Since the beginning of the development of the corpus of African philosophical writing, African philosophy has been written exclusively in European languages. African philosophers write in English, in French, in Portuguese, in German, in Latin, and if we may include the non-African authors who made substantial contributions to African philosophy and the languages into which the major works of African philosophy were translated, we would arrive at a large number of European (and possibly even Asian) languages, but very few, if any, African ones.
There are authors among African philosophers who stress the importance of a renaissance of the traditional thought systems, some go as far as to claim that the usage of African languages may have far-reaching consequences on the philosophical conclusions at which we arrive. In spite of this, the same authors often acknowledge certain shortcomings of African languages to express philosophical ideas. In any way, they all continue writing in European languages.
The reasons for this state of affairs are obvious. Historical conditions such as colonialism, economic and political dependency, contribute to the fact of the international weakness of regional languages, this being the case not only of African languages. English and French, but especially English, have a large international public, books in English get sold, get read, etc. African languages were ignored or even suppressed during the colonial era, so that speaking a European language became a matter of high prestige, whereas African languages were looked down upon. Even if that changed, economic underdevelopment leads to cultural underdevelopment, propagating African languages is only possible if there are the means to do it. But even then, there is the large number of African languages : which are we to choose ?
On the grounds of these reasons, African languages are underdeveloped, lack the vocabulary to express realities of modern life. There are some languages with a large number of speakers or simply lucky to have a « patriotic » intellectual elite. In these languages, the efforts to develop a modern terminology, including a philosophical terminology, have already a certain tradition.
In Swahili, dictionaries concentrating on technological and scientific terminology have been edited : S. D. Irira, Kamusi Awali ya Sayansi na Tekinolojia (Dar es Salaam, 1995), Cosmo Ambokile Lazaro, Kiswahili – Wörterbuch der Medizin (Bonn, 1998), tuki, Kamusi Sanifu ya Biolojia, Fizikia na Kemia (Dar es Salaam, 1990). There are also two dictionaries dealing with vocabularies of the human sciences : Irmtraud Herms, Theologischer and kirchlicher Wortschatz. Swahili – Deutsch und Deutsch – Swahili (Berlin, 1991) and tuki, Kamusi Sanifu ya Isimu na Lugha (Dar es Salaam, 1990).
In Hausa, there is the book Hausa in the Media. A lexical guide (Hamburg, 1991), by Joseph McIntyre and Hilke Meyer-Bahlburg.
In Yoruba, Prof. Ayo Bamgbose edited the book Yoruba Metalanguage (Ede-iperi
Yoruba). A Glossary of English-Yoruba Technical Terms in Language, Literature,
and Methodology (Lagos, 1984). This book could be instructive for all
future African scholars who will try to create a terminology in African
languages, for it stresses the usage of Yoruba words, as opposed to introducing
English loanwords, to express the realities of modern life. It follows five
strategies in the creation of modern terminology : composition, semantic
extension, dialect borrowing, special coinage and loanwords. A lot of modern-day
realities get expressed without actually retreating to loanwords. Some of these
words are in fact very elegant – one example for all, the composed word afunnupe
means literally « constricting the mouth in order to pronounce », and it
renders the linguistic term « fricative » ! Bamgbose himself used this new
terminology in his Fonólójì àti Gírámà Yorùbá...
Ayò Bámgbósé, Fonólójì àti Girámà Yorùbá, University...
To my knowing, no effort has been made yet to create a philosophical terminology in an African language or to translate a Western philosophical book into an African language.
Is it, then, possible to write philosophy in African languages ? What is the role of African languages in the formation or reflection of African thought ?
That is the theme of this paper. I will consider the usage of African languages in the corpus of African philosophical writing. I will commence with a look back into the beginnings of African philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries, then I will examine the use of African languages in the four trends of African philosophy as introduced by Henry Odera Oruka in 1978. The final part will deal with the perspectives of African languages serving as a medium of African philosophy.
The philosopher Anton-Wilhelm Amo, also Amo Guinea-Afer or Amo Guinea-Africanus, coming from Axim in the Gulf of Guinea in today’s Ghana, arrived in Germany as a child in the early 18th century. He studied law at Halle, later medicine and psychology at Wittenberg, where he got the title « master of philosophy and liberal arts ». He lectured at Wittenberg and at the university of Jena. He went back to Africa in the middle of the century, and the last mention of him comes from the Dutch medical doctor David-Henri Gallandet, who met the about fifty-year-old Amo in Axim in 1753, where he lived peacefully as a hermit and enjoying the reputation of a soothsayer.
He wrote several philosophical works in Latin, the main ones being : Dissertatio
Inauguralis de jure Maurorum in Europa (Inaugural lecture on the Moors’
law in Europe ; 1729), a text up to now not found ; Dissertatio de humanae
mentis apatheia (Lecture on the apatheia of the human mind ; 1734) ; Tractatus
de arte sobrie et accurate philosophandi (Tractatus on the art of sober and
accurate philosophising ; 1738), a large work having 208 pages. We must also
mention a 16-page summary of De humanae mentis apatheia, written by
Amo’s disciple Johannes Theodosius Meiner, bearing the name Disputatio
philosophica continens ideam distinctam eorum quae competunt vel menu vel
corpori nostro vivo et organico (Philosophical disputation containing the
distinct idea of what pertains either to the mind or to our live and organic
body), written in 1734. For probably the most
comprehensive overview of Amo’s...
Amo’s work is up to these days poorly known, although his name is becoming popular among today’s African scholars (for example, in 1978, unesco, the government of Ghana and the government of the former German Democratic Republic organized a conference to the memory of Amo, where the late Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka exposed for the first time his fourfold classification of African philosophy and introduced the problematic of « sage philosophy »).
Later works referred to by present-day African and African-American philosophers are also written in European languages, such as the works of Edward W. Blyden (1832-1912) and of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963).
The actual canon of African philosophy, beginning with the works of the protagonists of the movement of negritude, such as Senghor and Césaire, going over the pioneering work of Placide Tempels, Laphilosophie bantoue, published in 1945 in French and a year later in the Flemish original (Bantoe-Filosofie), up to the works of the most important African philosophers today, such as Henry Odera Oruka, Kwasi Wiredu, Peter Bodunrin, Jean-Godefroy Bidima, Vincent-Yves Mudimbe, to name just a few, it is European languages that are used to write African philosophy.
The historical reasons are obvious and their consequences are the following : European languages constitute a means of communication that provides a wider audience than African languages ; African languages are often underdeveloped, as far as their modern terminology is concerned ; there are too many ; and they mostly lack a written tradition, with only a few exceptions (such as the language Ge’ez in Ethiopia, which is however not spoken anymore).
Nevertheless, many African philosophers claim that the usage of African languages may have far-reaching consequences on the form of African philosophy and on the thought systems to which we arrive. Let us therefore trace the usage of African languages in African philosophy and investigate into the possibility and consequences of such usage for the practice of African philosophy as such.
The debate concerning the very possibility and existence of African
philosophy resulted in classificatory efforts trying to map the philosophical
writing on and from Africa. The Kenyan philosopher Odera Oruka introduced his
classification in 1978... See H. Odera Oruka : «
Four Trends in Current African Philosophy...
It is based on four categories and is widely used until now, although there have been also other attempts at a classification of African philosophy, such as that of professor Smet of Belgium, working in Kinshasa since 1968, of the Kanadian Claude Sumner, an eminent researcher of Ethiopian philosophy, of English and Kalumba, editors of an anthology of African philosophy, or of Odera Oruka himself, who added two other categories or currents to his classification in 1990... See A. J. Smet : « The teaching of philosophy in Africa...
I would like to introduce some of these categories here, because the approach of various authors to African languages may differ substantially according to the broader context of their writing, the idea leading them etc., and rough as the classificatory categories may be, they may nonetheless be helpful in drawing the general lines of approaching the problematic of African languages in African philosophy.
The classification of Odera Oruka of 1978 consists of four trends or currents in contemporary African philosophy : ethnophilosophy, philosophic sagacity, nationalist-ideological philosophy and professional philosophy.
A. Ethnophilosophy, which is originally a pejorative term coined by Marcien Towa and Paulin Hountondji, is based on the presupposition that African philosophy and European philosophy are each of a fundamentally different nature. Whereas European philosophy is characterized by logic and individuality, that is, it uses the tools of logical ratiocination and its proponents are known, individual thinkers, to whom thoughts and thought systems are ascribed, African philosophy is, on the contrary, communal and based on emotion and intuition. It is identified with the « folk philosophy » as manifest in tales, customs, poems, taboos, songs, dances, religions, etc. Writers sharing this opinion compose themselves individual works, but their aim is to elaborate the implicit folk philosophy. They insist on a sharp differentiation between African and European thought and go sometimes as far as to reformulate the concept of philosophy as such.
Ethnophilosophy comprises the works of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Alexis Kagame, John Mbiti or Placide Tempels.
I do not share the sarcasm implicit in the designation of « ethnophilosophy ». I want to keep the term as a label for the above-mentioned authors or authors writing in the same groove, so to speak, but in order to distance myself from the criticism as articulated by Odera Oruka, I have used the term in quotation marks in my Czech book on African philosophy, and that is how I would like to use the term in this lecture as well. (So, please, imagine little quotation marks whenever I say « ethnophilosophy ».)
B. Philosophic sagacity is the thought of « sages » – individual men and women who live in the traditional society, are versed in the folk wisdom of their peoples, but are also in part able to critically assess the traditions of their society. This last condition distinguishes « philosophic sages » from « folk sages », who are only capable of describing the traditions of their peoples without critically evaluating them.
This current demarcates itself from « ethnophilosophy » precisely though the fact that it finds in traditional society critically thinking individuals as opposed to a communally shared world outlook and anonymous wisdom. It is the task of a « professional philosopher » to enter a traditional society, find those sages and record their wisdom and their reasoning. Odera Oruka has himself undertaken such project. In 1974, he began his research of the thought of traditional Luo sages, an enterprise which culminated in the publication of Odera Oruka’s most important book, Sage Philosophy. Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy (1990).
Other authors usually classed in this category are the American Barry Hallen and his colleague, the Nigerian J. Olubi Sodipo, although they themselves as well as Odera Oruka protested against their being added to this category. Hallen and Sodipo elaborated a brilliant approach to traditional thought when working with the traditional Yoruba healers onisegun. They compared the use of certain concepts in Yoruba and in English and on the basis of this arrived at a comparison of the English and the Yoruba conceptual systems.
I would like to re-name this category to traditional philosophy to extend it to all works of « professional philosophers » trying to elucidate concepts from a certain traditional culture using methods of Western philosophy.
The category will then comprise some works of « professional philosophers » such as Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye or Olusegun Gbadegesin. The boundary between « ethnophilosophy » and « traditional philosophy » then becomes blurred, which I consider right given the blurred boundary between the realities themselves, and will be constituted by several rather (intentionally) vague criteria :
C. Nationalist-ideological philosophy refers to the writings of several statesmen, who tried to make alleged traditional African values valid in the building of the new African states after independence. The values they acknowledge as truly African are communalism, humanism, various elements of the ideology of the négritude or the assimilative capacity of the African mind to adopt and re-work foreign influences and merge them with the original cultural elements to form a new tradition.
Typical writers of this current are Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah or Léopold Sédar Senghor.
For the sake of brevity, I have re-named this current political philosophy.
D. Professional philosophy is the last of Odera Oruka’s four currents. It consists of works of African philosophers who got a formal philosophical education, usually in Western colleges and universities. Odera Oruka ascribes them the shared view of philosophy as a strict discipline involving criticism, reflexion and logic and done by individual thinkers, who engage in a discussion together, defend and perfect their theories and contribute to the creation of a written philosophical tradition. These philosophers are often denominated grossly as the « universalist » current, for they maintain that human thinking follows the same principles throughout the world’s cultures and that philosophy exhibits no fundamental differences such as those that the exponents of « ethnophilosophy » try to disclose. Differences in philosophies can only be differences in topics, but not in approaches or methods, philosophy must proceed following the rules of logical reasoning : logic is universal. Although the main « professional philosophers », as named by Odera Oruka, express this belief sometimes in different words, in different shades and in a varying extent, they all insinuate it in one way or another. The « hard core » of « professional philosophers » comprises Odera Oruka, Kwasi Wiredu, Paulin Hountondji, and Peter Bodunrin.
I keep the term « professional philosophy » to designate those philosophers who got a formal philosophical education, but without implying the universalist claim and the idea this group is supposed to have on the nature of philosophy. With such extention (again, I will use the term « profesional philosophy » in quotation marks), I can include other philosophers into this fourth current, some of whom do share the ideology proposed by Odera Oruka (such as Marcien Towa), some do not. Some were not yet active in the time when the classification was made. Other philosophers in this broad group are then Vincent-Yves Mudimbe, Jean-Godefroy Bidima, Alassane Ndaw, Dismas A. Masolo, Kwame Anthony Appiah and many others.
Having thus introduced the four categories, I can now turn to the investigation of the role African languages play in the works of these African philosophers.
Approaches to African languages in the four groups are different. Whereas some authors – mostly the « professional philosophers » – totally give up the usage of African languages, others make use of African languages, in a varying measure, in their works.
Let us sketch the scale of the usage of African languages : 1) no reflection
of African languages at all (Towa, Hountondji, but also Mudimbe, Masolo, Bidima…)
; 2) general considerations of African languages (Senghor…) ; 3) isolation and
explication of certain concepts from an African language, grafting them into the
European conceptual system as separated, quasi « exotic » pieces of foreign
wisdom (Senghor, Gbadegesin, Gyekye, Wiredu, Nyerere…) ; 4) recourse to folk
wisdom as petrified in proverbs, sayings, etc., to support philosophical or
political claims of the writer (Gyekye, Gbadegesin, Wiredu, Nyerere…) ; 5)
derivation of a philosophical system or of a fundamental conceptual distinction
from a language (Kagame, Hallen and Sodipo…) ; 6) consistent usage of African
languages – no philosophy is actually written in African languages, but
sometimes sentences or even entire dialogues are transcribed or translated
especially in the category of traditional philosophy (Odera Oruka, Hallen and
Sodipo – who actually include their dialogues with the onisegun at
the end of their book, Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft. Analytic
Experiments in African Philosophy) Barry Hallen and
J. Olubi Sodipo, Knowledge, Belief, and...
A special case represents here the Ethiopian philosophy, with its own written philosophical tradition in Ge’ez.
It is to be said that these categories are sometimes overlapping in the works of certain authors or that some authors may assume different approaches in different works. Some « professional philosophers », for example, renounce every mention of African languages in their writing on general philosophical themes, whereas they investigate into African conceptual systems in other works, or at least offer an interesting perspective sometimes by mentioning an African concept even in the context of general philosophical writing.
Let us now demonstrate these general theses in the work of several individual authors.
Léopold Sédar Senghor, in his effort to discover the genius of his race,
delineated a clear distinction between European languages and African languages.
He specifies, as he says, « Negro-African » languages as having several «
essential qualities » L. S. Senghor, « Langage et poésie
most amazing is the « richness of vocabulary » ; in the sphere of the morphology and syntax, he notes the noun classes, the importance of the aspect (as opposed to the tense, stressed in European languages), and the sentence structure characterized by coordination and juxtaposition as opposed to the subordination used in European languages.
His interpretation of these peculiarities relies on his understanding of the differences of the two races, whose demonstration he sees in the languages as well.
He writes : « Ce qui importe au Negre, c’est l’aspect, la manière
concrète dont s’exprime l’action. […] [C’est] la qualité essentielle
des langues negro-africaines ; elles sont essentiellement des langues concrètes.
» L. S. Senghor, « Langage et poésie négro-africaine
(In my translation : What matters to the Black, is the aspect, the concrete manner how the action is expressed. It is an essential quality of the Negro-African languages, they are essentially concrete languages.)
The « genius of the Negro-African languages » is, according to Senghor, the extreme expressivity and colourfulness by means of « analogical images » (« images analogiques »). As he writes : « L’image dépasse naturellement les apparences pour pénétrer les idées. C’est, du moins, ce que fait, presque toujours, l’image négro-africaine, qui est analogie, symbole, expression du monde moral, du sens par le signe. » (In my translation : The image naturally goes beyond the phenomena so as to penetrate the ideas. It is at least what almost always the Negro-African image does, which is analogy, symbol, expression of the world of morality, of the meaning by means of the sign.)
The Black has an intuitive understanding of
ideas, of essences of objects (identified by Senghor also with the « force
vitale » of Placide Tempels See L. S. Senghor, «
Langage et poesie négro-africaine...
by means of verbal imagery. The Negro-African languages are especially prone to be made into poems – by means of being made rhythmic – and into music, and by receiving the component of rhythm, they are able to express the very being of the world, as rhythm is « the architecture of being » L. S. Senghor, « L’esthétique négro-africaine », in...
Senghor especially stresses the musicality of tone languages : « les langues [à tons] sont elles-mêmes enceintes de musique » L. S. Senghor, « Le langage intégral des Négro-Africaines...
(In my translation : « the tone languages are themselves pregnant with music. »)
Now, despite all this praise of African languages, Senghor is himself a writer wielding a brilliant French, writing in French and an passionate advocate of the French language. How does this fit together ?
For Senghor, French is a language with an extremely rich vocabulary, a
heritage of the Greek and Latin civilizations. This vocabulary is especially
rich in the spheres of technology and science, in abstract words. This is
something that African languages lack or are even incapable of : « Mais ce qui,
à première approximation, fait la force des langues négro-africaines, fait,
en même temps, leur faiblesse. Ce sont des langues poétiques. Les
mots, presque toujours concrets, sont enceints d’images,
1’ordonnance des mots dans la proposition, des propositions dans la phrase y
obéit à la sensibilité plus qu’à l’intelligibilité : aux raisons du cœur
plus qu’aux raisons de la raison. » L. S. Senghor, «
Le français, langue et culture », in...
(In my translation : But that which at the first approximation makes out the power of Negro-African languages, constitutes at the same time their weakness. They are poetic languages. Words, which are almost always concrete, are pregnant with images, the arrangement of words in the clause, of clauses in the sentence obeys sensibility rather than intelligibility : reasons of the heart rather than reasons of the reason.)
Senghor also praises French for being « a concise language », thanks to its
rich vocabulary, as well as being « precise and capable of expressing subtle
differences, therefore clear » L. S. Senghor, « Le
français, langue et culture », p. ...
It has a rich stock of conjunctions and words enabling a hierarchical structuring of words and clauses, thus facilitating an analysis as well as a synthesis (of ideas). « À la syntaxe de juxtaposition des langues négro-africaines, s’oppose la syntaxe de subordonation du français ; à la syntaxe du concret vécu, celle de l’abstrait pensé : pour tout dire, la syntaxe de la raison à celle de l’émotion. » L. S. Senghor, « Le français, langue et culture », p. ...
(In my translation : To the syntax of juxtaposition of Negro-African languages, the syntax of subordination of French is opposed ; to the syntax of the lived concrete, that of the thought abstract : in short, the syntax of the reason is opposed to that of the emotion.)
Another advantage of the French language is its style, drawing on « the
Greek subtility and the Latin rigour, a symbiosis animated by the Celtic passion
»... L. S. Senghor, « Le français, langue et
culture », p. ...
Senghor names other reasons in favour of French, such as its humanism and the
fact that many African Francophone intellectuals write and speak a better French
than they do their own mother languages. Senghor’s practical solution to the
language issue is that of bilinguism (still, strongly favouring the French
language in education). African languages play their role in the policy of «
taking roots (l’enracinement) in the Negritude »....
L. S. Senghor, « Le français et les langues africaines...
Another strategy of the usage of African languages by Senghor is that of
introducing a certain concept from an African language (and an African thought
system) and explaining it within another (the French) thought system. I will
only refer here to his explication of the « Senegalese code of honour »...
Léopold Sédar Senghor, Ce que je crois. Nigritude, francité...
He uses Wolof words to describe it. Thus jom, the « sense of honour », consists of kersa, teggin and muñ, meaning respectively « shame », « comportment » and « patience ». He goes on to describe these three and he even quotes a Wolof poem exemplifying the virtues. (For this description, I will refer you to the book Ce que je crois. Négritude, Francité et Civilisation de l’Universel, Paris, 1988, p. 12-17.)
The usage of African languages by other « ethnophilosophers » is either that of using certain African words to denote concepts which do not exist in European thought, or that of deriving a thought system from a language. In the former case, the constructed meaning of such concepts may even be different from the original meaning of the word in the African language.
Thus for example the Kenyan theologian John Mbiti explained the general
structure of the conception of time of the Africans (he studied several East
African (Bantu) languages, but he extends his conclusions basically to all Bantu
languages, even to all African languages and to all African peoples) using two
Swahili terms, « Sasa » and « Zamani ». Mbiti claims that « according to
traditional concepts, time is a two-dimensional phenomenon, with a long past,
a present and virtually no future. The linear concept of time
in western thought, with an indefinite past, present and infinite future, is
practically foreign to African thinking » John S. Mbiti,
African Religions and Philosophy, Anchor...
He proves this claim using linguistic evidence – saying the East African languages he studied had no tense to designate a distant future – and he goes on to describe the « African calendar ». To refer to the present, he uses the Swahili word « Sasa », which then covers the present time. For the past (in all its complexity), he uses the Swahili word « Zamani ». Then he explains the relationship of the two. In this way, the Swahili words become parts in Mbiti’s philosophical construction at the cost of losing, or changing, the original meaning which they had in the Swahili language.
Probably the best-known and also the most interesting and influential elaboration of the second approach, that of deriving an entire conceptual system from an African language, is the work of the Rwandian priest Alexis Kagame. Kagame believes in the existence of a unified and immutable collective Bantu thinking, but also that all European philosophy can be reduced to its foundation, which is the Aristotelian-Tomistic philosophy. Kagame elaborated his theory first on the basis of his mother tongue, Kinyarwanda, in his dissertation in 1955, named La philosophie bantu-rwandaise de l’Être, and later in his impressive work, La philosophie Bantu comparée, where he goes on to give the language form of the general structuring of being of the Bantu, as he derived it originally from Kinyarwanda, for a large number of Bantu languages.
He opposes four Bantu categories to the ten categories of Aristotle. The
names are taken from Kinyarwanda and it is always the root -ntu
supplied with various nominal prefixes. 1) (u)muntu, pl. (a)bantu
is the name of man, an intelligence-endowed being ; 2) (i)kintu, pl. (i)bintu
– the name of the thing, a being not endowed with intelligence ; this
category includes animals and plants as well ; 1) and 2) stand for the
Aristotelian category of substance ; 3) (a)hantu is the name of
localization in space or time ; it stands for the two Aristotelian categories of
time and space ; and 4) (u)kuntu is the name for modality ; it includes
the remaining Aristotelian notions of quantity, quality, relation, activity,
passivity, position and possession.. See Alexis
Kagame, La philosophie Bantu comparée, Présence...
This scheme has found a wide acceptance. Against Kagame’s own intention,
the root -ntu was identified with the « life force » of Tempels by
Janheinz Jahn..,.. Janheinz
Jahn, Muntu. Die neoafrikanische Kultur. Blues,...
The word « muntu » was since then used by many proponents of a kind of collective Bantu philosophy as well as by its critics... See, for example, F. Eboussi-Boulaga, La crise du Muntu. ...
Kagame thus uses the Bantu noun-class system to derive a substructed Bantu world outlook, which he then describes using Bantu words, comparing them among themselves, explaining them to the European reader.
In the camp of traditional philosophy, we see a similar effort by Hallen and Sodipo, who, based on linguistical evidence – the usage of some carefully chosen words by the onisegun –, arrive at the Yoruba and the English conceptual systems (at least in one such exemplary cut through them) and are able to compare them as well as to deduce certain common philosophical conclusions.
Hallen and Sodipo have done major researches in the field of Yoruba epistemology. Starting with Quine’s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation, they chose to compare the English and the Yoruba conceptual system as far as the use of the epistemological modalities of « believing » and of « knowing » and the corresponding Yoruba concepts of mo and gbagbo are concerned.
They isolated three usages of the word « to know » in English : 1) knowing
that (or information) ; 2) knowing how (or competence) ; and 3) knowledge by
acquaintance..... See Barry Hallen and J. Olubi
Sodipo, Knowledge, Belief,...
It is only « knowing by acquaintance » that means knowing something based on one’s own experience. Similarly, « to believe » has three main meanings : 1) believing that ; 2) believing a person ; and 3) believing in... Hallen and Sodipo, Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft, p. ...
The basic meaning is 1). The difference between « knowing that » and « believing that » is in the fact that « knowing that » presupposes that the contents of the proposition following it are true, whereas this is not the case with « believing that».
The corresponding Yoruba words, according to authoritative works such as Abraham’s Dictionary of Modern Yoruba, are mo and gbagbo. Hallen and Sodipo analyze the usage of these terms by the onisegun. It shows that for a Yoruba to say mo, he must have a first-hand experience with whatever he mo – that is, only one of the meanings of the English « to know » corresponds to the Yoruba word mo. In all other cases, that is, where there is no original, first-hand experience, the Yoruba will use gbagbo. The object of igbagbo is knowledge that has its source in oral tradition, in school education, in books, in testimony.
Imo and igbagbo are characterized also by different kinds expressions of agreement with them : whereas imo, if verified, is termed ooto, truth, igbagbo can only be characterized by the words ogbon, wisdom, sense, and oye, understanding, wisdom, intelligence.
Hallen and Sodipo find thus the Yoruba epistemological system « more
reflective, more theoretically attuned, more sceptical, and more empirical than
had previously been entertained (of traditional epistemological systems »
Hallen and Sodipo, Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft, p. ...
and even marvel at the fact that the English epistemological system in fact passes a lot of second-hand information, without verification, as knowledge. Contrary to the implication of Hallen and Sodipo, however, we might ask if precisely this quality of the English epistemological system is not a helpful, if not necessary presupposition for that system to lead to a development of science : for in order to develop the body of « knowledge », one must take the results of others (that is, « book » knowledge, knowledge by testimony etc.) as « knowledge », as « truth » – to productively develop them, to build upon them. The reluctance to operate with « second-hand » information as with « knowledge » can in fact be a serious drawback of the Yoruba epistemological system, should it aspire to develop a body of « scientific knowledge ». In other words, the boundary between « reliable information » and « unreliable information » must be drawn elsewhere than in the differentiation between first-hand knowledge (imo) and not first-hand knowledge (igbagbo).
Thus contrary to what Hallen and Sodipo maintain, subsuming all not first-hand knowledge in one category in the Yoruba epistemological system would in fact conform to the usual idea of traditional epistemological systems more than the differentiation of a « trustworthy » and a « doubtful » tradition in the English system, because there would be no possibility of (at least terminological) differentiation of traditions – of the tradition of scientific research from mere traditional superstitions.
Besides, the terminological isolation of the direct experience is not really as important as Hallen and Sodipo believe, just as knowledge coming from first-hand experience is not really as useful as it might seem.
But these remarks are details compared to the ingenious contribution of Hallen and Sodipo to the research of traditional philosophy.
Their method is thus clear : exposing the conceptual system of one language,
then of the other, where the entire language system is to be taken into account,
not just isolated words. Hallen and Sodipo expose at least a part of the system,
the terms and their usage in the entire net of the language system with its
inner interconnections and relationships. From the linguistic exposition,
aspects of the philosophy of the people are deduced, in this case the
epistemological system of the Yoruba. Hallen and Sodipo have also made
investigations into the concept of the person by the Yoruba
Barry Hallen and J. Olubi Sodipo, « The House of the «...
and more is to come in Barry Hallen’s new book The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. Discourse about Values in Yoruba Culture, published 2001.
Other authors in traditional philosophy unfortunately do not use this « holistic » approach, but rather explain individual terms of a given philosophy without respect for its own systematical structure and its own « rationality ». Such works are Kwame Gyekye’s An Essay on African Philosophical Thought. The Akan Conceptual Scheme (cup, Cambridge (New York) 1987) or Segun Gbadegesin’s African Philosophy. Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities (Peter Lang, New York, San Francisco, Bern, Frankfurt am Main, Paris, London, 1991). In these works, the traditional thought systems are analyzed using the Western conceptual system in a rather inappropriate way, in my opinion, so that completely out-of-place questions are posed, such as « does the soul before birth have free will ? » or concerning the material, spiritual, quasi-physical, etc., qualities of the various constituents of the person according to the given traditional thought system.
Similar objections might be raised to the usage of African languages in the works of the renowned Ghanain philosopher Kwasi Wiredu. However, his case is rather more complex and is worth a closer look.
Kwasi Wiredu has tried to specify the influence that the language which we use to do philosophy has on the philosophical conclusions at which we arrive. Indeed, the issues themselves are sometimes language-dependent.
He has argued against the universality of some philosophical issues on
account of the impossibility to express them in other natural languages, such as
his mother tongue, Akan. This is the case, for example, with the correspondence
theory of truth. In this theory, we define truth by means of assertions such as
« “p” is true » (where « p » stands for « a proposition ») means «
“p” corresponds to a fact ». In Akan, one expresses « “p” is true »
saying « “p” te saa », which means literally, « “p” is so ». The
English word « fact » is expressed in Akan as « nea ete saa », which means,
« that which is so ». Then, the correspondence theory of truth becomes a
tautology in Akan : « “p” te saa » means « “p” te saa ». Wiredu
concludes : « one thing that cannot be pretended in Akan is that the
correspondence theory offers any enlightenment about the notion of being so »
Kwasi Wiredu, « The Concept of Truth in the Akan Language...
He goes on : « It seems, then, that there are some apparently important
issues that can be formulated in English but not in Akan. Such, for example, is
the question “How are true propositions related to facts ?” Since this is
not because of any insufficiency in the Akan language it might be tempting, at
least to an Akan philosopher, to suggest that the issues in question are not
really philosophical issues but narrowly linguistic ones due to the character of
the vocabulary of English. Now, although it is, I think, correct to say that a
problem like the one about the relation between truth and fact arises out of the
nature of the vocabulary of English, it does not follow that it is not a genuine
philosophical issue in English. » Kwasi Wiredu, « The
Concept of Truth in the Akan Language...
I consider this last sentence to be a palliative treatment meant to appease the English-speaking philosopher after what Wiredu considers a devastating blow to Western philosophy as such, for he concludes further : « […] it follows that some philosophical problems are not universal ».. Kwasi Wiredu, « The Concept of Truth in the Akan Language...
– such as the need to clarify the mentioned relationship between truth and fact. Wiredu develops this issue on the basis of his elaboration of the « Akan concept of truth » : he claims that there is no single word designating the merely cognitive concept of truth. The Akan word for « truth », « nokware », is a moral rather than a cognitive term. It means « truthfulness » rather than « truth » and it refers to the will and ability of an individual to « let your speech reflect your thoughts » Kwasi Wiredu, « The Concept of Truth in the Akan Language...
Wiredu seems to be misled in claiming the dubiousness of the universality of some philosophical issues by the language-centred methods of analytic philosophy, for the clarification of his problem is obvious : philosophy does not deal with words, it deals with concepts (or notions). Words are only arbitrarily attached to notions. If in Akan, there is not the word for « cognitive truth », there still may be the notion of it – as there is, as Wiredu says, translating it as « nea ete saa ». There also is the notion of « facticity ». If both of them happen to be expressed best by the same sentence – « nea ete saa » –, but if we still wish to distinguish the notions, then it is simply necessary to elaborate a distinctive terminology if we want to express the given philosophical issues in Akan – issues, that we, even as « Akan philosophers », may easily understand and find interesting and important. The mother language may restrict or shape the conceptual horizon within which we think, but it does not prevent its modification on coming into contact with another language and its conceptual articulation.
To illustrate this on an example. My mother tongue is Czech and I was brought up in a fully Czech-speaking environment. My first contact with foreign languages was well after my conceptual image of the world was shaped and developed. There is no word in Czech to express the English word « belief» – as it is used in English-language philosophy. There is a word for « conviction », there is a word for « faith », but none to translate exactly « belief ». Still, I can perfectly well understand the notion of « belief » and I can understand the full justification of its existence in philosophy. The strategy to operate with this concept in Czech is then to either create a word for it or to bequeath a new meaning on an existing word in Czech or I can use the English word, etc. These are well-known strategies of language change and I see no reason why they should not be valid for Akan as they are for Czech.
An even more extreme example is in relation to German philosophy –there is a lot of terminological distinctions that one cannot really express in one’s mother tongue. Even if one takes words that do exist in normal spoken German, one is often confronted by unsurpassable difficulties, not to speak of the admirable creativity of German philosophers and of the myriads of concepts that they created together with their language forms. There are at least three words in spoken German that are normally translated by a single Czech word, « obsah » – « Gehalt », « Inhalt », « Bestand » (in English, « contents »). This does not mean that a Czech speaking German cannot perceive the differences in meaning between the three or that he or she would be tempted to discard the distinctions of German between the various kinds of « contents » as less appropriate or less reflecting the actual state of matters (whatever that is).
Wiredu’s own opinions on this are, in fact, controversial. In another
context, he explains the ways an African philosopher can make use of his origin,
especially of his language background. But whereas in the above-mentioned
considerations he seemed to express the view that the words of a language
reflect, as it were, the « substance » of certain phenomena, now he comes to
see languages as instruments that may be more or less apt to express a certain
theory. Thus he writes : « It should be observed also that even in the
individual African’s reference to his language in his philosophical
investigations, a certain sense of discrimination is called for. While his
language is likely to be of help in the more speculative aspects of his subject,
he might well find resort to his vernacular not the same boon in the more
formal, technical, parts. Thus I shudder to think what lenghts of periphrasis
one would have to go in order to make out in, say, Twi, the outline, let alone
the details, of a relatively uncomplicated result of advanced logic such as
Henkin’s completeness proof for the Functional Calculus of the First Order.
For reasons of culture or environment or both, formal logic did not, with few
exceptions, engage the attention of our forefathers. It is not to be wondered
at, therefore, that the language we have inherited is not immediately ideal for
the sort of formal studies just mentioned. But language is flexible without
limit ; and any language can be adapted to any conceivable needs for
communication. » Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and an
African Culture, Cambridge...
Now, how come that Wiredu does not apply his own argument, that the impossibility to translate a certain set of propositions or a theory into another natural language puts in doubt the universality of this theory, to formal logic ? How come that he does not say the same concerning the correspondence theory of truth : that « for causes of environment », the Twi-speaking peoples had no need to elaborate it ? How come that he cannot postpone the expression of the correspondence theory of truth in Akan until Akan is « adapted » to such ends ? I cannot but see the reverence analytic philosophers have for formal logic and the slight depreciation of philosophy or of traditionally « truly philosophical issues ». For no immanent argument can explain Wiredu’s different approaches in these two cases.
Wiredu deals with the relations between thought and language quite
extensively. Paradoxically right before he goes on to express his view on the
instrumentality of languages in philosophy and in all human communication, as
quoted above, Wiredu voices a very radical claim on the effect of language on
philosophical thinking. Demonstrating the differences between two languages,
English and Twi, he writes : « The former has a superabundance of abstract
nouns ; the latter dispenses almost completely with that grammatical category,
expresing abstractions by means of gerunds and various periphrastic expedientes.
Not surprisingly, one can say such a thing as universal are a species of
objects with a considerable show of plausibility in English. Translate it
into Twi, and it fails even of a preliminary plausibility. Kwasi
Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, p. 34. ...
And after a softening remark that « it would be uncommonly absurd to make the peculiarities of any language a reflection of philosophic truths ».. Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, p. 34. ...
he still goes on to say, « While [the particular richness of the English language] makes for economy and elegance in the formulation of complicated ideas, it can lead to ontological fantasies. » Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, p. 35. ...
A good demonstration of this is in Wiredu’s article, « The concept of mind
with particular reference to the language and thought of the Akans »
Kwasi Wiredu, « The concept of mind with particular reference...
Wiredu makes here his contribution to the Philosophy of Mind, in these days very popular among analytic philosophers. Wiredu considers the very possibility of translating the English word « mind » into Akan and he finds as the only possible translation the word « adwene ». But this word, according to Wiredu, only expresses certain meanings of the English word « mind », namely those of the « nonsubstance view of mind », as opposed to the « substance view of mind ». The « substance view of mind » sees the mind as a kind of immaterial entity. The « nonsubstance view of mind », on the contrary, considers the mind to be « the faculty of reasoning or understanding » (according to an English dictionary, which Wiredu takes at hand to arrive at the « common-language definition » of the word « mind »), the ability to reason or understand, that is, a disposition, not an entity. The mind can also be conceived of as « opinions, intentions, thoughts », that is, as ideas or concepts. Thus Wiredu subdivides the « nonsubstance view of mind » into a dispositional and an ideational sense of « mind » Kwasi Wiredu, « The concept of mind with particular reference...
In Akan, the word « adwene » means « thought », besides « mind », for
it is the substantive from the verb « dwen », « to think ». Wiredu says that
« adwene » is simply the process of thinking ; that which does the thinking is
the person, more closely the brain, which, in its turn, is simply the material
object in the head. Wiredu analyses the usage of the word « adwene » in Akan,
and he concludes : « We may now characterize the Akan concept of mind as both
ideational and dispositional. […] On this conception, mind is not that which
thinks, but the thought which is thought when there is thinking. »
Kwasi Wiredu, « The concept of mind with particular reference...
Wiredu summarizes : « In the English language, in which “mind” does not
have the same sort of relationship with “thought”, it is natural, though not
unavoidable, to think of mind as that which produces thought. In Akan there is
little temptation to think in this way. » Kwasi Wiredu,
« The concept of mind with particular reference...
And he goes on to deny the possibility, in Akan, of the mind’s being an object : « […] [A]s might be inferred from earlier remarks, particularly, about the relationship between the words “adwene” (mind) and “dwen” (to think), mind is, from the Akan point of view, a logical construction out of actual and potential thoughts. […] Now, neither a thought (i.e., a combination of concepts), nor the mere possibility of thought could, as a matter of logical impossibility, be any kind of object. » Kwasi Wiredu, « The concept of mind with particular reference...
The conclusion of this argument is the exclusion of the possibility of a
dualistic conception of mind from Akan thought : « It seems to me a strong
point in favour of the Akan conception of mind that it is logically inhospitable
to this kind of thesis [concerning dualism, i.e., a connection of thought with
an immaterial entity] together with all the variations wrought upon it in
classical Western philosophy – interactionism, psycho-physical parallelism,
occasionalism, pre-established harmony. Kwasi
Wiredu, « The concept of mind with particular reference...
Since, according to Wiredu, the Akan conceptual scheme is equally inhospitable to idealism (i. e., the view reducing the physical to the ideal), the Akans are materialists as far as the nature of the mind is concerned, perhaps with leaving some space for parapsychological investigations on the existence of spirits.
Here is place for some criticism of Wiredu’s conceptions. The claim that a language that shows a linguistic affinity between the words for « mind » and « to think » gives « little temptation » to the substance view of mind is not only logically, but even historically wrong. Descartes himself, probably the most prominent proponent of the substance view of mind, wrote in Latin, and his words for « mind » are « mens » but also « cogitatio ». These are equivalent to him. « To think » is « cogitare » in Latin. So, Descartes says explicitely, « mind is thinking ». A similar situation is in my mother tongue, in Czech, where « to think » is « myslet » and « mind » « mysl ». Still, dualistic philosophy is just as possible or favourite among Czech philosophers as it is among the English ones or any other philosophers. This argument undermines the entire conception of Wiredu, in which, as we have seen, he himself is very inconsistent.
Wiredu is one of the professional philosophers. Other professional
philosophers rarely use African languages in their works at all. Even Odera
Oruka’s interesting contribution, his Sage Philosophy, entails in fact little
for the outsiders that might help develop African philosophy in African
languages. Oruka’s dialogues with the sages were conducted in Luo, but they
were only published in English..... H. Odera
Oruka (ed. ), Sage Philosophy. Indigenous Thinkers...
The usage of African languages in the works of African statesmen, in political philosophy, is mostly constructive : an African word is taken and endowed with a modern meaning – a similar strategy to that which we have seen by Mbiti. A typical example is the usage of Swahili words by Julius Nyerere. Nyerere’s use of the Swahili language was wide, his political speeches were pronounced in Swahili, he introduced Swahili into schools, and this unique case of linguistic Africanization of a country was a success story. His use of Swahili in philosophy consists of demonstrating his claims by proverbs and sayings, but mainly in introducing Swahili words to designate political conceptions, and this in such a measure that there are sometimes no foreign-language words used to refer to the Tanzanian realities.
The best known is « ujamaa » – a socialism based on the tradition of African hospitality and communal being. Another term is « vijiji vya ujamaa », which were villages newly erected at suitable places – suitable for the administrative and for the economy, whose aim was « kujitegemea », that is, self-reliance.
Using Swahili words makes the realities appear « traditionally African », and this reference to the tradition should in its turn ease down the political tensions created by the often rather violent political measures of the leading party. It also helps to separate the African form of socialism from the European one, in order to exclude uncomfortable elements of the European socialism, from it (for example, the class antagonism theory). One of the hopes connected with socialism in Africa was, according to the Zairean philosopher Elungu Pene Elungu Quoted in Johannes Heising, Entwicklung und moderne Philosophie...
to diminish ethnic violence, and therefore all the claims concerning antagonisms within a society (the fight among the classes, the dictatorship of the proletariat) were taken out of it and substituted with elements from the hypothetical traditional African past.
Unfortunately, the underlying conception of the traditional African society
is a true mythology of the traditional Africa, strongly idealized and naive.
Even if the picture drawn by Nyerere of the traditional African society were
true, as Peter Bodunrin, of Nigeria, says, There is no country whose traditional
ideology could cope with the demands of the modern world
Peter O. Bodunrin : « Which Kind of Philosophy for Africa...
The last philosophy which we must mention is the unique Ethiopian philosophy.
The Kanadian researcher Claude Sumner, working in Addis Abeba since 1953,
published numerous books on Ethiopian philosophy writings, including English
translations of them and his own analyses. The texts are partly original, partly
translated from Greek or Arabic originals. These works are in Ge’ez, the old,
now dead, Ethiopian language, in the Ethiopian script, and include several works
such as The Physiologue, The Book of the Wise Philosophers, The Life and
Maxims of Skandes, The Treatise of Zär’a Yacob and The Treatise of
Walda Heywat See Claude Sumner :
« Assessment of philosophical research...
We have seen, in a brief overview with a few more detailed ventures into the authors’ works, the way African languages come to be used in the works that constitute today’s canon of African philosophy.
It is obvious that the philosophical potential of African languages is by far not exhausted. Due to the expansion of European thought systems, the traditional wisdom of many African ethnic groups is hardly accessible or has already been forgotten. Moreover, for reasons of the illiteracy and the lack of a written literary tradition in most of the Subsaharan African countries, African wisdom remains oral and often esoteric, which excludes the possibility of its propagation and development.
The lack of writing in African languages is the main obstacle to writing African philosophy in African languages and to a more effective elaboration of the philosophical thoughts contained in folk wisdom. Creating a written tradition in African languages is, I believe, one possible solution to fortifying the position of African languages in philosophy and, by means of this, to an enhancement of the knowledge of African philosophical concepts in philosophy.