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What’s New in… African Philosophy

African thinkers are confronting their continent’s vast problems and grappling with the nature of their own intellectual and cultural heritage. Safro Kwame casts a critical eye over the scene and describes the philosophers and their work.

At the last American Philosophical Association meeting of the 1990’s, which took place in Boston from 27th to 30th December 1999, a young woman came in and sat next to me as I was listening to the presidential address. She told me that she grew up around philosophers and could name many of them at the current American Philosophical Association meeting including her father. She inquired about my speciality and I replied, “African philosophy.” “Is there such a thing as African philosophy?,” she asked. To which, I replied, “What is philosophy?” “It is the love of wisdom!” she answered, almost immediately. “Can’t Africans love wisdom too?” I inquired further. She changed the subject almost apologetically. She talked to me about how much she loves African clothes and designs and how, in the midst of all the turmoil and economic hardships, Africans take pride in their culture and clothes.

I have not had much sleep since my encounter with this friendly daughter of a Western philosopher. Part of the reason, it seems to me, is that the issues raised by her remarks are current issues for African philosophy. My purpose in recalling them is not to attack them. They seem to have been offered candidly with no harm or malice intended. However, it is my opinion that philosophy, whether African, Western or Asian, consists in reflection on issues as ordinary as those remarks as well as the extraordinary. In other words, once you define philosophy clearly and consistently, it is easy to settle the issue of the existence of African philosophy by finding out, in an empirical or scientific way, whether Africans raise any matters to the level of reflection. I take it that this very attempt to reflect on the remarks of the daughter of the Western philosopher in question as well as the long history of the debate among Africans (about the existence of African philosophy) should provide some indication that at least some Africans do philosophize. That, I would have thought, would have sufficed to dispel the skepticism about the existence of African philosophy and freed the Africans concerned for more immediate tasks of addressing issues relating to the year 2000 and the new millennium. After all, philosophers are a special class of people and, thus, not every African, Asian or Westerner is expected to be a philosopher. Consequently, to prove that Africans philosophize or produce philosophy, we need not prove that all Africans do.


Unfortunately, matters are not as simple as that, which is why, even at the end of the twentieth century, Africans interested in philosophy and concerned about Africa are still debating the existence of African philosophy. The debate is not so much about whether individual modern day Africans philosophise – plainly some of us do – but about whether in traditional African culture there is anything we can call philosophy, and whether philosophy done by Africans today or in the past has general characteristics which mark it out as African philosophy.

Two points, I believe, are worth making about this. First, others will keep bringing up the issue of whether there is or can be an African philosophy, even if Africans themselves do not. My introductory paragraph alludes to that. Further, those who bring the issue up are not always laypersons. If they were, we could easily brush it off as a function of naivete or simple ignorance. Ninian Smart, for example, argues in Chapter 15 of World Philosophies (Routledge, 1999), that Africans are not from all of Africa but only the part that lies below the Sahara desert, and that greater Africa includes people in the Americas but not those in the northern parts of Africa. The North Africans, Smart suggests, may have philosophy but are not African while the sub-Saharan Africans have religion but not philosophy. It seems to me that any use of consistent and popular definitions of ‘philosophy’ and of ‘Africa’ that, unlike Smart's, do not attempt to beg the question of the existence of African philosophy cannot provide a negative answer.

Secondly, arguments such as the above suggest that the existence of African philosophy is not just an empirical issue as I indicated earlier. There seem to be complex questions of definition to be dealt with too. This ensures that the debate about the existence of African philosophy is itself a profoundly philosophical one. To debate the issue at the end of the twentieth century, is to reveal something about philosophy and how it is done after so many centuries and millennia. For some, philosophy is still a matter of reflection about how we should live and the nature of the cosmos. For others only a written text counts as philosophy.

If one accepts the former, then the question of whether traditional African cultures engaged in philosophy can easily be answered in the affirmative, particularly if one notes the remnants of metaphysics and ethics that can be still found in the traditional societies. If on the other hand, one insists on documentary evidence, on the written word, then at best one would be an agnostic with regard to the existence of African philosophy. In the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Kwame Gyekye describes African philosophy as the philosophy produced by the preliterate cultures of Africa and distinguished from Western and Asian philosophies by being unwritten. This is a rather exclusive characterization of African philosophy; since, as Gyekye himself notes, Ethiopia has had a long tradition of writing and so has ancient Africa including sub-Saharan Africa by the use of Arabic which came with Islam long before the Europeans brought their version of Christianity, slavery and writing to Africa. Further, while writing may be useful to philosophy in particular and human activity in general, it is not synonymous with it nor even necessary for it. Both Paulin Hountondji in African Philosophy and Kwame Appiah in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy rightly remark that without writing, Greek philosophy would have been different from what it was. That, however, is not the same as saying that without writing the Greeks could not have philosophized. Obviously Socrates did philosophize and produce philosophy, even though there is no evidence that he wrote anything.

Current Issues

I am convinced that we have spent too much time on the debate on the existence of African philosophy, without applying the lessons and fruits to current issues of interest to Africa and its people. That needs to change in the upcoming century and millennium. The more important issue, for the African philosopher, is whether the next century or millennium, like the current one, is going to be dominated by questions and issues of race. There is very little reason to think that this will change much. Since we have not solved the problems of race, racism and the legacy of apartheid in the twentieth century, there is no reason to believe that the problems will disappear in the twenty-first century.

I am not blaming non-Africans for all of Africa’s problems. Take the spread of AIDS in Africa, which raises pressing questions in the philosophy of science as well as in moral and political philosophy. The first concerns the logic of scientific discovery and the second concerns the moral responsibility of Africa’s politicians. If AIDS originated in Africa when Africans came into contact with chimpanzees (subspecies Pan troglodytes troglodytes) as Hahn et al suggest in the journal Nature Vol.394 No.6691, February 1999, it is difficult to explain why it is only recently devastating the African continent after the initial onslaught in places like the United States. The extended family system, the lack of medical facilities and lack of communications, suggest that a disease (or rather a collection of potentially fatal symptoms) such as AIDS would have severely devastated Africa a long time ago if it had originated there in the 1950’s, as indicated by the present devastation in the 1990’s.

We should have learned from the initial outbreak of AIDS in the West and benefited from that experience, instead of bragging that there are no homosexuals in Africa and refusing to take basic preventive measures such as providing AIDS information. Our leaders had the opportunity to prevent the spread of AIDS with information and very little money. They chose, instead, to wait for AIDS to spread and then call on the West to cure it, because they claim Africa is poor. If we can get our leaders to accept their moral responsibility and term limits or find a way to impose them, we can solve some of the rather basic problems that have brought many African countries to their knees. Our moral, social and political philosophies seem not to have given sufficient attention to these issues which include how to move from the so-called Third World to the First World and how to avoid being enslaved or colonized again. To address these issues, African philosophers will have to give much thought to our system of government, the dictatorships, civil wars and the cyber divide. Any African philosopher who takes ethics, logic or critical thinking seriously, cannot fail to note the tensions between African ethical theory and Africa’s current political and social practices, particularly as they unfold in countries like Sierra Leone, where the arms and legs of children are cut off to further the ambitions of politicians, or in Ethiopia where arms are purchased to engage in war while Ethiopian children starve to death.

African Philosophers

In the last five years, we have lost some of our leading philosophers. Odera Oruka of Kenya who authored Sage Philosophy in 1991, passed away in 1995, allegedly as a result of an automobile accident that seemed to have been planned! P.O. Bodunrin who almost singlehandedly spearheaded the African philosophical movement at Ibadan, in Nigeria, left us in 1997 or thereabout. After a protracted illness, Olubi Sodipo, the African philosopher at Ife, in Nigeria, and founding editor of the African philosophical journal, Second Order, passed away in 1999. Without Oruka, Bodunrin or Sodipo, African philosophy will not be the same. These were some of the most influential African philosophers in the last forty or so years.

In the last forty years, much of African philosophy has been dominated by two main groups. The first is the Western Africa group which includes Paulin Hountondji of Benin, Bodunrin and Sodipo of Nigeria, and W.E. Abraham, Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye of Ghana. The second, is the Eastern Africa group (including Central and parts of Southern Africa) in which John Mbiti, Alexis Kagame and Oruka of Kenya are or were very active. Oruka, together with his colleagues, organized several important conferences and brought to the discussion his concept of ‘sage philosophy’ as a brand of traditional African philosophy which he tried to recapture by going back into the rural areas to interview African sages, particularly those who were relatively untouched by Western civilization. Sodipo also tried to have conversations with traditional African thinkers. In 1986, he and Barry Hallen conducted their analytic experiments in African philosophy by investigating issues in Yoruba epistemology and the conception of knowledge in oral cultures. Two journals have been instrumental in the debate among these groups. One, Second Order, was run by Sodipo and his associates from Obafemi Awolowo University or, then, University of Ife in Nigeria. The other, Quest, has been run from the Philosophy Department at the University of Zambia in Lusaka. There have been others, including the Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya called Thought and Practice and the Journal of the Inter-African Council of Philosophy titled Consequence.

In the last ten to twelve years, much discussion has been generated by two philosophers, though many others have contributed to it. The first is Valentin Mudimbe of the Democratic Republic of Congo who could be said to be in the Eastern Africa group. His 1988 book The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge has generated a lot of interest in African philosophy, particularly in America. The second is Kwame Anthony Appiah of Ghana and may be included in the Western Africa group. He has generated almost as much discussion, notably in America, with the release of his 1992 book In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. Both of them seem to have an interest in philosophy and literature and are active on the American scene where an increasing number of African philosophers reside more or less as refugees from an embattled African continent. Two things are worth noting; first, that there is a host of other very exciting and promising African philosophers who are too many to list here. Secondly, this two-fold classification of African philosophers does not account for all the African philosophers – they can be found in literally every country in Africa, including North Africa and the Moslem and Arabic-speaking areas.

Main Areas of Activity

Within both the Western and Eastern groups as well as in other parts of Africa, there are individuals who concern themselves more than anything else with recapturing the beliefs and reconstructing the arguments of pre-colonial Africa. People like Gyekye and Oruka have exerted much effort in this direction, though not exclusively. Also, within these main groups, there are those who are more concerned with the beliefs and arguments that are globally popular in philosophy today, and with adding their comments and thoughts from what they take to be their African point of view. Hountondji, Appiah and Mudimbe often appear in this light. This is not to suggest that they do nothing else. Lastly, there are those people like Wiredu who, more so than most of the others, seem to exert almost as much effort in revisiting and reconstructing traditional beliefs and arguments as in dealing with current and more global ones.

Approaches to African philosophy vary from the more historical reports and commentaries on the thoughts of African sages, the examination of African proverbs and aphorisms, the linguistic and logical analyses of the traditional thought of an ethnic group, to the personal commentary of individuals on fundamental issues about life or the universe which are of interest to Africans. The last category includes the works of current professional philosophers with either local or foreign training. It also includes some of the works of people like Franz Fanon, the more reflective politicians, such as Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere, and the artistic and literary intellectuals such as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

While the African continent was the setting for much of philosophical activity in the 1960s and 1970s, Europe and America have been playing an increasingly role in African philosophy in the 1990s. As can be expected, much of current African philosophy has focused on moral and political issues which are the issues that have brought many of these philosophers to the Americas for example. Essentially, the issue has been one of ridding Africa of dictatorships. However, an interest in the philosophy of science has also been generated by AIDS and the relative lack of computers or computer knowledge in Africa. Methodological concerns by people like Wiredu have generated much interest and work in comparative philosophy. In particular, Wiredu’s views on truth and knowledge, leading to his claims that “truth is opinion” and “to be is to be know”, have generated a lot of discussion in the areas of epistemology and metaphysics, both in Africa and in the West.

To deal with the much neglected issues of women and African philosophy, Nkiru Nzegwu has been working on several projects. The first, on feminist issues in African philosophy of culture, is to be titled Family Matters. The others, Mutations of Imperialism and Matchworks, expand the scope to deal with philosophy, transmigration and new strains of colonialism and a North-South partnership model of development respectively. On a broader scale, twelve contemporary women of color examine the methods and subjects of philosophy in Women of Color and Philosophy: A Critical Reader edited by Naomi Zack to be published by Blackwell in June 2000.

In my opinion the main impact of African philosophy on the rest of philosophy, especially Western philosophy, has to do with the use of examples and application of thought experiments. It is easy to re-examine philosophical issues by recasting them as problems on another planet, as do many episodes of Star Trek. There are many African societies which, while not alien in the sense of being extra-terrestrial, can provide a sufficiently different environment to provide similar opportunities for re-examination. Further, and more importantly, Wiredu has advocated cross-cultural examination of philosophical theses to determine the extent to which their arguments depend on the language and culture in which they are advanced. In his 1996 publication, Cultural Universals and Particulars, Wiredu provides many examples of philosophical issues, from metaphysics through ethics to epistemology, which stand to benefit from African philosophy. Given current conditions and the popularity of certain theories in the history of ideas, African philosophy holds great promise for comparative philosophy in general.

© Safro Kwame 2000

Safro Kwame teaches at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania.

Finding out more

A phenomenal amount of African philosophy is being published at the moment. The following is merely a small selection of new and forthcoming books:

Blackwell Companion to African Philosophy edited by Kwasi Wiredu The African Philosophy Reader, ed by Coetzee and Roux (Routledge 1998) Lee Brown’s forthcoming anthology on Traditional African Philosophical Thought, to be published by Oxford Univ. Press, focuses on epistemology and metaphysics. The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: Discourse About Values in Yoruba Culture, by Barry Hallen (Indiana University Press), due out in Jan 2001. Kawaida Theory: An African Communitarian Philosophy by Maulana Karenga, (University of Sankore Press, June 2000) Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy by Paget Henry, (Routledge 2000) African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations ed by George Yancy ( Routledge 1998)


Quest is still active and affiliated with the University of Zambia African Philosophy is sponsored by the Society for African Philosophy in North Africa (SAPINA) and the International Society for African Philosophy (ISAP) The APA Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience (NPBE) is by the American Philosophical Association Committee on the Status of Blacks in Philosophy


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