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The African Philosophy Reader

William King ponders a collection of essays which show the diversity of African philosophy.

A number of years ago, Louis E. Wilson, a former colleague of mine who taught courses in African history, remarked to me that there are no Africans. Rather, he contended, the case is that there is a congeries of different peoples who inhabit a geographical land mass called Africa, that these peoples possess different histories and cultures, and that it is unwise to generalize about all the peoples that live there as if they were a single monolithic mass. The same might be said for the subject of African philosophy, as several of the authors contained in this reader make clear.

In brief, this volume contains nine chapters. The introductory chapter ‘Categories of Cross-cultural Cognition and the African Condition’, authored by Emevwo Biakolo addresses “problems created by European (anthropological) constructions of the African person and his/her life-world.” It assays how those constructions have hindered an apprehension of philosophy in Africa as a product of Africans acting, distinct from being simply objects acted upon. Next is a chapter authored by Christo Van Staden examining the concept of culture; its complexities, its history and the ways in which it has been used in the West. Fundamentally, he tells us, culture is a political concept and must be understood as such because its application as an instrument of analysis has both intended and unintended consequences. In view of this Van Staden offers several suggestions for modification of the concept before it can be applied in and to Africa. Perhaps the most important of these is the realization that African culture is different from, not opposite to Western culture. His chapter is followed by eight others that detail the contours and manifestations of particular philosophical topics, namely, metaphysics, epistemology, morality, social and political philosophy, and aesthetics.

Each of the chapter overview essays is followed by a series of companion readings (twenty-five in all) authored by fifteen working philosophers. Seven of these persons offer more than one article. For example, K. Wiredu, the most prolific, has selections in culture, metaphysics, epistemology, morality, and politics. Another, D.N. Kaphagawani, appears in definitions, metaphysics and epistemology. The remaining five offer two articles apiece. This leaves eight other writers whose offerings appear in one section alone. Each section of the reader concludes with a selected bibliography of primary and secondary references to further illuminate the scope and range of thinking on the African continent. The book itself concludes with a glossary of terms for those unfamiliar with how the meanings of words are sometimes stretched beyond their common use and an index that facilitates location within the text of persons and subjects should one wish to search for some specific item.

Marlene Van Niekerk’s overview essay, ‘Understanding Trends in ‘African Thinking’ – a Critical Discussion’ the third chapter of the volume, and one that sets the tone for the remainder of the work, argues that what we need is a new praxis in both anthropology and philosophy. This new praxis, essentially an expansion of the boundaries that determine our definitions of what constitutes thought, will allow us to move beyond the limitations of Western paradigms. Adoption of such a praxis will help to lead us to side with the other, rather than continue to distance ourselves from the other as we have in the past. This ‘new’ approach permits us to accept the validity of indigenous thought without dismissing it a priori because it does not fit within the extant categories of what before has been commonly accepted as real, true, good, beautiful, moral, and the like. It also helps us to see beyond the artificial limitations previous thinking has imposed on us,sometimes to our detriment, and appreciate that reality is socially constructed as we seek to make meaning of our experiences. Practitioners of this new praxis, she contends, might now be able to raise more critical questions, for example, about the consequences of colonialism and how the many dimensions, subtleties, and insensitivities thereof, exacerbated by economic marginalisation, have stifled the quest for self-determination. Indeed, what Van Niekerk seems to imply is that we are all that much more diminished in our understanding of the human experience by an uncritical acceptance of Western rationality. Especially one that is unleavened by the inclusion of the historical experiences and folk wisdom of those we find so easy to dismiss because they are so different from us that we cannot recognise the ways in which we are the same.

Chapters four (metaphysics), five (epistemology), six (morality), seven (social and political), and eight (aesthetics) survey the more traditional topics of philosophy. Chapter nine, by Augustine Shutte, argues the case for including “African insights into our humanity [so as to] serve as an important corrective to the dominant forms of contemporary European philosophy.” He does this by examining Senghor’s notion of a ‘Civilisation of the Universal’, first published in 1963, which advocates the necessity of such “if there is to be peace between nations and the gap between developed and undeveloped nations is to be overcome.”

Concerning metaphysics, Lesbia J. Teffo and Abraham P.J. Roux write of the desirability of being culturally specific rather than continent-wide. They further observe that there is a difference between a generalised approach to the questions of existence, essence, space and time, and a generalisation that could result in a false amalgamation. Thus they call for additional descriptive work that more effectively locates representative ideas in their social surround even as they acknowledge that a central feature of all African metaphysics is its strong empirical flavour.

Didier N. Kaphagawani and Jeanette G. Malherbe, after stating that there is an African philosophy, ask how it differs from other philosophies, bringing us thereby to the topic of epistemology (theory of tknowledge). How one characterises African philosophy – from the perspective of ethnophilosophy, or philosophical sagacity, or politico-ideological philosophy, or professional philosophy – decidedly influences one’s conceptualization of African epistemology. What this means, they conclude, is that African epistemology is very much a species of social epistemology requiring the possession of a critical consciousness of the referencing society by any practising philosopher.

Much the same can be said for Pieter H. Coetzee’s chapters on morality and social and political philosophy. In the African context, he writes, moral theory is perspective- driven. This leads to a kind of pluralism and heterogeny fragmenting the moral geography so as to lessen its perception as a monolithic whole. Similarly, in considering social and political philosophy, the reality is of multiple cultures/ ethnic groups within a single political union. Add to this the legacies of colonization and the imposition of values, norms, attitudes, and beliefs from the outside that required some accommodation if only to survive, and it becomes fairly easy to see the kinds of problems that arise from attempting to write policy that is insensitive to difference.

Finally there is Jennifer R. Wilkinson’s chapter titled, ‘Using and Abusing African Art’. The essence of her argument, dealing specifically with South Africa, is “that many of the problems at the heart of the idea of African art are not merely about the content that we give to the concept, but are symptomatic of a wider process of conceptual manipulation and colonisation.” In the same vein as several of the other writers included here, the issue she raises concerns what we mean when we identify some object as art. This is most critical in that “the concepts which any society has depend on the concerns and practices of that society.” Thus, we cannot apply the cultural schema of one group to that of another without modification, and risking misunderstanding that imperils communication between the two and appreciation of the ways in which they differ and, accordingly, what those differences might have to contribute to the whole.

What I most like most about this work is its compactness as an introduction to the subject of African philosophy. Clearly it is intended to dispel the stereotypical notion that the peoples of Africa have not considered the same kinds of existential questions as have all other peoples on the planet. This is most easily seen in the representative sample readings that follow the overview essays and the bibliographies that accompany each of the chapters in the work. Still, it is not a volume that I would recommend to someone who does not have at least a minimal working knowledge of African history and culture and some understanding of what philosophy is.

© Professor William M King 2000

William King is Professor and Coordinator of Afroamerican Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder

The African Philosophy Reader. ed. by P.H. Coetzee and A.P.J. Roux , Routledge £16.99

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