African Philosophy

African Philosophy

1. Introduction

One of the primary impediments to understanding African philosophy is the large number of culture-specific terms and concepts. The corpus of academic work and the popularity of the subject matter are both relatively new in comparison to many other complex systems of thought that have been recorded over the history of mankind. Thus we should not be surprised to find that little of African philosophy has been recorded in conceptual language which makes it compatible with that of general philosophy. Language provides the basic tools for conveying meaning, and language and the conceptual framework to which it belongs are also a manifestation of a culture. In this sense, translation is to be understood as a transference of language concepts and meaning from one language to another, and a translation of texts or concepts might never capture the original African meaning and content. This does not mean that translation is an impossible task, neither does it mean that any act of translation will not procure some beneficial results. What must be given constant consideration is the context from which the African thought has emerged and is embedded in its various parts of expression.

Africans’ philosophical ideas have been discussed for long by some: whether they have philosophical ideas at all, whether they are capable of abstract thought, whether African philosophy is ‘really’ philosophy. Africa is a vast continent with immense cultural diversity. It has a recorded history stretching back over 3000 years, and to consider its philosophy in general terms would be presumptuous. We shall be mostly concerned with south of the Sahara, and even more narrowly with west, east and parts of central and southern Africa. We are not committed to any particular definition of philosophy, but with the overwhelming majority of Western and non-Western writers we take it to be a matter of systematic and critical reflection. This is not to say that all thought is philosophical, nor even that a great deal of thought and action among Africans is not practical and theoretical without being reflective. But it is to judge ideas and beliefs on the basis of their logical coherence and their adequacy to the understanding of the world and man, and in this sense to be involved in philosophy is a necessary condition for doing philosophy.

2. Key Concepts

However, it should be noted that the distinction between the two types of philosophy is imperfect. In the first case, it is far from clear that a philosophy that does not criticize or look for reasons for what it asserts must not be therefore be taken as deeply uncritical. And the ‘sagacity’ tradition is sometimes little more than an assumption that not much can be learned from Africa by way of philosophy, alongside however much evidence of careful and valuable reasoning in the discussion of specific issues. Given the social and political changes that have taken place in the world since 1960 or so, a good deal of contemporary African thought shows clear influence from both so-called sagacious and ethnophilosophical sources; recognizably modern African philosophy may, in the long run, be some syncretic offspring of these ancestors, though it would hardly be African, or what many modern Africans would call philosophy, were it to jettison or cease to interpret the ways of life and thought of the peoples of Africa.

Getting a handle on the content or subject matter of African philosophy is no easy task. There are various ‘traditional’ forms of thought in Africa about the ultimate nature of reality, the sources of knowledge, and the nature of good and evil. The common factor in many of these is the stressing of the collective over the individual, a concern with the fundamental and a leaning towards the practical. Many writers believe that to understand African philosophy one must understand the culture and people who have created it. It is common to distinguish different traditions of African philosophy. A distinction that has gained much currency recently is that between ethnophilosophy—philosophy that is an expression of and justification for a particular way of life and a Weltanschauung, and philosophical sagacity—a form of philosophizing that is more detached, critical, and rational.

3. Major Philosophical Schools

This has led to a complex mix of modern and traditional African and European philosophy. The interaction of two cultures has exposed Africa to numerous forms of Western and non-African philosophy. Wealthy intellectual elite classes have been educated in the philosophy of various Western traditions and their derived disciplines. Many African philosophers educated in the West practice Western philosophy or philosophy rooted in Western education. Many grassroots movements to self-articulate and validate African ways of life have led to attempts to re-educate the African populace and improve the international image of Africa. This form of cultural renaissance is often implemented using “traditional” philosophy. (The cultures and societies of Africa are tradition-centered, and as such, there are attempts to reintroduce traditional philosophy into contemporary lives). The status of cultural renaissance and reform movements, practical interventions, and the coexistence of two cultures are such that the above-mentioned practices are carried out here today and are ongoing.

The period during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a period of decline in African history due to colonialism and the slave trade. The loss of political freedom and continued exposure to domination, opposition, and culturally or physically violent ways of life has led to a period of existential suffering for many people of African descent. This feeling of cultural alienation and questioning the existential purpose of living and the worth of life is still prevalent today. Those who suffer from perceptions of oppression are typically skeptical about means to change their ways of life and seek to validate their claims through logical argumentation. These combine to form a society of disenfranchised philosophers. A moderate form of existentialism and skepticism, often coupled with stoicism and various types of practical wisdom, are characteristic of the philosophy of many African minority groups and are still significant for the more recent history of African peoples.

The various schools should not be considered as temporal stages in the history of African philosophy. For instance, a philosopher living today may practice both ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity. They are better seen as general trends of a specific way of philosophizing and examining life typical of a certain period, social circumstances, and specific issues of a certain African ethnic group. Analysis of some major philosophical schools from Africa will give a clear insight into the vast tradition of philosophy in Africa.

This section starts with a discussion of various schools, systems, and traditions within African philosophy. The second part focuses on the contemporary debate between ethnophilosophy, philosophical sagacity, and hermeneutics, along with some original attempts to create new schools and traditions. During the millennium of development of African philosophy, most of the African philosophers have been plural in practicing different traditions simultaneously. This has led to various mixtures and fusions between the earlier mentioned schools. For our purposes, we should simplify things by talking mainly about the pure aspects of various schools and giving references to mixtures when they are particularly interesting or illuminate specific problems.

4. Influential African Philosophers

The two most eminent African philosophers generally considered to have made a substantial contribution to the field are Kwasi Wiredu and Paulin Hountondji. Wiredu’s work is centered on an analysis of traditional African thought which he describes as “a coherent set of beliefs that has been handed down from generation to generation within an identifiable human group with a common history and identity” and the derived contemporary African worldviews. Wiredu’s work has been highly influential in the formation of contemporary African philosophy, in particular his methodological approach which has been a major influence on B.A. Ogotemméli who has applied it in the analysis of the thought of his own Dogon culture. Wiredu has sought to develop a philosophical methodology based on the best elements of indigenous African thought which may be used to sift through and clarify concepts and beliefs in both academic and non-academic African contexts. This project has led to some debate with his compatriot Hountondji whose project is to “demystify” African thought from what he sees as a dominating trend – a romantic nationalism which fails to subject African thought to the rigours of rational analysis and a colonial era legacy which tends to marginalize Africa as retrograde and sub-rational. Both Wiredu and Hountondji have helped lay a foundation for a living and concrete African philosophy which deals with a current set of issues and problems and which does not appeal to a romanticized past.

In order to fully understand African philosophy and the debates that have occurred within it, the work of contemporary African philosophers must be considered as well. Part of the reason there has been so much debate about what philosophers can be considered African and what philosophy can be considered African is that some of the most important work in African philosophy has been done by non-Africans. This fact in itself is neither here nor there when it comes to defining the essence of African philosophy, but in practice non-Africans working in Africa have historically had disproportionate influence in defining the field, an influence which still hangs heavy today because some of the important Africana work of non-Africans still tends to be grouped under the heading of African philosophy. For the sake of completeness we will consider some of these figures’ works, but we will begin with black Africans because it is African philosophy in the descriptive sense that we are primarily concerned with.

5. Contemporary Issues and Debates

The particularism debate is premised on the idea that in the past African philosophers have been too quick to simply take over the categories and tools of Western philosophy and apply them to Africa. It suggests that there might be a distinct African way of doing philosophy and that it is this manner that must be identified if African philosophy is to truly exist. One might think that those involved in this debate would all be able to agree to the affirmative action seeing they are essentially asking for the recognition that there is such a thing as African philosophy. But what comes to count as African way of doing philosophy is essentially the bone of contention. Participants in this debate have employed counterpoised strategies.

The past 20 years has seen the arrival of a great deal of new work in African philosophy. It would be impossible to capture all of it in a brief survey. Some of this work has turned to the traditional ideas in the quest for something like a true African world view. Some of it has claimed to be doing African philosophy in a way that transcends traditional ethnophilosophy and seeks to engage with universal philosophical subjects and styles. Some of it has been driven by a desire to bring Africa into the international dialogue that is contemporary philosophy. These differing motivations have coalesced around certain topics leading to quite specific debates. Two of the most fruitful spaces for debate could be called the particularism debate and the identity debate.

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