African philosophy

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African philosophy is a disputed term, used in different ways by different philosophers. Although African philosophers spend their time doing work in many different areas, such as metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy, a great deal of the literature is taken up with a debate concerning the nature of African philosophy itself. Though this is often criticised as being sterile and self-absorbed, it can nevertheless provide useful insights into the nature of philosophy in general.


One of the most fundamental areas of disagreement concerns what exactly it is that the term "African" qualifies: the nature of the philosophical enterprise, the subject matter of the philosophy, or the origins of the philosophers. On the first view, philosophy counts as African if it involves African themes (such as distinctively African notions of time, personhood, etc.); on the second, philosophy is African if it uses methods that are distinctively African; on the third view, African philosophy is any philosophy done by Africans (or, sometimes, by people of African descent).

In what follows, it will generally be more useful to take the former two views as central, as it is surely the distinctive content and methodology that distinguishes African from other philosophy. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that the vast majority of African philosophy on the first two views will as a matter of fact also count as African philosophy on the third view.)

Pre-modern African philosophy

Paulin J. Hountondji has argued that, without a written language: "thousands of Socrates could never have given birth to Greek philosophy... so thousands of philosophers without written works could never have given birth to an African philosophy".[1] On this view, then, before the development or introduction of written language, there might well have been African philosophers, but not African philosophy. On the other hand, one might say that if we take a philosophy to be a coherent set of beliefs, but not a system explaining the unity of its understanding of all the world's phenomena, the nature of the world and the place of human beings in that world, then few if any cultures lack a philosophy. Such a philosophy does not depend upon the existence of specific people who philosophise, but is innate in responding to life.

There is no debate concerning the fact that Africans have always been capable of philosophical thought. The standard view of the rise of philosophical (and of scientific) thought is that it probably required a certain sort of social structure (one in which, for example, a significant part of society had the leisure to think and debate), but that even given this necessary background condition, a further complex set of factors is needed. The claim that Africa developed no philosophy is merely the claim that the right conditions happened not to arise there.

There is at least one example of a pre-modern sub-Saharan philosopher in Omoregbe's sense: Anthony William Amo was taken as a slave from Awukenu in what is now Ghana, was brought up and educated in Europe (gaining doctorates in medicine and philosophy), and became a professor at the universities of Halle and Jena.

Philosophy in North Africa has a rich and varied history. In the Christian tradition, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was a cornerstone of Christian philosophy and theology. He wrote one of his best-known works, The City of God, in Hippo Regius, (now Annaba, Algeria). He challenged a number of ideas of his age, including Arianism, and established the notions of original sin and divine grace in Christian philosophy and theology.

In the Islamic tradition, Ibn Bajjah philosophised along neo-Platonist lines in the twelfthth century. The purpose of human life, according to Bajja, was to gain true happiness, which is attained by grasping the universals through reason and philosophy, often outside the framework of organised religion.

Ibn Rushd philosophised along more Aristotelian lines, establishing the philosophical school of Averroism. Notably, he argued that there was no conflict between religion and philosophy, and instead that there are a variety of routes to God, all equally valid, and that the philosopher was free to take the route of reason while the commoners were unable to take that route, and only able to take the route of teachings passed on to them. Ibn Sab'in challenged this view, arguing that Aristotelian methods of philosophy were useless in attempting to understand the universe, because those ideas failed to mirror the basic unity of the universe with itself and with God, so that true understanding required a different method of reasoning.

Modern African philosophy

Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka has distinguished what he calls four trends in modern African philosophy: ethnophilosophy, philosophical sagacity, nationalistic–ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy. In fact it would be more realistic to call them candidates for the position of African philosophy, with the understanding that more than one of them might fit the bill. (Oruka later added two additional categories: literary/artistic philosophy, the work of literary figures such as Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Okot p’Bitek, and Taban lo Liyong, and hermeneutic philosophy the analysis of African languages in order to find philosophical content.)

Ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity

Ethnophilosophy has been used to record the beliefs found in African cultures. Such an approach treats African philosophy as consisting in a set of shared beliefs, values, categories, and assumptions that are implicit in the language, practices, and beliefs of African cultures; in short, the uniquely African world view. As such, it is seen as an item of communal property rather than an activity for the individual.

One proponent of this form, Placide Tempels, argued in Bantu Philosophy that the metaphysical categories of the Bantu people are reflected in their linguistic categories. According to this view, African philosophy can be best understood as springing from the fundamental assumptions about reality reflected in the languages of Africa.

An example of this sort of approach is the work of E. J. Alagoa of the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, who argues for the existence of an African philosophy of history stemming from traditional proverbs from the Niger Delta in his paper "An African Philosophy of History in the Oral Tradition". Algoa argues that in African philosophy, age is seen as an important factor in gaining wisdom and interpreting the past. In support of this view, he cites proverbs such as "More days, more wisdom", and "What an old man sees seated, a youth does not see standing". Truth is seen as eternal and unchanging ("Truth never rots"), but people are subject to error ("Even a four-legged horse stumbles and falls"). It is dangerous to judge by appearances ("A large eye does not mean keen vision"), but first-hand observation can be trusted ("He who sees does not err"). The past is not seen as fundamentally different from the present, but all history is contemporary history ("A storyteller does not tell of a different season"). The future remains beyond knowledge ("Even a bird with a long neck cannot see the future"). Nevertheless, it is said, "God will outlive eternity". History is seen as vitally important ("One ignorant of his origin is nonhuman"), and historians (known as "sons of the soil") are highly revered ("The son of the soil has the python's keen eyes").

Another more controversial application of this approach is embodied in the concept of Negritude. Leopold Senghor, a proponent of negritude, argued that the distinctly African approach to reality is based on emotion rather than logic, works itself out in participation rather than analysis, and manifests itself through the arts rather than the sciences. Cheikh Anta Diop, on the other hand, while agreeing that African culture is unique, challenged the view of Africans as essentially emotional and artistic, pointing out that Egypt was an African culture whose achievements in science, mathematics, architecture, and philosophy provided a basis for Greek civilisation.

Critics of this approach argue that the actual philosophical work in producing a coherent philosophical position is being done by the academic philosopher (such as Algoa), and that the sayings of the same culture can be selected from and organised in many different ways in order to produce very different, often contradictory systems of thought. One can imagine trying to develop an English theory of mind by collecting proverbs and idioms such as "I'm in two minds about that", "He's out of his mind with worry", "She has a mind like a sieve", etc.

Philosophical sagacity is a sort of individualist version of ethnophilosophy, in which one records the beliefs of certain special members of a community. The premise here is that, although most societies demand some degree of conformity of belief and behaviour from their members, a certain few of those members reach a particularly high level of knowledge and under­standing of their cultures' world-view; such people are sages. In some cases, the sage goes beyond mere knowledge and understanding to reflection and questioning — these become the targets of philosophical sagacity.

Critics of this approach note that not all reflection and questioning is philosophical; besides, if African philosophy were to be defined purely in terms of philosophic sagacity, then the thoughts of the sages couldn't be African philosophy, for they didn't record them from other sages. Also, on this view the only difference between non-African anthropology or ethnology and African philosophy seems to be the nationality of the researcher.

Critics argue further that the problem with both ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity is that there is surely an important distinction between philosophy and the history of ideas. No matter how interesting the beliefs of a people such as the Akan or the Yoruba may be to the philosopher, they remain beliefs, not philosophy. To call them philosophy is to use a secondary sense of that term, as in "my philosophy is live and let live".

Professional philosophy

Professional philosophy is the view that philosophy is a particular way of thinking, reflecting, and reasoning, that such a way is relatively new to (most of) Africa, and that African philosophy must grow in terms of the philosophical work carried out by Africans and applied to (perhaps not exclusively) African concerns. This view would be the most common answer of most Western philos­ophers (whether of continental or analytic persuasion) to the question "what is African philosophy?"

Nationalist–ideological philosophy

Nationalist–ideological philosophy might be seen as a special case of philosophic sagacity, in which not sages but ideologues are the subjects. Alternatively, we might see it as a case of profes­sional political philosophy. In either case, the same sort of problem arises: we have to retain a distinction between ideology and philosophy, between sets of ideas and a special way of reasoning.

Ethnophilosophers attempt to show that African philosophy is distinctive by treading heavily on the "African" and almost losing the "philosophy". Their main rivals, the professional philosophers, adopt the view that philosophy is a particular way of thinking, reflecting, reasoning, that such a way is relatively new to (most of) Africa, and that African philosophy must grow in terms of the philosophical work carried out by Africans and applied to (perhaps not exclusively) African concerns. Thus they tread heavily on the "philosophy", but risk losing the "African"; this risk, however, is by no means unavoidable, and many African philosophers have successfully avoided it, including Kwame Anthony Appiah, Kwame Gyekye, Kwasi Wiredu, Oshita O. Oshita, Lansana Keita, Peter Bodunrin, and Chukwudum B. Okolo.


  1. Hountondji, p.106

Further reading

  • Peter O. Bodunrin Philosophy in Africa: Trends and Perspectives (1985: University of Ife Press)
  • Kwame Gyekye An Essay of African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (1995: Temple University Press) ISBN 1-56639-380-9
  • Paulin J. Hountondji African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (1983: Bloomington, Indiana University Press)
  • Samuel Oluoch Imbo An Introduction to African Philosophy (1998: Rowman & Littlefield) ISBN 0-8476-8841-0
  • Bruce B. Janz "African Philosophy" PDF
  • Safro Kwame Reading in African Philosophy: An Akan Collection (1995: University Press of America) ISBN 0-8191-9911-7
  • Joseph I. Omoregbe "African Philosophy: Yesterday and Today" (in Bodunrin; references to reprint in [Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze] [ed.] African Philosophy: An Anthology (1998: Oxford, Blackwell))
  • H. Odera Oruka [ed.] Sage Philosophy [Volume 4 in Philosophy of History and Culture] (1990: E.J. Brill) ISBN 90-04-09283-8, ISSN 0922-6001
  • Tsenay Serequeberhan [ed.] African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (1991: Paragon House) ISBN 1-55778-309-8
  • Placide Tempels, La philosophie bantoue (Bantu Philosophy), Elisabethville, 1945, Full text in French here
  • Kwasi Wiredu Philosophy and an African (1980: Cambridge University Press)
  • Kwasi Wiredu [ed.] A Companion to African Philosophy (2004: Blackwell)
  • Kwasi Wiredu "Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion" in African Studies Quarterly 1:4, 1998

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