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Philosophy Around the World
For years debate has raged among African philosophers: does Africa have a distinct philosophical tradition, and if so, what is its nature? Rick Lewis asked Emmanuel Eze, who though based in the United States is a leading figure on the African philosophical scene.
Are there philosophical traditions which are distinctively African?
There certainly are distinctive traditions of philosophical reflection in Africa, both written and non-written. In the later category would be included Yoruba and Igbo works by guilds of Ifa and Afa priests of Ife and Nri in Western and Eastern parts of Nigeria, or works by equally non-literate individuals in other parts of West Africa, such as the famous Ogotemeli whose ideas were captured in a French translation by Marcel Griaule. On occasion, the philosophical status of some of these non-written works has been questioned – and not always by unsympathetic or ideologicallymotivated critics. Most of the works however survive the scrutiny. In addition to Griaule, Barry Hallen has more recently done some interesting works in the area, specifically in the Yoruba tradition.
Examples of literate traditions include works in Arabic in the Northern and Western parts of Africa, and of course the anglophone, francophone, and lusophone traditions that are more modern and more accessible to some of us. There is also a tradition that flourished in Abyssinia, currently Ethiopia, around figures such as Zer’a Yaecob (1599-1692) and his students. Like some of our 20th century examples, this Abyssinian tradition shows evidence of Greek, Arabic and Judeo-Christian influences; but in their critical approaches as well as substantive questions, Zer’a Yaecob and his students (for example Heywat) show innovation and remarkable efforts to assert independence and originality.
By ‘African philosophy’, do you mean traditional African thought, or the works of modern African thinkers, or both?
As you know, the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ are relative: some, to us, ‘ancient’ Greek thinkers considered themselves modern in relation to more traditional parts of their culture; Zer’a Yaecob believed himself to be modern vis-à-vis Judaism and Islam; and the European Enlightenment so named itself vis-à-vis what it considered Dark Ages; etc. I personally would like the category ‘African philosophy’ to include the works of (our) modern African thinkers. But one can also understand the sentiments behind the moderns who might wish to be known, simply, as philosophers.
Can you in general say that most contemporary philosophers in Africa and philosophers of African origin working elsewhere have some philosophical interests in common? If so, what are they?
The one abiding interest I can think of, an interest that perhaps marks the class of peoples you refer to as distinctive from, say, their European counterparts – i.e., something they would share in addition to whatever else makes philosophers recognizable as such across space and time – might be a sense of shared historical moments. Philosophers become who they are because they are born or educated into, and provoked by, locatable societies and particular intellectual traditions. This fact gives not only tone but also historical specificity to philosophical works. I cannot think of a contemporary philosopher in Africa or, elsewhere, philosopher of African origin whose work has not been marked, for good and ill, by Africa’s encounters with European modernity. The slave trade, imperialism, and colonialism were the vehicles for most of these encounters.
Within such historical frame, and allowing for some rare exceptions we might yet discover, I cannot think of any intellectual discipline in Africa that could not, should one wish, designate itself or be designated with labels such as ‘precolonial’ or ‘postcolonial’, ‘premodern’ or ‘modern’, or such likes, even while admitting that the contours of the territories designated may be fluid and approximations. In addition therefore to languages (Twi, Luo, Swahili, English, French, etc.), methods (ethnophilosophical, analytical, continental, etc.), and questions (the mindbody problem, freedom, language, etc.) that create affinities among philosophers in and across Africa and elsewhere, some African philosophers also share, at this time, interests in decoding and refashioning the knowledge Europeans produced and produce about Africa and Africans.
Some modern African philosophers have said that traditional African cultures embedded a collective philosophy (i.e. one not devised by individuals but evolved collectively over time by a whole culture), which was not written but conveyed by an oral tradition. This idea of ‘ethnophilosophy’ has been attacked by others, such as Paulin Hountondji and Kwasi Wiredu, for being a misuse of the word philosophy and also for being in some way an extension of colonial thinking. Where do you stand on all this?
I would like to disentangle the several aspects of the question: “a collective philosophy … not devised by individuals” would be hard to imagine. There must have been some individual or individuals that, at least at the origin, critically produced the ideas we wish to call philosophy – otherwise, why not call such ideas something else? I can however imagine a group (e.g., a religious community) holding, collectively and uncritically, Platonic philosophical views – about the soul, for example. But I think we characterize such views as ‘philosophical’ not by virtue of the group holding them uncritically, but because of Plato. In yet another scenario, a group of philosophers might work through Plato’s work and arrive at the judgment that, for them, Plato’s formulations and ideas about an issue are the best to hold. Such consensus may be regarded as a ‘collective’ thought, but I am sure that this is not usually what those who speak about African ‘collective philosophy’ have in mind.
In non-literate African societies it is almost impossible to maintain faithfully and over time attributions of origin of ideas, including philosophical ideas. African proverbs, by design it seems, are notorious for this sort of fluidity in exchange and ambiguity of attributions of authorship. Ethnophilosophy, when critically and nicely done, is often an effort to extract ideas and knowledge embedded in media such as proverbs or everyday languages.
But there are other philosophical approaches more suitable for studying what may be recognizably called ‘collective’ African intellectual forms, embedded in disciplined practices such as religion, medicine, or politics. Philosophy in this case studies institutional practices and operates more like history of ideas. But as with critical ethnophilosophy, what we would here wish to call African philosophy need not be located in the practices we are studying. For example when we do philosophy of religion or philosophy of science, such as medicine, it is usually clear that we do not call what we do ‘repentance’ or ‘surgery’. I therefore see no reason to call either traditional or modern African religious or political or medical practices “philosophy.”
Finally, I think some colonialists – and even some sympathetic European anthropologists such as Tempels, and later his African imitators, were looking for some ‘natural’ African philosophies. I believe that Hountondji, notoriously in ill-tempered rhetoric, and Wiredu were objecting to that sort of Tempelsian ethnographic projects. The projects looked misguided, and perhaps offensive, because they seem to have been predicated upon either a misunderstanding of philosophy, or an imposition upon Africa an expectation to be primitive and ‘natural’, and quite often both.
In the absence of written sources, what types of evidence are there of philosophical thought in traditional African cultures?
It depends, though, on where you would like to draw the boundaries of the ‘traditional’. In any event, written sources are not totally absent: we have already referred to extant philosophical texts in Arabic. There are 16th century works by Zer’a Yaecob and his students, originally written in Ge’ez but now translated into Russian, French, German, and English. In addition, there are Yoruba literary ‘oral scripts’ that have been translated into English by students of the language such as Abimbola or Soyinka. The philosophical nature of all or parts of these originally oral literary works are part of the debates that make up critical ethnophilosophy.
What were the main philosophical preoccupation of traditional African cultures?
Examples, from Zer’a Yaecob: attempts to prove the existence of God; a defence of the autonomy of reason; and a critique of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In the case of the Yoruba Ifa, we have questions about the nature of knowledge, what are the characteristics of wise forms of political leadership, why be moral/good, etc. By reading reflections that individuals such as Achebe and Soyinka have written about traditional Igbo or Yoruba aesthetics, one can easily get a good sense of which of the issues are of philosophical interests. Wiredu and Gyekye have also done important studies that show the peculiarities of certain philosophical preoccupations within Akan languages. These eminent, first generation of excolonized Africans may be our best bridges to what is enduring in the oral traditions.
Some contemporary philosophers such as Henry Odera have said that in traditional African cultures we can identify individual wise men (‘sages’) who really were philosophers in the way the word is generally understood and who should be studied as such. Do you agree, and if so who do you think is the best example of a sage?
The confusions we tried to clarify in regard to ethnophilosophy appear to persist in Oruka’s Sage Philosophy project. For example, it is not clear that Oruka was simply transcribing philosophical ideas transmitted to him by the individuals he called sages. Oruka selected the questions addressed. The initiative to systematize and write down the answers also seem to have originated from him. What I learned from Oruka’s work is that he could, like Socrates, provoke reasonable individuals to think deeply about their own beliefs, and that some Africans hold reflective ideas on a range of issues of philosophical import. But it is clear that it was Oruka who had the technical training as a philosopher, and the finished work accurately bears a mark of his authorship. By analogy, we cannot confuse Socrates’ questions and views with those of his real or imagined interlocutors. Likewise, the Symposium might be proof that there was indeed a man named Socrates who held certain philosophical views, but it will also truthfully remain Plato’s work. Oruka’s contribution was to break some of the anonymity that produce illusions of ‘unanimous’ communal African thought; but the methodological and conceptual apparatuses, and perhaps more, reflect Oruka’s interests.
When we talk about African philosophy, what should we be talking about?
Africa suggests a lot of things to different individuals: geographical place, cultures, nationalities, etc. Philosophical works that relate in one way or another (e.g., content, method, author’s self-identification, or other social and cultural relation or relevance) to Africa may be denominated ‘African’ through this relation. We would then be talking about philosophical works that contribute or claim to contribute to our understanding of Africa and Africans; that reveal or claim to flow from intellectual traditions or genealogies that are already described as African; or any of many other reasons for which someone might wish to tag on Africa to the sort of intellectual production we call philosophy.
What does African philosophy have to contribute to the wider philosophical arena? Should we all be studying African philosophy and if so what can we hope to get out of it?
I believe that in the same ways African music or art, or even oil, gold, or – before its abolition – trade in slaves contributed to economies and cultures beyond Africa, so could African philosophic ideas invigorate and satisfy global thirsts for intellectual capital and cultural consumption. One would of course hope that in this new, (post)colonial relationship of exchange the goals set by Lugard in the ‘dual mandate’ would be attained and even exceeded: he hoped to develop Africa while enriching Europe. Developed traditions of African philosophy could enrich both Africans and Europeans, including the intellectual classes, while promoting greater humane understanding of cultures among general societies.
What are your own particular interests within African philosophy?
Like several others, it is important for me to continue to try to clarify in our traditions the difference between politics and philosophy. When we were challenged by modern European philosophers to prove the humanity of our African ‘race’ by exhibiting black Platos and Aristotles, it became almost impossible for us to separate philosophy from the political, literally, blackmail. The consequence, I think, is that the earliest generations of modern African philosophers were forced to do neither politics nor philosophy alone to their highest abilities. To paraphrase Johnson, slavery and colonialism focus the mind – but in peculiar and often bizarre directions. Philosophy and politics, in a mix, in my view, tend to mutually destroy each other. I believe we may now have some opportunity to make greater contributions to philosophy.
As you might know however, unlike in Europe or America where artists and scholars count regularly on government grants or endowed chairs – or even welfare and unemployment benefits – in order to spend time thinking and writing, such levels of material comfort are harder to obtain in Africa. But increasingly there are significant signs of corporate intellectual revivals in different parts of the continent that seek to match the climates of the universities of Ibadan, Makerere, Accra, or Nsukka in the 1960s. Out of these revivals, I believe, would grow schools and programs of research, in Swahili, Yoruba, French, English, etc. that might consolidate currently dispersed efforts and interests into yet broader historical and universal orientations.
If our readers are interested in finding out more, what can they do? Are there introductory books you can recommend, or groups or meetings they can attend?
In terms of reference works, the new Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy has good entries on African philosophy; so has the recent Encylopedia of Africa South of the Sahara, edited by John Middleton. In terms of books, works by the following authors, in addition to the names mentioned earlier, are readily available: D.A. Masolo, V.Y. Mudimbe, K.A. Appiah, T. Serequeberhan, L. Outlaw, S.I. Imbo, and many others. We also do have a journal called African Philosophy, published by Carfax Publishing Co. in Oxfordshire, UK. If it is not too much advertising, Carfax can be contacted by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.carfax.co.uk.
Emmanuel Eze, originally from Nigeria, is Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University., Pennsylvania.