (1991: Paragon House) ISBN 1-55778-309-8
- Kwasi Wiredu Philosophy and an African (1980: Cambridge University Press)
- Kwasi Wiredu [ed.] A Companion to African Philosophy (2004: Blackwell)
- Samuel Oluoch Imbo's page
- African Philosophy Pages — a huge site maintained by Bruce Janz
- African Philosophy — maintained by Peter J. King
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