African Philosophy


Two questions discussed at length in Section I – what is to count as philosophy? how do we distinguish Western from non-Western philosophy? – come to the fore when we consider Africa. Although African cultures feature many beliefs about God, immortality, what it means to be a person, and how to live (see section VI.1), there hasn’t been an indigenous, continuous, systematic, written philosophical tradition there, independent of Islamic (see section V) and European influences. As African philosopher Kwame Wiredu says "The African philosopher writing today has no tradition of written philosophy in his continent to draw on. In this respect, his plight is very much unlike that of, say, the contemporary Indian philosopher. The latter can advert his mind to any insights that might be contained in a long-standing Indian heritage of written philosophical meditations; he has what he might legitimately call classical Indian philosophers to investigate and profit by."

Traditional African thought is transmitted orally, though proverbs and folktales. Traditional African thought is thus primarily what we have called folk-philosophy or ethno-philosophy. But, as we have seen, "folk conceptions tend not to develop with time. Please note that this is as true in the West and elsewhere as it is in Africa." (Wiredu, in Wright, 157) Thus folk philosophy is not philosophy in the academic sense.

As Wiredu puts it, "the crucial difference [between traditional African folk philosophy and philosophy proper] is that the Western philosopher tries to argue for his thesis, clarifying his meaning and answering objections, known or anticipated; whereas the transmitter of folk conceptions merely says "This is what our ancestors said."" (Wiredu, in Wright, 157)

All anthologies I have seen purporting to be traditional "African philosophy" consist largely of either wisdom writing or anthropology or folklore; i.e., calling these works "philosophy" in the academic sense is problematic, either because of the absence of dialectic and/or a continuing tradition. Simply stating, without analysis or argument, that the Yoruba "reckon time in blocks of various lengths and relative to the issues under discussion" (John A. A. Ayoade, in Wright, 107); every educated Akwapin Akan nonetheless believes in witchcraft (Helaine K. Minkus, in Wright, 128); the Akan believe in a 4-part soul (Wiredu, in Wright, 157), etc. is anthropology.

So what is African philosophy then? This question is much debated in the literature. The debate is occurring partly for sociological reasons. The situation of the African public university is similar to the American public university: funding for education is inadequate, and the schools must compete with public health and public works programs for money. Further, both systems promote ethnic studies, and thus funding is more readily available for programs and disciplines labeled "African" than for traditional "European" curricula. Philosophy departments in African universities are under institutional pressure, just as in America, to come up with courses in African philosophy. And, just as in America, they come up empty-handed. So there are numerous papers by African philosophers themselves attempting to explain this situation.

Non-philosopher colleagues and administrators are usually shocked and offended that African philosophers don’t seem interested in teaching African philosophy. But, like most non-academics, non-philosophers do not really understand the difference between ethno-philosophy (the province of anthropology) and academic philosophy. African philosopher P. O. Bodunrin, in his essay "The Question of African Philosophy", writes, "It is natural for the nationalist non-philosopher colleague on a university curriculum committee to wonder why a philosophy department in an African university is not offering courses in African philosophy while there are courses on British philosophy, American philosophy, European philosophy, etc. He would simply argue that if these other people have philosophies, the African too must have a philosophy. Unacquainted with what is taught in these other courses and fully acquainted with the many rich "philosophical" and witty sayings and religious practices of his own people, the nationalist cannot understand why African philosophers do not teach African philosophy. To fail to teach African philosophy is almost tantamount to crime and unpatriotic omission." (Bodunrin, in Wright, 5-6)

Wiredu also mentions the same unpleasant political climate: "African militants and our Afro-American brothers are often disappointed with the sort of philosophy syllabus that is taught at a typical modern department of philosophy in Africa. They find such a department mainly immersed in the study of Logic, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics, Political Philosophy, etc., as these have been developed in the West." (Wright, 158)

Bodunrin elaborates, "Africans who study the intellectual history of other peoples ... are naturally curious to find out if there are African opposite numbers to the philosophers they have studied, say, in Western intellectual history, or at least whether there are equivalent concepts to the ones they have come across in Western philosophy.... This point has become immensely important because of the honorific way in which philosophy has come to be seen. Philosophy has become a value-laden expression such that for a people not to have philosophy is for them to be considered intellectually inferior to others who have." (Wright, 5)

The problem, of course, is that a contemporary African or African-American philosopher simply doesn’t do traditional "African philosophy" any more than an African-American physician does African medicine. As Bodunrin says, "no one laments the lack of African physics. African mathematicians have, as far as I know, not been asked to produce African mathematics. No one has asked that our increasing number of express-ways (sic) be built the African way." (Bodunrin in Wright, 5) As a matter of fact, "present-day African philosophers have been trained in the Western tradition, in the continental or Anglo-American style, depending on their colonial history. Their thinking, therefore, is unlikely to hold many peculiarly African novelties for anyone knowledgeable in Western philosophy." (Wright, 158)

Of course, throughout humanity’s past, there have been individuals, perhaps even illiterate individuals, in African (and all) cultures who have been excellent critical thinkers attempting to justify beliefs through argument. Some logical principles (e.g., non-contradiction) seem built-in to humans, so it would be surprising if humans never used them. But if there is no institutionalized tradition of dialectic, the reasoners must be relatively isolated "wise people"; their views are not necessarily ever elaborated or enriched or criticized in turn by subsequent thinkers.

And of course, non-literate cultures may be rich and interesting and sophisticated in many ways. Philosophers do not live in the clouds; they travel and read anthropology, too. They also think critically about their own assumptions. As I mentioned above, throughout Western philosophy, there have been skeptics, mystics, structuralists, Marxists, feminists, etc. who have critically analyzed philosophy’s own methods; they have given reasons to doubt the hegemony of reason. Some recent writers have even used the data of anthropology: for example, the 20th-century French philosophers Lucien Levi-Bruhl and Claude Levi-Strauss, who praise intuition, mysticism, and "the savage mind". But obviously, a philosopher who gives reasons to doubt reason is still doing philosophy.

I stress the difference between folk philosophy and philosophy proper primarily because I don’t think we can overlook the fact that much of traditional African folk-thought (like folk-thought in any culture) is, in Wiredu’s words, "primitive", "superstitious", and "backward". Even educated Africans frequently believe in animism, witches, fetishes, the legitimacy of slavery, the inferiority of women, and the "insatiable" female sexual urge, requiring clitoridectomy. I refuse to report such beliefs uncritically, since, as I argued above, I think the "all cultures are equal" umbrella is full of holes.

I agree with Wiredu that "The ideal way to reform backward customs in Africa must, surely, be to undermine their superstitious belief-foundations by fostering in the people – at all events, in the new generation of educated Africans [and African-Americans!] – the spirit of rational inquiry in all spheres of thought and belief. Even if the backward beliefs in question were peculiarly African, it would be necessary to work for their eradication. But my point is that they are not African in any intrinsic, inseparable sense; and the least that African philosophers and foreign well-wishers can do in this connection is to refrain, in this day and age, from serving up the usual congeries of unargued conceptions about gods, ghosts, and witches in the name of African philosophy." (Wright, 155)

Bodunrin concurs: "The African philosopher cannot deliberately ignore the study of the traditional belief system of his people. Philosophical problems arise out of real-life situations. In Africa, more than in many other parts of the modern world, traditional culture and beliefs still exercise a great influence on the thinking and actions of men. At a time when many people in the West believe that philosophy has become impoverished and needs redirection, a philosophical study of traditional societies may be the answer. The point, however, is that the philosopher’s approach to this study must be one of criticism."(Wright 13)

I would like now to make this whole argument clearer by enumerating what documents, if any, might be candidates for African philosophy in the academic sense. If academic philosophy requires documents, some indigenous African documents do exist. These documents are all controversial in ways I have mentioned: either (1) because the documents are primarily mythology, literature, or wisdom writing, and thus their status as philosophy is unclear, or (2) because the documents that are unquestionably philosophy aren’t in any clear sense distinctively "African philosophy". I shall outline the documents and the difficulties.

1. From the ancient Egyptian period, "wisdom writings" survive, along with autobiographies, royal installation speeches and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The status of wisdom writings in philosophy is unclear, as described above. The Book of the Dead is "a compilation of spells for resurrecting people in the afterlife" (Bonevac, 9) – a work that therefore does not address, but rather takes for granted answers to philosophical questions, and thus much more a religious document than a philosophical one.

2. There are compilations of Ewe and Swahili proverbs and folktales of various tribes (Ewe, Akan) and language groups (Swahili). These are "wisdom writings"; again, the status of wisdom writings in philosophy is unclear.

3. There are some writings of the 16th and 17th centuries (by ’Abba Mika’el, Zera Yacob, Walda Heywat). Christian missionaries had brought the Bible to Africa during the Roman Empire, and missionary activity in Africa has continued ever since. The missionaries brought European traditions and, after the Reformation, literacy (Protestants emphasize literacy because of their view that each person is capable of reading and interpreting Scripture unaided by external authority). Thus a few African philosophical documents emerge in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in Ethiopia, but they are, not surprisingly, rather cosmopolitan in flavor, treating the same themes (such as the role of reason vis-à-vis revelation, and the use of reason to analyze and compare the doctrines of various religions) as their late Renaissance, post-Reformation counterparts in Europe. I wonder what is distinctively "African" about this work.

4. There are contemporary writings by Africans and Europeans and Americans of African descent. These fall into two groups:

· Nationalist-ideological philosophers such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Leopold Senghor. These writers attempt to create "a new and, if possible unique political theory based on traditional African socialism and familyhood. It is argued that a true and meaningful freedom must be accompanied by a true mental liberation and a return, whenever possible and desirable, to genuine and authentic African humanism." (Bodunrin in Wright, 2)

· Professional philosophers such as Wiredu, Bodunrin, Hountondji, Kwame Gyekye, Odera Oruka, and Benjamin Ewuku Oguah. These "take a universalist view of philosophy." They hold that "philosophy must have the same meaning in all cultures. ... According to this school, African philosophy is the philosophy done by African philosophers whether it be in the area of logic, metaphysics, ethics, or history of philosophy. It is desirable that the works be set in some African context, but it is not necessary that they be so. Thus, if African philosophers were to engage in debates on Plato’s epistemology, or on theoretical identities, their works would qualify as African philosophy. It is the view of this school that debate among African philosophers is only just beginning and that the tradition of philosophy in the strict sense of the word is just now being established." (Bodunrin, in Wright 3)

Only the latter two groups (post 16th century) are clearly philosophy; the others fail either because of the absence of dialectic or the absence of a continuing tradition. And of the work that clearly counts as philosophy, there is considerable debate over whether it should be called "non-Western" or distinctively African.

Let me first point out that philosophers do not categorize any philosophy of any sort written by a woman as "women’s philosophy". A woman who does phenomenology is called a phenomenologist, not a "woman phenomenologist". Gender is irrelevant. Ethnicity is irrelevant also. A Latin-American (like Santayana) who does metaphysics is called a metaphysician. We do not categorize philosophers’ specialties according to their gender or ethnicity. So to say that "African philosophy is the philosophy done by African philosophers whether it be in the area of logic, metaphysics, ethics, or history of philosophy" is at the very least a departure from common practice. It is to say that race or ethnicity determines the sort of work a philosopher can do. Now, I would be insulted if someone said I could do only women’s philosophy because I am a woman; in the same way, I would think that an African philosopher would be insulted by the claim that she or he can do only African philosophy.

Also, a philosopher trained in Western philosophy is most likely to refer primarily to Western philosophy in his or her work. In general, the philosophical writings of twentieth-century Africans and persons of African descent are Western in flavor, as Wiredu noted. This is not surprising, given that, as Wiredu noted above, "Present-day African philosophers have been trained in the Western tradition, in the continental or Anglo-American style, depending on their colonial history. Their thinking, therefore, is unlikely to hold many peculiarly African novelties for anyone knowledgeable in Western philosophy." Recall that earlier, I made the distinction between Western and non-Western philosophy by asking the question: to whom does the writer refer? I have indicated this problem briefly with respect to the writings of ’Abba Mika’el, Zera Yacob, and Walda Heywat. A good 20th-century example is Frantz Fanon.

Some anthologies, e.g., Bonevac, discuss the 20th-century French-trained psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, a man of color from Martinique (not Africa), in their modules on "African philosophy". Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), advocates violence as an acceptable method for Third World liberation movements. In fact, speaking as a psychiatrist, he thinks such violence is essential for Third World men (sic) to achieve psychological liberation and wholeness after their years of de-humanizing oppression. Fanon’s advocacy of violent revolution made him a hero to radical student groups in the 1960s. I read Fanon as dutifully as the rest of my comrades in SDS. Fanon was thought to be an original voice. Jean-Paul Sartre (another hero) said of Fanon that "the Third World finds itself and speaks to itself through his voice."(Bonevac 45) Now, I wonder if a man trained in psychiatry and steeped in the writings of Marx, a German (who was of course the first to advocate violent revolution) can really be said to be outside the Western tradition. Undoubtedly, Fanon offers a new, psychoanalytic justification for Marxist views; and his perspective on the issues is certainly not that of the imperialist oppressor. So it makes some sense to classify Fanon as "non-Western". But if Fanon is non-Western because he advocates the liberation of the wretched of the earth, then so is Marx, no? Why not say, as my professors did, that Fanon is an important 20th-century Marxist? It seems arbitrary to classify Fanon’s work as non-Western simply because he is a black man. It seems even stranger to group Fanon’s work under African philosophy; this implies, to me, either that Fanon’s ideas apply in some special sense to Africans, or originate in some sense from an indigenous African tradition, or do not apply equally to oppressed people in South America or Asia.

The puzzles about how to classify Fanon are not unique. A number of anthologized contemporary articles compare and contrast traditional African beliefs with Western philosophical doctrines. For example, Oguah’s "African and Western Philosophy: A Comparative Study" compares the views of the Fanti tribes with Western philosophers: the Fanti on personhood with Descartes, on religion with Anselm and Aquinas, on epistemology with rationalism, etc. I am not sure what to call papers of this sort, but I think they are closer to intellectual history than philosophy. Is it philosophy to note that the Fanti seem to have reached some of the same conclusions as some Western philosophers? The properly philosophical question seems to be: What about those conclusions? Are they warranted?

There is no question that excellent philosophy is being done by contemporary African philosophers and persons of African descent on other continents; but is it African philosophy? To give you an idea how problematic an issue this is, note that about one-third of the articles in Richard Wright’s anthology of contemporary writing, African Philosophy, concern whether or not there is such a thing as "African philosophy" at all (the rest are what I have called ethno-philosophy); interestingly, the African contributors Wiredu and Bodunrin are some of the ones who say "no". Bodunrin speaks of Africans getting "a late start" in philosophy; Henri Maurier, a French Africanist, says "The real enterprise [of African philosophy] has not yet gotten off the ground". (Wright 25)