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African Philosophy at the Turn of the Century:


Ethnophilosophy Revisited 
Because of a legacy of denigration that portrays Africans as incapable of abstract thought, the question "What is African philosophy?" is often the first that occurs to those outside the field. This legacy is reinforced by the assumption that philosophy requires a tradition of written communication that is foreign to Africa. In answer to the question "What is African Philosophy?" it has become standard in the many anthologies and texts that have recently been published on the subject to delineate three senses of African philosophy: ethnological, universalist, and hermeneutical.1

As a form of ethnology or "ethnophilosophy", African philosophy can be considered the set of values, categories, and assumptions that is implicit in the language, practices, and beliefs of African cultures. One of the major expressions of philosophy as ethnology is Negritude, the principal exponent of which was Leopold Senghor. Senghor argued that Africans have a distinctive approach to reality that is based on emotion rather than logic, an approach that encourages participation rather than analysis, and has its primary manifestation in the arts rather than in the sciences. Precursors of negritude can be found in the work of Alexander Crummel, Edward Blyden, D.E.B. Dubois, and Alaine Locke.2

Another major expression ethnophilosophy is Placide Tempels' Bantu Philosophy, published in 1945.3 Following the Sapir-Whorf thesis so popular during the first half of this century, Tempels argues that the linguistic categories of the Bantu people reflect the metaphysical categories that shape their view of reality. On this view, extended and refined by Father Alexis Kagame of Rwanda, every culture is organized around a set of philosophical principles that are implicit in its language, beliefs and practices, whether or not it is stated explicitly by any member of that culture.

Others who have been characterized as ethnophilosophers include Marcel Griaule, Cheikh Anta Diop, John Mbiti, and Julius Nyerere.4 As such an extensive list would suggest, what is called ethnophilosophy has taken many different forms, not all of which agree with one another. Thus, while Cheikh Anta Diop stresses the unique nature of African cultures, he disagrees with Senghor's claim that Africans are 'naturally' more oriented towards the arts than to science and technology. On the contrary, Diop argues that Egypt was an African culture whose achievements in science, mathematics, architecture, and philosophy was the basis for the flowering of classical Greek civilization.5 John Mbiti also assumes a distinctiveness among African cultures, which accounts for similar beliefs about personhood, supernatural causality, and the nature of time. Marcel Griaule's conversations with the Dogon priest Ogotommeli and Odera Oruku’s interviews with his father and other Luo elders portray them as African sages comparable to Thales and Socrates.6

Advocates of ethnophilosophy have claimed that African philosophy should be concerned with articulating those factors that make African people unique and different, and provide them with a special contribution to make to the evolution of civilization.7 Thus, Diop contrasts the matriarchal nature of African civilizations with the patriachial nature of European civilizations, and argues that such differences should be reflected in the political organization of African states.8 On the other hand, Tempels considered the chief difference between African and Western philosophy to be the difference in the concept of a being, the African concept being one based on force, while the Western concept was that of a static object.9

Critics of ethnophilosophy (of both universalist and hermeneutical persuasion) argue that a focus on the past as the source of authenticity detracts from a critical posture that evaluates all practices relative to their contribution to the liberation of Africa. Thus, Hountoundji claims that Tempels' analysis was made to placate Africans and aid European colonial administrators. Similarly, in response to the view that African philosophy should express the particular outlook of the African race, Appiah claims that the very notion of race was invented to benefit Europeans, not Africans. In fact, Appiah argues, there are no races and the very notion is one that African philosophers should reject.10

The universalist school (advocates of which I would include Kwasi Wiredu, Paulin Hountoundji, the late Peter Bodunrin, and Kwame Gyekye) denies that African philosophy should be unique to African languages and cultures. In his famous article "How Not to Compare African Philosophy with Western Philosophy"11 Kwasi Wiredu argues that the development of philosophy in Africa parallels the development of philosophy in Europe, and traditional African thought should not be taken as paradigmatic of African philosophy any more than traditional European thought is considered paradigmatic of European philosophy. Similarly, Paulin Hountoundji argues that philosophy is a critical literature and African philosophy is a critical literature produced by Africans for Africans. While Wiredu and Hountoundji construe literacy as essential to the practice of African philosophy, Odera Oruka insists that active engagement in critical reflection on the assumptions of one's culture is the only requirement for philosophy, and this can take place independently of a written discourse. For Oruka, African sages that critically reflect on the assumptions of their culture are just as much philosophers as was Socrates. But for Hountoundji, had there been no Plato, a thousand Socrates would not have produced philosophy.12

Expanding on his earlier views, Wiredu argues that the fight against colonialism in Africa gave rise to activists like Nkrumah, Nyerere, Kaunda, Sekou Toure, and Senghor who used philosophy for political purposes.13 By contrast, post colonial philosophy in Africa is the era of the professional philosopher, whose philosophical interests have been formatively shaped by training in the western philosophical tradition.

Wiredu is aware that African professional philosophers who deal with esoteric topics in logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mind are often accused of being sell-outs. But he rejects such a characterization, and argues that African philosophers have a pivotal responsibility to domesticate the products of western thought into materials usable by Africans both on the continent and in the Diaspora. He continues to maintain that just because something may have developed in the west is no argument against its proving useful for Africans.

But Wiredu is careful to stress that the professional African philosopher should be as concerned to utilize indigenous as foreign sources of wisdom. For indigenous sources may yield insights that are valuable to Africans as well as non-Africans. He insists nonetheless that in the construction of a post colonial African philosophy, traditional sources be viewed with just as critical an eye as are modern sources.

For Wiredu, a critical function of postcolonial African philosophy is what he calls 'conceptual decolonization', by which he means, avoiding or reversing the unexamined assimilation of western ideas by African people. The necessity of a decolonization of the African mind derives from the imposition on Africa of foreign languages and foreign conceptual schemes through the mediums of language, religion, and politics. Through the use of colonial languages, Africans have accepted concepts, categories, and relationships that are often of little use, and sometimes even detrimental. He enjoins each of us to carefully question whether we might not be carrying a substantial amount of "philosophical deadwood" concealed beneath the foreign terms and concepts we use to express our interests and concerns. 14

Wiredu's recipe for conceptual decolonization is that we try to translate conceptual projects and notions posed in western terms into indigenous African languages. If the project makes sense in the indigenous language, then it is worthy of further consideration. Investigating the problem using an indigenous African language holds open, for Wiredu, the possibility of revealing novel and useful perspectives that might be much less obvious (if present at all) in a modern European language. If, on the other hand, a problem posed in a western language appears ridiculous or unintelligible when translated into an indigenous language, then this should alert us to the possibility that it is a pseudo-problem introduced by linguistic imperialism.

But Wiredu’s prescription for decolonization is not without its problems. Given the multiplicity of languages in Africa, even within a single modern nation state, we may question to what extent the peculiarities of one language (e.g., Zulu, Hausa, or Ga) should be expected to reflect the linguistic peculiarities of another (e.g.,Xhosa, Yoruba, or Akan)? And what of Africans in the diaspora, whose indigenous language is English or French or Portuguese? Finally, one wonders how different Wiredu's recipe for conceptual decolonization is from the recent recommendations of ordinary language philosophy, and whether it harbors similar weaknesses? 15

A third approach to African philosophy is hermeneutical, and includes Tsenay Serequeberhan, Okondo Okolo, Franz Fanon, Leonard Harris, Lucius Outlaw, and V.Y. Mudimbe among its exponents. In the hermeneutical approach, philosophy takes lived experience as its starting point, and the lived experience of most Africans revolves around a struggle to cope with the omnipresent effects of the cultural and economic imperialism of Europe. As such, the principle objective of African philosophy for hermeneuticists is how to achieve liberation from the injuries imposed by European hegemony. Traditional beliefs and oral discourse are not valuable in themselves, but only relative to the contribution they make to this end.

In his book The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy Tsenay Serequeberhan makes use of the work of Hans Gadamer and Martin Heidegger to approach African philosophy from a point of view of what he considers to be the central dilemma of the postcolonial situation . This is the problem of resolving the tension between the continuing hegemony of Europe in the guise of its neocolonial puppets and the continuing influence of pre-colonial traditions especially on the rural masses. Serequeberhan's aim is to provide a means whereby Africans can reassert themselves as the subjects rather than as mere objects in the historical transformation of human kind.

For Serequeberhan, both ethnophilosophers and western trained professional philosophers have imposed on Africa paradigms that have their primary origin in European social development. Both have reproduced European visions of Africa. He views ethnophilosophers such as Senghor and Tempels as merely appropriating the taxonomy of racial differences developed by Europe, and construing as positive the same characteristics derided by Europeans as evidence of African inferiority. On the other hand, professional philosophers such as Nkrumah and Hountondji would merely replace the capitalist yoke with a communist one. Each, Serequeberhan holds, is a form of "colonialism in the guise of theory". 16

As an antidote to this globalization of European civilization, Serequeberhan recommends the work of liberationists like Aime Cesaire, Franz Fanon and Emile Cabral, who argue that Europe's violent conquest of Africa is to be opposed by an equally violent expulsion.17 In the service of ousting the neocolonial remnants of European domination, westernized urban Africans must fuse their talents and concerns with the non-westernized masses of rural Africa. "In the fusion of these two fractured 'worlds', "Serequeberhan writes, "the possibility of African freedom is concretized..".18

It is in this "return to the source", where urbanized African's put their knowledge to the service of the rural masses (rather than merely manipulating them for urban advantages), that Serequeberhan sees the key to true African liberation. In this fusion, both the ossified traditions of the past and the imposed traditions of the colonizer are transformed, and the modern African emerges as a new hybrid capable of acting rather than merely being acted upon. This "return to the source" is not the uncritical and romantic adoption of traditional beliefs and practices for their intrinsic value. Rather, both the weaknesses and strengths of traditional African cultures are exposed to critical review and the stunted potential of African cultural development is released. Clearly, Serequeberhan’s theme of a "return to the source" and Wiredu's program of "conceptual decolonization" bear a strong family resemblance.

In a recent paper,"Technology and Culture in a Developing Country" 19, Kwame Gyekye also directs his attention to the problem of how to fuse traditional and modern currents to meet contemporary African needs. Gyekye, far from giving blind respect to traditional African beliefs and practices, openly acknowledges their failure to encourage scientific and technological development. On the other hand, he is aware that the wholesale adoption of western technology is equally as much a part of the problem. His solution is to forge a synthesis whereby the African appropriates imported tools and expertise to readapt traditional technologies.

Serequeberhan's concern with the fusion of traditional and modern Africa is thus mirrored in the concerns expressed by Wiredu and Gyekye. Yet each flounders in the details of how this fusion is to take place, raising our fear that their concerns may be more utopian than realistic. Wiredu fails to note that many features of modern life have no analogues in traditional practices, and hence cannot be validated by reference to them. And Gyekye fails to appreciate the extent to which modern technological orientations may be incompatible with traditional technologies.20 Following Fanon, Serequeberhan defends the necessity of violently expelling the African puppets of neocolonialism. But it is difficult to see how this advocacy of violence is any less an extension of a European initiative than Nkrumah and Hountoundji's embrace of Marxist-Leninism, Senghor's embrace of racialism, or Tempel’s embrace of an ontology of Being (pace Heidegger).

For universalists and hermeneuticists, having aspects of the western canon as a principal source for intellectually modeling Africa's problems is not a flaw. They consider use of the western idiom as a necessary rather than incidental aspect of the program of Africans trained in the western tradition. But this is not seen as making them any less African. As Kwame Anthony Appiah is fond of saying, intellectuals are now as African as fetish priests.

Yet if this is a valid disclaimer for universalists and hermenueticists, I believe it is also a valid disclaimer for Blyden, Dubois, and Senghor's appeal to racialism and an ontology of racial difference. With regard to sources, Wiredu, Hountoundji, Serequeberhan, and Appiah have done no more or less than the ethnophilosophers they criticize.21

This does not mean that there are no problems with racialism that we need beware of. Certainly there are. One especially that I wish to address here is that of essentialism. There is no denying the attempt of ethnophilosophers to identify a factor that marks an essential difference between Africans and non-Africans. Emotion, matriarchy, the concept of being, and the concept of time have all been cited as establishing an essential difference. Yet, one of the most prominent aspects of postmodern philosophy is its critique of essentialism. Recognizing intra specific variation as natural rather than aberrant and the pervasiveness of family resemblance concepts has shown that there need be no essences in order for there to be kinds of things.

Ethnophilosophers need to integrate this insight into their treatment of African philosophy. But this need not imply that there is no internal coherence to the notion of African philosophy. Rather than one or the other of them defining its essence, epistemological, metaphysical, social, political, and historical factors may combine to give African philosophy a distinctive cast. Yet, there need be no ‘unamism’, to use Hountoundji’s term. That there is no one factor that distinguishes chairs from benches, or males from females, does not mean there are no chairs, benches, males, and females. Nonetheless there is a cluster of factors that do combine to characterize typical members of each of those categories.22

Imbo warns that we must be wary of how we characterize differences, because "in the dominant frameworks of Western philosophy, 'different' means 'inferior'.23 But this is not just a problem for African philosophy. Given similar histories of struggling against domination, African, African-American, and Feminist philosophical enterprises must satisfy the political imperative of deconstructing traditional philosophical methods and assumptions to expose hidden agendas of domination.

Feminists such as Sandra Harding have called attention to the similarity of African and feminist agendas. And just as Harding carefully distinguishes between being female, feminine, and a feminist, I believe we should as carefully distinguish between being an African, an Africanist, and an Afrocentrist.24 One can be feminine and a feminist without being female, and likewise, I would hold that one can be an Africanist and an Afrocentrist without being African. To be an Africanist implies being interested in African languages, cultures, and peoples. To be an Afrocentrist is the attempt to see events and situations from the point of view of the Africans affected. Not all Africanists and Afrocentrists need by Africans and not all Africans need be Africanists and Afrocentrists.

Difference oriented feminists such as Carol Gould have contrasted women as care givers with men as reciprocating rational agents, in much the same manner that ethnophilosophers such as Senghor have contrasted Africans as emotive and Europeans as intellectual. But in neither case need we insist that such differences be biologically based or without exception. The dilemma is how to affirm differences without perpetuating the exclusionary myths that have been historically associated with them.25 It is as false that men cannot be nurturing and women cannot be rational as it is that Africans cannot be scientists and Europeans have no rhythm.26

Denying that there are races is much like insisting that each of us is androgimous. While androgymy is certainly a legitimate option for some, the solution to racism and sexism is not in denying the existence of racial and sexual differences, but in rejecting the manner in which those differences are used to disadvantage Africans relative to Europeans and women relative to men. Rather than deny the existence of differences, African philosophy in its neo-ethnological guise should insist that the dominant framework recognize the positive value of attributes traditionally associated with Africans, without suggesting that such attributes are unique to Africans. And it should insist that modern institutions be transformed to reflect the value of those attributes, instead of passively acquiesing to the demand that Africans and African-Americans be shaped and transformed to fit criteria already esteemed by those institutions.27  

D.A, Masolo perceptively notes that "At the beginning, African philosophy did little more than echo the premises which had been expressed by the Harlem Renaissance and negritude movements." 28 I have argued that many of those premises need reassessment in light of developments in feminist and African-American philosophical critiques. Nonetheless, I believe that W.E.B. Dubois, Alaine Locke, Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor were onto something important. 29

At the gates to western philosophy Plato declared "Let no one enter who has not studied mathematics". At the gates to African philosophy we may imagine the ethnophilosopher to have declared "Let no one enter who has not communicated with ancestral spirits and internalized the rhythms of traditional music". While the neo-ethnophilosopher should resist the implicit essentialism that would exclude those who did not satisfy those requirements, it remains true that Africa might benefit from learning to use its music to teach mathematics instead of (pace Schoenberg) adopting mathematics as the principal means of teaching its music. For there is a difference, I believe, with regards to which, mathematics or music, one chooses as African philosophy’s primary model. 

Albert Mosley


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