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African Philosophy

African Philosophy


A Problem surrounds the question of ‘African Philosophy’ (is there such a thing, and if so, what is it?) which does not enter the discussion of, say, African history or African geography. This problem seems to me to be itself of philosophical interest, though it is clearly important in other respects as well, and it is the nature of this problem which I want to examine in this paper.

I want to be very clear about the topic I am addressing. I do not propose to con­tribute anything to the body of African philosophy, nor to criticize any part of that body, but rather to try, by philosophical analysis, to clarify the nature of the problem surrounding the idea of an African philosophy. The problem is itself important as a symptom of the larger problem affecting any cross-cultural study, and it is intrinsically philosophically interesting, as well.

Basically, the problem centers on the meaning of African and the meaning of philosophy. As we will see, there are really two problems—the problem of anything meeting the criteria for being both African and philosophy, on top of the problem of what it means to be either of these. Some examp'es will serve to illustrate what I mean.

1. Prof. Elgood, while at the University of Lagos, writing on Hare.
2. Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy.
3. W. E. Abraham’s work on Leibniz.
4. W. E. Abraham’s The Mind of Africa.
5. William Amo’s The Apatheia of the Human Mind.
6. Recorded Yoruba proverbs.
7. Neo-Platonic writings of Alexandria.
8. Sub-saharan Islamic theology and history
9. Griaule’s recorded Conversations with Ogotemmeli.

We can clarify our problem by analytically reflecting on our intuitive responses to the question which, if any, of these is an example of African philosophy. If we can also begin to articulate why or why not in each case, we will be moving toward the constructing of criteria and thereby a definition of African philosophy. Look at the first example. There is no doubt that Prof. Elgood’s work counts as philosophy, but does it meet our intuitive criteria for something’s being ‘African’. And here our intuitive answer seems pretty clearly no, at least not in the primary sense of the notion of African philosophy we are seeking. But then, why not? Clearly it is not sufficient for something’s being African that it be produced in Africa. (It is probably not necessary either). What, then, about 3 and 5, works which are clearly philosophical in nature and written by Africans? These are certainly better candidates than the first, but still I think we are not inclined to give an unqualified yes. Again, why not? Probably, it is because we feel that the content of the writing is not sufficiently African. But what exactly do we mean here? Perhaps that it is not African in character or in subject matter. Both are writing in a typically European manner on typically European philosophical topics (Leibniz and his school). It would not occur to anyone, for example, that either of these authors were African simply from reading their books. Perhaps more of a case could be made for 7, though it, too, would seem to fall into more or less the same category as 3 and 5—works which are clearly philosophical but less clearly African. If we feel, as I think, we do, that this is not African in character or subject matter, then it seems clear that we do not mean by African a geographical area (the continent of Africa), but a cultural designation. That is, Black Africa with its distinctive, non-European culture. I think that it might now or at some future date make sense to talk of a South African philosophy, in much the same way we speak of an Australian philosophy, meaning a type of European philosophy produced in universities of South Africa. But this is not, I think, what we mean when we speak of an African philosophy.

Continuing our search for candidates which are unquestionably philosophical and also African in character and content, we might consider 2, or if there is a problem about Tempels’ not being an African, 4. These, I think we are prepared to agree, are better candidates than any of the others. While they may not be quite so clearly philosophical as some of the others, they more than make up for this in meeting our intuitive, and as yet undefined, criteria for what it is to be African. Nonetheless, I believe there is still some hesitation in our response. Why? I think it is because while the content is certainly African, the form in which it is expressed is not. Abraham expressed the beliefs of the Ghanaian Akans in the language of contemporary analytic philosophy, while Father Tempels describes the world-view of the Bantu within the conceptual framework of Bergson. In this sense it really makes no difference whether either is of African ancestry. As we saw with Amo, it is not enough to be African to write African philosophy, but to express oneself in a particularly African way. Amo is an African philosopher writing German philosophy.

But that brings us to 6 and 9 (Yoruba proverbs and Ogotemmeli) which certainly satisfy the most demanding criteria for what is African, but which now begin to slip away from the center of the concept of what it is to be philosophical. As Bodunrin and others have pointed out, however, definitions of philosophy may differ, central to any account of philosophy is its reliance on analysis, debate, appeal to reason, argument and counter-argument, which is not the predominant style of West African myths, proverbs and the sayings of certain wise elders. (Also, as Bodunrin points out, in the case of individual wise elders, they form no interconnected tradition).

What has happened, then, in our analysis of these examples, is that the closer we move toward the center of one concept the further we move away from the center of the other concept. Neither concept is precise in its definition, but like most terms of ordinary language somewhat fuzzy around the boundaries. Nonetheless, there is a fairly clear intuitive sense of what constitutes the center and the boundary of each concept and a fairly clear sense of the direction in which we are moving with each example. Thus, the clearer the examples become of philosophy the more dubious they become as examples of African and vice versa, the clearer the examples are of African the more doubtful they become as regards philosophy.

The reason this question is important is that it is part of the large problem affecting any cross-cultural description, e.g., in referring to African carvings as idols, works of art, or toys. Philosophy is an English word expressing a Western, European concept; the problem arises in applying it to thought systems outside the sphere of Western Europe. All such ascriptions are comparative; we have thought systems in West Africa and we have the European concept of philosophy—to what extent is the one like the other. In one sense it is a silly question; certainly it is not a necessary one. We don’t have to ask, for example, if there is an Irish concept of Ori. The question is why we would want to make this comparison, i.e., what is our purpose in making the comparison; what are we trying to accomplish? And here politics enters into what had looked up to now like a politically neutral academic question. Obviously, the question is honorific and value-laden as Professor Bodunrin has stated (p.8, ‘which kind of Philosophy for Africa’). If we insist on making this comparison are we not implying that if a culture has something which is like what is called philo­sophy in the West, then that is a mark of superiority, and if not, not? But why assume Western criteria for non-Western cultures? We ought to ask ourselves, before trying to answer the question, if it is an important or wise question to pursue in the first place.

At this point we might try to anticipate the objection, say, of Professor Innocent Onyewuenyi, Dr Makinde, or John O’Donohue, that we are simply using philosophy in the Western way and not in the African way. But this begs the question; the whole debate presupposes comparing African thought with a given, though imprecise, sense of philosophy traceable through European thought back to the Greeks. How free are we to alter the meanings of words? Where boundaries are fuzzy we can try to shift them slightly, but only within narrow limits. This is not a reflection of cultural bias, but an analysis of the meaning of cross-cultural statements. There is an object which exists in the West African context (beliefs, thought systems, myths, proverbs, etc.) and there is a reasonably well-defined concept philosophy, and the question is the conceptual one whether this object satisfies the criteria for inclusion in that concept. There is no doubt whatever that there are elaborate, well-organized, subtle thought systems in West Africa; the question is whether these ought to be called philosophy.

This is the sort of problem which infects any conceptual, and hence philosophical question: Is abortion murder? Can an unequal distribution of wealth be just? But special problems arise over and above these difficulties in cross-cultural descriptions where the objects to be described exists in one culture and the concept to describe it is from another culture. Roughly the criteria for adequacy in cross-cultural descrip­tions is

1. Does the object from culture A satisfy the criteria for the concept from culture B?
2. Does the object satisfy the criteria from the concept from culture A? and
3. Are the two concepts synonymous?

When we say that the Mende worship idols, for example, we imply not only that they do what we call worshipping idols, but that that is what they call it too (or rather that what they call it is adequately translated as worshipping an idol). If this last condition is not met there can only be confusion and actual misinformation, since we are implying what is false, that they regard what they do or produce in the same way as we do. So if we speak in an unguarded way of African art we may mislead others into thinking that African carvings are made mainly for aesthetic enjoyment or for display, which may be completely false. This is just as misleading, though not so pernicious as the missionaries who destroyed carvings because they represented the worship of idols. The Mende can’t worship idols unless they themselves see it this way—even if it matches very closely what we would call idol-worship.

This precaution should govern every cross-cultural description. Is African art, art, that is, granted that it meets what Europeans call art, is it what the African producers call in their language art? The point might be clearer if we imagined the reverse—describing European beliefs in a West African language such as Yoruba. Suppose someone said that Campbell believed that the inner Ori could alter the outer Ori. True or false? Clearly the question is highly ambiguous. Campbell believed that the will could influence bodily behaviour, and that is somewhat similar to what the Yoruba call the relation of inner and outer Ori. But it is quite wrong to suppose that Campbell is thinking at all of the Ori per se, or of any of the other ideas associated with Ori—fate, character, disposition, personality, etc. In so far as that is simplied in the affrmative answer it is clearly misleading and false.

The question arises, however, why not revise the meaning of the word philosophy ? As Humpty Dumpty asked Alice, are we to obey words or are they to obey us? We create language and we can change it. The history of philosophy shows quite clearly, however, the dangers confronting any alteration in the meaning of a well-established concept. The problem is basically that sooner or later the old, rejected meaning reenters the discussion and its clash with the newly constituted definition leads to a contradiction. When Dr Makinde initially raises the question of an African philo­sophy he defines philosophy to mean any belief set of any group of people. In this sense it is analytically true that every belief set of every group of people is a philosophy of that people. But if that is analytically true then the question: ‘Is African thought philosophy?’ is, as he says, nonsense—it must be and cannot be anything else. But this misses the force of the question, the very real sense of controversy surrounding the question. It seems to be in response to this problem that Dr Makinde later asks; ‘Is African Philosophy, philosophy?’ But now the word philosophy (in the second place means philosophy in the sense of a systematic, critical, reflective tradition appealing to reason. But now it becomes possible, if not in the case of African thought then at least with some others, that a certain philosophy is not philosophy— a manifest contradiction resulting from introducing a new meaning for the word, while at the same time tacitly retaining the old. Since the meanings of words are notoriously tenacious, this will always tend to occur when meanings of traditional concepts are revised.

Since the question of an African philosophy is cross-culturally comparative, there can be no question of identity, but only of sufficient similarity to warrant application of the term. Is Confucianism a religion? The concept of a religion comes from a tradition in which religion is more or less distinct from philosophy and science and morality, whereas Confucianism comes from an area of the world in which these distinctions are not so apparent. The question, then, is whether the beliefs and practices of Confucianism are sufficiently similar to what we call a religion to extend the term. Since the term is not itself rigorously defined, being a term of ordinary language with rather fuzzy borders, with no strict set of necessary and sufficient conditions of application, we are allowed a certain latitude to emphasize those intuitive features of religion which we think important with which Confucianism may bear close resem­blance—or, alternatively to stress others which would tend to bar Confucianism as a religion. If we insist, for example, that a religion must espouse belief in God, then we will probably conclude that Confucianism is not a religion, but rather more of an ethical system. If, on the other hand, we hold that religion is fundamentally a widely held set of beliefs and practices which guide a people along the right path, then we will probably conclude that Confucianism is a religion. And there is room within the rather flexible concept of a religion to make a case for both. That is, we are not simply revising the meanings of words, but only selecting within a loose set of criteria and conditions those which we feel are paramount, and playing down others as more or less accidental.

So in the case of both concepts, African and philosophy, we cannot be too strict but must acknowledge a certain looseness or fuzziness of these terms from ordinary language. Sometimes words like African mean ‘in the style of’, but they can also mean ‘within the geographical area of’. When one speaks of American or Australian philosophy, for example, one can mean either. Whitehead, for example, is often considered an American philosopher, though, in another sense, he could equally well be regarded as British (in style). A Yearbook of African Philosophy, then, might very well include everything done that year within the continent of Africa of a philo­sophical nature whether in the cultural style of Africa or not. So, with the word philosophy. One legitimate use of the word in ordinary English is the sense in which Makinde speaks of it—as when I speak of my philosophy of business, meaning any general theory or idea. When we consider the ordinary notion of a ‘philosophy of life’ we find an ordinary sense which comes very close to the sense in which we speak of a Stoic philosophy, that is, a general account of things used to settle the most important matters of life—how one ought to live, what is ultimately important and so on. And so, by selecting both from within the domain of African, and also of philosophy a wide degree of latitude is created.

Nor is the range of possibilities much reduced if we restrict ourselves to African in the cultural sense and philosophy as that which typifies the thought of the tradition from Plato to Strawson. It is still not rigidly fixed what to include and exclude from cultural African or philosophy as studied in Western universities. Should one include, for example, Christian and/or Islamic thought? This is not uniquely African, but then do we really want such a stringent requirement? Apart from Greek philosophy, has, there ever been a completely unique regional or ethnic philosophy? Certainly, British, German and French would not qualify, much less American or Australian. All have borrowed from other sources. Here it is a matter ol degree and perhaps also of time. Once British thought has borrowed from classical and medieval European sources there comes a point when it has adapted and transformed these into a form having certain cultural peculiarities, or a style of its own, and so we begin to speak of British philosophy, in a cultural and not just a geographical sense. In the 18th century, for example, there was not an American philosophy in the cultural sense, though I would argue such a thing has emerged in the last 100 years. At what point, then, do we include and at what point exclude Christian, Islamic and European-university in­fluences on our concept of what is culturally African. Not long ago I was in the market in Ibadan looking for indigenous African cloth. I walked for miles through literally hundreds of cloth shops, finding none, when it occurred to me to ask what I was really looking for. All this cloth of a modern design is made in Nigeria, used by Nigerians, has a certain distinctive flavor or flair—what more does one want in order to qualify as Nigerian? As modernity spreads and the traditional shrinks there comes a point when it is just silly to refer only to the traditional as culturally authentic.

Similarly in the case of the more professional, academic sense of philosophy— philosophy as defined by the tradition of Plato, etc. This, too, can be variously defined—rather narrowly in analytic terms, or more broadly to include metaphysics and a practical guide to life and maybe even bits of religiosity. After all, the tradition will include Marcus Aurelius and Plotinus as well as Austin and Ryle, and those who favor Plotinus will see more of this element in Plato while those who follow Ryle will see more of that side of philosophy in Plato.

Now, by utilizing this room within each of these concepts for legitimate disagree­ment, we can begin to make a case for certain candidates for African philosophy. By selecting from within the culturally indigenous the more metaphysical, ethnical, and systematic as African and by selecting from the loose set of criteria for philosophy those which portray philosophy as a general view of things which answers the most important problems in life, then one can surely find a place where the two concepts genuinely overlap, Ogotemmeli, for example.

I am not suggesting that this is the right approach to take nor am I suggesting that anything goes, but only that there is room here to make a case, to present reasons, to argue for various positions. There is a place, in other words, for legitimate debate. All these cases will, it seems to me, be at some distance from the center of one or both of the two concepts involved, but borderline cases are open to legitimate disagreement, and if so, then they are open to reasoned debate.

We are not here deciding factual matters, obviously, but making more or less reasonable linguistic proposals. And these decisions always have more to do with the future course of events than they do in deciding the character of the past. If we decide, for example, that the best candidate for African philosophy is the Dogon cosmology of Ogotemmeli (and such like), then African philosophy will probably develop along metaphysical lines. But if, on the other hand, we focus our attention on West African proverbs, then we will begin to develop ethical and social philosophies with a peculiarly African flair. Or, finally, by trying to articulate traditional concepts of the person, as Abraham and others have done, we would lend our support to the emergence of a philosophical psychology.

Our decision, then, is a creative and a pragmatic one—though again the strength of each decision will rest on the strength of its reasons. Perhaps we will want to concentrate on the past and to use the debate over African philosphy to elevate in importance what had previously been dismissed as mere superstition and magic. Or we may choose to look to the future and, with Bodunrin and Wiredu, to look at philosophy as a relatively new task of critically and reflectively analyzing social, moral, educational problems of developing West African societies.

So far I have been merely analyzing the nature of the problem, the question of an African philosophy. In closing let me break from this neutral stance and state my own preferences. The dehate over African philosophy is creating an African philosophy. What I see emerging from the debate is a new and viable African philosophy which utilizes the traditional tools of philosophical analysis to clarify and offer solutions to social and political problems of contemporary West Africa. I also see, although this may be little more than a prediction at the moment, the emergence in this of a dis­tinctive African philosophy, analogous to the emergence earlier of a distinctive American philosophy, and earlier of a distinctive British philosophy and earlier still of a European philosophy from Greco-Roman beginnings.

It is notoriously difficult to articulate the elements which constitute any style, but let me try at least to suggest several prominent features. First of all the dominant trend seems to be social-political and ethical in scope; secondly it appears to be drawn in very bold and broad strokes. Contemporary African philosophers ask the most far-reaching questions as though they were being raised all over again fo r the first time. There is a latent optimism and freshness which I find distinctive and very promising. Finally there is a distinctive note of self-conscious planning for a new future. In other countries, where philosophy is practised, social and political options are more limited and circumscribed; the main avenues to be taken have already been selected and what remains to be done is to fill in the details. But in reading West African philosophers one gets a very different impression of the power of thought to actually shape hum an affairs. W e are brought close to the optimism of Plato and Aristotle attempting to rebuild society from the ground up on the basis of philosophical reflection.